16 December 2008
Sorry to interrupt the usual gap between posts, but this is an Op-Ed too important to not read:
"The Shas version of Obama's 'yes we can'" by Alex Sinclair
If you haven't read this yet, do so. The Americanization of Israel is a topic I never find for lacking (as would any reader of this blog); but this example is so cynical and repugnant, it helps remove the so-called "post-Zionist" label given to writers like Tom Segev and Benny Morris and bestow it to its real recipient.
I have a lot of descriptions of Shas , an ultra-Orthodox political party that claims to represent Israelis of all the various Sephardi and Mizrahi communities yet was founded and is still run by Moroccans who went to yeshivot run by Lithuanian-originating ultra-Orthodox; and who claims to represent the interests of Jews of color discriminated by the ruling Ashkenazi elite, yet dress not like their own ancestors but rather those from 17th century Poland.
There's a term for this kind of whitewashing of oneself, taken from American culture, that while applicable is too American-centric to use here. For an actual example of the intersection of politics and the interests of these communities, check out the Black Panthers in Israel.
11 December 2008
I’ve always been one to make the most out of the seemingly small things in life. Like how amazing the main street nearby my apartment has four cafes, a sushi bar, two bakeries, two gourmet food stores, and a 24-hour market -- and yet everything shuts down on cue for Shabbat. Or getting stuck in traffic for three hours.
After spending the night trying to finish schoolwork, I got my things together and slumped out the door to the bus station. I figured I could sleep the whole way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, the 45-minute ride affording at least a 40-minute nap. After promptly passing out after finding a window seat, I wake up at some point looking at the airport and the sensation that the bus isn’t moving. Thinking it has to do with the police-escorted convoy zooming alongside the bus on the shoulder, and that we’ll be moving in a moment, I try to go catch a few more minutes of sleep before we enter Tel Aviv. But the bus still isn’t moving. My tired eyes can just make out the shapes of hundreds of cars not moving on the highway, stretching way into the western horizon.
Everyone else on the bus awakes from their respective slumbering to find out we’re stuck in traffic that has started a lot sooner than usual. Then come the cellphone calls and news updates: a truck crashed into a traffic sign bridge on the northbound side of the Ayalon Freeway, closing off the otherwise-packed-at-rush hour-thoroughfare and rerouting all northbound morning traffic. People paced up and down the aisle, heaved big sighs, and watched as the bus driver took us on a scenic tour of Central Israel. We drove on highways and through towns that I always hear about, usually on the radio in the course of traffic reports, but seldom visit. The country always gets bigger with each small discovery like this one. Three hours later, we alighted and landed in Tel Aviv.
In retail news, it’s now official: GAP and H&M are slated to open stores here within the next two years. The two developments were such big news that they each garnered a headline on the front-page of the free daily paper and the news websites. As several people have said in a half-joking manner, “now there’s one less reason to travel outside of the country.”
Whether either or both of the chains will do well remains to be seen, as the Israeli consumer can be incredibly cheap and have expensive taste all at once. If something looks expensive AND has the logo of an American company that can regularly be shown off, Israelis will jump on it; but if it’s marked down to Three for 100 NIS, you’ll need a bat and sharp elbows to keep the competing customers at bay.
Starbucks failed, not because of its logo being unknown, but because the prices were too high and Israelis were already used to high-grade coffee chains. There’s only so long before a Starbucks disposable cup in the hand of an Israeli becomes refuse; but a T-shirt with the logo of Old Navy? That’ll get worn even after it has been stretched well beyond its original size.
Hanes does well because it’s cheap and American. American Apparel (at least in Jerusalem) does not do well because it’s expensive and American. Coffee Bean does well, despite being expensive, because of its free refills, free WiFi and comfortable chairs.
In cultural news, the new musical director of the Israel Opera started his tenure the other week. In his first interview since taking the job, the unofficial ban on publicly performing works by Richard Wagner was upheld. Although he cited artistic reasons for doing so, the ban on Wagner is a time-tested tradition that all conductors in Israel have to uphold, lest they be booed off the stage. Several years ago, the often-controversial Daniel Barenboim began to perform Wagner, only to have audience members boo him and leave the theater (Wagner was a well-known anti-Semite and his works were celebrated by the Nazis).
Why is this issue important?
One, cultural re-appropriation has been an effective tool for different cultures in combating legacies of hate and discrimination. “Black is Beautiful” is but one of numerous examples, such as the TV clip (zoom to 4:07 for the relevant part) of turning the tables on stereotypes and prejudices. American Jews have yet to learn this, instead enabling and internalizing the continuance of stereotypes (the whiny JAP on “The Nanny,” the emasculated man who marries a non-Jew on “Mad About You,” Paul Newman playing the hero in “Exodus”), but that's part of a much longer rant of mine.
Israel has seen some progress in this, albeit sporadic and of questionable taste. True, one sees a lot of kinky-haired folks running around; but there are also plenty of Mizrahi girls who’ve straightened and bleached their hair. There are the “Stalag novels" from the first decades of the State and a bounty of self-deprecating jokes. But as shown from my second point below, we're too busy Americanizing ourselves here to care.
Second there is the issue of aesthetics. I’m less interested in the ban on performances of Wagner as related to freedom of expressions as to the general state of Israeli culture. After the ordeal of the Israeli version of “Survivor,” we’re now suffering through a localized “Big Brother” that is the topic to discuss. When in doubt of a word’s existence in Hebrew, all one has to do is say the English equivalent with an Israeli accent and everyone will understand. One could be dropped off on any thoroughfare in any moderate-sized town and fine the same sight: three different store fronts on the same block, all hair stylists, all decorated with chandeliers and overgrown fleur-de-lis stencils climbing up the walls. All about external appearances, little about our insides.
We’re willing to Americanize ourselves to extents that viscerally blur distinctions, and yet vociferously denounce anything that even remotely touches upon our own history and identity as Jews, much less individuals. A Jewish orchestra playing Wagner to a Jewish audience in a Jewish country seems to me to be an initial small step in moving beyond our past tragedies and focusing on our potential futures.
In the meantime, the Israel Opera is performing "Carmen" in the spring and there's always the following to satiate any potential Wagnerian stirrings whilst in Der Judenstaat:
29 November 2008
A Tale of Two Elections
I've had the song "Oh Happy Day" stuck in my head since Wednesday morning. Despite fivethirtyeight.com's electoral prediction, which was after all accurate, I'm in shock. I cannot believe America not only elected a Black man as President, but elected him in a very clear majority. He got more Jewish votes than Kerry did in 2004. He won Ohio. He won Virginia. HE WON INDIANA.
After a long time waiting, my official ballot finally came in the mail. I rain off to send it back to DC, only to face a barrage of questions from the female clerk at the counter (whose hair, along with that of Arab teenage boys, further proved my theory that the Middle East is the final repository of the Jheri curl). “Wow, this is for the elections! Isn’t it late to be voting now?” began the barrage of questions in Hebrew: “Who are you voting for?” “Why?” “How do you say official results in English?”
Then the questions turned into personal favors, the clerk knowing better than to release a native English speaker before she’s satiated her linguistic needs. “What is this term in English?” explaining a phrase that seemed rather important to her job yet up until now totally unknown in English. I had never heard of it, so I passed. “Wait! I have one more question. Can you translate this thing I got and tell me what it’s for?” She proceeds to get her purse and extract two samples of Clinique moisturizer. I tell her they’re both skin moisturizers, even though the round container looks like it should be for eyes. She thanks me and I flee the scene.
