Sderot

This is an excerpt from my journal from Israel from visiting Sderot, a city that borders Gaza.

I zoned out listening to my iPod for a while until we finally reached our first major destination of the day Sderot.  The name Sderot may not ring a bell to you, as I don’t honestly remember often seeing its name highlighted in the news.  Sderot is a city that borders the West Bank and Gaza.

The first thing I noticed upon exiting the bus was a sign that said, “Danger of Death”.

I thought the sign was referring to the area.  It wasn’t until later that I was told it was to make sure children didn’t try to climb the pole and get electrocuted.

Nadav informed the group that no matter where you were in most of Sderot, you were with in 10-15 seconds of a bomb shelter.  If you were to hear the alarm saying a rocket was being dropped, it was time to run and find one of these, because the alarm only gives you fifteen seconds.

The strange thing about Sderot as a city was its beauty.  It reminded me of standing on Omaha Beach in France.  Sderot is a beautiful city, but war makes it a scary one to be in.

After a couple minutes, we piled back into the bus and drove near an area where we could see the Gaza Strip.

We stood on a giant pile of dirt where it was fairly easy to see Gaza as well as in the far distance Egypt.  Nadav told us the story of an attempt by terrorists to destroy a power plant near the Gaza Strip, which ironically enough would have taken out power in Gaza.  It was crazy, but so much of what goes on in the Middle East is.

Nadav did his best to explain the relations between Palestinians and Israelis and all of the conflict related in a short period of time.  A crash course of sorts on the subject explaining the elections that brought Hamas to power.  He also explained the fact that it seems almost more likely that there will be a three state solution than a two state one.

This made me think about conversations I’ve had in the past couple years about terrorism.  There is a great episode of the West Wing that talks about this and the ongoing debate about what makes a terrorist.  A terrorist is only a terrorist to one side typically and a patriot to another.  I personally have trouble understanding anything patriotic or brave about shooting rockets from hospitals to avoid face retaliatory fire.

After standing on the hill of dirt for a while, we all started to walk down because it was time to go to talk to some of the local people of Sderot.  Before doing this, we stopped at a local makeshift museum rockets shot from Gaza were being kept.  They were sorted and spray painted with the dates they were shot.

We visited a local synagogue and talked to a woman who had moved from the US to Israel and lived in Sderot with her children because her family lived there.  She talked about how despite war, you had to go on with life.  She mentioned turning running to the bomb shelters into a game for her kids and that really made me feel awful.  I can’t imagine having to do something like that, but it was part of the expectation in this town.

A bomb shelter outside the synagogue in Sderot

After listening to the woman and asking her some questions, the Rabbi of the synagogue we watched a film about the town.  It showed how beautiful the town could be, but how dangerous it was at times.  It was really powerful to watch.

What amazed me probably the most was that everything and everywhere had a bomb shelter.  Even the playground had a bomb shelter, which looked like a giant cement caterpillar.  

After fooling around for a couple minutes on the playground, it was time for lunch.  I could hear my stomach growling pretty loud, so I was happy to go.  We got back on the bus and drove to a small downtown type area in Sderot for lunch.

My last day in Israel and the Journey Home

January 18th-19th, 2012

After a long night out in Tel Aviv, we were all tired.  By the time we all went down for breakfast, it was nearly time to get everything on to the bus and tour a little bit of Tel Aviv and Yaffo.  I had my regular breakfast of coco puffs and decided to add some bread and butter to go along with it for a change.  We all seemed a little sluggish, which I wasn’t if it was from the night before or because none of us really felt ready to leave.

Following breakfast, we loaded the bus up with our stuff on to Yoav’s bus, but got on to a different one.  Based on labor laws, we couldn’t be on Yoav’s bus during the morning, because he would be driving for too long throughout the day.  We headed to part of where Tel Aviv had grown to become a really big city.

When we got off of the bus, it was really bright out and probably the warmest it was the entire time we were there.  I don’t think anyone particularly appreciated how bright it was, but at least it was warmer.  We started walking around, but this part of the tour was a lot less talking from Nadav and a lot more just looking around.

After a little bit of walking, we found a set up steps where Nadav has us sit down and we learned a little bit about the citrus industry that helped build up this area long ago.  Most of the oranges that had once been here had moved north of Tel Aviv, but now are slowly moving south to parts of the desert that are being turned green.  Real estate is a big part of where agriculture takes place in Israel in the same way it is in the US.

While we were sitting down, a stray cat jumped up on my lap and Jennie next to me.  The cat was very friendly and clearly wanted attention.  Usually Nadav would enjoy this kind of thing, but he sort of laughed about it.  Lucky enough for me, Meagan got a nice pictures of “my new bestfriend” sitting in my lap.

After we got up, Nadav pointed out to us a mural of some of those who had helped truly build up the Tel Aviv of today.  The cat followed us a little longer until we started walking further up the road.  Meagan offered me one of those wet napkins things my grandma used to take from Atlantic City and I cleaned my hands.  Can’t be carefully enough when it comes to stray cats in Israel.

From here, we stopped and checked out what was once one of the largest houses in the city that is having some work done it.  We then headed towards the main drag that we were on the night before.  It looks a little bit different.  One thing I hadn’t realized the night before was how close the first bar we went to was to the place where some of the major discussions for Israeli independence took place.  While Nadav explained the significance of this, a group doing a scavenger hunt took some pictures of a couple random things that our group could do including one or two people who could tough their nose with their tongues.

Walking further down the way, we checked out two giant and beautiful mosaics and stopped to use the bathroom.  At this point we were all already dragging, but the show had to go on.

Finally it was time for lunch and we headed to the market.  I joined up with Eric and Carly and did some shopping first.  Carly had to get a t-shirt for her boyfriend back in the states.  At markets like the one we were at, t-shirts aren’t too hard to find, so we didn’t have much trouble.

We walked down the aisles of the market looking at all of the cool knick-knacks, fresh fruit, fresh meat, fresh fish, and jewelry.  It was something you just don’t see in the states that I don’t think we could fairly describe.

Carly and I decided after some shopping that it would be a good time to start looking for lunch.  We looked at one place just off the market, but noticed the whole menu was in Hebrew, so we decided to continue on.  In the middle of the aisle we were walking down, a man was giving out samples from the restaurant that he worked out that had everything we wanted and after taking a taste; we knew it was the right place.  The fact that the man said that it would also only cost us 40 sheckles for the two of us (a little more than $10 American), we couldn’t say no.

The restaurant was tiny with seating for just four people.  We sat down and ordered shawarma and Cokes in class bottles as we admired the tiny restaurant.  The man who took our order spoke great English and was happy to come by to talk to us as one of the other men there cooked our food.

After about fifteen minutes, our food was delivered, mine with everything on it and spicy, Carly’s a little bit more plain.  We both looked at our food and smiled.  I felt a little bit like I was discovering something brand new or delicious or like I was Anthony Bourdain enjoying something fresh and delicious.

I don’t know if I’ve explained this well enough from all the other entries I’ve made from my trip, but everything in Israel I ate was pretty much fresh.  The concern about farm to table isn’t such a big deal, since the whole country is so small.  Before taking a bite, the owner who had talked to us before let us know that to eat it, to make sure to be careful, because he had stuffed it so much that the pita might break.  

The first bite of my shawarma had so many flavors it’s hard to really do it justice.  Both of us took pictures of our food, because it was one of those meals you wanted to remember.  Mine was layered with a couple French fries, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, onions, some kind of hot, spicy sauce, and a tiny bit of humus.  This was by far one of my favorite meals of the entire trip.

We sat and enjoyed our meal, happy to have found an incredible bargain where we didn’t expect one.  The owner came and talked to us more and told us about his trips to the US and gave us a menu to take with us inviting us to come back.  We sadly let him know we were leaving later that day, but if I ever return, I have every intention of visiting the same spot again.  I think about the taste of that shawarma often and the perfect mix of fresh, spicy goodness.

Being done eating, it was time to do a little more shopping.  We looked at more jewelry, happened on some chocolate hamentashen, which Carly was happy to buy.  A couple minutes later, we walked into a store that looked a little bit like the American store Claires if it also included a tattoo parlor inside.  Carly found some earrings made from guitar picks.

We decided to wander around a little bit towards where we had earlier seen from really cool looking graffiti.  We took pictures of different images from around the area and window shopped for a little bit.  I noticed a little convenience store and went in looking for a snack for the bus ride.  After doing a lap around it, we both decided not to buy anything and we started heading back towards the meeting point.

We got back and started looking for a bathroom and ended up spending 15 minutes walking the wrong way before we finally asked someone for some directions.  The bathroom was strange as it was set underground almost like you were walking down to a subway or something.  It was fairly clean considering it was a public bathroom.

After returning from the bathroom, I noticed some other members of our group sitting around with Mike who had apparently lost his passport sometime between then and eating lunch.  Everyone freaked out, but thankfully it was found with in about 15 minutes or so.

We waited another couple minutes here before walking up the road to meet Yoav with the bus.  We loaded on to the bus and started heading back to Jerusalem for the Birthright Educational Fair.  This meant a nice long bus ride and a nice nap.

