Monday, November 17, 2008


"When you are a foreigner, you function about as well as a retarded person." -Adir
A friend of mine said this to me as we were walking home along the streets of Tel-Aviv last night, me taking him home from his art class in exchange for some free corn schnitzel and laughs. 

Am I A City Person? Or a Country Person? 
I love the lay-out of streets, endless shops to pause into, when trees seem special because they're surrounded by forests of sidewalk, and being able to glance at thousands of people a day. I love the energy of this city, I don't like the pushing and the shoving and the fact that some clerks assume that they're stuck in the 15th century and thus can't be 21st century efficient. But, I love this little town by the sea--where you can see the strangest person doing the strangest things alongside overly casual businessmen on telephones yelling at this secretaries. Today I was sitting in the Mediterranean, not exactly swimming, and I looked up at a line of hotels along the Tel-Aviv shore. I was reminded of a picture that I saw in my art history class today, in 1909 Tel-Aviv was nothing more than a big sand-dune. It was crowded with hopes and dreams of a new Jewish, Hebrew city, camels and donkeys and the occassional sheep (they used to run down the roads here until the 1960s from Jaffa). Today, Tel-Aviv is built on concrete, but is still a youthful, playful, livable city. I read a quote by Israeli artist, Reuven Rubins, who fled to Tel-Aviv after a bad experience in Jerusalem. (Can anyone really experience Jerusalem without having a bad trip down this or that lane?) Anyways, Rubins said: 
"I felt that I too should stay in Tel-Aviv, for I fell in love with the youthful character of the city, and the sea had always held an attraction for me." 

Or do I like the country better? 
This weekend, I was in the North with the Overseas program. We stayed in the Galilee, the middle, but hiked on Mount Meron, in the Golan, and in the lower Galilee. The hikes were gorgeous, and I actually enjoyed them--they weren't too intense, had some beautiful views, and we got to see some adorable horses, majestic oak trees, and fields the color of my friend Sarah's icy blonde hair. It reminded me how much I love being in nature, I haven't been in it since Amirim, and how tiny and big it makes me feel at the same time. I keep forgetting how greenery opens up my soul, it makes me feel free and wild and playful and joyful again. There's nothing I love more than walking in a city at night--except making walking under the stars in the country. I saw my first shooting star in the countryside of Israel, in Amirim, and will never forget it or what I wished for. 
In the north visited a sulfur-smelling hot-spring (that made me feel a tad itchy), a winery where it seemed all the girls lapped up this white wine called "Muscat" that was sweet and yummy. 

I roomed with four girls, Sarrah (she's basically my Sarah-Billian replacement in Israel, from Queens), and a girl from Georgia and a girl from China. Both incredibly sweet, but for four girls one bathroom is NOT enough by far. Sarrah played a prank on me with Jacques, the resident snob from England/South Africa, and I got to know another South African a bit. 

I also noticed that I'm happier than I used to be, I'm singing LOUDLY in the shower now, humming as I walk down the street, and kind of skipping along after I go for work-outs at the gym. (I almost fell over and sprained my ankle today as a result.. but that's another story.) 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

University Life

What's up in Tel-Aviv--
Municipal Elections: Tel-Aviv is going through its municipal elections, some of the bigger parts are the Parties City for Everyone (run by Communists), To Give Life (an animal rights group), Meretz (they have an American branch) and the Green Party. City for Everyone has the most volunteers (according to one of their volunteers) and their volunteers seem to flooded the streets, the bulletin boards, and beyond. I've tried asking for an explanation between the parties, but all I get are "oh, this one is slightly more left wing than that one." I asked the City for Everyone party volunteer to explain to me why he was volunteering for them, his reply was: "It's the best." (thanks for the insight!) City for Everyone has the platform that they'll make the city more affordable, especially around the Jaffa area where many Arab families cannot pay their taxes. Tel-Aviv is slowly becoming a city where only the wealthy and single can live (thoughts of New York harken back), it's vibrancy so attractive that prices are rising and slowly choking off the city to families and anyone without a large amount of money for rent. 
All of these parties were out rallying at Yitzhak Rabin's memorial, a formerly less-political event. Now, its almost an orgy of martyrdom for Yitzhak Rabin, with politics as its purpose and slogan and the memory of Rabin slowly fading. It's not a time for Israelis to come together, rather it's a time for them to see banners. 
One of the most surprising things about the memorial, which seemed to take over Kikar Rabin and the surrounding streets, was that many youth groups were out and about. Between Habonim Dror, and plenty of others--all with similarly styled blue shirts--the youth (age 8 onwards) seemed to dominate the scene. 
Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni, and others spoke about the need to create a better Israel, with more stable internal relations and better relations with Palestinian neighbors. 
At the end of the night, I felt almost hollow. Politics has taken over memory, and something as straightforward as commemorating the death of a fellow human being, who was murdered, has been made partisan. This country is so fractured,and all the time opportunities for unity--between the holidays and memorials--are becoming fraught with tension and division. 
I'm constantly thinking, "Israel could learn from this or that in Diaspora communities" or "Diaspora Jews should do this like Israelis..." In truth, Diaspora Jewish communities are highly fractured as well--although (thank G-d) political differences are often a little smaller, and don't pit Jew against Jew the way they do in Israel. 

