Monday, September 15, 2008

Pomegranates and Race

In Israel, I've noticed that I've been feeling "not quite like myself." I've been wondering, for a few months (it's my three month anniversary here soon!) what has been going on. 

Today, it dawned on me that my body, my mind, and everything I know is in an upheaval. I've discovered fruits I never knew existed, and could never have imagined existed. Today, I opened up my first pomegranate and thousands of beautiful, pearl-shaped pink seed-sacks spilled out. I only tried one because I was at a shop with my friend who was amazed to discover that I'd never had pomegranate, and promptly bought me one and explained how to eat it. I've never needed an explanation when it comes to fruit before, now I have to call people for instructions... "Which part is edible again?" I have to ask them. 

When my neighbor and I were having a discussion about a friend of mine who stopped by, he referred to her as "black." I got confused, "No, she's Iraq, not black," I said in confusion. "No, in Israel the term 'black' can apply to any non-European," he said. His parents are from Morocco, but in the United States he would be considered "white." It took us a few minutes to get what he was staying, but at the end of the day, when I see someone of Mizrahi descent I won't see, or think, "black" while Israelis will. I will see "Mizrahi" or "Jewish" or "I-have-no-idea-because-you-can't-tell-people's-ethnicity-by-looking-at-them." In Israel, I cannot tell who is a Jew or an Arab just by looking at someone's face, and I cannot tell who is Mizrahi or Ashkenazi any more than I can tell who is left wing or who is right wing. While outward signs help me to distinguish the different costumes that Israelis wear to signal their identities to this greater community, they aren't enough to make me even close to being an insider. 

I've gone from understanding to misunderstandings. I've said things that, when translated, are perverse, blatantly incorrect, and sometimes funny. In the United States, when I attend a meeting language is not even a question. In the United States, I "get it," I get the lingo, the body language, the implications. Here, I've started off fresh--yes, I'm 21, but in Israeli society, exactly how old am I? I know about the army, but I don't know the different terms about the army that are printed into the Israeli mind. I know about university, but not exactly how Israelis apply to universities. I'm a child and an adult. Friends have to lead me around and take care of me, and I have to let myself be taken care of in ways that I never have been before. I am clueless, but clued in. No amount of reading could ever have prepared me for living in a foreign country, in a society filled with the most intense kindness but also such intense anger and bitterness. 

Language has taken over my life. After 5 hours a day in ulpan, for 2.5 months, my head is ready to explode. As much as I want my Hebrew to improve, I also need to communicate with people--and am blessed that the world's lingua franca is my mother tongue. When I went to a Seeds of Peace reunion meeting recently, it was all in Hebrew. I picked up a word here and there, but it was difficult--even though I had a translator. I feel unengaged when this language barrier presents itself--hard as I try, it reminds me of my "outsider" status. 
When I went to Ahoti, thanks to activist Shlomit Lir, I discovered a whole new world of Mizrahi feminist activism, that involves anger, passion, the desire to move forward and the desire to reconsider the past in new ways. These women were so exuberant, in both their frustration and their happiness. I knew what they were saying was crucially important, but at the same time, I had no idea EXACTLY what they were saying. What the nuances they wanted to communicate were. All I knew what, I was visibly different from these women--very American, and almost too white. They asked me if I was Russian (no), if I'm a new immigrant (no), if Mount Holyoke really is as advanced in gender issues as they hear (what does that mean?), and how I like Israel (my feelings change more than the weather in New England.) Their website is amazing, but so are they: 

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Land of Israel

What is "Eretz Yisrael"--or the land of Israel?
Is it the dirt? (Is that too obvious an answer?)
The footprints that the people of Israel have left in land, in a spiritual or physical sense?
Is it the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people about the fate and status of this land?

When I was in Latrun at the Latrun monastery, I went wandering into their vineyard and at one point reached down and touched the soil and held it in my hand. I let it slide through my fingers and then looked up towards the sky.

