Thursday, October 30, 2008

Matsav Shtayim - מצב שתיים

In the previous post I gave a little bit of a teaser on what this strange sounding punishment is. 1) It's punishment. 2) It's obviously a pretty effective punishment if I left that as the last post before another week of the army. Most importantly, it's the punishment that Lebanon War battle-tested soldiers choose to punish us greenhorns with.

I guess it's not quite as exciting as telling you that they put us on wooden boards and pull our limbs apart and put candles under our feet and brush our skin with iron rakes. It's nothing quite as Inquisition or glamorous as that.

Rather, as far as torture goes, the simplest device is the most successful. In this case, that would be pushups. Literally, for those who don't know Hebrew, matzav shtayim (מצב שתיים) means "position two." Position two would be the first position, ironically, of the pushup - elbows locked, arms straight, holding your weight fully off the ground. It's not easy.

Matsav echad (מצב אחד), however, is what really hurts. That's the second position of a pushup - chest an inch off the ground, arms at 90-degree angles, your face eating concrete.

So, the first day we got inducted into the army we left BAKUM at about 5pm or so and took a bus for a two-hour ride up north to the army base Michve Alon. After getting settled, running around, learning our formations, and so forth, we finally got what's called TASH (ת''ש). TASH is Tnai Sheruit, or "conditions of service," which is the name for the free time you have at night to go to bed. I want to write about this later, but for now I'll just say that we had 1 hour to prepare for bed on the first night.

At the end of TASH you have to meet back out in the yard in front of the dorm in sleep clothes. For me, that's a t-shirt, mesh basketball shorts, and my $2 Wal-Mart sandals that are so thin that I can feel dust bunnies underneath them. So, stupidly, I go out to formation dressed like a true greenhorn. I've now learned to not take the whole "free time" promise seriously.

We lined up in position, but true to form, some joker made a joke and we were subsequently punished with matsav shtayim.

"You know what matzav shtayim is?," asked the commander.

"Yes, Commander!!!," we shouted in unison.

"SO???????," he barked, as if we believed he was going to have us do pushups on the first day in our pajamas. We all just looked around, seeing who was going to be the gullible one and actually get on the ground first. He's joking, right?

He wasn't joking. 2 AM, day one, 50 guys slowly fall to the ground.

I looked down at the ground and for the first time and realized we were on that pavement that is more gravel than anything else. It was pitch black, but I could make out rocks sticking out of the pavement, pebbles evenly scattered. As soon as my feet made contact with the ground and my arms took the full weight of my 220-pound frame, the ripping pain of sharp gravel tore through my computer-conditioned hands. I like to think of myself as something of a man, and I did some pushups before my draft, but I was in no way ready to do pushups on this surface.

Take a look at that picture. It was hard to get the picture to come out, hard to capture the color, but can you see how red the bottom of my palms are? I took that over 24 hours after the pushups I'm describing to you now. Think about that.

"Matsav shtayim!!," he shouts.

"Matsav shtayim, Commander!," we shout back as we hold ourselves up. I look around and see half the group shifting their butts either way up in the air or way down against the ground, just trying their best to at least keep their arms straight. I hold in pushup form with everything I've got. Some guys fall to the ground, looking at their hands with deep black imprints of rocks nearly piercing the skin.

"What, is this hard for you?! Aren't you a soldier now?! Pathetic. MATSAV ECHAD!"

"Matsav echad, Commander!," we meekly pant as we lower ourselves to an inch off the ground. Hold it, hold it...

I look around and see 90% of the group with their knees touching the ground. My arms are burning, chest shaking, and my back feels like an acid-metal rod has been surgically inserted into my spine. But I persist, believing my determination will get me through the physical challenges.

10 seconds pass. 15 seconds.

"What are you, boobs?!!! GET UP GET UP GET UP GET UP!!!!!!!"

20 seconds pass. 25 seconds.


Arms shaking, head down against the gravel, hands burning, back caving in...

and then my knees slam down, pavement crushing against the joints, sending waves of pain through my legs down to my feet and up my hips.

Day one. Broken.


Monday, October 27, 2008

On Base - מחו"ה אלון - Michve Alon

As promised in the previous post, I'm going to go ahead and finish up a description of the first day of being drafted into the Israeli Army. After I finish this post, I'm going to go back to my previous style of dedicating each post to some kind of interesting and specific element of my day or experiences. I have so many of those specific peculiarities and interesting experiences, even out of just two days in the army. Again, I suggest signing up for receiving posts by email. Who knows when I'll be able to post.

So, I left off the last post by telling how we left the induction base, BAKUM at Tel HaShomer. We boarded with our commander beginning the yelling.

