Shalom Until Next Time

July 9, 2012

A short time ago I turned in my last paper for my University of Haifa classes.  Yes, they were due two weeks after I returned home.  Some universities operate quite differently when it comes to final exams, apparently. But I’m not complaining – it meant that I could make last minute day trips, talk with friends until the wee hours of the morning and squeeze the most out of my last week in Israel instead of having to write my papers while I was there.  One night during finals week, a friend and I even went to Tel Aviv just for dinner – it takes about an hour and a half to get there by bus and train from Haifa.  Now, having officially ended the most incredible semester of my life with the turning in of those papers, I am left with only an aching loneliness for all that Israel meant to me.

Right now, I’m back on campus at UR for the summer doing an internship, where I’ve had the chance to catch up with a few friends.  While the quality of our friendships hasn’t changed, there is an odd distance between us.  I was told it may be hard to adjust back to life at UR, but I didn’t believe it or understand why.  I do now. I find my thoughts wandering while I am in the middle of a conversation, and I am back in Israel, hiking down into a rocky ravine in the north with the snow peaked Mt. Hermon standing guard above me, getting lost time and time again in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, watching a sunset from the beach in Tel Aviv, weaving my way through Haifa’s vegetable market on a crowded Friday afternoon, or just sitting beside a trail somewhere near the Sea of Galilee soaking in the freedom and beauty of the moment.  Israel has left an imprint on me, the depth of which is almost impossible to convey to those who didn’t share the experience with me.

I miss Israel.  I miss the hiking, I miss riding the bus, I miss the endless adventures, I miss my generous roommate, I miss cooking Shabbat dinners in my friend Emma’s apartment, I miss the glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea on my walk to class.  But parts of Israel will always stay with me.  The person I have become because of that semester, who is more confident, more willing to set out on adventures, and hopefully able to understand the world a little better, will remain.

Looking back on my thoughts and feelings at the beginning of this semester, I realize I didn’t come close to imagining what Israel would really be like.  I imagined sites from ancient history, but I didn’t imagine how the land feels old, how every mountain, every ruined city, every coastal town has a story to tell.  I imagined myself learning Hebrew, but I didn’t know about the pieces that would be added to my personality through the new forms of cultural expression I would learn.  I imagined beautiful landscapes, but I didn’t see the colors of the desert sweeping up to meet the sky with a beauty that left me gasping for words.  I expected spiritual fulfillment, but I didn’t grasp the depth of what it would mean to live in the country where the very events that shaped my faith took place.

My four and a half months in Israel were probably the most significant and formative of my entire time in college.  I know I will be looking back and processing the experience in the months and years ahead, and drawing up the memories of moments I will cherish for the rest of my life.

One thing I particularly like about Hebrew is that ‘shalom’ can mean both goodbye and hello.  So, shalom until next time, Israel.

Midterms and Hiking

May 25, 2012

Are the two things that have been occupying most of my time lately.  But really, mostly hiking.  A few weeks ago my friend Bekkah from Ohio and I hiked the Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometer trail that runs from Nazareth to Capernaum.  Because of Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day we had a few extra days off, so we were able to take five days to complete the trail.  Most of the trail runs through small, predominantly Arab villages, farmland and parks.  We took the first two days pretty slowly, taking many long breaks beside fields or on hillsides, pondering life and soaking in the sunshine.

On Friday, however, it was a different story.  We got an early start, which was good, after spending the night in a guest shed at Yarok Oz organic goat farm.  Our first obstacle was a series of farm fields that for some reason were infested with flies.  Now I know why the Biblical plague of flies was, well, a plague.  We finally made it through that area and ended up on the outskirts of Kibbutz Lavi, where we visited their Holocaust Memorial and refilled our water bottles.

