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Monthly Archives: February 2009

!!שָׁלוֹם

And, for folks not lucky enough to have spent 5 hours per day, 5 days per week in Winter Ulpan, that’s “shalom” in the formal Hebraic aleph-bet (as they intentionally call it here, as “aleph” corresponds to “alpha” and “bet” to “beta” in Greek).

I haven’t been able to update this blog in a few days, because I made the decision to spend the time between the end of Ulpan and the beginning of the semester proper as a personal, extended Shabbat [Sabbath] to make up for the preceding 6 weekends being spent traveling and exploring without resting. It was a worthwhile choice, as the rest has better prepared me for the academics this new semester holds in store.

First, however, I would be remiss in my blogging duties if I did not mention my first activity this week, early on Sunday morning. Having previously done the gathering of information and research necessary, Scott and I had figured that we would probably be able to get into the Dome of the Rock/onto the Temple Mount if we went early on Sunday morning. Our sources were correct; we went and stood in line next to the large wooden ramp adjacent to the Kotel/Wailing Wall, and eventually got through security without issues. We walked up the ramp, passing by stacks of riot shields and a few stowed weapons, and some heavily armed Israeli guards. I make the differentiation of nationality because the Temple Mount itself has been entrusted to an Islamic waqf, or specially appointed cadre of caretakers. Scott and I disagreed, but I was under the impression that the guards of the Mount itself were also Arabic, but I am not sure. Nevertheless, quickly sneaking past a very large and loud group of French tourists, we made our way onto the Mount itself, and were blown away by what we saw.

The size of several football fields, we were immediately able to see Al Aqsa mosque to our right, and the Dome of the Rock to our left behind a large grove of Cyprus and olive trees. There were several other structures, arches, and domes, and a large area far off to the right under significant renovations (later, I found that this was the location of the so-called Solomon’s stables, which is kind of cool in my opinion). We decided that rather than follow the wave of tourists and locals Muslims to the Dome itself, we would go off to the right side of the Mount. To better explain which location I am referring to, it is the side of the Mount which makes up part of the Old City’s walls, and is closest to the Mount of Olives. We had a wonderful view of the Russian Orthodox church of great reknown, with its golden domes; we were also able to see and admire the Church of All Nations/Garden of Gethsemane and the Dominus Flevit chapel in all their glory from our perch on the side of the Mount. To get to where we were, we had to cross a large, white-tiled promenade with green-poled streetlights, which seemed a bit at odds with the general character of the rest of the area. Once at the edge of the Mount, we decided to walk left (orienting the reader, this pointed us towards the Golden Gate of the Old City). We walked along, and surprisingly, came upon a few large piles of rubble, debris, and other refuse. Like, although there was decades-old stone fragments waiting to be removed from the site, there was also a collection of actual trash: a refrigerator, a few broken chairs, and other things which one would not expect on the Temple Mount/near the Dome of the Rock, as they are such holy sites.

I later looked in my travel guide, and the map of the Temple Mount had a big set of bold lines with the words “OUT OF BOUNDS” around the locations I just described. No signs, guards, or impediments of any kind to us going where we did, so I am not sure if we majorly broke the rules or not. Nevertheless, I look forward to going back with my camera (details in a later blog post), and posting photos and more details here.

As for the first week of classes, here is the list of classes I am taking (with a small detail alongside each):

-Intensive Hebrew language
This is the same as the entirety of Ulpan, except we study for 2.5 hours rather than 5 hours per day, and the pace of class is greatly increased (from very fast to LUDICROUSLY fast).

-Conflict Dialogue: Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages
This class involves students from backgrounds spanning atheism to close-to-Orthodox Judaism, to extraordinarily Reconstructionist Jewish, to moderate Lutheran (c’est moi), to Pentecostal. Definitely a wide array of views coming into this course, and I look forward to it.

-Middle East: Coexistence and Rapprochement
This course, taught by an older Israeli professor, is looking into the conflicts and attempted political peace processes from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 until today. The best two parts of this course include: 1) he has GREAT personal stories like “once, in the 1980’s, I got to vote absentee while in Lebanon after we had taken that ground in a military action” and 2) he has enough of a British accent to make his lectures entertaining but still comprehensible, such as “PRO-cess” and the like. Outstanding.

-Introduction to the Philosophy of Maimonides
In reality, I started off enrolled in “Archeology of the Biblical Text,” which sounded great. As it turns out, the professor was great (albeit not entirely confident with his English), and the material was quite interesting (Late Bronze Age moves of the Israelites into Canaan, and seeing how archeology supports the Biblical text). The deal-breaker was the mix of other students. I am certain that they are all nice, but there was this one girl who just wasn’t making this experience a good one. Like, I understand being inescapably excited about a class, but I draw the line somewhere. Specifically, my proverbial line is drawn BEFORE the point where the class devolves into:

1) Professor makes a MAXIMUM of 3 short talking points in his lecture
2) The aforementioned girl, apparently interpreting his short pause between one point and the next as the end of the lesson forever, doesn’t raise her hand and simply loudly inquires as to details on his previous points. Now, keep in mind, this started all of 7 minutes into class, so the chances that the professor would leave us all hanging for a week 7 minutes into the period aren’t likely. He would proceed to answer her questions, and seeing as how he was already unsure of himself using English, would lose his train of thought and thus set the class back as he looked to regain his place (in no way do I hold him accountable for this). This step also involved said girl making “clever” “summaries” of previous facts from the lecture, almost all of which were utterly wrong and poorly conceived.
3) Repeat as desired (i.e. 1.25 hours), thus driving me slowly but surely insane.

Obviously that wasn’t going to cut it. I hope the Maimonides course is as good as people have told me it is; that would give me 4/4 amazing courses for this semester. Also, I got into the Honor’s Program here which is kind of cool, because I apparently have to present an original piece of academic work done while here… and I am considering something in the realm of theology.

Having updated the blog finally, I look forward to visiting some places this weekend, and give some detail on that in a future post.

(and once I get them, a small introductory gallery of photos will go here, because Scott’s camera died a few minutes into our visit and my camera was mailed from home Monday…

This week signals the action-packed end to Ulpan Hebrew, but not for long, because we have class again next week, albeit with more variety of subjects and less time spent in each.

Yesterday, in the middle of class, one of this week’s activities included going a an all-Hebrew tour of parts of the campus. Although skeptical at first, we went with the substitute teacher and began to learn about Mount Scopus before becoming a campus, the various important landmarks we could see from the top of the hill, and so forth. The best revelations, in my view, were that from various points around campus, we could look off into the distance and see things such as the mountain where Moses probably looked upon the Promised Land and then expired; (if it had been a clearer day) the Dead Sea; and the breathtaking horizon that is the edge of the Jordan Rift Valley.

On the campus itself, we learned about the affluent Lord Grayhill of England, who came and built a large villa on the hill and subsequently drew other people to live there as well. We also learned that in an odd parallel with American University, a building has retained its original name and not its original purpose. As with the AU “HISTORY” building that is actually Hurst, the “Einstein Center of Mathematics” is actually the “Harman Institute for the Study of Contemporary Jewry.” The big difference between the two is that AU’s was named based on a plan for building the campus that failed to be adhered to, whereas the Einstein Building was so named in the hopes that one Mr. Albert Einstein, a Zionist, could be convinced to come teach at Hebrew University (but to no avail).

