Monday, December 13, 2010

Welcome to the Real World

When our bus came to a halt in the middle of the street, our immediate reaction was that something was wrong.

To our surprise, our counselor informed us that we had simply gotten stuck in a traffic jam. We laughed to ourselves at the foreign concept, and gave eachother a look that said:

We are SO not in Arad anymore

The bus of one hundred tired yet anxious teenagers finally pulled up outside Beit Ar-El, our Jerusalem campus, around 8 pm on November 30th.

My first impression of our new home was one of amazement. I looked around me and saw beautiful stone buildings. I heard music blasting from a nearby apartment. Taxis sped by, turning corners at dangerous speeds. A chilly breeze told me that winter in Jerusalem is nearing—time to whip out the poufy down coat.

It was hard to grasp that just a few hours prior, I was in the desert, riding a camel at a Bedouin tent. I was completely overwhelmed by my new surroundings, yet so incredibly happy to be there. I skipped around campus, forgetting my stress, hunger, and fatigue.

We walked to our off-campus apartment and unpacked our suitcases in an attempt to settle in. My luck got me the top bunk, but I’m not about to complain about it. There are too many amazing changes taking place in this new home of mine to really complain about anything.

So, I’ve officially been living in this "new home" for two weeks, and I already have so much to say. I’ll begin by describing Hanukkah in the holy city:

It was our first full day in Jerusalem, December 1st. Even before we arrived, I knew transitioning to the city during this holiday would be meaningful. There was a sense of celebration in the air, reinforced by the smells of freshly baked Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) around every corner.

As I walked through the stone streets of Jerusalem with my entire group on our first tour of the old city, I couldn’t help but think about those in history who walked before me—those who stood in my place during the time the events of Hanukkah actually occurred. Those who witnessed the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days in the Beit Hamikdash, the holiest temple.

When the sun set over the city and the Hanukkah tour ended, we were free for the rest of the evening to roam the streets alone. We were amazed by some of the sights we saw. While making our way towards Mamilla (a commercial neighborhood in the city) we passed through a dark residential alleyway, where a Menorah stood outside each doorstep. Rather than the big hulky streetlamps that produce a fluorescent white light in most cities, the flames that illuminated this alley in Jerusalem had a natural glow; in fact the sight was so spiritual, my friend Emily and I later discussed that we could feel a higher presence around us. Being Jewish felt different at that moment. There was an inexplicable rightness about the situation, and something within me said: You will live here sometime in your life.

As life here is becoming increasingly more comfortable, the idea of truly living here is becoming a clearer, more real thought in my still-naïve-and-unsure mind. And after two weeks of grocery shopping with roommates, managing money, and taking busses across the city, I’m starting to feel like a true resident.

Like any true resident of a bustling metropolis, I have a schedule I must keep.

Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays I wake up at 6:30 (which is incredibly early for me after being so spoiled in Arad) to catch the 7:30 bus to volunteering. Today was my second day at Yad B’ Yad, an Arab Israeli school for pre-kindergarteners to high school young adults. The school aims at bridging gaps between Arabs and Jews by promoting peaceful coexistence in a supportive, safe environment.

When requesting this volunteering placement I was under the impression that I would be teaching English—so when I was placed in a classroom with three and four year olds, I was initially discouraged and a bit intimidated. Yet, I still maintained a positive attitude, and am now learning to love my new work. I’ve realized that since I don’t have the same responsibility as the paid teachers, my title is, essentially, entertainer. I draw pictures for the children, build with blocks, dance, sing, and teach them games.

Watching Arab and Jewish kids play together, devoid of prejudice and preconceptions, is the peaceful utopia I wish Israel could somehow attain. Still so young and untainted by politics, extremism, and hatred, a child sees no difference between his Muslim friend Mahmoud and his Jewish friend Jacob. And although some of the Arab kids don’t speak Hebrew and many of the Jewish kids don’t speak Arabic, they still manage to play together and learn from each other—sharing their language, food, holidays, and customs.

When I’m not at Yad b’Yad, I’m attending one of the six courses I signed up for, which include: Service Learning, Monotheistic religions of Jerusalem (a trip once a week), Hebrew, Holocaust films, Jewish art, and Torah Yoga. So far, I’m enjoying all of my classes. I must say, it feels great to get back into learning. During the Arad trimester, I felt my brain turn into mush from under-usage. My friends and I joke that we have turned into Israeli English speakers, often dropping crucial words in our sentences such as: “is, the, and for.”

However, I’m starting to feel the neurons re-connecting as I delve deeper into the coursework of my classes. I’ve even received some…homework. I had forgotten the true meaning of that word for three months, so it resurfacing isn’t the worst thing in the world. While all of my friends at home are stressing over calculus finals in college, I really can’t complain about the 100-word reflection on my identity I have to complete by midnight tonight. In fact, I’m finding work here to be less tedious, and more…fun. I missed the challenge school gave me, and the sense of accomplishment I would get when finishing an essay, test, or assignment. So now that it’s (sort-of) back in my life, I’m ready for it.

Jerusalem, all in all, has brought about some significant changes: in just two weeks I have made new friends, attended new classes and volunteering, cooked news dishes (including delicious latkes) bonded with new roommates, learned new bus schedules, and experienced, like a slap in the face, new weather: THE FREEZING COLD.

For the past few days Jerusalem has seen some pretty extreme weather; fortunately, the storm that is freezing over the city also brought some rain, something Israel always needs.

The weather has been somewhat bearable largely due to the sizeable winter coat I brought just in case. Though I must pay respect to where it is due: thank you Mother for insisting I take out some unnecessary clothes to make room for this coat. It has been extremely handy for the past few days—I don’t think I could have survived without it.

Before I end this post, I have a note for all of my followers:

You probably won’t be hearing from me again until next year, as I’m leaving for America on December 20th and returning on January 1st, 2011. Though I will miss all of my Year Coursers, I can’t wait to see everyone at home. The countdown is at 7 days!

Hope everyone has a Happy New Year :)

A view from a lookout point in Jerusalem

Me & Izzy at a cafe on Ben Yehuda Street

The Latkes I made on the third night of Hanukkah

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Goodbye, Arad

As I sit here on my balcony in Jerusalem, my new home, I’m beginning to feel a bit nostalgic.

I reminisce over the past three months; flashes of long days at volunteering, biking, bus rides around the country, group activities, Hebrew lessons, apartment dinners, and walks through the desert appear before me—and I realize that although it has gone so quickly, I have done so much in the small desert city of Arad.

Yes, I have traveled quite a bit already. I have partied and prayed in Jerusalem, read and relaxed on the beaches of Tel Aviv, and spent holidays visiting family across the country. But, for many reasons, some of my finest memories took place at home on Ben Yair Street. Here are some snapshots from my Arad trimester that might explain why:

It’s Friday morning, and I have no responsibility. I grab a water bottle, sketchpad, some colored pencils and my bike. I ride downhill on Ben Yair, the street I have become well acquainted with. I see the usual quirky Aradian residents; the elderly Russian couple sitting on a bench, the Ethiopian girl reading a book, and a little further, the “mustache cat,” glaring at me from inside his spot in a bush. I laugh to myself at the quirkiness of this city, knowing I’ll never find a place quite like it. After about six minutes of pedaling I’m in the desert. Suddenly I’m looking at a vast landscape of mountains and multi-colored sand. I plug in my headphones, gulp down some water, and clear away some rocks to make a place to sit down. I draw in my sketchpad, letting hours go by, for time is less significant than the flies buzzing around me. I am focused, immersed in one activity, completely and utterly at peace.