After a bit of naptime, we arrived in Jerusalem at the Educational Fair and we were one of the first groups to get there.  We loaded off the bus, walked through the security there, and went up to see what was going on.  It was like a College fair, only it was different opportunities to come back to Israel for free or inexpensively.  I focused on opportunities that were educational where I could get a graduate degree.  I talked to a woman there about an MBA program near Tel Aviv that sounded interesting.  After about twenty minutes it started to get crowded and I was pretty much done talking to people there.  Thankfully, it was pretty much time to go fairly soon after I went to the bathroom.

We exited the building, got back onto the bus and waited for about fifteen minutes and weren’t entirely sure why.  A van pulled up behind the bus with a bunch of brown boxes.  These turned out to be the t-shirts and sweatshirts we had ordered.  Not going to lie, that sweatshirt is now one of my favorite ones that I own.  From the fair we, had to head back to Tel Aviv again for dinner, which meant naptime!  Hooray for MOAR NAPS!

We all started to wake up, as it was time to get off the bus and walk to the place we’d be having dinner at.  It was a nice Italian restaurant, which worked out really well, because frankly I was really craving Italian.  We took over about a quarter of the restaurant in tables as we all sat down.

We spent about an hour before we ate talking about what I think you would call take-aways from the trip.  These ranged from friendship, spirituality, and so many other things.  We all agreed that we had an incredible time and collectively thanked each other.  A woman sitting near us asked if she could talk to us as a group.  She told us about coming to Israel and moving hear and getting married.  This was another time we were welcomed home and she invited us to return again and again and again.  I think that was something we all wanted to eat.  We sat for a minute and food finally arrived and we tried not to think about the fact that our trip was coming to a close.

After finishing dinner, we walked to a jazz concert that was pretty close by.  It was a cute little venue with all Hebrew Jazz.  There is something kind of cool about the sound of Jazz in Hebrew, but all of us were exhausted and nearly falling asleep in our seats. Following the concert, we walked over to a spot that overlooked the Mediterranean.  At night, this is one of the most beautiful views you will ever see.

We kept walking and Nadav directed us to where there is usually a market.  Since it was so late at night, nothing was there, so he gave us time to go head out and have some drinks and hang out.  I went with Eric and Dan as we just wandered around.

We happened upon a bar as we were looking for a bathroom and walked in.  It was somewhat dark, but probably one of the most beautiful looking bars I’ve ever seen.  We all used the bathroom and took a seat at the bar.  I ordered a Whiskey Sour and two shots of vodka to celebrate the trip as the three of us sat and enjoyed ourselves.  Eric ordered some food, which looked like something out of a food magazine.

We sat there for about an hour just enjoying ourselves, the bar, and talking to the kind bartender.  We told him where we had come from and he mentioned a trip he had made in the past to the states.  After about an hour, it seemed like it was time to go and we made our way back to where we had left the rest of the group and found them all sitting around a table at one of the first bars we had looked at.  They all wanted to head to the beach and so did we so we grabbed them.  We got half way there and stopped, because they realized they hadn’t closed their tabs.

We waited for them with other members of the group back at a gelato shop and though of different things we could do for the rest of the night.  Sitting by us, someone got a call suggesting that we join them at a nearby Hookah bar. I was game, because I hadn’t smoked any Hookah since the end of finals back in Charleston.

At the Hookah bar, we were joined by some of the Israelis who had been with us the night before.  It was cool to see them one last time and to try to relax before we had to head to the airport. I had a cup of hot mint tea and some Hookah and watched the rainfall from the sky.  At one point I went outside to talk to Michael Tal who wasn’t a big fan of the smoke.

After about half an hour, Yoav appeared with his bus and it was time to start heading to the airport.  We said our goodbyes to the Israelis for good now as well as to Jackie who was extending her trip.

Once we got to the airport, it was time to return our rental cell phones and I fumbled through my bag trying to find it.  I freaked out for a second until I finally found it.  I’m not sure if I really didn’t know where it was or was just incredibly tired. It was 3 AM at this point, so it could go either way.

We unloaded our stuff from the bus and headed inside of the airport to check our bags and get our tickets to Zurich and JFK.  We stood in line for about half an hour before we were all ticketed and gave our checked bags to have put on the plane.  We sat just outside of security as everyone finished up and said our goodbyes to everyone who would be staying behind including David, Nadav, and Sean.

We went through security, which was actually fairly quick and went to our gate.  I messed around for a minute at the food court, but decided I didn’t really want anything there and headed to the gate on the moving walkways.  Once I got there, I found the rest of our group including a few sleeping on the ground already.  I noticed I had a headache again and couldn’t figure out what it was from.  I decided maybe it was from a lack of food and bought a chocolate bar, which helped a little bit.

We finally got onto the plane and despite my every intention; I was unable to sleep the entire flight to Zurich virtually.  I was sitting next to Lisa, which was nice.  At one point, she fell asleep and I think confused me for Michael and rested her head on my shoulder.  I’m a very cuddly person, and frankly if I fell asleep on a plane, I’d probably do the same.

When we landed in Zurich, I freaked out, because I couldn’t find my passport anywhere.  I let Jen know and fumbled through my bag as we all raced towards our flight to JFK, which we were already running late to.  On the line to security in Zurich I finally found it.

In security, they had to double-check my bag, because something came up.  I had moved my dop-kit from my checked back to my carry on and had packed a full sized shaving cream since I couldn’t find a small one.  They took it and let me go on my way.  Sas was not entertained by any of this.

From here we rushed to our gate and immediately got onto our plane to JFK.  We waited and waited for Taylor who had lost her wallet and she finally got onto the plane not looking too happy.

Well that was a really long flight and when we landed we were all feeling kind of rough.  When we landed I was thankful as I had gotten incredibly restless in my seat and just wanted to stand up.  We got off the plane and started heading towards customs off the plane together.  I yelled at a lady who started letting people ahead of us who worked at JFK near customs.  Probably not the best thing to do, but she got the idea.

Once most of us had gone through and I had grabbed my bag, I hugged some people, but felt the need to leave, because I was started to feel like I might get a little misty.

I transferred over to my terminal of the airport, checked my bag, had some Burger King for lunch (AMERICA!), and admired some of the nearby pigeons that had made their way into the airport.  I started heading to my gate, changed in a bathroom really quickly and waited.  I called my folks and talked to them for a minute while I waited at my gate at JFK to go back to Atlanta.

My wait at the gate wasn’t too bad, but in my sweatpants and an old SGA t-shirt I feel like I looked and probably smelled like I was homeless.  On the plane, I was seated next to a guy who had one semester left at Harvard and had played defensive end there.  Talked to him for a minute before I fell asleep on the plane.  I woke up for beverage service and got a Fresca and some of the Delta cookie things.  When we finally landed I yelled for a second, because the landing was rough and I honestly thought we had crash-landed.  My seatmate assured me we hadn’t which I was thankful for.

Inside the Atlanta airport I called my parents who met me at baggage claim where they carried my bag and we started heading home.  I was thankful to be headed home where I could finally be in my own room and shower.

The Golan Heights, Tzvat, and a Night out in Tel Aviv

Monday and Tuesday

Monday January 16th, 2012

I woke up at the hotel at the Sea of Galilee following the awesome activities we did with the Israelis where we got to talk about their roles in the military.  It was breakfast time and I had my usual Israeli breakfast of coco puffs with milk.  Following my quick bowl of cereal, I took my water bottle, filled it up, get onto the bus and maneuvered my way back to my seat.

The adventure of the day was about the Golan Heights, which I honestly hadn’t thought much about.  Media over the last five or so years has spent far less time focusing on the Golan Heights and far more on the West Bank.

The first question you have to ask yourself is why are the Golan Heights important to Israel?  Part of it is pride.  Israeli soldiers were lost taking the Golan Heights from Syria.  Another part of this has to do with the one of the world’s most important and scarce resources, water.

To look at the Golan Heights, we take a short hike, but as usual for the trip it is cold.  We are all dreading one major thing, saying goodbye to the Israelis.  After hiking and lunch, we learn it is time to say goodbye to our new Israeli friends as our bus driver takes us to a spot near a soccer field to sit.

We talk about how we didn’t know what it would be like to have all of these random Israelis join with us and talk about worries that they’d ruin the chemistry of the group.  We spend at least half an hour talking and thanking each other, take a nice group picture and finally get back on the bus to drive to the bus stop that we will be dropping the Israelis off at.  That was pretty tough on all of us, but we luckily got to see them all again, but I’ll explain that later.

From here, it was getting kind of late and time to head back to the hotel.  We race back and have dinner.  It’s kind of a weird dinner for all of us.  We sit there and I think I can speak for the whole group by saying that we missed the Israelis.  After dinner and a drink, it is time for a quick shower and bed for me.  I got to sleep pretty early every night in Israel.

 

 

Tuesday January 16th, 2012

Tuesday started off with the same breakfast as always.  I was in a bit of a rush, because I woke up later than I had intended and had to push all my stuff into my bag quickly.  I put plenty of 3% milk (yeah, don’t know why 3%, but that’s what they had) in my cereal, filled my water bottle, and brought my bags to the bus and took my usual spot in the back.

