Tuesday, September 11, 2007

six years later

While driving Max to school this morning, the first time since early June, he turned to me and said, "Today's 9/11." Lost in my own thoughts I asked, "What?" "Today's 9/11." "I know," I said. I'm not sure he even knows where I was six years ago, an idealistic suburban 18-year-old, taking on New York City by storm. I'm not sure he realizes that today is the first "9/11" that again falls on a Tuesday.

After I dropped him off, I switched the radio to AM and listened to WGN. They pieced together an audio montage of their broadcast from that infamous day, beginning with, "Breaking news...we're being told a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City..." I thought to myself how strange it was to hear this announcement sitting in a car, driving down Lake Shore Drive, with the Sears Tower in view...knowing it is 2007 and yet feeling like any second a plane is going to appear out of the cloudless blue and slam into Chicago's tallest skyscraper. Maybe this is how people back home felt as they heard the news, whereas I watched everything unfold from my dorm on Fifth Avenue.

Two years later (9.11.03) I was interviewed by Steve Cochran on this same radio station via phone, while I sat in my 21st-story apartment as a first-semester junior at NYU. Someone recently gave me back the tape I had lent to him three years ago, and the day he did I listened to it on my drive home. Listened to my 20-year-old self recounting my morning of what should have been my fourth day of college classes. My voice sounded so young and naive.

When I switched off WGN this morning, I blindly hit the preset buttons, not sure if I wanted to hear more commemoration speeches or a suitable song. The DJ on WXRT was just finishing talking about the six-year-anniversary, and as she concluded her sentence, there was a moment of silence...followed by the familiar, haunting yet lovely piano intro of "Imagine." I found my voice, not the sugar-coated one from the taped interview, and sang along with Lennon. "You may say I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one/I hope some day you will join us/And the world will live as one..." (I recently watched The U.S. vs. John Lennon, and although I've been in love with the revolutionary Beatle for years, I am now borderline obsessed.)

[an accidental double exposure I shot at a Washington Square Park memorial]
I remember coming home from school for Thanksgiving a few months post-terrorism, and my friend Abbey had a party at her house for all different people from high school to reunite and share their college experiences thus far. There were a lot of words thrown around that I could not relate to—alpha, fraternity, beta, sorority, theta, sigma, I got so drunk at this one party...--so I laughed along thinking somehow it makes sense that I am not living a typical college life (as I never really led a typical high school life either). Suddenly, as though my thoughts had appeared on my forehead, people started asking. "So, Alyse, you sure had quite the college welcoming, huh?" "What was it like?" "Where were you?" "What did you see?" "Could you hear the explosions?" "Did you actually SEE the planes HIT the buildings?" "How scared WERE you?" "Were your parents like freaking out?" I felt like someone was stabbing me in the chest, the sharp pains making it hard for me to breathe. I tried to give some answers and then proceeded upstairs and outside, where I paced around to get some fresh air on the the front lawn. I'm still not sure if this physical reaction was purely coincidental or the result of some sort of panic attack. But I do know that other than having to recount "where I was" for a Writing Family History class the following year (Sept. '02), I pretty much pushed it out of my brain (well, besides recurring nightmares while I slept).

This is what I wrote/handed in for the aforementioned assignment:

When my parents first found out I wanted to attend New York University and that it was the only college I was going to apply to they were less than thrilled. My dad told me about a story he saw on 20/20 about a girl who was walking down a street in New York City and a man walking towards her smashed a brick in her face. Extended relatives of mine warned me by sharing their stories of seeing muggings in Times Square. I listened politely to people’s concerns but nothing anyone could say was going to change my mind. On August 26, 2001 I arrived at Samuel Rubin Residence Hall to begin my freshman year at my beloved NYU, and on August 28 I said goodbye to my family as they made the trek back to Hoffman Estates, Illinois. For the next week and a half I explored the city, got lost a few times and enjoyed it, and eagerly awaited the beginning of my first batch of college courses.