In other news, people were pushing and shoving all over the place at this event--even a memorial for Rabin couldn't spark manners. Someone, an opinionated American from the midwest, recently said to me: "Israelis act like animals, walking around with cellphones." 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Israeli Charm and Inefficiency

This weekend I got on a bus to Jerusalem, for the Building-Future-Leadership seminar run by MASA. program is for college and post-college students (although there were some rabbinical students, and several students from the Israel Government Fellows Program--which sounds pretty neat.) 
The program was great for several reasons:
1) The staff was friendly and knowledgeable. While my group leader, a lively Jerusalemite half-American-half-Canadian, stood out as "staff" she also had a strong "friend" vibe and didn't set herself apart in our group discussions. 
2) Our speakers included Moshe Kainas (from Avarim), Yehuda Bar-Shalom (who happens to be one my teachers and the head of the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem), and Dani Gliksberg, who along with 5 friends helped to found Ayalim Student Village. 
3) The other participants came from all over the world, but all are doing programs in Israel. Some are on Otzma, at the University of Haifa, Tel-Aviv University, and Because We Care (along with several other programs.) My sub-group for discussion and ideas has 13 people--and only four were Americans. 

On Thursday, we were welcomed, and then heard from Yehuda Bar-Shalom, who gave a speech based on "citizenship principles" based on, what is an active citizen, what is a passive citizen, who is a participatory citizen? Yehuda also talked about the influence of those around children, using himself as an example and his "Youth Aliyah" to a strict Kibbutz, and how a few good and bad teachers turned around his ideas of himself. We also had an session on identity, and were given quotes about identifying ourselves, and our origins, as crucial before we can identity our leadership styles. 

The next day we went to Har Herzl (Mount Herzl) where several Israeli leaders are buried at the top of the mountain (Herzl at the top), followed by luminaries like Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Golda Meir. While walking by their graves we discussed their leadership styles, from Golda's "charming" Kissinger to Rabin's legacy. On the second level of graves on Har Herzl are victims of terror. 
Batya, our group leader, asked us to think about why the mountain was set up with leaders on top, victims in the middle, and soldiers on bottom? Are soldiers, perhaps, the basis of Israeli society (and considering their reserve duty until they are in their 40's, Israelis remain soldiers throughout their lives) and that is on the bottom? Or is it because everyone can be a soldier, but only a few can be leaders? 
We also visited the Herzl Museum, and learned about his life. It's amazing to realize that Herzl only lived 8.5 years spreading the Zionism as a viable idea, and even bought a charter for 1 million Turkish lira for the State of Israel. At first, he was reviled by the establishment (working with the establishment was another theme throughout the seminar, do you work with it or create a new one?) Today, so many people whose lives are safe, and more secure, due to Zionism consider themselves post-Zionists, or have forgotten the meaning of Zionism. Herzl never lived to see people grow tired of Zionism, because he was never even able to see his ideas fully flushed out. He died not realizing that his dream would be a reality--despite his (mistranslated) quote: "If you will it, it is not a dream." 

Motti Kainas, a former Shaliach to San Fransisco and partial founder of Avarim, an organization meant to promote civil society in Israel, and the ideals of Zionism. I particularly enjoyed Motti's aims to make Israel a "nicer" society: like bringing lines and more consideration into Israel. It's a daily challenge for me to handle the disorder here, the randomness, the pushing--it's another bit about Israeli life that stresses me and makes me feel like dust. And it's especially off-putting because you know that it's not intentional, that the Israeli system is not in any way meant to be rude or demeaning, it's just appears to me, as an Anglo, impolite and degrading. And of course, there are so many exceptions, so many Israelis who try to inject a bit of thoughtfulness, and the ability to stand in a line, into society. 

Dani Glicksberg's project was maybe the most inspiring. After the death of two of his friends in a terrorist attack, Glicksberg and 5 friends set up Ayalim Student Villages, using their army dispensation money (something Israeli soldiers are given after they finish the army for marriage, education, or buying a house) and loans ("we didn't even think about paying them back, we just did it."-this was another aspect that we argued about, should you believe in your idea so hard that you don't plan on failure? I said no.) They set up student villages in devleopment towns in the Negev and the Galil, students do 500 hours of community work a year, and live in these depressed development towns bringing new life to them and new young people. In return, they get a full-scholarship for school. 
After graduation, 85% of the students choose to stay where they are, giving further live and money to these towns. Dani Glicksberg also offered this silver lining: student moved into abandoned, run-down buildings in the Old City of Acco, which was 100% Muslim. They students were both Arab and Jewish. Eventually, some Arab students began getting threats that from the neighbors that they were being "disloyal" because they were living with Jews. Fortunately, time and a lot of work smoothed over this divide, and during the recent riots in Acco, students were told by their Arab neighbors "Don't worry, you're safe." Particularly the story in Acco put coexistence in a new light, coexistence is one thing, but when it's your direct neighbor (as opposed to many self-segregated neighborhoods in Israel) and you live and work directly with them and their children. Glicksberg also mentioned that "we try to inject a little Judaism, not dati, but Jewish lessons into our work." :) Student villages are 50-50 dati (religious) and secular, with friendships flourishing, and said: "Many of the secular students have their kitchens koshered so that their religious friends can visit." 

I was also able to see a friend who goes to Hebrew U for the semester, and attend her Halloween party (my costume: a slightly sloppy American.) It was nice to have a little Halloween spirit :) 
I also found out about "The Merkaz" an anglo center in Jerusalem, with games, activities, and programming that people (*Shaina*) in Jerusalem might be interested in. They also have a virtual center in T.A. for anglos! 

In other news, the NYTimes had a GREAT article about Tel-Aviv art scene, this makes me even happier that I'm taking an Israeli art course-I can't wait to understand it all!