Standing on the land of the monastery, in that beautiful valley, with framed hills in the background and views of Neve Shalom (or "Oasis of Peace") I truly felt my feet planted in the Land of Israel. This feeling doesn't make me think that Israel is my absolute, current home-- and this is not to say that I think I will make Aliyah. It was just the first time in my heart that I feel a connection to the soil--not to buildings or to people--but to the physicality of this place. When I spent six weeks in Ireland one summer, a place where people from both sides of my family come from and where I have family, I felt blessed and stimulated the moment I set foot on Irish soil. The physicality of the land and everything about it sat well with me, and I found that Irish people simply rubbed in a certain way that was very, very positive. This is not to say that if I went back I wouldn't see things that bothered me, or things that I questioned, I just found being there was very easy. Israel has given me more challenges, and consequently a lot to think about, mull over, grapple with, and occassionally cry about. Israel is also a constant batch of surprises, everyday something shocks me... it's kind of like a constant series of intellectual earthquakes being here. So, yes, Israel is difficult for me--but if I can connect to the land, then I'm hoping that my connection to this place will only deep and become more beautiful and more eclectic over time.
Feeling those little bits of soil, I realize that Israel is the center of the destiny of the Jewish people, so it is permanently and forever etched onto my destiny. At the same time, I realize believe in the Diaspora as being a positive thing. The Jewish people have brought so much to my own country, let alone the whole world, in terms of work for social justice, science, literature--even understandings of sexuality. I cannot imagine the United States without the Jewish community, or the Jewish community without the United States (which has been so wonderfully nurturing.)
This place is a part of my destiny, not the whole thing, and slowly it's feeling less and less foreign and scary. Being at Latrun also reminded me, so much, of waking up from a dream. It was a little like Deja vu. My heart is slowly, but surely, waking up to Eretz Yisrael.


Kehilla--Mount Holyoke Vs. Israel: As school is starting up at Mount Holyoke, and I'm seeing all the new excited photos on facebook from convocation, I'm getting a little jealous! Living off campus is amazing, and I think one of the most crucial things this study abroad has taught me is what I'm capable of and how to seek help effectively for the things that I'm not capable of. As much as I have friends here, and love them, what I really lack is the "community" feeling of Mount Holyoke. (Community is "kehilla" in Hebrew.)
I miss having intelligent, varied, beautiful women who inspire me at my fingertips--so instead I've replaced them with a country. Israel has inspired me, and challenged me in new ways that MoHo never could. Why? Because at Mount Holyoke, people are ALWAYS there to help you, it's a wonderfully nurturing place. I always have someone (usually someones) to turn to, who can offer me advice and solutions. Here, I find I reach out to random strangers and friends alike with the craziest questions. Being involved with Seeds of Peace has provided me with amazing friends, people who I knew when I was 14 who have now grown into amazing, vibrant adults who are changing their worlds and shaking things up. So, no, I'm not on my own--but I'm more on my own than I have ever been before. People in Israel LOVE to ask about your living situation--where do you live EXACTLY, whom do you live with (if someone's creepy I make up a boyfriend who is in Russia on business.) When people find out that I have no family here, and that I don't live with roomates, their reaction is that I'm "lavad"--alone. I don't feel alone, though, because I have some great inner resources that my parents endowed me with, and some great resources from Mount Holyoke-St. Mark's-Seeds of Peace, as well as some amazing friends.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Today I told someone, "Half the reason I take the bus is to meet people." Well.. that's not exactly true, there aren't so many other transportation options here because I left my helicopter in America and since I have the agility of someone in a body cast a motorcycle is out of the question. I can, and have, walked the length of Tel-Aviv, but it is just too sweaty in this climate to do so regularly. The public transportation here is excellent (with the exception of Shabbat), but I also come from a place with almost no public transportation. (I'm talking about my hometown here, the Valley has good public transportation.) 
The craziest things happen to me while I wait for and am on the bus. I usually have to ask people questions about where it's going, where something is, and we end up in a conversation about where I'm from, if I'm Jewish, if I'm religious, if my parents are religious, what country my grandparents are from, and it just takes off from there. It happens about 3/5 times I ride the bus, and sometimes I even make a friend. (I was hugged by a beautiful music student from Herziliya the other day when I was riding the bus to meet a friend in the 7-Stars mall.) 

It's so common to take the bus in Israel that it doesn't seem to have socioeconomic stimga the way it does in the United States, because it really is the easiest way to get around and there are fewer cars (one source told me that cars are 150% more expensive than in the United States). You don't have to think about directions, and get to glide through most of Israel for what amounts to less than $7 (from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, about the same price from T.A.-Haifa.) 

