Tuesday, February 26, 2008

OK, I get it, rice and drains hate each other.

Here's another "jeez, these Israelis," type of post. Strangely, at the same time, there's also another "wow, this place," theme to this here little post. This country just keeps me on my toes...

The bus system here runs on EXACT time, in my experience. If you're 2 minutes late at the central bus station, you might as well forget it. That bus has come and gone. But, in a stroke of Middle East inconsistency, I walked out of my apartment this morning and saw my bus take off before I could catch up. Then, contrary to the typical 5 minute wait for the next round of buses, I stood in the cold for 45 minutes; waiting, waiting, no transportation in sight. By the time the next Green Machine rolled up there was a line of about 20 people pushing to be first in line. After I got on and started my homework (hey, I'm busy), a female soldier (yes, she was very pretty) sat next to me, and proceeded to watch me do every bit of the page in the workbook. How stupid she must have thought I am! "Don't swim in the water, it is too deep, and you don't know how to swim." "What are you drinking? An alcoholic drink or something else?" Etcetera.

So, at each stop there were about three to five times the number of people that usually are waiting for the bus... I can't say I didn't enjoy the old women yelling at the 25 year old driver. I can't say I didn't, especially as I found myself 30 minutes late to class. An inauspicious way to start a rainy day in the Holy City.

The day dragged on, but eventually I found myself back at home. I started working, as per my 2:30-ish to 9pm-ish schedule. I haven't posted about my work, as it is relatively new and fairly secret at this point, so I'll post eventually on that -- yes, I work for the Mossad... They are in desperate need of English speaking hitmen, I think.

Well, as I was saying, I got home, started working, got about two hours into it, and then heard some feverish knocking on our door. We have a back yard, as you could see from the snow pictures I posted, but there is a gate back there. No one outside of the few apartments that share it has access. We really never use that backdoor. So, I heard this knocking, and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I walked to the front, thinking it was probably the mailman. He has come by trying to deliver the same envelope to us, one that doesn't belong to either myself or my flatmate, for the last month and a half. I figured it'd be a quick, "lo, lo, ze lo shelanu!" brush off... yeah, did I forget where I live?

I realized it was coming from the oft neglected backdoor, the one that is directly adjacent to our next door neighbors, an older couple that we've had... let's just say we've had our encounters. And, of course they don't speak English, so that's always fun for me as well. You think you know frustration? Try to defend yourself in a language that tends to tumble out of your mouth like accidently spitting out your gum while laughing. After about 10 seconds of him saying something about our kitchen, he says, "OK, let me just see," and all of a sudden he walks past me and into our kitchen. Just like that. Hello, how are you, blah blah blah in a strange language, and then some guy is pushing aside your dirty dishes.

A long, long story made short, I ended up taking about 30 minutes to plunge our kitchen sink. Apparently, our water system is connected to theirs, they pair up and run out to a single drain, and "in five years, five years we have never had a problem. As soon as you guys moved in now our drain is always clogged! I came home one day and the sink was filled to the top with backwater. This is not good. You understand what I'm saying?"

Yeah, I think I got it after the fifth time. Really. Yes, sir, I will indeed keep that drain cover in place from now on. He got so into it that he ended up using our dish sponges to scrub, literally scrub, down our sink. Then, he took all the junk that we plunged out and put it on one of our plates that was sitting next to the sink. It looked like a nice little dish of pâté, actually. Just imagine me standing behind this man, mouth agape at him scrubbing down a rather filthy sink with rather clean brillo pads, mouth agape at him speaking some rather fast Hebrew, mouth agape at how many times he said "keep the drain cover on," mouth agape when he knocks on our door again to give me a new drain cover. Ours didn't fit well, he said.

I felt pretty bad when the one he gave me also didn't fit well. Oh, and I met his grandson. Interesting day, I'd say. Oh, wait, not over yet!

Some hours later, as I'm listening intently to an audio file for my job, I hear a major commottion. Occasionally they have what seems to be some type of parade on the street, with a religious minivan making its way along the street. I never really go out to look at it, mainly because I'm busy, but also because it's so preposterously loud and obnoxious. Imagine $20 dollar speakers blaring '80s hair-metal: obnoxious. Well, this is $5 dollar speakers blaring Hebrew religious music, which can be nice music, but not when it's coming from a minivan while you're trying to pay your rent.