Finally, we also learned that in the plaza where several students and staff were killed by a terrorist attack several years ago, something astonishing happened. In addition to killing those innocent people, the explosion knocked a lot of the surrounding landscaping around, including tilting some trees to extreme angles. Against all odds, one of those trees continued to grow and bud, even while repairs were effected on the plaza and the memorial stone facade to the low wall was put into place. As a result, and in order to preserve a poignant image, said tree was actually secured at its extreme angle, had dirt and a retaining wall put around its partially uplifted root system, and has a steel cable preventing its weight from causing it to fall. It is still growing today, and I love the defiantly hopeful message of this simple, living memorial: although people will be hurt and sometimes killed, even those things or peoples which are injured can still regrow and get back to a state of flourishing.

Other than that, today was the multi-part oral examinations for Ulpan, hence the title of this post. We had to compose and deliver a dialogue with a partner, as well as memorize several passages from the textbook and be able to answer questions about them individually. As has been the pattern of Hebrew language classes here thus far, we somehow were expected to go through nearly 4 hours of class prior to the exams, which we did in fact do. Much more interesting, and less work-intensive, was the appearance of a rainbow early this morning over Mount Scopus. As Gili explained to us, this ‘kashat beshamayim’ (literally “bow of the sky”) was much bigger and bright than they usual see. It was certainly very, very close to the Rothberg school, so we got to admire it from a close perspective. I suppose that occurrence is one of the lesser known benefits to having your university on a very tall hill; when your mountain is covered in clouds a lot of the time in the winter, you’ll get some spectacular rainbows.

Today was also our last day of singing as a large group of Aleph-level Hebrew students. As we knew the words well by today, we were able to sing effectively and in some cases, even on key. That small accomplishment, however, pales in comparison to the dancing that took place today as an accompaniment to the music. The teacher invited several students onto the stage to dance, not thinking it would necessarily catch on. She was quite wrong. Muktar (spelling is not right on this one, in all likelihood), an older student Hebrew student of at least 45 years, went up with two 20 year-old students from the US, and they began leading the group with hand motions during the slow part of the song. Once the crescendo and increased tempo was reached, however, Muktar took to his craft quickly. Encouraged by the rhythmic clapping of the crowd, he began what seemed to be a slightly modified rendition of traditional Jewish dancing, and it was adored by the students singing in the auditorium. Quite the memorable experience, and an unexpected one at that.

Other than that, tonight holds studying for Thursday’s final Ulpan written exam, starting the first draft of this intended theological paper of mine (more on that as it develops), and catching up on all the sleep I lost last night, due to being up studying until 3:45 am 😛

Even though when I asked my teacher Gili about going onto the Mount of Olives and her face dropped in abject horror, Scott, Laszlo, and I decided to go take a self-guided tour of the Mount of Olives today, and that was an excellent decision. As per the past several posts, all credit for taking this photography goes to Scott O’Hara.

First, we walked over to the top of Mount Scopus, and saw actual shepards tending to their flock of sheep, which was deliciously in character for Jerusalem: millennium-old traditions still enacted next to completely modernized locations. Walking up the narrow road to the Har haZeytim (Hebrew name for Mount of Olives), we first saw the Lutheran-run Augusta Victoria Hospital, which is the best quality medical care available for Palestinian people. And, on that note, allow me to take a moment to share the neatest thing which Zack told me. “Palestine” as a word is derived from the Roman-demanded “Palaestina.” This was the new name given after the Romans quashed the Jewish rebellions, and they derived it from the Biblical Philistines of the region. I had never considered the background to the name, but since my roommate is a huge ancient language buff, I now have a source for such awesome facts as this one 🙂

Walking through the Palestinian town on the top of the Mountain, we kept our eyes on the lovely tower of the Church of the Ascension, but we never actually managed to figure out how to get to it, either on the way into the town originally or on our way out. We plan on looking it up, and I will report on it in a future post.

Walking down the Mount, we came to the very important Jewish Cemetery with approximately 185,000 graves. The reason behind its importance is that Jewish tradition holds this side of the hill to be where the Messiah will descend from the heavens, so those people buried there will be the first to rise from the dead and greet him. Walking down what was at times a 50 degree downwards slope, we spent a long time admiring the grounds and Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane. This place is also going to make my list of Top 5 locations to visit in Israel: as you will see in the photographs, the trunks of the olive trees there are 1100 years old. Even more interesting, the root systems of these 10 ancient trees are more than 2000 years old, meaning that they were alive and around for when Jesus prayed in the same Garden, on the night of his betrayal. That made it quite the interesting place to visit alone, but the church made it even better. Although the pictures do a great job of showing it off, I will mention here that I plan on attending at least 3 services at this church. The acoustics in the sanctuary are excellent because of the domed roof, and the artwork/architecture is excellent, so I look forward to going back.

The Orthodox location of the tomb of Mary was the next location, and it was lovely as well. As we admired the centuries-old icons and hanging incense burners, two monks began singing harmonized hymns. This church is an underground one, with a large curved roof, and therefore their baritone voices filled the air with a woven set of melodies and reverberation that had a heady effect when combined with the heavy incense of the grotto. On the far side of the church was a small stone structure. Behind it was an elaborate shrine to Mary, done in gold and silver and so forth. This small structure is actually held to be the location of Mary’s tomb, and there is a stone tomb within it (see the photograph section).

Next on our trip, we wandered towards the Old City to spend some time (the other Christian sites on the Mount of Olives are closed from 12:30 until 2:30, because they are mostly managed by Franciscan monks who need time for lunch and afternoon prayers). Laszlo departed us to go to an appointment he had set up, so Scott and I walked up towards the Lion’s Gate/Golden Gate. This entrance to the Old City is so named because it is said to be the entranceway which the Messiah will use on his arrival/return (depending if you’re Jewish or Christian). To the left, we saw up close something we had seen from the Mount of Olives: a large cemetery adjacent to the Temple Mount’s outer wall. Intrigued, Scott and I wandered in and immediately noticed all the writing was in Arabic, so it was apparently a Palestinian cemetery. Beautiful nonetheless, I made to continue walking in, when Scott turned around and grew extremely pale. I inquired as to what was wrong; he quietly told me to turn around and witness the entrance of an absolutely MASSIVE Palestinian funeral procession, with the men at the front bearing the body of the deceased in a green box with Arabic on the side. I suddenly also became fairly concerned with the present situation – we had no idea of protocol, and didn’t really want to intrude on a private and important funeral uninvited. Like, I have to assume it was important because the procession simply kept on processing in. Like, the nearby Al Aqsa Mosque was emptying the Muslim people who finished their midday prayers and 70% of them joined the procession. Spotting a break in the crowd coming in through the narrow gate, we made good our escape and were pleased that we still have a perfect record of safety – we may get INTO potentially dangerous situations, but we also excel at getting out them unscathed.

That said, we went further into the Old City for a thoroughly un-cultural meal – Scott insisted on getting pepperoni pizza, which he said was delicious, while I went with my beloved chicken shawarma. Nevertheless, we finished our meal and went over to the Wailing Wall to admire it, as well as check for possible entrances to the Temple Mount – having been clearly not welcome in its adjoining cemetery, we figured we’d try our luck on the Mount itself. Unfortunately, the nearby Israeli soldiers explained to us that the only time we would be able to get in is on Sunday mornings between 7:30 and 10:30 AM. Tomorrow will not work due to Ulpan classes, but next Sunday Ulpan is over, so we look forward to going then.

On our way out of the Old City’s walls, we stopped at the previously closed Monastery of the Flagellation. The first stop on the Via Dolorosa, this Franciscan compound houses the traditional location of Pilate’s judgment seat. In fact, it happens to have a portion of the original, more than 2000 year old stone pavement there (check the photographs). The chapel was very beautiful, but my heart was stolen by the stained glass of the church itself. Similar to my experience years ago, in a small church near the beaches of Normandy, I was taken aback by a widely-know fact being depicted in stained glass (in that case, an entire stained glass window depicted the landing of the Allied Forces). Here, in this church, one of the stained glass windows depicted Pilate ritually washing his hands of the blood of Jesus, and somehow that connected well with me. It is one of the photographs attached, and I think I liked this one panel better than any of those in Notre Dame.