Now it’s Sunday and I am working hard at volunteering. Jake and I come inside from the backyard of the Foster home, where we’ve been pulling weeds and evening out the ground. Now we’re cutting cucumbers and tomatoes while singing to music that Alon, the owner of the home, has playing loudly in the living room. He comes into the kitchen and proceeds to make fun of our accents and our American slang, as per usual. When we’re finished preparing the Israeli salad, we take a quick break and Alon makes us some tea while I attempt to read the Israeli newspaper. Around 2 pm, the kids one-by-one start flooding in. Natalie, a twelve-year-old girl, immediately drops her backpack and runs to give me a hug. I ask her how school was, and she replies with the usual “Kef,” which means fun in Hebrew. She asks if I can help her with her English homework, and of course, I agree. It is evident, at that moment, that I am part of the family Alon and Shlomit have created at Beit Mazor.

It is November 25th, Thanksgiving morning. My roommates and I wake up early enough to head out to the supermarket to buy the ingredients we need for the big dinner we have planned. For the main ingredients, the easiest place to go is the chain supermarket in the mall—but for the fruits and veggies, I always go to the marketplace in the downtown square. I greet the shop-owner, who now knows me by name. When I finish paying, he throws me a ripe persimmon, a fruit that is indigenous to Israel and is one of my favorites. I think about my Mother, and the persimmon tree that grew her backyard at her home in Israel, almost forty years ago. Though my arms are full with groceries and I’m pressed for time to cook, I take a moment to enjoy the sweet, juicy, and free bright orange fruit. I think to myself that the fruit is a bit like Israel—small, but packed with so much flavor and, well, juiciness. Soon after, we begin cooking; I make a rice dish with toasted pine nuts and dried cranberries (which my Mother always makes, but I took some liberties and added orange zest) as well as a string bean mushroom concoction. Five people cooking ten recipes in one kitchen is a challenge, but we somehow pull it off. Sundown approaches and we head to the roof of my friend’s apartment, where a table is immaculately set up with dozens of sweet potato, Turkey, and vegetable dishes. The aromas bring me back home to New York for a minute, until I look around me and realize my environment. We go around the table, saying what we are thankful for. I look at the fellow American on my left, a Brit on my right, and an Israeli in front of me; a table overflowing with delicious food; a family of teenagers sitting on a candle lit roof in the country we adore; and I can’t help but feel thankful for everything.

Now I am in Jerusalem, the biggest, holiest city in Israel—and within 24 hours the population of my old home to my new one multiplied by thirty-fold. Suddenly there are traffic jams, tourists, and English speakers (instead of Russian speakers) all around me. I live in an apartment building packed with Year Course kids, in a college-like dormitory setting. Hearing sirens, neighbors, and city life is still surprising and new. Of course, I will miss the silence and small town feel that existed in Arad. I will miss the kids at volunteering, being able to hop on a bike and roam through the desert, and the amazingly clear air—but I couldn’t be happier to be here. Though the transition was drastic, city life suits me. Soon I will be taking real classes, earning real credits, feeling that much closer to being a real college student. It’s hard to believe that already, one third of the trimester is done.

So, this is my formal goodbye to the quirky, peaceful, unique city of Arad. I'll truly miss you!

A potluck dinner in my apartment

Maya, myself, and Tova in a bedouin tent

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Stroll Through the Desert

When my friends told me they wanted to do an eight-hour, 23 Kilometer trek from Arad to the Dead Sea, I laughed.

Next I know it, I’m waking up at 4:45 am, putting on my hiking boots, ready to embark on a fifteen-mile Journey through the Negev (or Desert).

With three sandwiches, apples, crackers, four liters of water, sunscreen, a hat, bathing suit and towel, my backpack weighed about twenty pounds. I wondered if I’d make it out alive, especially after a nearly sleepless night.

Groggy and tired, I joined the group of twelve courageous souls down the road, leaving Arad.

It was still dark. Some locals were by the bars, after a long night out, astonished to see a pack of Americans and Brits bearing hiking gear, a map, a compass, and eager expressions. Despite it being the middle of the night, we couldn’t wait to get started.

We began by walking down the winding highway as the sun was rising behind the mountains. Not a bad way to start.

The first five kilometers, which is around three miles, was just road. But unlike highways in America, to our right and left we saw endless hills of sand and rock. Just that incredible view alone would have been worth seeing.

While we walked we alternated between word games, chatting, and making up our own “Year Course” lyrics to popular songs. Though these games helped me stay awake, it was during the moments of silence, between conversations, that I felt most content. There was a calm nothingness in the air--a silence I’ve only ever experienced in the desert.

When we began getting a bit hungry and sore, and we hadn’t yet reached the path, we knew something was wrong. According to our map, we missed the left turn to the trail that was supposed to be marked with a blue white blue symbol. We called our hiking leader, woke him up, and made him confirm that the path was, in fact, blue white blue. He insisted it was, and that we simply missed it by a few Kilometers on our left.

So, we turned around, and stopped when we saw the tiniest rock with a white blue white symbol. We had seen it when we walked by the first time, but automatically dismissed it because we were instructed it was, for sure, blue white blue.

It was the right path after all.

Turns out that slight err of detail was the cause of our frustration. My friends and I came to the conclusion that in addition to reading backwards, Israelis must also have their colors backwards.

In the end, I’m happy that those extra few Kilometers didn’t dissuade us from continuing the hike. While the others in our group remained on the windy road towards the Sea, four of us decided to take the true path through the desert—the real deal.

And so the walking began.

The soreness and blisters emerged soon after, sometime between the hours of eight and ten AM. However, I’ll never really know, for the hours are blended together in my mind as one big physically intense challenge.

Around every bend and after climbing every hill, my friend Tasha would exclaim “I promise we’ll see the sea just after this turn!” We would automatically yell back, “TASHA, WE AREN’T EVEN CLOSE YET!” This went on for about six hours, until we finally reached the last stretch of hike.

Though much of the hike itself is merely a hazy memory of sweat, snack breaks, and guzzling water, I’ll never forget when we reached the halfway mark. Due to my level of soreness, I thought for sure we were nearly at the Dead Sea. When Josh showed me where we were on the map, I couldn’t contain myself. In a state of utter delirium and dehydration, I began to laugh. Correction—I BURST out in laughter at the helplessness of the situation. I was going to finish this darn hike. There was no turning back.

The uncontrollable laughter didn’t subside for a good twenty minutes. My friends thought I was going insane, and insisted I finish my bottle of water. It’s easy to forget to drink when you’re focused on the fifteen blisters that are overtaking your feet.

We were able to distract ourselves from our aching feet every time we took a second to notice our incredible surroundings: No buildings. No electrical poles. No streets.

To many who’ve never been, the desert seems simple—rocky, sandy, dry. But when you have walked miles through it, lived in it, and been immersed in it, you see much more. You see the craters that appear to be miles deep; hills of every shade of red, orange, and brown; blue-ish purple mountains in the distance, where the ground fades into immaculately blue sky. And from the top of a mountain, seeing it all at together, makes you feel so small in the vastness of Israel’s Negev.

Every time we stopped to notice our environment, we felt that we had to express our gratitude:

How lucky are we to be doing this hike, with our best friends, in our favorite place in the world?

Hours of hiking passed; ten AM turned into noon, and soon, it was the hottest part of the day. Around one, we reached the hardest part of the hike.

Being the ambitious young adults we are, we chose the most difficult trek down. The Red Path.

We proceeded to rock climb down the incredibly steep mountain, which may have just as well been called a cliff. Thankfully, we could see the Sea from the top, so we had a clear destination in our view.

At first, we were all a bit hesitant to start climbing down. Blistered and bruised, we were ready for bed. It took all of our strength to push ourselves down the mountain, taking caution with each shaky step.

