Sunday, November 7, 2010

thank you, fred phelps?

It's been a long time, but a few experiences I've had recently are starting to synthesize in my head, and I think writing about them might be useful.

I had a difficult time living in Israel. I don't think anyone finds that surprising. I felt challenged every day, by a multitude of things - the fact that I couldn't buy the cheese I wanted in the grocery store, the frustration of being unable to explain what I wanted to the bank, and things far more serious, like my inability to pray at the Kotel with a tallit and the way the Israeli government treats minorities. I felt angry, all of the time. I wanted to scream at people in the street - how can you live like this? Why don't you do something about it? Can't you see how absurd this all is?

For the past four weeks, I've been reading A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I read part of it my first year at Brandeis, and though it was recommended that I read the whole thing I never did (for those of you reading this who paid for my college education, don't worry - it was an extra assignment, not actual homework). It's fascinating, and I think I appreciate it much more now then I would have then, given the life experiences I've had, and the greater intellectual understanding I have of issues surrounding poverty and the treatment of minorities in the States. As I read about the treatment of Native Americans in the Revolutionary period, and the treatment of African Americans in the post-Civil War period, and the government's treatment of unions and minorities and women and preferential treatment to the rich and to industry, I started to feel a familiar anger. How does something like this happen? How do we let it get so bad?

It all came to a head on Saturday afternoon, outside the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans, also known as the current home of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. I had a short break from programming for the day, and so I had gone on a walk to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and coffee (never having been to New Orleans before, I felt I had to go straight to the source). The walk was beautiful - the French Quarter is lovely, and the sun was shining. I was feeling incredibly relaxed and happy as I strolled back to the hotel, and then I saw them - the protesters.

A small group - maybe 5-10 people. Men and women, old and young. They all carried signs - "God hates fags," "Jews killed Jesus," "God hates you," "You're going to Hell" - it seemed the Westboro Baptist Church had decided to grace us with their presence.

It was a shock to my system. Thankfully, other than one incident of verbal harassment from an ass on the streets of Manhattan and one unfortunate soul on the El in Chicago, I have had an incredibly easy transition back to life in the States. Everything was exactly as I remembered it when I was feeling so homesick in Jerusalem. But this - this was personal in a way that nothing else has been since I came back. This was very clearly a protest of a positive thing - a gathering of the Jewish community - and it hurt to witness.

When I was living in Israel, I didn't know how to love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I wasn't mentally comfortable with living that dichotomy. But standing outside of the Sheraton, witnessing the Westboro Baptist Church protest and feeling totally blindsided, I remembered the last time I felt that hatred - it was at the Kotel, on Rosh Chodesh, trying to pray while being verbally harassed by Haredim. Yet I do, and have always, loved America - despite our history, despite our faults and missteps and years of uncorrectable wrongs. I am an American, through and through - I love American culture and history and food. And I am completely capable of holding that duality in my head - of hating American manipulation of foreign governments, and our system of capitalism that values workers over families, and our history of oppression of both our own and other peoples - while also loving the Grand Canyon and bluegrass and college basketball. It's okay to do the same thing with Israel.

It's okay.

I can love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I know how. I do it every single day I walk down the street in New York and see homeless men and women sitting on the streets begging for spare change because society has abandoned them.

No one is asking me to accept every action of the Israeli government. I hope that my criticism can be welcomed and used in a constructive way. But I don't have to be 100% unhappy with Israel to do that. I am allowed to think fondly of eating hummus and pita at Hummus talpiot, and of enjoying the beauty of the Mediterranean beaches, and of hiking through the Golan and swimming in waterfalls. It doesn't mean I don't also see the negative. It just means I know how to balance the two.

