Back in the USA

It has been a few weeks since I have been in Israel. My heart broke a little bit as the plane took off, but I knew that it was time for new things in my life. Now as the news is flooded with terrible sights and my mind keeps running through a million different thoughts, I hope that I am right about leaving.

For now I am residing in Alaska with my family and will soon make the move to Oregon. Being home has been wonderful and it is great to get back to some of my old hobbies. This year has been one that I will reflect upon for the rest of my life. The things I have done and seen have connected me to Israel in a way I never thought possible and for this I am so thankful for. I know will return sometime, I’m just not sure when.

Adventures in Hobbit Land

Cappadocia is a weird place. We hadn’t realized how big Turkey was when we made our plane reservations for five days, which isn’t enough time. So at the youth hostel in the beginning we picked one place to go to and for time efficiency signed up for a tour. It’s nice that they took care of everything for us, but this was still one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

First a word on Cappadocia. Do to some volcanic activity; the land is covered with cone like rock structure with wide angled black tops. Other than being a geological phenomenon, it has capitalized on as a tourist attraction and the whole town is obsessed with making things look like the cones. Clock towers had angled tops on them. Tourist knickknacks of cartoon versions of these cones were for sale every 2 meters. There were cartoon drawings of them. All of this was a little silly.

Now after the bus ride from hell, we were dropped at our hotel at 9:30. The night of crying coughing babies did not allow for much sleep and I am now face to face with very small women yelling at me to get on the tour bus b/c we are late.
“um.. I think we were supposed to be provided breakfast” – I stammered to her
“NO. NO TIME FOR EAT! Please, tour now.” – small Turkish tour guide.

This was probably the most audible thing we heard that day. This women must have memorized a simple script of English for the tour b/c it was very very basic and questions were either not answered, or answered with something completely irrelevant to what was asked. Example –
“Over here is a cone cave. No one lives there now.” – little tour guide
“So, what people used to live there?” – me
“I was born in Istanbul, thank you.” – little tour guide

“How much longer do you think the tour will be?” – me
“I studied for 4 years to be a tour guide. It’s very selective here.” – little tour guide

We began the day with a 2 hour hike.
“Get out your water bottles, you’ll be thirsty.” – little tour guide
“We didn’t have time to get water!” – me
“That’s right, it’s important to drink water, you could get very sick with out it.” – little tour guide

I wish I could describe more on how these cones were formed and what their purpose served to the people of Turkey, but this information was way too hard to get out of our guide. We were left to enjoy the land in a superficial visual manner instead. We climbed through caves and across the land. The whole place from what we saw was really contrived. This was one of the first times I had participated in a set up “authentic” experience and I will surely be careful of my touring in the future because of this experience.

Anyways some good came of it all when we saw where we were sleeping. All of the hotels in Cappadocia are set up in the theme of the caves and we got to sleep in a cave room. Okay okay, it wasn’t a real cave, but still how often do you get to sleep in something that looks like a cave?

We stayed there for two days and on the last day we had the afternoon for pool sitting. The thought of sitting by the pool had kept Shosh and I moving when we were dog tired and it had finally arrived when – bam! The biggest downpour of rain we’d seen in a while started to drench everything in sight. We took shelter in the main cave room (hotel restaurant). Some old men were playing sheshbesh (backgammon) and it’s a good thing I learned some mad sheshbesh playing skills in Israel because otherwise we would have had nothing to do for four hours. We played for a few hours and then it was back on the overnight bus again. Not fun.

Back in Istanbul we spent the day walking around the city and hung out until our plane was leaving. The whole trip was great; it was just not enough time to really see Turkey. There is so much to this country; I will have to come back some other time.


The Bus Ride From Hell

Getting from Istanbul to Cappadocia, our next travel destination could possibly have been done in less than an hour flight for the more lucrative traveler. For Shosh and I, the 12-hour overnight bus would have to do.

This bus was your standard Grayhound/Egged transport. But, for Turkey, this was first class comfort. To assert this fact, we were treated to the bus equivalent of a stewardess giving out bottled water, coffee and tea, fresh coca cola, moist towelettes, little chocolate cakes and some weird antibiotic rub (I think).. actually this very well could have been Pine-sol. When they got me thinking the caviar was right around the corner, the trouble begin to start.
Continued ...

