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 : )