Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Countdown Begins

With just nine days to go until I'm off to Boston University, I'm beginning to feel the inevitable pre-transition jitters that come before every milestone.

Thankfully, I've learned to channel this nervousness into a more productive outlet: dorm shopping.

My creative, girly side has embraced coordinating duvet covers to pillowcases, posters to tapestries, and fans to alarm clocks. (Tip: plan your entire color scheme around your duvet cover, doing the reverse is simply impossible.)

If you've yet to enter this phase of life, let me tell you, there's nothing simple (or sane) about this particular process. Dorm shopping has become a commercialized market that tells you exactly what you need, for instance: extra tall bed risers, twenty drawers from the container store, a loofa that matches your shower caddy, a zebra print bean bag chair. Monogrammed stationary (because people apparently still write letters), a dry-erase board, an alarm clock with artificial intelligence, and last but not least, Extra Long Twin bed sheets –because if you end up with just Twin sized, you better go find a comfy place to sleep on the floor.

Yesterday, walking into Bed Bath & Beyond highlighted the comical nature of the process. Come to think of it, the whole experience was slightly Twilight Zone-esque. Dozens of teenagers, accompanied by their either over-caffeinated or lethargic parents, wheeled around the colossal, overwhelmingly bright store. My mother and I walked by the gourmet food section of the store (since when has linen shopping turned into grocery shopping?), grabbed an artichoke dip sampler, and finally entered the bedding section. When reaching for the same item (check: mattress foam) a similarly dressed parent-teen pair acknowledged my mother and me with a sympathetic half-smile that said "oh, you too?"

Yup, us too.

Finally, I’m that girl picking out throw pillows to make her bed feel homey, despite actually being hundreds of miles away from home.

As I stood on line for checkout and looked at the “stuff” in the cart beside me, an exciting realization entered my consciousness: all of the items in the cart are more than just “stuff” waiting to be purchased and forgotten.

They’re there to serve a purpose.

The high-functioning alarm clock will wake me up every morning before I learn about the psychology of the mind; the red canvas basket will hold textbooks filled with the history of early societies for my writing seminar; my black and white laundry baskets will hold clothes I’ll wear on nights out with new friends, memories imprinting themselves deep into the fabric; my fuzzy, plush pillow will not only look great on my bed, but will also rest my head after a long night at the library.

All of these essential dorm items will occupy my living space as I go through my college years. The years I believe Plato once called “the best time of your life.”

Or maybe it was the man whose kids I babysit for that expressed his envy of the exciting era I’m entering.

Yes, I think it was the latter.

In any case, I’m predicting the next three to four years to be great, but not necessarily the apex of my entire life. That would just be depressing. If it’s “all-downhill” afterwards, I’ll dismiss my gpa thankyouverymuch and trade studying for endless exploration, activities, concerts, and fun.

But since that’s not the case, I’m ready to buckle down and finally study. It’s been a while, and learning has never seemed so exciting.

College, I’m ready for you--

Can’t wait to meet you in September.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Parallel Universe

On my second to last day in Israel, my friend made an odd suggestion:

Try to forget all of your incredible memories from the past nine months.

She could tell I was confused by the way I stared back at her, perplexed and silent, waiting for an explanation.

Forget, because no other time in our lives will ever compare.

As I sit here in Starbucks back in my secular town, I find that my words aren’t pouring out as they once did – and only now do I see the harsh truth in my friend’s odd, but very accurate, suggestion.

It’s not that I had such a troublesome transition back to the States. In fact, besides the initial culture shock of not being around Jews 24/7 and that weeklong inescapable jet lag, I fell back into the comfortable bubble of Rye, New York quite smoothly. I delved quickly into work at my internship and crammed my calendar with overlapping plans with friends, family, and anyone I’d missed during my nine month “abandonment’ abroad.

I’ve even hit most of the food spot’s I longed for; my sushi place, Trader Joes, Chipotle, pizza, Subway, I’ve been to them all.

So yes, in the big picture, I’m content. From a distance, my life even seems ideal – I have a fun internship, loyal friends, a supportive boyfriend, a loving family. But looking from the inside out, there is a clear void in my daily life. It’s the little things, the quirky things, that remind me how much I miss my IsraeLife.

This sense of longing explains why, when I took my first bite of my signature Subway sandwich, my mind reverted to the incredible falafel stand on Ben Yehuda street, Jerusalem; why I wake up in the mornings half expecting to be jolted by the ear-numbing repetitive sounds of the Bat Yam High School bell; why I so frequently mistake squirrels for cats at first glance; why I refuse to believe that there’s such thing as a “line” for checkout.

And on some days, I so wish I had my 1999 Edition Nokia IsraelPhone—because unfortunately, my new blackberry curve doesn’t have “Snake”, the numbers of nearly everyone in Section 3, the option to text in Hebrew, and the rustic appeal of a phone that’s been passed from year courser to year courser, outlasting the generations.

Some nights, as I lay peacefully in my king sized Temperpedic bed, even my dreams take me back to Bat Yam:

Suddenly I’m in my sandy, twin-sized bed, physically drained from the weekend’s hike up north. Sunlight beams through my window, beckoning my wakening, urging me to begin the day. Despite my soreness and sleep deprivation, I’m propelled by passion and motivated by something greater than myself. I roll out my yoga mat, turn on my relaxation playlist, raise my arms to the sky, and begin to stretch, fulfilling my morning ritual. After a breakfast of oatmeal and fresh fruit, I leave my apartment of six girls, hop on my bike, and head to the park where I’ll teach English to an elderly lady I met the week before.

It’s a simple memory, from not too long ago, of an average day in Bat Yam. Though here in Rye, this memory feels so distant. I can picture the multicolored flowers that filled the park, the palm trees, the turquoise hue of the Mediterranean sea; I can even hear the cats fighting in my apartment parking lot, the market place booming with locals bartering for the best price, the rampant honking in the streets.