First of all I really had to pee. The combination of funneling all these free beverages down our throats and travel nerves was creating a desperate problem. The first stop we make I jump up and am out the door. That’s when I run smack into the cigarette cloud of our driver. There was lots of yelling, but I got the impression that I was not allowed to use the bathroom now. Not enough time. Then we waited there for 45 minutes. During this time span our bus was infiltrated with people in the aisles selling candy, sandwiches, bread, and seriously – pillows. I wrote off buying a pillow because they were 101 Dalmatian pillows and damn if I’ll be caught dead sleeping on that.

About two hours down the road the pee break was granted. Shosh and I dash off, and to our surprise, get experience toilets outside of touristville. At first I though I may have entered the men’s room. But viewing the long-standing line of women in layers and layer of flowing clothing squelched that theory. Nope, this was a small porcelain hole that I got to pee in. I do a quick mental review of all the amazing times I was privileged enough to relieve myself in the quite natural woods and outdoors and sigh, and squat. The smell of ammonia was nauseating, but not as bad as the excrement that really can’t be flushed if one is using a small hole. I make a mental note after this that I am not drinking anything ever again.

Back on the bus it was movie time. The DVD was inserted and became clear that this was bought of the street, probably at the first stop with the Dalmatian pillows. But the cast and plot looked good - some jail break movie with Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. And we were about to get all excited when.. it was in Turkish. Of course. Then the babies started crying. For hours. And coughing. They never stopped coughing for the next 9 hours. I think I have tuberculosis now.


Not synagogue, fish restaurant

Day one in Turkey was a serious adventure. Istanbul is our playground for the next two days. Shoshi and I spent the morning viewing the main tourist sites of the land. Two big, I mean big, mosques. One called Aya Sophia was getting renovated and we counted 26 floors of scaffolding in the middle of it. Kinda made us dizzy. There was also this lucky hole in one of the pillars where if one places their finger inside and it comes out moist, you are supposed to be granted good luck. Oddly enough putting fingers in moist holes was a common theme among the sites here.

The other mosque was more exciting at night because it was all lit up and for some reason birds just circled and circled around it, illuminated by the lights. This is what we say when we first arrived. Pretty.

Next we went to an underground cistern. This place was a personal injury lawyer's wet dream. Getting in and out required a death-defying trip down the slipperiest wettest stairs I have ever been on. The walk way on the bottom was also way too smooth and slippery. People working there were squeegying away, but obviously had none of the skills as an Israeli would. They just pushed the water with one motion and moved it around. Also down here was another good luck moist hole.

Our stomachs were grumbling after this so we took to the streets for lunch. Not quite as bad as Jordan, but the people selling things do some harassing. This was no different with the restaurant owners, each trying to "help us find our way" (I'm sure we were looking super lost all the time) but really trying to get us to eat at their place. Annoying. We dashed into a little stand in an alley way where we found this shwarmah like dish wrapped in lafah like bread. The Turkish burrito! We were saved! And it turned out to be half the price as those other places and we got two.

A museum and a half later we were sightseeinged out and thought it would be a good time to try and locate the Istanbul synagogue. This is where our adventure truly began. Seriously only two blocks out of touristville things started to look very very different. In the area of our hostel and surrounding streets things looked cute. The streets were cobblestones, the people more genuinely friendly, men and women walking everywhere, wearing whatever. And everyone spoke English.

Now, two blocks away this all changes. We reached the edge of a huge river and saw quite a sight. Anywhere a person would fit on the side of the water they were fishing. People were bustling all over. Ships where coming and going dropping and picking up hundreds and hundreds of commuters.

Street food in the country has been just awesome. I am loving the variety and lack of falafel. We've had salted sliced cucumbers, fresh corn, that shwarmah burrito. I've seen mangos and coconuts, and also muscles, but in the hot sun, we stayed away from those.

Here at the waters edge was no exception. They were selling these fish sandwiches that smelled amazing. Too bad we had just eaten. But just seeing the scene was something else. Men frying these fish were in the middle of a mass of people, wearing red fez hats, everyone screaming, selling, and buying something. I really wanted a picture of all this, so I got out my camera and I was trying all these angles to really capture the scene, really really looking like a tourist. Then I felt something behind me. First I thought it was someone trying to cut open my bag so I reached for that, but instead I felt this fat pinch on my ass! EwWWWW!! I kinda freaked out because there were people everywhere and I had no idea who did it.

