Wednesday, August 22, 2007

israel: day 1

Friday. August 13, 2007

I know it’s the 21st century, but I am still fascinated by air travel. How is it that I entered this elongated capsule and 10 hours later am standing on Middle East soil? As we approached our destination the sky appeared to be on fire, which I strained to see and admired from afar (the other side of the plane). We landed around 5:30 a.m., and although the sky was lightening into a lavender hue, the moon stood still over Lod. I strolled off the plane and into Ben Gurion Airport in a daze and met back up with Abbey, who introduced me to Hillary. “I have that shirt with me too!” I excitedly shared with her. “And I think I have the same camera as you,” she replied.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of Jewish Stars. On the tails of the parked planes, on the first aid signs, on the flags. Definitely not something I’m used to seeing in such abundance, if at all. After we all got our bags we gathered together and at Leor’s booming command—“Shorashim!”--made a gigantic human circle. He brought some people into the center and introduced them as the Israelis who would be with us for the remainder of our trip. They formed a mini circle, huddled closely with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and demonstrated the look-at-us-we-have-arrived song and dance. Then it was our turn. We collectively bent down and on our spring up, yelled, “Aaaaaaaaa-CHIM Achim achim achim achim! Simcha simcha simcha simcha simcha!” (literal translation: “happy brothers”) as we bounced up and down to the right, then repeated everything to the left.

A rather tall, red-headed Israeli named Asaf offered to carry my backpack out to the bus. Probably because I looked like I was struggling to get it onto my back. I smiled and thanked him but said I had it under control. Outside there were buses lined up and Shorashim staff waiting to hand us a breakfast bag and a bottle of water. Abbey and I decided to split the cost of a cell phone, and as we waited to do so met the sisters Abby and Alexis, also from Chicago. At first glance you would never peg them as relatives, much less sisters, but the more we got to know them, the more similarities shown through.

Our bus driver’s name was Shlomi, who we all adored right off the bat because of his maniacal style of driving. Leor announced into his microphone from the front of the bus that we would learn a Hebrew word every day. Today’s word: Sharutim. The first word one should learn in any foreign country…bathroom. Shlomi dropped us off at our first scheduled stop of the trip: an overlook of Jerusalem called Armon Hanatziv. After we received plastic shot glasses of grape juice, Leor led us in the “Sheheyanu,” a blessing said on a new occasion…Baruch atah, Adonai Elohenu, melech ha-olam, sheheyanu v'kiYemanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this season of joy.

After that, he told us we’d have a moment for silent prayer. “Give thanks to God or Nature or whoever you want to give thanks to.” Any apprehensions I had of this trip turning into the Jewish equivalent of Jesus Camp had been lifted. Here’s this 31-year-old conservative rabbinical student, who does not assume that everyone there believes in a god, but rather acknowledges that although we are all Jewish, we don’t necessarily have the same idea of what that means. As I stared out at the sacred city of Jerusalem, I mentally gave thanks to my parents and my ancestors—thank you for bringing me into this beautiful world.

We had a few minutes to take pictures and eat bagels. Matt, Abbey, and I took a picture together and decided to create an “Elster’s Bitches” series as a gift to our mutual friend back home. After our Kodak moment I met Eran, an Israeli who doubled as our medic and security guard and always had his gun slung around his shoulder. He looked intimidating, tall and burly with long curly black hair, sitting there protecting our bagel supply. But when I asked, “Can I have one of these?” a huge, warm smile appeared on his face and he replied, “You can have whatever you want.” Still not used to the gun, though.

As we wound our way towards the Holy City, we learned some facts from Leor via the microphone. Israel is the size of New Jersey but, despite it’s size, has an impressive number of seven ecosystems. 93% of the trees here were hand-planted, and Israel is the only country whose tree population has increased from the year 1900 to the year 2000. All buildings in Jerusalem are required to be built with Jerusalem stone, a light-colored limestone, which reflects the golden hues of setting suns at night. “You are Jewish and this is a Jewish state. Your homeland. Welcome home.” The people I’ve talked to who have been here weren’t lying when they said they felt something as soon as they landed on Israeli soil. Such a simple statement—welcome home—yet it almost made me cry. I didn’t know I cared, but I do.

We arrived at the Shalom Hotel, our home for the next three nights. I assumed that we’d get to pick our roommates, i.e. Abbey and I would live together for the entirety of the trip, but I was wrong. Alphabetically assigned (again), I ended up with Sabrina and Alexis. The three of us went up to room 623 and picked out beds. Before I let myself take a quick nap, I admired our view of Jerusalem out the window and also the fact that our room key was an actual key.

Not much later we had to meet back up with everyone else in one of the conference rooms downstairs. I anticipated the whole getting-to-know-you games but was in no way looking forward to them. We did the typical go around the room and everyone say your name, where you’re from and what you do. I wasn’t expecting there to be so many Chicagoans, so that was a nice surprise. When it was my turn, I got nervous and instead of saying what I do (how do you explain having a college degree and being a driver?), I said what I eventually want to be. “Hi I’m Alyse. I’m also from Chicago and someday I want to be a travel writer and photographer.”
Then we played a name game followed by a trust game where Leor went around the room, and while we stood atop the chairs, pulled one out from under selected people and we had to figure out how to not fall on the ground. Believe it or not, I succeeded.

[above photo taken by Matt in the food court]

Lunchtime. Reut gave us each 100 Sheckles (or about $25) for lunches on our short drive to the Malha Shopping Mall. We had to go through security before entering the building. I am always torn on whether things like that make me feel more or less safe…more because hopefully it’s preventative and less because it’s scary that they would even have to do that, which makes me uncomfortable and paranoid. Abbey and I stuck together and staked out the food court. I had my heart set on falafel, so I got that and a Coke. What a concoction! There were all kinds of extra ingredients to choose from—hummus (pronounced ho-moose), cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, FRENCH FRIES, and some spicy goodness to top it off.