I had my first experience on a semi-kosher bus when coming back from Sulha. I got on and discovered that no women were sitting next to men (even husband-wife teams weren't.) Fortunately, I wasn't Rosa-Parked (on real kosher buses women have to sit in the back, men sit in the front), and the aisles were mixed. I'm fairly certain my oversized backpack (which is gender-free) accidentally whacked a few people (it usually does--it's pretty hostile..) A part of me wonders what all this would be like in the United States, if mainstream society actually thought anything about sitting next to someone of the opposite gender. These are the little phenomena that keep reminding me, Toto, we're not in western Massachusetts anymore! 

I'm slowly starting to learn which bus goes where in Tel-Aviv, and love Arlozorov station (which the train station part in the bottom calls "Savidor.") The new central bus (or the n.c.b.s.) in sketchy south Tel-Aviv, has an interesting design to say the least. In the words of someone I met there the other day, it  "is a fucking labryinth which only makes sense of you've been dropping acid since you were 12 years old." As much as I love the idea of understanding the n.c.b.s' layout better, dropping acid remains unattractive. 

Monday, September 1, 2008


-Wow, this year's Sulha festival was incredible! It was at the Latrun Trappiste monastery in Latrun, I'm glad I went--but would have gone even for the views. It gave me some great time to reflect on everything that's happening between Arabs and Israelis here. 

At the three day event, there were workshops on multi-cultural and multi-faith issues, listening circles, arts and crafts, music, space for kids (I got to hang out with an awesome 10 year old at Sulha--he told me that in Israel, snow men are called 'snow dolls.') 

Some great thinkers were at Sulha, but what I enjoyed was just connecting to the different people there, especially the volunteers around my age (many of whom were from Nazareth.) Sure, a bunch of them were the typical kooky-crunchy peaceniks, but they were great! I also was amazed by the monastery, and took a long walk in the vineyard and through an olive orchard. It strikes me, again and again, how dissimilar the topography is here and the topography back home. The olive orchard was almost sandy, very hard to climb through (especially when you're wearing birkenstocks.) 

There was just this amazing feeling of commraderie and creativity that ran through Sulha that I can't describe--because you'll have to go see it for yourself. Even now, I wear my Sulha bracelet. The conflict is overwhelming to think about--and living here, I do find myself thinking about it everyday. Sometimes, I find myself honed into thinking about the government aspects of the conflict, when I know it's just as important to remember the people who are LIVING this conflict. The people of Sderot, the people of Gaza who are being objected to virtual slavery and imprisonment from Hamas. Being at Sulha reminded me to put a human face on everything. 

I want to be here next year for Sulha.. but I have a little feeling that I'll be back home in America! 
-More info at

Blessings of Israel

It seems that everyday I get asked if I like living in Israel. There are so many things that I love about living here--being in a very ancient place and experiencing a very modern culture like Tel-Aviv, the myriad of cultural opportunities, and just watching Israel emerge as underdog into international power. I wish people would ask me, though, "What are the blessings of living in Israel?"
What I love about Israel is that I GET to dislike it or like it or criticize it--if I want. I'm free to express myself (as long as I'm not giving up military secrets.. but hey, I don't know any of those!) In America, I also enjoy this freedom, but when I think of my friends who are studying in other places, I realize just how careful they have to be with their speech. In Israel, where you can see someone wearing ultra-religious garb walking next to someone flaunting almost every inch of their secular/bad-ass body, the freedom of expression is taken for granted. As much as anti-Israel advocates spend their days thrashing everything about Israel, it has never seemed to me that they actually address that the society/place which they are fighting for offers them few rights in the way of speech (unless that speech is anti-Israel.) Israel is a tiny haven of expression and freedom in a whirlpool of countries (Iran.. Iraq...Libya..) where people can really talk about the social and political issues happening in their society, and thus work to make real changes. 

In Israel, gay couples live with government protection--tell me which Arab country boasts the same protections for its citizens who are homosexuals or engage in homosexual practices? In Israel, women can rise high in government and in the private sector (no--not as high as I'd like, but they're making strides that are equal to or greater than in the United States0> Unfortunately, in Israel some (non-Jewish) groups do commit (dis)honor-killings against their wives/daughters/mothers who have been brutalized and raped. In Israel, though, women receive government protection. 

This weekend, I was able to sit in a Jerusalem cafe loudly debating about 9/11 with my friend, who is an Arab Muslim. This is the ultimate freedom that Israel provides--and this is why Israelis and Americans (politicians and civilians alike) to truly connect to one another. We both come from expression societies, where are freedom of speech is guaranteed. I only wish everyone else in the world could enjoy this enormous blessing!