01 December 2009

It’s time for an Israeli Thanksgiving.

I was thinking of ranting about how Tzabarim/Sabras almost always assume Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday, but playing the embittered Anglo card is getting old. Perhaps this train of thought is induced by one too many forkfuls of turkey and cranberry sauce, or from the separation from family and family (dys)functionality during this time of year. Whatever the reason, I know I’m not the only Anglo nor Sabra who’d be interested in an Israeli version of Thanksgiving.

(While this post is meant to be written in Hebrew, and will be shortly translated, for the sake of blurring border I’m leaving it in English.)

As I see it, there are three central themes to Thanksgiving: family/communal gathering, giving thanks in a secular format, and celebrating post-immigration freedom. Each has an aspect in the current roster of Israeli holidays, yet they often appear alone or in pairs.

12 November 2009

12 November 2009

This week was the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, now called Jewish Federations of North America. Amidst important and surprisingly relevant plenaries regarding the current financial crisis, Israel-Diaspora relations, and communal engagement came the speech everyone wanted to really hear: PM Netanyahu. Enough of the reports of delegates wanting to hear the new JFNA CEO or the last-minute cancelled President Obama – Bibi is always the crowd maker among North American Jews.

His speech was so incredibly directed at the heart (and purse) strings of the audience, the more provocative parts of his speech were seldom mentioned in the Israeli media. No, I’m not talking about peace negotiations or a two-state solution; we’re all falling asleep from those headlines.

Rather, it was two snippets I managed to catch on the streaming webcast on cspan.org. The first was in the framework of decreasing the global thirst for oil, offering Israel’s famous innovations in solar energy and desalinization. While generous of the PM to offer this to the far-flung and malnourished, I was wondering why he can’t offer it to his own constituents back here in Israel. True, Israel has the highest per capita use of home solar water heaters in the world, but this accounts for only 3% of the country’s total energy consumption. Recently, plans to build a massive array of solar panels were scuttled by landowners and private interests, despite being located deep in the Negev Desert; we just love our coal-burning power plants too much to give up precious arid desert.

The desalinization offer really got me boiling. There’s a oft-told story in public planning courses about how Israel passed on building multiple desalinization plants in the 1970’s because of the perceived costs – refusing to think long-terms brings us to the present day situation of the drought. You’ll almost never see the word “drought” or “famine” appear in English-language news about Israel, despite the dire predictions for this country’s water supply. Citrus groves have been intentionally decimated due to their large water intakes, apple and cherry orchards in the North are routinely uprooted to help falling water levels, and at one point we were supposed to be importing potable water from Turkey.

Just like I previously wrote about the Israeli industry of exporting outsourced customer service, which we never see here as consumers, the PM’s American-tailored speech proves that as long as we Israelis don’t care about customer service and accountability, the more we are tightening the straps on our own straightjackets.

The other snippet was the PM welcoming all Jews in the Diaspora, “of all denominations” as potential Israeli citizens with the right to religious belief. Amidst the billowing applause from the audience, over here in Israel we heard the proverbial sound of a turntable needle scratching a vinyl record in midplay. Last time I checked, non-Orthodox institutions did not receive any State funding, while millions of NIS pour into yeshivot and school systems run by the ultra-Orthodox political parties. Shas, the party with whom I mince my words the least currently runs the Interior Ministry which decides, among other things, who is a Jew and who is allowed to stay in this country. Nevermind the outrageous comments from some of this party’s members, who compare Reform Jews to all sorts of animals and co-conspirators with our worst detractors; and forget for the moment the current plans to expel the majority of foreign workers in the country, the majority of whom were issued work visas while Shas ran the Ministry; focus on the notion of Shas carrying out the myth of “Sfardi Tahor” on the entirety of Israel and World Jewry.
“Sfardi tahor,” or “Pure Sephardi,” varies in examples but refers to a difference in those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition versushose who converted and secretly practiced their Jewish beliefs. Its historiography is very hard to discover, its usage widespread, and in the hands of The Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Keepers (Shas) a moral hypocrisy for the Jewish people. Jews who haven’t practiced Judaism in generations and live in South American and northeastern India are brought here with taxpayer money and made to wear an Ashkenazi or Sephardi kippa, but God Forbid American Reform or Conservative Jews move here en masse and demand space for a synagogue.
Despite those who wallow in the Jews’ historic misery, and who mainly see an otherwise lachrymose Jewish history redeemed through the founding of the State, Jews aren’t defined by blood tests. Or at least, we shouldn’t define ourselves by them, thus negating the millions of Jews of color, Jews by choice, and Jews who have struggled to weigh modernity and tradition through a myriad of paths.

Probably by now you’ve deciphered how worked-up I got this week at the Jewish World, particularly with Israelis. Thankfully a bit of news from my hometown spread out the insanity. It seems a deer, one of the many which go into mating frenzy this time of year in Rock Creek Park, accidentally jumped into the lions’ den at the National Zoo. The gathering tourists wanted to deer the emerge from the lions’ den like some saintly victim in pre-Christian Rome; us filthy Jews (or at least me and my philosophic doppelganger Jeffrey Goldberg) wanted the tourists to shut up and let the lions have their Nature-apportioned meal in peace. Thankfully at least one Washingtonian is there to keep the turistas at bay.