I am present in that life, that foreign life, in a parallel universe. It’s as if no time had elapsed in my Rye life—I left in August, returned in June—hopping from one summer to the next.

Was everything in between just a continuous dream?

Sometimes, I honestly feel like it was. It takes a moment, when acquaintances ask about my freshman year of college, to explain what I did the past nine months. I am almost taken aback every time at how out of the ordinary my experiences sound, and how uniquely remarkable my year abroad truly was.

Perhaps that’s why it’s taken nearly a month to complete this last post. I’ve become so ensconced within my life here, it’s been difficult to put myself 6000 miles away, back in my parallel universe where life was just so…different.

I guess now the challenge I face is incorporating everything I’ve learned abroad into the present, without feeling like I need to be in Israel to continue moving forward. So far, so good, I’d say; I’ve already single handedly cooked a Shabbat dinner for my whole family, practiced my Hebrew with Israelis at a dinner party, spread Arabic/ Yiddish/ Hebrew slang expressions around my secular town, and have officially eliminated the presence of tight clothing in my wardrobe. I guess I’ve channeled my inner chilled out Tel Aviv Hippie self (as I sit here sipping my Chai Latte in my flowy Aladdin Pants). I definitely stand out among the Polo wearing, plaid pants crowd that makes up Rye, but I kind of like it that way—I’ve established a new personal style that reminds me, every day, of how Israel has become a part of me.

So I suppose the imminent question arises: will I go back?

Of course, the answer is yes. After living there for nine months of my short life, I have to visit frequently, for my own sanity. As for living there—I really couldn’t say.

In the end, there’s no way of truly knowing where my life is headed. In fact, I changed my college choice almost the same amount of times as I changed my first date outfit, my favorite color, my favorite band, even my favorite ice cream flavor.

Things inevitably change; so for now, I’ll accept that as my guiding motto for the future. Perhaps Grad school will take me back to Tel Aviv, perhaps I’ll stay in Boston, maybe even go back to Manhattan.

The only thing I’m sure of right now is my next step: College.

Tune into my next post, as I begin my transition from my IsraeLife to my BostonLife!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

So long, for now.

When I folded my first shirt and packed it into my suitcase, never to be worn again on Year Course, reality hit me like a slap in the face: on Tuesday, I'll be home.

Not home as in Bat Yam home - or Jerusalem home - or even Arad home; but Rye, New York home - the place where I grew up. The place where my friends, family, and boyfriend await my arrival, because it's where I "belong."

As this reality inches it's way nearer and nearer, I'm faced with the challenge of balancing my extremely unstable emotions - one moment I'll be happier than ever, partying, dancing, and singing with my best friends in the country I feel I've become a part of; the next moment I'll be an emotional wreck, crying about the "end," about living in a secular country, about not feeling connected to anything. I've even felt, on the opposite extreme, excited to see the people I care about at home, to start my summer internship, to sleep in a cozy bed.

Until that time actually comes, I need to really be in the present, because I realize that predicting my imminent depression won't do me any good.

So, I made the executive decision to not write my last IsraeLife post in Israel. This is simply a temporary final entry until I can sit and reflect, clear-minded and devoid of distractions, back in America.

Israel, I'm not going to say goodbye because I know, for sure, Ill be back...

Lehitraot (see you later), it's been an incredible ride.




Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Matzah, Music, and Mantras

To fully understand my spring break, you must first have an image of Israel in late April: 75 degrees, sunny, a light afternoon breeze. A full pallet of brightly colored flowers in bloom on every street, roundabout, garden, and park - flowers that are naturally tie-dyed, enormous, spiky, and exotic to someone who grew up in New York, where purple crocuses are the exciting telltale sign of spring. Now imagine these flowers spread out across mountains in the distance, palm trees in the foreground, and a freshwater lake between the two. While all of Israel displays bountiful nature and a sense of rebirth during the springtime, there is truly no place like the north.

On the Wednesday before break, our section made the three hour journey north for a mandatory overnight stay on a Kibbutz and a hike on Mount Carmel. Since we are all money savvy year coursers, we decided to seize the free transportation and begin our break exploring the area. We made it to Tiberias later that afternoon, checked into a very respectable youth hostel, and dined on the beautiful boardwalk lined with restaurants catered to hungry tourists. After getting a full nights sleep we awoke early to embark on what I though was going to be a leisurely bike ride around the entire Sea of Galilee.

To say I was mistaken would be an understatement, though not necessarily in a bad way.


The first half of the journey was extremely pleasant—the incredible scenery kept us peddling, as well as our fierce desire to complete the journey. However soon enough, after our mid-way lunch break, my friend Izzy and I realized that we wouldn’t make the four o’clock bus to our friend’s house if we were to keep the same pace as before. In fact, we would have to shave off over an entire hour to make it. Out of necessity, we quickly shifted our worry to determination—we parted from the rest of the group and pushed ourselves as hard as humanly possible.

When we made it to the bus stop ten minutes early with a celebratory ice cream in hand, the pain of the second half became worthwhile. I was so proud to have conquered a sixty kilometer (thirty-five mile) bike ride in one morning, in one piece.

We arrived at our friends’ beautiful house smelly, tired, dirty, and ridiculously happy - happy to see our friend, to take a real shower, to have a home-cooked Shabbat meal, and to have a relaxing weekend in the mountains ahead of us.