I don't anticipate an immediate future where I want to pick up everything and move to Jerusalem. There would need to be some major changes on all sides of the equation. But I also know that the self-righteousness I was feeling (and that's clearly what it was, in retrospect) is almost as dangerous as the blind hatred of people like the Haredim who regularly throw chairs at my friends while they're davening and that of the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Nobody's right and nobody's wrong. We're all just trying to figure it out, one day at a time.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Day 323: Home Again

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I wanted to wrap up my experience of life in Israel. I fell off the blog wagon a few months ago – I simply started doing too many things (a common experience for me in the spring time) and this became a lower priority. But I also really wanted to take some time to talk about what the last few months at Pardes and in Jerusalem meant for me.

As a student, the last few months at Pardes were difficult for me. It was hard to maintain my focus, because I had started to think about where I wanted to be during the summer and in the fall, and that became more of a priority as the semester went on. Some of my classes continued to be stimulating and exciting – for example, my absolute favorite was a class called Critical Issues in Modern Jewish Thought. It was a simple class – we read a different essay each class period, and then came together to discuss it. The essays were divided into distinct units – God, the Torah, Chosenness, Halacha, and Feminism – and at the end of each unit, several students were invited to present their personal views about the topic using the readings as a guide. I appreciated the push it gave me to examine my own ideas – I don’t think we spend enough time talking about what each of us actually thinks about God, and where the Torah came from, and whether or not the Jews are a chosen people. And it’s important to be able to answer those questions – or at least, to start to encounter them – because if we know what we think about the basic concepts, then we can start to structure our answers to the more complicated questions.

I had a lot of beautiful moments during my last two months at Pardes. My parents and one of my brothers came to visit, which was a wonderful ten days. I went on one last Shabbaton with Pardes, to the Galil, where we hiked and swam in the Mediterranean and relaxed in the sun. I celebrated Shavuot at Pardes, where I studied all evening and then prayed at sunrise on the Tayelet, wearing a brand new tallit I had purchased the day before. I became closer with the people around me – had picnics in parks and dinners out, ate amazing salads, ate rugelach and drank iced Aroma’s until I thought I would burst. I helped plan and run a student fundraising campaign as well as a series of programs to help people prepare for life after Pardes. I cancelled a trip to Bonnaroo and planned a trip to Chicago instead.

A lot of people ask me if leaving Israel was difficult for me – and in some respects, it was. There are definitely things I’ll miss, like being able to look out of the Beit Midrash windows and see the sun setting over Jerusalem, or being able to hop on a bus to the shuk and buy halva and olives and cheese. I’ll miss the community that supported me and helped me grow for nine months. I’ll miss the traveling throughout Israel – the hiking, and beautiful wildflowers, and seemingly never-ending sunshine. But then, on the other hand, there are things that are easy to leave behind. I spent the time before my flight back to New York sitting on the floor in a terminal in Ben Gurion, writing a few e-mails to friends and watching a movie. At one point, I looked up from my computer to see a man walking towards me. We made eye contact, I smiled in his direction, and he started to speak, saying “have you davened Ma’ariv yet?” And that’s when I realized that he hadn’t made eye contact with me at all; in fact, he had been looking at the gentleman sitting to my left. It is moments like this that I won’t miss about Israel at all – feeling invisible during what should be heightened spiritual moments, feeling less than or other simply because of my genetic makeup. I don’t like feeling that way, and I still, even after nine months of intensive study, don’t see a reason why there are people in the world who think that Judaism requires such a separation between men and women. I’m ready to leave that behind and look to the future.

And what does the future hold for me? In my last entry, I referenced a job interview that I thought had gone well. It had definitely gone well – after a follow up interview and two weeks of waiting, I was officially hired as the new North American Director of Recruitment for the Pardes Institute, which is a really long and complicated way of saying “person who convinces other people to move to Jerusalem for nine months.” I am incredibly excited about the job – I think it will be challenging and stimulating and a wonderful place to work for the next few years. I’m moving to NYC at the end of June, and starting work on July 1st.