So, I took a look. I'm not sure why, but I think I know exactly what this was. I'm pretty sure this was a bar mitzvah procession. You gotta remember that this is Israel, that this is a country of Jews, and these types of things are fairly commonplace. Especially in the Sephardi communities, like where I live, where tradition is paramount.

I stepped out of my apartment, walked towards the blaring minivan, an old beater decked out with Christmas lights and Hebrew signs, and realized that they actually had a police escort. There were probably about 50 to 75 people walking behind the creeping van, cheering and singing and dancing. They were walking with a canopy and carrying a very Sephardi-style Torah, the crown of the Jewish people, lifting it up skywards while belting out ancient songs as if they themselves wrote the words yesterday.

It was a jubilant scene, a loud group, and I noticed with not a small amount of satisfaction that my neighbors were all at their doorsteps as well. Sometimes I like to play it cool, you know, act like Mr. Imperturbable; So, when I really want to take a picture of something that I think sticks out, and I see that all the time in this country, I always have the thought "they probably think you're a silly tourist - a total newbie." But, no, they were also watching the festivities.

I took a few pictures, but most of them were pretty terrible. But, here's two that you can at least get an idea of what was going on. The first one is a shot of the minivan. It's very blurry, but I think it looks kinda cool, so I put it in black & white and I like it. Considering the photo that won the World Press Photo of the Year, I don't think I'm too far off... The second one is a pretty hard to see shot of the people carrying the Torah. It's the full size image, so you can click on it and zoom in, or better yet download it and fit it to screen to see it all better.

And, this is just Tuesday. I already saw something absolutely outrageous today, which I also photographed, that I'm saving for a post on Friday. Tuesday. This place is unreal.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

This really warms me up, to read something like this. In case you don't have time to read that link, it's an article about a swarm of people that flocked to Sderot on Friday in order to do their shopping, providing emotional and financial support to their fellow Israelis and Jews.

Sderot is a little town inside Israel proper that rests along the Gaza border. Because of its location, it has been the target of around 8,000 rocket attacks in the past few years, since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Nearly every day rockets are launched from Hamas terrorists inside Gaza, landing in the city or the surrounding area, often resulting in destroyed houses, injuries, and occasionally deaths. Just last week, I believe, two brothers were seriously wounded in one of these attacks. One of them had his leg amputated. Every day on the news it isn't a matter of whether or not rockets landed, but rather how many, and what they destroyed.

The residents, and particularly the outspoken mayor, have become vocally exasperated with the government. I read an article a few days ago saying that protecting Sderot is a "low-priority," right now. I'm not really sure what we can do, since all of this is originating inside Gaza, and it's not like our targeted assassinations ever stop these attacks from being carried out. The city wants the government to help fortify buildings, I guess make them more rocket-proof, though I don't know of many buildings that can withstand a rocket attack. I personally want to help in some way, even if it is in a way that will only bring emotional support, as I have no personal recourse in stopping rockets. I feel like there is something I should be able to do, but what can one silly guy accomplish?

I wish I would have heard about this! 10,000 Israelis from all over the country went to Sderot on Friday, just to do some shopping. I guess they bought groceries and other Shabbat items, since it was a "pre-Shabbat" event. This is, as another comment noted, real Zionism at work. The problem is that Zionism, outward acts of Zionism, have generally been abandoned, leaving religious demographics as the only groups that actively pursue these forms of support and activism. Maybe I'm wrong on that, I hope so, but I would venture to guess that the majority of these shoppers were religious.

Anyway, let's not spoil a good story with sad overtones or wild speculation! This is good news for a battered town. Sderot: We haven't forgotten about you, and we'll help, even if the government has better things to do. I hope I hear about it next time around! Or, maybe I should just go sometime? I'm sure my mom would love that...

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Awesomest Thing About Living Here <--- Click on this link!