A few days later it was Passover and I headed to my Grandpa’s girlfriend’s house for the Seder. I was surprised at how cut-to-the-chase the Seder was, but not disappointed. I feel like I experienced Passover Israeli-style - there was much more emphasis on the company and the tasty food than the reading of the prayers/ Hagadah itself. But in the end, I was happy to enjoy a fantastic meal and the company of my cousin, Shaked, who I hadn’t seen since Rosh Hashana half a year prior. We got some good bonding time in between schmoozing with the adults; we talked, watched a cute-chic flick, and relaxed on her outdoor patio eating fruit from the garden.


In these moments I see Israel’s beauty in its fullest, most organic state - the warmth of sun and family; the juiciness of freshly picked fruit; the sense of togetherness on holidays and celebration.


As guests began filing out with the sunset, I knew it was time to head back to Bat Yam, as I needed to prepare for my upcoming trip to Eilat. I went home from my family’s with a full stomach, as per usual, looking forward to spending the next three days at a music festival with friends.


Late the next evening we finally arrived in the city of Eilat, six hours after our departure from Tel Aviv ( a real schlep and a half.) I was almost expecting a “Welcome to Disneyworld” sign upon arrival, as the skyline was so brightly lit up, like a theme park or carnival display. I soon realized that it was my first time in the city, as I had never before seen anything like it.
The next day, when I could observe Eilat in the daylight, I wrote my first impressions in the journal I took with me:


Enter the fantasy world that is Eilat - a city in the southernmost tip of Israel, where wealthy tourists splurge in the most glamorous beach side hotels, dine at world renowned restaurants, and fry their slender, toned bodies under the scorching Israeli sun. Where palm trees, mountains, sea and desert meet in one landscape, connected by a man-made boardwalk lined with American and European commercial merchandise. Built up only in the last few decades, Eilat is exactly what it was intended to be - a holiday destination resembling the Atlantis resort in Nassau, Bahamas, with a seemingly 2D mountainous movie backdrop. Indeed, it is terrible in its tackiness and the farthest thing from the “authentic” Israel I’ve grown to love - yet, like a cheesy romance flick, I can’t help but find it endearing.


On a few square miles of sand near the heart of the city was where they decided to place this years Boombamela, a three day long hippie music festival that takes place every year during Passover break. On Wednesday evening and Thursday afternoon (the 20th to the 21st) Israeli preteens, American young adults, and even families flooded to the music festival en masse with tents and groceries in hand. Our group of about twelve Brits and Americans arrived Wednesday evening, the night before the festival began. Though frankly, it might as well have started that night, as bumping dance music blared from midnight until five the next morning right outside our tent. The same occurred the following two nights, so we ultimately replaced sleep with dancing throughout the duration of festival.



To sum up Boombamela by saying it was only a great time would be untrue, as I did incur a bit of a trauma in between the music, dancing, exploring, and laying out on the beach. I immediately knew something was very, very, wrong when I awoke the second morning to see that both my wallet and my phone weren’t in my purse. I felt that sinking, gut-twisting feeling you get when something important goes missing, and it soon dawned on me that I may have been robbed.


The next part of the story is predictable - frantic scurrying through mounds of matzah, clothes, and water bottles in my tent, running around the festival grounds, crying, and finally reporting the missing items to the police. I tried to pull myself together and not let it ruin the rest of the festival - and thankfully, supportive friends were there to help me do so.

Perhaps it was a magic, thorough searching, or just dumb luck that the same day, the police recovered my wallet. All the cash removed, of course, but all of my important cards remained. I was so beyond ecstatic when the police called my friend’s phone to tell me the good news that I stood up, did a little victory dance, and ran to the festival’s police tent. I was still phone-less and didn’t have a penny to my name, but I had my wallet so all was well. My friends and I celebrated by dressing up in strange costumes (all provided by a costume booth), running around giving people hugs, painting each other, and so on. Our bodies swayed throughout the night to reggae, techno, and hip-hop beats, and we ended the night in the holistic tent for an “unconditional love” hippie session.


The next day I experienced something that I truly wasn’t expecting - a spiritual Shabbat. Friday morning I relaxed at a Yoga session, swam in the sea, and listened to music until the sun began to set and we joined the crowds of people around the “religious” tent. Strangers held hands with each other and danced up and down the festival grounds to welcome in the Sabbath with song, creating the most picturesque, surreal scene. The evening continued with a quick Kabbalat Shabbat “service” and a free three course dinner kindly provided by religious volunteers.


By Saturday afternoon, after three days of matzah, music, and mantras, we were all exhausted and ready to go home. I was looking forward to taking a real shower and spending a few days at my uncle’s in Ramat Hasharon, as I hadn’t seen him (or my cousins) since the beginning of Year Course on Rosh Hashana. When my Uncle exclaimed upon my arrival, I can’t believe it’s been half a year since I saw you last! I was shocked and bit stunned at how quickly time has flown. I didn’t even know where to begin when he asked what I’d done in that time - and looking back on the previous trimesters felt like looking back on years of memories.


For the first time, I was forced to really think about the month ahead, and the preparation for my return to America.

Today, for instance, YC logistics sent me an email saying I need to confirm my flight back to JFK. I really wanted to respond: Stop sending me junk mail. There is no point in booking my flight home, as Year Course isn’t actually ending. Sincerely, participant in denial.

May 30th is the date we all twinge a little when we hear, and promptly “sush” the evil person who mentions it.

And although it is the last stretch of this incredible year abroad, I recognize that a month left in Israel is still a long time. There are many trips, events, and fun activities planned on my “bucket list” to look forward to…

I’ve just got to keep reminding myself to live in the present, so I can make these next twenty six days really count.



With my friend Alexis at Boombamela









Looking intense before cycling the Kinneret



Monday, April 25, 2011

Chodesh Vi Chetzi

An interesting colloquial phrase I’ve recently heard thrown about here in Israel is “vi Chetzi,” which literally translates to “and a half.” This silly phrase is mainly used to emphasize a point, both positive and negative. Here’s an example of how it may play out in standard conversation:

Sarah: “Wow, that movie was great”
Rachel: “I agree, it was great vi chetzi!”

