Sunday, September 30, 2007

Israel Attacked Syria! Maybe

Since last summer’s war with Hezbollah, both Israel and Syria have been building up both offensive and defensive forces in the border area. This is the Golan Heights, a traditional part of Israel that was Syrian territory until the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel took hold (‘occupied’ is the common misnomer) of the Heights. Syria and Israel never signed peace treaties, and are technically still at war. Tensions tend to ebb and flow, but since 2006 these two countries have privately devoted military attention to their enemy, while publicly reassuring each other that they want no war.

In the past few months there has been an intense tank and anti-aircraft buildup on both sides of the border. War maneuvers have been held, by Israel and Syria, which has led both sides to engage in fairly ferocious threats. “If you dare attack us, you will face the repercussions.”

So to many peoples’ surprise, including my own, Israel either inadvertently or on purpose entered Syrian airspace. The problem is that neither side will truly discuss what happened. A Syrian source claims that Israeli planes entered Syria, were fired on by anti-aircraft bunkers, and in turn the jets dropped munitions and fuel tanks in order to make a hasty retreat. Nothing has come from the Israeli side, considering the government has leveled a media blackout on the issue. American sources have claimed that Israeli jets entered Syria and destroyed nuclear weapons or material from North Korea, and potentially even killing North Koreans in Syria who were working on Syrian nuclear installations. Again, the problem is that no one is talking forthright.

Even an Economist article* claims that “Syria's own muted response and failure to retaliate suggest that whatever happened, it was most embarrassing.” Whatever happened, Israel invaded Syrian territory, which Syria could quite easily have declared an act of war, and retaliated against Israel. Syria could have easily entered the U.N., given even cloudy proof of Israeli violations, and demanded either extreme sanctions in order to reclaim the Golan Heights (in light of Israeli ‘irresponsibility in the region’) or threatened a military retaliation for this violation.

Instead, only until recently were the Syrians able to muster an official response on the entire issue.* Vice President Farouk Shara said on Saturday that Syria doesn’t want war with Israel in “the distant or near future.” Instead, he says all these reports of Israeli air raids striking targets is simply part of a “psychological campaign” against Syria, aimed at rebuilding confidence in the Israeli army. Essentially, he is denying that anything happened at all besides a chance Israeli transgression of airspace.

Foolish! How foolish could he be, and how simple does he think his audience is? Think about this: somehow, the most highly respected fighter pilots in the world took some of the most advanced fighter jets in the world, and invaded deep enough within a grave enemy’s territory to incur anti-aircraft shelling, thus requiring a dumping of fuel in order to speed away. Does that really make sense? With this much on the line, with war only 1 mistake away, could you really think that Israel is stupid enough to accidentally invade Syrian airspace?

I’ll tell you with likelihood what really happened. This is the only good possibility, the only thing that makes sense considering the near silence from both sides on what really happened. The first thing to remember is that countries are much like businesses. They know that the longer they wait until after they make a mistake the more guilty they will look. If McDonald’s sells a poisoned hamburger, you can bet within a day they will release some type of conciliatory statement. Likewise, Israel learned its lesson on public relations in the past few years, and if an accident indeed happened, they would have publicly admonished the mistaken pilots.

Consequently, there really is one situation that I can imagine. Israel had intelligence that some type of weapon was in Syria, which was meant for Israel. This could be the nuclear material from North Korea, which NK promised to get rid of as per American demands. That possibility is bolstered by the one harsh international response to the supposed attack, coming from outside the Middle East – North Korea. Also, it is quite likely the target was missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, probably coming from Iran, as sold by Russia. No matter whose weapons they were, nuclear or traditional, the point is that Israel either destroyed them or now has solid proof of their existence. Both of these possibilities are shaming enough to keep Syria quiet in order to maintain its domestic and international image of strength. If the weapons were destroyed, declaring this would make Syria seem weak. If Israel only took photographs and pictures of the weapons, then it is damning enough for Syria in international legal terms to take away all bargaining power for regaining the Golan Heights. Just imagine: “Ok, yes, we did funnel weapons to Hezbollah, which would be targeted to kill civilians in northern Israel…but you guys are occupying our territory!”

So why then has Israel kept so quiet, especially if this mission was so successful? That's because, in my opinion, Israel isn't interested in the reprimand by the international community that would follow a report that she invaded a sovereign state in this tumultuous region, and then proceeded to even bomb something! No matter that the target was an illegal missile cache; it is an act of war during a time of international pressure for peace! Israel so far has gotten away scott-free with this ‘mission,’ even if it was just an aerial surveillance raid. She has no need to say anything. Syria is quiet, Hezbollah is quiet, only speculation is flying. Analogous would be a boy standing up to a bully: the boy is bullied every day for years, all for the bully’s self-esteem. One day the boy stands up to the bully, maybe even punches him in the nose, and the bully runs off. However, no one saw anything happen, so in a way both sides win. The bully can remain ‘tough,’ and the boy can avoid the inevitable trouble for striking someone, all while retaining his superiority over the bully. In a way, both sides retain something valuable. In the real world case, Israel retains its general security from Hezbollah missiles, and Syria retains its claims to the Golan Heights (if they were to claim the attack happened, it might get out what they had there, and the international community may have lost faith in the Syrian government and her claims).

This whole situation is one of the best things to have happened in years. The real potential for war has been adverted. The decision now, at least on Israel’s part, has to be one of reserved threat. In essence it must be made clear, in private to Syria, that whenever we see these weapons in Syria we will find a way to destroy them before they get to our enemies. But, this cannot be a general threat against Syria. It must be a threat against Syria funneling weapons, because otherwise Israel has no claims against Syria. Let’s say this: we will hold the Golan in return for not bombing you if you violate this agreement. Not in Syria’s interest…but neither is getting bombed.

Also, it could be one of the worst things to happen in years. Even if there was no attack whatsoever, as the most recent statements from Syria are saying, the whole thing stinks of aggression – truthfully on both sides. One side may be self-defense, namely that of Israel’s, but I wonder what would have happened if they had videos and photos and brought that before the U.N. Probably nothing, but it’s worth a shot.

And now Syria is very seriously claiming nothing happened. Typically what happens with Israel and her neighbors is that Israel sneezes and the Arab states claim Israeli belligerence. So why now are they, in a way, coming so strongly to Israel’s defense? That nothing happened at all. That Israel did nothing. Why not say, “Poor us, unite against Israel!”

It all just reeks of something not normal: something is being covered up.

*The Economist, Sep. 13th, 2007. “Mysterious Happenings”

*The Jerusalem Post, Sep. 29th, 2007. “Syria doesn’t want war with Israel”

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Importance of American TV in Israel

I had a great past two days. A good friend of mine, an American-Israeli, is back in Israel from New York for Succot and a friend’s wedding. Her mother, step-father, and sister still live here, all of whom I know, so I went to their house for all the meals (about 5 or so) over the past few days. Her step-father is a British-Israeli doctor, so his apartment is a large, comfortable place in a quiet neighborhood. It’s about a 45 minute walk, which I did about 4 times in two days. Let’s just say my legs are a bit stiff, but it’s a nice feeling.

I don’t really have any super-close friends here, considering this friend now lives in New York (hopefully just for another year or so), so it can get kinda lonely. There is a difference between having a very close friend living nearby versus a bunch of good acquaintances. This is a family to go to, a family that apparently really likes me, and the importance of a comfortable second home is beyond words. Most of us, living near or with our family or around close friends, tend to forget how social the human being is. We certainly are not solitary creatures. Never forget the importance of our ‘wolf-packs.’

It will be a shame when this friend leaves. Luckily, she has a sister that lives here, and it was made clear that she wants me to visit for more Shabbats when she is home. Having family dinners with your mom and step-father, alone, is not really the best way to spend a Friday and Saturday. Everyone needs a bit of company, even when you are with your family!

On another note, Succot is still in session, but we have begun the ‘Chol HaMoed,’ essentially the ‘minor festival days.’ What this means for Jerusalem is that the Old City is packed, all day and night, with tourists and Israelis of all types (religious and secular). On my walk to my apartment I had to stumble over Americans, French, Russians, 10 year olds pushing strollers, and the various Arabs ogling all the improperly dressed teenage girls.

Apparently Mea Shearim, a super-religious neighborhood of Jerusalem, is filled with dancing ultra-orthodox all week. This holiday is a joyous one, meant to be celebrated with lavish meals and alcohol and dancing, and so like everything else the ‘Charedim’ push it to the max. I should really get out there and see if it’s as crazy as they say.

Oh, and I got to watch about two hours of American tv tonight. You’d be surprised how much you miss the simple things, even after one month! And I don’t even watch much tv in America. At my apartment in Williamsburg, during school, I didn’t have tv. Nothing lightens your load like watching Steve Carrel make a fool of himself in The Office.