12 October 2009

10 October 2009

This was a long week. The Jewish holiday season is in many ways more exasperating than the American Christmas season, which should just about be starting. While the buildup to it lasts only a month, it’s comprised of four different holidays, one lasting a full week. Add to this potentially stress-filled time hordes upon hordes of tourists, newly arriving students, itinerant dwellers of luxury apartments and equally anxious Israelis and you got yourselves quite a scene. Even the eastern side of town is relieved by the season being over, as the echoing sound of fireworks has been especially louder in the past day.

I ended up having to work extra hours this week, leaving myself prey to all manners of out-of-towners belligerently walking about town, some inebriated by alcohol, others by simply “being here.” While I remember and appreciate that kind of euphoria being in Jerusalem, which in many ways sustains me living in this town as opposed to Tel Aviv, some of these people walking around seem to have gone hypoxic from the altitude change, leaving their brains less oxygenated than normal.

Just an illustration of what the autumn can bring to Jerusalem:

A trio of black-clad 18-year old American yeshiva girls walk up Rivlin St., a pedestrian street in the city center, saturated with bars serving drunken expat teenagers and the occasional Israeli. One bumps into a yeshiva boy five times her size.

Yeshiva Boy: Excuse me (to get her attention)
(Yeshiva Girl keeps walking, ignoring YB, stops in her tracks after the bumpand looks right at me)
YG: Oh my God, I love what you’re wearing! Are you gay?
Me: I don’t think that’s any of your business.
YG: But I really love your bowtie!
Me: Since when is there a connection between one’s sexuality and how one dresses? That’s a really offensive question. (Walks away)
YB (turns around, half-hearing the altercation): Did she bump into you too?
Me: She wishes.

I’m not sure where that academic response came from, especially when she deserved something far more embarrassing in return. Maybe it’s because of the encounter’s proximity to the previous week’s Yom Kippur; maybe it was pitying this overly-sheltered kid whose left the clutches of Mommy and Daddy for the first time (anyone who equates neckwear with sexual identity deserves, at least, pity); or maybe it was because exhaustion seems to make me less witty (except for my last line in the above script). Frankly, I blame the girl’s parents for raising her to believe such a remark to a complete stranger (or anyone) would be acceptable. Regardless, the drink I was already off to get with a friend gained more saliency after this experience in absurdity.

I’ve said before that I find it an odd phenomenon for many of these 18-year olds who come to Jerusalem for a year in yeshiva, as for many of them it’s their first time away from home for an extended period of time. To be plunked down into the already- complicated and challenging situation in Jerusalem makes having one’s first taste of freedom from American suburbia equally challenging. For example, the Middle East is a region where one shows off the actual or perceived wealth of his/her family through one’s clothing – at least this is my theory explaining all the sequined T-shirts, gold-plated jewelry designer labels. While Jerusalem is no exception to this theory, there are limits to the extent of one’s material displays. American teenagers follow these rules by wearing luxury branded clothes all the time (North Face black fleece jackets, Lacoste polo shirts, etc.) but diverge when they dig their heels into the limestone and bust out with their feelings of entitlement: talking loud on their rented cellphones; talking loud and slow to us Israelis to help our comprehension (I love it when they do this with me); asking rhetorical questions aloud, actually intending to be answered by anyone; arguing about the price of everything; bumping into people on the street without apologizing; and all those other actions one doesn’t think of in the suburbs nor when one is supposedly living for the year in Disneyworld.

When I see or hear these roving bands of teenagers, I think about what kind of preparations their high schools and families back in the States give them before their flights. I also think about the larger picture, namely what does this say about Diaspora Jewish travel in Israel and relating to Israeli society while here. I’m all for creating a life for myself Here and There, and embracing some aspects of American culture while living here (if not using said aspects to make societal positive change at the same time); but what this annual influx of teenagers suggest is a parallel dimension to daily Israeli Jewish life (as opposed to those ultra-Orthodox who choose not to interact, or Arabs who are largely left out of this kind of interaction) that only entrenches Diasporans and Israelis in their views of each other.

On a non-negative note, my iPod seems to sense my mood lately. Long hours at work make the walk home a bit of a challenge, the only source of relief on the way being music. For the last week, almost every day, the shuffle function in the iPod plays either “So What” or “‘Round Midnight” by Miles Davis. A present from my father before one of my flights back to Israel, the two tracks always seem to lift me up long enough to get me home by adding a touch of class to an otherwise long and usually classless day.

08 October 2009

08 October 2009

This was a long, hot summer. School, job searching, little money, mosquitoes, thesis-writing, stress-induced stomach issues….little wonder I was rushing to get everything in order when the shared taxi came to collect me at 4am en route to the airport. Not done with the thesis, I needed the break badly. Arriving at the airport exactly three hours ahead of my flight, the scene in the check-in hall made it seem everyone else in the country was equally eager for a break. The place was so packed I had to wait 30 minutes before my flight’s check-in lane was listed. I breezed through security and check-in within 20 minutes, smugly smiled at the fools waiting in line at passport control while I swept through the biometric pass lane, and then spent the rest of the time doing what I do best in airports: convincing myself there are no deals to be had at duty-free after scoping out the merchandise for an hour; using my carry-on as a means of buffering those passenger equally interested in buying the last copy of the newspaper; wondering if anyone is traveling all the was to DC, who are the Americans, and why did he decide to wear THAT on a flight.