I can only really explain this last month by saying it was a true Chodesh (month) vi chetzi. Not a sliver of time was wasted during the past thirty-odd days of traveling, hiking, volunteering, family bonding, learning, and celebrating—so I’m hoping all I have done, and all I’m about to write, justifies my having not posted here in so long…

The chodesh vi chetzi began with a bang, or perhaps the sound of a grogger (noisemaker), when Purim arrived in Israel, the weekend I returned home from Poland. For many Israelis, this is the best, most insane, and perhaps most widely celebrated holiday of the year. To be fair, this isn’t because the holiday is so spiritual or, for lack of better words, “religious.” It is, however, a “religious” excuse to get ridiculous – ridiculously happy, ridiculously dressed, and ridiculously drunk.

For four whole days children, teens, adults, both religious and secular alike, crowded the streets of Bat Yam, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem for what was essentially a never-ending party. My friends and I attended an inter-section Year Course planned costume party, a Tel Aviv street party, a massive parade, and throughout the entire time ate (and baked) Hummentashens, which are triangle shaped cookies filled with chocolate, jam, or just anything tasty.

In short, Purim was a great transition back to Bat Yam from a pretty heavy week in Poland. Fairly soon after I began feeling at home in the Bat Yam/ Tel Aviv region—I’ve explored the town and ran on the beach, spent many nights out in Tel Aviv, familiarized myself with the local buses, volunteered at a local school, and studied in my classes. I’ve already learned so much in my Hebrew, Zionism, and film classes, and of course always look forward to the great workout I get on Tuesday nights from Israeli Dance.

I’ve also remained extremely busy with the new leadership track I’ve voluntarily become a part of; four days a week we dedicate our afternoons to either a leadership seminar, listening to a guest speaker, participating in extra volunteering, or organizing events for YC participants. There are less than thirty of us in the track, so we’ve become a tight knit group. As a part of the program, our group spent one weekend together staying at various “host families” in Modiin, the town where our director, Laz, lives. Staying at host families is always a unique, interesting experience in Israel, and from an outsider’s perspective, the whole concept must be odd—that is, staying at a complete stranger’s house for a weekend, sleeping in their beds and eating their food. Since it is completely normal here, I’ve come to embrace it.


A week later, a group of us decided to trek up north to embark on the well known Yehudia hike and camp-out overnight. Four hours and approximately one thousand bus transfers later we made it to the beautiful, green, mountainous north. Immediately upon arriving at the campsite I hit myself for not exploring the north more prior to the visit, as we were all in complete awe of our surroundings. The hike was also unlike any other I’ve done in Israel—besides being the first one up north, it was also extremely eventful. After walking through a pool of waist high freezing cold water we were greeted by cows and sheep to the right and left of the trail. Daisies and Poppies colored the endless expanses of green fields until we passed the biggest waterfall in Israel and arrived at the fresh water pools. A few of us daring hikers decided to plunge into the crystal clear pools from a cliff, which was so worth it. I even have a picture to prove it! (see below)

When I got back to Bat Yam on April first I had more exciting things to look forward to—my Mom and Step-Dad’s arrival in Israel! I got to spend some quality bonding time with them during their stay, and it felt great showing my Mother, an Israeli, around her own country.

So does that make Israel my country, too?

I asked myself that when I directed them around the old city, recommended restaurants, and spoke to waiters in nearly fluent Hebrew. Oddly enough I didn’t feel like a tourist while we explored the Tel Aviv museum of Art, shopped in the Arab marketplace, and relaxed at their amazing hotel in Jerusalem located atop a mountain. It was nice being able to experience Israel a bit more luxuriously than I’m used to—and frankly, I’m not used to Jacuzzi’s, Thai food, private balconies, Saunas, and breakfast buffets.

Though bidding my Mom and Alan farewell was sad, Passover, one of my favorite holidays, arrived quickly, bringing more happiness, family, and celebration.

All of a sudden Matzo boxes replaced the bread on our counters and we packed our suitcases to begin our spring break up north…




Jumping off the cliff!


My apartment in costume for Purim

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Resistance


Written after visiting the forest of the Tykocin mass grave in Poland

Footsteps
Footprints in snow
March of the living
Sunlight pokes out between thousands of
still, ominous, red trees
Casting shadows on each of us

But what about the shadows of the bodies
beneath the snow?
Where have their shadows gone?

We hear an anecdote
A story
Words that move
That paint a picture

Now that’s all we have
Images in our imaginations
of horrors
we cannot even conceive

Soon, memories will have dissolved
into the ground
Passed on only through records and stories
of innocent souls

I feel them looking down on me
As I retrace their steps
Flesh, skin, bones beneath my shoes

Above, their spirits transcending time
Hovering infinitely between the trees

Our remembrance is our resistance


Arise

It’s 5:45 AM. My field of vision is still blurry as I reach to turn off the buzzing alarm that awakens me from a deep sleep. The room is still dark and the air chilly, causing the hair to rise vertically on my goose-bumped arms. For about half a minute I’m completely disoriented: This doesn’t look like Bat Yam. Where am I? And why am I so cold?
At first I think I’m still dreaming. All is surreal until the bedside light switches on and I process my illuminated new environment: hotel room, Warsaw, Poland.

In hindsight, I see how this sense of disorientation pervaded our group’s week-long journey in Poland. At first, it manifested itself in our physical discomfort - coldness, hunger, and chronic fatigue became a normal and prevalent part of each day. Yet, as the trip progressed, we witnessed our challenges transform from physical to emotional.