* Doctors here actually don’t make much money, or at least anything like in America. Supposedly Israel has the highest rate of doctors per capita. Nonetheless, a doctor in any country is going to make more than the average, even in a quasi-Socialist health care system like Israel’s.

Listen up! Tomorrow, if you read this blog, you will hear my thoughts on the current Syrian-Israeli conflict. Remember, I got my degree in Government (political science), so this is an educated opinion. Well, it's worth about as much as I put in to my studies, which was late night cramming sessions the day before tests and papers....but presumably you already guessed that much. (Just kidding, I worked very hard....)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Jerusalem Nights

Jerusalem is abuzz with the holidays, which are still raging strong with the festive celebration of Sukkot. Everyone is in love with this holiday, a commemoration of the sheltering of the Israelites during the 40 years of wandering in the desert with Moses. In addition, it coincides with the beginning of the rainy season here in Israel (there is a definite dry season, and then a definite rainy season – a Mediterranean climate). This is definitely a happy time, with everyone sleeping and eating in a Sukkah, basically a shelter with palm tops (i.e.- a holy shed).

The problem is that Sukkot is my least favorite Jewish holiday. I never felt connected to it. There is something too involved with it. You are supposed to eat every meal, sleep every night, literally ‘dwell’ in the Sukkah. It’s just not my thing. I really never even understood the meaning of Sukkah, whether it was a celebration of sheltering or celebrating the all-important rain. It’s just not my bag of tea.

Thankfully, really truthfully thankfully, one of my good friends is back in Israel for a couple weeks. She is an American-Israeli, and her sisters and mom and step-father live here in Jerusalem, all of whom I know. So, I’m eating all my meals at their comfortable apartment in one of the higher-class areas of Jerusalem. I feel relaxed there.

Last night after the first night of Sukkot my friend, her sister, and myself went out into town to have a drink. Jerusalem has a very condense, lively bar scene, but the problem is that it is often packed with 18 year old ‘freckas and arsim.’ Without giving a definition of those terms, I’ll just tell you that they are loud, physical, and generally have the same manners as gorillas.

Eventually a new friend of mine that I met on the plane over here called me, and she joined up with us at a tucked away, age-restricted bar. Eventually the group split up, with me and my new friend going to a bar owned by Shlomke, a 30 some year old guy who is obsessed with her and her ex-IDF boyfriend.

This is a good time to introduce the Israeli term ‘proteckzia.’ Basically, this is pulling strings for people, generally used in the army. This means that a guy that knows a big-dog in the army can easily get into a prestigious or desired unit, no questions asked. I feel that Shlomke is the kind of person that has proteckzia to get people what they want. He owns a very successful bar, which we sat at with him, surrounded by roaring teens. Every 20 minutes or so he would grab one of his waitresses, say a few words, and then they would bring us liquor. I was planning on having a beer, but it’s kind of hard to say no to a Godfather character. It really was an impressive scene, and I had the distinct impression that this guy could get me into the unit I want in the army.

During the course of the night I met a few Americans that have done the same thing I have, moving to Israel. They were friends of my new friend, Bethany. It’s really a lot more popular thing than most people in America realize. Jerusalem itself has quickly become an ‘Anglo’ city, where the most common language is English. Anyway, all these young Americans seem to have pretty good jobs.

Bethany just got a job as a glorified secretary, some type of administrative assistant or something, making the equivalent of $35,000 or so in America (which is great for the level of the work, and that she is 22 with no one to support but herself). Levy, another kid I met, is making the equivalent of $45-50,000. And so on, and so on.

I’m living off savings, a pretty generous grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh, and my ‘sal klitah,’ or absorption basket (read: welfare). I’m living and eating for free, but not really doing what I want to be doing. Hearing these kids, who all have their own apartments and jobs and lives, I feel like a blob. Supposedly learning Torah all day is more important than working for the man all day, but I’m at the point in my life where I want to work for the man. I don’t care who I work for, I just want to apply what I’ve learned, instead of sitting and learning even more. Granted, I do love learning about the Jewish traditons, but I don’t think that I need to read books and listen to lectures from 9am to 7pm for more than another few months.

I am the adventurous type, the guy at 19 that backpacked America for 2 months all alone (by bus), went to Israel for 2.5 months all alone knowing no one and nothing first-hand about Israel, spent 9 months in Israel studying and living, and now I have become an Israeli citizen, with no family and very few friends here. It’s amazing how far a person will go to pursue an ideology. It’s amazing that with a simple desire people can push themselves so far.

But equally amazing, and certainly more distressing, is how powerfully immobilizing comfort can be. I have a bed, an apartment (granted with many others, but my room is private), free food, a beautiful place with A/C where I study all day, and generally kind people all around. I would like to find a job and have my own place and work all day… but it’s just not going to happen for a while. It’s hard to turn down some free and comfortable.

If you thought I had it all figured out, you’re wrong! I have some solid plans though for January – and hopefully a job will be in the sights around then. For now I’m just another moocher, livin’ on the dole.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Traveling the Mediterranean Coast of Israel

After Yom Kippur (an adventure unto itself), we have a few days off until the next holiday starts. This is the “High Holy Holidays” season, an expression you may have heard before, and as such it is sort of a time-off from class work. Taking advantage of this ‘bein-zman,’ some of the guys I’ve met here decided to take a trip somewhere in the country. After some swaying on the issue, we decided to go somewhere up north.

When I met up with the two guys I am friends with, I was a little unhappy to find out that we would be traveling in a group of about 8 or 10. I’ve backpacked America by myself, traveled to Israel and lived by myself, and generally tend to do things in smaller groups, or alone. The problems inherent in a large group manifested themselves instantly. Not only were there two schools of thought on where to go, there was dissension on how to get there and what to do once there. Seriously, I had a headache within 10 minutes.

Eventually we made our way to a bus stop, I argued with a know-it-all over what bus goes to the central bus station, and finally got the right bus. In the chaos of the bus station we all eventually lost each other, except my two friends and I who stuck together. Instantly freed of the dead, or extra, weight, we quickly got our tickets to Haifa. From there we would catch a train up to Nahariya, a small coastal town very close to the Lebanon border. The rides were comfortable and uneventful, especially the train, and I was feeling somewhat giddy about being a part of the country. Living in Jerusalem, amidst thousands of native English speakers (Anglos), it is hard to remember that this land is a miracle. We rode past hundreds of farms, not one tract of space wasted (unless laying fallow so it can produce even more the next year), literally growing fruit from rocky soil. Any other place in the world the inhabitants would have given up, but not here. The agricultural system is truly a miracle. I’ll have to write about it sometime.

Anyway. We made it to Nahariya, left the train station, and immediately felt 100% lost. All three of us were disoriented, not sure which way was up or down. I had never been to this part of Israel, one of the few remaining zones largely untraveled, and so I felt just as adrift. We were total tourists. There is a certain confidence factor someone has to have if they want to try to fit in as a new citizen of another country, a certain desire to blend in. But, in our present state, we were anything but Israeli, and anything but blending in. Sometimes you have to feel out of place, however, to find your place in the end. How could you ever know where you want to go if you only know where you’ve been?

Throwing appearance to the wind, we trudged on with our packs, bags of food from Jerusalem, and looked for the beach. With only what must be experience on the part of the Israeli tourism bureau we found a tourist office. Now armed with maps, we looked even more the part of the summer transients! The map was quite good, and even included most of the potential lodging options. Too bad there wasn’t a hostel, not even one, because we were forced to fork over a bit more money than at least I wanted to spend. We found that 100 Shekelim was going to be the cheapest, double what I was hoping, and with that we walked towards a potential ‘hotel.’

I use the word hotel quite lightly. Anyone familiar with the cheap motel system in America would be accustomed to the odds of finding a place that is not only clean, but also quiet, comfortable, safe, and aesthetically pleasing. I’m still young enough that I don’t care where I stay, as long as it is safe and quiet. My traveling buddies weren’t in the same boat.

The first place we went was a throwback to whenever it was built, not because the owner likes pre-1980’s style, but only because that was the last time it was ever updated! Still, it had 3 beds, a shower, a toilet, and an air conditioning unit. Good enough, 100 shekels, and the guy working the place was pretty nice. We talked for a few minutes while my friends had a furtive conversation about the room. Turns out that the guy was born and raised for 6 years in Germany, where his parents fled the war but then returned afterwards to live in an American compound. He was a character, with a voice so cracked by years of cigarettes that I imagined smoke would escape from his mouth and ears at any minute. It was good Hebrew practice, but I felt mildly bad chatting him up as I more and more realized my friends would want to move on.