"Move out of that seat! Go sit with someone sitting by himself!" He adjusted his M4 machine gun, throwing it directly onto his back so he could walk the aisles. "No talking! I don't want to hear any talking! If you talk, we are going to pull the bus over and you'll be doing pushups until your lunch comes out your eyes!"

We promptly filled the spare seats. But, as I have later found out is going to be a recurring theme, the Russians and Ethiopians couldn't help but break the imposed silence. Luckily it only prompted a sharp yell from the commander, and the children bit their tongues.

The ride, as I said, was eerie. Long past dark, lightening burst horizontally across the sky, illuminating our faces through the windows. Purple light flashed on all shades of skin - North American, South American, European, Russian, Ethiopian. Temporarily we forgot that we were well on our way to our first military base, well on our way to being maggots, the bottom of the totem poll.

Our bus wound its way up north, turning on the mountain roads past villages burning yellow sodium lights. I found myself recalling a passage in a Charles Dickens novel, a certain monologue where a character walks towards a town at night, wondering what lives are being lived before him. He wonders what the lights are illuminating. How amazing that whole swathes of people are anonymous and so separate from our own self-centered world!

And here I was on my way to Michve Allon, the army base I am to spend the next three weeks in on a program for immigrants, so purely occupied with my own worries. Don't get me wrong; I don't have any guilt for being self-centered at a moment like that. We passed through a tiny town at the outskirts of the base, and as we turned a corner I saw the guard gate for the first time. I wonder if those villagers have jobs directly because of the base?

Entering the base we drove past dorm building after dorm building. We stopped in front of one anonymous U-shaped unit, a paved courtyard in front. The yelling began immediately.

"You have 45 seconds to grab your bag, throw it in the corner of the yard, and line up in formation! NOW NOW NOW!!!"

We pushed past each other as fast as possible, trying to figure out whose army issue bag was whose. They are identical brown duffel bags. Who could tell the difference? I, luckily, received one that had a blue shoulder strap attached. In the pitch black night, however, I only found it after most of the other bags had been grabbed. After throwing it in a corner I joined the group.

The commander surveyed his troops, walking up and down the rows of boys dressed like men. "Welcome to Michve Allon. You will be here for three weeks. I am your commander. We are not friends. We are not going to be friends. I am going to show you how to be soldiers, and you are going to listen to every word I say. You see that commander over there," pointing to a tall guy with three stripes on his arm and an army baseball hat, "he's like a god. He is your god now. You see all of us commanders," indicating himself and the few other real soldiers standing by, "we are your parents. We are just like your parents. We tell you what to do! We tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to talk or shut the hell up!"

A Russian kid laughs at the seriousness of the commander.

"Who said that? You?," finding the offender in the rows, "what the hell do you think is so funny? You think the army is a joke? 50 pushups, NOW!"

The Russian looked at the commander unsure if he was being so serious so soon on base. The commander jumped 10 feet towards the boy, ready to strike, and at the top of his lungs, "NOW!!!" The Russian got the picture.

Our commander split us up into smaller groups of about 25 guys. He put us into two single file lines, and we made our way up to the main courtyard of the Michve Allon base. This courtyard is a paved square of nearly a football field by a football field with smaller yellow squares from corner to corner. The yard is lined with buildings dimly lit by more yellow sodium lights.

At the edge of the pavement our commander stops, turns around, and yells at us to stand at attention. "You see that entrance over there?," pointing at a blank building among many blank buildings, "how long do you think it will take you to run there and line up?"

"Two minutes," a French guy says.

The commander walks up to the boy and asks fiercely, "How do you call me?"

"Two minutes, COMMANDER!"

"Who has watches?," the commander asks as half of us raise our hands. "OK, now put it in the stopwatch mode. "Forty-five seconds. GO!"

We take off with our clunky boots slap slap slapping the pavement below. We reach the entrance, but then it takes nearly half a minute to line up in two straight lines, even numbers on both ends. The commander walked slowly across the courtyard to our position.

"What the hell are you looking at? Did I say two minutes? I'm pretty sure I said 45 seconds. You," eying an Ethiopian, "how long did you take?"

"I don't have a watch..."

The commander drops his head and turns around, shifting his M4 from his side to his back, and whispers in disdain, "pathetic."

The commander walked into the building, leaving us stationed in front of the steps for who knows what. I've learned quickly that you can't really ask questions, and you can't really worry why you're standing in formation in front of a building with a bunch of female soldiers sitting in an octagonal room with one empty seat across from each soldier. Why? What kind of interview were we going to do? Haven't we done enough interviews as it is?

