Tuesday, May 8, 2007

I is for Italy

Thanks for reading my Israel blog. Please visit I is for Italy!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Hear, Oh Israel!

Hear, Oh Israel! In case the country is reading or listening, here are some closing impressions before I leave. But this will not be my last posting to this blog; expect to see "ex-post" postings when I return and can upload images to this blog, with commentary (of course!). Without further ado, some of my favorite (and not so favorite) things in Israel:

People watching: Hooray! Such variety of colors (hair dye that is reddish/pinkish/orange is highly popular), dress styles and ways of being. A veritable parade!
Getting information from people: Oy vey! Israel seems to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If Person A doesn't ask for very specific information from Person B, it is unlikely that Person B will tell Person A anything other than what has been literally asked. As a tourist, who may not know exactly what information she might need, and therefore may not phrase the question in a way that would extract useful advice (whereas the person staffing the tourist resort area might know, from having answered such questions a million times before), this stubbornness or inability to anticipate the needs of another person is kind of annoying. Make that really annoying.

Public art: Hooray! Many traffic rotaries are adorned with colorful scupltures and public utility boxes are canvases for painters. In the Negev desert, realistic metal silhouettes of local animals can be seen along the road.
Public litter: Oy vey! You don't need to be as spotless as Switzerland but a bit cleaner would be nice. Would it kill you to make sure that your trash makes it into the barrel?

Dual flush toilets: Hooray! It is very sane and ecologically sound to offer bathroom goers the option of a gentle flush (for #1) or a rip roaring cascade (for #2). Why waste water for a wee bit of pee? America, take note.
Tight squeeze in the loo: Oy vey! I am not a large person, but in many a public restroom it has been a challenge to even enter the stall when door opens inward and grazes the toilet itself. If I'm wearing a backpack, it requires acrobatic maneuvering to not fall into or over the toilet while closing the door behind me. And you can forget about entering with luggage. When traveling alone, figuring out how and when to pee becomes an exercise in strategic planning.

Diversity of terrain: Hooray! It is nothing short of amazing that tiny Israel is home to rolling hills and lush green vineyards, dusty deserts, Mediterranean coastline, and the Dead Sea.
Diversity of transliterations: Oy vey! How many ways can we spell the name of the Red Sea resort? There's Eilat (most common), Elat, Eylat. And what about that holy city up in the Galilee? Tiberias, Tiveria, Tverya. If a person doesn't read Hebrew, it can be confusing to navigate between street signs (randomly translated or transliterated) and a map, whose spellings might differ entirely and/or omit the street in question. Not to mention that Tel Aviv transliterates its street signs differently than Jerusalem does, in some cases.

Getting a deal: Hooray! Sometimes getting a good deal or a lower price is just a question away, if one has the chutzpah to ask and the stomache to enter into negotiations.
Turning every transaction into a summit meeting: Oy vey! The downside to getting a deal is that many Israelis, at many times, think they are exceptional and should not have to pay what everyone else pays (or stand in line, or wait their turn, etc). This attitude can transform what could have been a simple exchange into a heated discussion, often leaving neither party feeling satisfied and creating stress for the people who have to listen. One person cutting in line can piss off dozens, generating more anger that gets unleashed on the next vendor/teller/etc. So, Israel, is this really worth it? You preach savlanut (patience) yet don't practice it. [full disclosure: In the spirit of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", I've marched to the head of a postal line myself to save time, yet I have to say I didn't feel good about it afterward]

To be continued as I continue to digest my experiences....right now I'm in the swank pre-departure lounge at Ben Gurion airport (for part of this trip I am traveling in style!). The free Internet time is about to expire plus I want to get a snack....

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Camel, a Donkey and an Ass

On Tuesday I rode an Israeli camel for a few hours, on Wednesday I sat astride a Jordanian donkey for a few kilometers, and on Thursday my American ass hurts!

The guide for the camel ride showed us how to sit properly - with one leg hooked around the front of the camel seat, to make it harder to be dislodged - and how to command our "ships of the desert". My camel, Esther, kept testing me by stopping to eat shrubs. Eventually I got the hang of being the boss and she started to obey. Leading her down a hill by walking in front of her, the rope over my shoulder, she would stop whenever I stopped. Seeing our humpbacked friends sit down, a multistage process which ends up with them resting on their knees, reminded me of yoga's camel pose, which I usually sit out during the sequence. Unlike a camel, I don't have the joints for such a position.