We decided to take a look at another place which was advertised as having a pool and was generally more upscale. As we walked with maps in hand, we ran along a little place called Motel Ariele (Malon Ariele). I was actually the most hesitant in the group about approaching the place, as it looked like a tiny, private, and somewhat longer-term place. Something about a large, sterile hotel is more inviting to me. – It screams “peace, quiet, undisturbed, sterile.” As we walked into the front gate, through the massively overgrown ferns and other flora/fauna, I greeted a very old man sitting at a table watching television. He told me to wait, and buzzed for the owner. And here she comes.

Here comes ‘Grandma,’ which my friend Joey eventually started to call her. Right away I could tell she was Eastern European, as are many people in this region, but also she beamed a certain courtesy. Stereotypically, people in this country are rushed, aggressive, and abrasive. She smiled warmly, genuinely, and started speaking to me in English. I refused to speak in English, and we began a half-Hebrew half-English conversation. Eventually she showed us through her office, which is also her home, into a small courtyard again overgrown with all types of green plants and flowers, and up the stairs to a quaint 3 bed room. It had a bathroom, air conditioning…and 3 beds. 100 Shekels. We took it, especially because of Grandma.

Grandma and I had an hour-long 90% Hebrew conversation on everything from the potential war with Syria, her home country of Romania (and the terrible pogroms of Jews that she had to flee), young Israelis, my life, her family and grandchildren, the Israeli mafia, drugs… Everything. She even told me where to get drugs, a suggestion I laughed off with a certain curiosity as to how a nearly 70 year old woman could even bring the topic up. It’s just a different culture here, I suppose. Maybe she wanted me to bring some back for her?

We left the hotel wanting to go find some dinner and have a walk on the coast. Israeli coastal cities tend to have a promenade, or walkway, called a ‘tayelet.’ The one in Tel Aviv is a massive thing, something of a pedestrian thoroughfare. The one in Nahariya is a small wooden boardwalk, but it is infinitely more peaceful and personable. Strewn along the sides are outdoor bars and restaurants, complete with lush leather sofas or Caribbean style wicker chairs and couches with pristine white cushions. All these bars were playing some type of quiet music, like the Bob Marley marathon at the ‘Papaya Beach’ establishment. At the end of the wooden walkway started a stone-concrete mixed footpath along the beach. To our west was the unending Mediterranean, aptly called The Great Sea in Hebrew, and to the east were posh houses with panoramic windows looking out onto the water. Because Haifa juts out into the Mediterranean, we could easily see the outline of the Carmel Mountain and the vast northern side of Haifa, alit with yellow lights and flashing harbor bulbs.

My friends took a dip in the ocean, which was about 80 degrees, and I sat on the boardwalk attempting to meditate on the glory of the ocean. It’s not everyday that one can feel so much at peace, especially when you are a country boy perpetually living in cities. I drank it in. But like all good things, we had to move on to find some food. Not wanting to gorge on what would inevitably be highly marked up common bar-food (not true, most of these places are very nice restaurants also), we made our way back to downtown and found a kosher restaurant. There is an attached picture of our cheese-stuffed mushrooms in a cream sauce ‘starter,’ and a huge stir-fry salmon salad. We were stuffed.

To walk off the waddling we decided to explore around a bit, see what Nahariya had to offer. Quickly we realized that it wasn’t the imposing city it seemed at first. In fact, it was pretty much a resort town packed with Russians and unbelievably gorgeous 20 some year olds. The main road was unnaturally quiet for the amount of bars and restaurants jammed into every block. After a while we tried to find a liquor store, just to get some fun into our break, but it took nearly 30 minutes to locate anywhere with more than 5 things available.

As fate would have it, my sense of curiosity was a blessing. Nearing the end of the main drag, I looked down a side street and saw what looked like a bit of life. I saw people sitting by a store (a common Israeli corner store where people sit and talk or watch soccer/basketball), and another larger store next to them. It turned out the other store was a big falafel shop. Dismayed, I glanced further down the alley, and saw a large car dealership or body shop for GM Israel. I told my friend (one was on the phone) that I wanted to just look at the dealership really quick. He assented, so we walked, and as I reached it I looked one block down and…voila, a grocery store! We couldn’t find a grocery store all day! We wanted beer or liquor and food that wasn’t marked up 100% for tourists, and here it was, a large Russian supermarket! Oh, and how it was Russian.

Walking past the security guard as I said quite plainly ‘hello!’ and quite plainly being ignored, I pushed through the turnstiles and entered a veritable paradise. As with all Israeli supermarkets, fresh-everything was on display. Meat was hanging from terrifying hooks, all types of cheeses were soaking in tubs behind displays, vegetable dishes like hummus, tehina, matbucha (a type of salsa), babaghanush, and so on were sitting perfectly undisturbed in their refrigerated exhibits. I don’t know why I got so excited, but I always do with the unbelievable reality that people can have such a rich life in such an oppressed area of the world. I guess it’d be like finding a Whole Foods Market in the middle of backwoods Alabama (it’s just a nice surprise).

Being that the store was Russian, the only thing you heard was Russian, from the workers to the few patrons. Not to stereotype, but as I looked for alcohol I slowly realized that more than 50% was vodka. Exactly what I wanted. We weren’t trying to get drunk, we just wanted something to sip while enjoying the beach. Nothing wrong with that.

After a while we found ourselves back at the beach, sitting on a bench, reminiscing and just generally being alive. Some friends of David from New York, one of my friends, walked by with backpacking packs on, and they randomly just happened to see each other. Apparently they almost got stuck out on a hiking trail at night, but luckily found their way to the road, and then had to hitch-hike into town. Not the smartest thing to do, but it worked out for them. It was just another instance of Israel being a part of that ‘it’s a small world’ coincidence.

Eventually we settled in on some couches at one of the bars, Papaya Beach, and ordered a round of Israeli beer. I was sitting with my back to the north, looking southward at the outline of an illuminated Haifa. It was hard to imagine that I was actually going to live in Haifa, until the very last minute before I left America. Those plans changed overnight and put me back in my yeshiva, a place I was very hesitant to go back to. But, as I had told myself to no avail for the weeks before, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Just imagine if I would have actually moved to Haifa. Chances are I wouldn’t have met these two great people I was with, and I wouldn’t be sitting at that table, looking at the purple sky and yellow harbor, listening to the lapping ocean, and smelling the salty atmosphere. How lucky we are that everything always works out, in some way, with no visible or clear warning! So what if your plans are ruined? Even the worst turn of events has a positive outcome.

After a long while we decide to head back, but not 10 feet out of the bar did the extraordinarily stunning hostess of the next bar distracted us. I’m trying to not use immature expressions here. Let’s just say making this woman smile was worth the extra hour (it was a slow night). As soon as we sat down my friend started talking to two girls sitting by themselves, and in an instant we were all sitting together. Two hours later my head really hurt from all the beer, Hebrew, and blue lights tinting everything neon. It’s funny how a split-second decision can turn into an entire night. What was going to be a 30 minute beer turned into a two hour episode. Eventually we did make it home, only to get a few hours of sleep before we arose for a big day. On the walk home we found it funny how we could have ever felt lost in this small, warm coastal town.

We took a sherut, or a shared taxi-bus, for the 10 kilometer ride to Akko (Acre). Akko is an ancient port city between Haifa and Nahariya. It was once the headquarters of the Crusaders (for a couple centuries), and because of this military presence it has a high walled Old City; cavernous, indiscernible tunnels underground, forts, jails, and so on. Interestingly, this was also the site of Napoleon’s defeat to Ahmed al-Jazzar in 1799 during his Egypt-Palestine campaign.

We had come to Akko because David, my friend, had randomly met a guy in Old City Jerusalem the day before that offered to take us sailing. Sailing. When David told me that I refused to get excited, mainly because I hear these types of promises all the time and never see them carried out. Not that I hear of sailing offers for free in Jerusalem, but in general, in this world, many things are said and many of those things never happen. But, each passing event made the promise more and more real.

We arrived in Akko, got lost again, but the guy that David met came in his car and picked us up. Sailing was certainly going to happen. Riding through the Old City, dodging Arab children and honking at the random van stopping to chat with a pedestrian, finally we made it to the port. This was really something. Not only were we getting onto a fairly nice sailboat, we were departing from a Biblical city. I personally felt like Jonah.

In case you’re wondering how all this happened, here’s the short of it: David was talking to someone in an open area of the Old City about where we were going to go for the break, this guy overheard him and invited him to sail on his friend’s boat, David got his number, and we met up at the predetermined time. The owner of the boat was Joel, a 69 year retired orthopedic surgeon who has lived in Israel for 30 years. He wanted guys to come along because you can’t just properly sail without a small crew.

