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-na├»ve-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