Sunday, January 1, 2012

אז למה את לא גרה בארץ? The Land.

טוב לזכור שאני לא היחידה בעולם. טוב ליראות כיפות, ונרות חנוכה, והשמש ירושלמי. טוב לשמוע עברית. טוב להיות בארץ

Absurd and utter culture shock. Icy winds of 5° changed to balmy breezy 15°. Political politeness shifted to fanaticism-driven lawbreaking. Passersby transformed from reserved strangers to rollicking, friendly family. Even the moon is in the wrong place, and has climbed higher in the sky, aloof above the palm trees.

At the Kotel (Western Wall)
Arriving in Israel was comfortable, and familiar, and a good regular mind blip. I arrived at 2 am to a country that speaks my language, shares my religion, and gives me my history. The nesher (cab) driver shocked me completely—when the guy sitting in front of me tried to offer him payment, he turned and said, “can’t you see I’m driving?” Granted, he did turn around completely, but the refusal to multitask while driving represents a complete shift in Israeli cabby mentality. We drove through Ramot and Geulah first, and I got to remember the uncomfortable part of Israel too: huge signs saying “Women and girls, please dress modestly” (can you think of a more subtle way to tell someone they’re only a body? The advertisers who use women's curves to sell beer and charedim who insist women cover up every last inch of skin possess one thing in common-- they both think of women only as sex objects. They just have different reactions to it) and smaller signs saying “No Zionists.” Well, I don’t like you either. 

Disclaimer: I thought about translating and explaining every piece of this to those not familiar with Israel or Hebrew, and then gave a huge mental shrug and decided it would lose some flow and integrity if I did. המבין יבין. And everyone else is free to ask questions in the comments which I will answer thoroughly.

Hooded against the Israeli sun
We pulled up at my Bubby’s apartment and I woke my mother and got the hug I’ve been missing for four months. She did a quick check for new piercings and then returned to sleep.

Friday was lovely—my parents, baby sister and I went down to the biblical zoo, where they only host animals mentioned in Tanach. Lots of antlered creatures that would have been bloody sacrifices 200 years ago. We had sufganiyot (jelly- and caramel- and chocolate- filled donuts) as a pretaste of Chanukkah yumminess. Then our cousins from Ramat Beit Shemesh came in, and the apartment devolved into pre-shabbat chaos.

The kids have had a bit of trouble placing me this year when we skype. My aunt asks them:
Do you know where Hannah is living this year?
Blank stares.
More blank stares.
אמא, איפה נורווגיה?
Oh! Suddenly they get it. על יד החרמון?

Moriah, six-years-old-going-on-twelve, asked me how long it took to get to Israel from Norvegya.
“ten hours,” I told her.
“אז למה את לא גרה בארץ?” she asked. She’s been well-trained. Cue the guilt trip.

Shabbat was full of the zemirot and chicken/cholent/beef and family that I’ve been missing. I bumped into old Bnei Akiva friends, and walked with my family down to Gan Sacher past the old monastery, and up into the Hebrew Museum’s sculpture garden, and checked out the Ramat Gan campus of Hebrew University (where my baby sister may live next year). Sunday my middle sister came in from the States, and we did a mid-intersection sisterly hug smack in the middle of Emek Refaim. Monday we headed down to Eilat for our vacation. We meant to stop for a hike on the way, but as we were about to drive down the dirt road, we saw a sign that said “shetach aish” (firing zone). After a lengthy family discussion about the age of the sign, the likelihood that the Israeli army would actually be practicing here, and something from my mom on how she’d do it if it was just her and my dad but with the three of us the risk was too high, we decided not to hike. Which turned out to be a good idea, judging by the herds of tanks engaged in training exercises that we passed as we continued. Instead, we stopped at Timna Park and  walked through and up and between all the strange rock formations.