I started walking to get out fast and it happened again! This time I saw the guy and smacked him hard on the back. Maybe not the smartest thing because then he starts to circle back and follow us. We wanted to get rid of him and so we flipped him off at the same time. Also not so successful because he took his middle finger and licked it!!! Probably one of the most revolting things I've ever seen. Then he kept following us. We started to cross a long bridge and he was still on our tail!

Really, we had no idea what to do and it was getting really scary. I kept hoping a police officer would show up. I've never wanted to see a cop so bad in my life.

Thankfully that's just what happened. Right on the bridge we saw some sort of street cop and ran to him. We explained everything in complete detail. Then realized the cop spoke no English. No matter, because once the ass grabber saw him, he took off in the other direction.

Across the bridge was really a completely different environment. No English spoken anywhere, few women, and nobody knew where a synagogue might be. We had a general idea of the area and wandered in that direction. Things were looking deserted. We asked a cab driver in sign language to take us there. He was trying to hard to be helpful, but ended up just bringing us to a hotel where they spoke English. They didn't speak English at the hotel. That was a productive use of our Lira!

Meandering along we stumbled upon this shopping area. It turned out to be the trendy, popular walking/ hanging out area of the locales. After a refueling with ice cream we continued.

When we were once again sure we were headed in the right direction, we turned a corner and found ourselves again on a deserted street. Thinking we were still in the correct direction we pressed on. Some guys found us and started talking to us in Turkish. This was followed by chasing behind us down the road. Ahhhh. This place could be so freaky. We lost them a street down and asked directions. Luck of all luck we had asked a fluent English speaker who ended up walking us there. Some of the people in the country are so wonderful and some so creepy.

We get to the synagogue and it was the weirdest thing. The man walking us kept saying it was closed, but we thought he just meant it was closed for the day. Not the case. Actually there was a wedding going on, but for the last two years the whole thing had been shut down because it was bombed twice. For the wedding there was special permission with special security. Two cars blocked off both ends of the street and there was a man on watch outside.

Of course thinking I'm still in Israel, I figure we could just talk him into letting us take a peek inside, maybe even get an invite to the wedding, being such exotic world travelers and all. Well the security guard was not having it. We talked and talked and he pretty much threatened to arrest us when someone from the synagogue came out to talk to us. He said the only way we were getting in was if the head rabbi gave us special permission and that would take a week or so. Imagine being so fearful of terrorism that your entire synagogue was shut down and couldn't be entered with out massive security and top permission. It was really sad.

The man then told us of another synagogue and we were off on the search once again.

Of course again we ended up hopelessly lost on a man street with no English speakers. Attempts at more directions were futile and I was beginning to wonder how safe it was to be announcing to every Muslim on the street that we were Jewish.

We stopped in a fish restaurant and asked where the synagogue might be and the guy goes - "Not synagogue, fish restaurant, fish restaurant here!" - the language barrier is getting annoying.

We backtracked for a bit, found a nice cafe, which sometimes means English and - tada - we got really good directions... and information that it was closed until 9am the next day!

Ten minutes later we found ourselves locked outside a small building, recognizable only by a tiny little Jewish star on the top. Well at least we had ourselves an adventure.

Survival of Jordan

My travels have taken me first to jordan. the country was very... arab. as they say, not bad, just different - but this was really really different.

we crossed the border in the afternoon. after you leave israel there's a 5 minute walk btw the countries, sort of a void/no mans land. then we reach the border. after paying fees and getting all stamped up we were on jordanian soil. the 4 of us cram into a cab and are whisked to petra, which is about an hour and a half down the road. due to stops for more cigarettes for the driver and at look out points with conveniently placed bedouins selling shit it was late when we arrived.

shosh's parents bought her and her brother a nice hotel room for a present and we thought we might be able to squeeze all 4 of us in one room. well we though this would be possible. the jordanian hotel manager thought otherwise.
"ONLY 2 per room. NO one else!" he yelled a bit and so the other guy and i made a quick choice to split the cost of another room just for the night. a dirty hostel could wait for another night b/c we were really tired and hungry. and i'm try not to land in some jordanian prison cell during the trip.