Outside the Old City, we started up the ridiculously steep incline of the Mount of Olives. Along the way, we made a stop at the previously-closed Franciscan Dominus Flevit (roughly in Latin: “The Lord’s Tears”). As drawn from the Biblical verse where Jesus weeps openly in anticipation of the diaspora of the Jewish people, the chapel here is shaped like a tear. In fact, even more interesting is the other reason this church was constructed here in 1955. In 1953, excavations of graves here revealed this to be the ancient location of James (of the original 12 Apostles) had his church at this location, and that it likely predated Peter’s Church (which eventually became the Catholic Church). That’s an old, old church that used to be housed here, probably the oldest in the history of Christianity (and due to the personal influence of an Apostle, of huge significance). The view from the chapel (as shown in the photographs) is very probably my favorite of the Old City – you are at eye level with the Dome of the Rock, and can see it and all the most important Christian holy sites through the clear glass window of the chapel.

On our way back to Mount Scopus, we stopped into a different part of the Jewish Cemetery, and saw several interesting things. First, we saw a great view of the awful, huge wall separating the West Bank from Arabic East Jerusalem. Secondly, we saw a bunch of very ornate Jewish graves that are very new. Third, we saw the pictured gentleman’s camel taking a lunch break out of public landscaping. Finally, going back through the Palestinian town which Augusta Victoria is in, we stopped at the Muslim Chapel of the Ascension [of Jesus]. Going inside, we saw what is held to be the footprint of Jesus as he left the ground and went up into the heavens (as pictured below). And as I mentioned before, we couldn’t seem to find a way into the Church of the Ascension, so that’s for next time.

Our trip around the other side of Mount Scopus led us to see a few things worth mentioning as well. First, a very dark and ominous cloud that wasn’t moving, had no discernible source, and cast shadows darker than normal clouds of similar density. Not sure who managed to anger Elohim, but that was an odd sight. We also saw a massive IDF outpost looking down into East Jerusalem, without any good reason (it seemed to be a holdover from the retaking of that part of the city 50 years ago). In the part of the city this outpost watched over, there were several sites where Palestinian homes had clearly been demolished, although for some odd reason, the surrounding homes were safe/didn’t need to be destroyed. That bothers me a lot, because the vast majority of the people in those neighborhoods don’t really have the money to rebuild, nor were most of them doing anything wrong (morally, legally, or otherwise) to merit such treatment.

In any event, time to seriously start studying for the turbulent waves of Hebrew homework, the oral exam, and the written exam later this week. Wish me luck.

Shabbat Shalom, everyone!

Really quickly, I just want to turn your attention towards some administrative features of this blog. First, I have updated the “About” section (look at the top of the page, where you can click on a button aptly labeled “About”). In addition to a short introduction as to the reasoning and progress behind making this blog, you can also find the background for “Exploratorius” and the copyright that applies while using this site (nothing scary, but worth taking a look at). Similarly, the “More Exploratorius” page’s button has also been updated, with links to some of the affiliated blogs I have created. The one for Vietnam won’t have anything before this coming December at the earliest, but I wanted to secure the name of the site. “A Jaunt Around the World – Zambia” is currently quite empty, but that will change in about a week (when my package from home arrives, and I transcribe my journal from that experience into easy-to-follow blog posts). The “Travel Tips” blog is self-explanatory, so take a look if you’re interested. Check them out, and feel free to comment.

Just as an aside, I figured I would update everyone on the sheer audacity of cats around these parts. Not only do they consistently sneak into and around dorms and other buildings, they are also apparently either ninjas or secret agents of some sort. The other night, I was innocently and calmly cutting the leaves off of the tops of some delicious strawberries in the kitchen, while washing them. Once I finished preparing the whole carton for consumption, I simply went over to the cabinet that has the garbage can in it. Being the type of cabinet door that latches when closed, suffice to say that I was QUITE surprised with the outcome of touching that door. I opened the completely latched door, and watched in abject terror as time slowed down, and Surprise Garbage Cat can hissing, spitting, and darting out of that cabinet like greyhounds at a racetrack. Luckily, it left without giving me rabies, but I may have uttered some strong words such as “oh my” or “wasn’t that unexpected. Not too sure how the cat got in there and then latched the door from the inside without opposable thumbs, but he meant business.

Beit Midrash this week was quite enjoyable, particularly given that the topic at hand was “the New Year of the Trees.” This translation of Tu B’shvat, which is one of the 4 Jewish new year holidays every year, celebrates the end of the winter rains and the beginning of the spring. Interestingly, one way of telling when this holiday was at hand is because the very first trees to blossom (almond trees) do so right around this time. The class took its usual course, with Rabbi Pear hurtling through a huge amount of material and perspectives, in order to help everyone not only get an introduction to the topic at hand, but to also allow people to consider and ask questions as well. The theme his discussion ended up taking was one of the environmentally-friendly dictums of the Rabbis and the Torah, one of which I wanted to mention here. In the Torah, it holds that when the Jewish people were besieging a city, they were not to cut down productive fruit trees under any circumstances, so as not to waste. Extrapolated and expanded to fit into today’s context, this is a firm law that ought to have more followers: instead of polluting and misusing the oceans, for example, we would be better off to take care of them and thus extend their bounty.

The next day, on Israeli election day, Scott and I decided to go see the Israel Museum, which was pretty good. Even though the main archaeological hall was closed (until 2010 for major renovations), there were other areas that are still worth seeing. First and foremost, we were entertained by the entrance to the place. The first building had 8 windows for people to queue up at: 3 windows for information; 4 windows to purchase entrance tickets; and 1 window as a “CHECK ALL WEAPONS HERE” type of line. Only in Israel 🙂

Inside, the first attraction was the scaled outdoor model of Old Jerusalem. Like, they chopped down very small pieces of Jerusalem stone, and then landscaped a 30-foot diameter area to match the geography of the city and constructed small houses, hovels, villas, a Second Temple, and so forth, all to scale. They even had Golgotha – a small sculpted stone to look like a skull, to match Biblical descriptions.

Next, we went into the Shrine of the Book, which is one of the photographs attached here (again, thanks to Scott O’Hara). This is where they both store and study the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, and once inside the oddly shaped building, the 26 shekelim entrance fee becomes worth it. The center of the room is a huge pantomime of a Torah scroll, and it features a back-lit 22-meter long section of the Isaiah scroll, which was found in almost perfect condition. Although I cannot reproduce it for you in text, the British accent of the audio device guide we were given made his rendition of the word “Isaiah” sound something “izzze-yah,” which was entertaining. Similarly, there are fragments and relics pertaining to the Aleppo Codex, which is a famed and partially destroyed copy of the Torah that had been protected for many centuries before its abduction in the mid 1900’s. No pictures from inside, because we were strongly forbidden from taking any.

Finally, we took a walk through the modern art sculpture garden, and those couple which appealed to me are included in this blog post.

We walked up the hill to the nearby Knesset (Israeli Parliament building), and although we were expecting to be turned away, we still wanted to try and get in to see it. As we got within 30 yards of the building, a guard came over and asked if he could help us – as expected, our request to see it was denied because it was closed for the elections. We still got a few photographs of the cool sculptures in front of it, and then walked across the hill to the Supreme Court and adjacent Rose Gardens. Even in the dead of the Israeli winter, there were still a few blossoms that would beat quite a few rose gardens at home, and the Supreme Court itself was of very interesting architecture (for both, see the attached).