Tuesday we hiked Emek HaNeelam, the Disappearing Valley (is that it? No, I think it’s that one. Wait, this one! They were all disappearing valleys). We wound between the red, purple, white, and black mountains of Eilat and up and down its fantastic rock formations and tried out the echoes. We skidded down futuristic moonscapes and sent cascades of rock showering down to join its brothers. My dad told me not to climb so much, I was destroying the nature, so I explained to him the law of conservation of mass and that all of it would still be here for future hikers, and that his attachment to surface appearance is troubling and indicative of the influence of shallow materialistic society. Then we headed back to the shore where we swam by the coral reef. A fish bit my leg so that blood poured down whenever I left the water. Still worth it. And kind of cool to have a battle wound from coral reef gazing. 

That night I finally got around to checking what I need to apply for my Canadian passport next year (born in Montreal, I of course have citizenship, but a Canadian passport will come in handy as a student at the U of T). I ended my frustrating search by sending an email to the embassy that ended with “How can I apply for my social number so I can apply for my ClicSEQUR account so I can apply for my birth certificate so I can apply for my passport?” It was with great difficulty that my sisters restrained me from tagging an “F you” onto the end of that, but I think it may have been implied in the question.

Wednesday we did the hike we wanted to do on Monday, Nachal Adah. My dad called the IDF and checked, and they said there’d be no firing practice during Chanukkah. You’ve got to love a country that runs on the same schedule as you. Anyhow, the first ten minutes of the hike was a hellish jog through increasingly narrow canyon walls which I don’t remember scrambling out of but must have practically spat myself out through onto a plateau way higher than the actual trail. Once they caught up, my parents talked a bit about paying for therapy to help me with my claustrophobia, but since the only big problem it causes is them having to hurry along a trail, I really don’t think it’s worth it (plus, wouldn’t they put me in small spaces to accustom me to it?). And at least I could stride along the narrow ridge of the mountains for several hours afterwards, relieved and relaxed while several thousand meters in the air.

At the restaurant that night, chabadnicks entered and lit a chanukkiah with the waiters, singing “haneirot halalu” with off-key energy. A young girl in tight jeans jumped up and started to sing and bounce by the candles. Te looked and said “uh-oh,” and we all burst out laughing.

Shabbat in Jerusalem again. Friday night we davened at Shirach Chadasha, and it was the first time in six months I was actually in a synagogue. European shuls usually relegate their women to balconies in the manner of an audience at the Globe Theater; they haven't quite reached the twenty-first century yet (to be fair, neither have some shuls in the Gush). Shabbat morning we went to Yakar, which I love for the melodies and the mix of Israeli-American-young-old-shtachim-styles-conservative-dress, and the break for shiurim after Torah reading.

There is a peculiar magic to Jerusalem. You bump into your entire past here: friends from high school, Bnei Akiva, midrasha, university… Normally this drives me crazy, but the gods of serendipity must have been watching out for me, because I ran into the best of every era of my life: my closest friends from Maryland, favorite Orot Israeli, funniest Bnei Akivaniks, and the Nishmater with the driest sense of humor. Thank you, ye gods.

After my parents left the country, my sisters and I went up to Haifa to see our favorite Israeli family friends. They’re highly educated yet super-chill. Yoni’s a prof at the University and gave us a tour, showing us the 400 BC Phoenician boat that was dragged up from the harbor and now sits in the archaeology museum, and the view of all Haifa from the university tower. U of Haifa held streams of students that filled a gap that nags at me in Bergen: diversity. In Haifa, students in hijabs passed the students tanning in mini skirts while students holding their kippot to their heads rushed between the two. I heard Hebrew, Russian, French, and Arabic, and skin colors ranged from pale pearly to deep bronze. I’m not usually acutely conscious that Bergen lacks this kind of human mix, but some part of me keeps scanning the crowd for the normal difference that I’m used to.

