Archive | November, 2012

The Itch

25 Nov

ImageSo given the crazy security situation in the last few weeks, coupled with trying to get my head around being a student again – I haven’t gotten out of Haifa as much as I’d like. In fact, all my time that I’ve spent on campus in the last two weeks have left me incredibly stir crazy! Yesterday, after studying for two days straight – I was ready to start talking to the walls in my room. I am dying to go explore somewhere – see something new – and leave my books behind for a few days! 

This coming weekend, the International School has organized a camping and hiking trip that will also take us to the Dead Sea. I am strongly considering this – though I’m fearful it might be too cold to float in the Sea. It’s only $100 for two days and everything will be taken care of for us. My other option is going with a few friends to Jerusalem for the weekend but we have a friend’s birthday party on Thursday night that we don’t want to miss. Since Jerusalem basically shuts down solid on Shabbat – it doesn’t make sense just to go for Friday until sunset. We are now leaning towards going to Jerusalem closer to Christmas. We have also heard that Nazareth has a great Christmas market throughout December – we’d really like to experience that. 

I have booked a trip to London and then home for February. We have six weeks off between the fall and spring semesters. I’m so excited to see my friends in London and help celebrate my friend, Elle’s return to New Zealand. After that, I head to Reno for a few weeks to enjoy time with friends and family. 

It seems like this semester has slipped away from us. As a grad student – it’s so easy to get buried in your books and research – you need to make a effort to get out there! Last night over dinner, two friends and I pulled out our calendars and started making plans. Akko, Nazareth and Jerusalem are in our sites before the end of the semester. We’ve only got December and January remaining. Lots of looming deadlines but plenty of time to squeeze in some fun!

Thanksgiving – Israeli Style

24 Nov

Here in the dorms we have several people whose jobs are to keep the students entertained. In Hebrew, they are called Madrichim but they are basically social directors. They organize field trips, they have movie nights and they host meals at least once a month. On Thursday, they hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, I am making a “national” distinction given we have Canadians here too who are sensitive that their own Thanksgiving was ignored and given that we walked into the dorm club to find the room had been decorated in an overwhelming amount of red, white and blue.

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Fourth of Ju…wait…Thanksgiving!

It was immediately apparent that our lovely social directors wanted us to feel at home and went to great effort to recreate such a sacred holiday…without actually consulting any Americans. From the strings of flags flying above our heads to the loud country music blaring on the stereo – it was Americana at it’s best. Yet, it wasn’t cheesy – it was touching.

The food was tasty – turkey, rice stuffing, lots of salad (to be expected here), green beans, corn, mashed sweet potatoes, red wine – they even had a version of pecan pie with a shortbread crust, toasted nuts all covered in dulce de leche. Yum! The International School Dean lead us in prayer and a small cheer for the cease fire before we dug in.

I sat with several friends from my department, as well as my roommate, Davie and some other friends. Our little group was composed of people from Canada, Poland, Columbia and from people all across the US – Iowa, Rhode Island, California, Arkansas and of course, Nevada. As we ate, we discussed prior memorable Thanksgivings – I told the story of Thanksgiving when I studied abroad in Germany and last year when I made dinner for friends in London. We talked about our Thanksgiving traditions at home and what our loved ones would be doing for dinner that night. Finally, our little group decided to list out what we were thankful for. There were many mentions of the cease fire, the Iron Dome and tasty, FREE food. I was one who listed the cease fire. As we continued to eat, laugh and grow more and more red cheeked from the free flowing wine – I found myself sitting back and watching everyone interact. Then I realized what I was actually most thankful for this year was this little group. Though I may be far from home and friends and family – I have carved my own little family here in Haifa. These are the people I depend on, who I’ve laughed with, who I’ve cried with and who make my time here so much more fun. I have no doubt that someday I will be sitting at another Thanksgiving table wistfully telling the tale of the time I spent Thanksgiving in Israel surrounded by flags, friends and “America, the Beautiful” blasting on the radio.