The commander came back after about 15 minutes and advanced the front 4 guys into the octagonal room. Outside we stayed in formation. Commanders walked by, stared at us and just laughed. We really are the very bottom of the totem pole.

Hurry up and wait, remember? I think we stayed in position, waiting in our two single-file lines, for nearly an hour. Eventually our commander came by and asked if our legs hurt. Hesitantly we said yes, not sure if it was a trick question or not, but it turned out he was just being a nice guy. He said, "OK, so you can sit. Tell me next time."

I still wasn't sure if it was a trick or not. I sat down, looked at the boys around me making sure that my Hebrew wasn't mistaken, but everything seemed in order. I sat down on the pavement just waiting to be yelled at. It never came, but a few commanders later came by and wondered what the hell we were doing. They didn't say a word, but I guess they figured we wouldn't have sat unless we were told to.

The interview turned out to be the fourth time I've had to answer questions about my parents' names and address, my brother's information, who gets my money if I die, my bank account and financial information, et cetera et cetera. This interview hardly seemed necessary.

It wasn't until 1:30am until we finally made our way back to the dorm and yard where we had put our bags and first stood at attention. I left out the information about our meal on purpose because I want to discuss how meals work later. The point of the matter is that the day lasted forever, it was very much what you think of when you think of army b.s., and they had us running all over the place with time constraints that The Flash could barely make.

So we got back to our courtyard, grabbed our bags, and a commander called our names out and we approached him to receive our room assignment (which was really our 10 man squad). He told me my number and letter designation, and as I entered another commander asked me my assignment.

"2D... I think."

"You think? OK, let's go."

He led me to the 2D room, and as we entered I saw the sign on the door with the names written as to who sleeps there. My name was not on my initial scan, and the doubt running through my mind was growing stronger and stronger.

"Commander, this isn't my room. I forgot the number."

"You forgot your number in less than one minute?"

"Uh, yeah... sorry."

I went back out to the yard where the commander with the clipboard was standing, and I sheepishly told him that I forgot my assignment.

"What? Less than one minute and you forgot your number? OK, you're 2G."

I made my way back to the rooms. I entered and to my great joy there were two native English speakers in the room, including one German guy who is perfect in Hebrew and who I've gotten to know a little before I was drafted. Unfortunately, my bed was the only one lacking a mattress. My actual direct commander - there are many commanders, but he's my squad commander - told me not to worry, that he would get me a mattress.

All the guys were organizing their stuff, going through their army issue bags, figuring out where to put our various gear. I sat down on another guy's bed and pulled out my second pair of boots to put my second pair of dog tags inside them (there's a little pocket for them in each boot). My commander saw them, and he freaked out. You have to remember that these guys are keeping distance. They're being all serious and yelling at us and what not, even though they generally want to be friends with you.

He grabbed my boot, asked what size I wore, and pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture. The Russian whose bed I was sitting on took out his digital camera and took a picture of it as well. Everyone was having a good laugh over my size. How tall are you? 6'4? WOW! How much do you weigh? 220 pounds? WOW! How big are your feet? 15? WOW!

I just hope they're laughing with me...

Anyway, we had about 20 minutes to organize our stuff, and then we had to meet back in the courtyard. That was at about 2am. We were lights out at 2:15am. Now, I won't tell you what we did for those 15 minutes. I'll save that for a little bit later. But I'll just give you a taste.

Before we entered our rooms we were given a very set amount of time to return in formation. 20 minutes or something - I don't remember exactly. Everything, by the way, is timed down to the second. We were 30 seconds late returning to formation. Well, a few guys didn't make it in time (dumb).

The commander walked the frontline, up and down the troops, sizing us up. "Thirty seconds late? Why? First night? Pathetic."

An Ethiopian cracked a joke.

"What the hell is funny?" And here comes the good part, the bit I'll explain later. The commander barked, "You know what matsav shtayim is? Yes? Good. Matsav shtayim!!!"

Friday, October 24, 2008

BAKUM - Brand New Israeli Soldiers - Day #1

Never underestimate the importance of a good night's sleep. I'm too tired to even think of where to start blogging, and it's only been a few days since I was drafted into the Israeli Army. Where to start...

I guess for this first post I'll just talk about what the heck goes on in the first day of the army. If you aren't so interested in a step-by-step post, and rather prefer my deep and biting analyses (sarcasm intended), just give this one a scan. Day one...

First of all, I was to meet at Ammunition Hill, an important battle site from the 1967 Six Day War. We walked up to a counter there, signed in with the soldier stationed to take our identification card for verification, and then waited outside for a very uninterested looking male soldier to guide us to the museum. We watched about a 30-minute movie, all of which was in Hebrew that I would have been lost on if it weren't for the accompanying video, and then waited outside for a bus. What really struck me about the video was the emphasis on combat. War. Guns. Deaths and killings. I kind of had a naïve thought that they'd ease us into this thing.