In this sense, this trip helped put the complaints of everyday life in perspective. How could we moan about our frozen toes or grumbling stomachs while inside a concentration camp, where thousands suffered fates infinitely worse? All it took was a slight maturation of our minds - and appropriate attitudes - to brave seeing horrific sites in the midst of Poland’s freezing winter.

But like any situation, there are times to be serious and times to be silly. So granted, we did find appropriate moments to let the goofiness we’d been suppressing surface. After long days of soaking in harsh realities, humor proved to be an important, if not vital, coping mechanism for the group of eighty-something young adults.

You may wonder how we could be lighthearted on a trip devoted to the Holocaust? Well the answer is simple: humans seek a state of equilibrium. We naturally stabilize ourselves after extreme highs and extreme lows, to find our functional happy medium. I recall one instance in particular where I had to pull myself out of an extreme low:

I am standing at the site of a mass shooting in what used to be the death camp Majdanek. I stare at my feet, attempting to avoid the biting cold wind, while listening to my group leader read aloud an anecdote of a family murdered at that very site. Suddenly I see faces, bodies, and even voices come to life from within the ground, beneath my boots, and around the desolate camp. My imagination makes the anecdote real - more real than I was expecting. More real than I had hoped. (Yes, this was the reason I came to Poland - to learn, to see, to feel - but nobody can prepare you for the reactions that you have in your own mind.)Suddenly tears well up in the corners of my eyes and I look up at the monochromatic grayness of the sky. At that moment I understand why I came there - to see the lowest point humanity is capable of reaching, so I will never forget it or let it happen again. Yet, my mind relentlessly grapples with the how. How could humanity reach such an unimaginable low?

That is the ultimate question I was left with after my journey.

And after searching tirelessly for answers, I learned that no matter how much textbook knowledge I stuff into my mind, there will only appear more questions.

From what I understand, that’s simply how the universe works. We study topics to learn, to connect neurons to one another, to use that ten percent of our oversized brains. But as we gain knowledge, we learn that there is still so much we don’t know. We see how much of the world we have yet to explore.

That is how I ended up arriving back in Israel, one long week later, still feeling like I had only scratched the surface of such a colossal historical event. Because frankly, only God knows the millions of names, facts, families, stories, lives that exist in the physical realm only as air particles of undifferentiated ash.

That may be what haunts me the most - the thousands of families who simply vanished, as if they never existed at all. No grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, or even grandchildren to continue their legacy. No photographs to be remembered by, no friends to tell their story. Those are the people who become a part of the tragic statistic - because that is all that is left of them.

“Kuma,” the name of the trip to Poland, translates in Hebrew to stand up or arise. Another trip similar to “Kuma” is called “March of the Living.“ Both names almost intertwine in their messages; one of our goals for coming to Poland was to stand up for those who could not. We filled old synagogues on Shabbat with our voices - with our prayers for those who fell. We marched through forests, on the sites of mass graves, to listen to anecdotes and pay our respects.

I will always remember the blueness of the Israeli flag we waved while walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau. I will remember when we sang the “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem, at Treblinka. I will remember when other tour groups joined us in singing, our voices bouncing off each other in unison, sending chills up and down my spine. I will remember returning to Jerusalem straight off the plane, finding a stone from Auschwitz in my pocket, and carefully placing it in a crack in the Western Wall.

All of these memories have become a part of me. They have left an impression on my being - and there they will remain - so I will never forget.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Daughter of the Sea

The moving truck pulls away from Derech Hebron street early Monday morning. My roommates and I sit in the driveway, watching our lives, packed tightly inside duffel bags, become blurry as the truck fades away into traffic. I look behind me, and am slightly baffled by the spotless, empty apartment. An apartment in which dozens of memories were formed over the course of three short months - memories now lost in time, only in existence through stories and photographs. My reminiscent, fleeting thoughts are interrupted by my counselor's voice: Apartment 3, time to head out. With slight hesitation, I take a step forward, a deep breath, and bid my Jerusalem home farewell.

It was the second time I had to say goodbye to a place I called home, yet difficult nonetheless. Mentally, I was ready for change. I lived three incredible months in the holiest city; I spent Chanukah and Shabbatot at the Kotel, went to Synagogue on Friday nights, volunteered with the most adorable Israeli toddlers, and took thought provoking classes. My Hebrew improved three fold, and it shows. Now I don’t hesitate to initiate conversations with locals, nor do I allow sneaky taxi drivers to rip me off . (But that may also be attributed to genetics, thanks to my very Israeli mother, Shirona.) In any case, It is evident that this trimester has allowed me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. It was during these three months that I learned what it’s like to be an Israeli citizen; I gave directions to strangers navigating the city, bargained on Friday mornings at the jam packed Shuk (market), and helped nurture the future generation of Israeli citizens. It must be the yin and yang, give and take relationship I formed with the city that made this trimester so incredible - and I know I wouldn’t have gotten what I did from Jerusalem had it not given me so much.

Thankfully, this chapter of my year abroad does not end on a sad note. After some inter-section mingling and a hike up north for our last changeover, Section three arrived in beautiful, sunny, Bat Yam. Literally meaning “daughter of the sea” or “mermaid,” Bat Yam's main attraction is its incredible beach. Though the city itself isn’t anything to brag about, the beach, warm weather, and proximity to Tel Aviv is a blessing for us gap-year participants.

We have already begun to take advantage of the beach that is a short forty minute walk, fifteen minute run, or six minute bus ride. It’s possible that our entire section was there yesterday, laying out under the sun, beginning the much-needed post winter tanning process. A bit of Frisbee, football, reading, music and singing added to the simple perfection of the day. And after the stresses of winter classes, finals and projects, Shabbat on the sand was the best way to ease ourselves into the next (and last) trimester of Year Course.

