THINGS I’LL MISS ABOUT ISRAEL

This semester at UHIS is drawing to a close as Spring in Israel turns to Summer in Israel, which is… not that different, really. But though the weather may stay the same, the faces around me are changing as people move out of the dorms, or out of the University, or out of the country entirely and onto the next stages of their lives. After 8+ months in Israel I’m starting to realize that there are a lot of unexpected things I’ll miss! The current working list: 

1. Limonana
Lemon and mint were made by some higher being to always go together and I will not be convinced otherwise. Whether in juice, ice cream, or cool summer slushies Limonana is the simplest, most sensible flavor combo and I don’t understand why the rest of the world hasn’t picked up on it yet (looking at you, Ben&Jerry’s).

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Featured: Thank you Mother Nature

2. Chabad dinners on Shabbat
Nothing says “end of the month” like 50 people gathered in the Moadon tremulously guessing numbers when it’s their turn to pick out a song in a language a lot of them can’t actually read. As someone who has been attending Shabbat dinners for approximately 23 years it’s really lovely to share that experience with people who haven’t and are excited to earnestly engage in and learn about Jewish culture and tradition. Nothing quite beats the experience of hearing my international friends excitedly debate over whether to sing “Lecha dodi” or “Oseh shalom” while eating magically pareve heart-shaped ice cream.

3. Academic tours
If you’re the type of person who loves being shuttled around from place to place and told exactly what to look at without paying any money to do so, these tours are perfect for you (and me). Not having a car in Israel makes long-distance traveling more than a bit of a hassle, and don’t get me started regarding living on top of a mountain. Waking up at 6:30 in the morning is a small price to pay to get to see and learn about the Golan Heights, Yad Vashem, and more along with cool company and a comfy bus.

IMG_7279.jpgFeatured: The most recent trip to Metula and the border of Lebanon

4. Zumba & Krav Maga
Because the 15-minute hike up from the dorms to the classrooms just isn’t enough.

5. Parties on the quad
Wednesday gets a bad rap for it’s position in the dead center of the school week, but not at UHIS. Here Wednesday means lunch out on the quad in the sunshine with free beer, and cotton candy, and ice cream, and iced coco, and cheese squares, and music, and need I go on?

6. Poppies, lavender, rosemary, sage
Israel lives up to New Jersey’s legacy not only in size but also in name; if anything is to be called a “Garden State” it’s this place here, and that doesn’t stop on a college campus. I’ll miss idly picking at a leaf and then realizing it smells like my favorite dishes, or salt scrubs, or essential oils. It’s like living in a giant Bed, Bath & Beyond only better because there’s cats.

IMG_4906.jpgFeatured: Not a stock photo- see Eshkol in the background! (credits to Elisa Krieger) 

I’m positive there’s more (and bigger) things that I’ll miss about living here, and I’ll most likely realize a good chunk of them only after I’ve moved away. But in the meantime it’s nice to have another month or two to fully appreciate what I’ve got with an awareness of just how lucky I am to have it.

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Getting a (Literal) Perspective on Haifa

Born and raised in NYC, I’m a city girl at heart. Spoiled terribly by one of the densest cities in the world, where our nature is neatly quarantined in Central Park and ice cream is available at all hours of the night. It took me awhile to adjust to living at the University of Haifa, where it is impossible to buy ice cream at 3am and awfully annoying to go at 2am, because you have to shlep down a giant mountain filled with twists and turns which are pretty scary to take at night. The sounds of the city that I’m so used to- sirens, shouting, party music, protests- are replaced by whistling wind and the incessant creaking of my bomb-shelter window. Sometimes there are crickets. More often there are cats. At least once a week, I hear coyotes howling in the distance. Or maybe jackals? I don’t know. The closest thing to a wild animal I see in New York is my 10-pound poodle.

I know Haifa is the 3rd largest city in Israel. But as of 2015, it had 278,903 people, which equalled 0.31% of the NYC population at the same time. So I hope I’ll be excused for the amount of times I’ve referred to Haifa as a town, or suburb, or hamlet. It took me awhile to stop comparing the way “city” is used here to how it’s used back home. It was only in coming to accept that the definition of city is different in the first place that I started to see and appreciate Haifa for the beautiful place that it is.

IMG_4656.JPGFeatured: The awe-inspiring view from Eshkol Tower, UHIS

Unlike in NYC, I can actually see the stars here. I can see the sun rise and the moon set for more than the precious few minutes they spend beyond the reach of skyscrapers. I can hike out one day and find a cave, another a stream, another a meadow, another a mining project. Another a forest, another a beach. In New York, the place stays the same but the people change. In Haifa it’s all too easy to see a familiar face, but I discover new spots every day. The variety of sites in Haifa distinguishes it from the type of uniform city design that I’m used to.

