Sunday, January 18, 2009

"But You Don't Feel Anything"

"People in Tel-Aviv don't know anything, they live in a bubble."

I've been told, again and again, that people in Tel-Aviv live in their own bubble, that they care about nothing more than sitting at cafes with their puppies, going a couple left-wing rallies a month, and enjoying the nightlife here. A few weeks ago, as the war was raging down in Gaza, I was at a kiddush in Jerusalem with a friend. One of his friends started harping on about how people in Tel-Aviv (she's been living in Jerusalem and is American) don't know anything about anything else in Israel, about how we're all in a *magic bubble.* 

If anything, living in Tel-Aviv has exposed me to far more points of view than I would have seen had I lived in a suburb. Tel-Aviv is filled with people who fit perfectly and easily into Israeli society and are part of it's elite, but also with people who can't seem to fit in or who exist on the edges. Within Tel-Aviv, there have been protests for against and the war, for the IDF and for the people of Gaza. The thought that Tel-Avivis are unaffected is almost tragically inaccurate, I was in a taxi a week and a half ago, and the driver kept swaying back and forth with a book in his hands. I asked him what was wrong, and he turned around and said sharply: "Our country is at WAR! Four my children are back doing their reserve duty in the army-3 of them in Aza. I'm one of 11 children, and we're a very patriotic family, so my nieces and nephews and their husbands and wives are also in Aza." I've watched people on buses, far more than usual, swaying back and forth and mumbling prayers. No, Tel-Aviv hasn't forgotten that it is in the same country as Sderot, a tiny town next to the Negev that has received much of the pounding from Hamas.  

I've realized that there is a sense of jealousy towards Tel-Avivis from much of the rest of the Israeli population, or perhaps it's just tension. You see it in the way that they defensively tell you that "their place" (in the suburbs, usually) is "so much quieter" and "more pleasant." (The most noise that I hear from my apartment is babies crying in the nearby park, and unfortunately crying babies also exist in the suburbs. And possibly the rudest incidents that I've ever witnessed in Israel have happened in the suburbs.) I've been wondering, lately, if there's any way for Tel-Aviv's spirit, for the flow that Tel-Aviv has, to grow outwards-so that the suburbs become more interesting places? Is there any way to spread this climate out to the suburbs, so that instead of everyone flocking to Tel-Aviv more people would flock north, south, and east? I learned in art class that all the "cool rock clubs" in the 1960's (by "cool" my teacher meant "only") were in two of the most "disgusting" cities, Ramla and Lod. I went to Lod recently, by accident, and felt overcome by a wave of grayness. 

Recently, to continue my obsession with this city and its streets, I bought: "Tel-Aviv: A City Guide." A frank, insightful, and posh look at "what's up" in Tel-Aviv. It's also great for tourists and longer-term visitors, because it has so many maps and helps visitors understand the different parts of the city. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

House of Bread.. A Walk in "Ancientness"

What would Christmas in the Holy Land be without visiting the historic house of bread? I went with my sister and a group of Polish students from Tel-Aviv University. We woke up before dawn, and hailed a taxi to Jaffa where we were meeting our group. Just as we arrived we heard a rooster screeching, and I looked nervously at my sister. What a change, I thought to myself, only a few minutes ago I was in a posh Tel-Aviv neighborhood and now I'm practically in farm country. 
Only a few Filipino people stood outside the church, clutching cups of coffee and struggling to stay awake. Soon, waves of buses and foreign workers (most of the Catholics in Israel, who are not Arab, are foreign workers from the Philippines) came into view. My sister and I were attached to my Polish friends, and the priest of Ghana greeted me when I got off the bus in Polish. I stared at him, startled, until my friend quickly jumped in and explained that I was American. 
On the bus ride, before sleep hit my like a brick, I listened a bit to the priest's thoughts on Israel and the Christian holy season. He urged the workers to visit as many holy places as they could, "After all, when you get home people will want to know if you've seen Jerusalem, not how much money you've made." I couldn't help but thinking he was wrong, that in our society obsessed with knowledge and money, people would know you and judge you for both. I also couldn't help thinking of the unfairnesses that drowned many of these foreign workers, many of whom couldn't even get a day from their employer's off for Christmas or had to beg for just one day off. 