At this point you may be wondering what I’m actually doing here, besides laying out with friends. Well to tell you the truth I can only give you a vague time table of what life is supposed to be like when I return from my trip to Poland (on March 14th). Two mornings a week I will be volunteering, and the other two I have mandatory Zionism and Hebrew Class. I hope to be working with refugees from Darfur in Tel Aviv as my volunteer placement, though it is not yet set in stone. With the rest of my time I’ll either be attending meetings and workshops for the leadership program Year Course has just created, or relaxing in my new home with friends!

And since tonight eighty four of us YC participants are headed to Poland, daily life doesn’t really begin here until next week. So, this first week Bat Yam was mostly spent orienting ourselves to our new surroundings, unpacking, and exploring. My new apartment is one of the biggest - it is spacious, airy, and the most magnificent part about it is my single bed. Goodbye top bunk, hello freedom! I’ve never been happier to roll out of bed in the morning onto a floor, instead of plunging into a vertical nightmare.

I also have an Israeli scout living with me, who has already become a close friend of mine. There are thirteen scouts in total who spend all of Year Course in Bat Yam, but are technically a part of the program. From what I've seen, they all appear to be friendly, energetic, outgoing people. I'm really looking forward to integrating them into our section!

But with all of Bat Yam’s benefits, there are the inevitable drawbacks: I am no longer in a city surrounded by religion and culture - in fact, similar to in Arad, Russians make up a large percentage of the population, and it is likely you will hear Russian just as frequently as you will Hebrew. I guess I will have to look harder to find the religious connectedness that was so prevalent and accessible in Jerusalem.

It's strange to think that Jerusalem, in addition to Arad, is a home of the past. I still feel very connected to both places, but in such different ways. Perhaps after my visit to Poland I’ll see how my experiences in both places have shaped my relationship, perception, and tie to Israel. Though it’s hard to imagine how I’ll think and feel a week from now. I really don’t know what to expect from a country whose history is marred by the genocide of my people.

I can only hope that after returning to Israel, I will have deepened my appreciation for the Jewish state I’ve grown to love.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jewish Identity

Yesterday I began looking ahead. I realized that if I want to have a job I enjoy this summer, it's time to crack down and start researching internships. This is my prompt and response for one of the short answer questions I was given:

Please share your Jewish story, or describe your interest in Jewish life and culture

I feel small - smaller than my five-year-old self has ever felt before. I am swimming a sea of strangers in the middle of the Kotel in the Old city of Jerusalem, holding on for dear life to my Mother’s hand. A woman in front of me is touching the stone wall, mumbling foreign words to herself and crying. I ask my mother: Why is that lady so sad? She responds with a simple, she’s crying from happiness honey - sometimes that happens when you pray.

After five more visits to this wonderful, mysterious place, I find myself on my balcony in Jerusalem, reflecting on my first encounter of this Holy City. It is February 4th, 2011. Sunlight pokes out between the palm trees, shedding its warmth on my cheeks as I type. I let my senses take note of my environment; the sweet aroma of baking Challah, the cool mountain breeze, and the clashing sounds of loud Hebrew dialogue are the same as they were thirteen years ago. I laugh quietly to myself, amused at how some things never change.

I realize that indeed, I am in the same Israel I have always known; stores close up on Friday afternoons, strangers say “Shabbat Shalom” to each other on the street, and Shawarma is still the most delicious food in the world. Yet, one variable has inevitably changed - me.

Of course I have grown since my first visit to Israel- physically, mentally, emotionally. And throughout this period of growth, Judaism has undoubtedly been a predominant force; its morals and values have become instilled within me, creating a solid foundation upon which I have grown and will continue to grow. I see myself as someone who has a strong faith in G-d, a desire to help others, and the motivation to carry out the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. These values led me to become a Bat Mitzvah, to attend Jewish private school, to voluntarily read Torah, to tutor trope to eager thirteen year olds, and finally, to take a year after High School to study and volunteer in Israel, my favorite place in the world.

All of these activities I simply delved into, never questioning why or what I was gaining from them. They just felt right. Only now can I see the intrinsic changes that took place from each Hebrew test I studied for, prayer I uttered, and trip to Israel I took. I see how I have developed a sense of Jewish identity.

The aforementioned “Jewish Identity” wasn’t always such a clear image in my head. So often referred to on my gap year program, the phrase use to loom over me like a hovering, ambiguous “goal." I signed up for Year Course thinking I'd arrive back home in New York with a tangible new Jewish Identity I could show off to my family and friends.

Thankfully, I’ve learned it doesn’t quite work this way. My program abroad isn’t simply a means to an end. The culmination of my wide-ranging experiences in Israel will become a part of my Jewish identity - not just a road to a destination.

And as I find the avenues in Judaism that best suit me, I see this identity changing form, evolving, and solidifying. I see it when I cook a Shabbat meal for my roommates and I to enjoy; I see it when I walk into my volunteering and see Arab and Israeli children playing together; I see it when I listen to voices intertwine in harmony at Shira Chadasha, the temple I attend on Friday nights in Jerusalem.

I think I can proudly say that from a young girl lost at the Western Wall, a mature Jewish woman has emerged.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Trip Back in Time

Six million lives. Or rather, six million stories. Perhaps six million faces? It seems almost impossible to imagine a number of that enormity, without demeaning the horror of each individual story—without mindlessly categorizing lives into the Wikipedia definition of the word Holocaust.

Today, we can say the word Holocaust casually in a conversation, without a flinch—without hesitation. What does this say about the word? About how we generalize, memorize, and stuff facts into our minds, slowly desensitizing ourselves to such an important topic?

For the past few weeks I have been, you might say, re-sensitizing myself to the subject I have only really covered in a classroom setting. A subject I have read countless books about, studied, and “seen” in museums—but never really processed until now.