On Wednesday, September 5 classes began. Five nights later I answered an e-mail from a favorite high school teacher of mine, Mr. Romano, who had written commenting that it sounded like I was in love, if not with a person, than at least with my surroundings. At 8:46 p.m. I wrote him that yes I was in love with where I lived, how beautiful it was to walk outside and see such unique architecture (an appreciated difference coming from suburban Chicago) and that yes I felt as though I loved someone but did not want to curse it by saying so because technically to be “in love” it required a second person [to admit the same]. Exactly twelve hours later flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11. I woke up before my alarm that day at 8:10 a.m. Ten minutes later Sheryl Crow startled me by singing, “Run baby run baby run…”—8:20 my blaring CD alarm clock. My “to do” list for the day, which was on a yellow Post-It stuck to the side of my computer, read, “Dance 9:30-11, buy books for class, buy black and white film and photo paper, buy Bob Dylan’s new CD, Love and Theft, pick up three rolls of Central Park pictures, class 4:55-6:10, call the health center about getting the meningitis shot, buy Billy Collins’ new book, talk to John on the computer 8-10, return videos.” Around 8:40 Brianna, my roommate, asked if I wanted to join her for breakfast in the dining hall downstairs. I told her no, that if I ate before dance class my scrambled eggs and chocolate milk would be on the floor after one pirouette. A few minutes after she left I heard lots of sirens outside and thought to myself, “People really need to stop pulling fire alarms.” Then I began thinking about which leotard I was going to change into and where had I put my ripped black tights and if I walked to class with my ballet shoes on I might be happier.

Suddenly Brianna burst into the room yelling, “OH MY GOD YOU GUYS (her friend, Rebecca, from L.A. had been staying with us since the past Friday) YOU HAVE TO COME OUTSIDE!! A PLANE JUST CRASHED INTO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AND YOU CAN SEE IT ALL FROM THE FRONT OF RUBIN!” I just stared at her in disbelief. All I could think was grab your camera. So in my sleepwear—an old tank top, Garfield boxer shorts, and glasses I shoved my telephoto lens onto my 1981 OM10 Olympus and loaded a 24 exposure roll of film. I ran to the elevator and took it down eight flights and out the door. The first photo I got back on the roll was a blurred, crooked image of the numbered buttons in the elevator as we descended. I looked to the left where Fifth Avenue ends at the Washington Arch and past that there were the Twin Towers—one of them with a gaping hole and smoke pouring out of it. SNAP-click-SNAP-click, all I could do was take pictures. Then I stopped. There were people all around—news cameras, a Spanish radio station, tons of NYU students—people stunned, people photographing, people frustrated with dysfunctional cell phones, and people in tears. I remember thinking, “This is such a horrible mistake…the sky is so unnaturally blue…”

So I decided to go back inside, I still had time to get to my dance class. The second plane, flight 93, crashed into the south tower the exact moment I set foot back in the lobby of my dorm. I got to my room as quick as I could and called home. My mom answered and I tried breathlessly to explain what was happening. Back in Illinois she had no idea. She was not an avid TV-watcher and did not just see the flames from the driveway of our cul-de-sac home. She said my dad was at work and my sister was at school. I could only imagine how scared she must have felt—she knew I was going to experience different things as a college student, especially a college student in New York City, but nothing like this. We hung up and I called four of my best friends, only one picked up. I was on the phone with Jenny when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon—saw it on CNN while I sat on my bed cradling the familiar voice on my shoulder. I felt so afraid and told her I thought the world was ending and that more than anything I wanted to be home. I knew that when I hung up with her the phone lines would be dead, and unfortunately I was right. Then the unthinkable happened. The south tower, the second one struck, collapsed. I ran back downstairs and took photos of the one building—its twin reduced to billows of gray smoke. About a half hour after being back in my room again the TV said the second tower was falling. I started screaming. I went to a girl’s room down the hall whose window looked down onto Fifth Avenue, stood on her desk and stuck myself out the window to photograph the end of the collapse and capture aerial views of the spectators crowding the street. Sidewalks were invisible, people parked wherever possible. Then I went downstairs and photographed the giant smoke cloud from street level. It was so surreal—the buildings just weren’t there anymore. When I got back in the lobby the security guard was yelling to no one, “YOU LOOK AT A POSTCARD OF FROM NEW YORK CITY AND SEE THE WORLD TRADE CENTER—AND IT IS NO LONGER!”