From Ammunition Hill we took an hour bus ride, me trying my best to relax and remember the best advice I've heard over and over, that it all is "just a game," not to take the yelling and stupid rules too seriously. That is great advice, as I've come to fully grasp its potential of making the hard times easier.

The bus eventually headed into a base that sprawled so far that I thought it was its own city! Soldiers to the left of me, soldiers to the right. Though I was slightly anxious, my fear had long subsided. It was time to start this business of protecting the State of Israel. First step, BAKUM - Basis Klita UMiyun.

Like everything in the army, everything, acronyms rule. Commanders are known by the acronyms of their position. Bases are known by acronyms (the one I'm at right now, for example, is a mystery to me). The minutes of "free time" before lights out is known by an acronym. The way you stand - acronym. Your clothes - acronyms. Even individual rooms are known by the acronyms representing which officer uses it. Even the officers' assistants' rooms have acronyms. It's really quite impossible as a non-fluent speaker.

Anyway, BAKUM is the massive processing base at Tel HaShomer outside of Tel Aviv where you get processed and make the transition from a real citizen with freedoms to a soldier. For any nervous foreigners joining the army, here's a basic rundown of what you do at BAKUM:

-Wait on the bus for a very long time. (8:30am)
-Turn in your personal bag you brought along. You are instructed to put your wallet and cell phone in the bag. A girl that was standing next to me later on during this whole long process had her phone in her hand (dumb), a soldier saw it, she was yelled at and led away... she returned an hour later. Who knows.
-Go into a bank-like room, with an office and clerk/soldiers (female jobnikot, of course), where you give them your bank number, branch, bank, and best of all, you get 100 shekels in cash!
-Stand in line, which I may not mention but that is the overriding feature of what you do at all times in BAKUM, and finally get your picture taken for your teudat choger. I'm not sure what choger means, but essentially it's your army identification card. I, of course, had to actually squat down to fit in the frame of the picture. I had to do this to get the picture for my civilian identification card as well. Here I am, a shy American-Israeli in the midst of literally hundreds of gorgeous native Hebrew speaking females either in uniform or preparing to get uniforms, squatting and being laughed at by the Russian soldier looking on.
-Get your teeth photographed. You sit down at a desk, put your pinkies into either side of your mouth, pull your lips away, and a soldier puts a camera with a metal spreader into your mouth. Top. Bottom. And of course I got the hot female soldier instead of the slow looking male soldier. Awkward.
-The next station is a room full of full body fingerprint scanners. A soldier calls you over, she takes your hand and does what she will with it on the laser scanner, all while another monitor shows your fingerprint in real time. It's actually pretty cool. They scan every finger, your palm, the sides of your fingers, etc. Then (or before) they take a biometric picture of your face.
-Medical stuff, such as filling out a form and donating blood in order to test for being a bone marrow donor, giving a DNA sample (by the way, the only English I saw in the whole place was the sign that said D.N.A.) by way of a finger prick and a woman squeezing your blood out onto a large circle on a piece of paper, and finally receiving immunization shots in your shoulder. I actually had one of my first moments of "Israeliness" when I, nearly an hour later, realized that on the form for donating bone marrow I marked yes for a serious medical condition that in fact I do not have. I thought the word in the beginning was referring to something else. So an hour later I realized this, trekked through the maze of the building into the respective office, and alerted them that in fact I do not have this particular condition. They said, "Don't worry, this isn't connected to being in combat or not." I said, "Do you have any idea how serious that is? If I had that condition, no army in the world would let me in!" They said, "Don't worry." I tried to get them to find my form a few times over, explained the condition, they wouldn't budge, so I left it at that, walked out, and on the way back to the next stage I passed an area where I had been speaking with a high-ranking officer. I hesitated for not half a second. I told her the situation, she got that high-ranking "I'm in the position I'm in because I do what needs to be done" officer look in her face, and she proceeded to lead me into the room, her shoulders squared, and promptly demanded justice. In 10 minutes it was all cleared, all the medical questions were reviewed, and I was on my way to the next station.
-Interview with a clerk/soldier. I had to give information, like my address and stuff. In typical Israeli bluntness, the girl asked me "If you die, who do you want to get your money?" OK! Hold on! I am going into the army, the least you can do is say "If something happens to you..." Not in Israel.
-Now, I think, you have an interview with a commander on what you want to do in the army. This isn't official in terms of requesting a unit, but rather, as far as I could tell, just a way for him to put your name on a card with your phone number and address, and your choice of unit. Not really sure what that was about, though the commander was the oldest guy I've met so far in my army journey. He was probably 35. He was the nicest guy I've met, too.
-Then you go upstairs, fill out another medical form asking questions from "Do you have AIDS?" to "Are you mentally ill?" and "Would you like to talk to a doctor right now?" A good range, I'd say.
-Lunch. Finally. I think that was around two in the afternoon.
-We got our uniforms at this point, I believe. Essentially, we waited in line for a long time, my group of about 100 guys on one side of a 5-foot wide hallway, the female Israelis being inducted on the other side. In short, it was a madhouse. Finally we were led into the warehouse-like room where we were given a sticker to put on our shirt, which was a designation for what type of gear we received. Yes, thank goodness, they had my size boots. In American sizing, that would be a 15. In Israel, it's a 50 - though they gave me a 51, which has felt a little clunky but still a good size. I'm going to write a single post describing the reaction from my platoon about my feet.