IMG_4691Featured: Eshkol tower in the distance, as the sun rises on Israel. So much greenery in a main city!

I’ve learned a lot from living on Mount Carmel. I’ve learned how to motivate myself for early morning hikes, because nothing beats a cliffside sunrise. I’ve learned to appreciate the creepy fog— or is it a cloud?— that settles in the early morning, and the way the lights of the city don’t quite reach the top of the mountain at night. I’ve learned how to seek out places to go and things to do without Facebook, or twitter, or my University email notifying me of them beforehand.

Most of all, I’ve learned how to give new places a chance, and I am so, so glad I did.

IMG_4736.JPGFeatured: WOW.

The Story of the Amulet, Or: The Wildest Thing That Ever Happened to Me, Or: A 4-Year Journey Back to Heritage

Sometimes you can be on a journey without even knowing. Mine started approximately 4 years ago on a busy street in New York City. I remember it in the way you remember a particularly good meal or a sunset at the beach. A moment not special enough to remember all the particulars, but nice enough to recall the generalities when you need to.

I was walking out of class with my Yemeni boyfriend when I spotted something on the ground. It was silvery and dulled by dirt, like an old quarter, which was enough for me to bend down and check it out.

It wasn’t a quarter. It was a strange, dirtied, broken tube with some straggling bits of string attached. A little metal ball hung off one end and there were a couple interesting faded patterns here and there. I have a habit of picking up bits and bobs of the street, but generally that entails small coins or cool stones. This wasn’t like anything I usually pocketed and yet I felt drawn to it. I threw it in my bag without thinking about it further, resolving to wash it and look at it more when I got home.

For the next four years that little piece of metal became my lucky charm. Cleaning it up didn’t make it any more obvious what exactly it was but I loved it nonetheless. I would run my fingers along the grooves when nervous, flip it around when antsy, grip it when I needed that extra boost of confidence. For the rest of winter I never left the house without it in my coat pocket, and when it got warmer it took up permanent residence inside my bag.

When I moved to Israel at the end of 2016 I didn’t think twice about bringing it with me. My bag was coming, my coat was coming, my charm was coming. At one point a friend I met in Haifa was digging through my bag when she spotted it, pulled it out, and asked what it was. I didn’t have a good answer for her beyond “it’s a thing I found on the ground, and I like it, so I carry it”. My friend thought it was cool too, but even putting two heads together neither of us could think of what it actually was. It faded back to relative anonymity soon after.

Before I went back to America for break I had enough time for a final hurrah. I planned to go with my friends from Haifa to Akko to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We were just about finishing up our allotted time in Tel Aviv when I remembered a couple galleries I’d been meaning to check out. Even though I’d been dying to visit Jerusalem, I suddenly felt the urge to stay and peruse some more traditional Tel Aviv art instead.

Putting our Jerusalem plans on the back-burner my friend and I wandered semi-aimlessly through the old streets of Jaffa (יפו), bordered on either side by a mix of zodiac tiles, Jewish graffiti and artist spaces. We walked through several stunning romanesque archways only to find a falafel stand waiting for us at the end. We were urged through a dilapidated doorway straight into someone’s house, where they sold handmade sculptures so fancy we could barely afford to gaze upon them. Jaffa is filled with little inconsistencies like that; polished metals creeping into the cracks of ancient Jerusalem stone, virtually unknown alleyways filled with famous works of art.

So when together we happened upon a stunning jewelry shop containing glass cases filled to the brim with glittering trinkets and glossy curiosities, we weren’t fooled. This was not the broke-student-affordable type of gallery we were looking for. Given our experiences up until then, we figured this jewelry store was more likely to contain the lost crown jewel of some ancient empire than the little touristy tchotchkes I planned on bringing home.

Featured: Let us not taunt ourselves with that which we cannot have 

Sharing a look of amusement and regret my friend and I continued on to the little patio next door. This outdoor space was much more our style*, made up of a group of couches framed by overhanging trees and tilting rooftops which corralled the light into a perfect little square. It didn’t look like many galleries were open, but at least we’d found this cool little skylight.

I’d only just suggested sitting down when the door across from us opened. A man poked his head out and smiled, gesturing us in.

“!יָאללָה בנות, בוא אלי! אנחנו פתוחים “

“Come in girls, we’re open!” 

The site was a local workshop for Yemenite silver metalworking, the manager explained, featuring a small museum about the history of Yemenite Jews. It was completely free to look around, and the staff inside welcomed us with excitement and gracious hospitality. They supplied us with multiple cups of Yemeni coffee, and insisted we eat some dates while we were at it. They turned on a movie for us about the history of the place- it was run by an 8th generation Yemeni Jewish silversmith named Ben Zion- and had us look through the variety of brochures, books, photo albums, and informative posters on display.