I came back up to my room and signed online. I was immediately bombarded with instant messages from concerned family and friends. My mom updated me on phone calls from people (family, friends, neighbors, teachers…) worried about my location. Thank goodness for the internet or I think my family (and I!) would have been going crazy. I sat at my computer for about six hours, never moving, assuring everyone that—at least physically—I was ok. I talked to my mom for a long time before she had to go to work and then I got to talk to my dad. And amazingly I got to talk to my younger sister, Sheri, who apparently had called home from her high school hysterical. John, my senior-year guidance counselor, who was now Sheri’s counselor and a good friend of mine, took her out of class and let her talk to me on his computer. I typed to both of them with tears streaming down my face. It was the first time I cried, overwhelmed with people’s kindness. In the midst of this crazy mess there were wonderful people with comforting words. And I somehow got to talk on the phone one more time to Mr. Anderson, a wonderful teacher I had for three years in high school, another good friend.

Then I felt like I just couldn’t stay in there any longer and decided to go for a walk to return movies to Hollywood Video. I kept my eyes and ears open and my camera in hand. Each small group of people I passed was either talking about blood types or about family members out of state. The only sound was the methodical, solemn chiming of the church clock. It was an eerie silence. I had become immune to sirens but even those were absent. I stood in the middle of University Place, Broadway, and 4th Avenue to take pictures down the street of the smoke polluting the blue overhead (that’s how empty the streets were). On my way back a huge line of people crossed me, most with gas masks hanging around their necks. I shivered.

When I arrived back at the dorm I realized I hadn’t eaten all day so I went to the dining hall and inhaled my food. When I got back to my room American Beauty was almost ending. “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.” I thought about that and about how pretty the sky had been all day, but the only thing I could render beautiful were the people in my life who I could not be with at this time—the people who knew me, the people who had seen me cry, the people who I loved. I had a difficult time falling asleep that night, but eventually, curled in a fetal position, holding my stuffed animal dog, I closed my eyes and dreamt for about four hours about nothing

[Wallflowers Break:
I need a bed/That nobody’s slept in/I need some air/Nobody’s been breathing/I need a thought/That I can believe in/Is this fog/Or is the building really burning/I need you now/Much more than ever/I’m making new friends/But none of them matter/Maybe now /We don’t fit together/But you’ve got your arms around/No one but strangers]

The impact of my experiences surrounding these events didn't really affect me until several years later when I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in the movie theater. I went with a few friends and we sat in the middle of one of the front rows. I wasn't sure what to expect, although I had mentally prepared myself to see the plane(s) shatter the towers once again. Instead the screen went black and terrifying audio reels replaced the expected fiery image and left me paralyzed, wide-eyed and panicky in my seat. I wanted to bolt out of the theater but I felt trapped, physically, but also metaphysically, surrounded by people who had no idea what it was like to have seen and heard and smelled and tasted what I had. Interestingly enough, I came across my friend (and incidentally my former freshman-year roommate), Brianna's, blog last year right around the 5th anniversary. My jaw dropped as I read the conclusion of her entry about Sept. 11. Although on the actual day we had polar opposite reactions (i.e. she already had friends and drank the day away, whereas I sat by myself and wrote in my journal for several hours), eight hundred miles apart (i was home for summer break) and almost three years later, we apparently had the same turning point--that one "scene."

Despite my unexpected reaction, I soon after became drawn to the subject. Last year I saw United 93 by myself, World Trade Center with my friend, Shawna, and her boyfriend (neither of which were easy to sit through) and read one of my favorite books to date, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story is told from the point of view of an overly-thoughtful, eccentric 9-year-old boy named Oskar, who loses his dad when the towers fall. I maintain that he is one of the best characters ever created.

"Mom said, 'His spirit is there,' and that made me really angry. I told her, 'Dad didn't have a spirit! He had cells!' 'His memory is there.''His memory is here,' I said, pointing at my head. 'Dad had a spirit,' she said, like she was rewinding a bit in our conversation. I told her, 'He had cells, and now they're on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak!'"