On our walk away from the Supreme Court towards the Israeli shuk, we passed near an out-of-place monument. It was a Japanese-style bell erected towards the goal of place in the middle of the 1990’s. Check out the attached photographs, and imagine just how odd it was to crest a hill and see that standing all on its own. Finally, getting close to the shuk from a direction we had never taken, we passed a small plaza of stores with large cement columns holding the roof over a sitting area. Whether according to or in spite of the business owners’ wishes. those columns had been repeatedly covered in graffiti ranging from poorly done all the way to pieces of art. The best couple, in my opinion at least, have been included – I am particularly amused by the Lord of the Rings reference in “VOTE FOR ARAGORN.”

On another note, I simply want to mention how much I enjoy Coca Cola here. My roommate explained it to me – apparently, corn becomes a food that is not kosher during Passover, and the rabbis decided that corn derivatives are therefore also not kosher. This includes high fructose corn syrup, and so the locally licensed producers of the beverage decided to make it year-round with natural sugar. This means that it doesn’t make one sick, like it tends to elsewhere. Instead, it is a thoroughly enjoyable beverage, and I am sure I will miss it a bunch when I leave, because it actually tastes good 🙂

And finally, another odd little cultural thing I wanted to mention was regarding the nearby Aroma Cafe, which I have mentioned a few times before. In addition to their usual, wacky custom of playing video clips from Looney Toons and the old Popeye cartoon with Israeli popular music laid over it, a fellow patron managed to surprise me quite a bit. As otherworldly as this sounds, this guy came into the place and ordered a coffee dressed as follows: baseball cap, sweatshirt with some clothing company’s logo on it, blue jeans and sneakers. Oh, and a very, very well-kept bolt-action rifle that looked quite ready to be used at a moment’s notice. I am torn as to his status – he certainly wasn’t military, as they are all issued only automatic weapons. His demeanor and clothing seemed to suggest he was a Jewish settler coming into town, but my roommate thinks the guy works as security for an Israeli tour company, which apparently arm their guides with bolt action rifles. Yet another thing I will end up getting used by the time I am finished here, and then miss once I am home 😛

Shalom everyone:

I finally got around to purchasing what many people in the US would label a “yarmulke,” but in Israel is known more properly as a kippa. I need one of these to be more respectful in certain places, such as visiting the Kotel (Western/Wailing Wall of the Temple) or going to schull (the Hebrew for synagogue [which is oddly a Greek word]).

Now, when I saw the kippa pictured below in the shuk today, I was uncertain that I was seeing it correctly. I thought that a kippa was supposed to be reverent, and not particularly extravagant or silly. It turns out that there is no religious significance attached to them per se; it is just considered much more polite and respectable to have one’s head covered in the Jewish tradition. Also, given that the shop was called “KIPPA MAN,” perhaps I should have expected a less-than-serious approach to wearing them. In addition to Luigi (and Mario), the kippot for sale featured a variety of patterns, including the Obama campaign’s circular symbol and the word “Hope;” an Israeli Defense Force color scheme and coat of arms; a skull and crossbones, and many more.

Beyond the fact that I am actually alright wearing this lovely piece of art around, Penina (my roommate Zack’s girlfriend) noticed something interesting that I thought I would point out here. Whereas Jewish/Israeli culture considers it much more polite and respectable to have one’s head covered as much as possible, the opposite holds true at home in the US. At baseball games at the Star Spangled Banner and indoors at most points of the day, it is considered impolite, disrespectful, and even outright rude to have one’s head covered – exactly the opposite of the sentiments here.

I look forward to getting people’s reactions once I wear this in public… 🙂

So this post will present some of my current understandings of the attempted peace processes in Israel and Palestine, given my experiences on the ground and with individual human beings (who are usually a better indicator of the situation than news articles written by low-quality journalists sitting in a different hemisphere).

As with my previous post, and due to my ongoing lack of a camera due to the business practices of El Al, these photographs are both taken by and given to me to post courtesy of my friend Scott O’Hara.

Image 1: Weekly Peace Protest

I have posted about this event before, but as a quick reminder, this weekly protest is held in Paris Plaza (not sure of the origin of that name) by a women’s league of mostly 80+ year old women. They are against the occupation of the Palestinian territories, and protest it by wearing all black clothes and holding signs that are black silhouettes with “END THE OCCUPATION” in Arabic, Hebrew, and English in the Plaza.

What occurred to me since then is that the majority of the elderly women organizing and attending the protest every week were actually alive when it WAS Palestine, prior to 1948. The part that concerns me the most is not necessarily their message; having been into the West Bank once already and seen the poverty therein for myself, I can understand why people would want to open the borders for Palestinians economically, not even to mention political issues (not going there, because I am not educated enough on the subject yet to present a good case either way).

What concerns me most is that there were 5 armed police officers to carefully watch the activities of several elderly women, and to prevent what… them from rioting? I understand that Israel is security minded, and reasonably so in many cases, but I am extremely suspicious and nervous when a government has strong police presence at the most harmless and peaceful of protests. This seems to be just one part of a larger problem: Israeli citizens are forbidden by law from going into the Territories, while most Palestinians are turned back from the borders with Israel. By suppressing those forces with Israel and Palestine that yearn for the re-humanization of the other side, while simultaneously preventing more than 90% of each population from ever seeing the other side in person (with all of the similarities in diet, child-rearing practices, concern with living a good life, and a slew of other essential points of agreement), how is that peace can be expected out of the situation? This is mostly rhetorical at this point, but I hope that my experiences and education into these affairs allows me to give a more refined question, and possibly even the beginnings of an answer in the future.

Image 2: “WAR IS FOREVER”

Also mentioned in a previous post, this piece of graffiti deeply concerns me as well. I read the sentiment therein as a satirical, cynical, and resigned acceptance of the situation of conflict in this nation. The vibrant coloration, plus the satirical reference to “Diamonds are forever” both provide the darkly comical element to the piece, yet at the same time for hundreds, if not thousands of years, that sentiment can be said to ring true in portions of the Middle East. I would actually love to meet the individual who painted it (because it clearly took a while to do), and simply ask what they were thinking/feeling when they created that message for many people to see every day from the Israeli shuk. Unfortunately, this sense of resignation to war as inevitable is part of what seems to make peace so elusive here. I can even recall opinions and conversations with others at home where the genuine sentiments of those involved were that “the Middle East cannot be fixed; it is always going to be at war.” I hope and pray that this can be reversed through individual people slowly but surely re-humanizing the other side through interpersonal interactions: if a Palestinian is going to make peace with an Israeli, it seems to me as though at some point they will both have to realize that the other person is just as concerned about feeding their family, raising their children well, and making the most of life.

Image 3: Tossing a bouquet

Finally, here is the remix of the young Palestinian man throwing a bouquet instead of a rock, taken by Scott during our day in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. This actually inspires me somewhat, because of the implicit message displayed for all to see traveling towards Bethlehem. The image takes that which is iconic of violence, and twists it so that the young man is returning peaceful intentions for violent or unfair intentions. Given another name, and taking this from the Bible, the graffiti is essentially calling upon those disaffected and frustrated Palestinians to turn the other cheek in the face of harsh Israeli policies, actions, and decisions. Certainly not an easy or enjoyable path to follow, but it has proven its worth numerous times before: the Civil Rights movement in America, Gandhi’s leadership in India, and other nonviolent forms of protest have succeeded because their members restrain themselves in the face of clear adversity, and eventually prevail. Again, not an easy policy or posture to implement here, but this one piece of graffiti gave me some hope that maybe some people can start, and others can follow in their footsteps.