A loud flight to Paris as befits the end of summer, with families who spent the last few weeks on the beaches of Tel Aviv and Ashdod arguing with anyone non-French now letting their kids even more loose. Four hours of some spoiled girl kicking the back of my seat later, I arrived in gloomy, grey and drizzly Paris. It was heaven. After endless days of blue skies and warmth, I was craving this sight with upmost intensity. Staring at the watercolored windows a smile formed by the occasional sigh, I cared little for the reactions of those sitting nearby. My flight was in the newer of the two parts of Terminal 2E, with better food, shops, and sitting areas. Once able to pry myself from the outside’s grayness, my airport games made their usual shift of focus from Americans to Israelis. Travelling on two passports at all times means a few moments in limbo, usually in Western Europe, when I quickly shuffle the American and Israeli passports among the frequent flyer cards and travel documents, placing the American one with neon security stickers from past EL-AL flights in front. The games change accordingly, from Spot the American to Spot the Israeli, sometimes changing the level of difficulty and sometimes making for an even easier version: Families make for an early dead giveaway, as do oversized clothes and decibel level of one’s speech; poseurs and other pretentious passers-by, like myself, create a sporting challenge.

DC was great, only to be slightly eclipsed by a short trip to NYC. Having been away from the city for two years, the blurry first glimpse of the skyline from the Bolt Bus on the NJ Turnpike made me smile uncontrollably. Either the city is Babylon or a potential future home. Either way, it felt great to be back there (despite the gentrification that has turned everyone into a walking spokesman for American Apparel, and the bleachers in Times Square).

Ohio, as always, reaffirms how important family becomes while living in such a family-based society. Even for such a short trip, it was calming to be around extended family dynamics.

Paris was………mmmm, Paris. I got myself lost for several hours between flights, wandering around on hte perfect overcast day that make Parisians look even better and the surroundings all the more inviting.

And then there was the flight back to Israel. Nothing about the flight was particularly eventful, just my landing reception at 12am. After exiting the jetway, one goes up an escalator to be greeted by a poster reading “welcome to Israel” and, on non-EL AL flights, two agents who pick out the shady-looking passengers. Of course one of them picked me.

Agent (in Hebrew): Shalom, can I see some identification?
I hand him my Israeli passport.
Agent: Where are you coming from?
Me: Washington via Paris
Agent: Are you here for a visit?
Me: Nooooo, I live here.
Agent hands back passport and looks away.

I zip through passport control as I have a biometric pass issued by the Interior Ministry – perhaps the only governmental agency in the entire country who doesn’t think I am either a terrorist or a drug smuggler, as the next scene shows.

After getting my bags, I head for the exit which is after customs. A plainclothes officer stops me.

Agent (in Hebrew): Shalom, can I see your passport?
I hand it to him, trying to remain calm.
Agent: We’re looking for drugs.
Me: Okayyyyyy….
Agent: Do you have any drugs (gives me a look as if to say “C’mon, you know you wanna admit you do.”)
No. No!
Agent: Not even a little?
Me: No (my face filled with indignation, his signal that I am indeed smuggling in several kilos of drugs which I’ve packed right on my clothes).
Agent: Put your bags in the X-Ray machine.
I do it, he’s already looking for other weary passengers. I leave, feeling smaller than ever before, like some ironic Mark of Cain hovers over my head the moment I'm back in Israel.

Israel is a leader in hardware and software development, yet it takes several years for be introduced to the public. Israel has offices that seem to be opening nonstop, all offering positions in customer service representatives; yet customer service is such a low priority among Israeli companies and consumers alike that these already-outsourced jobs are outsourcing a need here.

When each agent handed me back my passport, they never said "Thanks," "Sorry," "Have a nice night," Shabbat Shalom" (I landed on a Friday morning) or even "Happy New Year." For a country obssessed with its demographics, who gave out thousands of tax breaks to returning citizens last year and hwo constantly ruffles the feathers of Diaspora Jewry by subtly or bluntly calling for them to move to Israel, this kind of reception home is anything but heart-warming.

That being said, it's great to be back.

UPDATE: No sooner did I post this that I saw this article on hte Yahoo! homepage: Police stop more than 1 million people on street

26 September 2009

26 September 2009

Just got back from the States yesterday, jetlagged as usual from a great trip of seeing friends and family, spending Rosh Hashanah in Cincinnati with relatives (the only way I know how to ring in the New Year), quality TV watching, and a much-needed pilgrimage up to New York after a two-year hiatus.

Wishing you and your family a Happy New Year, and your forgiveness for any wrongdoings I may have commited aagainst you in the past year.

For myself -- after a year of not taking advantage of the time I have to finish my thesis; of not keeping in closer touch with family, friends and colleagues; for letting opportunities slip by; not updating my blog more often; and for being too hard on myself when times got tough -- I'm resolved to a new year of potentials, finishing school, finding meaningful and profitable employment, and celebrating more being here in Israel.

G'mar Hatima Tova

24 July 2009

24 July 2009

Two seemingly opposite Jewish events have been in my thoughts lately: Tisha B’Av and weddings.

The usual way these two are connected is through the breaking of a glass at the end of the ritual, preceded by the groom reciting “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…” While inappropriately followed by applause from the audience, the symbolism here is a reminder that the world and we as a people are not complete as we await redemption, even on such a joyous day.

In this case, a friend of mine is getting married in several months and are looking for a rabbi. She’s from a family with a converted mother, went through an Orthodox conversion herself, and is being denied the right to be married by several rabbis because her fiancee is a Cohen (Cohens are not supposed to marry converts).