A few months ago, I read Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic book, The Road, which although is not directly correlated with 9/11, I consistently made references to the event during a virtual book club I had with my friend Abbi. Here’s one of my comments I sent her:

page 190: What you put in your head is there forever? [this sentence (well, question) i kept coming back to....i think it's the second time he asks this so far too...i hope i'm not overbearing with the sept. 11 references...but i kept thinking of the time in my life when every time i closed my eyes, i saw a plane fly into a building and a subsequent explosion...i mean it's bad enough (well maybe not bad, but overwhelming) that i retain so many details, but when it's those kind of details, they really are in your head "forever"]

And just this morning I finished reading Don Delillo's new book, Falling Man, a novel about September 11, a man who survives the collapse and how he and his family interact with each other, the city and their own thoughts in the aftermath.
Here are some direct quotes I underlined:

"...he understood that they could talk about these things only with each other, in minute and dullest detail, but it would never be dull or too detailed because it was inside them now and because he needed to hear what he'd lost in the tracings of memory."

"He said, 'It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'm standing here thinking it's an accident.'...'The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,' he said, 'we're all a little older and wiser.'"

"These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after."

"...but every time he boarded a flight he glanced at faces on both sides of the aisle, trying to spot the man or men who might be a danger to them all."

"Keith looked into the waterfall. This was better than closing his eyes. If he closed his eyes, he'd see something."

The following is a poem I wrote (counterpart titles almost) some time during the initial aftermath, following the removal of a controversial sculpture placed in public space:

Tumbling Woman

I am better off jumping you think
And you are falling
And you are somersaulting
The sky is blue
But you see flames
I see blue
And I see you
There goes an airplane
Here comes the explosion
And you are clawing
And you are crying
Wind drumming your ears
Your legs twist sideways
A man catches you naked in bronze
Just before
Your head strikes steel

But there are no towers
And your statue’s been removed
From public eyes
They say you are too graphic
So where are you
Oh tumbling woman?

Before we departed for Israel this past July, Abbey asked if I’d go visit Ground Zero with her during our brief stint in NYC. I purposely had not been down there since December, 2001, when two other friends, Amy and Carrie, visited me at school, and the three of us went down there on what happened to be the last night before they tore down the only remaining solid structure. Every visitor after that who asked to go see the destruction, I sent on their own with a subway map and apologetically refused to join them on their voyeuristic journeys.
This time, though, I decided to go. What I did in NYC those few days seemed to somehow matter to my upcoming Israel trip, and I can’t really explain why, but I said “Ok” to Abbey.
The space is a cavernous hole now with too many machines disruptively digging the mass grave. Commuters come and go through the busy MTA and PATH stations, most not stopping to look out past the grated barrier. I think it’s a bad idea that they’re building the Freedom Tower and think it’s overly patriotic and pompous to build the monstrosity 1,776 feet tall. What makes them think this one won’t be blown apart? I’m all for memorials, but to me a giant glass tower is not memorializing, it’s materializing.

One more poem. This one I wrote on the one-year anniversary, as I stared out the window of my high-rise apartment during the designated moment of silence at 8:46 a.m.

this is the day everyone looks up

one year later a woman stands
on her balcony
she doesn’t look at anything
but the roofs of buildings
around her
they are intact
so is the sky
the wind moves her hair slightly
and with a forgiving breath
she returns inside

[taken on bus upon arriving back in NYC after 11 days in Israel, 7.24.07]

I’m debating posting my week-long daily journal entries from that time period...maybe if I find time today.

Monday, September 3, 2007

israel: day 2

Saturday, August 14, 2007

Sabrina won’t set her alarm clock for any time that ends in a “0” or a “5.” So I can’t really say when we got up (8:47?), but whenever it was, I got a good ten hours of sleep last night. I do, however, remember that I needed the roommates’ convincing again to drag my exhausted self out of bed. Waking up in Jerusalem is a bit disorienting, yet exhilarating at the same time.

Since it was Shabbat, the plan was to remain on Shalom Hotel grounds until after sundown. The promise of coffee and croissants lured us down to our first “group discussion,” where we were split up into two groups to talk about our Jewish identities. Honestly, I dreaded all the discussions listed on our itinerary…I’m much more of a do-er than a talker and especially have had no desire to discuss religion since I was basically told I’d be spending the afterlife in hell when I was 12 years old.

