Back in the US of A

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In case you thought the adventure was over..it’s not!

If one of the best things in college/ life is studying abroad, then one of the worst things is trying to adjust to life back at home. Getting used to Israel was tough, but getting used to being back in the US is strangely difficult as well.

The weather: probably the most minor issue. Yes, I just spent 4 months on the Mediterranean, but I do go to Syracuse. No explanation really needed there. I’m sucking it up.

The driving: I’m scared to get behind the wheel of a car. For obvious reasons.

The food: Did it always suck so much? Wow. I don’t want to eat anything. So far the only good things I’ve had were 3 AM pizza and then brunch in New York City. The hummus is weird, the cottage cheese tastes like water, and the cucumbers I bought today are bizarrely almost half the size of my leg. I’m pretty sure there’s chemicals in everything.

The stores: I had a little panic attack at the grocery store today. That sounds silly, but I hadn’t realized how different Israeli grocery stores are from American ones. Supersals are small, with narrow aisles crowded with people trying to navigate them. At Trader Joe’s today, I was taken aback by how much room there was, how few people, how many weird foods there were. I saw Peanut Butter and Jelly yogurt. Since when is that a thing?

Tomorrow I start work at my old job, lifeguarding at the Y. I might cry, I’m not sure yet. I’ll be in Boston at night with family, and might freak out a little bit, but I think the North End, with its tight, curved streets packed with people, might feel comforting.

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Farewell

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This post will likely be full of cliches, so bear with me here.

Before I got to Israel, I really had no idea what to expect. My fall semester had been particularly difficult, and my decision to study abroad so soon into my college career was clearly motivated by that. I arrived in Israel at the end of January, knowing only 2 people on my program. I didn’t know what kinds of people I would meet, what kinds of friends I would make. Admittedly, the adjustment was difficult, as it always is for me, and I remember at least one notable half hour crying session on the phone with my mother where I begged to come home. However, I stuck it out. In time, things got better. I found a group of people that I really feel blessed to have been able to spend so much time with.

Marjorie, I don’t even know where to begin with you. You have been my friend since the first week of Ulpan, and you’re still my best friend today. Thank you for every spontaneous adventure, every weird selfie of you on my phone, those 2 times we did Shabbat dinner and then never again, all your Brazilian friends, and every time you took care of me. “Friends until we die, and even when we’re dust.”

Tijana, oh my god. Thank you for being my rock this semester. From every pint of Ben and Jerry’s, every shit-talk in French, every geeky moment about Middle Eastern politics, every beach day, and every sassy comment. I don’t know where I would be without you.

Libby, wow. I can truly say my semester would not have been the same without you. I’m incredibly grateful for everything you taught me about myself. I’ll never forget the good, the bad, and everything in between; late nights, singing just for you, or your insane six pack. Forever the two midgets.

Adi, I’m so happy that we bonded as much as we did, even if we didn’t even meet until mid-March. I hate you for laughing at my Hebrew, but I love you for everything else. I will never forget our insane adventures at Funjoya, even if I barely remember them in the first place.

Danielle, my tan counterpart. My black Santa. Forever my awkward friend. I don’t even know what to say about you, you weirdo. Love you long time.

To my crazy roommates – Gaby, Gabi, and Jess. The Real World that was apartment E 47/48 was probably the most insane living situation possible. A shoutout to the one frying pan and half a spatula that got us through the semester, all of my missing hummus, random carrots, and spontaneous pre-games.

And to everyone else (because this post is already 400+ words long and I know y’all have short attention spans) – I love you immeasurably. Thank you for every smile, every laugh, every drunken night at Solo and Morfium, every beach day at Gordon, every cup of Tamra and every sweaty day. This summer will seem so lonely without all of you. Cheers to the most life-changing experience this far, I couldn’t have done it without all of you.

A Day in the Life – Rockets

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Yesterday, rockets were fired into the southern Israeli towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon from Gaza. At this point, Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for these attacks. Haven’t heard about these attacks? I’m not surprised. The good ol’ New York Times chose to largely ignore them, and instead write an article on how Hamas has used the Gaza War as a coverup to torture and kill Palestinians. To learn about yesterday’s attacks, you have to check Israeli media sites like Haaretz and the Times of Israel, where you’ll learn that the rockets are allegedly the result of internal Islamic Jihad issues.