We were glad we did, because after that we ended up taking the wrong trail through the kibbutz, and by the time we realized and corrected our mistake we were four hours behind schedule and had spent so much time wandering through fields that we were dangerously low on water.  Also, a blister the size of Texas was forming on my toe.  We ended up cutting out a loop of the trail and heading straight for Moshav Arbel, where we spent the night.  The next day we climbed down Mt. Arbel and stopped for a break at a gas station.  I think we were still feeling the effects of being dehydrated the day before, because once we sat down we didn’t want to move again.  So we took a cab straight to Tiberias, where we stayed in a hostel for the night and then rented bikes and rode from Tiberias to Capernaum on Sunday.  So we ended up finishing most of the trail, just not on foot.

The whole trip was amazing, and quite possibly my favorite time here so far.

I was able to see an incredible variety of landscapes, and because we needed to ask for directions so much, we interacted with a lot of different people along the way.  There was something really meaningful about spending five days without internet, and without trying to communicate with anyone who wasn’t right there with us.  Too much of my life is spent in the virtual world of the internet and my phone, and getting away from all of that to focus on absorbing the experience of the moment was liberating and incredibly rewarding.

The following weekend the International School took us on a hiking trip in the north. the first day we hiked near Sefad, and the second day in and around the Hula Valley.  We saw Banias Falls, which was beautiful.  We slept under the stars at a campsite, which was exhilarating (but incredibly cold), and I woke up to little birds hopping around on my sleeping bag.  I’ve discovered how addicting hiking is, and I think this realization will result in a permanent lifestyle change once I return to the States.  Bekkah and I are even thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail the summer after graduation, I’ll keep you posted on how that goes!

I have actually spent some of the time in the past four weeks doing schoolwork, studying for midterms and writing a couple of papers.  My roommate told me that I was talking in my sleep the other night, and some of what I said was in Hebrew.  So I guess that means I was dreaming at least partly in Hebrew.  This makes me quite excited; I love the idea that the language has sunk into my thoughts enough for this to happen.

Two Unforgettable Weeks

April 23, 2012

Five cities.  Two sunrises.  The Lowest Point on Earth.  One mud bath. Two Passover Seders.  Two rooftop hostel gardens.  A 5 a.m. mountain climb.  Seven long bus rides and one train ride.  Old friends and new friends.  Dancing across Israel.  Life advice from 71 year old Peggy, a dorm mate in a hostel in Jerusalem.  The best hummus in Israel.  The best hot chocolate in the world.  A literary café in Jerusalem. Spying on a wedding reception in Tel Aviv. Burning leavened bread in Be’er Sheva in preparation for Passover.  A shepherd with his flock next to the Sea of Galilee. Coming home to Haifa.

It is hard to know how to begin to describe my spring break.  Just as my friends and I thought as we were planning the trip, where do you begin a whirlwind tour of a country that has so much to offer?  All I know is I am convinced more than ever that studying in Israel was the right decision.  There are moments here that are hard and confusing, such as when I witnessed a young man hissing at an Israeli soldier in the Old City of Jerusalem. At times like these, I wonder what I have gotten myself into.  Who am I to be a cheerful, curious tourist when the reality of the situation in Israel is very serious for so many people?  But it is this confrontation with a human experience so different from my own that makes studying in Israel so incredible.

Another occasion in the past two weeks that showed me the high intensity of life in Israel was when my friend and I had Shabbat dinner with a lovely, generous Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. They had an eighteen year old daughter named Shlomiya who was preparing to begin her army service in a few weeks.  Army service is mandatory in Israel, women serve for two years and men for three.  Observing Shlomiya and the mature, thoughtful way she spoke and acted throughout the evening, I thought of myself when I was eighteen, and how the most important thing on my mind was my next Spanish test.  Constantly living on edge, young Israelis must mature quickly as they are faced with challenges that never crossed the minds of me and my American friends as we were growing up.