At this point my friend and I were feeling delightfully spoiled. We’d come to see the traditional art of Tel Aviv and ended up finding a goldmine! Or, more accurately, a silvermine. It was then we learned that everything in the jewelry store next door had actually been handmade by Ben Zion himself, who would be arriving shortly to do a small metalworking presentation. In the meantime did we want to check out the work in the store?

Well. Having been wined and dined, how could we say no?

Thus, not twenty minutes after my friend and I had so disdainfully given the store a hard pass we found ourselves inside it, eyeing the delicate, handmade work with a new level of appreciation. Yemenite Jewish jewelry is traditionally made of melted down silver coins turned into tiny little wires, which are then poked and prodded into incredibly complex designs, each with their own symbolism and purpose.

Here is where things started to get weird. I was staring at a piece of jewelry and it looked familiar. Now, the only exposure I’d had to any Yemenite culture before this was when I dated my Yemeni ex- and we didn’t exactly spend a lot of time discussing the history of his culture’s silversmiths. So I was staring at this piece, and I called my friend over, and it clicked for both of us at the same time: this piece almost looked like my lucky charm.

Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 8.42.35 PM.png
In front: The little tube I’d found on the street, featuring one little squished metal ball bravely hanging on.
In back: A beautiful traditional handmade Yemenite necklace resting on a finely decorated wedding tunic.

My friend and I shared a little giggle over this; how silly that something I found on the street resembles this gorgeous work of art! And how lucky I’d brought the charm with me all the way to Tel Aviv, half on accident- it wasn’t a conscious thought that made me bring it along, nothing more than habit.

Not long after we’re informed that the artist Ben Zion has returned, and do we want to see him actually making the work?

Of course!!!!

I don’t know what possessed me at this point. Maybe sometimes I’m a little too bold. I took out my little tube and held it up to the light. “It looks a little like one of your pieces,” I said to the artist, bashfully, after thoroughly complimenting his work. I was expecting him to laugh, or smirk, or maybe give a noncommittal hum. Instead he took the piece from me and spent a long minute examining it. Finally he asked, in a low voice;

“When did you get this?”

“I got it back in New York a couple years ago… do you know what it is?”

Yeah, he did. Ben Zion David, world-renowned 8th generation Yemenite Jewish silversmith and founder of the Museum of Yemenite Culture and Art, looked me in the eye and said,

“It’s a Yemenite Jewish amulet of protection.”

Ha. Um. What?

The little piece of metal- silver, I then found out- that I’d been carrying around for 4 years, and just happened to carry with me to Haifa, and just happened to take with me to Tel Aviv, and just happened to have been using as a lucky charm is, actually, an old, authentic, Jewish, Yemenite, blessed amulet of protection?

I barely had time to react to that before he was taking out a small metal tool and jabbing it into a little hole in the tube’s side. “Normally there is a prayer in here,” he explained, “personalized and blessed by the wearer’s Rabbi.”

He didn’t find the prayer then, but when I went in with a pair of tweezers I managed to pull out bits of a scroll so weathered by time and age it was impossible to read. Ben Zion assured me that I can and should put a new prayer in**, personalized by my own Rabbi, to restore the protective energy to its full potential. He taught us about the history of it; Yemenite amulet cases, otherwise known as a Kutub (or Kitab, from כתב, the hebrew word for “written”), Hirz, or Mezuzahs, are made specifically for Yemenite Jewish women to wear and are often given as part of their dowry and included in their bridal outfits.

I only had one choice.

“Can I commission you to fix it?”

Ben Zion did me one better, right then and there. He not only snipped off the old string and rounded out the broken hooks so that I could properly put a chain through it, but he added beautiful handmade teardrops to round out the traditional design. The remaining ball he turned into a second necklace upon my request, and added a little flair of his own with a small addition to the jump ring.

The final result: The most stunning and meaningful pieces of jewelry that I have ever owned.

Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 10.09.34 PM.png

And that, chaverim, is the Story of the Amulet.

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

*SPOILER ALERT: jokes on us, because the patio and the jewelry store belong to the same space, the Ben Zion David Yemenite Silver Art Gallery.

**Upon returning home, the first thing I did was meet with my wonderful Rabbi Avram Mlotek and tell him this story.

“Tell me in six words,” he said, before we had a chance to sit down properly. I thought about it for a moment.

“Four year journey back to heritage.”

The best part was, upon telling him the story, not only did Rev Avram immediately agree to help me write a prayer for it (!!!) but he also called up his Yemenite Jewish friend for more information on traditional prayers for amulets. His friend told us we should speak to the world’s master when it comes to Yemenite Jewish amulets…..

Ben Zion.