The Current Situation

16 Nov

Well, I had planned to cover the topic of security in Israel at a later date but current events have tipped my hand. I will not get into the politics of what is going on – that’s a far deeper topic than anything that needs to be posted here. First and foremost, I want to reassure you that I am okay and I am safe. Living in Haifa puts me about as far away as you can get from Gaza. We had a mandatory meeting with campus officials on emergency protocols yesterday. The US State Department has been in contact with instructions too. We have been asked not to travel for now and to stay close to campus. Campus officials feel confident that we will be safe here in Haifa but plans have been put into place in case we do need them. In the meantime, they encouraged us to go back to our regular routine as best we can.

I have to say, the mood here is absolutely surreal. Last night, I made a massive pot of spaghetti and fed a herd of people. As we laughed and ate, it was unreal to think that just south of us people would be spending the night in bomb shelters. Despite the fun, everyone kept a close eye on the news too. Around 11 pm, a spontaneous dance party started next door to us and lasted most of the night as people looked for an outlet to blow off steam. For Israelis, this is not the first or last time they have had to deal with this type of situation. There is an air of stoicism about the conflict – like the stiff upper lip of the English during the Blitz of London. At the same time, people are still living their lives. A friend who was in Tel Aviv yesterday when the bomb sirens went off for the first time since the Gulf War in the 90s, was shocked to walk past salons and bars just an hour later and all were filled with people doing their regular Thursday night activities. Though I have to say, most Israelis I talked to yesterday were stunned that Tel Aviv was targeted. This is the first time the center of Israel has been on alert – despite the bombardment Southern Israel has faced for weeks.

Our Holocaust Program Director and many of our fellow students have gone out of their way to reach out to those of us who are international with no family here. Our Director is hosting dinner tonight at her house for us. She said she wanted to do it not only to feed us but to surround us with love and support. Another student offered to let us stay the weekend with his family on his kibbutz north of Haifa. Another classmate contacted me to make sure I had plenty of food and to see how I was holding up. When you are on the other side of the world, experiencing such a remarkable situation, these small acts mean more than you know.

And so we live our lives in Haifa. All watch the news. Many friends in the reserves are preparing to be called up. As I have mentioned before – I have a paper due tomorrow. To honest though, I am having a very hard time peeling myself away from the news to read about the Yugoslavian Civil War – let alone write a paper about it.

Elephants in the room

7 Nov

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There are a few topics that I feel like I’m ready to talk about and should talk about – mainly, I’m talking about some of the elephants in the room. Topics like do you feel safe in Israel? What’s it like being a non-Jew in a Jewish state? What are Israelis really like? You get the idea. I’m not going to talk about all of them at once otherwise I’d have a mega post and you’d be bored out of your mind. Instead, I will pick a topic once in a while and tackle it. Today: what it’s like being a non-Jew in Israel. I want to preface this with – these are my views, based on my own experiences. I have put a lot of thought into this topic and how to approach it without coming across as judgmental. I hope I was successful in this goal.

For the most part people are surprised to discover that I’m not Jewish. That’s because the natural assumption is most people who come here are. Usually, as soon as I identify myself as non-Jewish, the next question is – “Are you super religious?” Again, this is a natural assumption given there are many pilgrims from other religions who come from all over the world in order to be in the Holy Land. This question then leads to the inevitable question of “Well, what religion are you?” Honestly, I never really know how to answer this question – even at home. I grew up in a house where my parents took me to many different churches over the years. I often went to church with friends as a child too and it never mattered if it was Baptist, Catholic or Mormon. The church that I have chosen to attend the most as an adult is non-demoninial. It’s Christian based but it does not have a label and I like that about it. So when confronted with the religious question, I usually just say Christian and leave it at that.  