getting downtown was another interesting experience. at first walking seemed like a good idea, but we soon realized we weren't exactly sure where to go and it was really dark. and then we heard gun shots. time for a cab.

at a kiosk near by we asked for them to call us a cab.
"my friends, my friends, right this way, here is cab"

this was not a cab. it was a big dirty van. he quotes us a fairly cheap ride to town so we get in. most of the space inside is occupied with chichy things like chili pepper lights and other hanging plastic junk. the dash board is covered in faux fur.

town was another world. big signs with things like there is no other god but allah. mohammah is the messager. these were the billboards. our "cab" brought us to a "really good authentic arab restaurant." it looked like the most expensive place in town and owned by a relative of the driver. we quickly split.

we dinned a bit down the street. the place was chosen more by the persuasion of the owner rather than our noses, but its getting harder and harder to say no to all the begging to buy. we ate outside and i spent some time people watching. something was off. it occurred to me there wasn't a single women in town. not even burka'ed. none. that was weird. after we went walking around and stopped to catch the score of the world cup. as those who know, i'm a little world cupped out right now and i started looking around. it was then i noticed this man like 3 feet/a meter away from me, staring, just openly staring at my boobs. ewww! seriously creepy. i just quickly walked away and my friends followed.

petra was our all day activity. we first needed to locate a cab outside the hotel. and what pulls up for our transportation? the very same shaggin' waggon from last night! everyone is trying to make a buck or dinar rather in this country.

this couldn't be true than with the bedouins. inside the ruins of petra you can pretty much go anywhere. we climbed like a million stairs for an hour to this really amazing look out, where we could also look out w/ fresh bedouin tea, cold coke, and water, plus an unbelievable amount of crap to buy.

also another way we could have spent our cash was donkey rides. everywhere. small bedouin children going-
"want a donkey? want a ride?"
variations on this were coming up to us w/ a donkey and going -
"taxi, taxi" or "Ferrari, Ferrari"
cute maybe the first 6 times, but when that number started to reach the 100s and my hydration level was dropping steadily, i contemplated how far i could throw a small bedouin child.

that night i trekked across the street to find a cheaper bed. there was a conveniently a small hostel across the street and i checked in. like 8 dollars a night verse the 60 bucks i split the night before. and it wasn't so bad. okay it was pretty dirty. my room was a double bed w/ hardly any room to walk around it. when i pulled the sheets back i saw bare nasty mattress. and when i took a shower down the hall a bit of sewage bubbled up. ewww!

the good thing was that the hostel had a mini bus that drove to the town by the border. shosh and her bro were staying another night, but i was petra/jordaned out and missed israel

but a cab by myself was too expensive. i remembered the guide book saying there were two types of buses, the bus company that was really nice and comfortable and one that was cheap. it also said not to take the cheap one, which was what all the locales took. i was so relieved about the hostel having a bus b/c i wouldn't have to deal with finding any of the buses.

at 6am when the manager told me the bus would arrive i was patiently waiting in the lobby. i asked the guy and he said he called the driver, but he didn't answer. i wait. 6:30. no bus. he tells me he'll call again. no answer. then he goes - "I prefer you take a cab to the bus station"

i do a mini freak out. bus station? what bus station? i explain i want to take the nicer, not local bus and where can i find that... but the man doesn't understand. really most people in town know a few things in english really really well so it seems like they speak perfectly, but really they have no idea.

so i can't get the info on the nice buses and i realize i'm going to travel on the exact public bus the guide book said not to take.

i go outside to look for a taxi. nothing comes. i wait and wait. after some time a truck drives by
"my friend, where you want to go? i take you"
my mind starts reeling. should i go? is this safe? this is some random guy. this is arab land. a women by her self isn't safe. what if another cab never comes? how long could i be waiting here?

all this mental calculating ended with me getting into the truck. i immediately regretted this decision when he began to tell me how the tourists never stay in petra long enough and all these things i missed and how it would be no problem for him to be my personal guide.
"i take you now, no problem"
and i go - "no, the bus station please"
"we go now, how much time you have?"
i tell him something about meeting people in an hour in eilat
"okay only an hour. we go now"
i cry NO like 5 times and these weren't the polite no thanks. these were like NO, BUS STATION NOW" a little scary. i probably shouldn't have done that.