It really began on the first Wednesday night in Jerusalem. Wednesday at seven thirty P.M, when my Holocaust Film Class teacher put in the movie Toyland, an excellent short film about two boys during Nazi ruled Germany. Had I watched the film only once, I most likely wouldn’t have been so profoundly moved. But after four or five viewings, I picked up on the subtle nuances and symbolism I needed to discuss in the midterm movie review I wrote for the class.

I continued to learn during last week’s intensive two day Shoah (Holocaust) seminar, organized and carried out by the leaders of Year Course. I signed up for thought provoking classes about Holocaust Art, Anti-Semitism, and memorials/ monuments. I heard a survivor speak, who graciously told her story about fleeing her country and recreating her life someplace new. I watched the touching film Life is Beautiful, finding myself in tears at the movie’s end. Lastly, as a group we visited Yad Va Shem, the world-renowned largest Holocaust Museum.

Though my tour about Holocaust art was informative and fascinating, we spent very little time inside the museum itself. I’ve been through the main museum before, but never alone; and each time, I’ve always felt rushed by the group, unable to focus on the guide’s words. This is what inspired my friend Josh and me to revisit the museum yesterday, on our own time, at our own pace.

The museum intelligently takes you through the events of the Shoah, like following a timeline. You enter in 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and come out in 1945, when the concentration camps were liberated. When followed closely, the museum has the effect of transporting you back in time; I left the building feeling like an observer of one of the worst calamities in history.

Fast forward a few hours and I am listening to Walter, a survivor of the Kindertransport, speak at the immaculate Shabbat dinner table of a well-known Orthodox family in Jerusalem. In vivid detail he describes saying goodbye to his mother, at the age of fifteen, as he boarded the unsupervised rescue boat in Germany headed for England.

I look around at the thirty or so guests, all equally astounded by Walter and the elaborate four course meal in front of us. The table displays endless amounts of Challah, soup, sushi, chicken, meatballs, dessert platters, wine, and more. I wonder how I’m getting this royal treatment for free, and how I ended up there in the first place. That, in fact, is a story on its own.

Finding a random family to dine at in sounds a bit farfetched to most readers of this post—but to your average resident of Jerusalem, this oddity is commonplace. Thanks to the famous Jeffery Seidel, Year Course participants for years have been wined and dined by generous host families throughout the holy city. He waits by the men’s section at Western Wall, with a list of willing families, usually surrounded by a large group of teenagers looking to experience a true Shabbat dinner.


On Friday afternoon, my roommates and I decide to seize this unique opportunity. Since no public transportation operates on Shabbat, we walk the forty minutes to the old city in our conservative outfits, looking like true Orthodox girls. We sing our way to the Western Wall, helping time pass. When we finally find Jeffery at the crowded Kotel, everything just falls into place. We end up at the beautiful home of the Cohen family, with twenty-something other guests, exchanging stories and insights over a plentiful meal.

During parts of the meal I feel uncomfortable, but in a good way. Their level of observance is something I’m not used to, and their beliefs are quite different from my own. Some of our discussions challenge me—they don’t understand why I study Christianity and Islam, and I don’t understand why I can’t sing in front of men.

In witnessing our differences, a new insight became clear to me: part of experiencing Jerusalem is exploring the different sects of Judaism—and as Jews, we are meant to constantly question, struggle, and “wrestle” with God just as Jacob did.

Interestingly, despite this struggle, last night I felt more connected to my religion, spiritually and historically, than I have in a long time.

I was invited, on a whim, to Shabbat dinner with an family I don't know. I shared my opinions, beliefs, and prayers with these strangers, somehow feeling little inhibitions. By chance, I witnessed a survivor tell his story about his flight from Germany, having read about it just a few hours prior.

The magic of Israel is everything I just described. It is a country united by the sufferings of persecution and exile; by its deeply rooted religious ties; and by it’s ability to bring strangers together to rejoice in the celebration of life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Jerusalem Bandit

The events of the past two weeks have forced me to ask one of the most pondered, enigmatic questions of our time: why do bad things happen to good people?

Though I’m no saint, I don’t think I’ve done anything so drastic to warrant the punishment the universe granted me this past week.

And though I know nobody likes a complainer, this story makes for juicy blog material, so here it goes:

It all began on January 10th. I return home around four p.m from a long day trip to the Old City, tired, ready to plop on the couch with a cup of tea and my laptop. Maybe I’ll download a movie? Or watch an episode of Friends? The thought is comforting. Ritually, I place my bag in my room, turn on the kettle, and head to the dining room table where my laptop usually is—or at least, where I last left it.

I feel my stomach begin to collapse when I see a table with only a few pencils, paper, and cutlery strewn across the off-white surface. No laptop. Somebody must have borrowed it. Or maybe it’s in my room. I begin to get frantic. My roommates think nothing of it, for things as important as Mac laptops don’t just disappear like socks.

I search high and low—under the bed, beneath my mattress, even in the most ludicrous locations it couldn’t possibly be. Like the refrigerator? God only knows what was running through my mind at the time.

I quickly rally an entire search team to knock on every apartment door, asking if somebody borrowed my computer.

By six p.m I realize my search hopeless. Though I don’t give up. I put my Nancy Drew thinking cap on and figure the best option, now that I’ve interrogated every person in my section, is to report it to the police. Maybe an investigation will be fun, I think, attempting to make the best of the terrifying situation. But, in the back of my mind a little devil reminds me that my only portal to the outside world—my connection to my friends, family, and important documents—are most likely in the hands of a heartless Jerusalem thief.