Election Day commenced with work, a much needed nap and off to watch the results with friends. After a few episodes of The West Wing and some political but civil jabbing at one another’s presidential preferences, I offered a toast over kosher Spanish sparkling wine, celebrating democracy on America's election day and Israel's civil anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
It wasn’t until Pennsylvania was called, then eventually Virginia and Ohio that reality began to sink in. Watching CNN's live coverage from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and then Obama's speech in Chicago, choked up and at a loss for words at 7am, I came up with the following senitment I thought I would never say, certainly after the last eight years: I have never been more proud to be an American.
Exactly one week later, it was my first Election Day as an Israeli ctizen. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and most cities & towns were to go to the polls to elect their mayor, town- and regional councils. In Jerusalem the stakes couldn’t have been higher, though most polls predicted a win for Nir Barkat, the “secular” candidate, a businessman from the hi-tech industry.
The day started off like any other, with me reluctantly getting out of bed after only a few hours’ of sleep and going to work. Hoping to vote before work so as to volunteer with the one of the candidate’s campaigns, I instead enjoyed a post-work Belgian waffle with coworkers and raced home to vote. Patrolling the streets were white vans with print-outs of how many people had voted by 4pm based on total number of eligible voters and whether they were “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) or secular.” The driver emphatically pleaded to the pedestrians via loudspeakers to vote, lest the Haredi candidate win.
I picked up my Interior Ministry voting information postcard, which had a print-out of my polling station’s address. My polling place is a religious public elementary school around the corner from me. The narrow road was packed with voters’ cars and booths of the various parties running for city hall. The security guard at the gate was checking bags and directing traffic to two different poll stations, mine and another school on the same campus. Once I entered the school, I was further relegated to a classroom that corresponded to a specific sub-category under which my vote is placed. One voter is allowed into a room at a time, with the setup featuring a table with four people and a sky blue science fair poster board display, behind which, is the voting booth.
After verifying my identity and checking me off in the roster, I was given two empty envelopes and instructions how to vote: the yellow ballots were for mayor, the white for city council. Only one yellow ballot was to be placed in the yellow envelope and only one white ballot in the white envelope. I went behind the science fair board, which had the official voting laws posted in small Hebrew print. Beneath it were multiple wooden cubbies with various white or yellow slips. The yellow slips had the names of the mayoral candidates in Hebrew, with only one listed in Arabic as well (the other official language of Israel). The white slips had the names of the parties in small type and one to three letters above it in large type for each party for city council. As Israel is a nation of immigrants, many of whom had to grasp Hebrew as a new language very quickly, measures were taken to ensure that anyone could understand how to vote. The large-type letters were understood to be easy enough for anyone eligible to vote to remember, and they’ve stuck for all this time.
I stuffed the correct envelopes left, dodging an array of electioneers and screaming voters trying to park on a one-way street. Initially planning to help volunteer on my candidate’s campaign, I was too tired to move and slumped into a chair, listening to the coverage on TV and radio. With the exit polls confirming my candidate would win, I joined friends at one of the many parties for people who voted. Eventually we ended up at my candidate’s official party in a hotel on the west side of town. The venue couldn’t have been better picked: on the other side of the road is the entrance to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national military cemetery, and on the other was the entrances to a Haredi neighborhood. In limbo between two worlds, the supporters inside waited all night for the first official results to come in from City Hall.
Not only did the Municipality post the actual results as they came in, but have a breakdown of votes by polling station. According to the results, my station saw 53% of its registered voters, 86% of whom voted for Nir Barkat. As for city council, the top four parties are a great demonstration of my neighborhood’s demographics: “Wake Up, Jerusalemites!” won the most (composed for secular and religious 20- & 30-somethings), followed by Meretz (non-socialist left wing party), “Jerusalem Will Succeed” (Barkat’s list), and a combined Mafdal/National Unity list (right-wing and Modern Orthodox).
Pictures from the day: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2400595&l=19d9a&id=818841
Here's to two of my candidates winning in the Trifecta of Democracy: The American Presidency and Jerusalem's Mayor.
Next race: 10 February 2009, Israel's National Elections.
02 November 2008
The months of September and October in Israel are exhausting. Around every corner is another holiday waiting to start, just when you’re finishing digesting the meals and liturgy of the previous holiday, with a hangover haze just barely vaporizing away.
Yom Kippur, as always, is so unique in Israel – from no cars on the otherwise lethal roads to services that are less dirge-filled and more upbeat in nature and sound to the popular newspaper including in their pre-holiday edition a translation of “Into the heart of Darkness.”
Halloween has come and gone with little fanfare here. In line behind a few American tourists at the supermarket, who were trying to explain Halloween to the cashier in broken Hebrew, she asked semi-rhetorically why they were buying individual beers and why we didn’t have Halloween in Israel (or as she called it at first, “Holi-day,” ironic because she had an Indian last name). I explained that we already had Purim, which is just as crazy of a celebration. Incredulous at myself for defending Halloween’s absence in Israel, I gathered my items and sulked out of the store.
My taste in Halloween television specials has changed, due to the absence of American television channels (or television altogether). This year I did not watch “A Garfield Halloween,” which was always the scariest special, or the movie “Hocus Pocus;” nor did I watch the annual specials on The Simpsons or Roseanne, mainly due to their blocked statuses on YouTube. This year was devoted to “A Disney Halloween,” which proves The Magic Kingdom can tap into a darker side; and an episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie entitled “Swimming Up Stream” which is hilarious for its un-PC nature (Hallaloween, ‘nuff said).
Then there’s the ubiquitous but never disappointing “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It’s such a classic that it deserves watching again and again, savoring the title sequence, Snoopy’s insane laughter and hallucinogenic voyage through the World War I French countryside amidst a horror film-worthy soundtrack. I could go on and on about it, but thankfully someone at Slate.com summed up its uniqueness.
Another October holiday is my birthday. After deliberating how best to celebrate, political & musical serendipity came into the picture. The Saturday night following my birthday held in store two important events: the town hall meeting in English of candidates in the Jerusalem mayoral elections, and a monthly dance party at a local bar with my type of music being played. The elections take place 11 November, exactly one week after a certain other election day.
I got to the event 15 minutes before it was planned to start and it was already packed to the rafters. Housed at the Great Synagogue’s social hall, every native English speaker squeezed him/herself into the massive hall. Seemingly the only non-Orthodox person under 70 years old and not from the NYC metro area, a BBC reporter latched her eyes onto me and asked me about my preference for mayor. Having prepared a question for the ultra-Orthodox candidate in advance, I gave her a 7-minute response that seemed to impress her. Finding a place to stand near the industrial air conditioner, I had a direct line of sight with the dais. Jerusalem Post Editor David Horovitz was the moderator and I didn’t envy his job for one second: Between the candidates who unanimously opted to speak beyond their allotted 15 minutes and an audience who got more and more ornery with each comment that didn’t exactly match their personal opinions, the scene was more like a general meeting at a kibbutz 60 years ago that some might find quaint and nostalgic but I found embarrassing. The ultra-Orthodox candidate doesn’t speak English, so his associate was asked to translate into English – only he thought he could give a paraphrased translation. “Translate what he said!” was the audience’s response. The Russian oligarch spoke meanderingly, accidentally using the word “Palestine” in describing the eastern part of town and where few of those in attendance would dare be caught frequenting. Actual booing and hissing was the audience’s response. Then the candidate I’m backing got up to speak and his eloquence got me all weak in the knees. Is if there wasn’t any one else for whom to vote this 11 November, his words was a much-needed relief to my ears.