Once again Abbey and I were split up. I went into an adjoining room with Jamie and Reut as our discussion leaders, and she stayed in the room with the other half who had Leor as their leader. We started off by going around the circle and saying what “birthright” meant to us and what we think about Judaism and our relationship to the religion/culture. I secretly cheered that I was on the other side of the circle, more of a chance I wouldn’t have to speak. We only made it through five or six people before the hot topic inspired people all around the circle to start raising their hands and sharing stories and opinions. At certain points I had things I could have shared, but as usual, I was more interested in hearing what other people had to say than hearing myself speak. Instead I took notes the whole time in my journal…mostly quoting what certain people said, interesting facts, etc.

So the following is a direct translation/extension of what I wrote during those two hours.

Reut: “Jewish is my nationality. There is no difference.”

I had a similar experience to Hillary, who went to Barrington High School (in the suburb next to my own)…Problems with teachers who acted like they had never met a Jewish person before. In my experience, I remember my schools planning special activities on the high holy days, which infuriated my mom. She called the school on my behalf several times. “Well the reason you can get that guest teacher to speak on that day is because their school district gets Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off!” I didn’t appreciate her strong-minded nature until I was older.

Also, in high school I remember a boy walking behind me in the hall fake sneezed and said, ”a-jew” as he passed me (instead of “achoo”). Not funny. Soon after I was voted to read a speech on “character” at the National Honors Society inductions. I made mention to this anti-Semitic incident in my speech, and the aforementioned asshole must have been in the audience because several weeks later I was at a party, and he was there too…and very drunk. He started ranting about how he heard my speech and picked up a bar stool and tried swinging it at me.

Jessica asked for the difference between Christianity and Judaism because “we share so many values” Someone (I don’t remember who) responded that Jews value a ”love of family, love of charity, love of learning.” The idea of coming into this world already a sinner and needing to be redeemed is a Christian way of looking at life, whereas Jews feel their purpose is to make our current and future world a better place.

Eliza shared her experiences about being the only Jew in her North Carolina town and how she attended Bible camp with her friends and would question them about Jesus when they told her she needed to be saved from the fiery pits of hell. Although she grew up in the South and I in the North, I feel like we have similar stories about having ultra-Christian friends trying to “save” us.

The discussion turned towards the different sects of Judaism. Meir, one of our Israeli friends, said, “Being good to people is more important than doing the practice.” He talked about why he “took off his yarmulke.” “I can believe in a creator but not one that says there’s a right and wrong way to tie your shoes in the morning,” he explained.

Jason, another native Chicagoan, said, “They might as well be Catholics,” in reference to the difference between Orthodox Jews and Conservative/Reformed. He also talked about how his neighbors burned a Jewish Star into his lawn. Unbelievable.

Jesse said that he more often feels judged by other Jews than by people of other faiths.

A lot of us threw around the term “culture,” so Jamie asked what we meant by saying we connect to Judaism as a culture, something I’ve always said about my own connection. That religion, in general, isn’t for me, but I love and appreciate how culturally sound Judaism is compared to other religions. For me it’s that I personally connect to life in a visceral manner…tasting the food, watching my dad speak Hebrew, hearing the shofar, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish or dancing the horah…all the way to my outdoor travel adventure to Israel…that is what means something to me.

I found myself nodding vigorously as Reva talked about how she’s become less and less religious because as she explained, “I can’t buy into something that’s exclusionary of other people.”
Reut, who, despite the slight language barrier, seemed genuinely interested in understanding where her new American counterparts were coming from, responded, “Before you’re religious, you’re a human being,” she stated. A lot of us nodded in agreement.

Evan said, “I’m not very religious because I’ve found it causes more problems in the world than good.” Yes.
Jamie responded, “I question if that’s how the religion was supposed to be.” No, unfortunately it comes down to people’s interpretations.

I don’t remember who said this (possibly Jason?) “There are people who want me dead out there because I was born and someone said I was Jewish.”

Jason: “[Religion] is like a cell phone—it’s gone from the brick phone to the iPhone, but it’s still the same thing.”