I spent the majority of my break with my friends Emma and Heather, fellow international students who attend Brandeis University in the U.S.  I met Heather during the intensive Hebrew Ulpan at Haifa University at the beginning of the semester, but she is now doing a complete Hebrew immersion program at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, during which she is not permitted to speak in English.  To be completely honest, after the first day we spent together I did not have a very good attitude toward the situation.  What was I thinking, spending my spring break with someone I can’t even have a normal conversation with?  But within a couple of days, I was amazed by how Hebrew really started clicking for me.  I had always thought I learned almost exclusively from reading and writing, but I was proved wrong as I learned more from a few days of conversations than I had in weeks of classes.

This semester has held some challenges for Heather.  On top of the difficulties of having to speak Hebrew all the time, several weeks ago she had to run to the bomb shelter in her dorm several times as over ninety rockets were fired at Be’er Sheva from the Gaza Strip over the course of a few days.  She said the Israelis in the shelter with her would sit and count the booms as the Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, destroyed many of the rockets in mid-air.

I accomplished a lot of bucket list items over break – climbing to see the sunrise on the desert mountain fortress of Masada where almost one thousand Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than be taken by the Roman army, floating effortlessly on the buoyant salty water of the Dead Sea, and seeing the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee and set over the Mediterranean in the same day.  Most importantly, though, I had a lot of time for reflection, and when new thoughts to ponder came my way I was able to soak them in, trying to expand my understanding of what it really means to live in Israel.

Sunrise over Masada

Standing on Masada

Sunrise over Sea of Galilee

Mud bath at Dead Sea

Tel Aviv Without a Plan

March 30, 2012

So far this semester, I have only been to Tel Aviv once, only for a weekend.  Many of the international students have gone several times to experience Tel Aviv’s vibrant night life, but that aspect of the city doesn’t have that much appeal to me.  So I hadn’t been aching to go, but when my friend Eva asked if I wanted to join her, I didn’t refuse.

A little background on Eva:  She was born in Hong Kong, lived part of her life in Texas, returned to Hong Kong, and now goes to college in the States.  Last semester, she did a Semester at Sea program, where she lived on a ship that traveled literally all the way around the world.  So, needless to say, she is a seasoned traveler. We chose a hostel with no problem, and planned our bus and train times for the trip. When we arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday, we spent the day hanging out and touring Old Yafo with a couple other international students who were there for the day.  When we woke up Friday morning, I expected to carefully plan our day so that we would be able to visit all the museums and such that would be closed on Saturday.  So I started making suggestions of possible plans.

Me: “So, what do you think of checking out this Bible Museum, or going to the Art Museum to find the street festival the lady at the tourist counter mentioned yesterday?”

Eva: “Meh.  We’ll see what happens.”

Taken aback, I tried a couple more times to suggest plans, but each time, she refused to discuss them with me.  I was rather frustrated.  So we set out walking, really in no particular direction at all.  I wasn’t sure how to handle it at first, and the controlling side of me was rebelling at the thought of aimlessly wandering the city with no plan or goal in mind.  Finally I made up my mind to try my best to forget about a plan, and just go with the flow.  I guess really that was my only option anyway, as Eva had pretty much taken control of the situation.

So we continued wandering, and entirely by accident, we bumped into this really neat crafts market, with some really amazing handcrafted items made by the vendors.  There was a lady who made baskets with rolled up, painted newspaper, there were painters, jewelry makers, you name it.  It was really fun, and we ended up spending a couple hours just wandering around.  Eva also was determined to practice her basic phrases of Hebrew with every shop owner that would give her the time of day, and hilarity ensued.

After the market and a stop for some freshly made carrot juice, we continued our wandering and ended up at the beach, where we ended up hanging out and playing a strange form of tableless beach ping pong that is really popular on the Tel Aviv beach.  Then we explored a little more and met a couple friends for dinner that we had run into the day before.