I left early to start the second part of the celebrations, indie rock dance party in the city center. Far less drama and a lot of needed fun.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people from various walks of life about the American elections, some of whom are cognizant of the issues and can argue intelligently. And then there are those who find it acceptable to use unsubstantiated arguments that at best make themselves sound dumb and at worst a racist.
I give native-born Israelis a lot of credit for their complicated national and local politics, not to mention all they endure in life. But before one more Israeli tries to convince me that Obama is some closeted Muslim out to destroy Israel, I have the following response: Instead of giving you an intelligent reason why he is none of those things nor do they matter if he actually was, take a look at how our collective culture views people of color and whether that has any thing to do with the garbage you’re about to talk about Obama:
Here's to the next two weeks' worth of elections that will usher in the change we so desperately need in the world.
20 October 2008
That there was no on-board entertainment on the flight from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam allowed me to sleep for the majority of the flight. Although I was sitting next to a very attractive woman who ordered the kosher meal, piquing my interests, I was too tired to move my head out of the space between the window and seat to say anything.
I was on my back to the States for two weeks of refreshment and celebrating Rosh Hashanah with family. The previous months had been filled with endless bouts of procrastination in finishing papers for school, endless hours at work, and endless job interviews, all with little self-apportioned measures of success. While I still had work to finish during this trip, hopefully the change of scenery would accelerate its end.
A few hours wandering the Amsterdam airport before the transatlantic leg was already proving to be restoring. Being around a diversity of people is a pleasure for me, creating life stories and final destinations for fellow passengers.
Stuck on the plane for several hours with numerous choices for movies, I decided to lift a self-imposed ban and watch Adam Sandler’s latest movie You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. I saw Borat in Israel and laughed hysterically at the anti-Semitic jokes, acknowledging the irony of watching a Jewish comedian in Israel. But Zohan just didn’t appeal, because it was Adam Sandler and perhaps because it wouldn’t reach the social nuances that Borat had.
I was definitely wrong. I thought of the movie as not a satire of Israelis, but rather a satire of American perceptions of Israelis. The image of the hirsute, omnipotent, womanizing Sabra is an archetype still held by many, including American Jews and the title character was a caricature of all the ideals Americans want to see in the pioneering Israeli; that he wanted to lead a different kind of life, including with a Palestinian, was less a call for coexistence as it was a symbolic shattering of this mythical figure. Maybe I was over-analyzing the movie, having lots of time to spare on the flight; but if I was right, I’d have to give Sandler credit for creating a great piece of satire. Granted, it was still Hollywood and full of the requisite teenage humor expected in one of his movies.
Landing in the States, I felt like I hadn’t been away for the five previous months. The last time I had felt the same way, I was arriving in Israel to staff a Birthright Israel trip five months after a previous one. I enjoy and look for this kind of border-blurring, but it was still initially disconcerting.
A few days pass and there was little culture shock to overcome: still no heightened security on public transportation, still the same amount of overweight people as before, still the same amount of clueless tourists who stand in the middle of a Metro escalator, still the same simultaneous feelings of cultural affinity and separation.
Had I had any residual culture shock, the packed flight to the Dayton International Airport at 21.00 on a rainy night would have absorbed the last bits of it. No pushing to get a seemingly better seat for these folks, no overweight baggage or screaming at security for confiscating liquids. What a bunch of suckers, the Israeli passport in my carry-on bag sneered.
Time with family becomes more and more treasured, a fact not lost on anyone. That being said, it’s also treasured time to see the Halloween junk alongside the Christmas junk at the local Target: My mouth watered as much as it does for my grandmother’s brisket, my cousin and I pushed every moving and talking toy, I eventually constrained myself. A few days later and it back on a plane heading for Israel. It’s not so much that time flies as it escapes.
The holiday season is almost over, the few trees whose leaves change color are in full display, and the hours of sunlight have dramatically reduced to what seem like bursts of warmth and an extended dusk each evening.
Some little kid likes to scream for his mommy at the top of his lungs, particularly on Saturdays. He voice sounds like Damien from The Omen: demonic and British. “Mammmay!” “Mamaaaaaaaay!” reverberate through the stone walls of my apartment and give me the shivers, his diabolic demands likely to split open the ground with legions of macabre figure pouring out from the bowels of the Earth. Walking home today I finally found him screaming yet again at his front door – three blocks away, around the corner and up a hill. I took a quick glimpse at him, hoping to avoid his inevitably piercing eyes and the cue to some unseen dirge-droning choir. Man, I miss Halloween.
07 September 2008
The other evening it got so cold that when I got home the classical radio station was playing the entirety of The Nutcracker Suite, or as literally translated into Hebrew " Suitat M'fatzeach HaEgozim" (The Suite Of He That Cracks The Nuts, in my too-literal translation of the Hebrew).
A Tale of Two Festivals: Jerusalem's Wine Festival begins the summer and its Beer Festival brings it a slow close. I got there early to avoid paying the entrance fee and to make it feel like a Happy Hour back in DC. Some of the beers from last year were notably absent, including the one brewed by Palestinians and one that claims to use nitrous oxide. We stuck with the local microbreweries with such names as Dancing Camel, Golda and Herzl. This was a much younger and more Hebrew-sepaking crowd than the wine festival, albeit with the same amount of parents pushing their babies around in strollers amidst the drunkards.
Anyways, back to my hermitic lifestyle, writing four papers that aren't due until the end of the month, but I want to get them all done before my flight to the States in 1.5 weeks (yikes!).
25 August 2008
You know it’s getting towards the end of summer here when there are reports of rain in the North, pomegranates slowly reenter the markets, and the newspaper has a report on how many kilograms of books the average child carries per day.
The end of the summer is also the height of the French tourism import industry. There are stretches of town and hours of the day in which one only hears the language of Zola, Sartre and Truffaut, albeit screamed aloud by family clans from Marseilles wearing v-neck t-shirts and tanned to ‘racial profiling’ levels. The Israelis complain about the annual influx of French Jews, who supposedly numbered around 100,000 this summer, complaining that they’re rude and obnoxious tourists, who care nothing about their surroundings and only about themselves; the French call their hosts inhospitable and barbaric, reminding them they continue to come here even when American Jews get scared; and everyone else laughs at their respective accusations since both nationalities fare pretty low on the Most Affable Tourist scale, somewhere near American tourists in DC.
Alongside the swarms of French downtown is the demolition of Jaffa Street, the main thoroughfare that connects the western entrance to town and the Old City. Except for one lane, the entirely of the street has been torn up in order to lay tracks for the light rail that someday will arrive and give old ladies another venue to push otherwise hospitable people like me. Tractors roam the blocks-long ditch, separated from pedestrians and incoming traffic by a chain link fence, that for those with a short-term memory of the past two attacks in Jerusalem leave little to the imagination.