There’s so much more I could say about my life in Israel, but instead I want to take a moment to think about something else. Five years and eight days, the day before my nineteenth birthday, my grandfather passed away. One year and four days ago, three days after my twenty-third birthday, my grandmother passed away. I think these two weeks will always be a little difficult for me, but I take a lot of comfort in knowing that my grandparents would be incredibly proud of what I have done and what I am planning on doing with my life. This year, right before my birthday, my parents gave me my grandmother's copy of Jewish Cooking in America - I'm looking forward to using it in the future, as I continue to live a rich and fulfilling Jewish life. Much like the nine months I just spent living in Jerusalem, it's something I will carry with me forever.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Day 261: Seven More Weeks

Excerpts from an e-mail that I recently wrote:

Let's see...Purim was quite the experience. A good friend of mine from Chicago, Cara, had been in Israel for about a week at that point, and she came to spend Purim with me in the city, which was really wonderful. Pardes is a good place for holidays; there was a student-written Purim shpiel, a megillah reading, and a great seudah at my teacher Meesh's house. I spent some of the evening on Ben Yehudah, which was a bit of madhouse, but I'm glad I went - it was an interesting evening, to say the least.

I've been on vacation for the last few weeks - today was actually my first day back in class. I went on a three-day tiyul with Pardes to the Golan, which was absolutely beautiful. All of the flowers are blooming, and we had great weather while we were there, so the hiking was a lot of fun. I swam in some waterfalls, which was both freezing and fun. Up until this point most of my tiyulim have been to the desert; I really enjoyed getting to explore a different part of the country.

The week before Pesach, Jesse and I were in Rome and Venice. I was originally planning that trip so that I could see Rachel, but her schedule and mine just didn't match up well at all. Nonetheless, it was a great week - I'd never been to Italy before and I completely fell in love with it. The food, the people, the ruins everywhere - I think I could happily spend months just exploring all of the old churches and art museums. (For photos, go here)

I had a bit of a crazy trip back to Jerusalem from Venice (it wound up taking me 28 hours, 2 trains, 2 planes, a bus, a sherut, and a stop in Latvia), but I made it back in time for seder. Being in Israel for Passover was a very different experience from being in the states - I actually went out for dinner one night and had pasta made out of potato flour, which didn't taste all that great but was a cool experience. I went to a seder that was almost completely Pardes students, and it was really amazing to see everyone connecting our newfound knowledge of Exodus with the seder.

I spent yesterday on the beach in Tel Aviv in celebration of the last day of vacation\Duke winning (I chose not to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the game, but I thought about it pretty seriously), and it was a good way to end vacation. I'm really looking forward to seeing my parents soon, and getting to show them a little bit of my life here.

Other than that, I'm looking more and more seriously for jobs for next year. It's a bit of a slow process right now, but as the days go by I put more energy into it. I had a job interview the other day which I think went pretty well, but you never know with things like that. I have faith that it'll work itself out eventually - it helps that I'm fairly open-minded about what I want to be doing and where I'm willing to live.

And, a few days later, here's the update: my parents are coming on Thursday! That's most of what I'm thinking about right now - getting ready to change my schedule for two weeks, and to spend a little bit of time traveling and sightseeing. I'm also working on some things for Pardes - doing some end-of-the-year transition programming, and potentially some fundraising. I'm also thinking about a trip to Chicago at the end of June\early July, and getting ready for Bonnaroo in June!

I have seven weeks left in Israel, and a lot of things left to do before I leave. I'm looking forward to the experience.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Day 197: It's been way too long

On Thursday morning, I was sitting in the Beit Midrash studying Talmud with my chevruta Rachel when we noticed a large crowd of people gathering around the windows. "What's the commotion?" we asked. "It's snowing!" Now, don't get too excited. It turns out that in the Middle East there is no distinction made between sleet, hail, and snow. Anything frozen that falls out of the sky is classified as snow.