I’d never been sailing before, and the waves were incredibly tall north of the port. I wasn’t scared, but I would have liked to have a few horsepower with all those waves throwing us around. Luckily the wind was really blowing. I took half a Dramamine before setting out, just in case I got sea-sick (the mother of the guy David met was there and had them). Well, the ridiculous scenery was ruined for the first hour and a half, as I was sitting in the stern turning green. The whole time I had to gut it out, stick my eyes on the coast, and try from burping up the beer from the night before. I was definitely dehydrated from the night before, and hadn’t had breakfast, so the only thing that kept me from leaning overboard was that there wasn’t anything to throw up!

I felt pretty stupid sitting there, while everyone seemed to be having a great time, wanting to puke my guts out. I was literally in a cold sweat, totally absorbed with my own misery. Next thing I know David is leaning overboard. Joel told me that splashing me with water would help a bit, so I leaned over the railing as he dumped a bucket on my head. It worked for 2 minutes. Eventually the opinion came up that sitting up on the bow helps a lot, and the guy that David met was sitting up there cause he was feeling sick too. I quickly glanced to the bow, not trying to divert my attention from the fixed shore, and was daunted by the narrow walkway and endless sea ahead. I said thanks but no thanks. The woman persisted for 5 minutes, and one thing she said really sent me packing: It couldn’t hurt! I did feel like death itself, so I gave it a chance.

5 minutes later I felt like a million bucks. Well, I felt extremely weak on account of the lack of sleep and food, but compared to how I felt! And then I was able to appreciate the amazing coast we were sailing. I’ve sailed the Mediterranean! We went up to Rosh HaNikra, which is literally on the border of Lebanon, and then sailed all the way into the private ‘yacht club’ of Haifa. There were some million-dollar sailboats in there.

We were out for 6 hours. David never got better. I had him come up to the front with me, because I felt so good up there compared to the stern. Alas, he still felt terrible, and ended up puking about 3 times, once just about 15 minutes before we docked at the end of the day. We were out from about 11 until 5. The ironic part was that he was the one that made it happen, he was the one that kept talking about it with all the guys that were supposed to come with us! And then he was the only one that didn’t have any fun. The thing about being truly sea-sick is that it is all-absorbing. There is nothing on your mind except your own wretchedness.

Here are a few pictures. To be honest it was really hard to take pictures, especially because I had to help sail while we were at the best picture taking places (the ports) and because I was terrified of either dropping my camera into the sea or of getting disoriented while looking at the screen and falling into the sea. I did get some pictures of the yacht club marina, a few of the cargo ships (many are from Turkey, the second best economy in the Middle East behind Saudi Arabia), north-Haifa and the port, and some crappy ones of the Akko port. The waves were too strong to take a steady picture, and I didn’t have time. Sailing is a lot of work… I think I prefer motorboats.

Certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Or at least a once in a lifetime turn of events. I could easily go sailing anytime Joel goes out, because it wasn’t like he was doing us a favor. We were his crew, and you can’t just go out by yourself. He said it many times over. I doubt I’ll go out again, but I would definitely enjoy it if it did happen again.

Joey on the left, David on the right
1/50th of the vodka
Shower, brush your teeth, and sit on the toilet all at once
Timber headed to wood-starved England.
How Turkish people spell stuff.
Looking back at Haifa
A very fake smile, still felt a bit sick.
The only place I could sit and not be sick
This is sea-sick
Akko walls
Akko marina

From our dock

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tourism in Israel, Jerusalem's Old City - YIKES

For about a week before Rosh HaShanah, traditional Jews across the world started saying “Selichot,” which are heartfelt supplicatory prayers. These supplications are in preparation for asking forgiveness for transgressions committed during the year, with the culmination on Yom Kippur. Those that take such things seriously, which feels like just about all of Jerusalem, say these prayers with great alacrity as soon as the ‘Jewish day’ begins.

Consequently, the Old City of Jerusalem, the focal point of all religious Jews in the entire world, has been packed to full capacity every night of the past couple weeks. Everyone from the ‘ultra-orthodox’ that live in the religious neighborhood of Mea Shaarim to middle-class Israelis from outside Tel Aviv to Christian pilgrims from Russia have swarmed the banks, so to say, swelling the high stone walls beyond capacity. From the perspective of a person that actually lives in the Old City, and from the lens of simply being able to walk freely to reach my apartment, this influx can be quite obnoxious. Trying to squeeze past 50 Ukrainians with snapping cameras, every night, makes a person a bit short-tempered.

But from the perspective of a person that relishes the importance of Jerusalem, of the holiest city, of all the nations of the world focusing on ‘the eye of the universe,’ these tourists and pilgrims alike are a blessing. Having these Jews and non-Jews come to Jerusalem is nothing more than a confirmation of the Jewish people, Jerusalem, and the centrality of those two living in Israel. What I’m trying to say is that tourism is heartwarming for a beleaguered nation. The spiritual, emotional, and economic boost that these people bring helps to swallow the traffic a bit easier.

The destination for all these people is the Western Wall, a supporting wall of the Temple Mount. Jews believe that G-d is everywhere, he is omnipresent. However, we also believe he listens more closely to those in Israel, and within Israel to Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem to Har Habayit, or the Temple Mount. Naturally it follows that the Western Wall, part of this Mount, is a pilgrimage point, especially during holidays. These prayers, the Selichot, following the Jewish belief, will be heard with great compassion and forgiveness at the Wall.

Due to the belief in the centrality of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall Plaza has been packed every single night. There has been probably over a thousand people packed into a relatively small area, crying out, singing in prayer, swaying with their emotions, all the while experiencing self-evaluation next to thousands doing the same. It’s really a very moving scene, regardless how you feel about your own personal self-evaluation. Attached is a picture of the crowd. This one is high quality, so you can click on it, zoom in, and really get a grasp on how many people are down there! Oh, and this view is from my yeshiva (it may be the best view in the world).

Earlier I posted a few pictures of the courtyard adjacent to my apartment. The past two weeks this area has been simply packed with Israeli school groups taking field trips to the Old City. They have had speeches here, theatrical demonstrations of Biblical-era Jerusalemites (just like you see a mock Patrick Henry at Colonial Williamsburg), and most recently a concert. The concert is what is in this picture, and all these people seemed to be there half the night. Needless to say, I haven’t gotten much sleep lately.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Aliyah Red Tape - Bureaucracy

Today I had more bureaucracy to deal with, but thankfully it was all for important, valuable reasons. It’s just hoops. That’s what I tell myself.

The day you land as you make aliyah, with Nefesh B’Nefesh, representatives from Misrad HaKlitah are there to greet you and set you up for appointments. Misrad means ‘office,’ and klitah means ‘absorption.’ The Ministry of Absorption helps new immigrants get their ‘sal klitah’ payments (the government pays new immigrants a considerable amount of money to settle in), Hebrew language school vouchers, higher education vouchers (I can get a masters essentially for free here), and other matters of a new immigrants life.

So, the appointment was to give them my new Israeli bank account information, and to meet in general to see how our transition is going. My woman was very nice, for an Israeli. I’ll be expecting that welfare soon, each month, for the next 7 months! On top of that, if I’m unemployed in 6 months I can apply for unemployment checks. It’s just a few hundred dollars a month, but it’s an option. I’ll be in an intensive Hebrew course then, most likely, which goes from about 8 in the morning till 1.

I saw a new friend at the ministry, someone I met on my flight, and we talked for about 45 minutes about various things going on in our first two weeks. Today she has an interview with IDT, an international company that does various telephone things: telemarketing, customer support, debt collection, etc. The work is generally in English, at night (because you are usually calling America – 7 hour difference), and they pay very well for Israel (apparently $10 an hour or so, entry level).

That’s definitely something to think about, as I’m doing intensive Hebrew in the mornings, with my afternoons and nights free – free to work?

My parents will like this: yesterday it was announced to the program I’m in that today it would be going to Hebron, to the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and some other patriarchs were buried. It’s a very holy site. The only problem is that this area is in the West Bank, and in partial Palestinian Authority control. I don’t know if it made the American press, but there was a very big issue recently over some religious Israelis that bought and lived in a house in Hebron, and the government forced them to leave. Let’s just say it is a hot spot. To go there you have military guard, an IDF post, and bulletproof buses.

I was kinda surprised the school would be taking such a liability risk, especially for a quasi-mandatory field trip. It’s fun to go on these trips, I’ve done one before, but I’d rather with a political observation group…not with 40 of the most right-wing religious people around (there are actually only a few in the group, but one is enough).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Part 2: Rosh HaShanah

Ramadan began this year just around the time as Rosh HaShanah, and the convergence of these two holy days has been somewhat unpleasant. Ramadan is a name for a month in the Muslim calendar. It is supposedly the month when Muhammad received the Quran, and as such it is a time of holy introspection, family togetherness, charity, and all the warm fuzzy stuff. Oh, and they can’t eat for a whole month during the daylight. SUCKS, I’m sure.