The most recent attack in Jerusalem had more to do with the French than some would like to admit, as the man operating the bulldozer was working on a massive apartment complex near the King David Hotel. Luxury apartment buildings are sprouting up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, intended not for the locals but largely for the French and American Jews who come here twice a year (Passover and Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot). These people have no intention of renting their homes while abroad, evidenced by my downstairs neighbors whom I’ve never met in person, but am well acquainted with their alarm system that goes off with every cat in heat that finds its mate alongside their flat’s side entrance. When Haaretz.com showed live video of the bulldozer driver being shot to death by a civilian, it was introduced by an ad for one of these luxury apartment buildings.
There seem to be three connected results of all this construction, two awful and one still up in the air. There is very little housing available in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv that can be considered livable and affordable (I’m staying in my apartment, despite just being able to afford it). I know at least five different people looking for apartments that began their searches months ago. These massive buildings, since dependent on foreign investment, often stay vacant. With the dollar relatively weak against the shekel (who’da thunk that’d happen?), Americans are more reluctant than usual to invest in real estate. Huge buildings are being built with potentially few tenants, creating luxury ghost-towns in the middle of town. As if terrorism wasn’t bad enough, soon enough we might be facing crime-waves of burglaries.
The third result is related to yet-to-be-described picture up top. The picture is of a Help Wanted sign at the upscale shopping mall near the Old City for a store that will sell the clothes of the companies listed in English. I chanced upon it one day and almost fell over. Sure enough it has opened, and except for the lack softcore art on the walls, it’s a store that could be in any mediocre American mall. The store, like the mall in general, caters to the out-of-towners, but nonetheless pulls in a local crowd.
Slight digression: The other week I went with a friend for a self-guided night tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a spooky enough of a place in daylight. Aside for very dim lighting, some unseen organist was tuning his church’s organ, holding each key down for five minutes apiece until it began to screech. After our early encounter with Halloween we walked back into town through the aforementioned mall, heartened to see it both full with people in general, and especially with so many Arab families.
If the change we need here, which can only come from North Americans (government accountability, quality of life, etc.), starts with Abercrombie and Fitch next to the Old City walls, then reluctantly so be it. At least the Help Wanted sign wants applicants who have already done their service in the Israeli army.
22 July 2008
First off, I’m OK. I was at home when a second tractor driver in three weeks went on an attack before being shot dead by a civilian and a Border Policeman. We can only hope and work for happier days ahead, not just because of today's events.
Looking through the job classifieds has become a morning ritual as commonplace as drinking my cup of instant coffee. It’s a long and arduous process, sifting through the innumerable ads of hi-tech companies, with slim pickings for a graduate student like me who’s only in school twice a week and is looking to use his brain while working.
The group of us who were friends at NYU and moved to Israel started a new tradition of kidnapping each other on our birthdays and going on a road trip. ‘Kidnapping’ being a relative term in this region, of course. After lots of deliberation on the destination, we decided to take a trip to Nazareth, with me playing the role of “unofficial tour guide” (lest be accosted by licensed tour guides and possibly fined by a roving Ministry of Tourism official). After a quick ride up, we climb the Lower Galilee mountains, getting lost in the terracing roads. For a major tourist destination, singage in any language is at a serious loss.
Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel and as such one sees stark contrasts between the sites connected to the Annunciation and Jesus, and the Muslim majority population that has displaced the traditionally large Christian population. Coming from Jerusalem, the small streets and sprawling outdoor market look practically the same, albeit without the security precautions. I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t bring a camera to capture the poster of an Arab summer camp sponsored by the Israeli Communist party (a bright red poster in Arabic with a picture of a swimming pool underneath a hammer-and-sickle) and a poster for an Islamic fundamentalist group just under the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation. After sightseeing and a short tour, we climb upwards to a lookout over the entire area. Being the summer the 30-minute, 30 degree ascent left us exhausted yet satisfied from the view of the entire area, with me in typical tour guide fashion pointing out the sites we could see “on a clear day.” Back down the hill for food, we ended up at one of the most famous restaurants in Israel, enthralled by endless salads (my picks: fried cauliflower in tehina and baby spinach with sesame oil) and a perfectly juicy lamb dinner prepared right in front of us. Yummmm.
A few days later it was time for Jerusalem’s annual wine festival. Located in the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden, the event epitomizes yuppiness in a city which is quickly replacing its yuppie population for the ultra-Orthodox crowd. The last time I was there, live jazz set the scene for would-be connoisseurs who strolled around with their all-you-can-drink glasses, trying to look dignified with a wine buzz. This year, on a Tuesday night, it was yuppie bedlam: the ticket line wrapped around the barriers like the most popular roller-coaster at an amusement park; and the event was mobbed with people, from the “Gimme whatever’s red!” guy to the attempting-to-be-a-oenophile to the “I’m so drunk!” reveler. There was another photo opportunity lost, just like in Nazareth and just as culture-shocked: While one gentleman offered his date his jacket to fend off the cool Jerusalem night, another man offered his talit katan to female friend as a scarf. Only in Jerusalem?
The night was the followed in the morning by the media spectacle that was the exchange for the Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. I managed to wake up in time, with little residual effects from the previous night, to watch the live coverage. It was as if the last two years led up the few seconds when, answering a “reporter’s” question about whether the two soldiers were alive or dead, the Hizbullah spokesman in melodramatic fashion answered “Let’s find out” and out come two coffins. A huge thud followed by mournful violins went through my mind at the savagery of it all (kidnapped from the Israeli side of the border, no word on their fate for two years, exchanging the shameless Samir Kuntar without more concrete word on Ron Arad), finally coming to an end. I think every Israeli, regardless of their origin, wanted an American fairytale ending to this sad chapter in our history, hoping at least one of the two would be alive or that the bodies in the coffins would prove to not be those of Ehud and Eldad. While their families deserved an end to their misery and “Redemption of Captives” is a commandment in Jewish tradition, no one wanted an ending as sad as this one.
Happy and sad, light and dark, it's a bipolar kind of life here. I’ll do my best to keep up with the updating.
02 July 2008
In case you have't heard the news, a bulldozer driver deliberately plowed into a bus by the central bus station in Jerusalem, turing the bus over on its side. The latest update is that two people were murdered and 30 injured. The location was on Yafo Street, a main thoroughfare here. The street is being torn up to make way for the light rail, so there are lots of bulldozers on the street on a regular basis.
I'm OK and was at home, nowhere near the attack. For more news, check www.haaretz.com and www.ynetnews.com
I'm with you, I hate these kinds of updates.
24 June 2008
I walked out of the house on the way to work and I couldn't move. Not only was it incredibly hot outside, but there was enough humidity in the air to transport me back to summertime in DC: the inability to breathe outside, the need for constant air conditioning....yet no thunderstorm at the end of the day.
Other bits of DC in this sweltering capital city:-http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080701faessay87402/walter-russell-mead/the-new-israel-and-the-old.html
I came across this article via Haaretz. Their reporter who covers American politics and the Jewish community rhaphsodized about it, and after reading the first page, I voraciously read it in one sitting. An excellent read for US History fans, anyone still wondering what an Obama presidency will do/not do for US-Israel relations, and/or those who think lobbysists are the begin-all, end-all for dictating Congressional support for Israel.
