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