Muslims pray 5 times a day all year round, but during Ramadan there are extra prayers. I don’t know exactly when they are, or if they are in addition to the normal 5 or in place of, but these special prayers have to be about 4 in the morning. During Rosh HaShanah Jews aren’t to use electricity, and so there is a certain stillness in the night. Breaking that silence, the muezzin, or the guy that calls Muslims to prayer from the minarets above every mosque, cries out in the most unique undulations and pleas. The peace of a night in Jewish Jerusalem is transformed into Cairo, or Damascus, and one almost feels as if he has been transported back 500 years to a different time. I’m not saying these calls are a bad thing, I’m just saying they come at ridiculous times, and seem to be coming from a different world – in fact they are coming from a different world, at least a place I would never understand.

I can’t figure this one out either: Every day now at around 5 or so, as night is creeping in, the Muslims set off some big explosion and then not a second later the muezzin begins his call. I don’t see an explosion, I don’t see smoke, but it’s quite the noticeable sound. It really sounds like a bomb, but it’s definitely something directly related to their holiday. Maybe it’s a warning to not mess with them during their holiday…

In addition to the Muslim intensity for Ramadan prayers, the Jewish community was a spectacle itself this year for Rosh HaShanah. Last year I went to an orthodox synagogue for Rosh HaShanah, and found myself in a very uncomfortable situation. The rabbi was actually a guest rabbi, but he grew up in the very synagogue that he came back to lead for the holiday. His parents recently died, and after 30 years he finally came back, with much guilt for living so far away. Halfway into the service the rabbi breaks down in heavy sobs, literally crying like a baby, unable to speak. He would try to continue singing, get halfway through the first word or sentence, and lose his stuff all over again. This went on for probably 45 straight options. And he was the only singing – it was his job.

Needless to say, that was quite uncomfortable. Well, the rabbi that they had at the yeshiva was a serious professional. His grandfather, or great-grandfather (can’t remember which), was an extremely famous rabbi; the subject of the book Tzaddik in our Time. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say this guy’s granddad was to the Jewish world like Thomas Jefferson is to the American national consciousness. With all that seriousness around me, I felt I had to escape the place. Six hours straight of being around all the guys, enamored with their leader while I wasn’t nearly impressed (I mean, I don’t even know if I believe half the things these people take for granted), sent me packing.

I went down to the Western Wall to find my own personal clarity and meaning. There is a large, large cave alleyway connected to the Wall, which is actually a Roman era covering where they built apartments next to the Wall. So, you go into the area and are still at the Wall, but it’s cave-like: cold, slightly damp, cozy. I grabbed a corner and a certain book, and was feeling pretty good. Then a rabbi leading a group in prayer began to wail, similarly distracting as the one I experienced last year.

This guy was wailing in long, high pitched, sustained cries. At first it wasn’t too bad, just whimpering and a few second long yelps. Then he built up to a bit longer of a wail. Eventually he was yelling for 10 minutes straight, only stopping to breathe. No one was going to tell the guy to be quiet, because in terms of the theory of the day this behavior is what the Jewish portrayal of G-d would really want… but, it was obnoxious. Once he stopped, whenever he tried to start his outburst again everyone would shush him. Thank goodness, because it was so crazy looking.

Finally the day ended, we ate a big meal, and then I watched a movie on my computer. The next day was Tzom Gedaliah, a fast-day, which was especially difficult considering how many meals I had in the past few days. I’ll be glad when all the holidays are over, and we get a couple weeks off. I plan on going up north, hopefully with a few guys I don’t mind from here. I already need a vacation from this place.

Attached here are a few low-res pictures. This is the square where I live. I took the pictures of it from the entrance to my apartment. The big house and square is the Beit Rothschild and the square I was talking about earlier. They took the sign down, but that column in the second pictures is like 2000 years old or something. Just sitting there, like everything else in this city. You walk by something ancient, but there's so many ancient things, some stuff simply becomes play-toy for kids. Typically it is packed with kids, but they’re in class right now so I’ll have to take some better shots later. Also is my “apartment,” which actually would be a nice place if there weren’t 10 people living here. Also is a better quality pic of the view from my window. Not bad for 100% free living. Not that nice either, though.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Part 1: Rosh HaShanah

(NOTE: I know this is long, so if you don’t want to read it all, I do recommend reading the stories starting at “In an attempt at brevity…”)

That was a long 3 days. Wednesday night started Rosh HaShanah, which ended on Friday night. Friday night was the start, as always, of the Sabbath (Shabbat). That ends on Saturday night. What does this mean? These days, yomim tovim (lit. good days), are filled with all manner of restrictions that are the backbone of Jewish law. No electricity, generally no washing (cold showers are permitted on Rosh HaShanah), and all manner of other things that take years to learn and countless checked actions. If you actually want to keep these days in this traditional way, you have to really know your stuff, and keep your mind sharp on the task.

These restrictions are supposed to separate the mundane from the holy, the week from the holidays. They certainly do their job. If you are wondering where they come from, I could give you a long explanation. Let me know. I’ll say for the sake of the blog, however, that they come from the Bible. In a sentence: when the Jews were commanded by G-d to construct the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which housed the Ark of the Covenant (Aron), they had to do about 39 different types of activities (malachot), such as winnowing, writing, building, erasing, and so on. These are the things we cannot do on these special days (including every Shabbat), because G-d said to rest on the 7th day, and in that passage it is directly preceded by a discussion of the ‘work’ done to construct the Mishkan. Ok, two sentences. If it doesn’t make sense, I can explain it better – I don’t want this to be too pedantic or preachy.

So, during these holidays, Jews being Jews, we have about 3 HUGE meals every 24 hours. That is, we have a big meal at night, a big meal at the afternoon, and then another big meal at night. These things aren’t just meals, they’re religious events. Since this was the new year, we had all manner of symbolic things to eat, with special prayers on everything. Counting them up, we ate 7 or 8 four course meals, in the last 3 days. Each one of these takes about two hours, replete with boisterous singing, liquor, and many speeches.

In an attempt at brevity, I’ll just tell you one of the stories I heard, and a brief recount of another. Because I don’t remember the guys’ names that told them, I’ll make up names. They told these well, because they were personal – I recognize my lack of ability in retelling them. Anyway…

It was a Shabbat morning, and Jacob wanted to get to the Beit Midrash, the study hall, early so he could get in some studying before it became too loud. He arrived at about 6:30am or so, grabbed a cup of steaming tea, a book, and took a seat in the corner. He sat in an isolated spot, next to the large oval windows that looked out at the Western Wall, and started reading.

Next thing he knew, not 10 minutes later, a crazy looking young guy ran in. Crazy people tend to find their way to Jerusalem; some type of religious syndrome (maybe the Jerusalem Syndrome, where they think they are the messiah, something I have witnessed numerous times). So, the guy RUNS into the study hall, a sacred and holy place, wearing shorts, tzitzit hanging out, a bloody tank top, and an expression as if he is running for his life. Jacob has seen this before, as we all have, and he turned as much as he could into the wall and his book, hiding his face. He was relieved when the crazy guy went to the only other person in the hall.

Crazy man was flailing his arms wildly, telling whatever his story was, saying whatever crazy stuff he could. These guys usually are so nuts you cannot even follow their stories, and from Jacob’s view this guy was no different. He looked like a total bum.

Surely enough, after the guy told his story to the other guy in the hall, they both got up and came over to Jacob. His one thought: CRAP. These things never tend to take 2 minutes. Well, they come over, and the crazy guy begins to tell his story.

“HEY, YOU GOTTA HELP ME,” he nearly screamed, out of breath, a real mess.
“Ok, tell me what’s wrong.”
“Last night my friend locked himself in his room, he was trying to commit suicide. The whole yeshiva was trying to help him, to get him to open the door. After a few hours he opened it, but he bolted past us, and he ran.”
“Where did you guys come from?”
“Har Nof,” said the crazy guy. Har Nof is about an hour from the Western Wall.
“What? When did this happen?”
“Last night, like around 11pm! He’s been running through all the city, the Old City, through all the alleys, EVERYWHERE! We’ve been running after him since last night! He’s a Chinese runner!”
“Seriously? Where is he now?,” asks Jacob, in obvious disbelief, or shock.
“He’s at the Wall.”
“What is he doing there?”
“Praying. We gotta go down there and get him!”

Jacob proceeds to really elucidate this situation. Where else in the world would someone who wants to commit suicide run for 7 hours away from a whole group of guys looking to help him, and then run to presumably the holiest place in the entire world? This guy, though he is a crazy Chinese runnerman, is now a true Jew! So, as Jacob says, they decide that they have to go down to the Wall to talk to this guy.

