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:

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 Café 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 abou 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

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