 

TAKE THE JOURNEY WITH US:

Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv:

The street “Mazal Daggim” (Pisces/Lucky fish) on which we first passed the store: screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-1-15-53-pm

The Jewelry Store itself:

(See inside the store and workshop HERE)

The Patio:

The Workshop Entrance (right across the patio): 

The Museum (inside the workshop): 

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH ON YEMENITE AMULETS:

Introduction to Yemenite Jewish silversmiths (sayegh) in Yemen. Part 2: Use of amulets – Kutub in Yemen:

“The power of amulets were sought to: protect… cure disease… survive difficult times. Any object that had shown particular effects or had been acquired under special/unusual conditions – e.g. a silver ornament – could become an amulet.

Silver amulets: Amulet holders were made of various materials and in various shapes according to their purpose. Circular shapes relate to unity and eternity, triangular shapes refer to the spirit, coiled shapes are used to mark progress.

The use of a particular amulet was transmitted orally, that is: when to use it, and for whom it would be beneficial. The occasion at which it would be worn is also important, as well as the spot where it is worn on the body. Silversmiths have always taken special care in making the amulet holders – called kutub, those possessing an inherent protective strength. The hollow box suffices to give protection to the wearer; still, it was usually filled, in order to serve specific functions. It includes: A hand-written parchment, myrrh, wadding that can be drenched with perfume to ward off the evil spirits.

Text written on parchments have a specific aim and the owner only can feel its effect. Those written for the Jewish population include psalms, prayers and passages of the Bible, written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Although Judaism is rich in references about curative and protective powers, the strength of these parchments relies on the names of God and angels. Kabbalistic formulae accompany or surround the text. Since holy texts were used, the amulet had a sacred status, high enough to be worn on festive occasions, but not enough to be inherited. Instead, amulets were usually destroyed after the owner had died, unless they had shown strong protective or curative powers.

Some sealed amulets have side ends with open “arches”, which enables one to look through them. Some have hollow spheres (dugag) attached, which resound like bells and possibly subdue evil powers… The glittering of the silver would confuse the evil spirits and repel them, while the amulet would confer protection.”

Yemeni Silver Beads:

“Jews came to flourish as craftsmen in Yemen, excelling as gold- and silversmiths until the mid-20th century. Then, in 1949-50, virtually all the Jews in Yemen left for Israel… Yemeni pieces are distinguished by their quality, and to this day, the finest are praised as “Jewish work.” The largest community of Yemeni smiths congregated in Sana’a, the capital, where several hundred Jews once worked in the silver suq. Their silver supply consisted in large part of recycled silver.

Protective ornaments have many forms and functions. Cylindrical or rectangular amulet cases are also sewn to children’s clothing, and a woman’s necklace may incorporate several such cases. The cylindrical cases are called hirz by Muslims and ktab (pl. kutub) by Jews. Some may be opened for the insertion of sacred verses from the Koran or Jewish scripture. Others are left empty and soldered shut. The cases themselves are believed to be invested with amuletic powers that not only can turn away malevolent forces but can attract benevolent ones. Arrowlike triangles and swinging tassels turn away evil.

Many motifs recall primeval forms of human adornment—seeds, fruit, leaves, flowers. These symbols of nature endure in Yemeni jewelry as stylized rosettes, foliage, grain, almonds, berries, and mangos. While their specific meanings are often unknown, these motifs are associated with general well-being. Grain and pomegranates, bursting with juicy seeds, are symbols of abundance and fertility. Wheat and barley are also linked to women’s daily task of grinding grain to make bread, the basic staple of the Yemeni diet. The Jewish preference for wheat motifs can be traced to the Bible, which tells that barley was used as fodder for Solomon’s horses. Jewish silversmiths were learned craftsmen who knew the significance of each motif—its magical attributes and connection to Koranic or Talmudic texts—and they matched their designs to their clients.”

Amulets, Talismans, and Magical Jewelry:

“An Amulet or talisman works because, like a dream, it gives us access to what is right under our feet. If we can turn inward the prayer or meditation, focus on what we need, and call upon the angelic messengers and the sparks of the divine within, and do the all important digging, we can often get what we need. The amulet or talisman or magical jewelry merely serves as a template for this process. It is something to hold on to, or something to hang on oneself, or something to hang one’s hopes on.

Yemenite Jewish amulets are usually inscribed on parchment. Often the inscriptions are washed off in water or vinegar and the resulting inky fluid is swallowed. The washed parchment is then rolled and placed in a silver prayercase, and tied or hung around the neck where it comes to rest between the breasts and over the heart. We need to focus on what is needed, and to articulate it, and then, to take the feelings of longing and fear and need inside ourselves, to swallow and digest and assimilate. Herein lies the real meaning of using amulets as a way of ascent to the unseen, ever-present almighty within.”

IMAGES OF OTHER AMULETS:

The Jewish Museum Collection

A pinterest board I made for this:

I am abroad, and my country is in flames: Post Election and Inauguration

How do you tell your Israeli teacher you were late to class because you woke up and found out your rights back home will be taken away?