While I usually blog this time of year about how much I like Tisha B’Av, I wanted to link the day with something that’s always fascinated me: Cohens. The family name and its derivatives (Kahan, Kogan etc.) refer to those who descend from the Cohanim, the priests who tended to the daily sacrificial rite in the Temples. With their destruction (on Tisha B’Av), their priestly roles have been relegated to certain rituals and traditions. I can remember wondering what was going on when the rabbi would ask the congregation to lower their heads, at the risk of seeing what was happening on the bimah: Men, with their heads covered by their tallit, were reciting the Priestly Blessing while holding both of their hands like the famous hand sign of Mr. Spock. I always wondered if Mr. Spock was allowed to do that on national TV, why were we supposed to not look directly at the guys onstage?

Maybe I have an inferiority complex, as I’m considered “just” a commoner Israelite, or maybe the problem is that I think in such terms. Why do we need more boundaries between us Jews when the purpose of Rabbinic Judaism and Hasidism – not to mention Reform and Conservative Judaism as well – is to tear down such boundaries? In the absence of the Temple, whose rebuilding would require a massive physical ritual purification of Jews – not just Cohanim – why should theses title persist to the level they do?

Without disrespecting this and other Cohen- related rituals, it seems incredibly out of place in Rabbinic Judaism. The revolution that came with the founding of synagogues was that anyone who learned enough could be considered a community leader, potentially becoming a rabbi. The Pharisees, whose descendants are mainstream Jews, are the ones who outright rebelled against the Cohanim’s authority, claiming become too enmeshed in pomp & circumstance and less in the spiritual welfare of the people.

The same seems to be happening to a friend of mine, a tragic and maddening story. God Forbid they should build a Jewish house and family together, countering the rates of intermarriage that these same rabbis will happily rail against; and God Forbid two people so clearly in love with each other should want to marry each other if it risks the groom losing his ancestral title. Since when are rabbis in the business of preventing two Jews from getting married?

As always I’m inspired by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who writes in his weekly commentary on the Torah portion that the longing for the Temple’s rebuilding is also (more so) about building ourselves as the light unto the nations we are charged to be by the prophet Isaiah. Jews haven't been in the business of listening to priests over prophets for a long time, why should we start now?

With that, with talk of weddings and to end on a slightly more hopeful note, here's a beautiful video sent to me today which put me in a great mood. Shabbat Shalom.

UPDATE: After thinking about it over Saturday, I decided to post the letter my friend wrote to explain her situation. It's best in her words, and I'm honored that she'd want it posted on my blog.

A seemingly simple question I posed recently to a friend getting married soon. “Who is performing the wedding?” I asked. “Oy, what a question,” she responded.
It all started more than 30 years ago, when my friend, we’ll call her B, well it all started when B’s parents, met, fell in love, from two different religio-cultural worlds. B’s father was Jewish; her mother was not. They decided, perhaps foolishly, that two religions and identities were invariably better than one, and that they would allow their children to determine their own identities.
Fast forward 15 years. Lo and behold, B did go on her own spiritual-cultural-identity quest as a teenager, embracing her Jewish heritage, upbringing (not to mention her Jewfro and Yiddish inclinations) and at the end of her journey, she embraced traditional Judaism, which eventually concluded in a dip at the mikveh and a certificate confirming her status as a Jewess. She was free to marry and flourish as a full-fledged Jew!
But alas, many years later, the foolish decision of her parents crept in to haunt B. She had been warned by rabbis that despite her piece of paper signed by the Orthodox Beit Din guaranteeing her status as a Jew, there were still restrictions: mostly, she could not marry a Cohen, and if she did, he would lose his status as such within the community.
But a Cohen is who she fell in love with. And though B warned her Cohen love interest of this potential gliche, he assured her, “it’s not a problem for me or my family! Is that even a rule anymore?”
Indeed it is still a rule, a black-and-white, unbending rule according to many. Shortly before B and Cohen became engaged, they started looking for a rabbi who would agree to bless their union. B started with the rabbi who had overseen her conversion process. His response, “I am sure the person you have chosen [as your future spouse] is a very worthy one; good luck.” Next, Cohen reached out to his family rabbi: “My hands are tied; there is nothing I can do.” And so proceeded conversations with another 30 “progressive” Orthodox rabbis, if such a thing really exists.
So what happens now?
Perhaps the most tragic occurrence to result from this situation is that two passionate, committed, educated Jews have now been turned away from the Jewish community in which they had hoped to raise a family one day. They now question in what kind of Jewish community they belong, and where their children will belong.
I know some of you reading this may think, well, according to Halacha (Jewish law), this is a forbidden marriage, so it is the right thing for these rabbis to refuse to marry the two.
In B and Cohen’s journey to find a rabbi, they met with many Torah-versed men, learning a great deal about this issue. In fact, one rabbi pointed out that according to some commentaries, B is considered “m’zera yisrael,” or, “of Jewish blood.” The next rabbi they spoke with helped to further this line of thinking, discovering a Tshuva by Rabbi Uziel, the First Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, which stated that the marriage between a Cohen and a giyoret who is m’zera yisrael is indeed permitted since the real problem with a Cohen marrying a giyoret is that a Cohen must marry a woman of Jewish blood. B and Cohen presented this Tshuva to a few rabbis who all commented, “Well, that is interesting! Sorry, still nothing I can do.”
If this line of thinking still holds no appeal or credibility for you, I will leave you with a few thoughts to consider. The intermarriage rate in the United State nears 50%, and according to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, 47% of all identifying Jewish students on North American college campuses have only one parent who is Jewish. So while B and Cohen find themselves without a solution for their upcoming nuptials, and now begin a new Jewish journey together as displaced Jews, I doubt that B and Cohen will be the last young Jewish couple to grapple with this issue. And if the American Modern Orthodox community fails to grapple with the reality of the American Jewish community’s makeup, they will not be the last young couple to find themselves without a Jewish home, at a time when numbers increasingly dwindle.