In the House of Bread, we explored the church of the birth, where you had to enter through a small hole, that could fit maximum one person. The entrance was fanned out, some people pushed and shoved, while others, reveling in the "Christian spirit" let others go before them. The steps were dangerous, almost treacherous, and once you were inside you were told be silent-others were hearing a mass-and to touch "the birth spot." I got about a second, and wondered: "What is everyone else thinking?" I watched the friends who I went with, who were both agnostics and religious Catholics and everything in between, and wondered why the experience held almost no feeling for me. I didn't feel empty, just bored, tired, and as though I was missing something. We also visited St. Katherine's monastery, and then Shepherd's field. As I was walking down the steps, the Ghanian priest seemed to look through me: "You won't be hearing Mass, will you?" He asked, not in a sad or accusatory tone, just as a fact. I said, "I'm not sure," and smiled. In Shepherd's field I walked around amongst the olive trees, and stared out into the grayness that hung over the city on that day. I walked amongst them because in all the services, amongst everyone who was feeling "something" I wanted to end the numbness that had become Christmas, I wanted to touch something living where I wasn't supposed to have a set reaction. 

Unfortunately, the House of Bread had an almost abandoned feel to it. With many of the stores closed and few people on the streets--because many were home celebrating despite the fact that the PA has made life so unpleasant for Christians that only 10% of the city's current population is Christian. This coldness contributed to the stillness of the city, and to it's sadness. 

Getting to know the stories of the Polish people has not only been eye-opening (I never had any interest in Poland before), but also saddening. When talking to someone at the Overseas School about the Polish night that they had organized, she said: "I feel like they're so nice, but I also feel a distance from them.. because of the .. Holocaust." This person has actually become close with them, but I also approached them with a certain distance in my step. I feel guilty about that-was it just the legacy of the Holocaust, communism, the sense of them being so "different" that kept us apart? Or was it linguistic? 
I'm glad that I took the time to correct my mistake, and I'm glad that they were patient with me. In classes, they were amongst the most eager students to learn, they were bright and tolerant and filled with insight about things that I'd never noticed. 
The lives that their families experienced as a result of World War II and communism aren't so different from what many Jewish people experienced during both those periods. On the way to the house of bread, while scarfing down delicious Polish Christmas cookies, a friend of mine told me that his uncle had been in Auschwitz for being part of the Polish resistance. Another student told us the story of her grandfather-who had escaped Siberia to get away from the Nazis-and his return to Poland. He stayed in Poland, married a Catholic woman, but brought up his children with a love and respect for both religions. Today, their granddaughter is learning Hebrew, and bridging the gaps between Poland and Israel, and Poland and Jews. After having so many experiences with the Polish group, going to the House of Bread with them, to chocolate bars, to tea, to study, or just to talk or walk, I can no longer associate Poland with the Holocaust, with its brutal, gray history. Before, when I pictured "Poland" in my head all that I saw was a type of grayness, associated with communism and the Holocaust. 
It was especially great hearing about the number of Vietnamese people in Poland, who are blending their "home" culture with modern Polish culture. It seems that Poland is no longer the land of the "Hitler's Willing Executioners," but has become far more, with a mobile, educated population. The House of Bread, however, has only seemed to move backwards. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Disgusted by My Disgust

Recently, I visited the Rokach House and the Guttman Museum in the neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek in Tel-Aviv. Neve Tzedek is my favorite neighborhood, besides my own leafy green one, with the oldest, most European houses in Tel-Aviv and an aristocratic air. Nothing is ancient in this city, not even the lust that pervades the city streets or the rhythm that Tel-Aviv seems to sway with, but Neve Tzedek is the closest thing that you will get in Tel-Aviv. 
The Rokach House is home to some inspiring information about Tel-Aviv's early life, and is one of the oldest houses in the city. It's filled with artifacts from this time, including a clothes and a table, and over the table in the dining room is a picture of another table set and ready for the people and food, which called to mind "The Last Supper." My favorite part of the museum were the sculptures and pictures, by Lea Majaro Mintz, the granddaughter of Rokach. Her work is inspiring, but at first I was disgusted by it. Her work is about women with REAL women, why didn't Dove use this in their ads? These women are overweight, sagging, and delightful. At first my mind went to a dark place, "Why would she sculpt something so ugly??" But then, I realized, I was one of these women too, we all are, with curves and sags and smiles. She was sculpting nature, whereas sculpting Barbie would really have been to sculpt something truly heinous. Looking at her creations, and her colorful pictures of busty naked women made me light up--I wanted to strip of my clothes and join their colorful circle of commraderie. This, I thought, is really what women should be doing--dancing, not naked-but without the inhibition that dancing this way entails--we shouldn't stop dancing because society tells us that our bodies are too old, too flabby, too saggy, too ugly. We are not too anything, because we are all individuals created to reflect a certain, specific aspect of humanity. 

Here's the Artists Statement: 

"I studied painting and drawing at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem and afterwards taught at Bezalel, Bar Ilan University, and other colleges for training art teachers. I taught the subject "Form and Color" which is based on the special language of the visual arts that grew from the understanding of the abstract. 

From the start it was clear to me that the visual arts (until the most recent years) were the work of male artists only and they were those who expounded its theories. Women, except for a few women artists mentioned in art history as minor artists, took no part in the creation except as models or bystanders-always loyal to any show of art or culture. 