I ended up atop a Jordanian donkey on the way out of Petra, a Nabatean city carved of reddish rock. After hearing so many people gush about this site in Jordan, which some call the eighth wonder of the world, I decided to book a tour. My companions were five Christian pilgrims, two from Germany and three from the US, who were doing a tour of holy places. The donkey ride was unexpected, but our guide arranged it for us to accommodate a woman in the group who was too fatigued to walk back to our vehicle.

Petra lived up to its reputation. The natural rock formations, in addition to the carvings, were stunning in their shapes and colors. It is believed that the sea once covered the area, and between the movement of the water and earthquakes this region was formed. Apparently much of what was thought to have been true about the creators and inhabitants of ancient Petra is now considered speculative at best, so I won't go into any details (Googlers, let me know what you find!).

Equally fascinating was a chance to take a peek at life in Jordan during the two hour car ride in each direction and to see how it compares with the south of Israel, with which it shares the same geography and climate. The contrast between Eilat and Aqaba, both port cities and resorts, was quite striking. Sorry, Aqaba, you lose. In Jordan, traditional desert life seems to persist despite the country's attempts to settle its Bedouin population in stationary communities. Many of these nomads do have basic homes but they continue to be close to the land. Lone figures cloaked in flowing robes herded large flocks of sheep, goats and camels in the hills en route to Petra.

In and around the town of Petra itself, a few luxury hotels have opened to capture the growing interest in this site. Despite these signs of modernity the people in this part of the country appear to be fairly traditional, with many women covered from head to toe, with only their eyes visible. One woman even had her eyes covered with a thin black veil; presumably she could see out but it was disconcerting to observe a faceless black shape moving in the street. And I wonder - seriously - if young children are frightened the first time they see their mother cover herself completely? It spooked me. Jerusalem's religous women seem risque by comparison.

At the site, which is enormous (we barely scratched the surface), the local Bedouins were trying to make a living selling donkey and camel rides, bottles filled with designs of colored sand, postcards and a surfeit of undifferentiated trinkets at prices that fluctuated depending on the gullibility of the potential customer and the savviness of the vendor. Apparently only the families and descendants of the people who had been living at Petra, before the government relocated them, are allowed to conduct business there. Sadly, even toddlers get in on the action, aggressively peddling Petra rocks for 1 Dinar (about $1.50), tailing tourists for yards until they relent (I did not, except one girl, who was probably 3, tried to relieve me of my backpack!). The older boys were darkly handsome - black hair, nearly black skin, and white teeth. Wearing traditional headcoverings (a kafiyah? I think) and languidly sitting atop their camels and horses, baking in the heat, they looked like Arabian warriors. I could just imagine them charging into the distance.

Returning to Israel, we passed through a sand storm that obliterated the horizon and sent particles of earth every which way, creating a beige fog. The weather in Eilat was exactly the same - hot, dry with dirt in the air - but nevertheless I was extremely relieved to be back home.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

B'seder? B'seder.

B'seder is one of the most frequently used words in colloquial Hebrew. It more or less translates as "OK", but it is used in so many contexts and in so many tones of voice that I have a hunch it's a simple word with several layers of meaning. And many Anglos in Israel will complete their sentences, spoken in English, with a b'seder, as if that single Hebrew word can summarize or encapsulate all of the words that preceded it.

The basic use is to affirm that everything is all right. For example, "Shall we meet for coffee at 4pm?" a friend asks. "B'seder," is the response. One also can say, "B'seder" to the frequently asked, "How are you?" And wandering around various shops and stores with, perhaps with a serious expression on my faced, people have asked me, "Is everything b'seder?", as in, "Are you OK?". "B'seder," I reply.

But there are more interesting uses. One of my teachers at Pardes (Institute of Jewish Studies), commenting in English on an Israeli cabinet member's views on prisoner exchanges, concluded that the man was b'seder, meaning competent and intelligent.

A woman outside the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, upon seeing a group of young policemen enter the building, angrily reprimanded them, "You are not b'seder!", suggesting that they are inept or, worse, unethical. They said nothing.

After the bus driver to Eilat lost his temper with boarding passengers, yelling at basically everyone, I fastened my seatbelt and commented to my neighbor, "If he's in such a bad mood he might take it out on the road." She said, "No, no, he's b'seder. I rode with him a month ago and when the bus broke down he dealt with it well," suggesting that underneath his ferocious exterior he was, after all, a mensch, someone who can be trusted to behave appropriately in a difficult moment.