So the scene is a guy with a blood and sweat soaked wife-beater tanktop, looking thoroughly mad, and two proper looking Orthodox Jews wearing their best suits and 100% rabbit fedora hats. They walk down to the Wall, see the Chinese kid really praying hard, finish his prayer, look behind him – as only someone would do who has been chased for hours would do – and he BOLTS. He runs past everyone, past tons of Orthodox Jews preparing for a holy day, and the group resumes its chase through the Old city. This time, with Jacob in hot pursuit as well. He can barely keep up, but after about 20 minutes they make it to an exit to the new city, and the guys, still running full speed in pursuit, turn around and shout, “IT”S OK, HE’S HEADING BACK HOME! THANKS!”

I know, right? So, these stories always have a good point to them. Jacob asks us, “how many bad looks do you think we got at the Wall?” This was not only a holy day, but a revered spot, the very spot that Muslims and Jews have fought over for the past 100 years in some of the most famous struggles known to modern man! And here comes a blood soaked bum, running after some crazy looking Chinese kid. How many bad looks did the blood soaked shirt ‘crazy guy’ get?

Tons. And Jacob surely gave him bad looks too, when he first saw him. But, he learned from this experience that you can never judge anyone based on their current actions or their appearance. How many people in this world would go so far out of their way to help their fellow man, to chase him for his own good for an entire night? And then someone is going to shoot him looks of death, of desecration? We can never guess at what someone is going through, what he is doing for another man. As the old saying goes, ‘you can never judge a book by its cover.’


A guy stands up, one of the guys that has just joined the yeshiva, a previously very-unreligious person. These moments to speak to the entire yeshiva are reserved for guys that really know their stuff. This guy is brand new to the religious world. He literally knows just about nothing: no laws, no Torah, no philosophy. To speak to the yeshiva, including the head of the yeshiva (a venerated individual), our guests, head rabbis, and so on, is a real privilege. This is what he said, in near verbatim:

“Last summer I was in the war in Lebanon. I’ve lived here for six years, and so they called me up in my artillery unit, and we were up there, actually in war. Long story made short, I found myself in the proverbial foxhole, pinned down under heavy fire. We were losing our battle, we started to retreat, got inside a tank, and were running for our lives. Tanks typically hold about three people, but we had crammed about eight guys in there, with ammunition all around us, guns, artillery shells, everything you could think of.

“Hezbollah was shooting at us, we weren’t even able to close the top door to the tank, and there were flames all around us. Sparks from the fires around us were dropping down into the tank, threatening to set the shells and ammunition off. In truth, the ammunition really should have exploded. But anyway, it didn’t for whatever reason, and we were running for our lives. We were dead. This was a lose-lose situation, and it is a true miracle that I am still breathing today, unscathed.

“So the driver of this tank was a real religious guy, a Hassidic Jew, as religious as you could imagine. The rest of us were secular, Tel Aviv types, guys that didn’t know or care a thing about religion. But you know what they say about guys in a foxhole, that there is no atheist, so we were all whimpering to ourselves whatever we could think of. We were terrified, we knew we would never see our families again, our parents would be so sad, we would never see our girlfriends, never drink beer again, never see the ocean. It was by far the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.

“But, this religious guy, the driver! He was singing! He was singing so loud, songs of praise and joy! He was beyond happy, it seemed, and I just could not understand how he was singing as bullets were ricocheting off the tank, flames coming inside, and certain death awaiting us! You don’t understand! He was in ecstasy!

“I don’t think I really understand how he could have been so happy, under the circumstances. But, at that point I decided that I really needed to learn, if I lived, how someone could sing joyously to G-d as he dies. And here I am.”

Needless to say, we were all spellbound. This guy had a way of telling his story, as I’m sure he’s told it 100 times over the past year. I can, however, fill in his missing blank at the end, in other words why this Hassid was singing. Unlike really anyone else in the world, Hassidic Jews find joy in everything. No matter their fate, they see it as G-d’s hand in their life.

Moreover, religious Jews await with great anticipation their death. As Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav said on his deathbed, “I am quite ready to be rid of this tiresome garment,” referring to his flesh. They wait to stand in G-d’s presence, the Shechinah, an experience that the Sages say one second of is better than the most glorious lifetime in this mortal world. Don’t think that religious Jews are like religious Muslims, seeking to die as soon as possible in order to get to Heaven. Rather, they relish this world, and when it is time to leave, they sing with great joy for the next. I’m not so certain, but I know that it is with great respect I look towards anyone that can take the end of his life and turn it into a festive expression of love for G-d.

I’ll post the rest of my entry tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Erev Rosh HaShanah - History, Religious Info

Today is Erev Rosh Hashanah, which means it is the eve of the Jewish new year. Judaism works on a different calendar than the Gregorian calendar, which was only introduced in 1582 C.E. as a modification of the Julian, or Roman, calendar. It seems so guaranteed to us, Westerners, that January 1 is the new year. It is inherent in the year, right? In actuality, January 1 was only introduced in 1752 as the new year (according to my research), as March 25th was originally the start of the next year.

Anyway, the Jewish calendar is from biblical times. Unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar, the Jewish counterpart is lunar. The Gregorian needs to use leap years, and at one point even had to suppress 10 or 11 days in order to reach the solar year. A lunar calendar is much more accurate.

Tomorrow, Thursday, is the end of the month of Elul and the beginning of Tishrei, the new year, 5768. According to the most religious groups, specifically creationists, this calendar was begun by Adam when he was materialized by G-d. So, the world is 5768 years old. Granted, I’ve heard some pretty interesting and attractive theories on what a ‘day’ means in regard to the Creation story…but whatever your thoughts, the Jewish calendar is certainly old (and the world is certainly older). I very much love the Jewish year. It is one of the few extant unadulterated customs the world has to offer. A quality of preservation is unique to the Jewish way.

Elul, besides being the final month of the year, or maybe because of that status, is a month of intense self-evaluation. Religious Jews spend the entire month holding certain practices, like additions to prayers, in order to bring out their repentance, which begins tonight.

Rosh HaShanah lasts for 2 days – 2 days of intense prayer for forgiveness and preparation for Yom Kippur, the climax of ‘T’shuva,’ roughly meaning ‘to return,’ or atonement. Today and slightly before is the day that Jews ask anyone they know for forgiveness for any time this year that they wronged others. This time is more serious than you know, or could realize, unless you lived in Israel, a religious community, and especially in the Old City!

Tomorrow, and the day after (the second day of Rosh HaShanah), people spend about 6 hours straight in the synagogue, praying. The prayers begin, in my yeshiva, at 6:30am or so, and last until 1, or whatever 6 hours is. Then there is a meal, a break (where you are supposed to read Tehillim, or psalms), and then more praying at night. This is the day when you hear the Shofar, the ram’s horn.

The scary part is that this is a call to BEGIN repenting for your wrongdoings. After Rosh HaShanah finishes, we begin the 10 Days of Repentance, which leads directly to the heaviest day of the year, Yom Kippur. The sadness, the seriousness of T’shuva, doesn’t end until Succot, a joyous day celebrating the beginning of the rainy season in Israel.

I’ll write about the amazing rainy versus dry season of Israel when that time comes. And yes, I plan on going to the prayers – warily.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Yeshiva Experience

When I got to the yeshiva I was very interested in where they would put me up. This yeshiva is a very rich organization, a Jewish organization that has hands in just about everything, from politics to Jewish outreach. Its website is, but you’d never find half the things they do just from that religious website. Needless to say, they have resources enough that they have apartments throughout the Old City, a reasonably expensive area due to the high demand for a very small limited amount of apartments.

Last summer I lived in an Aish apartment at 90 Chabad Street, a nice little area near the Western Wall. The apartment was great. It had 2 side rooms, each housing 2 to 3 people, a living room converted into room for 4 beds, a bathroom with shower, a kitchen with a big table and a nice sofa, and access to a huge roof from which you could see so much of the Old City and the surrounding area, including the security wall separating the West Bank from Jerusalem. They get these fairly big apartments and convert them to house double digit people, but still it was a tremendous place to live.

Back to the beginning of the story: when I got here, I was hoping and praying I’d get another good apartment or even 90 Chabad. Nope. They put me in the, gasp, Sephardi Center. The Sephardi Center is some type of group that organizes programming for Sephardic Jews, which means those from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Roughly, this place is a square, with an open courtyard. On the top floor, the second, there are about 8 rooms or so, housing probably 30 to 50 guys. It’s disgusting. I lived here in January when I was at Aish for a few weeks, so when he told me that I’d be there…

Granted, I’m living here for free. But, man, that place is gross. It’s dirty, the walls are all stucco and seem like they’ve been decaying for 50 years. The bathroom typically reeks of open sewage, mainly because the only thing covering a sewage line in the corner, a 1 foot by 1 foot square, is a piece of plywood, which sometimes is missing. I feel terrible for the cleaning lady, who I’ve seen a few times; she’s too young for that. ‘That’ being open sewage.