Other Considerations

It does seem to me like a 2-state solution can only be a temporary fix to the problem, if it is implemented at all. I will go into more detail as time goes on, but two reasons are all I will mention for now. First of all, this situation strikes me as post-WWI Germany, when a large portion of it was given to Poland, leaving a disconnected part of it within Polish borders. This was one of the given reasons for Germany going to war again, to reunite it’s people, and the Israel/Palestine situation seems like it might play out in a similar fashion. For the 2-state solution to work, it seems to rely upon actually splitting the two parties and giving them separate land to call their own/work with. For the Palestinians, though, giving them two allotments of land that aren’t connected almost seems a slap in the face, because they would have to still pass through significant Israeli security to get from Gaza to the West Bank, and wouldn’t it still be the same situation as now?

The other concern that comes to mind is the fairly large lack of infrastructure in the Territories. Although the bus system functions very well, I don’t believe that there is any Palestinian airport, nor do I think the resources exist to create one immediately post-split into 2 states. As I mentioned before, places like Bethlehem rely upon tourism to fuel their economies, and already the situation makes it difficult for people to visit there. Doesn’t it seem like the formal institution of a border would merely serve to complicate and prevent people from visiting parts of the former Territories, since they would have to fly through Israel? There are more examples here, but I still need to ponder this further.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a really interesting conversation I had with one of the Ulpan teachers yesterday after class. Since I missed several days of Ulpan last week due to being sick, I had about 45 minutes of extra instruction after class from a different teacher to make sure I understood adjectives properly in Hebrew (which I mostly did, after some explanation from her). Afterwards, we spoke about the upcoming Israeli elections (tomorrow), and I asked who she is going to vote for, and how she thinks the country might lean. I was surprised with what she told me.

First of all, she told me that the usually-voting population of the state of Israel is probably going to stay home in large numbers. Apparently, there are several odd factors at work here. First, the conservative coalition is more conservative than usual, which turns many people away from them. At the same time though, none of the 4 candidates for prime minister actually has any platform of positions or intentions… which rings familiar with many American elections in recent years.

Her last statement, though, is the one that really took me aback. There are people at home that make strong or weak claims regarding the US and its seeming tendency to let Israel shape its foreign policy and defense spending. This teacher, though, ended her exposition of her politics with “it really doesn’t matter who is elected though; if the US says ‘do X,’ that’s what Israel will end up doing.” This seems to ring somewhat true, as not only did she have no reason to lie to me, but a country reliant upon the US for aid should be inclined to follow its lead. It becomes apparent, then, that perhaps Israel doesn’t determine all that much in terms of US policy – it is like any other traditional US ally, in that it receives US support and in return has to show some respect for US expectations. This also goes to show that a US citizen’s vote is worth a whole bunch more than they might normally consider, because the decisions of the US truly affect the security and prosperity of a slew of people around the world. Something to consider when listening to any American politician’s understanding of war and peace, I feel.

I know I promised this post for yesterday evening – however, after a total of 9 full hours spent either in class or otherwise working on Hebrew yesterday, my brain was absolute mush. It is important to note and give full credit and thanks to Scott O’Hara for not only taking photographs I suggested, but then allowing me to post them here as illustration.

And, on to the Bethlehem stories:

The title of this post is not an exaggeration; this was by far the best birthday I have ever had. I forewarn you, my readers – this post will be a long one, but I did/saw too many awesome things to not relate them to you. Also, this post probably best exemplifies my intention to only write about things that no one else would really know about, so my accidental 3 mile walk deep into the West Bank fits perfectly 🙂

First, since my birthday was on Shabbat, we were unable to take the Egged bus system (the Israeli buses) – instead, Scott and I took the Arabic bus system, and I have nothing but raving reviews for it. It is a full 2 shekelim cheaper, for a cost of 4 shekelim per trip within Jerusalem (for us, getting to the Damascus Gate of the Old City), and then a mere 6 shekelim to go into the West Bank and the cities therein. The smaller and medium buses are Mercedes buses like I rode in Africa, and they offer an almost fully smooth ride. The exception is when making turns – all of those style of buses have very small diameter tires, and are quite tall vehicles, so one experiences quite a bit of leaning when the bus takes turns.

After riding past the huge security gates into Area A of the West Bank, past 20-foot tall concrete walls, and 12-foot tall razorwire fences, armed Israeli soldiers, and armored cars (but no tanks), our innocent little bus drove into the Palestinian Territories and around several neighborhoods to all of its stops. We eventually ascend a very, very tall hill, and finally come to a complete stop. We ask the driver “we were supposed to go to Bethlehem – why are we stopping?” This was responded to very clearly: “this IS Bethlehem; what else do you want?!?” Apparently, my previous internal conception of the “little town of Bethlehem” featured a small, quaint city nestled in a valley and fairly archaic still. In reality, however, the city is fairly large, quite modernized, and full of life: street vendors have all sorts of products, and there are electronics stores, jewelers, and anything else one can think of.

Picking a random direction (as Scott and I seem wont to do), we walked up to a higher elevation still, and came upon the Lutheran Christmas Church (which was unfortunately closed) – we knew we were getting close. We peaked the hill, which we later found out is approximately 950 feet above sea level, and started down towards the ever-popular Manger Square to get into the parts of the town we had come to see.

Getting to the Church of the Nativity, we are heckled by some Palestinian guys outside offering to be our guides, but we decline since they seem less than ideal for that purpose. Ducking under the 3.5 foot tall entrance way (which was fun for me 😛 ), we enter the church proper and stare at a veritable networked sea of incense burners hanging from the ceiling. We are approached by a different gentleman, introducing himself as “Naif,” and we start off through the church with him as our guide. I made a point of asking how much he was looking to make, as I happen to know that these “free services” include some free yelling if you don’t pay the price they set at the end, so I was OK with his “suggested donation of 90 shekels” at the end. He explains many things, such as the very short entrance being a modification to prevent raiders from merely riding their horses/camels into the sanctuary (which strikes me as a great idea), and how the church is actually 3 churches in one: Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian.

The central, Orthodox part of the church has some great Crusader-era murals to glance at, as well as an ornate altar featuring over 45 icons (of Jesus, saints, apostles, and so forth). To our right was the Armenian church, which we did not venture into, and then ahead of us we saw the steps down to the lower level (see the picture of me on some red steps going down). This lower level, as it was explained to us, was the cave in which Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem, and where she gave birth. In fact, this cave is also quite ornate, as this is the widely held real location of both the birth of Jesus, and his placement into the manger: they have separate spots, and you can see them in the pictures. I am in front of a small alcove and looking at the camera in front of the location of the manger, and I am laying down and touching the silver inlaid star marking the spot of Jesus’ birth. Already an intense location, there was a heavily Catholic Spanish tour group in the crèche as well, and they were all dressed very well, and broke into hymn twice while we were down there. The un-air conditioned cave, combined with 55 people crammed into it made for an extremely warm and humid claustrophobic space, but a moving one nonetheless.

Climbing up the stairs into the other side of the church, we were hit again with cool air, and a few lungfuls of incense served as a heady refreshment after the close quarters below. We wandered into the recently-renovated Roman Catholic portion of the church, redone when Pope John Paul II came to Bethlehem in 2000. We wandered over a grate that Scott didn’t notice and flipped out when he saw it, and into a courtyard – this is where Scott and I are pictured, in front of the statue of Hieronymus. We went down into another cave underneath the church, and Naif explained that this is where Saint Jerome had spent 36 years with his assistant, translating the original Aramaic Bible into Latin, which would become known as the quintessential Vulgate Bible. As should becoming clear, quite a few world-changing events had happened on the premises of this Church of the Nativity, and I look forward to going back and spending more time admiring its architecture and art.