The following day I make it to the police station and manage to report every detail of the theft in Hebrew (thought I’d boast a bit about my improving Hebrew skills). I feel flushed as I anticipate the police laughing in my face. I mean, it’s Israel. There are a few bigger problems here than an American teenagers’ stolen laptop. Even so, by some stroke of luck, the cops take my complaint seriously. Some na├»ve hope within me prays they will start a full on, fingerprinting, trench coat and rubber gloves wearing forensic investigation. But to my dismay, none of the aforementioned actually occurs.

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story. I am still currently laptop-less, and recovering from a 24 bug I caught two days ago. I had to postpone some midterms and assignments, as I spent all of Sunday sick to my stomach, completely bed-ridden. Thankfully I had two great roommates, my close friends and “Israel Mommies” to take care of me.

So now that my complaining rampage has come to an end, and I’m on a positive note, my perspective changes a bit.

I zoom out for a moment and begin to see the situation objectively. I grasp it for what it is, and willingly let my feelings of resentment and frustration for the world escape me. I realize that after all of the mini-traumas and thing’s I’ve lost, I’ve gained a few things in the process—things a bit more important than a hard-drive, some wires, and Sunday’s appetite. I’ve gained gratitude. Gratitude and perhaps a realization that it all happened for some cosmic, karmic lesson God was trying to teach me.

This surge of gratitude has brought me to think about who and what I am currently grateful for. In my previous post, I didn’t express my thanks for those who gave me the opportunity to come home—my parents. Seeing them, after four months of separation, made me appreciate their presence in my life. It is their financial and emotional support that is allowing me to live this amazing adventure in Israel. Because they want what is best for me, they flew me to the States In December, will fly me to Poland in March, and will come visit me in April.

When I really stop and think about the significant people in my life, I find it difficult to even narrow the list down: my parents, sister, baby sister, stepparents, stepbrothers, grandparents, friends, boyfriend, and more. I am overwhelmed by the numbers of faces that appear before me.

I realize that the almost tangible happiness this image creates cannot be marred, dented, or even scratched by material losses—in fact, they seem rather trivial now in perspective.

The most important thing is that now I have my health, a temporary computer in the mail, a refreshing abundance of gratitude, and a life lesson I will take with me to the grave:

Never, EVER, forget to lock the front door.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Winter Break in NY

Home.

For the past ten days this word has been a confusing part of my vocabulary.

Before coming to Israel, home evoked a clear image in my head—my five bedroom, cozy condo on Chestnut Street in Rye, NY. I picture the places that, when driving by, give me the feeling I’ve arrived where I belong. I see my High School, a pleasant six-minute walk from my doorstep. In downtown, on Purchase street, I think of Starbucks, Sunrise, the Library, and the YMCA. Then I see Oakland beach and Rye Town Park, where I took my first steps.

With such a strong tie to the town I grew up in, how is it that throughout my stay in America, I almost always referred to Israel as home? How could it be that the other morning, while talking to my parents in my house, I told them I was sad to leave them again but happy to be returning home?

And so the inevitable question arises: have I created a new home in Israel?

It must be so, for the change in my mindset indicates a bit more than a couple of Freudian slips. Incredibly, just four months in the Holy Land has been enough time to solidify an entirely new image of this symbolic word, something that had been so intrinsic and simple until now.

So, the past ten days felt like a quick break from reality—a retreat back to life as it used to be, as if I nothing had changed.

While driving through my town, I felt myself observing more than usual. I saw just a few changes; a shop closed down here, a restaurant opened there. After four long months, I was a bit shocked to see that things were only slightly different.

I noticed this sort of anticlimactic feel upon seeing my friends. When first reuniting, we shrieked, hugged, and cried like babies; but soon, as we fell into the normalcy of being home, we interacted as if we hadn’t been apart for so long. We’d start having a normal conversation until one of us realized we had to explain why we said a certain new phrase or who a person is. We’d digress, spending hours exchanging stories, realizing how different our experiences have been. I told them every detail of my fifteen-mile hike to the Dead Sea, while they filled me in on frat parties and finals week. Through their stories, I’m beginning to vicariously feel college life, thought I’m not quite there yet.

When I look back on my winter break, I see myself like an outsider looking into Leora’s home life. With a new perspective, I’m witnessing Leora back in Rye, doing the same things she did before Year Course—going to pilates classes at the Gym, seeing a movie at the Port Chester theater, eating a Subway Sandwich, renting a movie from Blockbuster. Essentially, all of the simple activities I took for granted for so long made this winter break fantastic.

Another great aspect of vacation was experiencing the little luxuries: good shower pressure, heating, clean floors, and, the big one, privacy. I feel like in this respect, Year Course has been a maturing experience—by taking away all of these simple conveniences, I have learned to appreciate them much more when they’re accessible.

Overall, I had a great time in Rye, NY. I won't bore you with every detail, so i'll tell you some highlights: Walking around Manhattan, catching up with friends, dining at nice restaurants, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Newport Aquarium, family bonding, celebrating Christmas, and lastly, getting caught in a crazy blizzard.

To make the whole blizzard experience even crazier, my best friend Casie and I decided it would be a GREAT idea to trek for almost two miles in the peak of the snow storm.

For what purpose you might ask?

We'd like to say it was our adventurous spirits that drove us to bundle up in layers and numb our toes for the sole purpose of experiencing the deliciousness that is a chipotle burrito. And let me tell you, it was well worth it. The workers at the restaurant were so amused by our determination, that they gave us chips on the house, and their sincerest gratitude for our business. Needless to say, we were the sole customers at the restaurant.

I can still feel the mascara running down my cheeks, my toes tingling while defrosting within my boots; yet, feeling so satisfied upon taking my first bite of the burrito from heaven, sitting in a heated, empty mexican chain restaurant with my best friend.

These are the types of absurd experiences I know I'll always remember--the stories I'll share with my Year Course friends when they ask about my visit "home."

Wherever it may be.