"The earth shook in many parts of Israel at 12:37 p.m. Friday." I love how poetic the newspaper can get. No, seriously, we've had a few earthquakes since I moved here in September. Apparently, we are due for some catastrophic quake - overdue, actually. Israel rests on a major fault line that goes all the way up through Syria and Lebanon and the such, all the way down through the Sinai and into Egypt, I believe. Consequently, this country is tossed around by both politics and geology. Hey, leave us alone already - stupid tectonic plates.

It's like I'm living in California! So, for this particular quake that happened on Friday, around noon, I happened to be at someone's apartment doing my laundry. I was there alone, and was sprawled out on the couch watching a movie, relaxed as relaxed gets. And out of nowhere the apartment complex started to rumble. It was shaking side to side, very subtly, but I could tell right away, instantly, exactly what it was. I thought for a second, "well, maybe it is the dryer banging against the wall," but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was the ground shaking. The ground literally shaking. Only two things make the ground shake here, and I could tell it wasn't the other one.

An hour later when I got up to check on my clothes, I checked out the local news. And there it was, an earthquake reported to be felt in Jerusalem. Quite satisfying to have the confirmation that I actually did feel, and realized I was feeling, in my opinion one of the coolest experiences on this earth. A few things rank highly in my mind as being really "cool": Helicopters, lightening, and earthquakes.

I'll add this experience to the long list of surprises I've been given in this land.
I hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day. It's always a nice holiday when you see couples pronounce their love, even if the rest of us are left out in the cold. V-Day is not a holiday here, as it is a Christian celebration of the martyrdom of an undocumented, unknown, and probably arbitrarily fictionalized Saint Valentine. Still, some people like to call the 14th Yom Ahava, or Love Day. Our neighbors to the East, however, aren't so keen on the idea.

I'm sure you probably read or saw this brief on the news, but I figured it was worth a few pot-shots. Apparently, Valentine's Day is banned in Saudi Arabia, and some other Muslim states are pushing for similar laws. Saudi Arabia has a legal and police system that carries out sharia, or Muslim law. This is generally the equivalent of Jewish law, Halacha - only scarier. The force that carries out sharia in Saudi Arabia is called the Muttawa.

The group is called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a rather pleasant sounding name. A week ago they started making their rounds, visiting gift shops, jewelers, candy stores, and the most publicized of all, florists, all in a very successful effort to literally ban Valentine's Day. They also ban the color red during this period, at least de facto. So, stores will be fined or even closed down, with staff potentially getting arrested, if they don't clear out red roses, red gift boxes, candies in heart or otherwise identifiably Valentiny packaging, and so on. And, they are very serious about all of this. The country's religious leader declared a Fatwa on Valentine's Day, seven years ago, thus religiously demonizing Valentine's Day.

A member of the Gestapo -- err, the religious police -- had this to say, according to the AFP: "The West exports to us habits and feasts which contradict sharia and wants us to imitate them. We want to make sure that sharia is implemented. We punish anyone who commits or abets a violation." Valentine's Day is sinful, bringing out improper relations between man and woman, creating an atmosphere of shameful sexuality.

I would be lying if I said that Jewish law says otherwise. In fact, where do you think sharia came from? The difference is that Israel is a democracy, and though some want Halacha to be similarly enforced, we continue on with our freedom to sin. After all, I didn't not give anyone a red rose because I wasn't allowed to. I didn't give a red rose to a sweetheart simply because I have no sweetheart.

Chalk this one up to "Our Silly Neighbors!" (Top pic from cbc.ca)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mean Israelis! HMPH!

As I was walking down the street the other day, the morning after the first suicide terror attack on Israel in just over a year, I saw something that caught my eye. There was an Arab man standing by a cop car, looking like he wasn't sure what to do with himself as he played on his cellphone, and the female police officer was calling in his paperwork. If you stand at the intersection of Jaffa Street and King Solomon Street, the intersection between the Old City and the New City of Jerusalem, you are almost guaranteed half the time to see cops checking I.D.'s. My picture happens to be from a different area of the city, a rich area, thus a decent amount of construction (needing cheap labor - Arabs).

I'm not 100% sure on how it works, as I've seen dozens checked and generally all let through to the New City, but basically the cop checks the Arab person's ID, smiles, and off they go. Not quite sure what they're looking for, at least in terms of what may or may not be printed on the ID. If anyone knows, inform me.