22 July 2009

22 July 2009

I went to see the new Harry Potter film last night in Tel Aviv. True, the humidity there was so awful that the moment one gets off the bus from Jerusalem all the moisture in one’s skin ends up soaking one’s clothes, but I had to see it. Despite admittedly not having read the books, the movies have progressively addicted me to the series – so much so I invariably watch one of the movies each week.

I tend to become engrossed in film criticism and finding symbolism between the frames, but I think the Harry Potter series has something invaluable to teach. The whole series is about a group of humans who are considered different from the rest of humanity. They lead different lives, though otherwise act and look just the same. They invariably fight among one another over who more rightly carries the mantle of tradition and authority, not to mention who truly is part of the community. At the heart of this intra-communal struggle is one wizard who’s left feeling even more isolated from his surroundings because of his disconnected family and people's assumptions about him. Yet in spite of this, he knows he has to carry on his family’s tradition and that of his school’s, ultimately bringing the redemption from the evil lurking all around his loved ones.

The idea of Self vs/ Other, fights over authority and tradition, deciding who is included and who isn't....the movies are so Jewish that the Hebrew subtitles from the Tel Aviv screening were superfluous.

An article published in the LA Jewish Journal, and carried by Haaretz.com, completely missed this angle and instead focused primarily on the Jewish identity of several actors in the film. While the article starts off talking about the films' dichotomy between full-bloods and half-bloods, that it proceeds to talk about the Jewish "heritage" of the actors makes this Jewish geography article out of touch with Jewish heritage itself. The themes prevalent in the series, when connected with Jewish identity, have the potential of connecting otherwise disconnected Jews to discussing their identity; instead, it's about who's "out" with their Jewishness, thus more connected with the antagonists' obsession than with the positive messages of the protagonist. As soon as the thesis is done, I'll start reading the books.

11 July 2009

11 July 2009

After the incentive of having an out-of-town friend free on a Saturday afternoon, we wandered over to one of the sites of the weekly riots. Ever since Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat decided to emerge from his cloister since being elected in November, his agenda has been primarily occupied by the opening of a parking lot in the center of the city to ease congestion caused by tourists and out-of-towners looking for parking. That this parking lot was to be the municipal lot under City Hall and to be open on Shabbat caused several of the ultra-Orthodox factions to protest. After enough threats, political and physical in nature, caused the mayor to close the lot, a solution was found by having the Supreme Court to issue an injunction to open a private parking lot close to the Old City. The protests continue, quickly becoming riots.

As we got closer to the lot, under the shadow of the Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, the din of the protestors was already echoing through the valleys surrounding the Old City. The scene was more comical than incendiary: Crowds of ultra-Orthodox men in their Shabbat garb, bedecked in crème satin robes and topped in sable shtreimels, ebbing and flowing with each pushback from what few policemen were there. Shouts of “SHAAAAAABBESSSSSS!!” bounced from the protestors on the street to their kin cowardly perched above, cheering them on but reluctant to join the spectacle. As they congregated near the parking lot entrance spectators were to be found all over, from tourists busily snapping away with their cameras along with photojournalists; Arab kids, laughing away at the scene while sipping from soda can and performing daredevil feats on their bikes; and Shabbat-observant families trying to reconcile their otherwise-peaceful afternoon walk with the noise of repressed ultra-Orthodox youth whose bottled-up energy manifests itself into shouts of “Nazis!” at police. Their tactic was to lie down in front of passing cars, causing the police to hurriedly drag the protestor to the sidewalk. This would go on for some time, with an occasional escalation like someone standing in front of a bus filled with tourists while another would climb under the bus to disrupt it.

It was more sad than anything else, especially after I fixated my then-hypnotized stares at one particular protestor. Fully bedecked in the finest of heat-absorbing garb, the sandy side-locked boy was slowly keeling over from shouting for hours on end. He was more in a trance than I was, yet determined to vent his frustration to whoever would hear it while being surrounded by his community. Here is a boy, who may very well be good at his studies in Yeshiva, but nonetheless due to familiar and communal pressure will remain in Yeshiva and collects welfare checks from the State, instead of making a living from him and his family. His only source of teenage-fueled energy goes into protest like this, lest they be spent in less wholesome way. Once Shabbat ends, the hordes go back to their beighborhoods and light garbage cans on fire, causing extensive damage and whose cleaning is paid for by the municipality (i.e. non-ultra Orthodox taxpayers, as ultra-Orthodox who study in yeshiva get their municipal taxes paid off in full).

The results of David Ben-Grion's decision at the advent of the State, when he allowed the then-miniscule ultra-Orthodox community to receive welfare and continue studying, ends at the parking lot adjacent to the Old City walls. An impasse for the State, now beholden to their political parties to keep coalition governments stable, and an impasse for Judaism, as these same protestors have a monopoly on the Rabbinate (and thus control over which resturants receive a certificate confirming they're kosher; whose overseas conversion is acceptable; and who gets to marry whom and when).