Considering that I’ll be at Aish, most likely, until January, I asked a few days ago if I could get switched out of the Sephardi Center. I told a small white-lie. I said that I can’t sleep there, that it’s too loud (i.e.- 2 nights in a row I had to tell people to be quiet at 3:30am), and that I need to sleep more to be able to study all day. The only lie was the ‘study all day’ part, which may or may not be a lie either considering who you ask. I consider about 6 hours of solid reading/learning to be ‘all day.’ The yeshiva borders on 10-12 hours for ‘all day.’

Anyway (a popular word for me, considering my tangential stream of thought writing style), today I was moved into a new apartment. New in that Aish just started renting it. I got the hookup. Though I was sad that I didn’t get 90 Chabad, this place is nothing to sneeze at. It’s two floors, with the top floor having a bathroom with 2 showers in it, 2 bedrooms, a living room downstairs, a bathroom, a kitchen with nothing working but the sink, a large balcony (though it’s 1 floor up), and then my room. The living room has been converted into a bedroom, with something like 4 beds in there now. My room is a small little anti-room, with built in floor to 10 foot ceiling closets, and a whole wall of sweeping open windows. The room is tiny, but it’s just me and 1 other bed, whose owner apparently won’t be back for “a few weeks.” Not too bad. The guy’s name is Ricky.

Ricky? At a yeshiva? We’ll see. No matter, it’s so nice here. It’s open, with the atmosphere coming in to the room directly over my bed, windows flung apart, a rich blue sky, Israeli flags flapping in the wind, the sounds of children playing. The only thing missing is a table and a chair!

One last thing, I promise. Baron de Rothschild, of the Frankfurt banking megafamily, is something of a hero in Israel. Most people don’t talk about him, or even know, but those that do appreciate what he did. He was a Jew that decided to buy up a huge amount of land in what was then Palestine, legally, in order for Jews to move back to the land. He ended up purchasing nearly 125,000 acres of land, under his Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. Along with his nearly $50 million in land purchases, he helped fund electricity research, archaeological digs of Raymond Weyl, founded the wine industry, and helped establish the first new settlement in Palestine (Rishon L’tzion). In his memory, his son donated the money to build the Knesset building, the Israeli parliament.

Naturally his name is everywhere. I live next to an estate bearing his name, which now houses a yeshiva. I literally live in the small square that I’m assuming used to be a front lawn. I’ve gotta figure out if this was ever a private house of his…cause it’s huge, and it’s amazing to live next to something of someone’s who was and is so important. Living next to Brad Pitt would be cool. Living next to George Washington would be an ethereal honor.

And now the Rothschild boys are famous for dating Natalie Portman and Cameron Diaz. Oh how the apple has fallen far from the tree (actually the RIT, Rothschild International Trust, is the highest grossing investment firm in England, so they’re still on top….but it’s nice to rag on the super rich).

Here are some promised pictures of my aliyah flight. Click for a much larger image (1024x768 -- wallpaper size)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Aish HaTorah Yeshiva - Old Faces, Crazy Religios

I’m not much for small talk. But, being that I’ve been gone from the yeshiva for a year, a lot of people have been coming up to me asking me how long I’ve been gone. It’s quite common for people to come for short stretches, many times over. So, one thing leads to another, we exchange our stories, and it’s one big happy party.

No, seriously, it’s been really interesting to hear some of these guys, in terms of their spiritual growth, and to see their reaction to me. I won’t go into any more detail, because most of the stories are like this: “You’ve been gone for more than a year right? Oh, only 1 year? And you’re back for how long? You made aliyah? Mazaal tov! Well, how long will you be here? Until January or so? Nice, long enough to learn, should stick around longer though! Ok, I’ll see you around!”

Fairly innocuous in general. One guy, however, said something very uncharacteristic from the way I remember him. He was religious, and extremely hard working in learning Hebrew and the other studies, but he never seemed to be the guy to really put a heavy-handed message on you. He is sort of quiet and awkward, though he is a former rugby player. It scared me, and I retreated quickly. I wasn’t scared for myself…I was scared for him and whatever has happened to his mind. This world, this religious world is his life, not necessarily mine. So….

He said, “may you have a good year of learning, with much strength, and G-d willing, to prepare yourself well for a speedy marriage.” WTF? By the way, he’s not married either. Half the guys I know are now either engaged or married.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Soldiers at the Kotel - With Guns!

Today, and for the past week, and for all I know the past 40 years, there were a lot of soldiers visiting the Western Wall with their units. Sometimes they go on little trips together, mandatory of course, to different places in Israel. Believe it or not, Israelis often do not get out and see their own country. Its like someone that lives in the Shenandoah Valley but never goes up on the Skyline Drive; there are too many.

Anyway, it is nice to see them out and about, to imagine what that will feel like, how scary it is.

I was walking past a few elite-unit guys, some unit I never remember the name of, but I saw something out of the corner of my eye. They were sitting down, so I walked back and pretended to be looking around, all while furtively checking out the guns they had. They were carrying the brand spanking new Israeli bull-pup assault rifle. This may sound somewhat scary to those without a strong passion for Israeli military security, but seeing that Israel has yet again created one of the best security tools in the world…well, it’s a secure feeling.

It’s a mean looking plastic thing. It was on Future Weapons. I thought that was cool. That's a picture of it, down below.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Starting Yeshiva All Over Again

It’s been quite interesting starting back at something that I did a year ago. I decided to go back to my yeshiva, in Jerusalem, mainly because it is something I know. I know people, I know the place, I know the life here. That isn’t to say I am enjoying it (100% serious stuff 100% of the time… that makes me very tired, but you learn a lot of stuff). But, it is a comfortable place, generally.

I was wondering for a while who would still be here, how different they would be, etc. The majority of guys that I remember are still around, still trying to become more and more religious. A couple guys are married, some with kids, another recently engaged. Most of these guys were wearing jeans and t-shirts when I knew them. Now, they are in black pants and white dress shirts, beards, tzitzit, and a few with peyos, the sidelocks that traditional Jews wear (just imagine the NYC religious Jew). It is eerie, because I knew these guys, and now I don’t. They aren’t brainwashed, don’t get the wrong idea, it’s just that they really believe in what they are doing. Sometimes I wish I had the same motivation to believe something so strongly.

Today I met with a rabbi to see if I wanted to join the intermediate program. There are a few levels of study, from low to high, and this one is just as it says, intermediate. It’s a long and hectic day, and after a 20 minute meeting I wanted to go to sleep. Actually, I went back to my room and took a nap.

Let’s see how many classes I skip before having to explain that I like to study alone (a generally unappreciated practice in yeshiva).

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) Experience

I figure I should tell a thing or two about the actual experience of taking an aliyah flight. The flight was with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps with 100% of the transition to Israel, from job search efforts to government paperwork. With El Al, the main Israeli air line, they have a few flights a year that are entirely made up of new immigrants, or olim chadashim.

Along with the olim, which on my flight was around 200, there are NBN employees and members of the press. The NBN staff and media guys took probably about 10,000 pictures and hours of video footage. Talking with a friend, they will snap your picture. Eating your breakfast, they snap your picture. I even caught them video tape a guy while he was sleeping. Seriously.

The majority of the people on the plane were religious, those that probably fall into the ‘dati leumi’ religio-political order. Essentially, they are both orthodox and Zionists. Nevertheless, there were some secular Zionists, as well as two Russians that I swore were smuggling drugs. The security guards pre-flight thought so too, and I overheard the woman being pulled aside, while the guard says “look, I know you have a lot more than clothes and jackets in this bag.” I was sure they were carrying drugs.

I was a little envious looking around before we boarded. Families abounded. Even the single olim, those coming alone, seemed to have tons of friends with them. I saw many families with children anywhere from infant range, to a few that had multiple teenagers. I wondered how those teens must feel, being uprooted that far, at the most insecure time in their lives. I have a nearly overwhelming fear of daily life in Israel, mainly over Hebrew, but how magnified it must be for a 14 year old pimply faced kid that has never had the confidence building experiences that only come with 10 more years. I am quite jealous of those youths, that they have families, they will pick up Hebrew in mere months, that they don’t have to do the mundane impossibilities of Israel (i.e.- opening a bank account).