To be honest, I can't at the moment remember what happened next. It took us over an hour to get dressed. Why? The dressing area was a tiny L-shaped hallway with miniature stalls for your bag, a tiny bench, and about 2 feet of room to maneuver. Secondly, and most importantly, all the stupid, simple, everyday parts of your outfit that you just throw on is not so when it comes to an army uniform. How do you put on the belt? How do you put the beret on your shirt? Not an everyday bit of the average shirt, but still a seemingly simple thing nonetheless. Finally, how in hell do you lace up the boots? I'm thinking about making a post with a video just to show you how unique it is. Let's just say that the final part where you normally make a bowknot is instead like some strange seaman knot. It's actually pretty cool, but it took us nearly 45 minutes to get someone to explain it to us. Oh yeah, did I mention that? They don't tell you anything. It's a 'figure it out for yourself' system...

Anyway, where were we? Still reading? I wonder if this is interesting to anyone? I'm actually just writing all this "that happened, then this happened" stuff because I know that when I was waiting to go into the army, dreaming and dreaming for a year on exactly what day #1 would be like, I wanted to find a guide on exactly what happened step by step. It's harder than I thought to keep track, but this is my best try.

So, we got our uniform, and from there we began the army standard of "hurry up and wait." We got the uniform, got our "tik aleph," or primary gear bag, and were told which group we would be in. We did a check as a whole group with a gear-guy, going through each thing that should be in our bag. Of course, many, many things were missing from various bags. After that was done with, which was a comical event considering the Ethiopians' and Russians' healthy sense of humor and the easy target of comedy that is army underwear (picture to be posted at some point), we were rushed over to a seating area outside.

We waited for about an hour or more there, waiting, just sitting around, bag between our feet, no information on what was to come. Hurry up and wait. No directions. Just wait. Finally, a soldier lines us up, checks our names, and leads us to another area where the buses are. We were yelled at a bit, nothing serious at all, and we were soon to be shipped off to our bus. At this point we were allowed to ask a commander some questions. One guy seriously asked this: "If one of us doesn't want to travel on the bus, what happens?" The commander looks at him. "What? I didn't understand," he asked. "If one of us doesn't want to travel..." Unflinchingly the commander answers, "Go to jail then." That was good for a laugh, but then the group was yelled at for laughing, which happens about every 10 minutes.

OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. You have no idea how tired I am. I got up at 4:30am today. I'm just trying to bang this post out so I can relax. I'll talk later about what happens when you get yelled at for stuff like laughing.

One observation I'd like to make here that really is very telling. When we got to BAKUM, as we were sitting on the bus waiting, I couldn't help but be mesmerized at the age of the people walking around. They look like kids! Just young pups playing dress up! I walked off the bus when the time came and marveled at how much older I felt, and potentially looked. Israel has a compulsory army, so these kids are about 18 to 21. They look it. I feel much older than 18. And, so far, it's shown itself to be true.

But seriously, my morale level is so much higher right now than I thought it would be mainly because of this age difference! I just think, "What has this kid done? I've gotten a degree, traveled for months on my own, moved to another country, learned a new language in my 20s... I can do anything, and I certainly can do what they do! No need to be worried."

In fact, at BAKUM you are given the stickers I mentioned, and on them it says what "track" you are. My track was different from everyone else's. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it was that way until halfway through when a commissioned officer found me and went through this whole schpeel with two other officers about how my age is such a big deal. One of them even chastised the other for telling me how hard it was going to be. The age thing is VERY important. I will write another observation about that soon.