-The other evening, as the temperature finally began to recede and the winds from the coast started to pick up, I walked up the street towards the Prime Minister's house. I've been avoiding that part of the street ever since being stopped again by hte police a few weeks back; this time, however, nothing would stop me. Freshly haven, I joined the hundreds of people gathered on the street to mark the two years since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by HAMAS. Hundreds swelled to more than a thousand, casuing the police the close off the street and redirect traffic and at least five bus routes for the rally. While I've been keeping up with the developments surrounding possible deals to release Gilad, as well as a deal with Hizbullah to release Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, it wasn't until the rally that I felt a sense of anger towards the government. It's been two years and in that time the current PM has chosen political suvivability over leadership as his MO, using the redemption of captives (an action on which Jewish tradition places a very high value) to keep himself in office amidst one political scandal after another.
My burgeoning rage was checked by that of Gilad's father, a friend of Ehud, the head of an organization for former POW's, and everyone else who attended.
It was great to be at a rally this important. Check out http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html for more info.
The dedication ceremony of the "Bridge of Strings," a bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava at the entrance to town that one day will carry the light rail, turned into yet another example of Jerusalem shying away from its status as an international capital. The Pride Paradce came and went with the usual ultra-Orthodox form of protesting -- setting garbage on fire in their own communities -- but the political machinations that became evident at the dedication ceremony are just too much, all the more reason for me to stay here, create a life, and vote in the upcoming municipal elections. That teenage girls have to cover themselves in quasi-Iranian style, lest they turn on the apparently always-horny ultra-Orthodox man, says as much about the community's apparent lack of self-control as it does about the general decline in Jerusalem's leadership (which arguably capped at Teddy Kollek z"l and has been on a steep downturn since Ehud Olmert).
The sun's setting, the temperature's dropping, the fan's been on for several hours now, and the weekend's bringing a little bit of calm and civility into the city. Even if the tranquility hangs around just for Shabbat, it's a welcome respite.
17 June 2008
I got stopped again by the police, this time because I was apparently avoiding passing a cop on the sidewalk, which warranted being frisked in public. Somewhere in the ethers of Israeli bureaucracy, there’s a formal complaint that I lodged, written in rudimentary Hebrew and translated from the account I wrote, still shaking form the experience.
Instead of harping on that, I wanted to share an Op-Ed published in Haaretz about Obama and Israeli public opinion: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/992392.html
Just a sample:
"Obama, in other words, represents a change Israelis are not sure we know how to live with after 40 years of talk about our strategic military alliance. He symbolizes America's great power to attract, as opposed to its degraded power to deter. Indeed, he wants to be the face of global integration, from Rio to Jakarta - ironically, the very integration Israeli entrepreneurs excel at. John McCain says he will be the jihadists' worst nightmare. Obama reminds us that the war McCain helped launch has been their dream come true."
For all the complexity and nonsense Israelis have to put with on a daily basis, they like their American foreign policy to be monochromatic, George W. Bush Style: You're either with us or against us. No questions allowed. Combined with a unnerving level of racism, and you have the polinion of most Israelis about Obama.
10 June 2008
Shavuot was great, as this year it pretty much entailed non-stop eating at a friend's and sleeping in.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I have some problems with the YES cable commercials. Recently, a new one was posted that just hit the geopolitical spot. The Israeli Ministry of Transportation, Shaul Mofaz, recently threatened Iran with a preemptive stike on its nuclear facilities. Mofaz, who was born in Iran, was formerly the IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, and is in the running to be the new head of the Kadima party, should PM Ehud Olmert resign.
With this escalation of words, who better than a cable ocmpany to make light of a situation while selling their package of Israel serial dramas?
Synopsis: An Ahmadinejad-lookalike is threatinening Israel with annihilation at a press conference in Farsi, and the audience is upset that if they attack Israel, they'll never see the next episodes of their shows. What results is unrest in the street, sung in Farsi and Hebrew to the classic tune of "Kol Hakavod" from the Israeli West Side Story-remake Kazablan.
Black humor mixed with current events and commercialism. Only the finest for us.
26 May 2008
Man, did I ever need a break. School may be great, but my brain was fried. A trip back to the States in time for Passover was just what I needed to refuel. It was indeed great to be back, to be with family and friends; take advantage of cheaper prices on a variety of goods; take in a few museums for free; and more. Even the very rare earthquake that hit Ohio as I was visiting for Passover didn’t faze me (mainly because it occurred around 05.50 during a vicious bout of jet lag). Other things reminded me how much my base of comparisons for things has changed: lack of security on the subway and buses; how the dollar seems more like play money; driving rain storms; supermarkets that seem to stretch on for miles; and much more.
I came back in time for the buildup to the quintessential Israeli experience: the 48 consecutive hours that comprise Memorial and Independence Day. After just reciting during the Seder about being taken from “sadness to joy,” we prepared to jump from one emotional high to another. The country was in a wash of blue and white, with an infinite number of sales and specials marking the 60th birthday of the State of Israel. Food packages went “nostalgic,” using the same typefaces and designs that were used decades ago.
I spent the evening of Memorial Day in the courtyard of the Museum of Underground Prisoners, a former British jail in Jerusalem. Close to a thousand students crowded into the courtyard illuminated by spotlights and torches, with cold wind whipping in and out of the space. There, facing a small stage with musicians and a small screen showing a set of PowerPoint slides, we engaged in a time-honored tradition: communal karaoke. Call it whatever you want – a kumsitz or shira betzibur (“singing in a community”) – the emotions of the Jewish people always translate well into poetry and sound even better when sung in a communal setting. Add to this a historically rich and relevant location, and the shivers traveling through me were not just a result from the whipping winds.
The next day I took off for Tel Aviv for Independence Day. I watched on TV the official ceremony marking the end of Memorial Day and the start of Independence Day, a space separated by the seconds it takes for the Israeli flag to return to full-mast atop Mount Herzl (the national military cemetery), and otherwise full of nationalist kitsch that I especially enjoy. Fireworks and a massive street party in South Tel Aviv carried the festivities into the wee hours of the night.
The next morning, it was time to hit the beach for the air & sea military parade. Tens of thousands of people crowded onto the beach, promenade and esplanades to watch a show which was as much about showing pride in our strength, as it was a reminder of our vulnerability. The regatta of navy ships was followed by an even longer line of civilian sailboats and other luxury craft. It was great to see fighter jets and helicopters performing feats like refueling in mid-air and upside-down loops; yet I ended up focusing on the lone pilot pair of pilots manning each plane, wondering how many unnamed missions they’ve yet to participate in and how their identities will largely remain secret to the rest of us. In that moment of existential solitude, I snapped back into the surroundings of a beautiful beach day with friends.
A week or so later, I had the privilege of attending Facing Tomorrow, the Presidential Conference led by President Shimon Peres. While I am almost always in the mood for a big conference, complete with self-aggrandizing plenaries and open bars, this one epitomized that classic Yiddish word “schmaltz.”
There were great moments to be sure, with Mikhail Gorbachev addressing the crowd in person, along with major political and business leaders in the world. But the budget spent on decorating the convention center in Jerusalem, the plenary events, and buffet meals were way over the top. To add to the schmaltz was the tribute Israel paid to the USA, and more specifically, to President Bush. The event lasted several hours, replete with musical interludes, speeches, and so many standing ovations that even the college students in the crowd got a touch of rheumatoid arthritis in the hips. Considering all the political scandals that are happening here as I type, on top of the not-always-intimate relations between the two countries, the event got the point of being embarrassing.