Ohad, another one of our Israeli friends, explained, “Judaism and Jews in America ‘fit in’ better than here because America holds similar values—like holding education in such high regard…whereas Israel vs. Arab is very different.”

Jesse told us about the British Teachers Union who, earlier this summer, voted in favor of forbidding exchanges with Israeli institutions until Israel takes their armies out of the war. “But haven’t said the same about other countries and therefore it’s an anti-Semitic act,” Jesse proclaimed.
(Interestingly enough, I happened upon this statement on NYU’s homepage by President John Sexton: http://www.nyu.edu/public.affairs/releases/detail/1651)

Meir has a Yemenite friend who can read Hebrew upside down because they burned books and could only read from one side of the book.

Jamie said, “We can try the best we can [to first be a human being and then a Jew] but as soon as you’re labeled ‘Jewish,’ ‘human being’ goes out the window.”

Ohad, who works for Israeli Intelligence, informed us that Palestinians are taught in books to hate Jews. “In Hamas books we [Jews] are monkeys and pigs…and that’s what kids see/learn”

Lindsay raised her hand and said she’s “grown to say, ‘I’m Hungarian and Polish’ before ‘Jewish’ because I hate people’s reactions.” That pretty much nailed it on the head for me. I don’t think I’ve ever answered “Jewish” when asked what I am because of exactly that. Other people chimed in and shared their stories about employers’ reactions when they asked to take time off to go to Israel. As soon as they hear “Israel,” they assume “Jewish” and then it’s like a whole new ballgame. They say, “Oh—you’re Jewish?...I didn’t know.” Is that bit of knowledge supposed to change things? Should we be sewing yellow stars to our sleeves? It shouldn’t make a difference, but it obviously does. Like a lot of the people in the room I’ve felt that shift when the “Jewish” label has been revealed. It’s a weird feeling.

In college I took a class from NYU’s school of social work called Skills in Interpersonal Communication, both to fulfill a social science requirement and as an academic supplement to my volunteering with a local Holocaust survivor. I wrote the following as one of our weekly logs that we were assigned. I think the prompt was asking about our experience with cultural sensitivities.

Ethnically speaking, I am five things. Russian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Jewish. The only one I can relate to is being Jewish. If it weren’t for my family, I would have never known Judaism existed. I grew up in a predominantly Christian area in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. There was a reformed temple within five miles of our house, although had there been a conservative/orthodox synagogue closer than 45 minutes away, my dad would have joined that congregation instead. I went to preschool at the temple, went to Sunday school there through high school, and Hebrew school three times a week 4th-7th grades in preparation for my bat-mitzvah.
I was pretty much the “token Jew” growing up. In school assemblies we sang the one Hanukkah song everyone knows, and people questioned my matzo sandwiches during Passover or why I already knew the “horah” when we learned folk dancing in P.E. In high school I worked at a children’s educational toy store called Zany Brainy. We offered free gift-wrapping, and this was a woman’s response one night when I listed the types of paper available: birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, general.
“Well Christmas of course! Hanukkah isn’t even a real holiday.” The customer is always right, huh? If I could rewind to that moment, I would have said something back to her.
What I like most about Judaism is the strong traditions and culture; the language, the food, the holidays, the strong family bonds. I have a small family, but Judaism was important to both sets of my grandparents. The four of them kept kosher, something that was not passed down to my parents, nor to my sister or myself. But I have wonderful memories of gathering around a dining room table for Passover Seders, the taste of my Bubby’s matzo balls, and glancing at the mezuzah on the side of my door every time I enter the house.
What I like the least are the stereotypes, mostly that Jewish people are cheap and that people frequently use the term “JAP (Jewish American Princess)” Because people have this idea that Jewish people are cheap, I’ve always been conscious of how much my dad tips servers when we go out to eat, etc. I feel like if he doesn’t tip what’s normal, then it’ll give away that we’re “stingy Jews.” I never really heard the term “JAP” until I came to NYU, and now I hear people use it all the time. It’s bothersome to me, even though I’ve never heard anyone use it in reference to me.