So, we finished with all the BAKUM stuff, were led to our bus, put our bags underneath, and boarded the bus headed for Michve Allon up north. The ride was eerie. The air was tense. What would the base be like? When are we really going to get yelled at? Who are our commanders going to be? Is the thunder, lighting, and rain a sign of the time to come?

In the next edition of Israeli by Day, the rest of day #1 will be detailed. I just have to figure out how to do the time-delayed posting feature.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Army Countdown - Tomorrow Morning

Breathe. Deep Breath. Clothes Eyes. Breathe. Open Eyes. Deep Breath.

It's a strange thing to have everything to say, but also to have nothing at all to say. What can I say? Wish me luck? Thanks. I'll need it. Say a prayer for me? Thanks. I'll need it.

All in all, I feel great. But man, it's one hell of a strange thing to say with total confidence that an adventure you are about to undertake is the most nerve racking, anxiety producing 'thing' you've ever done in your life. When else am I going to have the jitters that I have before I join an army? I mean, I'm not going to Baghdad, but the Israeli army is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Yes, if you were wondering, I am nervous about joining the pound-for-pound strongest army in the world. But, as I told a good friend a few days ago, it's time I walk the walk.

I remember taking a course in college called "Judaism in America." It was a great sociohistorical religion class that really forced me to examine my beliefs. Not necessarily my religious beliefs, but rather the way I viewed the role of religion and ethnic culture in life. As I voiced my somewhat hardline perspective on cultural and religious adherence, a friend and fellow classmate of mine turned around, looking particularly angry, particularly offended, literally shouted at me, "You're so hypocritical! You believe this and that is the 'only way,' but here you are, totally not following those beliefs!" She was a little more detailed and specific to what we were saying, so those weren't her verbatim words, but the message is there. She was saying, "Do you believe that as a concept or do you believe that as a way of life?"

Well, here I am now, fulfilling my belief that Jews should actively work for the protection of the State of Israel. I've talked the talk for, literally, years. It's time I walk the walk.

If you were interested, here is a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and soldiers in particular.

And just to leave this post on a very positive and extremely strange note, check out this image capture of the list of hits I got from Google searches the other day. Yes, someone actually searched for that on Google, and yes, my site comes up on the first page no matter if you spell "ostriches" correctly or not. What in the world...

Since I'll be updating on random weekends, and since I hope to make this a pretty cool army blog, you should sign up to receive posts by email!  The signup box is on the right sidebar.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Army Countdown - 4 Days

Let me tell you a few things about myself. For one, I hate carrying things in my pockets. I don't like my pants being weighed down by keys, a wallet, a cellphone, an iPod, etc. Meat often makes me feel nauseous. The spice saffron vividly tastes like soap to me. It's terrible. And finally, germane to this post, when I'm stressed out I don't overeat, overexercise, or run away from the problem. Rather, I get the most insatiable urge to buy things.

I am not a shopaholic, but if I'm nervous and having butterflies in my stomach, I can't get all the fancy gadgets and cool outdoors gear out of my head. Today I almost bought a preposterously overpriced cellphone. I was saved only by the fact that the cell provider wasn't satisfied with having direct access to my bank account - they wanted a credit card. Similarly, I was foaming at the mouth recently over the Nike+ SportBand.

So, as I was walking up the street next to the Mechane Yehuda Shuk (market), a teenage boy pushed by me with a delicious jelly-filled doughnut in his face hole. He was inhaling the powdered sugar covered delicacy. Here's how it went down:

Need. Jelly. Filled. Doughnuts.

Find the pastry shop.

"How many jelly-filled doughnuts can I get for 20 shekels?," I asked the shopkeeper.

"Eight," he figured.

Eight? Hmmmm...

"I'll take eight then."

I walked down the hill towards Jerusalem's biggest park, sat down on a bench next to the Supreme Court, looked out over the sprawling red roofs of the Nachalot neighborhood and the frolicking kids at Sacher Park, pulled a doughnut from the plastic bag that had begun to dig into my fingers from the weight, took one bite... and then I kind of woke up.

I came out of my daze. I thought, "Oh, that's tasty, but why do I have so many?" I finished the midday snack, licked my fingers, and then tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do with seven more jelly-filled doughnuts.

I have six more jelly-filled doughnuts left in my refrigerator. As I said, I don't really overeat when I'm stressed out. I bought the doughnuts not because I wanted to eat them, but rather because I wanted the positive association of making a new, stupid purchase. I wanted to distract myself from the churning anxiety in my chest. I wanted to forget my worries for just long enough to stuff my face.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite have the appetite. I'm just ready to get the show on the road, and there's no cellphone or doughnut that is going to mitigate that.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jerusalem Breeds Crazies Part 2!