A Bahai friend of mine from college is in Israel for two years volunteering at the Bahai temple in Haifa. When he heard I was coming, he offered a private tour through the gardens. We got to pump him with questions about the Bahai faith (no ritual, a goal of working to create spiritual communities regardless of their being Bahai or other faith, no women on the Justice Board (!), international presence, and the thing about only Bahai walking up the terraces is a myth, we walked upwards). Ben would make a good representative of any religion. He’s composed and kind, quiet and yet unpretending and casual. He showed us the Ark, the gated section where the four buildings that world Bahai work in stand: the archives, education center, textual study, and justice building. I like that as the core of a nation: all the world really needs are schools, courts, and libraries. We also went into the shrine at the bottom of the gardens, which was closed to visitors just then. I asked Ben first if there were any statues in there, and it turned out it was simply an utterly serene space. In the center were different kinds of flowers and lights: trailing plants, blooming petunias and planters of roses, and candelabras of flame or electric light. A delicious aroma perfumed the air. We stood respectfully as Ben sat cross-legged and prayed. A prayer on the wall seemed a blend of the stereotypes of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: it had one God, sacrifice, and infidels in it. The bit I like best was about God’s creation of humanity. “Be Thou,” He said. And we were.
It struck me, as I moved to sit cross-legged on the carpet, that Bahai is the perfect religion for a twenty-first century human. Individualistic prayer, communal social action, based on a desire to help all people achieve spirituality in whatever faith they choose—it contains the perfect amount of world-optimization and nonjudgmental tolerance. Closing my eyes to the symbols of human hope—light and greenery—I breathed in peacefully for a moment, holding only serenity in my mind. Then I thought of the mess that is Judaism, the halachic tangles and the misogyny and the in-fighting and men spitting on little girls in Ramat Beit Shemesh and price tag attacks in the shtachim and women’s faces vanishing off billboards in Jerusalem, and breathed in deeply once more, and walked carefully backwards out of the room. 
That night I met up with the Lewis twins and Thea from Nishmat and we went to a concert by an Israeli singer (Amir something). Think Mizrachi rock. He sauntered up to the mike as though it was just luck it happened to be there, and belted out Biblical ballads and love songs. He stopped singing at moments, stroking his beard or adjusting his cap, and let the crowd roar out the words instead. It was half concert, half sing-along. Very Israeli, and we danced in the aisles and pretended to know the words.

My last night in Jerusalem, Te and El and I went to see the second Sherlock Holmes. It’s more fun than in an American theater, because everyone’s whispering, not just us. On the way back we had a loud altercation about the female characters’ relative depth and the feminist response to a cardboard femme fatale, which must have woken every protestor sleeping in a tent in Gan Sacher.

My nesher back to the airport was as positive an experience as my nesher there had been awful. We wound through my favorite streets in Rechavia and Bacca, past balconies of clean Jerusalem stone climbing up the slope, then into an area lost somewhere between the picturesqueness of Nachlaot and the shuk, and finally went down from Yerushalayim by way of Shaar HaGai. Bab El Wad. The Gate of the Valley. Gate av Dalen. My favorite route, that passes the beit knesset that looks like the Beit Hamikdash, and my sabah’s kever on Har HaMenuchot and the memorial to the convoys from 1948. A good way to leave Yerushalayim.

My Abba has this thing about moving big rocks so my Ima can sit comfortably. It's cute, but dangerous.
In Eilat 
Nachal Adah
Kenyon HaShechoret-- Black Canyon
Our lovely penthouse apartment with private pool
Gan HaBotani-- Botanical Gardens
Speak no evil, smell no evil, pick your nose

Five again


  1. I'm amazed at the many lovely sides of your father land.
    I think it's a good thing to travel, observe, learn and study. I feel flattered that you chose Norway among the countries you'd like to know better.
    Nevertheless; the best sight is to be allowed meeting you in your homely nest where your roots always will be.
    Rooted and free.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures! I think that's exactly true; part of the reason I can appreciate Norway so much is that my roots give me a way to connect to it. I know I'm incredibly privileged to be here in this beautiful country. My time in Norway is flying by so quickly, I'm just grasping at each moment as it swishes past.