Male artists liked to relate to women in their creations and found in them a source of beauty, harmony, sex. Their point of view was mainly that of one watching his object,seeing it from the outside. I tried to express her from the point of view of someone who feels her from the inside. 

The woman, as I feel her, is a tired creature, tired from the burden of being a modern woman, involved in society and its demands, trying to enter all the professions which in the past were for men only. In addition she remains the birth-giver, she nurtures and educates the children and also makes sure that the household chores are done. It seems that she's been liberated, but in reality she's taken upon herself a burden twice as heavy. 

I was the first in Israel (one of the first in the world) to think "feminine." In my sculptures I wanted to express the mature woman-relaxed, rumpled, flowing, with a large bosom and wide hips, a tired woman searching for a moment of relaxation. In my art I try to express the inner codes of women, codes that may not be accepted by male artists. These are codes such as feeling and empathy, logic aided by a supersensory comprehension, sensuality combined with the need to bond with others and the environment. 

From the beginning I thoght that art should reflect the geographical surroundings, both physical and culture, in which we live. I strove to express the individuality that exists in my country-the meeting of ancient and modern, a world with a long history connected to the land and its archeological treasures on the one hand and on the other, a modern lifestyle which includes democratic morals, socialism, and achievements in the field of hi-tech. From here, the I make of clay. The look of the clay gives a feeling of antiquity, it is a substance that early man already used for artist purposes. At the same time it is flexible enough to express any modern shape." 

(Rokach's father was a good Jewish doctor from the Tzfat area, who became so close to the rulers that when Tzfat saw riots against Jews he was saved because of his special relationship with the authorities.) The garden was also beautiful, and there were little sculptures in every nook of the house. My favorite was of two sleeping bodies next to each other on a bed, reminding me of my sister and I snuggled up on a bed as babies. 

Chag Shalom

"Well, then, that is just blatant Hanukkah propaganda," My father fumed into the phone. 
"Sorry, Dad, but they had to find a different way to market Hanukkah in the US--I mean, a nationalist holiday about another country can be a bit of an awkward sell.. right?" 
"I'm very disappointed in this Hanukkah business," My father said. 

This came from a heated conversation that my father and I were having about a small argument that my sister and I were having. "Can't you just get along--it's Hanukkah, after all, and it's all about peace and love." I was determined to keep the argument--but in this case, my father was wrong. It's like saying Easter is about bloody death--that's really missing the point, it's a side note. Hanukkah is about victory and the ability of the Jews in Israel to keep their spiritual identity, if anything, it's about keeping the other out (which may, in the long run, create peace and stability... but maybe not.) Hanukkah is also about the miracle of light that occurred AFTER the miraculous victory--so G-d provided light. In the physical and spiritual sense, for the Jews to keep their inner spiritual light strong and for the continuation of Jewish identity. Hanukkah--unlike Yom Kippur or Passover--can be given universal flavors, but it is a Jewish-particular holiday. 

Then I started thinking, "What is the Jewish Holiday Where Peace Is Celebrated?" 
The month of Elul is the month of "love" but that's the romantic love, not the type between peoples. If anyone who's reading this (all 3 of you) know of the Jewish holiday for peace, let me know. And maybe, in these times, we need to create a Jewish holiday where we celebrate internal and external peace and pray for peace. It's hard, these days in Israel with rockets being lobbed into Israel every five minutes, to really "celebrate" peace. It's hard when there is the significant amount of economic and racial inequality floating around every land, and especially the Holy Land. But is it still worth creating a ritual to celebrate peace? Absolutely. 
What about creating a Christian Day for Peace and Muslim Day for Peace or a Hindu or Buddhist one? We already have a universal, UN Day for Peace. But, it's important that each religious community promote peace and have a peace day in order to emphasize their community's commitment to peace. A day for justice would be entirely different, because there is a difference. Justice helps to lead towards peace, but justice is not created by peace. 

The last six days of Passover, according to an essay I read recently, are forbidden for enjoyment--because these are the days that the Egyptians were plagued and eventually died, their animals died and probably their spirits died--and the Egyptians, despite all the problems that they created for the Jews, WERE G-d's creation, and when any creation is destroyed, it is a terrible thing. 

So now, I'm wondering, should I make a Seder for Peace day with my family and close friends, like on Tu B'Shvat (the day for trees) and Passover? What would I put on that plate? 