I am studying for a Master’s degree in Holocaust Studies. When people hear what I’m studying – they are even more stunned that I’m not Jewish. During our first two days, we had a symposium where the main goal was team building. When it came out that there were four of us in the program who weren’t Jewish – the reaction was priceless. They could not believe that three Catholics and a mutt like me would ever be interested in this topic. This feeling of shock was quickly overtaken by absolute respect. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has gone out of their way to thank me and tell me how amazing it is for a non-Jew to study this topic. This includes people outside of my program too. People are very genuinely curious about this “quirk.” I’m still overwhelmed and honestly, kind of bothered by this reaction. I tell people all the time about how many people I know who are also deeply interested in this topic – none of them Jewish – and they are always shocked to hear this. I’ve tried to explain to people that you don’t have to be Jewish to be interested by a time where humankind & common decency took a left turn to horrific ends. I just have to remember that many people – regardless of their background – see life through a different lens. It’s interesting to realize that just by being here, I’m not only educating myself but also Israelis to a broader world view. 

I will say there are times when I am involved in a conversation or listening in class and I have an opinion about something but I don’t feel comfortable expressing it given that I’m not Jewish. For example, recently we had a reading for one of our classes that focused on the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. This author looked more on the whole of the community and even went on say that there were many victims during the occupation including innocent Germans who were murdered after the war, just for the crime of being German. This lead to a conversation about rather identifying multiple victims, especially Germans, “downgraded” the victimhood of Jews. I did have an opinion about this topic but I did not feel there was a way to express it without coming across badly. I waited until another classmate, who was Jewish, to express similar ideas. Then I felt comfortable saying something. Is this fear of speaking out a product of growing up in politically correct America?  Or is it just an abnormal sensitivity to an issue that only exists in my mind? I’m not really sure. Do I really feel like my classmates would have a bad reaction to my opinions? No, I think for the most part our group is a “safe” place to speak freely. It is my own confusion about this gray area that keeps my mouth closed. Given that I am just finding my feet here – I don’t feel comfortable yet in being able to judge a situation for openness.  

I tend to freely ask questions about anything Jewish I don’t understand and so far, most people are more than happy to help educate me. I have never once been made to feel uncomfortable for asking a question on that topic. The few bad reactions I’ve faced have been focused on my not speaking Hebrew and that has little to do with my faith. 

Overall, I have to say people are respectful and open to the fact that I’m not Jewish. They are genuinely interested in hearing my thoughts about being an “outsider” here, especially since so many people are immigrants themselves and were outsiders in their home countries just by being Jewish. I’ve had some fantastic conversations about that. At times, I do feel like a bit of a curiosity. There is a security guard who works the security checkpoint at the dorms that cannot get over the fact that I’m not Jewish. “Your name is Mary Ruth and you aren’t a Jew?? Are you sure? Jesus’ Mom was a Jew with that first name!” I take his gentle teasing in stride – it doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel like I can speak for anyone that’s in similar shoes but for me – I have no problem being a non-Jew in Israel. It has lead to many interesting discussions, some curious reactions and overall it’s been eye opening in a good way.

Do you have any topics you’d like me to cover? Any questions I haven’t answered yet? Let me know in the comments.

Tel Aviv

6 Nov

Just a pictorial overview of my quick trip to Tel Aviv. You can click on each photo and it will get bigger. There is a description included too. I took the train down Friday morning and stayed until after breakfast Saturday. I would have liked to stay longer but I had a mountain of homework to plow through. I had a great time visiting an old friend from home though. Thanks David for the insider’s view of Tel Aviv!

Another Week Gone

1 Nov

Well, another week has zipped by me. It’s been a good but productive week. I’m amazed by how much Hebrew I’m picking up just being surrounded by it. This week alone I’ve learned (& been using!) the Hebrew words for – excuse me, I’m alright, yes, no and latte (super important!). I keep a running list of words I’ve learned on the notepad on my iPhone so I can refer to them as needed. I’m slowly improving. Each trip to the store or shuk is getting easier. I was overwhelmed my first time at the grocery store but I’m learning my way through the store, learning which employees will begrudingly (at times) speak English to me, etc. I’m feeling okay. Though I had a hilarious encounter at the pharmacy trying to ask if they had flat irons. I was reduced to charades and repeatedly clamping my hair with my hands in an effort to mimic the iron. It was quite the scene. I try to pepper my English with the little Hebrew I do know. I’m a very enthusiastic thanker, I’ll have you know! Ha ha! Slowly but surely…