Regardless of the reasoning for the attacks, I want to give people in the US a better understanding of how something like a rocket attack affects our lives here in Israel. A lot of people have a rocket attack alert app on their phones, and so they get a message any time something is launched into Israel, whether or not there’s any damage or deaths that result from it. When we found out about the attacks last night, my entire program was at a good-bye party at Mini Israel, an attraction park between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Instead of running for cover in fear, we drank, danced, and made jokes about the attack. Seriously, we joked about it.

Why?

Because Israel, for us, is a haven of safety. Talk to anyone who has spent any time here, and they’ll likely tell you they feel more comfortable here than they do in other places. For me, the US has a gun culture that is truly petrifying, and for that reason, I’ve never felt completely at ease. Here, soldiers walk the streets with rifles strapped to their bodies like it’s nothing. While terrorist attacks on our buses and rocket fire into our cities are possibilities, we don’t spend our days worrying about them. Life is too short to focus on fear. So we laugh, we drink, we eat, we dance, and we live.

This society and culture are unparalleled. The events of yesterday just continue to remind me how strong and resilient the people of this country are, and how much I’ll miss them.

14-day countdown

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I’m writing this while sitting on the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It seems rather mundane, but it’s crazy to think I’m taking a train to Jerusalem. For thousands of years, people have spent their entire lives trying to get to Jerusalem and here I am hopping on a train to get to the holiest city in the world.

It’s hard to believe that in just two short weeks, I’ll be on my way back to the US. It’s been an incredible 4 months here, and I’m certainly sad to be leaving. There’s so much waiting for me back in America, but for now my mind is full of all the things I’ll miss here.

I’ll miss the olive green and beige uniforms of the ever-present IDF soldiers. I’ll miss seeing them everywhere I look, with their massive guns bouncing off their legs. I’ll miss living in the dorms with my friends, having loud pre-games until the security guards come to yell at us. I’ll miss the extreme heat that melts into a perfect evening. I’ll miss the subtle breeze floating off the Mediterranean. I’ll miss beachside clubs and bars, and being able to legally have a glass of wine with dinner. I’ll miss ordering coffees in Hebrew, and the language barrier that eventually presents itself when the barista asks me a question. I’ll miss the familiar ring of “Tachana Haba’a” on the buses. I’ll miss the familiar smell of cigarettes and the familiar sight of kippot and tzitzit. I’ll miss salads from Aroma, and maybe even Israeli coffee (which, by the way, is 85% milk).

Mostly, I’ll miss the people. The ones on my program, as well as Israelis in general. The culture of interactions here is so vastly different than it is in the US. Yesterday, my dad said ‘Hello’ to someone on the street, and I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s so normal at home, but seems so silly here. It’s not that the people are unkind – they’re in fact the polar opposite. Israelis are tough on the outside, but these people have hearts of gold like you wouldn’t believe.

It’s very bittersweet, knowing I’m leaving my home here to go back to the US, and not knowing when I’ll return here again. Every time I leave Israel, I find myself missing it more and more here. I’ll cherish these last 14 days I’ve got here and try to make the most of them.

A Myriad of Updates

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It has been about 2 weeks since I last posted, but there’s been so much that’s happened since then, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write about it all.

Two weekends ago, several dozen kids from my program boarded coach buses and traveled up to the Northwestern corner of Israel. We started the first day at Rosh HaNikra, a border town between Israel and Lebanon, where the railroad used to cross between the countries. We explored the grottoes, and later in the day, a large cave a few miles away. The next day, we hiked down a mountain and up another, finishing at a long-abandoned fort. We ended the afternoon with a visit to a Druze village, where we learned about the first Druze to have been a colonel in the Israeli army.

This past weekend, 5 friends and I ventured down south for Funjoya, a university-sponsored weekend of parties in Eilat, the big resort town in Israel. It was my first time in Eilat, since my Birthright and Y2I trips didn’t go there. It was hot, and we spent our days at pool parties and our nights at Palm Beach, dancing with thousands of Israeli students. The trip was unforgettable, at a minimum.

Tomorrow, my Abba lands. It will be his first time in Israel in over 20 years. We’ll travel north to Haifa and then southwest to Jerusalem, where we’ll spend Shavuot. We’ve never had a proper vacation like this before, and I’m looking forward to playing tour guide for a few days and welcoming him back home to Israel!