That is how our weekend progressed, and once I was able to leave my comfort zone of carefully planning every step of the day, it turned out to be one of the most relaxed, enjoyable weekends of touring I have ever had.  The weather was beautiful, and the Tel Avivians were extremely helpful when we were standing on a street corner trying to figure out our map; on multiple occasions  people even stopped to ask us if we needed help.  I think if we had minutely planned the day, I would have been focused on our next destination in my mind, and I would not have noticed all the life going on around me.

Standing on the Edge of the World

March 26, 2012

I’ve never before experienced a feeling quite like I did standing on the rim of a crater in the Negev desert this past weekend.  I felt all at once the vastness of the desert, my own comparative insignificance, and how incredibly blessed I was to be able to witness such amazing beauty.

We started our trip by leaving campus at 5:00 A.M. on Friday morning.  Driving south, we could see the diversity in Israel’s landscape as the lush green fields gave way to sand and rocks.  After a drive of about six hours, our bus left us at a trailhead on the side of the road, and we set off on our 8 kilometer (about 5 mile) hike.  We were about 75 students, plus 4 guides, two guards, and a medic.  At first, the hike was relatively flat and easy, although it was surprising cold and windy, and huge dark clouds threatened to rain on us.  Then we arrived at the edge of the Ramon crater.  The view was beyond spectacular.

We then had to pick our way down the steep descent, through the crater, then climb out the other side.  We all celebrated when we made it up the last stretch.  But alas, our rejoicing was premature – the bus had not been able to make it down the road to meet us, and we were going to have to walk another two miles!  At this point it was only our will that kept us going.  But finally we made it to the bus just as it started to rain. We then drove to the center of another crater, to the Bedouin camp where we would be spending the night.  We all pitched in and made a huge dinner of Israeli salad (chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions), stir fry and rice, hamburgers and hot dogs, and of course, lots of pita.

Sleeping in the tent was quite an experience. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and even though I was cozy in my sleeping bag, I felt how bitterly cold it was outside.  Waking up to the sun casting morning shadows across the crater, we set off on our second day of hiking.  This time we climbed up the edge of the crater and walked along the rim, and a couple of times, we had to climb rock scrambles where one slip could send you rolling down the edge of the crater.  At one point, there were even iron handles drilled into the rock; we knew when we saw those that this cliff meant business.  But we all made it through safe and sound, circling the rim of the crater around until we ended up back at our camp just before sunset.

We then set off for Eilat, where we stayed in a lovely hostel that fed us an amazing hot breakfast the next morning, which we were all incredibly grateful for.  On Sunday, we could either choose to stay at the beach or hike in the Eilat mountains to a peak where you can see Jordan, Egypt, and on a clear day, Saudi Arabia.  I chose the hike, even though I was pretty worn out from the past two days, and I was so glad I did!  Looking out over the Red Sea as it lay nestled in the midst of desert mountains was an exhilarating moment, to say the least.

It is really hard to describe in words how I felt throughout this weekend.  It was definitely the farthest I had ever been pushed physically, and the camaraderie the shared experience built within the international students was really great.  Passing each other on the way to class on Monday morning, we all knew not only how sore we were, but that the endless sweeping desert vistas we had seen together would be printed on our minds for the rest of our lives.

Jerusalem: Steeped in Faith

March 12, 2012

On the 26th of February, I went on the  International School’s tour of Jerusalem.  It was the longest touring day of my entire life.  Leaving campus at 6:30 A.M, we had a beautiful two hour drive through farmland, small cities, and the Judean Hills to Jerusalem.  Approaching Jerusalem, it was hard to believe I was actually going to see the city that has existed for centuries in the imaginations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims as a city of great holiness and significance to their faith.  Jerusalem is the object of songs, poetry, paintings, and religious longing for so many throughout the world, and I now had an opportunity to experience it for myself.