Jerusalem can be a tiny city at times. If you'll remember this story from March (and if you don't, you should read it), we get a lot of crazy people around this town. You've got the lady that walks up and down the street in a white robe with a gleaming silver scepter shouting she's the messiah. You've got the homeless man with cardboard signs standing on a soapbox downtown trying to start a new religion with Judas Iscariot as the messiah. You've got the burka cult modesty women who turned out to be child molesters. You've got the crazed Ethiopian I sat next to on the bus last week who was screaming about Arabs ruining the country, then he got yelled at by an Arab, and then so he started yelling about the Russians bleeding the country dry (I have video). Yeah, we've got it all and then some!

So back in March I was riding the bus, as the story I linked to above described in full, when a crazy woman and her "brother" boarded. She was a whirlwind of drug-induced dialogue and slap-stick comedy. The brother, however, just sat in the corner seat like a blob, a wide grin painted on his face. He had on multiple pairs of tzitzit (a Biblically commanded garment that orthodox Jews wear), which is way in excess of the required number: 1.

Just like that burka cult that went way in excess. Well, finally I got a picture of the guy the other day as he went and bought some vodka at the corner store next to my apartment. That picture right there would have gotten me hundreds, if not thousands of hits a few months ago. There is a popular blog that happened to acquire some pictures of a burka cult lady and her multiple tzitzit-wearing husband in a grocery store in Beit Shemesh - thousands of hits in one day. People love to see crazy people!

Damn. I'm always a few weeks behind... kinda like my paycheck from September that I still haven't received.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Israeli Army Countdown - 10 Days

As you may have known, I am being inducted into the army in 10 days. Big countdown time. Still haven't finished the paperwork. Still haven't bought stuff I need - like a decent backpack. Still haven't moved into my new apartment. Still haven't put my mind around the fact that I'm about to go from freedom to servitude. As my enlisted friend put it, your time is no longer your own. Great.

I am excited and nervous and scared and happy and dreadful and proud and 20 other emotions that I can't even put names to. I don't think they have a dictionary entry for teripetriawesome. Either way, I hope to turn this blog into something of a soldier's journal, a format which can be more engaging than reading about my take on Orthodox Jewish peculiarities and ironic experiences. If I keep my goal of writing down the day's happenings before I hit the sack each night, I should have enough material to write here and there on my random weekends off.

Stay tuned! This is me for the next two years...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Orthodox Jewish Wig - Sheitel

Orthodox Jewish women, according to Jewish law, are supposed to cover their hair. This law is followed in varying degrees across Judaism, with the obvious non-acceptance, to the most stringent interpretation. I had a discussion with an engaged friend today about what his future bride will do, and so I remembered a picture I took a month ago or so.

I was on a little trip with some friends to an archaelogical site here in Jerusalem, an area which happened to be packed with many ultra orthodox (charedim). We purchased our ticket at the crowded counter, me trying not to bump into of the married women - touching is a no-no - and then moved to the rental lockers to store cell phones and the like.

I looked down at the flower-box lined bench next to me and saw a weird sight. A sheitel, a European wig, was poking out from the bags laying on the wooden planks. Was a woman buried underneath the backpacks? Were her legs chopped off? Was she taking a nap in the most awkward position ever? I couldn't figure it out...

Then I realized that it was just the wig. I was thrown off guard, considering these women NEVER remove their wig, and certainly not in public. End of story. Just wanted to start the post-Yom Kippur season, the end of the super seriousness of the High Holy Days in Judaism, off on the right foot. Setting the tone for the new year, you know?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Holocaust Survivors In Random Places

Reason 174 why I love Israel: Holocaust survivors living normal lives. I've been lucky enough to witness these amazing people doing all types of everyday things, and surprisingly, most of my friends haven't even randomly seen a survivor. That's a unique situation to be proud of witnessing, but when you live in Israel, you learn to appreciate what would be odd and potentially offensive in other parts of the world. Yes, I'm saying that randomly seeing a Holocaust survivor in Israel is "cool."

For example, on my first return flight from Israel in 2005 I sat next to Livia Bitton-Jackson, a survivor from Auschwitz who has written stirring accounts of her experience. She ended up telling me the most vivid, terrifying stories. I purchased her books a month later and found out that she had told me the worst of the worst. I felt quite privileged, and the full story of my few hours with her is and will always be one of my most cherished memories.

Though less personal, another time I ran across some survivors was on my way to buy a bottle of vodka with a friend. Across from my dorm in Tel Aviv in 2006 there was a little store that we often visited for our late-night alcohol runs. Like many makolets, they had a big screen TV positioned so people could sit at tables outside of the store and watch sports games. So, we were walking into the makolet and I just happened to glance at the guys watching the basketball game. Four men were playing backgammon, and being that it was late spring, they all had short-sleeve shirts on. Three of these men had tattoos on their forearms. I can't say I've ever had a more involuntary double take in my life.