Had I felt like talking during the discussion, I would have said that I denounced organized religion at a young age, after a few of my best friends learned about “witnessing” at church and decided to try it out their Jewish friend. I know now that they were doing it out of love and concern, but their attempts to “save” me and indirectly inform me that I would be going to hell should I choose to not accept Jesus into my heart, totally turned me off to religion because, as some other people shared, I don’t want to be a part of something that makes other people feel inferior. At the same time I feel guilty about these feelings because I know how important Judaism was to my grandparents, and although they’re not around anymore, I feel like I’m slapping them in the face.

Although I was not looking forward to our discussion at all, I ended up being blown away by our group. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by so many people who seemed to have the same thoughts about Judaism and being Jewish and religion in general. It was so refreshing not to have to defend my thoughts and beliefs.

We were dismissed from the room to go upstairs for lunch. Reut asked me what I had been writing in my notebook the whole time. I worried that she (and the rest of my group) thought I hadn’t been listening. I told her how I need time to process my ideas, that I’m much better at expressing myself through writing as opposed to speaking, so I’d rather listen to what other people have to say than open my mouth and inevitably stumble over my words.
“I hope it didn’t look like I was disinterested,” I said.
She smiled and said, “No. I can tell by looking at your eyes that you care.”

After lunch we had a few hours to relax. Almost all of us retreated to the pool. Some people played chicken in the water. I had no interest in that and after taking a quick dip planted myself near Matt and Lior who were playing DJ with some iPod speakers. What a great idea to pack those! David Bowie, Bob Marley, and The Eagles sang, while pale Americans soaked in the Israeli sunshine.

Matt suggested he and I have a “shoot-off.” We both took a picture from the same place. Abbey and Lior judged. Matt won. I still think mine was better, but I suppose that’s a matter of taste.

Later in the afternoon we gathered in one of the conference rooms to listen to Avi Melamed’s lecture on terrorism. He was a Senior Advisor on Arab Affairs for the Mayor of Jerusalem and co-authored "Separate and Unequal-The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem."
Here are some of the statistics/facts he shared with us:

* There have been 28,000 terrorist attacks since 2000, beginning with stabbing. Only 154 of the aforementioned attacks were suicide bombers, or only half a percent. But that small percent caused HALF of the deaths…specifically made mention to bus #32
(There have been more than 700 prevented attacks).

* A single suicide bomber kills more people than 4,000 rockets.

* 279 activists were arrested, a bunch on their way to the fence with bombs strapped to them.

Someone raised their hand and asked how the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) knew to be there at that time to prevent such attacks. Avi smirked and said, “That’s Israeli Intelligence. I can’t say.” Ohad, part of the Intelligence, was sitting next to me. A lot of heads turned towards him for answers, but he smiled warmly and said, “I can not say.”

* Sadam Hussein paid $25,000 to a suicide bomber’s family for a completed mission.

* Israel was the first country to oppose the death penalty.

“There are sectors within Palestinian society which ‘praise death as a part of life,’” Avi said. He mentioned a suicide bomber who walked into CafĂ© Hillel (which I remember seeing a sign for yesterday) and blew himself up. Nine dead, fifteen injured. Eran raised his hand and in Hebrew (which Avi then translated) said that one of the casualties was his uncle.

“There is no other hand…there is no other ‘yes, but’…there is no justification for blowing yourself up in a nightclub killing dozens of teens,” Avi said.

He explained his phrase “lunatic reality,” where everyday activities become mentally-consuming tasks, such as "where should I sit on the bus?"
My mind briefly trailed off, recalling one of the stories that stuck with me after the train bombings on March 11, 2004, when I was living in Madrid. A girl was quoted in a magazine article saying she was pissed off that morning because some guy had sat in the seat she usually sat in for her commute to work. One of the bombs ended up exploding underneath that particular seat, and the man who had sat there became one of the 191 victims.
Avi continued, “When you’re back in the U.S. you can meet your friends at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. You don’t have to think about it.” He paused. “When my 15-year-old daughter wants to meet her friends at a coffee shop, I have to decide if I should let her go or not.” He stood in front of us, not just an expert on terrorism, but also a father. “But I always let her go. Because we have to live…we have to praise life.”