There's nothing wrong with being ultra-Orthodox, nor is there anything wrong with being ultra-Orthodox and working at the same time (West 47th Street in Manhattan, for example); but this form of ultra-Orthodoxy, and halachic Judaism as well, leaves little over which to celebrate, much less emulate. It's only too ironic that we've just entered the Three Weeks, a period of religious mourning which culminates with the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples (traditionally destroyed due to senseless hatred among Jews) on that most existential of Jewish days, Tisha B'Av. Albeit a jumbled-up view of Jewish history, my mind invariably has created an image of these protestors knocking down the walls of the Old City, only steps away from City Hall, much like the Babylonians and Romans of long ago. A truly sad occasion for a Jew to have such thoughts of fellow Jews.

16 June 2009

15 June 2009

I usually try to find fault with Thomas Friedman op-eds, more than often not skipping over them entirely in favor of the New York Time Style section. The Middle East has been a life-long interest, and while it’s commendable for someone to try and translate what’s going on here for the masses who otherwise don’t care or have the time to learn, I often find his analyses too simplistic and too rosy-eyed (not that there’s anything wrong with being an optimist in the MidEast – hell, how else can one get through the day here?). This past weekend, his column on the recent elections in Lebanon and Iran made me for once resist moving the cursor away and read it. He wrote about the elections that took place in Lebanon and Iran in the past week, highlighting the transparency civilians brought to the whole process – from YouTube clips of political ads to Twitter alerts on alleged voter fraud – as well as the sprit of change that President Obama has brought to the region.

For the past two weeks I’ve been glued to every Lebanese news outlet and blog following the elections, not just because the country is the subject of my thesis. It’s a country that has fascinated me for several years, many have tried to argue that an Israel-Lebanon alliance would have the most logical regional partnership, and its multilayer trifle political system makes the sectarian politics of Israel look like store bought pound cake (I’ve been watching a lot of cooking shows on YouTube).

In short: there are 128 members of parliament, divided evenly between “Muslims” and “Christians” (before 1990, there were 99 members in a 5:6 ratio). The Muslim camp includes Sunni, Shiite, Druze, and Alawite. The Christian includes Maronite, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Protestant, and “Other Christians.” Each sect gets a set amount of seats in the Parliament and a set number of members from Lebanon’s electoral districts. However, just because one a member of a certain sect does not mean one will always have the same political ideology as another member, leading to various political parties on top of the sectarian demands (not to mention family and clan obligations, regional affiliations, and the hovering presence of Iran, Syria and the West).

In this election, the parties and sects were split between two camps called “March 8” and “March 14” (one of whose clever ads, above, was featured in bilboards across the country and on various internet sites). After PM Hariri was assassinated in 2005, the country was divided over Syria’s role in the attack: Those who participated in the March 8 rally were (roughly speaking) pro-Syria while those in the March 14 rally were anti-Syria and pro-West. The latter rally, with over a million participants, largely led to Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon.
March 14 won the Lebanese elections, attributable to at least five different reasons all of which would take several more posts to explain; but saying “they won” is like saying Kadima won the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections. Technically they did, but what matters more is the coalition building that needs to take place to form a stable government. Just as Kadima was unable to form one, March 14 might have to implode in order to form a stable coalition, will most likely have to form a coalition with Hizbullah and possibly continue the policies backed by the other Arab nations that have ironically given more power to Hizbullah. Not much has changed, despite Friedman’s optimism.

Yes, I did follow the Twitter updates on the elections and they allowed someone like me, only several hours’ away, to feel in the midst of it all. But the underlying question, like with all uses of Web 2.0 technology, is “What’s next?” Does the constantly updated-nature of this technology lead to action (including, but not limited to voting in elections) or is it providing a sought-after online soapbox for those more comfortable ranting from their homes? Here’s to embracing subtlety when ruminating over trends in the Middle East.

I watched PM Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday night via Channel 10’s website, which was also running a Facebook groupchat alongside the video box. There were few noteworthy comments, but I also kept asking “What’s next?” to those users who took the time to watch and respond simultaneously –assuming they were all in their 20’s and 30’s, are they going to relegate politics as their usual pastime or take an active stand in our government?

03 June 2009

03 June 2009

So much happens on a day-by-day basis, not just because news from two hours ago is already history in this part of the world, rather because my mind constantly makes multi-chapter stories out of the seemingly smallest of occurrences. Not even obsessive status updates on websites like Twitter and Facebook can seem to keep up, giving more credence to the fact that time seems to be accelerating.

A month ago, I was on my way back from the latest trip to the States. Since then I’ve been sick with what most likely was the H1NI/swine/Mexico flu (obtained after a day-long layover in Madrid), received money back from the National Insurance Institute, written sizeable chunks for my thesis, and laid the foundations for a much-needed tan.

That all being said, and for holding down two jobs and in school, my life feels anything but busy; almost like it’s been in hiatus for the past few years. Not that I haven’t been living, but it’s not quite the same when disposable income and time are personally lacking in the land of one’s dreams. Even my once-hyperactive imagination has been slowing down, satiated by an endless YouTube stream of cooking shows and African-American sitcoms from the 1990’s.