The following is a big step for me: I am the type of person who purchases between 1 and 3 personal souvenirs total whenever I go anywhere, and my first one was in Bethlehem. Naif took us to “Mary’s” shop, where we were offered fresh brewed tea from the leaves (it was delicious). We looked around the shop, and were offered “a very good price,” which I think I have yet to NOT be offered anywhere outside the US. As if Naif’s “random” decision to take us to this store wasn’t indicative enough of his ties to the place, he “argued” on the phone with the boss, “Joseph,” and secured us better prices. Ironically, after traveling all the way here and going to Bethlehem, I manage to make a purchase commemorating the Old Testament: a silver with gold-inlaid piece of artistic metallurgy, it featured Samson standing strong and knocking over two pillars of the temple. It will feature prominently in my Grant Road house upon my return to DC, so those of you who live close, keep your eyes out for it. We left “Mary and Joseph’s” store (the fake names were a little much, I think), and went over to the Milk Grotto.

La Grotte du Lait as it is also labeled above the entrance is the presumed location where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid while Herod sent men to kill all young children in the city. It is said that as Mary breast-fed Jesus, a few drops spilled and instantly and permanently turned all the stone pure white (which it still was, as we saw). An interesting, and prior to visiting it, unknown to me location that was worth the trip to see.

Naif assured us that to get to the nearby Catholic Shepard’s Field (as we aren’t allowed to the traditional Orthodox Shepard’s Field), we simply go about a mile down this one road, and follow the signs. We thanked him, and decided to walk the short distance. This choice proved eventful, to be sure. We walked for quite some time down the huge hill, and ended up taking the wrong branch of a Y intersection at one point (so much for straight all the way down), and so turned around and took the other path further. Shortly thereafter, we happened upon a mom-and-pop shawarma place, and went in for lunch. It was, with no doubt in my mind whatsoever, the best shawarma I have yet had in Israel (compared to all the different places in Jerusalem I have tried). It was also obscenely cheap – 13 shekelim (about USD $3.10) for the shawarma in a pita and a Coke. Excellent lunch finished, we asked for updated directions. The owner told us to go straight for about a mile, and then turn left, and to follow the signs. We promptly forgot about the “turn left,” and went on our merry way.

As we walked along the road, we passed by some extraordinarily poor homes, businesses, and parts of the neighborhood that were utterly run-down and decrepit. Groups of students were on their way to classes, and taxi vans zoomed past in both directions, and we decided to keep going, keeping our eyes out for the signs we were promised. In addition to getting a much better sense of Palestine by walking through it in lieu of driving, we also got to walk by several carpentry and woodworking shops making products of olive wood. Whereas most sawdust smells awful to me, or at least not good, olive wood sawdust smells amazing, as Scott found to his amazement as well.

So, to give you, my readers, a better idea of the distance involved here, our jaunt into the West Bank was at about 3 miles at this point. We had walked through and then out of Bethlehem proper; through and then out of Beit Sahour, the neighborhood following it; and then through and out of the next small neighborhood. We hadn’t seen any sign promising us the Shepard’s Field in quite some time, but decided to continue down a nearly empty road for a bit longer. Soon thereafter, walking down the right side of the road, we passed by a small outpost on our right. Flying a Palestinian flag proudly, it featured a modified Land Rover with military gear. Also prominent in our eyes were the 3 or 4 gentlemen dressed in full jungle camouflage, red berets, and bearing AK-47’s on the porch. We looked at them once, and then continued going ahead, thinking “just KEEP WALKING, and NO MORE EYE CONTACT.” Safely passing what was in all likelihood a Fatah military outpost, we finally got past all sense of any neighborhood and were truly out in the wastes of the Palestinian desert. We finally decided to flag down a taxi van and ask if we had passed the place… which we did by about 2 miles.

We climb into the van, and speed down the road at about 50 miles per hour back the way we came. An elderly couple on the opposite side of the road were making a slow left turn, and our driver laid on his horn. They didn’t heed his warning, and he slammed on the breaks, going 50 MPH in a heavy Ford van with tires of small diameter. Equally concerning was the completely wet road, the remains of a shop owner cleaning off his car and storefront. Skidding and sliding, we narrowly avoided dying in a car crash due to iconic Israeli bad driving; this right after walking by a Fatah outpost unharmed. Although shaken, we figured we must be either lucky or divinely protected to keep getting through things unscathed… but we still we happy to get out of the speed freak’s taxi van and walk on our own two legs again. The street he told us to walk down had NO SIGN WHATSOEVER announcing the Shepard’s Field, so we had no chance to get there from the start. 😦

Walking in through the gate of the Shepard’s Field, several things became immediately apparent: 1) this was easily the best kept lawn I had yet seen in the nation of Israel; 2) it was kept up by Franciscan monks; and 3) Scott and I were the only two people in the entire place. We walked along the path to the small chapel in the center of the area, and went into what is now my favorite place of worship I have been to in the entire world (this includes beating out the US National Cathedral, Notre Dame, and so forth). Please check out the included photographs, which will do better justice than my description (the frescoes there are breathtaking, because they fit the sense of the location perfectly).

We walked outside and saw the fountain in the courtyard (see the photos of that), and discovered to our intense pleasure that this property also has… a 4th century Byzantine church and monastery being dug out by archaeologists. Since the gate to it was clearly open, there was no one around to forbid us, and we had worked so hard to get there, we decided to go in and check it out. I am attaching a few of the photos, but it was truly amazing as well – nothing like standing in a cave where a crude altar still stands, and trying to imagine a service in that underground sanctuary. We plan on going back to Bethlehem bearing my flashlight, because the tunnels in the caves are unlit but seem to go back fairly far, and we yearn to explore them (hopefully no one will be there the next time we go either 🙂

We left the caves, and walked to the farthest point of Shepard’s Field from the gate, to what is the most peaceful spot I have yet encountered on this Earth. To our left were the ruins of the old church, to our right and behind us was open space that is part of the Field. In front of us was a beautiful panoramic view of the country around us (see the panoramic photo), with a huge mountain, the first actual forest I have seen, and other things. Below us, down a 40 foot sheer drop, was someone’s home and fields of olive trees. Off in the distance was a Jewish settlement. Our location combined with our luck in encountering no other human beings within the Field, meant that upon seeing the view, we experience a good 3 minutes of nearly perfect silence. This, combined with the day’s experiences, was already very peaceful, but then something unexpected and somewhat miraculous (I do knowingly mean to use that term and its intended meaning here) happened. In front of our very eyes, even though we could see very impoverished Palestinian households, a huge fence besides the road to the settlement, the imposing settlement itself with the meanings therein, and all the other strife in the region, two doves flew down from somewhere to our left, and landed amongst the olive trees below us. The meaning here was not lost on me – two renowned symbols of peace in and amongst an embattled and volatile area bode very well in my eyes (they symbolize to me the hope that still exists in a seemingly hopeless conflict). These encounters, plus the overriding sense of the Field itself made my first 3 minutes looking off that cliff the most peaceful time in my whole life. I wish we had a photograph of the doves, but see the attached for the views we had. I look forward to going back here with my camera and getting some more photographs in the future: definitely my favorite place I have been thus far.