After lunch we took a bus ride up to an area called Sataf, where we went on our first hike. I walked along with Asaf and Lior at one point, and they asked if I wanted to sing a song with them. Of course I want to sing a song with you! So they taught me a popular kid’s camp song about taking a trip to the spring, and we sang together responsively.

We came upon a well of sorts with signs posted that in English, Hebrew, and Arabic said, “No Swimming!” Naturally there were people splashing around in it anyway, while little kids stood above staring down at the rule-breakers. A guy with dreads decided to take the plunge, and a bunch of us whipped out our cameras and documented his descent. Matt immediately came up to me, his camera in hand and said, “Look. I found Jesus.” Sure enough, he took his picture at a perfect angle where the jumper looks like a suspended Jesus on the cross. Towards the end of the trail I had Abbey take a picture of me standing among cacti in honor of the shirt I was wearing, which showed a cactus and red balloon with little hearts floating between them and underneath in scripted letters says, “Impossible love.”

Back at the Shalom we had a few hours to rest up before our first Shabbat celebration. After I took a shower, which had the craziest water pressure I’ve ever experienced, I took a nap. It took much convincing from Sabrina (the only one with an alarm clock) and Alexis to get me out of bed. In fact, if they hadn’t been there, I’m pretty sure I would have missed out on the rest of the evening.

The three of us met the rest of Shorashim 15B in on the balcony overlooking the pool for Kabbalat Shabbat, or welcoming the Sabbath. The scene from Fiddler on the Roof played out in my head and I wanted to sing the “Sabbath Song” from that soundtrack. We then went down to the lobby and crowded into a tiny storage room to light the Shabbat candles. Leor said it was tradition for the boys to give the girls a flower, as Reut and Jamie handed out what looked like miniature roses to them. I fully expected to be that leftover girl forgotten in the back corner (where I was standing), but Sharon (not to be confused with Sharon), a quiet, unassuming Israeli with a shaved head, turned to me and handed me his flower. Even though I’m sure the gesture was out of proximity, I still appreciated his offering and twirled it around in my fingers the remainder of the evening.

We then had an opportunity to go a service at a “modern” orthodox synagogue. Reut had to give me her shawl to wear around my shoulders, since they remained bare under the string of the long halter dress I (wrongly) decided to wear. Those who chose to go walked from the hotel. I felt like I had wandered onto the set of Fiddler.
I’m still not sure what was considered “modern”; seemed pretty non-participatory to me, having the women still sitting upstairs, tucked away from the action below. I felt like a voyeur peering through any cracks in the dividers to watch what the father and son down below (who appeared to be playing games with each other the whole time) were going to do next.

We didn’t stay too long at the synagogue because we had to be back at the Shalom in time for Shabbat dinner with the 15A group. They were already halfway through their birthright adventure and had a leader who only wished he could be as cool as Leor. We sang the Hamotzi (blessing over the bread) and HaGafen (blessing over the wine) and then were set free to hit up the buffet. I have never seen such a variety of salads before, all lined up in huge glass bowls. Shredded carrots with chunks of pineapple, diced cucumbers in a dill sauce, cabbage and jalapeños, etc. etc. etc. Made my planned transition to vegetarianism pretty easy. Abbey and I sat across from each other at the end of one of the long banquet tables, next to Ruth and Jessica. Jessica asked, “So what are everyone’s thoughts on the upcoming election?” Or maybe the question wasn’t so specific, maybe she was just asking about politics in general. Being not only severely jet-lagged, but also relatively apolitical, I’m sure whatever added to the conversation probably sounded like gibberish. We sang songs of celebration (although never “Shabbat Shalom,” which I frequently tried to start), and Leor urged us to sing louder than the French high-schoolers sitting in the adjoining dining room. That was fun.

After dinner we joined up with 15A again for our Oneg party in one of the conference rooms. Both Alexis and Sabrina volunteered to participate in some pretty hilarious games—well hilarious for us as the audience, anyway. Way to represent #623! I sat quietly and laughed at them for being funny and at myself for thinking I wasn’t going to make any friends. “I totally lucked out with the roommate situation,” I thought. “These girls are hilarious.”

On the way back to our rooms, I walked up all six flights of stairs with (Israeli) Lior. He told me that during the games he had been trying to learn everyone’s name in the group. I challenged him and said, “Fine, what’s mine then?” “Aicha?” This made me laugh really hard because that was my nickname when I lived in Madrid three years ago. When we got to the sixth floor we paused to discuss our origins. I said I was an Eastern European mutt—Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Romanian. He made me guess what else he was besides Israeli. “Somewhere where tthere are a lot of French people.” That was his clue. I guessed France, Switzerland and Canada. Turns out he’s half Moroccan. Pretty cool. We said goodnight and I bounded off down the hall, eager to congratulate my roommates on being social. (I, on the other hand, am pretty much the definition of socially awkward)
Before we fell asleep we talked about our personal quirks. Sabrina expressed her undying love of fountains—anywhere there’s a fountain, she’ll jump in it. Alexis is a pizza fanatic, something I could totally relate to.
I couldn’t think of anything to share (cause I am quirk-less…not.), so I think that’s when I told the story of how my screen name came about/how I ended up working at SNL. Then we talked about birth control…I don’t remember why? I believe by this point I was talking with my eyes closed, possibly not even contributing to the conversation anymore.
The last thing I remember thinking: Was today really only one day? I feel like it was at least three.
I can’t wait for the next 10!

Here is the album for Day 1

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