The crowd went berserk when Bush entered the hall and eventually spoke. Few Bush supporters seem to remember that Israelis did the same for President Clinton, an equally obscene gesture of support. I’d like to think that Israelis are used to facing such complex and serious issues on a daily basis that when it comes to something as equally complex as Israel-USA relations, they’ve had enough and prefer a black-or-white reading of the situation: if the US President says he supports Israel, Dayyenu, never mind all the nuances. There’s a great article that sums up Israel’s idolization of the US with all its flaws (not the least of which we Jews aren’t supposed to practice idolatry): http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/1,7340,L-3546353,00.html
The words “friendship” and “relationship” were thrown around as freely as possible when discussing Israel-USA relations. Israel acts and then looks admiringly towards its big brother the USA in a variety of issues, expecting universal support; the US acts in the region and expects Israel to universally support, even if it’s against its own interests. This blunt description sounds more like the relation with an enabler than one between friends or significant others. On this 60th birthday of the Jewish State, when we continue to face existential threats, including a deterioration of the original communal values that helped create this country, let’s expect more from ourselves and our leaders than the status quo and enabling one another to the point of absurdity. Let's ask the hard questions and act with some degree of self-respect.
Throwing out everyone's pairs of Crocs would also be a good start.
11 April 2008
After a very long day that ended with going to bed at 1am, I woke up at 03.50. Getting ready in record time and running on fumes, I made my way to the shared taxi stand. Around 5.00, the driver, still short of many passengers, agrees to a fair price between myself and the only other sucker out at this time of night. We’re off to Tel Aviv, letting me catch the 6.17 train and 6.40 bus to campus on time.
Why in the world would I wake up at such a satanic hour? School sponsored a free trip for the graduate students to Israel’s North, to meet with the two UN peacekeeping forces deployed along the borders: UNDOF along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights and UNIFIL along the Lebanese border.
The trip was a lot like the numerous ones I’ve taken in the past with Birthright Israel groups, only this time I was the participant and not carrying a binder full of medical forms and exhausted from a night of watching students drink at the hotel bar, not to mention the focus was on international peacekeeping.
The first stop was Mt. Bental, a dormant volcano on the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, overlooking the only-kilometers away Syrian frontier. We descend the bus in the parking lot and are met by a baby blue beret-clad soldier with an Austrian flag sewn into his khaki fatigues. I was doing my best not to laugh out loud at a soldier, with his thick German accent, tell a group of mostly Jews the minute-by-minute itinerary for the morning and to follow him along the border with Syria. There were off-color jokes being made that kept the exhausted cohort in high spirits, especially when we met the IDF liaison, originally French, whose knowledge of the situation on the border was the same of a low-level reporter on a local TV affiliate station. So far, the same old tour and talk of the region. I could do the same in my sleep, something I ended up doing unconsciously as I began to lose consciousness from the lack of sleep.
A few minutes later and we were in one of the two UNDOF bases in the area. The troops deployed there come from a variety of countries, all of which keep a strict sense of separation from one another. Each building was demarcated by which flag flew at its entrance. This one Japanese, that one Polish. We entered one of the Indian buildings, met by Sikh soldiers in baby blue turbans held fast with UN logo pins. Sitting in an auditorium that looked more like the set of a 1980’s teen movie, we were given a briefing by the security attaché to UNDOF, a middle-aged Dutchman. After nodding off to his monotone voice reading off his PowerPoint slides, it was time for questions. While I’m a big fan of anything international, the UN isn’t at the top of any Favorite lists of mine; as such, I asked a question about their troops’ preparations in relation to the language and customs of the region. The attaché responded that not only do they give a whole half-day of background training in the area to the contingents, but the troops themselves don’t even have to speak English – only their commanders do. I continued to push him on the absurdity of this (chances are that a Syrian shepherd doesn’t understand a lick of English, even when being shouted at by an Indian guard as he’s crossing No Man’s Land), and the attaché didn’t like being challenged by someone with near-perfect English who was most likely Israeli, so he started asking me questions back. We both got tired and he took one more question from the audience. Jay 1, UN 0.
After a reception in the Indian mess hall, complete with Sikh soldiers posing for pictures and an array of digestive biscuits and various juices, we were on the bus heading for UNIFIL. The ride through the area this time of year is spectacular, with the chlorophyll bursting forth in every leaf and the cherry trees showering the fields in a ticker-tape of flowers. Along the way, past picturesque Druze villages and rolling hills, we pick up a reserve soldier who’s the spokesperson for the IDF Northern Command. UNIFIL wasn’t going to met with us, but we were still going to get a tour of the area. We stopped in Metulla, the northernmost town in Israel which happens to be surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. With military escort, we’re allowed out of the bus and stand in a deserted parking lost a few yards from the border. Suddenly, I remember being in the exact same spot eight years ago in high school. Where there were tourist souvenir stands and a packed parking lot stand some rusted shacks and a lot overpowered by wildflowers and weeds. Eight years and a war make a huge difference. We stop at a nearby kibbutz, overlooking undulating green hills with Lebanese villages cascading down the slopes, and in the near distance a UNIFIL post sits quietly. I was hypnotized by the tranquility of the place, a stark difference from almost two years ago.
Back on campus, students were putting together an awareness campaign on Sderot, using the fragments of real Qassam rockets as props to illustrate actual attacks, and challenging the affluent student body if they would tolerate even one rocket hitting Tel Aviv.
It’s off to the States for almost three weeks, full of fat white people and relative quiet.
Have a Great Passover!
28 March 2008
The other Friday night, as I was walking to a dinner I was invited to, the full moon was as bright as the surrounding lampposts. At times, the white light reflecting off the near-perfect disc illuminated entire street blocks. Walking past the iconic building housing Belgian Consulate, rabbits were romping through the estate’s backyard. Cadbury bunnies, huge grass-eating long ears that looked out of place amidst the palm trees.
Easter Round One has come and gone, swelling the town with sun burnt Catholics and Protestants. The ongoing language and culture gap between tourists and the natives takes on a new dimension, with old Spanish women screaming at the Sephardi grocery cashiers. This year the pilgrims with wooden crosses on their backs were met with drunken Jews celebrating Purim. A calendrical quirk made the Purim festivities in Jerusalem last close to four consecutive days, though not tiring out the more hardcore rabble-rousers. “Purim bombs,” makeshift fireworks that create a lot of noise, gave palpitations to everyone in a 10-mile radius throughout the weekend. With a heightened security alert, the last thing one wants to see is some overweight yeshiva kid ignite one of these bombs and hear its explosion ricochet through the alleyways. Last night, studying in my apartment was met with heckles in New York English from across the street: a group of yeshiva kids, continuing to fulfill the Tradition of getting intoxicated on Purim, were waiting for a ride. They blocked cars in the street, screamed expletives in an otherwise quiet residential area until midnight, and just as I was reaching to call the Police (my fraternity with Americans has very finite limits), I realized what was going on. The very drunk kids were trying to get their passed-out friend into the car, and hopefully to a hospital. This country can be a kind of Disneyland for many, with the words “Promised” and “Holy” connoting a sense of invincibility.
Spring is slowly creeping in, with the street block by the Prime Minister’s residence smelling like roses (ironic), and campus the other day perfumed in jasmine.