We left the Field and went across the street to what looked like a nice gift shop… and it turned out to be THE Gift Shop. The place was huge, and the lady at the front asked us in Italian, German, and Spanish which language we preferred. We explained that English would be best, and so we were given a tour of the store by a man who spoke excellent English. This was no tourist trap – this was at least as nice as higher-end diamond stores in the US, but its products are all hand-produced by local families (tourism is Bethlehem’s lifeblood, after all). Among many other beautiful items, they had a USD $6000 7-foot tall olive wood cross with inlaid mother of pearl; a back room of 250 year old icons for USD $250, and all sorts of wooden carvings and silverwork products. I ended up carefully considering one of these as my possible, later second souvenir: it is an Eastern Christian crucifix, so it has the two extra cross-bars on it (as can be seen here: http://www.catholicstore.com/images/products/20769sm.jpg); it is made of olive wood, inlaid with genuine mother of pearl, and has a small inlaid glass vial at each of the corners of the cross (soil of Bethlehem, incense, Bethlehem olive oil, and white Jerusalem stone). It is a beautiful piece, and when I probably purchase it, I will post an image. We did end up purchasing locally-made wine, for very cheap, at the suggestion of our sales representative.

We took a van back to Manger Square, and walked back to the bus stop. The trip back to Jerusalem was entirely uneventful, save for the border from the West Bank into Israel. Everyone on the bus, including several 80 year old nuns, was forced to get off the bus, which then pulled up and was inspected by one Israeli soldier. We then all had to show our passports, and we able to get back on. It wasn’t entirely awful, but this was one of the better checkpoints: as I understand it, the smaller ones, that are predominantly used by Palestinians and no tourists, are the ones where people get heavily mistreated. As I look forward to more trips into the West Bank, I can only say that I will report what I personally encounter.

Back at my room, I shared the Bethlehem wine with my roommate – he said it was better than all the awful Israeli wine he has had thus far, and I personally think it was better than the stuff they served at the French Embassy back freshman year… all for USD $9.00. I hope this post was enjoyable to read: it is so long because I wanted to do my best and explain why this birthday was the best one of my entire life.

So having recently returned to my room from my outing to the doctor’s office, I figured I might give an account of my experience there, because it is definitely different than receiving medical attention in the US.

I got onto the 19 bus with a street name and address (Diskin #9), the fact that my appointment was at 5:15 with a Dr. Miller, and the knowledge that the 19 was the correct bus to be on. Seems like a pretty good start, but then the bus driver didn’t recognize the name of the street, and neither did the English-speaking gentleman across from me, nor the other people around us whom he queried in Hebrew. This was beginning to look problematic, as one might imagine. Then, as I was attempting to figure out approximately which bus stop might possibly get me close to where I thought the medical center was, the English-speaking man came up to the front and shared with me the best efforts of the passengers around him: “get off at this next stop, turn left and go all the way down, and it should be one of the buildings ahead of you.” Relieved, I thanked both him and the bus driver, and made good my escape.

Wandering down the prescribed street, I saw a couple of firsts: the first Chinese restaurant in Israel I’d seen, the first American real estate building (or Israeli subsidiary of Century mortgages), and the only time I have ever seen a restaurant named… “Restaurant.” I get to the end of that small street, and I am in fact on Diskin; there was much rejoicing. Then, I notice that there are ~17 identical buildings in a row, and the rejoicing is muted to a dull roar. I wander over to the nearest, and find it to be 9A. The next building over is 11, so for a moment I considered defeat, but then I look more closely at the ramp down to the lower level parking garage.

To my luck, Israeli security habits worked in my favor this time. The gentleman sitting outside a well-lit door with a small desk in front of him and bearing the bored facial expression of guards everywhere was a dead give-away that the door he was in front of was no mere maintenance entrance – no, this was in fact a consumer entrance, and possibly “Building” 9 (even though it was underground). I went over, and found out that I had come to the right place: the Jerusalem Medical Center… bunker?? The doctor’s offices were on the “3rd floor,” which actually meant that they were 5 stories underground. An odd setup, to be sure.

I get into the large offices, speak to the correct secretaries, and the doctor comes out to greet me in literally 4 minutes or less. This is a system of universal healthcare, mind you, and my first experience with it seems to derail many sentiments in the US that universal healthcare would only serve to lengthen lines and increase waiting time.

In any event, Dr. Miller turned out to be a kindly old Jewish doctor who asked me what was wrong and why, while simultaneously maintaining a conversation asking where I was from and where I go to school. He mentioned that his son just came back from a semester at Georgetown, and then hit me with a very uncommon sentiment from anyone in polite conversation: he thought that Washington DC would actually look much better in ruins. I was somewhat surprised by this, and asked him to elaborate. He explained that his favorite place he had ever been in the entire world had been Rome, and that DC has the right mix of landscape and monuments/Romanesque structures to look good as a ruined city. I have never heard anyone mention an opinion like this before, but I have to agree in some sense – there are certainly enough monuments and buildings in DC that might in fact look neat as overgrown ruins in the future. We finished up, and to my dismay, I apparently have a flu of some sort with an underlying, secondary bacterial infection. This may explain the head cold, uneasy stomach, feverishness, and lightheaded sensations for most of this past week.

And, of course, since I am not entirely 100% attuned to the way of life here yet, so even after giving my Israeli health insurance number over the phone AND showing them the card at the front desk, I still managed to earnestly ask Dr. Miller “hopefully they take credit card downstairs in the pharmacy?” To this he responded with a statement that wasn’t rude, but certainly made his opinion known: “oh, that’s covered by your health insurance. That’s how we do things in civilized countries.”

Dr. Miller 1
American Health Care System: 0

In any event, I went downstairs, and waited in line for my free medicine. One of the ladies working the desk was speaking in Hebrew with her compatriots, and I was uncertain about our impending inability to communicate. I was then utterly taken aback: not because she clearly knew I wasn’t Israeli, but the fact that she asked me for the prescription in my hand in British-accented English. I asked, and she had come over at age 10 when her parents made Aliah. Still, it is somewhat amazing that she manages to speak completely unaccented Hebrew, and yet retain her British accent.

The trip home was uneventful, and I now have a better sense of another facet of Israeli society. Hopefully the medicine they gave me kicks in by Saturday, because I plan on spending a good 6 hours of my 21st birthday in Bethlehem with some friends (my previously intended trip there did not work out). Should make for some good stories.

First and foremost, I simply must relate some of my Israeli bus system stories. It is important to note that I say Israeli bus system, because there is a separate Arabic bus system that I have not yet made use of (but I will, in order to get to places like Bethlehem). To be entirely honest, I have not yet figured out which story is true: I have heard both that the separate bus systems are partially enforced by some sort of law (which would make this de jure segregation, kind of like many places in the US prior to the Civil Rights movement), but I have also heard that after the Second Intifada (during which some buses were attacked), Israelis became extremely nervous about anyone of Arabic/Muslim appearance on the buses, and so a separate business arose due to the desire of Arabic people to avoid being so terribly uncomfortable/silently accused while on buses (making this situation de facto segregation, but still not alright with me).

Due to the fact that the buses seem to be manual transmissions (like they were in Zambia, actually), the drivers are able to REALLY control just how fast they go around corners, the narrow traffic circles, and throughout the several two-lane parts of the streets in Jerusalem where there is construction (while they could wait for a more appealing space to go through, they simply accelerate up to the speed they desire, and God help the cars coming the opposite way – it is ENTIRELY their responsibility to dodge the incoming bus. Even more odd, the buses that are double length, and have the flexible partition in the middle, are the ones that have seemed to be most intent on getting places on time, no matter the price. I suppose that based on the logic of “my bus will not be hurt by that incoming imported Peugeot,” they are technically correct, but still….