The West Bank and the Security Barrier

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Last Sunday, my Struggle for Palestine class took a field trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our tour was led by a former Colonel of the IDF who also happened to be the architect of the security barrier and had been present for several major negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The tour began with a stop in Har Adar, an Israeli settlement just inside the West Bank. I’d been to the West Bank before – we drove through during Birthright and learned about the different zones – but I hadn’t spent much time there. During the war of Independence, the British used Har Adar as a radar station, and the tanks and overlook still stand. One notable thing about Har Adar is that its residents tend to vote center-left, not right-wing, as one would expect of those living within a settlement. This is due in large part to their proximity within the West Bank, just a few miles from the Israeli border.

After the stop at Har Adar, we drove to a neighborhood in Jerusalem that overlooks the security barrier and a few Palestinian cities. It was here that we met up with Danny Tirza, the former IDF colonel. He spoke to us about how many Palestinians used to work in Israel and would walk up the hill that separates Israel from the West Bank on their way to work, and how one day, terrorists tried to take the same route and were caught – thus, the necessity for the security barrier was born. It is an incredibly complex barrier, made up of different fences, a road, a wall, and an extensive electronic monitoring system. As of last Sunday, over 18 terrorists had attempted to pass through the barrier and enter Israel either with mortars or with full explosives strapped to themselves.

As we made our way to the security checkpoint, Colonel Tirza made clear that only 5% of the 451-mile long barrier was a wall. It’s 9 meters tall and cement, and is only on certain parts of the border – however, it’s what the media always chooses to focus on. The building of the barrier was difficult enough, trying to decide which neighborhoods would remain in Israel and which would be under Palestinian control. I don’t think I could go into the specifics without any falsities, so I’ll leave it at what I’ve already said. The trip was an powerful experience, and to be led by someone so influential was incredible. It’s days like those that I realize how lucky I truly am to be here and to be able to learn, up close, about what has shaped this amazing nation.

Yom HaZikaron // Yom HaAtzmaut

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Last week, I posted about Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was an incredible day to be able to experience in Israel. It was followed this week by Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – Memorial Day and Independence Day, respectively.

The former, Yom Hazikaron, commemorates the lives of fallen soldiers in the wars of Israel. Despite only having been a country for a mere 67 years, it is common knowledge that Israel has been involved in its fair share of violent conflicts. Because of this, the holiday is a sacred day here in Israel, and is celebrated very differently from back home in the US.

Like all Jewish holidays, Yom Hazikaron started the night before the actual holiday, with a siren sounding at 8 PM on Tuesday night. During the siren, the country comes to a halt. People stand, silently, with heads bowed, thinking about the brave men and women who have fought to protect this country. Writing about it now, I have chills. At 8 PM, I was in a ceremony put on by several fellow students and our Madrichim. I read a poem, “In This Aching Quiet, In This Piercing Silence” and sang two songs, “Etzlenu Bagan” (In Our Garden) and “Kaitz Acharon” (Last Summer). The ceremony was in both English and Hebrew, and students read several poems, and sang a few songs. The whole night was dedicated to the fallen soldiers of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. While I was on stage, I looked into the crowd to see a sea of white shirts – traditional attire for the ceremony – and tears. So many tears. It is an emotional night for everyone, whether or not you know a fallen soldier. At the end of the ceremony, everyone stood for HaTikvah (the Israeli national anthem), and sung the song that has carried Israel through some of its most tumultuous times.

The next day – the full day of the holiday – a lot of things are closed, much like other holidays here. Many Israelis visit cemetaries. Several of my friends went to Jerusalem, to Mount Herzl, paying respect to the soldiers buried there. At the end of the day, the mood changed drastically. As night falls, it becomes Yom HaAtzmaut – Independence Day. I can’t begin to describe how important of a holiday this is for Israelis, and they celebrate accordingly. There are massive street parties and raves, as well as large-scale club events. Everyone drinks, all day – like Independence Day in the US, but even bigger, if you can imagine.

Now though, it’s Friday, and the city is slowing down once again. Shabbat Shalom everyone!

Yom HaShoah

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World War II was a tumultuous time for all of Europe, for the United States, for Japan, for China – for every soul on this planet. Havoc wreaked everywhere, and death left its mark across a continent that has essentially created modern society as it is today. From 1939 to 1945, 6 million Jews lost their lives at the hands of one of the world’s most heinous leaders. Millions of others lost their lives as well – Gypsies, homosexuals, those with mental and physical illnesses. We should not forget any of them.