He then talked about how he used to have dreams every night where someone was blowing up his head. When he moved, they stopped. Recently they’ve returned, except now they’re about his kids. I think this is interesting because even though I know I don’t have to “think about it” on a daily basis living in the U.S., I think about it all the time. After living through the largest terrorist attacks on both U.S. and Spanish soil (9/11 and 3/11), it’s hard not to. Exploding planes and trains frequently pollute my dreams.

After the lecture, Shorashim 15B (our group) remained in the room to play some more getting-to-know-you games before dinner. We had a rock,paper,scissors conga line championship and played a learning each other’s name game called “bang bang bang.” I noted the irony of pretend-shooting people directly following a lecture on terrorism and violence.

I was still eating dinner when almost everyone left to get gussied up for our Havdalah service. I talked to Leor about Kiryot Got, where he and my sister both may have been at the same time last summer. Then I went upstairs and while Alexis (who let me borrow earrings so I didn’t look like I was wearing pajamas…I didn’t bring any jewelry with me) and Sabrina got ready, I called home. Our dentist answered the phone. Confused, I asked for my mom. I had totally forgotten that she was hosting her 5-years-cancer-free BBQ at our house, despite my asking before I left that she plan the celebration for a weekend I was in the same country.

We met outside on a large balcony overlooking Jerusalem for Havdalah. I never celebrated Shabbat or subsequently Havdalah at home, so my introduction to these traditions being in the holy city of Jerusalem was pretty powerful. We formed a giant circle and watched as Reut held the twisted candle and Leor spoke about the importance of observing Shabbat and how we were now saying goodbye for another week. We drank a small amount of grape juice and each received a sprig of mint to smell. I don’t remember the significance of the mint, but I imagine it has something to do with beginning a fresh new week.

(roommates...sabrina, me, and alexis...taken with alexis's camera)

After taking a few pictures with each other, we went downstairs to meet Shlomi on the bus. What better way to get better acquainted with 45 strangers than a night out on the town. En route to Zion Square Leor pointed out a roadside memorial at the site of a suicide bombing. I looked past where Leor was standing at the front of the bus, out the windshield, and noticed the bus driving in front of us had the #32 lit up on it…which incidentally is my favorite number, but is also the same bus # that Avi mentioned earlier today in his lecture. Kind of eerie. I was sitting towards the back next to Sharon (the Israeli boy who gave me the flower last night), who turned to me and said sarcastically, “And next we’re going to show you where all the dead people are in the cemetery.”

(taken by Jason)

When we got off the bus we gathered in front of Leor, who repeated over and over that we were only allowed to walk on Ben Yehuda Street. Where are we going? We yelled, obnoxiously. “Ben Yehuda!” he dutifully answered.

About half of us took over Murphy’s Pub, which wasn’t quite on Ben Yehuda, but close enough. When I lived in Madrid it took me an entire semester before I felt comfortable enough to “let loose” and socially drink with my classmates. This trip was different though, and I drank a shot and two Israeli beers (Goldstar), which is a lot more than I’ve had in a long time. I was my usual dancing machine self (sober or tipsy, this remains constant) and kept trying to put Shakira and Sean Paul on the digital jukebox. When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” came on we all rocked out, Sabrina and I air-guitaring and singing the lyrics at the top of our lungs. And when “Hips Don’t Lie” (by Shakira) finally came on, I got so into dancing that I lost track of my limbs and wacked a pint of beer out of Jason’s hand sending it crashing to the floor. Shattered glass temporarily forced the dance party to the perimeter of the bar. Oops. I was pretty embarrassed and bought Jason a replacement.

(not sure who's camera this is from)

Back at the Shalom we continued the party on the 7th floor.

I never stepped foot into the actual party, which was in someone’s room, but rather paced around the hallway chatting it up with a few people. Matt challenged me to another shoot-off. He won again. This time he deserved it. I danced with Eran for a little bit and took funny pictures with him.

Back in 623 with Alexis, we were talking abouhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gift fall-outs with college roommates, when Sabrina appeared with Zach trailing behind her. I proudly showed off my Bulls t-shirt only to have him tell me he’s an Ohio fan. Whatever dude, Rodman rules. I had a really hard time falling asleep. A tickle in my throat keeps forming every time I lie down, which sends me into coughing fits. Of course that would happen just in time to share a room with other people for 11 nights.
Link to Day 2 Photos