I’m back, more focused than ever on being done with school and finding a job, which will hopefully mean more regular updates on this blog (even if they sometimes lack the pithiness I’d like to bring).

20 March 2009

20 March 2009

I've discovered a new illness affecting many people I know, and probably untold more. After going through senioritis in high school and college, I've moved onto Chulitis. Chulitis (CHOO-lie-tis, "ch" as in the Scottish loch (the usual point of reference for this sound)) is an affliction ("-itis") which magnifies one's existing problems with Israelis and intensifies one's longings for Diaspora ("Chul-," a Hebrew abbreviation for 'outside the country'). Usually occurs within several weeks of a planned trip to Diaspora. For me, nomal symptoms include increased listening to country music, introduction of southern drawl in speech, and complaining more than usual (e.g., "Ugh, does he have to be talking so loud on a cellphone while wearing lime green Crocs and a bright red sarape?!").

Purim has come and gone, leaving behind a trail of broken beer, bottles, unexploded firecrackers, and one too many cowboy hats. In its immediate wake come the Kosher for Passover makeover in every supermarket. Mine is packed with all the usual culprits and some new ones: Packaged "cakes" and "cookies" that absorb every last drop of saliva in one's mouth; bottles of plam oil so saturated the fat globules are visibly suspended in solution; gefilte fish making their annual pilgrimage out of the dusty corner; sweet chili sauce and soup almonds; and so many other products made kosher only for Kitniyot eaters that the inevitable "Why can't I eat anything here?!" gets shouted in a Long Island accent at least every half-hour.

At least twice a day, I pass the Prime Minister's Residence and whatever protest of the day that has set up shop alongside the security gate. The current one has been for the release of Gilad Shalit, now approaching his 1,000th day in HAMAS captivity. The entire scene is bizarre, especially after his family moved into the protest tent. Amidst banner calling for his release, buses of supporters pull up to an otherwise heavily-guarded area with business suit-and-M16-clad guards on patrol. Across the street is a counter-protest tent of the families of terror victims, plastered with placards calling fo no terrorists to be release in exchange for Gilad, understandably empty. Having someone like Gilad's father, often in the media, become the local celebrity is creepy. The discomfort that comes from watching people recognize him on the street and getting stuck behind him on the sidewalk is anything but comparable to what he's suffering, but at least has the capacity to humble the rest of us and remember the freedom we have.

That's it for now, have to finish some schoolwork before even thinking about packing for my trip to the States in a week. Campus is redolent of orange blossoms, jasmine, eucalyptus, and energy drinks guzzled down by students who star in their own fashion ads everytime they move and the hordes of Christian pilgrims are going to start rumbling in the streets with the twice-a-year holiday crowd who never fail to constantly speak slowly and loudly in English to anyone who remotely looks local.

23 February 2009

18 February 2009

The lack of relatively cold weather this winter has made its arrival in February feel more like December, and with it a resumption of nostalgia for an American December. It comes and goes, the other night so burdensome I watched several episodes of Christmas cooking shows online. When it’s this cold, we deserve snow.

Voting the other week felt very anticlimactic, despite the fact it was pouring rain and I still hadn’t decided who would get my vote as I left for the polls. No lines, as only one person is allowed into each polling room at a time; no complicated machinery or drawing necessary, as all one does is drop one slip of paper into an envelope; and no sticker that says “I Voted.” If I ever get into politics, getting that into the electoral budget will be my first piece of legislation. To hell with a new F-16, Israelis deserve a sticker that sets them apart from the maddening crowds in the malls who didn’t fulfill their democratic obligations.

I’m surprised more people haven’t asked from who I voted. Outside of immediate friends and colleagues, the conversation never gets to that specific topic which is good since I’ve been hesitant to approach the topic. Not that I’m embarrassed about my vote, but I wonder to what extent it’s the business of particularly those who don’t have the right to vote in Israel. I’m all for blurring the lines and complicating Israel-Diaspora relations to the extent it complicates notions of identity and belonging; but I also believe in the sanctity & sovereignty of a state and its definitions of who is a citizen. Until the Jewish States decides to take the Law of Return one step further and automatically give it to all Jews regardless of where they live, thus expanding the voter eligibility to my family and friends, my vote stays within these borders.

One of only a few great articles about the 2009 Elections: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1233304810588&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

I’m doing my damnedest to focus on school work, but it’s hard when there’s a long break.

05 February 2009

05 February 2009

An update and current events

-For Inauguration Day, the eexatriate branch of the Democratic Party organized a party in Jerusalem with a live viewing of the ceremony and speech. Amidst hordes of viewers and watching Frace 24's live coverage, we cheered and cried. I got filmed for the website of Yediot Aharonot, Israel's most read newspaper. You don't need to understand what's being said (especially since they didn't use my quotes), it's just me in front of the camera. Here's the link.

As soon as I came back from the party, in my mailbox was waiting the official announcement from the Interior Ministry ocnfirming my eligibility to vote in the upcoming elections.