At one flat formation on the way down, we decided to take a break. The view was absolutely stunning. We perched ourselves on different rocks on the tiny plateau and sat in silence, marveling at the crystal blue still water. We knew, as we stared at the sea below us, that we had truly accomplished something great. Though we hadn’t yet reached the bottom, we didn’t need to touch the Dead Sea to affirm our efforts. That view was enough.

When we did finally reach the bottom, we hobbled like penguins across the road and immediately removed our hiking boots. Our feet weren’t a pretty sight. We had a bit of a laugh comparing blisters, aches, and pains. Fifteen miles of hiking will do that to you.

At that point, all I could think was hallelujah! I’m in civilization! Now someone get me an iced coffee!

Without exaggeration, a turtle would have beaten us in a race to the nearest Aroma (the Starbucks equivalent in Israel). We inched our way there, laughing as people five times our age in wheel chairs blew past us at lightening speeds. (Others joined in laughing, too, making us a great amusement to the Dead-Sea goers.)

When we finally made it to the cafe, we purchased some iced coffees as a gift to ourselves for completing the biggest hike we’ve ever done. Sipping on that iced Aroma, with my feet up on the big comfy chair, was everything I needed at that moment.

The only thing that could have made that moment better was if we somehow found a hot tub to soak in.

So we did.

Pretending to be guests at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea hotel, we changed into our bathing suits and casually walked right in.

We placed our backpacks and shoes on a spa chair, stepped into the soothing, bubbly Jacuzzi, and thought silently to ourselves:

What a day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Carefree in Qesarya

Do you ever feel like you owe it to yourself to do absolutely nothing for an entire weekend?

Do you ever shamelessly plop on the couch and stare wide-eyed at the television, in a half coma, watching Friends reruns for the majority of the day?

Well, if you can’t relate, I’ll simply describe the events (or lack there of) during my trip to Qesarya last weekend.

But before I begin, I want to thank Sharon, my new French friend, for hosting the magnificent relaxation fest that was November 4th- 6th. I wouldn’t have had a sitcom filled, chocolate covered, popcorn flavored weekend extravaganza had she not invited me, along with three of our friends (Maya, Emily, Izzy) to her home in beautiful Qesarya.

Now, step inside the Volcot-Freeman household. You will experience what modern art truly is.

Inside the maroon and yellow painted home, every square inch of wall is a canvas for every color on the wheel. Three dimensional junkyard paintings hang side by side with abstract naked women, adjacent to a portrait of a Chassidic man. Nothing relates, yet a sense of unity exists between the jumbled pieces of art.

You can tell, even behind the modernity of the décor, that the house isn’t in fact new. Layers of paint reveal that it has been re-done and refurnished, as the house once belonged to Sharon’s Grandparents generations ago.

After marveling at the full size beds we were going to sleep in for the next two nights, we explored the rest of the house. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that what amazed us the most was the colossal bathroom. After living in an apartment with one-and-a half bathrooms for six girls, I’ve come to appreciate such things. Like enclosed showers, tile floors, clean toilets and full-length mirrors, just to name a few.

We had been traveling for nearly four hours, so we were famished. (I forgot to mention that I took a train for the first time in Israel—definitely a few notches up from Metro North Railroad!) There was legroom, a table between every four seats, outlets, and more.

And since we have all become pro-grocery shoppers, we walked down the street to the local supermarket to get ingredients for dinner. A simple penne with marinara and a side salad was all we needed for the perfect low-budget-yet-delicious dinner.

We finished the evening with a lighthearted chic flick, and of course, I was passed out on the couch halfway through the film.

The next day we spent preparing for Shabbat. After sleeping in, I dedicated a few hours to read outside on Sharon’s swinging bench. I can’t even describe how amazing it is to be reading again. I got so lost in the book (Paper Towns), time literally must have flown, because 10 am turned into 1 pm and it was time to do grocery-shopping trip number 2 for our Shabbat meal. We got all the ingredients for a delicious stir-fry, tomorrows breakfast, and some Manishevitz and Challah bread for a real touch of Judaism.

I’ve discovered that cooking Shabbat dinner can be a bonding experience. Maya cooked the chicken and Emily was on vegetable duty all while I created an artistic hummus-cucumber platter and blasted music.

We said our prayers, Challa was thrown across the table, and we exchanged life stories. Our dinner beautifully transitioned into a Friends marathon that would continue for the rest of the weekend.

Besides going on a long run through Qesarya and finishing my book, Saturday was fairly uneventful—plus I have a lot more to talk about in this already lengthy post—so, I’ll sum it up by saying that by Saturday evening, we were well rested, well fed, and well versed in all that pertains to the show Friends. In fact, the theme song “I’ll be there for you…” lingered in the back of my mind for what seemed like an eternity.

The weekend was finally over and Sunday rolled along, bringing another week of volunteering, Ulpan classes, trips, meetings, and group activities.

However, this past Sunday was a special break from the weekly norm--one of the kids at the foster home, Natalie, officially entered the adult Jewish community as a Bat Mitzvah.

We spent the entire morning at Beit Mazor peeling, chopping, stirring, and gathering decorations for the ceremony. After the cooking was done, all of the volunteers decided pitch in for a Bat-Mitvah gift for Natalie—we decided on a silver bracelet with a Star of David charm attached.

The event was held at an upscale Dead Sea hotel, which is about a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment. Fortunately, a significant percentage of the Bat-Mitzvah costs were covered by donations, including the hotel.

When we arrived to help set up, Alon (the owner of the home) meant business. We hurriedly hung up stars, set tables, arranged the buffet, lit candles, and tied maroon and gold tapestries to the walls to create the fairy-tale theme Natalie wanted.

In the end, the party was a huge success. Natalie made a grand entrance (that involved kids throwing flower petals I handpicked from the garden) sang a song, read a speech and danced the night away. Maya and I got to have some fun too, dancing with the kids and embarrassing ourselves as we partied with twelve-year-olds.

Because we worked so hard the previous day, Alon called me the next morning to give me the day off. Although I didn't even want it, he insisted. I decided to do everything I have been yearning to do here in Arad; I took a book out from the library (Eat Pray Love) and read for hours outside on the grass. I'm already in love with the book. I was also able to find some time to draw a portrait in my sketchbook that I'm pretty proud of, AND review for my massive Hebrew test. It was a full day, but totally relaxing.

Well, there's still a lot more to catch up on...but I'll save it for next post. Gotta go to a group activity about my Jewish Identity!

Oh, Year Course...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

15 Seconds

Imagine a nightmare in which you have fifteen seconds to run for your life.

You hear a whistle, and soon after, an explosion that may or may not have hit your home.

Imagine you are a mother, driving in a car, when The Alarm goes off. You pull over to the nearest shelter, and you are faced with a dilemma: which child to save first.

Imagine you are ten years old, playing at recess. All of a sudden, your teacher is yelling at you to run, and you don't know why, but you do it anyway. Then you see parts of your school in flames, while you look through the opening of the "kid-friendly" painted bomb shelter.

To the everyday citizens of Sderot, this nightmare is a reality.

Although the rockets from Gaza to Sderot have dramatically decreased since the Gaza war of 2009, the people of Sderot still live with a constant fear over their heads.

This past Thursday my section visited the city for our weekly Siyur. Before the day trip, we all wondered what we could possibly be doing in the city; gloomy and poverty stricken, Sderot isn't exactly a tourist attraction. However, turns out a lot can be learned from the graffitied buildings and painted bomb shelters.

Located in the southwestern part of Israel, the small city of Sderot overlooks Gaza, thus making it an ongoing target for Quassam rocket attacks. To protect the cities neighboring the Gaza strip, The Israeli Defence Forces have set up the "Tzeva Adom" or Red Color alarm system that sounds, for fifteen seconds, upon detecting a rocket signature. We learned a bit about the alarm system and the citizens of Sderot during the bus tour of the city.