Between being surrounded by Hebrew, taking intensive German and sitting in on a Yiddish class — my English is suffering. Due to having so many non-native English speakers in our classes I’ve already slowed down my rhythm of speech and automatically switch to less slang and simpler words. I’ve even caught myself doing the classic…”Uhhh…how do you say…?” thing that is nearly universal with all non-native speakers trying to remember vocabulary. You are required to snap your fingers too as you say this, in an effort to engage your brain. I know everyone who works in International Education is familiar with this concept (and have probably done it themselves!). Too bad, I find myself doing this the most when I’m speaking ENGLISH! So all this to say – no making fun of my English.

On Facebook, I mentioned how last week one of our Israeli classmates made homemade hummus and brought it to class. This week, another classmate brought in fresh chocolate chip banana bread (delicious!) and another brought in fresh picked avocados from his kibbutz. We are slowly being spoiled by our Israeli friends! Dinner invitations and holiday plans are being issued left and right. Our local friends are incredibly kind enough to include us in their planning – especially those of us living on campus. We are lucky and we know it.

I had a good chuckle early in the week when one classmate invited me to dinner with her son who is 23. She told me she wanted to invite the younger girls in the group to dinner with him. So I listed out the three girls who recently graduated from college. “And you too since you are young too,” she said. I laughed and said she should invite Victoria too (who only 3 years older than me) if she was being so generous about who was considered young. “No! I want young girls!” When I pointed out that the other three girls were a full decade younger than me and I was closer in age to Vicky – she was stunned. “No! But you have no wrinkles for being so old! You look so young!” I had to show her my passport for proof of my age. For the rest of class, she kept daring the Israelis to guess my age. Guess I don’t need to invest in wrinkle cream yet.

As we have “struggled” through various situations since we’ve been in Haifa my friend, Victoria and I keep finding ourselves saying in jest, “That’s just the Israeli way.” Things just take more time here – even simple stuff like standing in line to check out at the grocery store to more complex stuff like waiting for our financial aid disbursement. This morning, our friend, Nathalie took us to the main bus station to get an annual student bus pass after we were told the bus center on campus isn’t able to issue passes to students. It took over two hours to get our passe, several trips back and forth between the pass office and the main cashier booth, and getting passed through no less than four employees in the pass center. It was a mess but we eventually succeeded in our goal which we could have never accomplished without our ally and fluent Hebrew speaker, Nathalie. At one point, even she was getting frustrated with the hassle of no one knowing what to do with us. Finally, she said, “Aww, that’s Israelity for you!” We have a new term for “That’s just the Israeli way” – Israelity – it’s totally their own version of reality. This concept describes things perfectly! I love it and will use it from now on!

On Wednesday in our Research Forum we had an amazing guest speaker who talked about how her family saved many Jews by hiding them during the war. Her family had 12 members who took part in the Resistance in Holland but they never spoke about it until the 1980s and even then they were very resistant to speak. Each of them had no idea the others were also involved. They have all been honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. Her parents alone took in a Russian family of three and a local dentist and hid them for five years. Keep in mind, they were also feeding six children of their own at the time! Her father was eventually arrested and died on the day of liberation from Auschwitz. One of her aunts took in several children and helped passed them through an underground network to get them to safety. Unfortunately, she only had two hours to tell us stories – I would have listened for as long as she wanted to tell us stories. She and her family were so fascinating. I really enjoyed having her visit us.

Finally, I am headed to Tel Aviv for the weekend to go visit my friend, David who lives there. I’m excited to catch up with an old friend and it’s nice to know that someone from home is so close by. I’m looking forward to getting an insider’s view of Tel Aviv too! I promise to post lots of pictures and tell you all about it.