09 March 2008
The ritual wiping away condensation from the windows has temporarily given way to the ritual of keeping the blinds closed until it gets dark outside: a type of heatwave called a sharav has enveloped the country. There’s very little wind, grey skies, and very hot temperatures. One avoids being outside during a sharav like the scene in The Ten Commandments when the 10th Plague creeps through Egypt, symbolized by green-tinted smoke: you don’t wanna be outside breathing in this stuff. Those who do venture forth into the pestilence use clothes as a shibboleth: the locals, knowing that winter isn't over and hotter weather has yet to arrive, are still in long sleeves and jackets; the out-of-towners think anything above 60 F is cause for wearing flip-flops and shorts.
After a long day at school on Thursday, I got a ride into Tel Aviv to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. As my carpool got into Tel Aviv, we learned that there was a terrorist attack at a yeshiva near the main entrance to Jerusalem. Coming from a class in terrorism, we compared this attack to one that occurred at a yeshiva several weeks ago near Jerusalem, as well as the phenomenon of shootings on college campuses in the States.
Although we haven’t had to deal with an attack for some time now, the onslaught of rockets on Sderot is a daily dose of depression; that HAMAS upgraded their supplies by sending GRAD missiles into the city of Ashkelon is cause for a bit more anxiety. Then the attack on the yeshiva happened and the buzz of seven million anxious citizens reenters the atmosphere.
The bus ride back was packed with exhausted soldiers and passengers rattling away on their cellphones. As we approached the suburb of Mevasseret Zion around 10:30 PM, traffic going towards Tel Aviv was at a standstill. No one was going into town, and as we wound our way up the road to the main entrance, we found out why: all traffic was diverted to the new bypass road, enveloping the cabin of the bus in silence as the hills reflected the blue strobe lights of police cars. Soldiers and police patrolled street corners downtown on Friday. People were out and about, but not in the numbers they have been in recent days.
The rains come back in a day or so; the alarm of the downstairs apartment owned by absentee Americans continues to get tripped by voracious alley cats; and we’ll all wake up tomorrow to confront together whatever version of BizarroWorld the Middle East and this living experiment called The Jewish State have to offer.
06 March 2008
No sooner did the last semester end than the new one began. A combination of a one-test-per-week policy and the only-in-Israel phenomenon of retaking a test for a better grade create a virtual lack of a winter break vacation. For the last several weeks my brain has schemed to escape through one of the various orifices in my head, almost getting out through one of my ears the other day. While the classes I’m taking this semester are incredible and the professors are outstanding, I find myself oscillating between watching clips of American “junk TV” online to for the numbing effect, and episodes of The West Wing for the redemptive effect.
The endless look for a job has come to a stop for the meanwhile, having started a job in the retail world at one of the few stores out there I respect for their merchandise and business practices. I’m still sniffing around for something more in line with my previous employment experience and current academic pursuits, as one of this degree’s pluses is its ability to work and go to school 1-2 days per week, but bills have to be paid and customers have to be satiated.
More to come as my head slowly defrosts.
13 February 2008
A week after the snowstorm, few blobs of grayed snow still dot the sidewalks, but the blue skies have returned and the air is so clear, the other night I could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the other side of town. It’s those moments, where the pieces of the puzzle that make up Jerusalem fit together, that make me want to stay in this town. They’re a reminder not only is this the Middle East, but how crazy and intense this place can be.
Another example? The other Saturday night, I went to the Cinematheque for a double-feature on a band from the late 1970’s named Joy Division. The stereotypical listener of their angst-filled music is the art school student living in Williamsburg. Aside from one single which became commercially popular, the music (as the first movie, a documentary, stated) reflects the turbulent and post-modern miasma that was the band’s Manchester, England hometown. It’s punk, it’s romantic, it’s scary, it’s uplifting. So many bands have since copied their sound. The second film was a biopic about the singer who committed suicide at the ripe old age of 23. The movie was cinematically impressive, shot in black-and-white to accurately portray the bleakness of Manchester, and the lead actor impeccably captured the singer’s youth.
The audience was mixed between students wearing brightly-colored wool ponchos from their post-army service trips to South America; elderly couples who have subscriptions to the Cinematheque and may not have known what they got themselves into; and the few patrons who I’d expect to see at this kind of movie, equally questioning what the rest of the audience was doing there. The late 1970’s in England gave birth to a lot of youth subcultures, all disenchanted with their socioeconomic situations. They recycled a lot of different aesthetics, including Nazi, while dispensing with whatever values they originally had; the band’s first EP contained iconic images from World War II as part of the artwork – including the picture of the young Jewish boy with his hands up as an SS officer has a gun pointed at his back. The image stayed on the screen for a few seconds, met with gasps from the audience. The final scene, after the singer killed himself, was the camera focusing on a village church’s brick chimney spewing smoke. I was squirming in my seat by that point, feeling everyone else’s supposed discomfort. Eventually leaving the theater and the building, the audience found itself facing the western part of The Old City, as the Cinematheque is perched against a cliff overlooking the walls. Again, memory and reality layered on top of each other for all to observe.
To top off the last few weeks of jumping around various identities, I got to vote in the Democratic Party Primaries in Tel Aviv. Democrats Abroad represents expatriate Americans in the Democratic Party, and this year decided to improve their registration drive by having voting centers set up in locations with the most expats. Since Israel has a rather large population of us, they set up a center in Tel Aviv for two days. The location was in Beit Daniel, a center for Progressive Judaism (what Reform Judaism is called in Israel). The voting center consisted of a small room packed with volunteers. After they inspected my US passport, I filled out two forms, one rejoining the Democratic Party and the other being the actual ballot with boxes next to the candidates to check off. As the forms were printed very early on in the campaign, lots of the now-withdrawn candidates still appeared.
I’m still not sure how I feel about voting as an expatriate. While this election has far-reaching implications for how America is perceived in the world, not to mention a potential change in domestic policy which would affect family and friends, I’m not planning on living in the States for at least the near future. An argument could be made for the role expats play in promoting America abroad and in turn helping America through their unique global perspectives; it gets all the more complicated living in Israel, a choice born out of ideology. Since I didn’t move here for this country’s easy way of life, so voting from abroad fits into this increasingly complex living arrangement.
31 January 2008
The other week, days before the now infamous January 2008 snowstorm, I bought waterproof boots. Besides being insulated and rather inexpensive, they were made in Israel. Just as I had lowered my moral standard and was willing to buy Made in China for the sake of dry feet, the clouds broke and a beam of ethical consumerism shone through the windows of a nondescript shoe store downtown.
They’ve more than paid their dues in the last week. They withstood horizontal rain in Herzliya, snowbanks near my apartment and tidal waves from passing cars driving fast through puddles. Trudging through the snow is much more fun when you can walk straight into a snowdrift and emerge dry. Today was spent helping a friend with a major appliance and taking more pictures of people enjoying the day off. I got videos of snow falling on a palm tree and the only plow noticeable on the streets (more like a bulldozer, holding up traffic on a one-way road). Snow can transport a place into another dimension, cutting it off from the humdrum of reality into a much-needed break, with people smiling and regressing in age. Sort of like Christmas in the States, but without the commercialism.
That break was exactly what everyone needed, as the second report regarding the war in 2006 came out yesterday during the storm. When the plows were nowhere to be found, they were probably escorting the panel to the press conference by the entrance to town. The report isn’t anything surprising, self-toned down in its criticism of the government. Everyone expected (or more appropriately, hoped) this would be the report, the one that would satiate the public’s disappointment with the war by damning the Prime Minister and government enough to force them to resign. The current PM has survived scandal after scandal – why would a report about a war in which hundreds of civilians on both sides died and exposed our lack of preparedness be any different from those other affairs?