The sights we visited can be defined with the following adjectives: surprising, horrific, and sadly ironic, in that order.

The first place we visited was a large display of Quassam rockets. We learned how to tell the difference between the rockets from different terrorist organizations based on their markings. I was surprised simply by the sheer quantity of rockets present, though it was just a small sample of thousands. Snapshots of explosions appeared before me, and behind each explosion, a story. Although many of those rockets landed in middle-of-nowhere desert, I couldn't help but think of who may have been affected by that piece of metal, now sitting idly on a shelf.

The second sight we saw only through our windows on the bus, but it was nevertheless intense. The visual looked as such: an elementary school with bulky black coverings for protection above the roof. A pink trailer (a separate classroom) worn down and covered in holes from shrapnel. To think an elementary school was targeted for a rocket attack is a horrific thought--it is an image that has yet to escape my thoughts.

One of our last stops of the tour was a playground. As shown in the picture above, a girl stands innocently within a tunnel, and behind her is what seems to be an ordinary jungle-gym. However, if we were to zoom out, we would see that the tunnel is truly a snake shaped bomb-shelter, created specifically for children. I couldn't help but think of the irony in the juxtaposition of the bomb shelter, a refuge from death and terror, and a playground.

I got the feeling that the children of Sderot are unlike other children of Israel.
Babies reflexively lift their arms to be picked up at the sound of sirens. Kids practice running into one of the many shelters dispersed throughout the town. People hop in and out of the shower, just incase they don't hear the alarm. Headphones are worn sparingly. Because hearing the alarm is the difference between life and death, all residents of Sderot are trained to be aware at all times.

Our last stop in Sderot was a place I wasn't expecting Year Course to take us--the Israeli-Gaza border. Like most borders, there is no real geographical separation of the territories. Thus, the view wasn't anything special, or momentous, like one might think it would be. Very anticlimactic, to be honest. Looking over at Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle became so futile in my mind. Why we couldn't just peacefully inhabit the same space baffled me in my naive, ideal mind.

Overall, I'm glad Young Judaea decided to take us to Sderot. We were exposed to an important part of Israel--it's damaged goods.

Not every party of Israel is Eilat, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. It is just as important that we see needy places like Sderot as it is we see beautiful Haifa and the Ein Gedi falls. And as much as I like to believe I'm always safe here in Israel, it's still important to be aware of the fact that terrorism exists.

Supporting the places that are the most affected by terrorism is crucial to maintaining the foundation of the state, for all of Israel is interconnected--when one place suffers, the rest of the country suffers.

Garin Arevim, the student-run volunteer group I joined, is planning on visiting Sderot soon to help paint bomb-shelters and improve the city. I'll be sure to post pictures when we do!

That's all for now...

ps. I'll be posting about my weekend in Qesarya sometime this week. Tune in soon to find out.

pps. I'm going to Poland!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Halloween in the Holy Land

Two nights ago, around midnight, I got back from the busiest week of travel I have had thus far on Year Course. Jam-packed with long bus rides, tours, concerts, dinners, parties and costumes, the week is finally beginning to wind down.

So, I am back home in quiet Arad, reflecting on the past week, and couldn’t be happier.

The week began on a musical note when on Sunday, the majority of section one hopped on a coach bus to see Idan Raichel, a well known Israeli singer, perform at the MASA event in Jerusalem.

Lets just say I have never seen so many Jewish American teenagers in one place, at one time, in my life. The auditorium holds up to 3000 seats, and nearly every one was filled by a teenager on some Israel program. So, not only was I able to re-connect with people from other sections, I also ran into friends from various other programs.

This was my third time seeing Idan Raichel perform live, yet the experience was completely unlike the previous two. The cool thing about him is that he always performs with new people from different cultures and backgrounds; each time the shift in language, dance, and voice adds something special to his performance.

This time, the auditorium was filled with over the top, visually impressive eye candy. Acrobats hung from the ceiling, dancers flew across the stage to African rhythms, and confetti was released during a climactic song. Truthfully, I was expecting it to be an outdoor hippie-fest (which is usually is) with a mix Young Judaeans and Israelis. Though it wasn’t quite what I expected, I enjoyed his music nonetheless and appreciated the change of venue.

Wednesday, after Ulpan, the local community center hosted a Yitchack Rabin memorial, during which a famous singer from the 90’s made a guest appearance. I really like his music…. it’s Eddie Vedder meets Incubus, with an Israeli twist.

After the concert our apartment headed over to a local restaurant bar called Max’s and ate a delicious dinner together with our leftover stipend money…oh the benefits of good budgeting!

For our Siyur on Thursday, all of Year Course headed back to Jerusalem for the annual Breast Cancer walk. My friend Melissa (from section 1) and I were chosen by our leaders to carry the Hadassa and Young Judaea flags and stand at the front of the group, which apparently is an honor. I even had a short conversation with the president of Hadassah, Nancy—and for some reason it felt like I was meeting a celebrity?

After the 5 K walk my friend Izzy and I walked a few miles to our friend’s apartment from section 1. We napped, ate a nice dinner at “Waffle Bar” for our friend’s birthday, and stayed out until pretty late. It was a nice mix of people from all sections—I feel like I’m really starting to get to know people in Jerusalem and Bat Yam…so it’s a shame Year Course doesn’t have more activities with the “others.” (Side note: I think a greater sense of Year Course unity would greatly benefit the program.)

The next morning, on Friday, we discovered a bus that goes directly to Bat Yam from the Jerusalem bus station! This was pretty exciting news, seeing that we are constantly traveling on weekends, and direct busses are just so much better.

I’d like to think I’m becoming fairly travel savvy in Israel. I’m also getting familiar with the areas I’m going to be living in during my second and third trimesters in here, so I feel like I already have one foot in Jerusalem and…one arm in Bat Yam?

Ok, moving onto the exciting part of my weekend!

Once I arrived to Bat Yam all could hear from all Year Courser’s was: “have you figured out your costume yet!?”

Clearly, despite the pagan decent of the holiday, no American can pass up celebrating the most exciting holiday of the year—Halloween.

Two of my friends and I decided to dress up together as Charlie’s Angels, myself being Lucy Liu, of course. Basically we needed a costume that was do-able, easy, and affordable. So, we frantically ran to the toy store, bought the least intimidating Nerf guns (in the world) and got white poster board to make wings.

With our sleek black outfits, guns, wings, and makeup, I think we pulled the costume off. We finally made our way around 10 pm to the club in Tel Aviv and had a great time. I must say, some people got really clever with their costumes…my favorite of the night probably was Jimmy, who dressed as an old cat lady. Definitely appropriate for Israel, the land of stray cats.

The next morning we woke up hoping to spend a lazy afternoon on the beach; to our dismay, we got there on the one cloudy, drizzly day Bat Yam has seen in a while. Nevertheless, the majority of Year Coursers were on the beach, exchanging funny stories about the night before.

After packing all our belongings, Ben invited Jake and me to dinner with his parents in the beautiful (and ancient!) port city Jaffa. We celebrated his parent’s last night in Israel with delicious mushroom salad, chicken, and seafood. After a bit of schmoozing and eating, we bid his parents farewell, hopped in a cab, and arrived at the central bus station.

October 31st, Halloween. I woke up as if it was any other day. There was no scent of autumn, no pumpkin carving, no kids dressed up in costume eager to fill their baskets with candy. I even forgot it was a holiday until somebody asked me about it at volunteering!

So, to officially recognize the holiday, I figured I'd do something small and cozy with a few friends--we made punch and brownies, got a bit dressed up, and downloaded scary movies. Surprisingly, I fell asleep while watching The Exorcist (I hardly ever make it through movies past 12 am) so I ended up sleeping at my friend's apartment.