How do you even get out of bed at all, when your body is in a new country but your heart is at home, a home that is under attack?

I woke up this morning and saw this. I saw my rights and the rights of those I love directly under threat. I saw my friends ready to fight to the death to keep them. Hyperbole? Not nearly enough. Because people will die. People are dying. Whether directly by violence at the hand of others, or by the internal hatred that results from it (for example, trans people are 36% more likely to commit suicide than cis people, with an overall rate ranging from 41-46%).

I woke up this morning and had to convince myself not to play hooky. I’m a good student. I love learning. I hate missing class. But I couldn’t decide if it would be worse to go to class and find no one talking about the elections, or to go and have to listen while students from other countries laugh at America’s current predicament, or worse- support it.

There may have been a pep talk in the mirror and a fairly indulgent pastry for breakfast. Life can’t stop because something horrible happens, and unfortunately, being halfway across the world in a place unaffected by this tragedy as of yet, life can’t even take a short break.

I thought it might be easier to be abroad during this time. A long, painful story short: It’s not.

As soon as Trump’s campaigning began, my accent became a large sign over my head proclaiming, ‘Ask my about my political views’. I began to dread meeting new people, as the inevitable question would come (a fun conversation opener for them, a moment of true unpleasantness for me); “So what do you think about Trump?”

Or the even worse, and surprisingly common, “So you support Trump, right?”

It took me two years to learn there is no right answer to this. No matter what my answer is, I run the risk of offending someone I just met and/or opening up a political conversation I don’t want to have and won’t enjoy.

If I say I don’t want to talk about it, I always, every single time, have to spend at least 5 minutes explaining and justifying why, which generally ends up devolving into exactly the kind of political conversation I didn’t want to have in the first place.

And oh, the conversations. That was when the normalization of hate speech started, for me. Either I could continue to be shocked and emotionally drained by the things I heard, or I could come to expect them, in a dreary I-have-lost-all-faith-in-humanity sort of way. As we approached the final election I was told all sorts of things I’ll never forget;

“Trump will win because of the Jews, who control the economy via Wall Street. They love him and his racism! He keeps them rich!”

“It’s amazing you’re so academically-oriented, when other kids from your [Latinx] background are thugs and raping people on the streets.”

“Hillary can’t be president, what if she gets her period?”

“Ugh, stop bringing sexism into this! We’re dealing with two objectively equal evils!”

“Queer people already have more privileges than the average citizen, they’ll live with some taken away.”

Living abroad doesn’t mean that America isn’t part of my every day reality. But it does mean that for the majority of people around me, it’s all hypothetical. People here keep telling me to buck up. Stop being so pessimistic. Think about how funny it is an idiot like him was elected. The day after Trump became president we had a 30 minute discussion in class, led by non-Americans, about how Hillary was evil too and things would be bad either way and how this was going to affect… Europe.

Considering how eager people were to ask me how I feel about Trump campaigning, you’d think more people would ask me how I feel about Trump being elected. How I myself am going to be affected. How I’m already being affected now.

Instead, a random stranger shouts at me as they pass by, “Two words for you: Trump Forever! Ha ha!”

Instead, a random stranger reprimands me as I walk by, “Why are you out here? You should be watching the news!”

Instead, my classmates, my neighbors, and the bartender tell me, “Stop looking so sad. It’s not that bad.”

“Let’s just talk to each other today,” my American friend says wearily. A small cluster of us huddle together on a bench outside. We’ve made the group decision not to talk about it, but it keeps bubbling up all the same.

I feel sadness, and shock, and above all, fear. A type of all-encompassing, invasive fear that can all-too-easily turn into hate. I already feel increasing frustration every time a non-American wants to talk to me about this. If I have to justify my feelings one more fucking time, if I have to explain why as a queer Latinx Jewish woman I am not just gently disappointed but literally and legitimately terrified for my life, I’ll… what, exactly? Punch them? Yell at them? Take all my internal turmoil out on people who didn’t cause it in the first place?

Is that really so different from how Trump got elected in the first place, with people blaming immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, women, homosexuals for stealing jobs and ruining the economy?

(I mean, yes, because I’m not voting for the systemic removal of the basic human rights of those who upset me. But the core idea, that my own inner distress excuses external violence towards others, remains.)

My teacher asks, multiple times, “But is anyone considering that Hillary being a woman had nothing to do with it?”

I’m shaking in class. My jaw is clenched as tightly as my fists; if I start arguing now, I’ll never stop.

I want to be with my community at home. I want to be with my friends, my family, my fellow protestors. I want to reaffirm my faith in my fellow Americans- tell me you’re not all like that, tell me you want me here, tell me I’m one of you. Tell me you’ll fight for me, like I will fight for you. Tell me my feelings are valid. Tell me you’re feeling them too.