Anyway, in this particular case the Israeli officer was calling in the man's papers, probably some working papers, as he stood on. I felt like I was breaking the law by just taking a picture from the other side of the street! But seriously, it caught my eye in a few ways.

1) It was pretty innocuous. There wasn't any abuse, the woman didn't call in multiple cars for backup, as undoubtedly they would do in America. Heck, I was pulled over once in Williamsburg for suspected drunk driving - supposedly I pulled out of a turn too quickly, and it was 2 AM - and within 3 minutes there were 3 cop cars, all lights ablaze. Even after I blew a 0.00 BAC, and reiterated that I had nothing to drink, I still felt guilty! So, I was a little proud of the female police officer here for not calling in backup. You go girl! Oh, yeah, the point: She just checked his papers, no abuse like anti-Israel voices would have you believe.

2) Do you blame us? The morning after a suicide bombing, after we have had a year of freedom from bombings (not counting the daily rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip, of course) it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that we're going to check a few ID's. You kill us, we'll check your ID. Not a bad tradeoff.

3) This reminded me of a pretty good, though maybe a little left-wing for me, Israeli movie that I saw last year. It is called Karov L'Bayit, or Close to Home. Essentially, it is the story of two very different girls that find themselves as partners during their army service. As you may know, army service is compulsory in the Holy Land. So, these two 18 year old girls have the terribly difficult duty of checking non-Israelis' IDs, on the street, and writing down their information. Targeted profiling, if you will. We speak of these things in America as potentiality. We live it every single day here. These girls have a very important, though taxing job. The story really reveals what Israelis have to go through, and from the attitude of the soldiers you see that it isn't at all what we want. What 18 year old would want to spend 2 years checking the ID's of generally innocent people - people just trying to work whatever job they can get?

So, what should you take from this? Remember: Israel does what it has to do to try to curb illegal entry into the state, and keep harmful elements from our populace, but we do it with humanity. This picture is proof that Israel is indeed humane towards the Arabs. Some commentators will even say that Israel has the most humane army on earth. I don't want to get into a political discussion, but I will profess to anyone that Israel does go out of its way to guard the "innocent until proven guilty" ideal of Democracy, even towards our non-citizen residents and workers.

This picture is huge, so you can download that and zoom in and all of it. Sorry it's not better. I wasn't trying to get arrested!

Friday, February 8, 2008

It's a Jewish State

You hear all about Israel wanting to remain a "Jewish State." Or, the media refers to Israel as a "Jewish State." What does that mean for a democracy? What does that mean for minorities? What is a "Jewish State," after all.

What it means is that the population is Jewish, and the population identifies itself as Jewish. A Jewish State is a cultural term, meaning that these people walk, talk, think, act, and speak like Jews. Well, the natural question is, what does that mean?

It can be a religious thing, that we as Jews see ourselves as Jews, that we are the people that G-d chose to live in this land, to keep his Torah and laws, to be the 'light to the nations.' It can also be a nationalist identification. That we see ourselves as Jews, in the sense that we are an ethnicity. Just like a Japanese person would say, "I am Japenese, and my people are ethnically Japanese, based on our language, food, shared history, religion, and cultural cues," a Jew in Israel would say "Our food, our language, our religion, our history, our culture, our nation..."

So, when I walk around, with these types of things on my mind, the types of things that really brought me to Israel -- the beauty of transitioning from an embarrassed Jew to a proud one, the natural feeling of being a Jew in his land, the knowledge that we belong here, and belong to each other -- I walk around and have these things on my mind, and instead of them slowly slipping away as mere idealism, as idealism seems to do, they are reinforced in my daily life. That's because this isn't just a Jewish place due to everyone being Jewish. It's Jewish because we embrace it. If I could have frozen time, I would have taken pictures of all the 13 year old, secular, teenage punk girls and boys, all wearing Stars of David.