With everything on the bus, we were ready and started heading towards Tzfat.  The best thing I can do to explain Tzfat is to say it is this bizarre town with a huge population of Kabalistic Jews.

The streets of Tzfat were very narrow, but that didn’t seem to phase Yoav, but nothing did.  Narrow streets and rain freak me out, but don’t bother Yoav.  He parked the bus and we all got off to go meet with a local artist who I found to be quite interesting.

The artist we met was named Avram.  Avram was a gangly skinny bearded man who spoke English with a mid-western sound to it with a side of sounding completely stoned.  He went through a phase in his twenties where he was questioning his faith and starting looking into Kabalah and got hooked apparently.

Avram told us that he had take on the name Avram to replace his English name, Robert.  He talked to us about the history of his name going back of course to Abraham who was originally named Avram or Abram.

All of this was going on in Avram’s art studio where he showed us some of his works.  My favorite that he showed us was definitely one that using different color represented the blasts of a shofar.  Being a twenty-two year old who isn’t entirely sure where he’ll be living after graduation, I didn’t bother to even think of buying anything, although if I ever go back, I will certainly considering buying something.

After finishing in Avram’s studio, we walked under an overhang and consider the merits of what he had said before we continued.  We started to walk the streets of Tzfat, which were thin, but beautiful and ancient.  Immediately in front of the overhang was a beautiful marble floor.

After a little walking around, we stopped so Nadav could show us one of the synagogues.  He pointed out the most famous one in Tzfat, but it was far too busy, so we went to another one.

The one we entered was a Sephardic synagogue, so the sanctuary looked far different from any one I’d ever seen.  One of the walls was lined with ancient books.  This was the kind of synagogue I wish I could have gone to.  It was beautiful in a very simple way.  We all gave a couple shekels to thank the man there for allowing us to come inside.

After all of that, it was the time all of us (well most of the others, I didn’t care about shopping there to much) were waiting for.  We were given a good bit of time to walk around an area of shops in a covered area.  I walk around with a few others, going from shop to shop, looking at art and jewelry.  It isn’t that it isn’t pretty, but I have very simple taste for these kinds of things.

In-between two shops, I see a cat that follows me from between a couple stores and listens when I tell it to follow me.  One of the shop owners sees it come in and puts some food into a small bowl on the ground.  He tells us about his travels to America and how he is glad we came to his shop.  I think we were thankful he didn’t say something like “SPECIAL TAGLIT DISCOUNT”.  It was funny, he offered us all some pizza.

After the girls bought some stuff, I ventured down the street so they could use the bathroom.  I went and bought a cup of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice.  Fresh juice is something I loved about all of these little markets and for the price of 5 shekels, it was pretty hard to beat.  The girls were back quickly, since a guy was trying to charge them for use of the bathroom.  Before long, it was time to go as we loaded onto the bus and started to head for Tzippori for lunch before another hike.

After a fairly short bus ride, we arrived at Tzippori where it was pretty cold.  We were lucky and since we got there first, we got the tables before the other birthright group could and ate lunch.  We had sandwiches at picnic tables, which were surrounded by; you guessed it, more cats.  These kittens were adorable and I think someone gave them some tomatoes.

It was finally time to go for a hike as we headed out.  We looked at an area that used to be a temple.  It showed the interesting conflict between the Jews and Romans in the area.  The Jews wanted to be able to practice their religion, but were forced to make changes to fit in with Roman tradition.

The first part of the actual hike wasn’t too bad, but before long, our shoes were covered in mud.  There were beautiful streams, an old Roman theater and remnants of where some of the Jews prayed, a replica of part of the temple in Jerusalem.

We stopped in a really tall building and talked for a while about the reform movement in Judaism and what Judaism meant to us.  I thought about my grandparents, camp, NFTY, my bar mitzvah, and to a lesser extent my confirmation.

More muddy hiking, the bathroom and then it was time to start the long drive to Tel Aviv.  I think all of us, slept at least a little bit on the bus ride to Tel Aviv.

When we got to Tel Aviv, I think we were all excited and jumped off the bus quickly and unloaded.  For this hotel, we got to pick our roommates, so I roomed with Eric and Mark.  We had a little bit of time to get ready, then eat dinner, and finally head out on the town.  I felt gross after all of the hiking, so I took a shower pretty much right away and before long it was dinnertime.  We all headed downstairs for dinner, but our minds were on the night ahead of us, our big night out.

After dinner, we had a ton of time to get ready so after spending five minutes, I chilled in the hallway and waited.  The girls spent a good bit of time getting ready and looked awesome and before long it was time to get on the bus.

We dropped off at the point we would meet up as a big group later and from there headed out.  After spending half an hour walking aimlessly, me, Emily, Taylor, and Hillary finally settled on a nice bar where we all got drinks and a little something to nibble on.  I got really spicy French fries that were incredibly tasty.  We finished our drinks and started trying to find out where everyone else was headed.

We met up with some of the others who had met up with the Israelis (see, they are back) and started leading us to a club.  Having no idea where we were headed, we waited outside a club for about five minutes before we were let in.

Just like in any movie you can imagine about some trip to Europe or whatever, we are in his awesome club, dancing like nobody is watching (thank god, I have no rhythm).  I notice a couple of couples that made me think that I was at Pantheon, which was awfully odd.

A little before the end of the night, I decided I wanted a drink so I order a vodka Redbull and a guy at the bar starts talking to me.  I drink it quickly and try to order a tab and the guy next to me has apparently ordered me a refill which I thank him for, take a shot with another person from my trip, sign my check and head back to the dance floor.  Never had a guy try and hit on me at a bar like that, but it was entertaining.

After finishing my second vodka red bull, it was time to head out.  I walked outside of the club, because frankly it was too hot.  I waited for some of the others and started heading back to the meeting spot feeling pretty good.  The bus appears and we say a final goodbye for real this time to the Israelis.

Back at the hotel I am exhausted and fall asleep pretty quickly, the end of a pretty good night out in Tel Aviv.

Shabbat, Havdallah, and Mount Herzl

January 14th, 2012

I took off from blogging yesterday, so today will be an extra long entry so that I can catch back up.

So the fourteenth was Saturday and Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath).  In the morning, the only activity scheduled was a service, but it wasn’t mandatory.  The first thing that any of us really had to do on Saturday was go to lunch at 1, but even that wasn’t required, just strongly recommended.

Given that this was the first day in a while that we had to sleep in, my body decided that the ideal time to wake up would be 8:30 AM.  When I woke up, I thought for a little bit about going to services.  I walked out of my room and saw Jessi standing outside and she looked concerned.  Since she was so tired last night, she didn’t stay up for the meeting to find out what we were doing for the day, so she didn’t know what was going on.

I let her know I was headed to breakfast and she decided to join me.  There were maybe five of us at breakfast.  This was the first meal that I used Israeli butter on a piece of bread, and I have to say that it reminded me a little bit more of cheese than of the butter I’m used to.  I also had my usual coco puffs that I had with breakfast virtually every morning in Israel.

After munching on some breakfast, I decided I wanted to go back to the room and either take a nap or go to services.  Back at the room (I almost wanted to say back at the ranch, but that wouldn’t make any sense) Kyle had just woken up and was trying to decide if he had enough time to shower and make it to services.  I voted in favor and before long he was showered and dressed for services with a funky tie on.

Rather than go to services, I decided to take my American cell phone with charger and try to go use the WIFI over by the bar.  I checked Twitter for the first time on the trip and found about a million emails, only a couple of which were important (the important ones were about the documents Dr. Friedman need for Cuba ASAP which my parents were kind enough to take care of).  I got sick of that and went back to the room and spent some time listening to my iPod and reading a little bit of the book by Anthony Bourdain that I brought with me.

Soon enough it was 1 and time for lunch.  Everyone was finally awake and it looked like we were finally ready for the day.  Most of the afternoon was spent just hanging out and relaxing since the last couple days had been so intense and it was Shabbat.

Before long, it was time to head to Havdallah services at the Hebrew Union College.  We left early to take a look at Ben Yehuda Street during Shabbat.  For stores to be considered kosher, they had to be closed during Shabbat, so in a typically busy part of Jerusalem, there was nobody.  It was kind of bizarre to see the streets of a busy city completely empty.

From there, we got back on the bus and actually headed over to the Hebrew Union College.  We stood in the lobby for about twenty minutes goofing around before going out into the courtyard where we’d have the service.  This was special to me, because Havdallah services are my favorite.  For non-Jews out there, Havdallah occurs at the end of Shabbat to celebrate the new week.  We celebrate it with a service where we light a large braided candle called a Havdallah candle, have a glass of wine, and smell spices, typically in a spice box.

Several different birthright groups where here together along with one of the Rabbis from the URJ to conduct the service as well as a first year rabbinical student.  The spices for this service were passed around and not in a spice box, which was different for me.

Havdallah is a short service, so we were only there for maybe twenty minutes.  Once the service was over, one of the other groups tried to be cool and do a cheer, but our cheer embarrassed them I think because it was so good.  Or at least, I’d like to think it was (can I get a hoorah?)