In Israel, we do not forget these lives. Yom HaShoah (Day of Remembrance) commemorates all the men, women, and children who died during 6 of the bloodiest years on Earth. As with all holidays in Israel, the day began the night before, Wednesday at 8 PM. The next morning, at 10 AM, a siren sounded. The siren is chilling. We walked from our Hebrew class to an outlook over the highway to watch what happens during this silent time. A minute or so before, cars start to slow down and pull over to the side of the road. Drivers step out of them and stand with heads bowed, silently until the siren ends. Quietly, they then return to their cars and continue on their way.

While one minute of silence once a year will never been enough to understand the pain and suffering our ancestors endured, it is an incredible thing for an entire country to come to a halt. In a time when life is so fast-paced, when technology keeps us going even when we’re not fully present, when the internet is always 5 steps ahead of us, the silence is comforting.

I have family that perished in the Holocuast. My grandmother’s cousin, aged 12 at the time of her death, and her mother. They were murdered at Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp. To be in Israel – a place they may have dreamed about – on Yom HaShoah was a moving experience. It’s difficult to put into words the emotions one feels during the siren, or how symbolic that siren really is.

This week, there will be more sirens. Tuesday night marks the start of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day. In Israel, this day is a somber one, where we honor the lives of soldiers that have been lost while defending the State of Israel. I don’t know how I’ll feel during the holiday, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to put it into words afterwards. All that I can say is that it has been a blessing to be in this country, since the first time I ever arrived until now, and I could not be more grateful or more proud of its existence.

Am Yisrael Chai.

End of Pesach, Jerusalem, and back to school!

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While many students on my program used Pesach break to travel abroad to Europe or other parts of the Middle East, I stayed back here in Israel, and I’m incredibly glad I did. Pesach is an insane time to be in Israel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a country so focused on a holiday – and I’m from America, where Christmas and Easter take over the media and retail circuits months before they even occur. I think the craziest thing I saw was all of the chametz in grocery stores being covered with tarps. I thought this was simply because people aren’t supposed to eat it, and therefore, buy it, during Pesach. It turns out that the highly religious Jews are not even permitted to see chametz during Pesach, so it is literally hidden from view. Despite a week and a half off of classes, I continued to learn something new everyday.

A few days ago, I traveled to Jerusalem to spend time with some extended family that is staying there for the month. We had a final seder, something I had never done before. Jerusalem during a chag (especially one on a Friday!) is like Shabbat, with everything closed and public transport not running. Because Friday was a chag and Saturday was Shabbat, I ended up taking a sherut back to Tel Aviv Friday afternoon, but not before enjoying some shomer time with cousins.

I’m excited to start classes again tomorrow. I miss school! What can I say? I’m a nerd. Thank my parents for that. It’s midterm week this week and next, and then next week is Memorial and Independence Day. Before classes ended last week, I received a call asking if I would participate in the Memorial Day event that is put on by the OSP students every year, so I’ll likely be singing something with my fellow students to commemorate Israeli lives lost in all the wars, but specifically last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. I’m excited to get to participate in something so meaningful while I’m here – ┬áMemorial Day here is very different from in the US.

Until then!

Pesach

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As any practicing (or really non-practicing) Jew knows, Pesach is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It celebrates the time when we were freed as slaves from Egypt and came to Israel. It is an 8 day celebration, known to goyim as “that time when you can only eat matzah.” At the end of the seder, we all say “Next year in Jerusalem” as a symbol for our return to Israel. This was my first Pesach in Israel, and it is an experience I will never forget.

My extended cousins are in Jerusalem for the month, and invited me to a seder at Kfar Bin Nun, a beautiful Moshav near Modi’in (a city halfway between TLV and Jerusalem). After getting to the house, I quickly realized I had only met 2 of these cousins, and there were 10 more showing up. Also, I was the only one not fluent in Hebrew! You can imagine how interesting the night became..

We planned to start the seder at 6, and then actually began promptly around 8 PM (it’s Jewish time). The whole ceremony was conducted in Hebrew, and I was *blessed* with the task of singing the 4 Questions. This is always left for the youngest person, so I’ve done it probably a dozen times now, although not for a few years. One of my cousins married a woman of Iraqi descent, and one of their customs is to hit each other on the head with a green onion when you sing ‘Dayenu,’ so after a few glasses of wine, we ran around singing and pelting each other with scallions. To a stranger’s eye, we must have looked a bit deranged.

The food: THE FOOD! One of my cousins is an incredible cook and also happens to be a vegetarian, so I was in luck. Stuffed mushrooms, matzah ball soup, 4 varieties of charoset, shug – the list goes on. I did not go home hungry last night. In fact, I didn’t even wake up hungry this morning. #pesachprobs

Chag sameach everyone!