No one is supposed to sit shiva alone.

The smog lies heavy over Haifa today. I live in a building on top of the mountain, knowing I will have to walk into it eventually.

 

Further reading:

http://vrumblr.tumblr.com/post/153048299156/lumpyrug-estebanwaseaten-cianm1301

http://the-samhain-sister.tumblr.com/post/153014514757/rootqueen-shocktease-my-name-is-long

http://blossomsinthemist.tumblr.com/post/153013885945/jessicalprice-swanjolras-when-i-was-a-kid-i

https://www.aclu.org/feature/donald-trump-one-man-constitutional-crisis

https://www.buzzfeed.com/tylerkingkade/sexual-assault-survivors-heartbroken-over-trump-victory?bftwnews&utm_term=.wcKYWXvLq#.hib1DoYGk

http://buckyforcap.tumblr.com/post/153151703647/buckyforcap-waking-up-in-the-donald-trump-era

The ‘Don’t Take Me Seriously’ How-To Guide for Israeli Living

Israel is a fascinating mix of “this is just like America, wow” and “literally what is happening ever”. Worried about what to look out for? Don’t. I have already made all the mistakes for you (it’s not that scary, promise)!

Here are some things to prepare you for your journey:

  • Buy a rav-kav (bus card) immediately, or else you will be inundated with agorot (אגורות), the most useless spare change in all of existence.

  • The Great Shabbos Shutdown: Be prepared. American Friday night is Israeli Thursday night. Get your partying and grocery shopping done early because nothing is open until Shabbat is over.

  • There Are Cats. CONTROL YOURSELF. Israelis do have cats for pets but the ones on the street are considered pests. To some of us this is basically an adoption free-for-all, which I greatly encourage. Many are somewhat cared for by local good samaritans but unless you are sure it is safe, be very cautious when approaching. Feed one and ten more will come. Feed eleven and you’ve done a real mitzvah! Good for you!

  • There Are Boars. If you thought cats were bad, good luck! It’s one thing to see a wild boar off in the distance when you’re out hiking. It’s another to leave a bar, turn the corner, and see a giant hulking mass of darkness and anger munching on the backyard next door. Things in Israel are never boar-ing. (sorry)

  • Pictured: Did you think this was a joke 

  • Learn some Hebrew. It doesn’t have to be a lot (though that would be nice!) since many Israelis speak medium to embarrassingly excellent English. But there will always be a situation where you need a bathroom, or a phone, or a drink, and every single sign is in Hebrew and the only person around is from another country entirely and has no idea how to help you.

  • Smoking, drinking, rock n’ roll. If you’re coming from an American university campus, you may be familiar with the 25-foot rule:
    Protip: Israeli enforcement of smoking rules has been shaky. Cigarettes are sold within campus cafeterias alongside occasional free vodka shots (?!) and fresh rugelach (רוגלך) which will taunt you daily. Set this to rock n’ roll music that came out 14 years ago and you’ve got a day in the life on an Israeli campus.

  • Socializing takes work. Expanding your circle doesn’t happen automatically. If you’re starting at a University you might check out clubs, societies, and other organizations on campus. Kidding! There are none. BUT Israel is the size of New Jersey and you can travel from one end to the other in a day. A fair exchange?new_jersey

    Pictured: Israel is the 48th smallest country in the world!

It’s also crucial to talk about food while we’re here. I’m a big fan of Israeli cuisine; it’s generally light and healthy, so long as you avoid the delicious pit of bourekas (בורקס). I miss my dollar pizza but what can you do? Here are some tips for a beginner taste-tester:

  • Hot dogs are expensive and it is because they are huge. My first hot dog came in a baguette. It was a commitment. Also, the word for hot dog is “naknikiyah” (נקניקיה). If you ask for a “dog that is hot” (כלב חם) you’ll get some very weird looks.

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    Pictured: not an Israeli hot dog, but definitely the best choice out of a surprisingly gross Google image search.

  • One day you will buy greek yogurt at the store. It is not greek yogurt. It is labneh (לַבָּנֶה ,لبنة).

  • One day you will buy a milkshake at the store. It is not a milkshake. It is sahlab (סַחְלֶבּּ ,سحلب).

  • Are you the type of person who loves using condiments? Forget it. Hummus (חומוס) is cheap and it goes with everything. Throw that ketchup in the trash and cover your entire body with hummus instead.

  • Man, I hope you like pickles.

  • I also hope you like candy (aka temptation) because it is everywhere. Open-air markets (shuk/souq, שוק/سوق) have entire street corners dedicated to it. University campuses have vintage candy dispensers on every floor that only cost a shekel and your soul. A typical Israeli treat is halvah (חלבה), which I would not be able to pick out of an edible chalk line-up. It’s a gummy life for me.