We got back onto the bus, drove back over to Ben Yehuda Street where we had until like 11 PM.  A big group of us started walking down the street and all stopped inside a jewelry store.  I noticed a set of sticks that they put a torah scroll on the inside.  I’d never seen them just set out like that which I found interesting.  It made me wonder if maybe there was a black market for Torahs or something.

These thoughts quickly faded as we got close to the ATMs.  A bunch of people in my group went over to take money out for dinner.  One of the guys from our group, Michael had a friend from in town who he wanted to see for dinner and invited a bunch of us to go along, so me, Emily, Hillary, Jen, Sarah, Michael, Lisa, Kevin, Michael’s friend, and Michael’s friends girlfriend all went to this restaurant.

It was a fusion Italian-Israeli place.  I know that doesn’t make sense probably at first, but it was really good.  We sat there for a while and for whatever reason, they forgot Lisa’s meal.  They finally got it out to her, and nicely took it off the bill for her.

Following dinner, we started walking and ran into another couple people from our group and I decided to join up with them, since they were headed to a bar.  This bar had to be one of the most tourist places I’ve ever been.  The bar was also the first one I’d ever seen the lit on fire using just booze.  I ordered myself a beer and sipped it as I watched all of the other birthright kids from various other trips dance and make poor decisions.  I watched one girl who slightly resembled Snooki run to get her friends because some guy was giving out free shots.

I got sick of watching all of that and saw Eric standing outside the bar so I decided to join him.  Eric was hungry (Eric is always hungry) and wanted to find something to eat and needed to change out some money, so I went with him and got some more shekels.  Walking up the street, we found a shop that sold schnitzel and it was like Eric was in heaven.  I got myself a Coke, because in Israel, it is hard to resist a Coke made with real sugar instead of corn syrup.

Right after this, I saw one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.  There was a man sitting outside of a store on a bench humming into a trumpet mouthpiece that was attached to a conch shell.  I didn’t know what to say, so I took a picture of him and gave him a half a shekel for the picture.  I took at least three pictures of him as I was completely convinced that this man must be what actually happened to Piggy from Lord of the Flies.

We continued to walk up the street and Eric saw an ice cream shop.  I was still happily drinking my Coke while Eric ran to get some ice cream.  With ice cream in hand, we walked down the street again and we saw Sas and Sean standing somewhat near the man “playing” the conch.  I made sure they had seen him, because I thought it was so hilarious.

At this point, it was time to start walking up to the meeting spot and we counted off (19!) and got onto the bus.  I was ready to go back to the hotel and sleep and Yohav got us back there fast, but what do you expect from the Chuck Norris of bus drivers?

 

January 15th, 2012

Sunday morning was a reasonably early morning.  I was really excited, because it was a day about politics pretty much.

We all had breakfast, put our stuff on the bus, and said goodbye to the hotel for the last time as we headed towards the city.  Our first stop of the day would be the Israeli Supreme Court.

Let me begin by saying that everything about the government buildings in Jerusalem was thought through and seemingly thought through pretty carefully; the Supreme Court building for instance on the inside got thinner and thinner from the bottom of the stairs as you went higher and higher up in the building.  Most of the money to build it was donated by the Rothschilds.

The inside of the building was clean and in most places very sterile looking.  What stood out the most to me was the Pyramid-like structure on the inside.  I took a really artsy picture of it.  What is interesting about the Israeli justice system is it uses the Torah sometimes in determining law.  It isn’t legal to have pigs on Israeli land, but if you elevate land onto a platform and put pigs on it, you can do it, because it won’t be land from Israel.  Benjamin Netanyah, the leader of the Likud Party became the Prime Minister because he was able to build a coalition.  Kadima, the party that Ariel Sharon started years ago got the most votes in case you were wondering.  Had Kadima been able to build a coalition, Tzipi Livni would have been the second female Prime Minister of Israel, the first female Prime Minister being Golda Meir.

It was finally time for lunch and we went to this open-air market.  Imagine an American farmer’s market, only 100 times better.  There were fresh baked rolls, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fresh fish, fresh kosher meat, dried fruit of every variety you can imagine, and one of my favorites, fresh squeezed juice.  I ended up with a nice big cup of fresh squeezed orange juice. 

After shopping around for a while, a big group of us walked over towards the ATMs so people could get money.

I sat down for a minute and waited until everyone was done.  Led by Daniel (the Israeli one), we started walking.  He said he knew what restaurant to take us to, but before long, Katie started to complain we were “off the grid” and we headed back.  We ended up at a place at the bottom of the hill from where we started.

At the place for lunch, I attempted to order a schnitzel pita, but the chef was confused and started making me a plate with pita and humus.  Megan was nice enough to explain to him what I wanted.  About half the group got this strange soup that was tomato based with small dumpling like things that had some kind of ground beef in them.  When I go back to Israel, I definitely need to try whatever that was, which is not to say that what I had wasn’t good. 

After lunch, we went back up to the market where Katie finally decided to buy a small hookah.  I needed to find a bathroom before we left and found Greg searching for one as well.  We found one and stopped afterwards so he could buy some chocolate. I mentioned to him that I wanted to buy a cigar and he took me to a cigar shop he had passed walking around.

Inside this small smoke shop was one of the smallest humidors for a smoke shop I’ve ever seen.  I looked inside to brands like Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and my eyes lit up.  I decided on a nice Romeo y Julieta from Havana.  My thought was why not get myself ready for what I’ll enjoy all of the next semester.  After that it was time to head back to the bus.

The bus ride from there took us to Mount Herzl.  We had already been to the bottom of Mount Herzl when we went to Yad Vashem.  At the top is a grave for Theodore Herzl who many recognize as the father of modern Zionism.  We all took pictures of his grave.

Down the mountain from Herzl’s grave are the graves of all of those who have died during wars fighting for Israel as well as the graves of important political figures.

Yitzhak Rabin and his wife

We stopped at the grave of Yitzhak Rabin and his wife.  His grave is constantly monitored now by a video camera, because a couple years ago it was vandalized.  Near it were those of many other recognizable Israeli political figures including one I mentioned before, Golda Meir.

Golda Meir

 

 

 

 

After walking through the political graves, we got to the graves of soldiers.  We walked by the grave of Michael Levine, an American who decided to join the IDF.  The story goes that he wanted to be a paratrooper, but he didn’t have the right papers.  He walked over to the building where he was supposed to start training without the papers and they wouldn’t let him in, so he climbed a fence and into the building.  The story goes that they gave him the papers so he could become a paratrooper, because most people wanted to climb out of the building, not into it and they thought it took guts to do what he did.  Michael was sadly killed during the second Lebanon War.

Michael Levine

Michael was Levine was buried in accordance with his wishes on Mount Herzl.  His family was worried that nobody would show up to his funeral, since most people who knew him were back in the US.  On the day of his funeral, thousands of people showed up to celebrate Michael’s life.  I for one thought this was really cool.

Things got really intense after this.  We walked to another grave close by, the grave of one of Nadav’s close friends and his commander.  Nadav described his friend in a way that I’m not even going to try to match.  Nadav’s friend was the one everyone wants to be and wanted to be around.  Nadav told a story of a night when it was raining and they were all soaking wet and his friend went and made sure the tent was set up properly so they wouldn’t continue to get wet and got everyone new dry sleeping bags.  Sadly, a couple years ago, he died.  Nadav found out the day after he had been at Mount Herzl with a group and was able to come back for the funeral.

He also told us that every year when he comes back there were more and more graves in the area and less green space and he hoped that some green space would remain.

This really struck me.  To think that our best friends could be lost at war like that.  I can’t imagine losing someone I love to a war.  I just lost it, thinking about how stupid I thought war was.  I thought about how all of our problems are caused by greed.  I wanted to fix it.  I wanted to stop war from happening, but sadly this isn’t something you can just do.  I wish we could sit down and stop all the madness in this world sometimes, but sadly it isn’t that simple.  I tried to get it together, but it took me a couple minutes before I was okay and had to just move on. 

Following a quick bathroom break, we started to drive north towards the next hotel at the Sea of Galilee and after a lot of driving finally arrived.  I was happy to be able to sit down, eat some dinner and relax, because so much was still on my mind.  I got probably half an hour of sleep on the bus, but needed far more.

Following dinner, I went back to the room and grabbed my cigar.  I was able to light it pretty quickly and smoked the thing faster than I think I’ve ever smoked a cigar.  I sat outside the bar at the hotel with Andrew, sipping on an Israeli beer and talking about the future.  It was a nice night, but I need to get some rest, so with in about an hour, I was headed back to the room.

I decided I wanted to shower before bed, so I went into the bathroom and grabbed a towel.  It was a really nice looking shower and I went to close the shower door and it made a terrifyingly loud noise as I attempted to close the shower door as if there was a dog outside barking.  I screamed really loud and Kevin sounded a little worried.  I let him know what it was while I judged myself hardcore.  After that, I dried off, put on some pajamas, and we watched professional arm-wrestling for a couple minutes on TV.  I don’t think either of us knew that was a thing before that night.