"If you really want to know something, look at it again." -Carl Hammerschlag 

It's been pouring for the last couple days here intermittently, and I hate dodging puddles and feeling the wintery chills and having to curl up closer to my sister at night. (She's finally come--arrived with all of her baggage.) We've been going out a lot, feeling cold and wishing that the sky would stop opening up. The usually clear sky which blazes with sun is pregnant with clouds, which release themselves all too frequently. My twin and I were grumbling about this, when I was like, "Wait--no!! Remember, it's a good thing, Israel doesn't have any water or any rain, this is a mild miracle!" Humph, my sister said. It's just like Carl says, I can complain about the weather, the fact that the beach is offlimits and wearing flip-flops will increase my risk of falling on my bum dramatically. Or I can be praiseful that the heavens have finally opened up and are willing to save Israel from being entirely parched this upcoming year. Recently, I learned that the word for sky "shamayim," means "there-water." The simple term in Hebrew expresses not the desire for loads of glorious sunlight or blueness or clarity, it expresses the desire for survival in this semi-desert land. Looking at it from this perspective, I can't be any more happy that my life is being inconvenienced and made so much colder and wetter :) 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Cool Things I've seen and Done Recently: 

-The Nachum Guttman Museum
-The Rokach Museum
-Ne'ot Kedumim (I hearded sheep there), it's a biblical park. 

I really want to go to the Ilana Goor museum too! Also, my sister arrived 2 days ago. Tonight, hopefully we'll be going to a Hanukkah party in Jerusalem with my friend Jess, this super-friendly, big-smiled Greek-New York-Jew. 

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Some Days You Appear Smart.. Other Days You Don't

Last week, I was in Kiryat Ono (after spending 40 minutes getting there, I began to think of it as Kiryat Oh-no!). It was Friday morning, the traditional Shabbat "rush" (more like rush to the front of the line..) and I was standing in line, solidly, looking... or, maybe observing, the people around me. In Israel, "standing in line" doesn't exist. People try to rush, push, and "cut." In the U.S., this "cutting" would be unthinkable, and people would ask you to stop "cutting" and then you would become a social pariah because you "cut," something which we learned in 1st grade is one of the ultimate social crimes. Perhaps the cashier, or even the store manager, would come to chastise you. One of the things that annoys me, more than cockroaches or Israelis inability to stand in line, is what I'm going to term "line weaving." Israelis will set down a couple of items, and then leave. This, in the U.S., is almost unthinkable.. it's unimagined. Maybe if you have 200 groceries and forgot the pasta sauce, then you would go back--tell everyone in line what you were doing, and apologize profusely both before and after. When I have to go back and get something, I fully remove myself from the line--almost surgically so. If someone "line weaves" in the U.S., they inevitably come back with one or two items. In Israel, they come back with a small truck load of items, plop them down, then rush off into the din of the story. This raises my blood pressure, naturally, what if their turn comes and they're not in line--then what? Do you cut ahead of them? And really, what kind of person line weaves? Unspeakable!

Being a full-American--passport, grandparents as veterans, countless fourth-of-Julys with hot-dogs, fireworks, and potato salad, and all--I stood in line until my time. I noticed a man behind me saying, "Amerikiit, Amerikiit," and then putting it into a sentence--no biggie. When I left the store with my friend, she said, "Can you believe he was saying that you're stupid?" "What?" I asked her. "He was going on about how you were such a stupid American, standing in line and all." "How is that stupid?!? Since when is not cutting in line stupid in any country?!" I protested, with injured pride and all. 

My other "favorite thing" that they do here is come up behind you and say, "I'm after you," nod, and leave. The thing is, not just one person does this, but ten people. And how do you explain in Hebrew, "There are already ten invisible people behind me, can we really add an eleventh?!" I usually just furrow my brow and nod--as if I understand, and I'll consider it. What I'd really love to say is, "If you're after me, then actually be AFTER me." Alas. I recently found out that Chaim Herzog's wife wrote the first etiquette book in Hebrew, and I'm only hoping to learn it by heart, the way I once learned Emily Dickinson poems, so that I can spout off lines to them.. until then I'll keep grimacing. 

But, despite the fact that some crotchety old men who fought in the War of Independence actually think--and say--that I'm stupid, there are some people who you can fool more easily than others--my father being one of those people. A few days ago, I was in a fruit market, and I asked someone about tomatoes and cucumbers and where all the good oranges were, and my father was amazed--I sounded so good, so smart. It's such a relief that he's never studied, maybe even never heard, Hebrew! I could have been asking for an AK-47 and he would have had no idea--it's beautiful. He thought I sounded so smart and so good.... I only hope that I can keep on fooling him when he comes to visit. I speak Hebrew pronouncing all the syllables--one doesn't really do that--and slowly, "kind of like a bimbo," one of my friends told me. 

Later, I called it the "Arab fruit market," and my Dad asked me how I knew it was Arab. 
"Because," I told him a little condescendingly, "they were yelling at each other earlier and calling each other 'Ahmed' and 'Mahmoud,' and Jews just don't give their kids those names, Daddy."