The next morning I woke up with the hype of Halloween behind me, ready and excited to begin a productive week of volunteering.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mariam's Story

She stands before them with poise and confidence. Her entire body is covered, leaving only her face and hands exposed—but she does not hide beneath her headscarf. She wears it proudly.

She eagerly approaches the tent of fifty tired American teenagers, fifty strangers, to share her life with them—not in her first language, or her second, or even her third. She eloquently articulates with few mistakes in English, her fourth language.

I was one of those lucky teenagers who heard Mariam’s story that day, and it is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Mariam was born and raised in Tel Sheva, a small Bedouin village in the southern district of Israel, bordering Be’er Sheva. The population of the village is around 13,000, and has been given the lowest rank (1 out of 10) on the socioeconomic scale.

In such Bedouin communities it is tradition for women to be married off in their teenage years. Thus, at a young age, Mariam discovered she wasn’t the woman her society was telling her to be. She wasn’t one to marry a stranger and assume the role of a housewife. She had a dream, and wasn’t going to let tradition limit it.

Given that female-entrepreneurship is simply unheard of in her community, Mariam had to fight hard for her accomplishments. Receiving no support from her family, she was left on her own to accomplish her goal of creating a natural healing cosmetics line.

In order to do so, she was forced to take out many loans to become an herbalist and get the business going. At this point in her life, she not only had no support, but also was doubted and ostracized by almost everyone in her world. Nobody in her community believed a single middle-aged woman could make it on her own—devoid of family, financial stability, and most significantly, a husband.

Despite her many obstacles, she pursued her passion with a strong faith in her own potential. She triumphed over those who shot her ideas down, and showed them how far her business, which she named Desert Daughter, could go.

Today, Desert Daughter is gradually gaining popularity, and has even received some international demand. Though you can’t currently find her products online, a website for her cosmetics is currently underway—hopefully it will emerge within this year.

In my eyes, Mariam represents female empowerment of the best form. She has successfully created her own business, but isn’t stopping there; she is now helping other women do the same by leading a weekly “how to start a business” class.

Intentionally or not, Mariam is leading a progressive moment in a society that is rooted so deeply in tradition.

Though I may have been the only one inspired by Mariam’s story, I plan to spread it as far as I can, with hope some of you will be inspired too...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The past few weeks...

To all my wonderful followers,

I want to apologize for keeping you guys waiting…believe it or not, a lot has been going on here in the desert!

This post would be way too long if I described everything in detail, so I’ll list a few highlights since Sukkot Break.

A few days after returning home from our break, nearly our entire section took a bus to the Dead Sea to attend a Matisyahu concert. The bus was noisy, packed, and short a few seats but we all made it there in one piece. The stage was in between rock formations that were lit up all different colors. Everybody in the audience joined Matisyahu in singing the infamous “one day”—the energy of the crowd made the concert an awesome experience.

The next day a few friends and I biked into the middleof the desert, hoping to get a decent workout. We ended up getting just that, plus a special bonus. After reaching the top of a hill, my friend Dan exclaimed “Hey! Is that a camel?” Turns out there was a Bedouin strolling through the desert on a donkey with his thirteen camels. We introduced ourselves to the Bedouin, and he kindly let us take a few photos on his Donkey. Only in Israel.

On Friday night we had a costume party at a local restaurant/bar to celebrate two of our friend’s 19th birthdays. The theme was Greece vs. India, but we could dress in anything that had some “Greece” or “India” in it—for instance, some people were “greasers,” one person was “indecent exposure,” some were “Indians,” and so on. A few friends and I decided to be Independence Day celebrators, so we got decked out in red white and blue, glitter and all.

From Monday until Wednesday my friend Jake and I worked very hard at volunteering. We’ve been raking, shoveling, and clearing out rocks and garbage to create a play space/ garden in the backyard. Before we got a hold of the space, it literally looked like a garbage dump—the transformation is pretty incredible. We are going to lay down fake grass soon….I can’t wait to see the finished product! I’m actually working on raising money for the foster home (they really need it), so I sent out a mass fundraising e-mail. If you haven’t gotten it and you would like to, shoot me an email to and I’ll forward it to you.

Every Thursday our section goes on a Siyur, which is a little day trip. Last Thursday we went to a Bedouin village to explore the market, hear a speaker, and go to a lookout point. We heard a woman speaker named Mariam describe how she started her own cosmetics business. The story is really inspiring—it deserves it’s own post (coming soon).

That weekend I spent in Jerusalem on a student-run volunteering Shabbaton. I stayed with my friend Rachel (again) and had a great time. We went out the first night on Ben Yehuda street, and of course, ran into tons of long lost friends…I’ll spare you the details. Anyway, I decided to join the volunteer group for helping victims of shock and terrorism (it’s called a garin aravim.) We already made some plans to raise money, spread awareness, etc. A few of us visited the tent built for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas in 2006. There is strong evidence that he is still alive, so Israel is strongly fighting for his return. I hope to get really involved in this volunteer group, and maybe even take on a leadership position. Oh, I also forgot to mention that I have a new roommate! Her name is Davita and she's from Holland. We've gotten pretty close in the past few days...she's hilarious. I didn't think I'd like having a roommate (because I had my own room before she moved in) but it's been nice so far. Plus, she feeds me biscuits all the time, which I like.

This past weekend I stayed in Bat Yam with my two friends Ben (from home) and Jake. We stayed with section 2 people in the Year Course apartments, but spent most of our time in Tel Aviv with Ben’s family.

The weekend couldn’t have felt more like a lavish vacation—and to say Ben’s family spoiled us would be an understatement. They took us out to eat at least three times (Israeli, Italian, Japanese) bought us desert, paid for our cabs and took us on a day trip to Haifa. We spent two half-days on the beach, read a bit, played scrabble, and simply relaxed. On Saturday night we walked around old Tel Aviv, and I could have sworn I was in Soho. The trendy shops, small hip restaurants, and young crowd took me back to the US for the evening. It was a strange feeling, I must admit. But the spicy tuna roll was incredibly comforting and, well, delicious.

Throughout the weekend I thanked Ben’s parents profusely but it still doesn’t feel like enough. My plan is to cook them a delicious meal and maybe buy them something when they come visit Ben in Arad. I need to do something to express my gratitude! We’ll see…

Ok, so now I’m pretty much up to date.

Again, if you’re considering donating money to the foster home, send me an e-mail! Don’t be shy! Make a difference!

Ok I’ll stop harassing you now. Have a wonderful week, Shavua Tov!


At Matisyahu

Dan, in an intense staring contest with a donkey

In a tunnel at the lookout point in Tel Sheva (Bedouin village)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sukkot in Ramat Hasharon

In my last post I never actually told you what I did during my Sukkot break! So as I wait for my TV show to load on my computer, I’ll give you all the lowdown of last week’s events.

After a long afternoon of public transportation, I was excited to see my Uncle Danny and cousin Shelly waiting for me at the bus stop in Ramat Hasharon. We walked back to their house, had a bite to eat, and got settled in. Soon after I took a long walk around the town with Shelly, who just turned fifteen. I was so surprised to see how much she has grown! Well, she’s still on the short side, but she has certainly blossomed into a fabulous young lady.

On our walk, I discovered that we have the exact same taste in music, movies, and even subjects in school! We continued to stroll around town for about an hour; she showed me all of the cool restaurants, shops, and lastly her high school. The streets were pretty empty because Wednesday night was erev Sukkot (Sukkot eve), so most of the shops were closed.

I remembered the cute town from two years ago, when I spent a free weekend there during my Israel program Nesiya. Although it’s a small town, it has a more urban feel than I had remembered. I guess you could call it the perfect combination of suburbia and city life, since it’s only thirty minutes from Tel Aviv.