 

Masada and the Dead Sea

Masada and the Dead Sea

January 13th, 2012

Our day began early.  Waking up in a Bedouin tent at 4:15 AM is always a strange thing.  I was well bundled up, but still pretty cold.  I reached over, put on my glasses, and laid back to think about the day ahead.

Fifteen minutes passed and suddenly a Bedouin came, turned on the lights, and opened up the tent.  Apparently he had the wrong tent as it was only 4:30 AM and our wake up time was 5 AM.  Sas was pissed and yelled at the guy to turn off the lights.  The Bedouin left, the lights were out and I jumped up, closed back the tent and did the most awkward version of a barrel roll under and back into the tent.  I may be one of the most awkward human beings to walk the earth.

5 AM came and the tent slowly started to wake up.  I made a quick run to the bathroom and grabbed some of the hot tea and a biscuit (like a cookie, not like the southern ones) that had been prepared for us.  I took a look into the mirror at my unshaven face.  I was starting to get a little scraggly, but shaving with the razor I had wouldn’t have felt so nice and I had already made a commitment with myself to not shave until my return.

I returned to the tent and packed the remainder of my things that had been on the mat I slept on into my backpack and started to walk back to the bus to my nice comfortable spot in the back.  Before long Megan joined me and to no surprise to me asked how long the ride would be because she wanted to take a nap.

The ride to where we would be climbing Masada from was pretty close by and only took about five or ten minutes of winding roads to get to.  We were all exhausted as we got out of the bus with cameras in hand and looked around for where we would be climbing.

It was finally time to start climbing as we headed towards the steep hill that is Masada.  Now, for those of you who have never climbed Masada, it isn’t like hey, I’m going to go rock climbing up Masada, it’s like incredibly steep hiking with beautiful views.

On the way up, I stayed towards the back, as I always prefer.  Jayme ended up becoming my walking buddy, because her knees were bothering her.  Every so often, Sean would appear near us jogging in place.  His jogging in place made me think he was doing aerobics or something when in reality he was just trying to stay warm.

The climb up took a while, but once we finally reached the top, it was well worth it.  Sas and a beautiful sunrise greeted us at the top.  The view of the sunrise over the Dead Sea made me glad that digital cameras are around, because I would have wasted several rolls of film trying to get the right shot.  If you look at my photos from the trip on Facebook, you’ll see the awesome picture I got of Sas and Michael Tal.

After taking all of the pictures that people seem to take when they climb Masada, we climbed down into an old part of the water system that had been on Masada so that Nadav could talk to us about the significance of Masada and we’d quit complaining about the cold.

Nadav reminded us that Masada was the last stand of the Jews against the Romans.  Rather than submit to certain slavery to the Romans and have to give up their customs, the Jews on Masada committed suicide.  I can’t imagine the situation they were in and I can’t imagine being one of the people on Masada or even one of the Romans who found them.

While we were there, we also looked at some of the areas that Herod the Great had fortified.  I feel like this entry in some ways serves as a really short history lesson, but so be it.  Herod was appointed by the Romans to rule over the area since he was a Jew.  Herod has to be one of the craziest people I’ve ever heard of ruling anywhere.  One of his last wishes was to have several people killed on the same day as him to make sure that he would be remember.

 

A Model of what Herod's Fortress likely looked like

The climb down Masada was actually far more intense than the climb up.  On the way down it is less steep, but takes far longer.  Most of the walk down has handrails that you can hold on to, but in places where they didn’t have them, it was a little bit scary.  The Argentineans from the day before were all cool and walking really quickly past me as if certain death was waiting for them if they tumbled down the hill.

After climbing down, we were all hungry.  We had breakfast not to far away and despite the food looking kind of iffy, we all ate a pretty good bit of it.  On the way out, I realized that we were eating on a reserve.  The main give away that it was a reserve was probably the goat that was trying to sit on a Jeep.  I guess I can’t use “Never have I ever seen a goat climbing onto a Jeep” when I play never have I ever…

Before heading into the Dead Sea to go for a swim we made a stop at the Ahava Factory Store. Ahava is the company you probably see at mall kiosks selling Dead Sea skin products.  Given that I don’t use a lot of products, I walked through for a second and then sat outside waiting for the rest of the group to be done.

It was finally time to go in the Dead Sea….or was it?  Nadav got onto the microphone on the bus and let us know that the other group was told that they weren’t allowed in the water because it was too rough.  We were all pretty upset about that, but didn’t let it ruin out time there.

When we got off the bus, I grabbed my backpack and it started to drizzle.  It was raining a little bit on my parade, but I figured things could get worse.  Mark convinced me that I should change into a swimsuit so that I could put some mud on.  I agreed and walked down towards the water.

After standing there for a minute or two, the ended up “letting” some of us in the water and I got to float in the Dead Sea.  It is one of the strangest feelings in the world.  I thought I was going to fall, but instead, I just sort of floated on my back.  I must have had a cut somewhere, because it burnt pretty badly.  After a little bit of that and Megan randomly smearing mud on me that disappeared into the hair on my arms, I went up to change.

Up at the bathroom I wanted to shower and did a little bit, but was a little bit thrown off by the fact that the shower stalls lacked curtains, needless to say it was a very short shower.  I changed into my jeans I had been wearing before, which now felt like they had a giant layer of salt on them.  While I put my socks on, some of the other guys joined me.

After getting dress, the group went to go have lunch up by the store that was by the bathrooms.  They had sandwiches wrapped in plastic with Hebrew writing on them.  I had to ask what was what, because I don’t speak nor read Hebrew.  I ended up with a Cheese sandwich, which was pretty good.  I pulled the tomatoes off and fed them to a nearby cat.  I didn’t think cats ate tomatoes, but apparently this one did.

Midway through lunch, the rain picked up, but it slowed down by the time we got on the bus.  We had a long bus ride back to the original hotel.

On the way back, we stopped to pick up the person who would be leading the service that night since it was shabbot.  When she got on the bus, she introduced herself and said she was from Athens, GA and had been in NFTY-SAR, which I got excited about and embarrassed myself and everyone sitting near me by cheering for.

A real shower, dinner and services ended the day.  Not a bad Friday, not bad at all.

Picking Up Israelis, Sderot, and a Night in a Bedouin Tent

January 12th, 2012

On the night of the 11th, we did an evening activity to get ourselves ready to invite our Israeli friends into our community.  We made a circles and then broke into groups where we drew pictures of our stereotypes of Israeli soldiers and what we thought their stereotypes of us were.  We essentially had a room filled with Israeli looking GI Joes and crude drawings of Snooki everywhere.  The message in the room was pretty clear that most of us really didn’t know what to expect.

My group had David, the Security guard in it while we did this activity and we decided to just draw him as one of the Israelis we drew.  It turned out to look like some kind of strange combination of Justin Beiber and Dave Grohl, but looked a lot like him.  I was very thankful not to have to draw, because…well, I draw a very mediocre stick figure if that is any hint.  The night ended and most of us went to sleep fairly early.

As we had been told the night before, our morning began early.  We all had a quick breakfast at the hotel we had been staying in before packing our things up for the day ahead.  I’m a picky eater, so that meant a bowl of some Israeli version of coco puffs with milk and a couple of pieces of bread.  With bags in hand, we all headed to the bus where the “bus loading committee” was getting everything on the bus.

We starting riding in the general direction of our first adventure of the day, Sderot, although we had something else we needed to get done first.  We stopped at a large bus stop to pick up our new Israeli friends.  There were soldiers all over the place as the bus stopped for a minute before Sean motioned for me and Michael Tal (there were two Michaels and one Mike on our trip) to come help load the luggage of the Israelis.  The two of us stood there for a minute looking around before the Israelis finally came and we started to introduce ourselves.  They were excited to see us, and frankly, I was really excited to see them.

After loading their luggage on to the bus (they honestly did most of this work), we all got onto the bus.  Tal and Zohar, two of the Israelis, were sitting around me so I was excited to get to know both of them.  Tal told me she was an air traffic controller in the army.  I definitely thought that was one of the coolest things.

Shortly after the Israelis got onto the bus, we found a nearby park to get to know each other.  Nadav needed to talk to the Israelis about something, so the Tal, Zohar, Daniel, Matan, Liron, Ofri, Leo, and Sagie left over with him while the rest of the group sat around and talked.  I was fortunate enough during this time to see some of Sas’s best dance moves (your welcome for mentioning this).

Before long, Nadav was done talking to the Israelis and we formed a giant circle.  Sean and Sas had small oranges that he handed out to a couple people so we could play a name game to get to know each other better.  Let me just say that there are few things that are as amusing as throwing an orange at someone as the skin starts to soften.  The orange definitely sprayed a couple of us, but I’m sure the citrus did nothing to hurt us.

After this game was over we played a game that is apparently the basis for speed dating.  We were put into two different circles that faced each other and after two minutes we would shift.  Sean and Sas would give us a topic to talk about like cereal, or a favorite movie or something and for two minutes we’d talk about it.  Definitely helped me to get to know the people in our group better.