  • Za’atar (زَعْتَر‎‎) is amazing. I feel bad for insulting halvah, so maybe this will make up for it. Za’atar is a bunch of spices that come already perfectly mixed so you can impress your friends while still being lazy. My friend already bought a two-year supply and used it up. It goes on everything. Dream big.

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Pictured: Oh My God

fullsizerenderPictured: Is this really necessary

Pictured: A literal pyramid of Za’atar. Have you ever been so in love?

I (REALLY) Don’t Want A Lot For Christmas

I am in Israel during Christmas.

(Is it really “during Christmas” if I don’t celebrate Christmas, and the majority of the country doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and I honestly spent a good portion of my childhood not even knowing when Christmas was because I thought it was 12 days long and changed dates every year like Channukah does?)

Being in Israel at this time is not exactly what I’d hoped for, which was to at last be free of the capitalist curse of Hallmark holidays merged with astounding levels of ignorance surrounding Chanukkah. It’s possible to live in a bubble wherever you are, and unfortunately my bubble has few actual Israelis in it, which means I get to field commentary such as:

“You’re so lucky you get 8 days of Christmas gifts!”
[A/N: Channukah isn’t Christmas but Jewish. If we get gifts- especially big ones- it’s because of social pressure from Christians to do so. My biggest gift ever was the free printer that came with my mom’s computer. Usually it’s gelt and buttons.]

“Don’t we get a ‘Hannukah Week’ off of school?”
[A/N: If someone hadn’t asked this in class would half the students have genuinely missed school next week? Don’t they check the syllabus???]

“I feel so special being a minority here as a Christian! It’s so fun! And this is how you feel all the time, I’m so jealous!”
[A/N: Being an oppressed minority is 1 million times different from being a privileged minority. Yikes x10.]

That said, it’s still significantly better than how I spent Christmas in London last year, which featured the following gems:

a) I said “bless you” to someone when they sneezed and they yelled at me about my Jewish privilege, how they didn’t want to be blessed by me, and how as a Christian they would never be allowed to speak in such a way to a Jew and that Jews are over-sensitive to “supposed anti-semitism” and have unfair double-standards.

b) Two separate men at separate times grabbed the Jewish star around my neck and demanded an explanation (the explanation is that I’m Jewish) (you can bet that went over well)

c) Three of my classmates came together in a beautiful display of teamwork to “explain” to me all the ways in which Jews oppress Christians, especially my classmates specifically, and also how dare I bring up Jews during this sacred holiday, and also fuck the tiny menorah beneath the lobby Christmas tree, it is clearly stealing all the attention!!!!

So. In terms of experiences like that Israel is 0/3 which is depressingly good in my book. But it’s definitely not what I’d been expecting or anywhere near my ideal December. It’s easy for the world to feel terribly small when you have the same experiences halfway around it.

Back home in New York City, the crown jewel of the Jewish diaspora, Christmas is equally unavoidable. The classic carol music starts playing the second the sun sets on Thanksgiving. Sales roll in not long after, featuring faerie lights and stocking stuffers and tacky reindeer tchotchkes*. Santa’s appear on street corners with bells and buckets and New Yorkers get a rare, morbid taste of nature as stacks of dying pine trees line (and block) the sidewalks. For every Happy Holiday you’ll hear ten Merry Christmases and 1-to-5, “What do you mean you don’t celebrate Christmas, can’t you just pretend and accept my well-wishes gracefully?”

I don’t mean to sound like the Christmas Grinch (which reminds me- don’t even get me started on TV specials in December). I don’t hate Christmas. I simply don’t care**. It’s not my holiday! As a Jew I am no more invested in Christmas than I expect Christians to be invested in Yom Kippur, or Sukkot, or Pesach- holidays with levels of religious significance that align more with Christmas than Chanukkah does.

I am so tired of measuring time by someone else’s watch. And yet without pine-scented, peppermint-spiced, Santa-approved, Mariah Carey-filled days, it barely feels like December at all; my internal clock will keep stubbornly insisting it’s Autumn and no, I don’t need that winter coat, who cares if you’ve frozen on the way to class every day this week?

It’s a little bit Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t. When Christmas is present, I want it to be less so. When it’s not, I can’t stop thinking of it anyhow. Part of that’s just a Me problem and part of it is thanks to good ol’ American indoctrination. Which is why if one more person compares Israel to America by saying one is religious and the other is not I am definitely going to scream.

And if another American Christian abroad tells me how oppressed they are by religion, here, for the first time in their lives, how much better and more advanced and smarter and secular and welcoming America is, I am going to… well, respectfully disagree, and then write a frustrated blog post about it.