After our walk we came home to a delicious dinner. In fact, it was my first schnitzel experience in Israel on Year Course….and I wasn’t disappointed. Sharon, my Aunt, is a great cook. Every night we ate something new and delicious. The only food we ate consistently was chicken soup—a dish, I have learned, that gets better with each passing day.

Later that night we all jammed together on our respective instruments; Shelly on the piano, me on the guitar, and Danny on the drums. Shelly and I played our favorite songs and harmonized until we couldn’t sing any more—turns out we both share a talent for remembering every lyric to every song. The gene must run in the family.

Speaking of gene pools, the Levy family is the most artistic, musical, family I’ve ever encountered. Not only is each member of the family a talented musician, but they also are gifted at visual arts. I told them to stop hogging all of the friggen artistic talent in the universe and disperse it throughout the masses, please.

Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I though. So I did. Throughout the weekend, Danny would spontaneously pick up a guitar, Shelly and I would begin singing, and Sharon would start effortlessly harmonizing. It was really inspiring to see how central music is to their family.

I decided that weekend that one of my goals is to practice guitar and draw as much as I can. It’s an attainable goal, since we have a lot of free time in Arad. Also, it turns out one of my Israeli friend’s here has a guitar, so my roommate Maya and I have been playing a bit since arriving back in Arad.

To continue the musical theme of the day, we ended the night by watching Across the Universe, one of my favorite movies of all time. Of course, Shelly and I knew all of the words to every song since we are both devout Beatles fans.

The following day, Thursday, we packed up the SUV and headed to the beach, which is only ten minutes from their house. Although the beach was incredibly crowded (because it was a holiday) the whole experience was very relaxing. We swam in the water, which was perfect temperature, body surfed a bit, and let the waves take us.

Uncle Danny brought his guitar, so of course we played and sang for the entirety of the day. By sundown I was sandy, salty, and tired—but relaxed and happy nonetheless. When we felt our stomachs begin to grumble we finally packed up our stuff, headed home, and ate another delicious dinner.

On Friday Shelly and I decided to head into “the city”, Tel Aviv. Instinctually, I think of “the city” as Manhattan, as any true New Yorker would. I guess some aspects of Tel Aviv remind me of New York—the eccentric characters (referenced in last post), billboards, chain stores, and crowded streets. Despite this, the vibes of the two cities couldn’t be any more contrasting.

The first thing we did was walk around Dizengoff center, the enormous mall in central Tel Aviv. After walking around for about twenty minutes, I realized I might as well have been mindlessly shopping in any American mall, which wasn’t what I came to Tel Aviv to do. I wanted some real authentic Israeli shopping.

So, we left, ate some Shawarma, and headed towards Shenkin street. That was definitely the real deal. The vibe there is less Manhattan and more San Fran—lots of second hand stores, expensive boutiques, and funky random shops tucked in alleyways. You can tell there’s an artsy scene in that part of Tel Aviv. Shelly and I really enjoyed looking at people’s style…and wondering whether we could pull any of it off.

I actually bought a few cool things on a street right off of Shekin—it had a very European vibe to it. I got some leather sandals, an over-the-shoulder purse with elephants on it, and a turquoise necklace. According to Shelly I’m going for the “shanty banty” look, which I guess translates to “boho chic” in English.

Next we wandered through the Shook, the exact antithesis of the “Euro” street. The shook is basically like two blocks of overcrowded China town—lots of the same, cheap stuff in at every vendor. I learned that people go for the experience more than the actual products sold.

After a bit more exploring, Shelly and I got dessert, had some intense conversations (about psychology, philosophy, etc.) and finally headed home.

On Saturday we drove up north for an hour to do what I thought was going to be an easy hike. It actually wouldn’t have been too bad had I brought sneakers with me to Ramat Hasharon. But, I was a champ and did the hike up the rocky mountain wearing my reef flip-flops.

When we finally got to the bottom of the mountain we stopped near a carob tree and ate the odd, dirt colored, pea-shaped thing straight off the branch…and I was pleasantly surprised. They were so sweet and delicious—very gratifying after an intense hike. I even took some with me for the car ride home…

After we arrived in Ramat Hasharon I packed my belongings, said my goodbyes, and waited for the bus at the stop with my Uncle. The last part turned out to be rather futile as the bus never actually showed up. I panicked a bit, but everything worked out just fine, as it always does. Danny ended up driving me to the central bus station in Tel Aviv, I made my bus, and got back to Arad before midnight.

That pretty much sums up my Sukkot break! A lot has actually happened since then, but this post is already quite I’ll save it for the next post : )

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Messiah lives in Tel Aviv

Over my Sukkot break I noticed an interesting parallel between my two "homes," New York and Israel. The parallel is rather abstract, so I'll paint you a picture...

It's Saturday afternoon. My cousin Shelly and I take a bus into Tel Aviv, the "big city" of Israel to shop, dine, and sight-see. We people-watch through the restaurant window, Shawarma in hand, debating the job of the woman with the leather studded jacket and Bob Marley sweat pants. It almost reminds me of New York for a minute, until I see him.

Long brown hair, shirtless, white linen pants, a red shiny cape. He sits with his legs crossed at Magen David Square, holding sign that boldly proclaims that he is, indeed, the Messiah.

Almost immediately, the eccentric character reminds me of a more well known figure who brings music and manhood to New York City's Time Square--the Naked Cowboy. Although I have yet to take a picture with him, It's impossible to miss him every time I walk down 42nd street.

So you have these two eccentric hunky men, one in Manhattan and one in Israel. So what?

Well, oddly enough, I found that these two men reveal a bit about the bustling metropolis' they inhabit. The Cowboy promotes liberty, freedom, self expression--all core American values. So, it only makes sense the the eccentric of Tel Aviv claims to be a holy, religious figure.

Although both New York and Tel Aviv have diversity and allow for freedom of self expression, the core difference that is religion manifests itself countless ways. It's the little things like the self-proclaimed Messiah that remind me I am in a Jewish country--even when I'm in Tel Aviv, the most urbanized part of Israel.

For me, this is why I can have two "homes." New York is the place I have grown up with--I love the skyscrapers, the diversity, the smells of every kind of cuisine imaginable. But a part of me will always see Israel as my "homeland"--the place where it is politically correct to say Shabbat Shalom on Friday nights and Chag Sameach on Rosh Hashana.

It's the sense of Jewish unity (that I so often refer to in these entries) that keeps bringing me back to Israel. And so I am here for the sixth time, smack in the middle of the desert where my ancestors were thousands of years ago.

Back at home, It wasn't easy for me to find this sense of belonging. Here, it's impossible not to. It's all around me. Looking into the desert is like looking directly into history--and it somehow amazes me more and more each day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jerusalem, if I forget you...

Shalom everyone!

I know it's been a few days, but I'm back!
Last night I returned from an incredible weekend in Jerusalem, where I spent my Yom Kippur break. The weekend actually turned out to be quite different than I planned, due to a series of coincidences that could only occur in Israel.

My spontaneous shift in plans is truly a testament toJewish unity in Israel. Only in Jerusalem would I run into more than five people I know from home who aren't even on Year Course. I hadn't even dropped off my backpack before I saw two friends from my small elementary school, a few from middle school, and countless others. One of my friends from way back (Rachel, from my first blog post, who is in Section 1 of Year Course) invited me to stay with her at her apartment--and thus the plans changed. Originally the plan was to stay with my roommates' grandmother and a few other YC kids, but I figured I'd spend one night with a friend who I hardly see. And we ate Shawarma, Max Brenners gelato, and listened to street performers down the infamous Ben Yehuda street. Undeniably, a holy experience.

The next day we woke up just in time to grab a sandwich from Bagel Bites before they closed for Yom Kippur. It's pretty amazing how the entire city shuts down for the holiday. Even way before sundown most stores were closed, street lights were off, and there wasn't a car to be seen driving on the street.