Once we were done speed dating, we were put into smaller groups where we had to come up with cheers.  Led by Daniel the Israeli, we decided that we were the best team and our cheer was just to huddle and say this.  Some of the other teams cheers were far more amusing, but not necessarily safe to mention on this blog for those involved.  I assure you that they were amusing; I just don’t really feel like sharing them.  This is when we learned out larger group cheer (can I get a hoorah?).

Following all of this fun on a random field, it was time to hit the road.  Before we left we all went to use the bathroom, but there was some confusion over which bathroom was which, leading to a female invasion of both bathrooms.  Apparently the urinals didn’t give away which one was which, but then again, I didn’t enter either bathroom so who knows?

From there, we were on the bus for a while.  I zoned out listening to my iPod for a while until we finally reached our first major destination of the day Sderot.  The name Sderot may not ring a bell to you, as I don’t honestly remember often seeing its name highlighted in the news.  Sderot is a city that borders the West Bank and Gaza.

The first thing I noticed upon exiting the bus was a sign that said, “Danger of Death”.

I thought the sign was referring to the area.  It wasn’t until later that I was told it was to make sure children didn’t try to climb the pole and get electrocuted.

Nadav informed the group that no matter where you were in most of Sderot, you were with in 10-15 seconds of a bomb shelter.  If you were to hear the alarm saying a rocket was being dropped, it was time to run and find one of these, because the alarm only gives you fifteen seconds.

The strange thing about Sderot as a city was its beauty.  It reminded me of standing on Omaha Beach in France.  Sderot is a beautiful city, but war makes it a scary one for some to be in.

After a couple minutes, we piled back into the bus and drove near an area where we could see the Gaza Strip.

We stood on a giant pile of dirt where it was fairly easy to see Gaza as well as in the far distance Egypt.  Nadav told us the story of an attempt by terrorists to destroy a power plant near the Gaza Strip, which ironically enough would have taken out power in Gaza.  It was crazy, but so much of what goes on in the Middle East is.

Nadav did his best to explain the relations between Palestinians and Israelis and all of the conflict related in a short period of time.  A crash course of sorts on the subject explaining the elections that brought Hamas to power.  He also explained the fact that it seems almost more likely that there will be a three state solution than a two state one.

This made me think about conversations I’ve had in the past couple years about terrorism.  There is a great episode of the West Wing that talks about this and the ongoing debate about what makes a terrorist.  A terrorist is only a terrorist to one side typically and a patriot to another.  I personally have trouble understanding anything patriotic or brave about shooting rockets from hospitals to avoid face retaliatory fire.

After standing on the hill of dirt for a while, we all started to walk down because it was time to go to talk to some of the local people of Sderot.  Before doing this, we stopped at a local makeshift museum rockets shot from Gaza were being kept.  They were sorted and spray painted with the dates they were shot.

 

We visited a local synagogue and talked to a woman who had moved from the US to Israel and lived in Sderot with her children because her family lived there.  She talked about how despite war, you had to go on with life.  She mentioned turning running to the bomb shelters into a game for her kids and that really made me feel awful.  I can’t imagine having to do something like that, but it was part of the expectation in this town.

After listening to the woman and asking her some questions, the Rabbi of the synagogue we were in showed us a film about the town.  It showed how beautiful the town could be, but how dangerous it was at times.  It was really powerful to watch.

What amazed me probably the most was that everything and everywhere had a bomb shelter.  Even the playground had a bomb shelter, which looked like a giant cement caterpillar.  

After fooling around for a couple minutes on the playground, it was time for lunch.  I could hear my stomach growling pretty loud, so I was happy to go.  We got back on the bus and drove to a small downtown type area in Sderot for lunch.

In the Sderot area it looked pretty busy in the first place we looked, so Emily, Hillary, and I looked for another place to go.  We found a place where the people didn’t speak English.  We couldn’t figure out what they were serving, so we asked some people sitting at a table outside while Emily went to the bathroom to change.

They asked where we were from and we were answered with the familiar “welcome home”.  We waited a couple minutes until we heard another woman come and say hi.  She wanted to know where we had been.  The guys at the table also wanted to know what we were doing in Sderot.  That one was certainly tough to explain.

Emily finally finished in the bathroom and went finally decided to go to the first really busy place that we had passed.  We stood in a fairly long line, but it moved pretty quickly.  After much debate, I decided to order schwarma for the first time and had it spicy.  It is quite possibly one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had and the nice cold coke I had with it certainly didn’t hurt.

 

Following lunch, we walked over to a nearby convenience store where we bought snacks for Masada since we would be waking up so early to climb the next morning.  I bought Cheetos as a joke since I thought it was the most American thing I could eat on Masada.  They turned out to be peanut butter ones, which was kind of interesting.

After I bought Cheetos and the girls bought some other things (I wasn’t paying attention) we spent half an hour looking for the bathroom and nearly were late for the bus looking for it.  The bathroom was certainly not one of the cleanest ones I’ve been in to say the least.  The girls decided to wait to use a different bathroom if that gives you any idea.

We loaded on to the bus to the where I found members of our group eating ice cream with the tiny spoons.  Only in Israel do they give you 6 tiny spoons instead of one normal sized one.  It was time for another long ride.  We loaded on and I was ready for a little nap.  I probably slept for five minutes.  I don’t sleep well on buses, unlike my bus buddy Megan who I’m pretty sure could sleep standing up in Macy’s next to a crying baby.

After going over the river and through the woods (okay, I mean around crazily curved mountains in the desert) we finally arrived at the Bedouin camp.  When we got there, we got off the bus for a second and stretched; only to go back on the bus and grab our stuff to put down in the tent we’d be spending the night in.  From there, we had a bathroom break (yeah, we have lots of bathroom breaks in Israel).  I was expecting a random really crappy bathroom, but it was just a regular bathroom with regular plumbing?

After messing around back in the tent for a little bit, it was finally to go ride the camels.  To go along with the camels were a bunch of Donkeys, which led to many jokes about dat ass.  Yeah, we are all over 18, but dat ass is still funny.  I rode a camel with Megan (she who sleeps a lot).

She chose the front of the camel and regretted that decision immediately.  She was pretty afraid while I stayed in the back, held on for dear life, and pretended not to be afraid at all and made fun of her.  I’m sure she appreciated it.

After we rode our camels, took amusing pictures, and a few of us fell off of donkeys, it was time to go learn about the Bedouins.  We went into a tent where they taught us about Bedouin hospitality.  They served us little cups of coffee and tea.  The coffee was really strong, but then again, I’m not a coffee drinker (hot chocolate all the way!).  I was amused by all the questions we asked of our Bedouin woman host.  She seemed to get a little defensive, but I figure I would have as well.

As in everywhere else in Israel, a cat walked into the tent and walked through us as we continued our questioning of the Bedouin woman.  She told us how Bedouins let guests know they aren’t welcome any more.  Just as a hint for the future, if I fill your cup too high, it either means get out or that I’ve had too much to drink.

After learning about Bedouin hospitality, we had a little bit of time before dinner started.  I stood with some of the rest of my group and watched a large group of kids from Argentina play soccer.  It made me miss my soccer playing days, well at least it did until a kid kicked another one in the face and a fight broke out.  These kids were pretty intense about their soccer.

It was finally time for dinner.  When I first sat down, I accidently plopped down on a damp cushion (fail), so I relocated to another one that was close by.  I ate with Greg and Carly.  Midway through the meal, we were joined by Nadav.  Dinner was basically making your own falafel, with community plates.  It was pretty tasty and before long I was full.  I also hate sitting with my legs crossed, so I was happy to stand up after the meal.

It wasn’t that late after dinner, but I was already pretty tired.  I left the tent after a little bit to go put on my pajamas (amazing CofC sweatpants duh!) and snuggled into my sleeping bag at around 8:30 and slept until around 10 or 10:45 when I woke up to someone else screaming in the tent in their sleep.  I let them know and decided it was time to just get up and go to the bathroom.

When I came back, a couple people were outside around the fire next to the tent.  I stood out there for a good couple hour as we talked about movies, television, life, and politics.  It was one of those nights where you remember it being amazing, but you can’t really adequately describe it to another person.

Finally sometime before 2 AM, I decided along with the others around the fire it was time to go to bed and I rolled up into my sleeping bag and attempted to get some sleep so I wouldn’t be entirely dead before climbing Masada.

Yad Vashem and the Biblical Farm

Yad V’shem and the Biblical Farm

Yesterday I left out a little bit of what happened after being in Jerusalem, because I thought it would better fit into my story for today.

After returning from a long day in Jerusalem, we were all tried.  I took a quick nap before heading off for dinner.  We were informed that following dinner we spend some time prepping for Yad Vashem.

For those of you who don’t know, Yad Vashem is a library of Congress of sorts for the stories of those who perished during the holocaust.  It is one of the most extensive and incredible holocaust museums I have ever seen.

Anyway, following dinner, we were forced to ask ourselves some tough questions.  One of the ones we posed was whether Israel exists because of the holocaust or despite it.  To be honest, I don’t really what my answer to that is in my mind.  It’s something I think I will personally struggle to define for a while, but I can certainly say I am glad that Israel exists.