A few months ago I was sitting on the bus and an old woman sat down next to me. I looked at her, looked down, and noticed the tattoo on her arm. I looked back up and we made eye contact... she covered her number with her shirt.

That same week I boarded a packed bus in the center of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the kids in this country don't show much respect for their elders, which means they rarely get up from their seat in a crowded space to give to even the old lady with a walker. So, I stood near the front of the bus and instinctively looked around to see who was sitting who shouldn't be. Right there was a regular looking old lady with...

I mean, come on, where else in the world can you live history like this? And yes, if you were wondering, since I've had so many of these experiences I have become overly conscious of elderly people here. Every time I see an old person with a short-sleeve shirt, I look at their forearm. Every single time. Without fail.

I may have missed being a part of "The Greatest Generation," but at least my generation is really going to be the last to witness first-hand the greatest story of redemption ever known to man: Holocaust survivors living normal lives.

BTW, a story of mine about another experience with a Holocaust survivor yelling at me got picked up for an anthology, but it's been a very sketchy process... I'll let you know if that ever happens.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Anti-Semitism On YouTube

Through all these recent financial crises, despite the turmoil and fear and panic, I've been so proud of the advancement of our society and blame mechanisms. I am a student of historical anti-semitism, and I find myself fascinated at the blatant lies perpetrated against the Jewish people in times of despair. Germany blamed the condition of their state on the Jews, eventually leading to the idea that the elimination of the sickly nation would cure Germany of its ills and give them the purity of nation and state to achieve their aspirations.

Germany is by no means the only example in history when Jews were the scapegoat for financial crisis. It almost goes without saying that when there is a dramatic misfortune in a country, the Jews will be blamed. So, when this whole morgtage crisis and bank failures started, I was ready to see if anti-semitic remarks would creep into the discourse. Just last Friday night I commented to somebody that I was happily surprised to have not really come across much blaming of the Jews in this matter!

The Jerusalem Post has an article, however, that notes an Anti-Defemation League report on an uptick in anonymous anti-semitic comments on mainstream web sites. For example:

"Jews are greedy, rotten slimeballs," wrote one surfer on a Yahoo Finance group.

"It's difficult, if not impossible, for one honest investor to neutralize the efforts of thousands of Jewish swindlers."

There is a YouTube video called "The Court Jewsters" currently up that quite clearly blames the Jews for the financial meltdown. In case you don't want to watch the video, and I did think it was pretty boring, here's a couple thoughts (it's included at the bottom of this post). One, the intro scene essentially says "Jews are communists, and we must take our nation back." That's classic Aryan xenophobia - let's take our nation back.

Secondly, the description of the video discusses the historical Jewish moneylender. The medieval Jewish moneylender was believed to take flesh in return for debts. Pogroms were carried out against entire Jewish populations because of rumors that a moneylender stole a Christian baby to settle a loan. Riots were fomented as a leader rallied the masses against the Jewish moneylender who, according to popular thought, strangled the economy with debt in order to take over the world.

It's just classic anti-semitism. This is Nazi stuff. This is pre-Israel anti-semitism. If you do a search for anything Israel-related on YouTube, and it's been like this for years now, you'll see scores of really scary comments. For example, on a plain old facts about Israel video, you have this comment:

withoutmercyuk (36 minutes ago)
You do know that Rothschild was given guardianship of 'Israel' in 1917. He stole Britain from the British and USA from the Americans. He owns the bank of England, the Federal Reserve and is guardian of the treasury of the vatican. He is not a man of God.

Note that that was posted 36 minutes ago - October 2, 2008. Sad.

And finally, the star of the ball is an image from "The Court Jewsters" blaming Jews for the financial crisis. A burning American dollar bill has written on it, "In Zionist Bankers We Trusted." The best part of that image is that there is a mass of humble, heavily coated regular folk in the foreground. I wonder what they're trying to imply...

That's right, Jews caused the Great Depression, and we're already responsible for the state of the world's financial markets today. And to think that I was so proud of our advanced civilization! As Abraham Foxman said, the director of the ADL, "The age-old canards about Jews and money are always just beneath the surface."

Now, why doesn't YouTube take this video down as fast as Yahoo took down the remarks on their Finance site? And why doesn't YouTube try to employ a censoring mechanism to keep people from writing the most disgusting, literally pro-Nazi genocidal remarks against Israel and Jews worldwide? Honestly, check out most any comment section on an Israel-related video on YouTube!