This was sleet, and with it came all of the unpleasantness of winter - freezing rain, cold fingers, runny noses, and slippery streets. It lasted through the night last night, and then I woke up this morning to a beautiful, sunny, 45 degree February day. I make it a rule not to complain about the rain here - I live in the desert, after all, and all rain is a good thing. That being said, I do have a preference for rain in warmer weather - I find it to be easier on the body.

Thursday marked the end of the second week of the new semester - I've finally settled into a new class schedule, though I think it's going to take a little while longer before I remember what room all of my classes are held in.

In the mornings, I've moved from Level Bet Talmud and Chumash to Level Bet+, which means that I now spend three days a week studying Talmud and two studying Chumash instead of vice versa. It's a good change for me - I'm with a group of nine other students, seven of whom I was in Bet with before - and the smaller class size makes it easier to get to know people and get focused attention from the teachers.

I'm taking five other classes - Philosophy of Halacha, Women and Mitzvot, Critical Issues in Modern Jewish Thought, Torah Trope, and Hassidut. They're all very interesting, and I think I'm going to learn a lot. I'm especially excited to be studying Torah trope - it's really eciting to think that at the end of the semester I'll be able to chant Torah!

I had some friends over for sushi on Thursday, which was quite the adventure - I hadn't made sushi rice in a few months and I forgot how messy it is! It turned out well in the end, and I think everyone had a lot of fun. Tonight we're going out to celebrate Miriam's acceptance into rabbinical school, which we're all very excited about! And then, in a few days, Cara is coming to Israel! (For those of you who don't know, Cara and I did Avodah together in Chicago last year). I'm looking forward to seeing her face again. For now, though, a nap and a shower, because it's Shabbat, and Shabbat is about relaxing!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Day 177: look how far we've come

I was chatting with my friend Kelly yesterday, and she pointed out to me that today is actually the one year anniversary of our road trip to D.C. for President Obama's Inauguration. Time is funny, because in some ways it feels like it was yesterday, and in others it feels like it was so much longer ago than just one year.

It was such an amazing trip for so many reasons - the sense of adventure and excitement, being able to spend a few days out of Chicago, driving halfway across the country and back in a giant purple minivan... President Obama's campaign was the first Presidential campaign that I really involved myself in, and being able to see it come to fruition was so fulfilling. I got to see Pete Seeger (adorable!) and Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor and Steve Carrell and that guy from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle in concert. I had lunch with Jason, and met the D.C. Avodah-niks, and ate the biggest slice of pizza I have ever eaten (Jumbo Slice. check it out). I watched Senator Obama become President Obama, and then departed on one of the longest car trips of my life, where I heard Fear of Sleep for the first time.

More than anything, though, the thing I remember about that trip is that it was the last time I saw Grandma Marilyn - several of my friends spent the morning volunteering, but I hadn't seen Grandma since the August before that, and I wanted to spend some time with her. My Aunt Susan was there as well - she cooked a wonderful breakfast, and the three of us just sat and talked for hours. I told Grandma that I was learning how to knit, and she gave me some of her old knitting needles to take with me. It's one of the best memories I have of her, and it's also one of the hardest, because for the first time I saw how sick she really was. I can't believe that was a year ago.

I am currently in Jerusalem, on vacation. The first semester of classes ended last Thursday, and our next semester starts a week from tomorrow, so we all have a little bit of a break to take some deep breaths and recharge. I have...very few plans for this week. I'm thinking of going to Tel Aviv on Tuesday as long as it's sunny, so I can wander around Nachalat Binyamin and dip my toes in the Mediterranean, and then on Thursday night I'm heading to Arad with my friend Sharon (Sharon from Pardes, not Sharon from N.C.) to stay with her aunt for Shabbat. I'm looking forward to a few days in the desert - it's always so quiet, which is nice, and the stars are so beautiful. Other than that I plan to read and catch up on sleep and watch a few movies. It should be nice and relaxing!
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