For the dinner before the fast we all brought a dish to the neighboring balcony and had a Kosher, pot-luck style meal. It was a nice way to meet people from other sections and exchange stories about our respective locations. The nice thing about the Jerusalem apartments is that they are filled with (basically) only Year Course kids, whereas the Arad apartments are spread out. I'm definitely glad, however, that I'm starting in the dessert and moving into the city--I feel like the transition is smoother, and I'm sure I'll be sick of the heat fairly soon.

After the dinner, on our walk to temple, we literally sat in the middle of the road because we could. (Don't worry Mom, not dangerous!) Just walking around the city got me so excited to be there in a few months. Although I love Arad, there is truly nothing like Jerusalem. For instance, while walking down the hill to temple, I overlooked the old city just as the sun was setting, marking Shabbat and the start of Yom Kippur. Kids were kicking a ball around in the middle of the street, and most of the adults were dressed in white, making their way to one of the many temple's in town.

When we got to temple we originally couldn't find a seat, let alone a Siddur. By some stroke of luck a few of the assigned seats were vacant, so Rachel and I ended up being led to the front row! Although we were still Siddur-less, being up close to the Bimah on Yom Kippur was enough for us.

The next morning I woke up around ten and headed off to Musaf services at the same temple, Shira Chadasha. The whole experience was new, and a bit surreal for me. I had grown used to listening to my Mom's voice inside the familiar walls of Habonim, the Temple where she leads high holiday services at in Manhattan. I am used to sitting in the first row, knowing all of the prayers and their melodies. Suddenly I am in the holy city in a crowded temple, overheating in my sweater, and completely baffled by the unknown sounds. Granted, I found it difficult to have an immediate connection with the prayers. It only finally hit me when, at the end of Neilah, the entire room sang Hashana Haba Be Yerushalayim, which translates to Next Year in Jerusalem. A chill ran through my body upon this realization--I am in the holiest city on the holiest day for the Jewish people. Everything sort of made sense to me at that moment...and being in Jerusalem couldn't have felt more right.

As we were let out of temple my friends and I ate (or attacked, rather) the celebratory sugar crackers I packed in my purse. I don't know if a cracker has ever tasted so good. Though it didn't quite take the edge off my hunger, I wasn't suffering too much. For some reason, fasting this year wasn't so horrible at all. I was light headed for some of the afternoon, but other than that It was a Tzom Kal, or an easy fast.

Our break fast (not breakfast!) wasn't anything fancy; in fact it consisted of pizza, soup croutons, and Ben+Jerry's chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. Basically, whatever was around in Rachel's apartment, we ate. The meal was short, sweet, and everything I needed to satisfy my grumbling stomach.

Later that evening my friend Joel and I ran to catch the second to last bus out of Jerusalem. Finding the stop was a bit of a struggle (mainly because the cab took us to the wrong place) and we had to sprint to make it. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm used to this--running to catch public transportation, that is. Anyway, we made it, and that's what matters.

On the ride back to Arad I learned a lot about Year Course and Young Judaea. My friend Joel is basically the president of the entire Young Judaea movement in America--so of course, he filled me in on the insider drama and history of the program. Hearing all of his stories makes me wish I had been a part of Young Judaea as a child. I think I would have really liked the sense of community that Young Judaea provides teens with, and of course, the connection to Israel.

I finally got back to Arad around midnight; well rested, atoned, and ready to be back.
The next morning I went straight back to volunteering. I'm really starting to love the kids at Beit Mazor, the home where I volunteer. And we just got two more kids! Their names are Ron and Leor, which means there are now two Leor's and a Leora. A tad confusing at times, but it's cute.

Well, I should go because I have Hebrew class soon. Today's our first test, so I should start studying the gigantic list of vocabulary :/ Hope it goes well!

Sending love to everyone in the states :)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Druze Pita


I have good news and bad news.
Bad news: daylight savings has messed with my head, and deprived me an hour of sleep.
Good news: I now have some extra time to blog!

It is 9:00 AM and I am finally back home in Arad. It actually felt good to come back to the apartment last night, back to my friends, back to home base.

I've done some pretty fun things since my last post, which I believe was Rosh Hashana eve dinner....

Well, the next day I slept in for a bit and then took a stroll with my Saba and Yona around her little village called Ramot Hashavim--it's a beautiful community (north of Tel Aviv) of nice houses, a tennis court, two pools, synagogue, and event center. On our walk we happened to stumble upon a sculpture art exhibition. It was cool because all of the work was done by people who live in the village, so everyone there knows everyone.

All of us then headed back to Yona's for lunch (including Shaked). We hadn't made any solid plans for the day so I accepted Shaked's invitation to hang out at her house for a bit. I helped her cut things out for the 25th anniversary surprise party she and her brother Ashel planned for their parents--the whole thing is so adorable. They planned a scavenger hunt for them which ends with a fancy dinner on the beach. To top it off, the night ends in a play, I think Fiddler on the Roof. I told Shaked and Ashel that I hope to have kids like them someday.

After some cutting, glueing, and spray painting we put on our beged yam (bathing suits) and got in the car to meet her family at a beach. They were planning to stay overnight so the beach was about an hour we got there around 5 pm.
I wish we had arrived earlier because the beach was MAGNIFICENT. I wish I could remember the name of it. The sand felt like flour between my toes and the water was warm and soothing.
I swam for a bit, but couldn't stay in long because we had to cook dinner. It felt like camping on the beach. I decided that's my new favorite thing because you have the whole tent, grill, campfire thing but you also have the water, sand, and no insects or muddy shoes.

So we ate (delicious kebabs), talked, relaxed, and watched the sun set on the beach. The whole afternoon was lovely--I felt like I was part of the family even though they aren't even related by marriage. Oh well, we all love each other and thats what counts.

After we left the beach (around 830) we got home, Shaked borrowed my dress for a party, and I went to bed pretty early.

I woke up to find out that my Saba had planned a day trip! The three of us (Saba, Yona, and myself) drove for about an hour up to Carmel to explore a Druze villiage. Ok quick history lesson: The Druze people practice an offshoot of Islam and live in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They are Israeli citizens, they serve in the army, and are rather mysterious. They are also known for their tasty handmade pita which I HAD to sample. We had lunch there (shawarma, my favorite) and explored the main street which reminded me of a large street fair in china town. Lots of shops with the same stuff, but all still very interesting.

We had a good time but it was getting too hot and crowded to stay long. We got home, slept some more, and had delicious gelato. I've never napped or eaten as much as I did on this short vacation. Totally indulgent, and....amazing.

We said our goodbyes and then Saba and I drove back to Rishon before Sundown. I was exhausted from the day, so when I got home all I wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch a movie. Waterboy was on TV, a classic, and then after that was Pay it Forward, another classic. By 12:00 I was out.

The next day was what you would define as a lazy day, minus a long walk around my Saba's neighborhood, Rishon. The walk was pretty interesting...snagged a few cool photos of the neighborhood, petted a few local cats (I know, I'm gross), and chatted with the gramps. Although Rishon has it's slummy parts, I kind of like it. It's old and unique and the pretty flowers give life to the monochromatic buildings.

By 83o I was in a taxi on my way to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. I was planning on taking a "minibus" there, but two nice Philippine women offered to split a cab. It was a bit scary traveling alone at first in a still unfamiliar place at night. But, I put my headphones in, took a deep breath, and I was calm. Oh, the power of music.

At the platform there were at least 20 Young Judaeans, so I regained my sense of security. Headed on the crowded bus to Arad, got home, and went out even before I unpacked. I still haven't unpacked actually, but I need to go to volunteering in ten I better run.