Reading the coverage on the US Presidential elections from this side of the world is satisfying, perhaps ironically for those of you saturated by the ads and propaganda. At least over there, there’s a real potential for a turn-over in leadership – here it’s gonna be a long time until people my age, so disenchanted with the world of politics, not only will feel compelled enough to take on the mantle of national leadership but will be able to push past the barriers of cronyism and condescending attitudes.
The situation is that bad, there’s going to be a new reality show devoted to it. Move over “A Star is Born” (Israeli American Idol) and “Born to Dance” – introducing “A Legislator is Born.” Written up in last week’s weekend edition of the paper, a new show aims to find the best young leaders in Israel and the top nine winners will receive various parliamentary positions in the Knesset. A tremendous an important opportunity for this country that hopefully will begin the end of the “Lama, mi met? (Why, who died?)” attitude many of those in power have towards being questioned.
In the interest of making the competition as fierce as possible, if you know anyone with Israeli citizenship in their 20’s or 30’s, the website is http://www.manhigut-project.com/.
30 January 2008
Last night, everyone had their noses pressed up to their cold windows, condensation forming all over the panes, eagerly waiting the snow this town has been preparing for since last weekend. The national news reports yesterday were all about Jerusalem’s preparations. The free paper that’s now delivered to my door every day gave tips on surviving the snow, including “Wear warm clothes and layers. On leaving the house, wear a coat, hat and gloves.” Another column discussed how those who study Kabbalah roll around in the snow in order to atone for sins, but fear not those of you who don’t study Jewish mysticism: the article goes on to say how rubbing your arms and forehead with anow along with the recitation of a verse has the same effect.
Having to trek out to school yesterday, I got stuck outside in the rain that was traveling horizontally across the coast.
After a few spats of wintry mix, the snow properly arrived some time last night. I didn’t sleep well, eagerly anticipating its arrival. I set my alarm for 8.30, but was well awake beforehand. I opened the blinds and there it was: winter wonderland. At least an inch had accumulated overnight, too heavy to be supported by the trees already in turmoil from the gusting wind. The streets look barely plowed, if at all, and are amazingly silent like only a snowstorm can make them. No public transportation this morning, no school, not even healthcare at the clinic next door. A few cars here and there; otherwise, nonstop snowfall. As I’m writing this, I’m watching the neighbor’s orange tree get covered in snow, the one lone orange atop a branch beaming brightly against the surrounding evergreens, wet limestone buildings and accumulating snow.
This afternoon, venturing out in the snow was like reliving snowstorms in DC. Two world capitals whose inhabitants are so consumed with manmade power than when nature reintroduces herself into the party, everyone leaves. More appropriately, runs screaming from the party, raiding the closest grocery of all bread, milk batteries and eggs.
The streets near me, adorned with multimillion dollar apartments, are unpaved, yet another similarity with DC. Assorted families build snowmen on sidewalks, a nice family outing, until they leave and their monstrous creations stay behind, waving passers-by with their twig hands and eventually decapitated forms. Schools are cancelled today and tomorrow, with the municipality’s Annual Snowman Building Contest taking place both days.
The snow doesn’t come alone, rather somewhere in a sequence of rain, freezing rain, hail and sleet. By this evening, a lot had melted and more had fallen, preparing the roads for a nice sheet of ice come morning. Day 2 in the snow to come.
16 January 2008
I just got back from one of the oddest interviews. The job’s to help develop a website focusing on a very current and important topic in the Middle East and abroad. Arriving at its offices, the labyrinth needed to get there entailed choosing one of three doors: A, B, and yes, C (the correct answer, as opposed to the others with man-eating tigers). The interview consisted of me listening to the idea of the website and restraining any facial movements after understanding how myopic and bigoted the operation was. The only way I would work there, I thought to myself, was to not get credit for my work, as it could potentially damage academic and professional interests in the future.
To top it all off, I was asked after the interview to submit to a handwriting analysis, as part of the hiring process. I was told this was a procedure everyone did as a means to ensure the right personalities were brought into the organization. In Internet parlance, this is known as “WTF?!” I copied a random note to fulfill the requested ¾ page of writing, thrice signed my name, wrote out the numbers 1-10, and last but certainly not least drew two different trees. As soon as I was done I thanked them and hightailed it outta there.
As a postscript to the previous post about the cold and lack of insulation:
The windows are dripping with condensation. The process of wiping down the frames and panes, spraying the occasional Clorox on the windows to deter mold, and strategically placing American-bought chemical dehumidifiers around the apartment has become ritualized. It’s not just cold, it’s American cold. And if we’re gonna continue to be in the grips of this American cold, I think it’s only fair for us to get some snow. Bush and his entourage just paralyzed this city for 48 hours, mind as well snow now while people still remember what it’s like to be trapped inside for hours at a time.
Speaking of Bush, his motorcade caused havoc in the Capital City. Growing up in DC, one is always aware of motorcades and when streets are closed; but whole areas of major transport and commerce never close. When Bush came to town, every major street was closed down. For days ahead of time, residents were warned which streets would be closed and when, publishing maps of the motorcade’s routes and schedules. Even with the advance knowledge (which seems a bit problematic security-wise), people were trapped. I didn’t leave my house from the time he landed at the airport to when he left for Ramallah, giving me a few hours to get out of town to school. Between having to finish a paper, American sharpshooters everywhere, and the preferred target for a Walking While Semitic profiling stop by bored cops, I decided to hunker down indoors.
He’s long gone, with American flags still suspended on poles throughout the city and the ever-present American cold penetrating every layer of clothes valiantly worn outside. Whether or not Bush’s push for a comprehensive peace plan will be in place by the end of the year is completely up for grabs. Whether or not the strike in higher education will allow the semester to restart is equally up for grabs. In the meantime, I want some snow.
14 January 2008
And now, a much-needed update.
It’s freezing here in the Middle East, the longest spell of cold temperatures in recent memory. It’s so cold, there was snow in Baghdad!
Despite living in the mountains and normally subject to temperatures lower than the rest of the country, Jerusalem homes are notorious for being poorly insulated. At the risk of jinxing the heat contained in my apartment through the use of a few different contraptions, I’ll only say that I’m staying as warm as possible.
Since there’s a chance of getting my power cut off, I’ll give the top highlights of the past few weeks and what’s in store:
-Finished coordinating another group of Taglit-Birthright Israel buses the other week. Completely wiped out afterwards, but had a great group of staff and students. A few good stories here and there, which I won’t repeat online, but in general drama-free.
-After finishing the trip, only to go right to a full afternoon of school, my mom arrived for a conference. We were both staying at family friends near school that night, so I dragged myself to their place, said hi, and went to go pass out for a few hours. As always, great to have a parent come and visit for a few weeks.
-The semester’s finishing up, so it’s been an onslaught of work and studying. One paper completely wore me out, now there’s one more paper and three tests left. Amidst all the talk of the public universities cancelling the semester, I remember how lucky I am to have transferred to “my private, bougie school” (as I call it), notwithstanding the trek it takes to get out there each time.
-The job search goes on. One position, after three separate interviews, has left me waiting for almost a month. I’m going on two interviews tomorrow, I sent out my resume multiple times today….Outsourced call centers are looking more and more attractive.
More to come, I promise, just wanted to give an update before a full month passed with no post.