Somehow, though, the reality is quite different from the idealized images and feelings many have come to associate with Jerusalem.  The tension is almost tangible, and as we visited King David’s tomb, the site of Jesus’ Last Supper (a former church that has now been turned into a mosque), the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I realized the extent to which the people and faiths of Jerusalem live intertwined with each other, yet are distanced by the conflict and perpetual state of unsettled feelings between the varied groups within the city.  Jerusalem is a mixture of so many different people, with such widely varied backgrounds.  Israeli soldiers carrying guns walk through the streets across from Catholic nuns in their habits, and groups of American tourists with their huge cameras and enthusiastic tour guides make their way through the vibrant, lively Arab market.  I was struck by how you can often tell what group someone is affiliated with by their clothes or head coverings – Orthodox Jewish married women wear a different head covering than the hijab of Muslim women, and Hassidic Jews in their tall black hats stand out from the other Jewish men wearing kippahs, or smaller head coverings.  The clothes they wear identify the differences they have with each other, making the religious and cultural divisions within the city physically apparent.

In both my Biblical Theology and Literature of the Shoah (Hebrew word referring to the Holocaust) classes, we have discussed the idea of memory, and how it influences and shapes people and nations.  Reflecting back on my time in Jerusalem, I realize that national memory is one of the factors that make Jerusalem so important.  Jews pray at the Western Wall because it is a tangible piece of their national memory. The Wall is all that remains after the destruction of the Second Temple, but it stands as a symbol of what they have survived as a people.  Jerusalem is full of symbols, from the Dome of the Rock standing on the site of Mohammed’s Night Journey as recounted in Muslim tradition, to the Mount of Olives, turned white by the graves of Jews awaiting the Messiah’s arrival.  Made up of physical locations that past events or promises for the future have made crucially important to so many, it is no wonder Jerusalem is one of the most fought over places on earth, historically and today.

Sometime before this semester ends, I want to visit Jerusalem again, but this time to take it slower, letting the experience sink in more deeply.  I need a fuller picture in order to begin to understand the city.  There was a lot I didn’t see, and a lot I need to see again before I can begin to process the full significance of what Jerusalem stands for.


February 24, 2012

In Hebrew, there is no “to be” verb in the present tense.  I studying Hebrew.  Kind of awkward, right?  My brain always wants to stick another word in there, forcing the sentence to comply with my English-centered demands.  I’ve realized I am expecting more than just the language of Israel to fit my idea of what is ‘right’.  I want the washing machines to wash my clothes like they do in the US, I want my salad dressing to taste like it does in the US, I want to just walk in and out of a shop on the street without being hassled by the overbearing shop owner, I want people to wait politely in line at the bus stop instead of always shoving their way to the front. But there is something really amazing about realizing the rest of the world doesn’t do everything exactly like you do.  And when you can get over trying to find the American equivalent for everything, you allow yourself to truly become a part of your host culture.

Last weekend, two friends and I traveled to Sefad, a small, heavily religious city a couple hours by bus from Haifa.  Winter probably isn’t the best time to travel to Sefad — it was cold and rainy most of the time, and it even snowed!  The owner of the hostel we stayed in was really excited about the snow, so it was hard to be annoyed at it for spoiling our plans.  Israel really treasures its water, so I have really tried to have a good attitude about the copious amount of rain we have gotten the past couple of weeks.  Despite the weather, we managed to have a nice, cozy time, except for two hours on Saturday when our power was out due to the rain. Sefad is beautiful, and I was amazed by the height and beauty of the mountains surrounding the city.

When I arrived back in Haifa late Sunday afternoon, just as the sun was setting, I realized how much I have come to love this city.  I feel like I have really become a part of Haifa’s diverse, beautiful community.  I don’t miss UR like I thought I would.  There is so much to discover and accomplish here, both in my language learning ambitions and in growing as a person.  The surreal feeling I have had since arriving here has started to fade, and in its place has grown a sense of belonging and permanence.   For a country whose right to exist is constantly questioned by the international community, and one that seems to stand perpetually on the verge of international conflict, life in Haifa is surprisingly rhythmic and normal.  Falling into that rhythm has been one of the greatest things I have ever experienced.

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