We all talked about our experiences learning about the holocaust as a collective group.  I tried to recall where my knowledge of the holocaust came from.  I have vague memories of talking to friends of my grandparents who had survived the holocaust.  My mother told me stories of the parents of her friends that are engraved in my mind.

I considered my trip with camp years ago to Whitwell, Tennessee, a small town where students at a local school collected paperclips to quantify the number of people who had perished during the holocaust.  These students were aided by a holocaust survivor who helped them get a train car that had been used to transport Jews to the camps and use it as a museum for the paperclips.

The whole group had differing stories as well all came from different places, from Idaho, Kansas, and New York.  We talked about how anti-Semitism still exists and the ways that it had impacted our lives.  I thought about being yelled at in Paris with just the word Jew and holding on to my Star of David.

We talked about what exactly we’d be seeing at the museum.  Ten years ago, we would have almost certainly have heard the testimony of a holocaust survivor.  Since many have passed away over recent years, we watched part of a taped one of a Greek man, but the DVD didn’t work properly, so we didn’t get to watch much of it.  From what I was able to gather from the part were able to see, the man had lost his sister to the holocaust as well as most of his family.

The tour of the museum itself began with a section just about the children.  One of the hardest things for me to imagine is a child being put to death.  They were innocent and had no way to fight back.

This section was followed by a part where we discussed righteous gentiles.  To be considered a righteous gentile, there were certain criteria established:

  1. They must be nominated by a Jew or “Jewish Party”
  2. They can’t have helped by converting someone to Christianity.
  3. Assistance must be repeated and/or substantial
  4. Assistance has to be given without financial gain expected in return.

Based on these criteria, Oskar Schindler never lived to be named a righteous gentile.  Although he is one of the most famous of the righteous gentiles you’ve probably ever heard of, it wasn’t until recently Yad Vashem started to consider him one.  One of the others you may have heard of that our group mentioned when asked to name righteous gentiles was Miep Gies.

After completing our conversation about righteous gentiles, we started our walk towards the actual museum itself.  The museum is built into the some of the lowest portions of Mount Herzl.  Remember the name of that mountain, because I’ll mention it again in another entry later.

Inside the museum, the further you go into the building down the middle, the thinner it got as if you were being trapped.  The symbolism of everything in the building gave even more power to the meaning of the place than I thought was imaginable.

The museum told the story of the holocaust from start to finish in a way that I cannot fairly describe to you, especially because cameras weren’t allowed on tours.  Our guide spoke of the early ghettos, the early methods of killing the Jews, and the decision that using bullets was too expensive of a method to kill Jews.  This part brought me to a very frustrated place.

The Nazis employed doctors to find a way to kill the Jews inexpensively, which is what led to the gas chambers.  Living in the US, it is hard to believe anything like this.  When I think of doctors, I always think of people who are going to make sure I am healthy.  I think of people who are bound to their profession by the Hippocratic oath, something those in Nazi Germany were not bound by.

For the first time in the museum, I saw of the artwork that survived Nazi death camps.  Jews drew, painted, and wrote poetry with very limited supplies to tell their stories so that people would know what happened to them.  Not much remained, but what was left was incredibly powerful to me and beautiful.

Towards the end of the tour was a clear box that was on floor level.  Inside of it, it contained hundreds of pairs of shoes of those from the camps.  The shoes looked as though they were made of leather or something similar.  They ranged in size from shoes that were obviously for children to those for adults.  Some shoes had heels while others were flats.  It was as though I was looking at the story of the feet of the Jewish people of the holocaust at this point of the tour.

The last part of the tour was into the library area.  It was a balcony of sorts that was surrounded on all sides in a circle with large binders.  Our tour guide asked us to look down into a reflecting pool below us where we could see our own faces as well as the faces of holocaust victims pictures above our heads.  She explained that the binders around the room were the stories of those we lost during the holocaust, but many stories were still lost.  Full villages of people died, so some stories may never be able to be told.  She encouraged all of us to check the online database to make sure that anyone we may have known of was listed.  She talked about the generation of scientists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, and so many other things we lost.

She mentioned grandparents and that is right when I lost it.  Grandparents.  As much as I don’t talk about them that often, my grandmother and grandfather meant an awful lot to me.  They are in the end a big reason why my trip to Israel was so important to me.  I didn’t realize that they were part of the reason until that moment.

I thought about the stories that were contained on the shelves around the walls and thought about how important a story can be.  A room like the one I stood in is the ultimate tool to use against someone like Ahmadinejad, well, if he wasn’t insane.

All of this made me think about how important stories can be to understanding our world, stories of those who were good and those who were evil, those powerful, and those not as powerful.  Despite the fact that we study history, we seem to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.  We need to remember this and learn that terrible tragedies must lead us to fight with love rather than hate, because hate will never change the mind of your opponent, but rather reinvigorate them.  There is a famous saying that that the best revenge is living well, and I advise all of you to do just that.

When we exited Yad Vashem, it was cloudy and drizzling, which pretty much described the mood of all of us as we left the museum.  We were all struggling, either crying or pretty damn close.

We left to have lunch at a nearby shopping mall.  A bunch of our group went again for falafel, while others went to McDonalds.  I slipped in to McDonalds to eat at a table and bought fries to split with Emily as we both ate our falafel.  It was entertaining to see others in our group with their giant kosher McDonald’s hamburgers.  They were so much bigger than American McDonald’s burgers.

Following lunch, I rounded up Hillary to come with Emily and I to go grab some candy, since I finished my Starburst Jelly Beans the night before.  I bought a giant bag of Sour Gummy Worms (made me think of my college buddy Andrew Edahl).  Later in the week, the Israelis informed me that they were sour snakes, not worms, but who knows?

 

At the same store I bought an ice cream bar my little sister had told me about called Magnum.  Word for the wise, just because your sister tells you that you should have ice cream, doesn’t mean you should eat it outside when the weather is low 50s.  Our security guard laughed at me as my hands shook, enjoying my frozen treat.

We walked further up the shopping complex and happened upon a bookstore.  It was one of the big Israeli bookstore chains, but a fairly small store.  I looked around for a while with Emily and Hillary.  Emily found some of the children’s books.  I was so excited to see a copy of the Cat in the Hat that I made Hillary hold the book up for a picture.  Emily found 3 books on sale and was excited to find such a bargain.  She bragged about it outside the store and I joked to her that she did the most stereotypical Jewish thing possible, finding a bargain, in the most Jewish place in the world, Israel.

After eating and shopping was done, we all got onto the bus for a long ride to the biblical farm.  So at some point, the Israeli government gave a ton of land where they didn’t think anything would grow so this could be developed.  Instead of desert, everything was green.

We were supposed to walk around, but since it was raining, we did less of the activities.  Our guide was a man in his late 50s-early 60s who spoke great English.  He talked about the sustainable water practices of Israel.  Israel knows how to use their water and does it more effectively than just about any other country in the world.  One of the big keys to this that he talked about was that water was that Israelis reused water for many different purposes.  While under a tent, he showed us how to grind up our own oregano, which we all did and put in tiny bags.  The bags looked like something else, so we all walked around jokingly trying to sell our bags for 200 shekels.

One of the coolest things our guide told us was that he used to be a computer engineer of some sort.  He told us that his job as a guide paid only 1/5th of what he used to make, but there was a big difference for him.  He said that as a guide he was much happier.  He showed us his cell phone, a candy bar style phone that reminded me of the Nokia phones my next-door neighbors had back in 2002 or 2003.  He said he was happy with it and didn’t want an iPhone.  He joked a museum would be coming soon to ask for his phone.

From that area, we went to another area where he talked about acorns and he left us plant acorns in some soil that he said he’d be putting in a greenhouse.  One of the last things he said to us before we started our long journey back to our hotel was one that he was repeating from others before him on my trip.  He said welcome home and to me, Israel was starting to really feel that way.

The Old City of Jerusalem: My first full day in Israel

January 10th, 2012

I woke up in the hotel in Abu Ghosh to a room that was pitch black.  I’m not afraid of the dark, but when I wake up in the morning I like to know what time it is and I didn’t know how to find my watch right away.  When I found it I saw that it was 4 AM.  6 hours of sleep isn’t too bad after all that travel and for trying to get adjusted to a different time.  I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep in my hotel room.

The other problem with the room is that it was freezing.  I was layered up and under the blankets, but it was still freezing cold.  Mark and I finally figured out how to turn on the heat a couple days later.

After failing at falling back to sleep for a good while, I decided to go to the bathroom.  The problem with going to the bathroom in a pitch black room is obviously getting there and of course turning the light on in the bathroom.  My first shot at getting over there I tiptoed over to the bathroom, walked in and tried to turn off the light.  For some reason I couldn’t find it on the wall just inside the bathroom, so I tried near the mirror to no avail.  I went back over by my bed, grabbed a flashlight, and tried again, but the problem turned out that the flashlight batteries were dead.