And I've heard many cell phone conversations in which the intense repetition of b'seder suggests that, maybe, things really aren't all that OK but the person just wants to get on with it. The drawn out, somewhat resigned pronunciation, buh..sayder, indicates that the speaker has capitulated.

Then there's b'seder gamoor, which is, "Everything is completely fine (period, full stop)." It's a definitive way to wrap up a line of questioning or a conversation.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Trusting the Universe...at the Arab Souk

Dear Loyal Readers -

Check back another time - not sure when! - for a lighter posting about beads and life. These musings are not in real time - my CPU (e.g. my brain) needs a few days to reflect upon and digest my adventures. Plus I want to get in some beach time! ;-)


A Soul Mate, of Sorts

No, I haven't met the love of my life, at least not that I'm aware of.

But at a gathering at a synagogue, on the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I met Agnieszka, a compact 30-something Polish woman with whom I instantly connected. The meeting was organized for second and third generations to share thoughts, memories and feelings about this hideous history that still seems to loom over so many lives, mine included.

In words as blunt as her haircut, Agnieszka declared that she believes that she has been unable to move her life forward because of unresolved and unexpressed emotions stemming from the loss of family during the Holocaust. To compound her anguish, no one in her family of origin (who still live in Poland) wants to discuss it, and she felt as if she were carrying the memory of the murdered all by herself. And I was stunned to hear her utter the exact words that I once penned in my journal: that, on some level, she refuses to be consoled.

Emboldened by her comments, I decided to say what, for me, had until know been unsayable: that I felt as if I were a receptacle of death, carrying around the loss of my father's family as a way of preserving the memory of people no one spoke of. Agnieszka nodded.

It was an enormous relief for me to utter these words and to have them deeply acknowledged. And it was a real blessing to meet a woman, close to my age, with whom I could talk about the Holocaust...and about beading. Not coincidentally, we both design jewelry as a form of meditation. I left that meeting unburdened and filled with happiness at the prospect of a friendship.

While eating dinner at her apartment a few days later, Agnieszka told me that although she has lived in Jerusalem three years, she has not been able to bring herself to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial. I, too, had been putting off a trip there and, uncharacteristically, I asked her if she wanted to join me. She agreed.

I am excruciatingly aware that carrying around grief, like a large sack of now stinking and worm-infested potatoes, is an unconstructive and perverse way of honoring those whose lives were lost. Except that my attempts to "just drop it" haven't been successful. The bag just sits there, and no one else picks it up, and I feel obligated to carry it a little bit further. I hoped that our joint pilgrimage to Yad Vashem would allow me to deposit at least part of my burden there, leaving it in the care of dedicated staff who have been charged with the meticulous, enormous and sacred task of Never Forgetting.

The sack did get lighter that day, when Agnieszka and I visited the museum and Hall of Names (decades later, only half the names have been recorded), and again this morning when I returned to Yad Vashem to see the Valley of the Communities, a memorial to all of the destroyed Jewish communities, whose design powerfully evokes the staggering loss. Perhaps I need to create my own art to externalize my inner load, allowing others to share it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Crocs & Caligula

They say that for every two Israelis there are three opinions (or political parties, or religious beliefs), but from what I've observed there seems to be widespread agreement on footwear. Crocs, or knockoffs of these strapped plastic clogs, appear to be the colorful common denominator in this contentious if not sharply divided society. Nearly everyone - adults + children, men + women, Orthodox + atheist, Jew + Arab, scholars + salesmen, immigrants + oldtimers - wears these shoes practically all the time. Crocs are so ubiquitous that some entrepreneurs have created "Croc-cessories", colorful clips that can be inserted in the holes that aerate these clogs.

Wanting to acquire some cool footwear, yet still unable to fall in love with the Canadian Crocs, I've had my eye on Caligula, an Israeli brand with an off-putting (possibly market limiting?) name. Caligula's designs are funky, uncomplicated and colorful. After spotting them in a boutique up north back in March, I've been meaning to try some on for awhile. My first attempts failed - the smaller shops didn't carry my (large) size. Determined to find out if the shoes were as comfortable as they appeared, I overcame my aversion to shopping malls to seek out Caligula's largest store in Jerusalem. Maybe, just maybe, I'd find a pair. Spotting two styles I liked, I asked for them in my size and in a few colors. Astonishingly, they carried both in my size and in a choice of hues. I settled on two, adventurously choosing shoes that were neither black nor (for those familiar with my shoe collection) red!

Should I ever fall for Crocs, I can always find them at home.