Because it’s not any individual I’m mad at, really. It’s 1,000 years of macroaggressions towards my people as a whole and 23 years of microaggressions towards me personally and I actually love being invited to partake in someone else’s culture and lifestyle, I just don’t like being shunted in without being asked in the first place. And I definitely don’t like being shunted in to the point where it actually interferes with the demands of my own culture and lifestyle. I am so sick of vague anti-semitism masquerading as enthusiasm for anything explicitly non-Jewish, especially if Jewish things are going on at the same time and can be pointedly ignored.

So. I am in Israel during December. And unfortunately, unexpectedly, that does mean that I am in Israel during Christmas, too.

❃        ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃        ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃       ❃

*Ornaments. I meant ornaments. Decorations? I’m too Jewish for this.

**Full disclosure: okay, I do sort of hate it. But only in that “this has been shoved down my throat so much that though I initially enjoyed it, that time has passed and if it is used as an excuse to override and oppress my own culture again I will definitely implode” kind of way.

Bonus reading:
I Never Dreamed of a White Christmas: On Gilmore Girls and Christian hegemony

One slightly related thing to consider:
It is acceptable, and reasonable, and even expected for secular Christians to take time off to celebrate their holidays. And yet a hungry, dehydrated, exhausted Jew asking for a day off during Yom Kippur is over the top. A secular Jew would never ask for time off for a holiday they don’t even believe in. Not because it’s bad to but because they can’t. “Separation of Church and State”???? Not so much.

 

These Are Our Words; A Response to “Academia, Love Me Back”

If you haven’t already, please read this super brave+powerful+important post by Tiffany Martinez!

“There are students who will be assumed capable without the need to list their credentials in the beginning of a reflective piece. How many degrees do I need for someone to believe I am an academic?”

My mother has no less than 10 degrees. When she moved from Cuba to America, she was told that education was the only way to the top. And for every degree she got, she was told it was not enough. And when she got a whole slew of degrees, she was told things like, “Why are you overcompensating? You must be super bad at something else. That’s just too much.”

The first time I ever got accused of plagiarism, it was in an extremely similar manner to Tiffany Martinez. I was told that my language was too advanced, too clear, and that even though it was consistent throughout my piece, I must have somehow copied and pasted from somewhere else. It was suggested briefly that I could have had an adult help me… but notably, my own mother was left out of that suggestion.

I was so scared to go home and tell my mom, worried that she wouldn’t believe I didn’t cheat. But when I handed her the note from the teacher my mother beamed. She still brings the story up today. The time her daughter wrote so well the teacher thought it had been written by… well, a ‘real’ American child. Someone who wasn’t first generation, someone who hadn’t grown up on a mix of Yiddish/ Spanish/ ‘Broken’ English. The fact that there was a perceived dissonance between my heritage and my actions was a point of pride. A smart, well-spoken, assimilated child: the ultimate goal of the poor immigrant.

I don’t mean this in any way as an insult to my mom. She navigated within a messed up, racist system the best she could. Growing up I hated her insistence that my English speaking/reading/writing/analytical skills all needed to consistently be so much better than those of my classmates. I was so annoyed that I wasn’t allowed to use slang at home. I was so frustrated when I was made to leave the dinner table to look up a word in the giant dictionary we still have on a pedestal in the center of the living room, or to turn off the TV for several hours of reading out loud to my dogs each and every night. None of the other kids ever had to do this. I didn’t get it. It didn’t feel fair.

All of her hard work- and by extension, mine- meant that my reading skills tested at college level by the time I reached 4th grade. I have never gotten less than an A in any English class I’ve taken, including honors/AP. And when I took the MCAT recently, I didn’t spend a single day studying for the English part, and got a perfect score.

My English skills have given me so many opportunities and privileges that she never had. People are always surprised when they find out I’m first generation, and I’ve been told multiple times it’s because of how advanced my English is.

“Wow, you don’t SOUND first generation!”

It’s not a problem with my mother, and it’s not a problem with me. It’s a problem with how our system is run. How immigrants and their children are treated. The assumptions made before people even meet us that continue to persist long after.

It has been made clear to both of us we need to speak “American” to get anywhere in life. We have both been forced for the majority of our lives to use “THEIR” words…. only to be told that they will never be OUR words, no matter what.

When my mother moved to this country America did its best to take her culture, her pride, and her achievements away from her. They took away her language to the point where she struggles to remember words in Spanish she has no problem using in English. America has taken so much from us, but they cannot take our voice.

English is my best language. These are MY words. My mother’s words. Tiffany Martinez’s words. So we’ve surpassed America’s expectations for us time and time again, leaving non-immigrant Americans confused and angry? That’s just too bad. THEIR system, THEIR problem. They can go ahead and make all the excuses they want. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve taken everything racists have thrown at us and come back stronger. HENCE, local racists can use their words to complain all they want. But it won’t change a thing, because these are OUR words too.