Just riding on a regular old city bus, on any old day, what do I see? Grafitti. Typical. But, not your normal grafitti, or at least not normal anywhere outside of this country. In this country, this is pretty much everywhere. If you're a Jew, you'll know what it feels like to see this randomly penned in America (and anywhere else, as far as I assume). To see this in this country, with all that young idealism in your head... Just a tiny little star on the sill of a bus window, a German bus, nonetheless, and your difficulties just seem to melt away with the ethereal sun.

Just #247 of the reasons I love this country.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I walked into my ulpan class today, at the end of a 20 minute break, to find my fellow Hebrew-butcherers in a political discussion. I asked if they were indeed discussing politics, which they said yes, and I told them I would come back when they were finished. You see, I majored in politics, I worked in a political think-tank, I was involved in this stuff. And, I find it to be some of the most offensive, troublesome, and dreary business known to man. I enjoy international law and conflict analysis, I really do, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of people discussing this and that -- count me out. They convinced me to stay, however.

Basic stuff, you know. I helped explain to the non-Americans what was happening with these crazy primaries. Talked about the candidates, what they were saying, what everything meant, the schedule for the election, etc etc. Nothing crazy.

The whole time, however, the Italian girl that I talked about in previous posts (the, um, sensitive one), she looked like she had something to say, to me. Let me just air some grievances. First of all, she's one of those people that knows everything. Not literally that she knows everything, but she thinks she does...literally. She argues with our teacher, a native Israeli, over Hebrew. Come on. That's like Hiro from Heroes, the TV show, telling me about English verb structure.

Anyway, she goes on this rant about how America's "democracy" is such a joke. The meat of the story, what she was saying, was that politicians in America don't really represent the people, the people have no voice, that money is the only important factor in politics -- but only in America. Naturally, I said, "Oh, right, and the Italian government is a real democracy, right?"

"Yes, it is! It's funny that the whole world looks to America and talks about their 'democracy,' I mean, money is the only thing that matters in American politics!"
"Right. First of all, Italy is a democracy? Could have fooled me. Berlusconi owns all the media, owns the government, he was as corrupt as Arafat, and he's coming back!"
"Well, Berlusconi is different."
"And yet you are reelecting him."
"OK, and what about Italy having 61 governments in the 62 years since World War Two? How can the Italian government represent the people if it isn't even in office long enough to represent itself?"

Naturally, on her side, there was no return. That's because, my friends, America is a real democracy, and Italy is on the lower end of what anyone should consider a democracy! I mean, their most dominant political leader controls all the state media, which is oh so open, right? And, he really does use that control to censor what is said about him. That is a true blow to freedom of speech. Imagine if our president was the owner of Fox, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and whatever other media outlet you could think of. You think you would ever hear about his failures, his blunders, his mistakes? I say that sounds a little bit like Iran. Or, Italy.

So, yes, America is a terrific democracy! Case in point: The intense fighting over the chance to be the Republican, or Democratic, candidate for president. Look at how big of a deal Super Tuesday was, and that's just to decide who gets to run for office, not who gets into office! Sure, money is important, but it really isn't everything. The McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act has done more than you could imagine to curb campaign finance questions, and though some shady deals do go down, the majority of funding only demonstrates how much constituent support a candidate has. And besides, all the candidates have millions and millions. In college I remember reading this study, for a class, about the relationship between campaign success and money. It hits a ceiling of effectiveness, just like everything does in this world. So, you can have billions, but it won't influence the outcome versus a few hundred million.

The point is, I'm getting really tired of this America bashing I hear from non-Americans! The way I see it is, we don't talk about your politics, so don't talk about ours!

Or, maybe I'm just sick of this silly Italian girl. I'll have to write another post about how she "gave me a talking to" after class. Check in for that on Friday, or Saturday. That cartoon at the top is a perfect political cartoon. It really hits the bulls-eye on the media in Italy before and after Berlusconi came to office. Check out the poll in the upper right corner. Give it a vote!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Wednesday may have been a joke when it comes to snow, but Thursday was actually fairly nice! There was some snow, and it was falling like snow should fall, until 9 or 10am. The rain came, rather quickly, and destroyed it...but there was a nice layer for a few hours. Here's a few pictures of my street and mail box, covered in the good white stuff. I wish I could have made it to the Old City -- I'm sure it was quite majestic while covered with manna.