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


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.