At this point I gave up and just flipped one of the two light switches I found outside of the bathroom which turned out to be the room one, turned it back off quickly and turned on the other light which was the bathroom light.  This, my friends is how you can turn a trip to the bathroom into a twenty-minute ordeal.

I went back to bed following my bathroom “adventure” and tried once again to fall back to sleep.  Mark got up to go use the bathroom and I let him know which light switch was which since it was still pitch black and he let out a little chuckle.

A little after Mark got out of the bathroom I heard a low drone of something in a language I couldn’t understand.  I turned to Mark and asked if he knew what the sound was as I tried to open the curtain.  It became clear to me that the sound could only be one thing, the Muslim call to prayer.

Looking out the window after opening the curtain revealed the hills of the town we were staying in outside of Jerusalem.  It was still dark out, but all the lights outside on houses were on.  Houses all tucked into the hills made for a beautiful view.  We are in Israel I thought.  It still seemed very unreal to me.

After looking out the window for a little bit, I fumbled through my backpack for my iPod and turned on the Fratelli’s (I’ve been listening to them a ton lately).  I listened to a couple songs in bed before I decided it would be a good time to shower.  I figured I could be one of the first ones to breakfast since it started at 6:30 AM at the hotel.

Along with a change of clothes, I went to the bathroom.  I put the bathmat down and the rubber non-slip thing down inside the shower.  I went to turn the shower on and notice it was a handheld one, but there was nothing to hold it in place.  It certainly made showering a challenge until I could figure out how I wanted to do it.  I finished my nice hot shower, changed, and started walking towards breakfast.  I noticed the beautiful sunrise over the nearby hills and walked towards a side of the hotel with a better view.  My detour gave me a ton of great pictures.

I was surprised when I got to breakfast at 6:35 AM that I wasn’t the only one there.  I guess a lot of others hadn’t adjusted well yet either.  I sat down to a breakfast of a couple different kinds of bread, some eggs, and orange and gazed out into the hills.

After breakfast, I went to my room, grabbed my hat and got freaked out by a loud noise that sounded like a cat.  After walking around for a little bit, I noticed two cats sitting on a windowsill, meowing.  I took some pictures of them for my mom, because she loves cats.

After all of this we headed to the bus to start exploring.  We headed towards Jerusalem and stopped just before the old city of Jerusalem.  Here, we said a prayer of Challah and wine (grape juice since it was the morning) as we gazed off to the old city of Jerusalem.

From our spot, we could see the old city walls and the Dome of the Rock.  The view was absolutely incredible!  After a couple minutes of the necessary photos and chitchatting, we got back onto the bus.

On the bus, Nadav pointed out to us a wall and referred to it as a “baby wall”.  The baby wall he was referring to was only 500 years old.  It was at this point I thought to myself, I guess America doesn’t really have much history, huh?

We got off the bus, walked through a gate allowing us into the old city where we looked onto a part of the West Wall that isn’t where people pray.  Nearby were some of the remains of the oldest parts of the city that was there at the time of the Second Temple.  Roads from the Old City could be seen from where we were as well as what was left of several ancient mikvehs.

For those non-Jews out there, a mikveh is a ritual bath used to spiritually cleanse oneself.  Today they are used in some orthodox communities following the end of a woman’s cycle and after childbirth, by men looking to achieve ritual purity, for utensils that are used for food, and as part of the conversion to Judaism.  In Eastern Europe back in the “old country” it wasn’t uncommon for a mikveh to be next to a bakery so that a people wouldn’t be able to tell whether you were going to the bakery or the mikveh.

There was a large pile of Jerusalem stone that had been thrown off the wall by the Romans.  This to me is where the Diaspora truly began.  What’s the Diaspora you ask?  The Diaspora refers to the scattering of Jews outside of what is now the land of Israel.  Colonies of Jews were forced out of what is today the land of Israel by the Babylonians and later the Romans.

The long-term impact of the Diaspora led to Jews being all over Europe.  The establishment of the state of Israel in some ways was supposed to signal the end of the Diaspora, but many of us live in places other than Israel.  The second largest settlement of Jews in the world live not in Israel, but in New York City.   For those of you who went to high school with me, Atlanta as a city has the 17th largest population of Jews in the world.

The actual Kotel (the Western Wall) to me was a strange experience.  First, men and women are separated into different sections.  Women have a very tiny sliver of the wall that they can pray at. Before we were allowed to just start walking towards the wall, Nadav let the girls know that they would probably need to force their way to the wall to actually be able to touch it.

Beyond this, I haven’t been to synagogue in a while.  If I’m not mistaken, I haven’t been to a prayer service at a synagogue since my youth group advisor left Temple Sinai.  I was staring at the wall that my whole religion prays in the direction of and I didn’t know how to feel.  On the path to the men’s section there was a giant basket filled with kippah’s (yarmulkes).  I was happy to see them since I forgot to bring one with me from the states.  To the left of them was a shelf filled with every Jewish prayer book I’ve pretty much ever seen.

After putting on a kippah and continuing on, there was a small stand with a man helping people wrap tefillin.  Tefillin are boxes containing prayers that are connected to your forehead and your wrist with leather straps.  Tefillin are wrapped to remind us that g-d helped us to escape Egypt.  They include scrolls containing a few major Hebrew prayers.  Up to this point, I had never wrapped tefillin.  In Atlanta, we have a set that I think belonged to my great-grandfather. 

After helping the group all wrap tefillin, he took a picture of the group of us.  He pointed at the wall and said, “That over there is g-d’s Facebook wall.”  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least somewhat annoyed by this.

 

With tefillin stil wrapped, I walked to the wall to insert my prayer.  I looked to both of my sides and saw men both reading the Torah.  To my right was a man with a desk who was dovening while to my left there was a man with his eyes closed.  I touched the wall with my eyes shut.

I put my prayer into the wall and thought about all that was 2011 and what will be the future and I thought about my prayer.  It wasn’t particularly long.  I asked g-d for challenges in the future and for success when facing them.  I don’t know what else I could possible want.

 

After closing my eyes again and touching the wall, I finally walked away.  I started to unwrap the tefillin, passed it to the man who had helped us wrap them and went to look for someone to talk to.

I had one question to ask of whomever I could find.  I wanted to know why someone would ever want to destroy this place, why would anyone want to destroy this place?  They gave me an answer that makes me sad, “They don’t want to destroy it, they want to destroy us.”

Following the wall, it was time for lunch.  We walked up a hill over by a small group of stores in the Jewish quarter and broke into small groups.  I went off with Emily and Hillary.  We all wanted to have falafel, because what else do a bunch of young Jews want to do in Israel?

The first falafel shop we found was called Bravo and had a giant picture of Johnny Bravo on the sign and on their menu.  The place was small and no tables on the inside.  I did something I rarely do and had my falafel made with everything on it.  I don’t think I’ve made such a great food decision in life when compared to this.  Everything was fresh from the salad, to the falafel balls, to the humus.

From outside where we were eating, we could see children walking by with backpacks on from school heading home for a quick bite to eat for lunch.  We also saw some tourists around.

 

 

Following lunch, Nadav pointed out a huge synagogue in the Jewish quarter.  This synagogue to me was a symbol of Judaism.  Like the religion, the synagogue had been beaten, but the community rose and has rebuilt it time and time again.

Strangely enough, there was a minaret in the Jewish section.  Legend has it that there was a Jewish man in the section of town that was treated poorly for so long by Arabs that he decided to convert and become a Muslim.  After converting, the Jews of the area started to treat him badly.  To combat this, his mother built the minaret in the Jewish part of the city.  It’s funny, because I feel like whether that legend is true or not, my mother would probably do the same thing.

Around the corner was a view of some of the remains of the Old City from the 1st Temple Era.  When Israel took the Old City in the late 60s, there weren’t settlements in the area, so it was easy to go through and excavate this area, which is when they found these remains.  Only a small portion of them remain to be viewed while other parts were built over.

Following this, we visit the supposed spot of King David’s burial.  The place where King David is supposedly buried is directly below where Jesus’s last supper occurred.  For a long time, Jews made pilgrimages to this site and prayed by David’s tomb since they couldn’t go in the gates of the nearby old city.  Outside of David’s tomb is a statue of him.  Since it is against Jewish law to have a statue (it is a form of idol worshipping to many religious Jews, they now have a camera on the statue.  Religious Jews in the past and even with the camera up have a tendency to sabotage the statue.  The most common way of doing so was to cut off his nose.

While waiting outside of the tomb, I saw yet another cat.  At this point I was starting to get the picture.  Not a single squirrel in site, but there are cats EVERYWHERE.  I have pictures of these cats and you probably see a picture on my Facebook of a cat sitting on my lap.

Just after this, an Israeli who we didn’t know asked to speak to the group briefly.  He told us the story of his mother walking across Europe from the Ukraine to settle in Israel, because it was even a country.  “My mother could not take Delta Airlines here,” he said, “but I’m glad your group can.  Welcome home,” he finished before walking away.

Welcome home is probably one of the most powerful statements made by anyone during the trip and he wasn’t the only one to say it.  The more I heard people say it, the more I considered a question that Nadav asked us to consider about the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim.  Where we visitors or returning home?