Love to all!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year

Shana Tova!

To all of my non Hebrew speaking followers, this means Happy New Year :)

Well, so far, my Jewish New Year has been more than just happy--it's been wonderful. I don't even know where to begin! Ill guess I'll backtrack a few days...

So I have officially been a volunteer at the foster home for three days, and I couldn't be happier with my placement. The past two visits I actually painted their front inside door! It was a dull shade of brown, so they entrusted me with a few brushes, a few paints, and voila, it became a painting. It was the perfect job for me. Working with kids, AND painting? It doesn't get much better than that.

Alon, the owner, told me to make the door look friendly and kid-like. At first I wasn't sure what to do, so he gave me some advice. Here's a description of the final product: a house on a hill with a red roof, a big bright sun, flowers, and clouds, birds, and an Azure blue sky. It isn't exactly a Van Gogh piece, but I had a lot of fun doing it. And thankfully, the owners are happy with it too--they already gave me another painting project! It's definitely a lot of work, but it's fun work. At one point white I was painting Alon put on American music from the sixties, my personal favorite. I was jamming, painting, and even singing along a bit. Pure bliss.

Speaking of bliss, we all got our bikes the other day! It's the most liberating thing, being (sort of) mobile in an unknown city. I was able to bike to the pre-Rosh Hashana party the foster home hosted for all of the kids and volunteers. The ride was mostly uphill, and hot, but I made it. And I really needed the exercise because I have yet to find a pilates class in the middle of the desert. As a result, I have promised my roomates to lead weekly yoga/pilates sessions to keep us all in shape. They don't call it the Year Course 35 for no reason. The chocolate spread, hummus, and pita is unavoidable.

Anyway, the pre-New Year party was fun, though I couldn't stay long because I had an apartment meeting to get back to. After the meeting I cooked for the first time! My roommate Alexis and I made a Quinoa and Pasta chicken soup/ Stew. It turned out really delicious. I really love living with people on a limited spending stipend because it forces us to be creative in the kitchen...which we truly have been. Also, my friend bought a Panini maker, which pretty much explains why I love her so.

After dinner we went out again, got very little sleep (what else is new) and got up at the crack of dawn to catch an 8:20 bus to Tel Aviv. It took my roommate 3 attempts to wake me up this morning--it just wasn't happening. So when my friend Maya asked if I was ready to leave while I went to brush my teeth, I was a bit frazzled. I packed in literally two minutes, and thankfully I made the bus. I sat next to a Russian woman to spoke about as much Hebrew as I do, so our conversation was interesting. She kept asking me whether I thought Obama was a practicing Muslim. I repeatedly said "no" and then proceeded to sleep the rest of the ride.

I got to the HUGE station in Tel Aviv (it's pretty much a mall) and was a little overwhelmed to say the least. But, I finally got on a second bus to Ben Yehuda street and found the familiar face I was looking for, my Grandpa, Saba Uri. In case you don't know, Saba means Grandpa in Hebrew. We had a lovely afternoon--he made me delicious meal, I napped, showered, and then headed to his girlfriend's newly redone house for Rosh Hashana dinner. The house is MAGNIFICENT. High ceilings, marble everywhere. It was nice seeing people I haven't seen in a while, including my (sort of) cousin Shaked. She is my age and we have A LOT in common. We talked the entire night, and she may take me out with her friends tomorrow! All tentative plans of course, but I think it would be really fun. Now do you see why I love Jewish holidays? Endless amounts of food, shmoozing, and relaxation.

Well, that's about it for now. Time for some real sleep. Finally.

Liyla Tov and Shana Tova

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Neighborhood Catz


Well, a lot has happened since my last post. I've been trying to Blog every day, but something always goes wrong--internet fail, time management fail, laziness fail. So, of course, at 12:50 in the morning, I begin writing. It's ok, I've given up on sleep.

So the other day (Thursday) we all went to Ein Gedi...we started the day with a short hike and then swam in the beautiful, clear, waterfall pool. Felt amazing after living in apartments, in the desert, with NO AC. (Did I mention that earlier?) My fan has become my best friend.

Anywho, then we left Ein gedi and drove to Yam Hamelach, the Dead Sea. I didn't stay in for too long because I discovered some evil cuts I didn't know about, so the water stung a bit. But I rinsed off, got a passion fruit slushy, and it was all better :)

So, as if the day couldn't get any longer, we all got changed and sluggishly plopped on the bus to head to Jerusalem for the Year Course opening ceremony. After a two hour bus ride we arrived in the holiest of holies and met up with the other sections. I got to see a few friends from home, toured a BEAUTIFUL Jerusalem apartment (which got me excited for next trimester), ate falafel, listened to music, and watched the Year Course video. The whole scene was incredible--the video was streamed live on Young Judaea's website (you can check it out!, then click opening ceremony) and according to everyone, I was the "star" (lol) of the video because of my multiple cameo's and interviews at the end. I sound pretty ridiculous in the interviews but oh well. My Mom got nachas (a yiddish term I really can't translate in English) from watching me in it.

After the ceremony we got on the bus, and sat for what was supposed to be a two hour ride, right?
Two hours turned into four when our bus got in a small accident with TWO other cars. And I saw the entire thing happen! I was sleeping and woke up to two loud bumps on the bus door. I was too tired to even pay attention to the accident so I literally fell back asleep for the entirety of the ride...although I did see the bus driver step outside to smoke a cigarette directly after the accident. Typical Israelis.

Well we got home at 3 am, but thankfully we got to sleep in until 10 the next day.
Hooray for Shabbat!

The following day was my first shabbat on Year Course. Usually Shabbat is open, meaning you heave the weekends free, but the first one was was spent with the group to get us acclimated to Shabbat on Year Course in Arad.

I chose to attend a Conservative service, which was pleasant and short. I truly feel different when I pray in Israel. It feels so much more meaningful to me, being so connected to my religion and my roots. After the service we split into groups and all had dinner with a host family...and I got really really lucky! I ended up with two of my american friends and a British boy at the Freeman household. The dinner was delicious, and we were able to speak english because the father is originally from America.

You'd think America is a pretty big place. And even the Jewish community is pretty big in America. But of course, God puts me in the home of two teenagers who attended Solomon Schechter Westchester from 2006-2009. Turns out I was a classmate with the daughter, and just missed their son (who graduated middle school the year I came). The rest of the evening was spent laughing over the countless people we know in common, and the teachers who we loved to hate. If I learned anything this past Shabbat, I learned (or affirmed) that the world is, indeed, a very small place.

Ok, moving on.

Later that night I went out again, got home at 4 AM, was asleep by 5 and woke up by 9. Thankfully I was able to nap for two and a half hours that afternoon, something I never could do back in the States. I like that Shabbat here is all about relaxing and doing what makes you comfortable...its really great!

AHH sorry I talk so much. Ill move on to today. Well, today was exciting! It was my first day of volunteering, and I got the best placement! I'm going to be working with kids at a foster home...ages ranging from 7 months (my sisters age, exactly) to 18 and a half (old than me!) All of the kids are SO adorable. The parents/ owners of the house told me to speak to them in English, so they can learn, and the kids will respond in Hebrew, so I can learn. It works out pretty well, until I ramble in English and they have no clue what I'm talking about. One little girl is named Leor (almost my name) and she is the cutest 5 year old alive...she knows how to count in English and also knows the colors--she's a smart one.

After volunteering I sketched outside a bit, napped, and went to dinner at our friend's apartment. We ate, listened to music, chilled--all the good stuff!

ps. There are SO many cats here. Everywhere. I love it. My friends and I have started calling each other the neighborhood cats (in hebrew of course), because we think its funny? Hence the title.

Now I am FINALLY going to sleep...after I attempt to upload some pictures onto the blog.
Wish me luck.