On the other hand, I don’t have any jealousy what so ever. I’m doing everything on my own. I have all my own responsibilities. I am making this decision, certainly not my parents. But don’t let this fool you. I was feeling quite insecure. I was watching friends and families take pictures together, as I stood in a corner waiting for a ceremony to start. I thought, quite distinctly I remember, “is this really my life? Am I really here? Do I have any similarities with these people?” I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t excited…. I was just waiting. I think I am a cerebral person, one that doesn’t get into anything until it is a thoroughly understood and conquered thing. I mean that I am not going to jump for joy over being Israeli until I do the mundane: land in Israel.

So, we boarded, waited for over an hour, left at 4:30 when we were supposed to leave at 2:30, etc. Didn’t sleep one bit. So cramped I could have gone on a rampage. Talked to a flight attendant, fell in love, was interrupted, she smiled at me the rest of the flight, felt heartbreak that I didn’t get her number (typical Danny stuff there). Etc.

So after over 24 hours with no sleep, we landed in Israel. A 10 hour flight felt like 10 days. We got off the plane on the tarmac and took buses to the terminal entrance. There is always a big welcoming party, composed of random guests, press, family/friends, and the obligated soldiers. This was really very very exciting. I felt like I was 17 again, pregame for basketball, as we exit the bus to music, overly loud music, cheering and jumping fans, and a tunnel-like walkway of soldiers, all waving and handing out Israeli flags. It was just like a basketball or football game entrance.

The first thing I felt was joy, relief, and pride. Then I noticed how bloody young the soldiers looked! They were 18 or 19 I guess, but they didn’t look a day over 16. I think I’ll have quite the out-of-body experience when I join the ranks at 24, next to 18 year olds.

The prime minister was there. We had to listen to all manner of speeches, but the prime minister was there! And no one really cared. All the religious hate him because they think he wants to give away the West Bank to the Palestinians, a crime above any other for a Jew (because the Torah says all the land is ours, given by G-d, it is a sin tantamount to slapping Him in the face). So, when Ehud Olmert came on stage, some people started to stand up, and this religious guy said “don’t stand up for him!” Thank goodness we were in a smaller section, away from the main group. I don’t like Olmert either, but he is my prime minister, and he hasn’t done anything grievous enough to merit disrespect. I stood, clapped, and took pictures.

More waiting, got our Teudat Oleh (immigrant identification), cash, and then finally got luggage. We also got free taxi/sherut rides to our destinations. I rode with 3 other people I had met, to Jerusalem, in the most ridiculous sherut (a shared van) I have ever seen. There was no back area for luggage, so everything was piled up behind the driver and we couldn’t see the road at all. I was in the very back, with about half a foot of room for my legs, so I was sittin’ sideways, sweating bullets. The vehicle was the biggest POS in the world. The driver probably almost killed us 100 times, he drove so fast. This is a country known for terrorism, but 4 people were just killed in less than 24 hours in separate auto accidents a couple weeks ago. So dangerous, and I felt it as he darted in between traffic, passing buses, merging into traffic that was merging into us. The kicker? The sliding door didn’t even close, and one of the guys had to keep closing it as we were speeding down the interstate.

I’ll upload some pictures of said events, later.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

I Made Aliyah! Really?

9:45 pm the night before departure, my entire family cuddled up for sleep in two full sized beds. Queen beds would have been nice, especially considering we reserved a room with them, and were told by the front desk that indeed we had them. Despite the close quarters with my bro, or probably because of it, we had a genuine last night together. I don’t think I got more than an hour or two of sleep before I got up at 5:30 am. No way I was going to miss my connecting flight to JFK. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m no predawn type of guy.

I haven’t tossed and turned that bad for years, watching the clock every hour, thinking three had passed but, alas, only 20 minutes expires. I suppose my thoughts are to blame, thoughts of chaotic airports, but mainly thoughts of the next few years. In case you need to catch up I’ll give you a brief recount of what is going on.

(Warning – Vague explanations of extreme ideologies follow)

After spending about a year in Israel over the past two years, while attending Tel Aviv University, having an internship in a political think-tank (The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – Glenn Beck on CNN has a major affinity for my old boss, Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N.), to learning in Yeshivat Aish HaTorah, a Jewish theological school, I decided I wanted to stay for a bit more serious experience. The solution for a Jew that wants to really be a part of Israel is to “make aliyah,” which literally means ‘to go up.’ This means becoming an Israeli citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities, including serving in the army. Why do this?

Even moderately religious Jews believe that the land of Israel is what G-d gave us, in the divine mandate, in return for a strict allegiance to his ‘mitzvot,’ or commandments. These mitzvot include things such as keeping a kosher eating habit, observing Sabbath regulations, and strict rules on everything from shaving to incest; 613 commandments in total. In our modern world, Judaism has been reduced to simply a faith, where the most important thing is to be kind to others. Though that is a nice idea, and a Jewish one at that, it is not what Judaism is about. If you read all of the Tanach, or the old testament as it has become known since the rise of Christianity (er…the bible), you should find one prevailing directive: Jews are Israel, Israel is Jewish, and if we act correctly we will dwell in the land. This is Judaism. The charge to live in Israel.

Some people would debate the land-centric idea, which I would accept with a Tanach and a smile, but the greater message here is that I believe this. I know that Jews were expelled 2000 years ago from Israel, by the Romans, at one of our spiritual low-points, and weren’t back en masse until the late 1800s, and not fully legally until 1948. We had large influxes for 50 years leading up to the Israeli independence, but it was always against the strong wishes of whoever was ruling the land, be it the Ottomans or British. All of this history, which is way too serious to truly review in a blog, is an affirmation of the covenant that Abraham made with G-d. For 2000 years Jews were dispersed across the world, and now all of a sudden in my lifetime we are given the land back? Jews were persecuted for 2000 years, and finally now while I am alive we see the greatest freedom to move to this land? Why did G-d, or at least history, choose my lifetime to be one of immense freedom in the land we have cried over for two millennia? Words cannot fully express how astonished the Jewish world is, how important this freedom is, and how terrifying the responsibility of Zionism is to recreate a holy, prosperous, and safe land for all Jews. Israel is our safety net, our original home, and if it weren’t for the European Enlightenment 200 years ago, it would be our only home. The point of my move to Israel is to help, in whatever way I can, to build this struggling new state. At the very least you can understand how history has fit in with our religious perspective.

Believe it or not, I am not moving to Israel purely and not at all entirely because of religion. Religion is a good enough reason to move to Israel, a land built for and by religion, but it is not nearly enough for me. Instead, my world has been tinted with an ideology of upheaval, much like those original Jews in the late 1800s who moved to Israel in order to become a new people. A quick glance at the bible will reveal that Jews were not a weak people. For better or worse, we were a warrior civilization, fighting for the sanctity of G-d’s name, building the land of Israel as a Kiddush HaShem. Holy war was our idea!

Sometime in our history, probably in the second exile by the Romans, and our consequential ghettoization, Jews became a weak people. We always succeeded on hard work, ingenuity, and intelligence. But we lost our strength, no matter how materially successful we became. Isn’t this fitting perfectly with our ideals? If we forget how we became strong, we are only destined to spiral into weakness. I personally believe that our position in the world, one of material strength, is some sort of divine slap in the face. A “you think you have something?” type of sign common in scripture. “You think you have riches because of anything you did?” The truth is the opposite, that our strength only comes from faith in our land. With the land we have been given a chance at redemption, but it comes at a price.

The price is one that I am feeling quite literally. The modern state of Israel is a rejection of our old-world weakness, and an embrace of a new identity. No longer the ghetto of Europe, or the banks of America, but rather the dingy study-halls, cramped apartments, and chaotic life of Israel. The price is that we have started from scratch in a land surrounded by hostile neighbors. The price is that we have to build cities from sand, not of sand. But more important than these material concerns, Israel represents the greater truth, namely that Jews are strong, independent people with a solid place in the world, and because of this strength we will be able to overcome our obstacles.

I am moving to Israel, at least for a while, in order to be a part of this struggle. 59 years ago Israel was declared, and now we have the attention of everyone in the free world. What are we going to do? We are going to build a strong state, a fair state, one of true democratic ideals and economic prosperity…only this time with an understanding of why we are there.

In reality, do I think I’ll make any type of impact on the state? No, not really. I don’t think I’ll be prime minister, the leading rabbi, or anything so glamorous. But, I know that I will speak Hebrew, live in the holiest city on the planet, and truly be a part of the most improbable occurrence of the last millennium: millions of Jews living in Israel.

It’s as simple as that. No matter if my ideologies die. At least I’ll love the food. No, seriously, I’m not going to Israel to change the world. I just want an adventure. I want to say I followed something, no matter what. I followed a conviction around the world, away from all my family, and hopefully, created for myself a second home. I like good stories, especially when adventure mixes with ideology…. as long as no one gets hurt.

Here’s to this blog never getting so serious again! I’ll update on the actual aliyah experience, soon.