Therefore, I would have to report to you, my audience, that my RTD (Rides To Date) on the Israeli system have been fairly good, quick due to their driving habits, and also very, very different than any other bus I have ever been on. An Orthodox woman was getting on the bus with her young child in a stroller, and the stroller simply would not fit past the seats to let her roll past the bending partition in the middle of the bus. She proceeded to hand her child to the gentleman sitting next to me, with no words passed between them. He held the kid, who was amazingly quiet and comfortable with this, while the mother folder the stroller and got it to where she wanted to stand. She proceeded to take her child back, and went to her possessions. I have certainly never seen anything like that on other forms of public transportation anywhere – most parents are somewhat reticent about their children talking to strangers, much less handing them over for temporary holding purposes.

On to a different review, I share with you now the follow-up to my credit card woes due to the good old Bank Haapolim, over beyond the Student Village dorms. This is the same bank whose ATM ate my card after telling me in English that it would give me shekelim. This is the same bank that I went to a week later, waited in line for 3 different tellers, and was promptly told that I needed my passport and to go to the other, other, other, other teller upon my return. This is the bank which, when I went yesterday with my friend Scott claiming “oh, it will only be a few minutes because they explained to me how to properly take money out” actually ended up taking one hour and 19 minutes. I did actually manage to take shekelim out eventually, but after waiting for my number to be called, I was informed again that I actually had the wrong teller entirely. I went to the newly suggested teller, who explained that she spoke no English. Putting my Ulpan skills to the test, which are meager indeed, I managed to get out “ani rotze shekelim” [I want shekels] while pointing to my passport and credit card. She explained with pointing and more simple Hebrew that actually, the teller next to her was the real one, and she would be back “soon.”

At this point, let me just quickly mention: while I was in Zambia this past summer, the lines to each teller were clearly marked, and although the lines were long, the first and only teller you spoke with helped you with what you needed to get done. They also only made me sign a regular credit slip. The Bank Haapolim, however, made me sign something like 15 pieces of paper in order to really REALLY ensure that I wasn’t trying to cheat them.

This whole experience has started to make some sense to me, because of its close similarity to the manner in which mathematics are taught to younger children. Every level of math that you enroll in is billed as “The End-All Math, Which is Completely and Utterly True.” Then you enroll in 6th grade, and the teacher is like “SURPRISE – THERE ARE NEGATIVE NUMBERS HAHAHAHAHA!!!” The Israeli bank system seems to function like this. They claim that the teller they refer you to is the 100% honest-to-God real actual teller that will help me do what I need to get done. And then after waiting for a period of time, that next teller also pulls the carpet out from underneath you, leaving you cold, alone, helpless, and somewhat dead on the inside 😛

On a different note – while I was familiar with the fact that dried fruit existed before coming to Israel, I was not aware of how absolutely delicious it can taste when done right. I purchased a bunch of dried kiwis, bananas, papaya, and apricots, and all of them are simply great. Some of my best purchases thus far, no question there.

I am also happy to report that after 3 weeks of telephone calls to El Al, I was finally able to speak with one of their managers. To put this concisely and politely, I was “very firm, straightforward, and clear” about my intense dislike of their company, their practices, and their loss of my possessions. It only took me that conversation to be called directly by their Baggage Claims department the next morning, who explained to me every detail of what to send, and to where. I spent the time necessary, assembled and completed what ended up being 17 pages of paperwork (the El Al form, receipts for what they list, and the like), and emailed it to my dad. He faxed it to their New York office, and got a return email assuring him that they received everything. Regardless of how much time/difficulty it will take to get reimbursed for these losses, my dad was actually able to find another one of the same cameras and is preparing to ship it to me, which is quite awesome. Hopefully, this is a true indicator that I will be posting some great photographs to this blog within 2 weeks or less (I hope).

And, as a slight update to the gentleman next door who has the “slightly” annoying laugh that is likely to go off between 10:30am and 2:00am on any given day, here is a list of possible additional metaphors for what this experience is like. I might just record his laughter once my replacement camera comes from home, and post it here for everyone to enjoy 🙂

1) old style police siren only the high pitch
2) REALLY fast electric motor that whirs for a moment then burns out
3) kind of like the Howard Dean screech, but it is prolonged and pulses rather than a two-pitch noise
4) think a seal’s barking, except higher pitched, faster tempo, and it lives next door

So I managed to get sick, in time for my birthday… making this the seventh (7th) consecutive year in a row I have been ill on or around my birthday (Feb. 7). Outstanding. But, that said, this post is meant to provide a bunch of small and partially related updates that cover a variety of topics. Also, I would love people’s feedback on what I have to say. I haven’t ever posted comments to a WordPress blog myself, but some people already have, so it cannot be too difficult or complex to do.

First, an explanation of the title of this post. I recently was better educated on the hows and whys of how my Hebrew education is progressing. Specifically, our weird 2 different teachers/different times every day/different classrooms every day stems from a teacher’s strike at Hebrew University at the end of last year. Since they weren’t teaching, the students of the fall semester had an extra portion of vacation, but it also means that now, all the teachers who do Winter Ulpan for the Rothberg international students are also finishing up courses from a semester ago at the same time. My meaning by the title applies only to the students: whereas right now we have anywhere between 2 and 4.5 hours of class on a given day, the storm of Ulpan approacheth… next week, we have a few solid weeks of 8am-1pm Ulpan every day 😦 I suppose thats healthier for the professors though; no more schizophrenic schedule for them, and a chance to make sure we are learning what they are teaching.

Another weird quirk of the Hebrew language is that while it is similar to French/Spanish (it has gendered words, which affects sentence construction and so forth), the numbers are actually gendered as well. So, telling the teacher that there are “5 bananas” utilizes an entirely different spelling of “five” than if it were a masculine word. I don’t know about you – my favorite way to learn a language is to package as many complexities and exceptions to rules as possible into a textbook, and then enact “Operation: (Learning Hebrew) Trial by Fire.” 🙂

The two Korean students (Ji Hyoung and Kim-mi) in my class are also quite amazing in what they manage to do. They speak only a very small amount of English, and the professors each speak a fair amount of English (and no Korean). So the presupposed common language between teacher and student isn’t all that shared, so my hat is off to them. Any complaints I might have about the difficulty of this language are pretty much invalidated by this anecdote. So the above paragraph is meant to say that I am thoroughly and completely enjoying Ulpan.

On a completely different note, a short update on the political situation here. First of all, I am told that one of the candidates running for Prime Minister actually came and sat on Hebrew University’s campus, and took questions from whichever students came by and had them. This is outstanding in my opinion; although the US Congress is supposedly operated according to the will of the American people, it is probably very, VERY rare for anyone in a national office to come and actually sit down with their constituents and chat. This is partially a function of Israel being so small geographically, but at the same time seems to be a very good indicator that the Israeli people are an integral component of the way some of their governmental decisions work. Another candidate (neither of their names are occurring to me at present) took an entirely different approach. He hired multiple citizen supporters to attach Israeli flags, his image, and speakers blaring campaign advertisements to their vans and trucks, and then they spend a good amount of their day cruising the streets, literally spreading the word. Yet another approach I witnessed was simple banners being held by supporters in small plazas near main roads. In this case, there was another huge difference from the US. There were armed police officers waiting around those citizens, and they were adamant that the furl up their signs/banners at exactly 1:00pm sharp. I know that such supporters sometimes need a permit in the US, but are not usually so carefully monitored by armed, grim looking police officers (this was no radical party either – the people looked like they would fit right in to a suburb in many parts of the US).

I have decided to keep the political and academic updates in this post; the next post will deal with other delectable tidbits of detail.