-Elections for the 18th Knesset are this coming Tuesday and I still do not for whom I'm voting. Here's a basic understadning of how elections work:

~ There are 33 eligible parties, each with their own interests and concerns that range from the environment, workers' rights to the decriminalization of marijuana (two different parties' platforms).
~Each eligible party is given an allotment of time on radio and TV for their campaign ads, based on how many seats in Knesset they currently have, which are broadcasted in blocs starting 2-3 weeks before Election Day.
~The Central Elections Committee has to approve each ad that is slated to air on the same day. They also determine by lottery the day's schedule of ads.
~If you're really that curious, Israeli Election Laws in English can be found here. The site also have a GREAT cartoon about how Election Day works, put together by the Interioir Ministry and the Central Elections Committee (in Hebrew): http://www.bechirot.gov.il/elections18/heb/home.aspx

Nevermind how this compares with American electoral laws: the ads are one of the best forms of entertainment in this country. Every night, so long as I'm not working, I make sure to catch at least one of the TV broadcasts streaming online (the three network channels show the blocs at different times each night, except on Shabbat). After the introduction to the night's broadcast, which is a picture of the Knesset building, the ads are introduced by a blue screen with hte party's full name and its 1-3 letter symbol used on the ballot slips.

Each party has opened their own channel on YouTube with their clips, allowing for repeat performances of some of the best and worst in ads. Some of the ads have been translated by one of my jobs here, with a lot more still out there.

I've been simultaneously commentationg on some of the ads while they are broadcast, and so I present to you (with the help of YouTube) highlights from ads thus far:

Best Jingle: Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), formerly Mafdal (The National Religious Party). Voted as having the best jingle of all time by Reshet Gimmel, which is running an Election Day broadcast of the best jingles from Israeli history.
The electric guitar, the darbuka, the ay ay ay's, the spinning lazy susan of items that apparently epitomize Religious Zionism, a spokesman in a purple shirt and kippah: wow. Hebrew only.

Best Use of Only Attractive Supporters: Hadash, which partially consists of the Israeli Communist Party (a fact many of their supporters would have you forget). Between the last two wars, candidate Dov Khenin's candidacy in the Tel Aviv-Yafo mayoral elections, and general malaise, they're poised to get a good number of seats. Hebrew & Arabic, English subtitles added.

Most Deservedly Talked About Ad: Shoah Survivors & Green Leaf Graduates. An unlikely combination for a party, including non-supporters of the Pensioners' Party and non-members of the Green Leaf Party (a marijuana legalization party). "Sorry, but there's no credit for this number" is the line wirtten after the scene in the market, and "The Moral Choice" written under the, well, cannabis leaf. Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Finally, at least for the next few hours until the poll open, the two aesthetically best ads:

Koach L'hashpia (Power to Influence), advancing the issues of those handicapped and Da`am, a workers' party with the woman speaking as its head

Da'am: http://babelbear.com/player.php?v=dKgiRfK8mjk&s=99 Hebrew & Arabic, with English subtitles

Koach L'hashpia with the caption "There are people who automatically remain outside" at the end:

We're also expecting a major thunderstorm to coincide with Election Day, so stay tuned to developments.

10 January 2009

10 January 2009

I feel the need to start off this post by saying that I’m physically and mentally OK. After two weeks of living through my first war living in Israel (one of many means of marking time in this country) I’m relatively sane. Even though it’s going on 2-3 hours away by car, and every day the news is nonstop coverage, normal life goes on in Jerusalem: tourists still abound, tractors still plow up the main street to make way for the light rail, bills keep appearing in my mailbox.

The center of the country where the majority of the population resides and works is referenced as “from Hadera to Gedera” after the northern and southern towns which mark the terrain. The phrase is also poignant as they are the borders of the area immune from rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza as the 2006 Lebanon War and the current war have proven. “The bubble” of Israel’s center is getting more and more solidified, with the only possible opening coming not fromthe influx of residents from the South, but rather the Center’s willingness to think about those other than themselves.

I wrote the following several days after the beginning of the war to illustrate what’s going on in the rest of the country:

I restarted watching live news from the Israeli network channels’ websites the other day. Not having cable and reception on my TV leaves much to be desired for my otherwise-TV addicted lifestyle, but I decided radio and news websites weren’t filling the involuntary need for information during the current war/operation/whatever in the South.

After about 20 minutes of watching the reporters in various locations and manners of field dress, the bright graphics and headlines, and listening to sentences with syllables so punctuated with emphases the spit practically came through the screen, I had to turn it off. I’ve had my fill in the past of being glued to the TV in times of crisis, from 9/11 to the 2006 Lebanon War.

I saw “Waltz with Bashir” the other night in Tel Aviv as part of my new internship. After sitting through the artistically amazing and emotionally devastating movie, I couldn’t help but have the strongest flashback to 9/12/01 at NYU. After spending the night inside and watching the news, I ventured outside to find a newspaper commemorating the attacks. Having nothing to do, as everything below 14th Street was declared a “dead zone” and no businesses were to be open, I went with a few friends to the nearby movie theater to watch whatever was playing for free. Every movie was packed; the only seats available were for “Apocalypse Now.” While it’s an incredible film with artistic importance and a moral regarding human behavior in times of crisis, it perhaps wasn’t the best choice during that period of time; this point was furthered when we got outside, introduced for the first time to the smoke from the ruins now entering the city northwards and military humvees patrolling the streets.

While leaving Dizengoff Center didn’t have the same feeling, the environment definitely felt changed. The chilled air which normally pushes pedestrians faster down the sidewalks was balanced with stopping every few meters for the latest news update beaming from a TV or radio inside a market. After ducking into an incredibly well-stocked organic market, I crossed the street for a drink with friends. If there’s one lesson I learned from 9/11 and living through a disaster, it’s to be sure to surround oneself with friends (and drink with them).