at the bus station the driver grabs my bag and directs me to the bus. he throws 2 guys out of the front seat and puts me there with my bag. looking around i saw i was seriously on public transportation. 11 women in full on burkas. lots of old arab men. children everywhere. a goat.

i definitely looked a little out of place. near the end of the ride we had to stop at a check point. of sorts. people got our their IDs and a few soldiers came and looked around. then one of them pulled a guy right of the bus and we drive away. weird...

at some stop further down we picked up a guy that sat next to me and spoke english. after asking about how i liked petra he goes-
"where are you going my friend? I drive taxi"
of course he does. i ask how much and he quotes me 5, i say 4.
"for you? 4... but really the price is 5"

we finally arrive in aqaba. i get out and immediately another driver asks if i want to go to the border. then he goes 2 dinar. so i tell my i'm going with the new guy. my guy goes-
"2 dinar? okay 1 dinar"
they start getting in a bidding war over me! and seriously fighting and yelling at each other in the street. my driver is also screaming at me
"GET in the car, NOW! put your bag in the car!"
i double check that he's still planning on 1 dinar and get in. i successfully arrive at the border. all in one piece. all limbs working and i've evaded jordanian prison cells. YES!

just so happened i was 1 dinar short of the exit tax, so i had to exchange some shekels to leave. you'd better believe i was kissing the dirt when i stepped back on to the holy land soil.
My year in Israel is coming to a close, and I have been doing some travel outside the country. The next few blogs will be devoted to these adventures around the Middle East. Enjoy!


Cognitive Dissonance: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the kibbutz

Everyone deals with the feeling of distress that comes from when actual experiences are different than they believed them to be. OTZMAnikim have been through this over and over again during the year, and why I thought the kibbutz would be just as I had always idolized the lifestyle as, is beyond me. And I’m not too sure exactly what I was expecting, but I’ll be honest, it wasn’t too far away from holding hands around a fire singing kumbaya.

But rather than finding a group of amazing good natured souls working the land of Israel, I found something a bit different. A few hundred people spending their entire lives together does not flow quite like I imagined. Some families don’t like each other. People fight and have been fighting for years. The youth have their own issues. Life seems ideal as a young child, growing up with so many peers around you. But as they age, the walls close in bit by bit and an entire neighborhood sized playground can seem like a prison cell a few years later. Without making a choice to devote their life to the cause, many are jaded or worse, apathetic.

And where I come in, things were also not as expected. Rather than spending all year trying to learn Hebrew, it would have been better if I had spent my energy learning Spanish to communicate with most of the volunteers. And we all live at the edge of the kibbutz, which is a visualization of how we felt in the beginning. While I was imagining a cohesive group of the whole kibbutz, I found a distinct divide amongst the volunteers and the kibbutzniks. We eat at a different table, do different work, and speak a different language. We are on the outskirts of the society that I came here to be immersed into.

Yet, despite all this unexpected adversity, I love it here. I haven’t been so happy all year. I thought it would be dull to be spending five hours a day taking plums off of trees, but with boredom conversation flows. Politics, gender roles, love, Seinfeld. It never ceases to amaze me where conversation will turn to when given enough time to develop. And when all else fails, I have made some awesome playlists on my ipod.

I’m fed, clothed, and sheltered. The food might be a constant diet of a variety of toasteem, the clothes may come from the work clothes (think a room sized version of the salvation army), and the shelter is a small double with someone else’s idea of art painted on the walls. All of my basic needs are completely provided for. Our day is finished at 1, we have awesome BBQs at night, smoke nargela in the afternoons, the pool has just opened, and well, I’m so tan. And I’ve come to realize it is not so hard to have to make the best of a situation where time has ceased to matter and every day is another beautiful sunny day. Just like everything I've experienced this year, the kibbutz has its unexpected ups and downs and learning how to deal and then to embrace this cognitive dissonance has helped me grow. These days, the worry I most have is when I have to check out of paradise and resume functioning in the regular world.


This Year in Jerusalem

Or close by anyways… I was invited to spend Pesach in Israel at a good friend of mine’s relatives home in Rishon, about a 20 minute drive from Tel Aviv. My friend Benny is Persian so I went to my first Sephardic seder this year. Other than being completely in Hebrew, which still might as well be Chinese to me, things were similar. There were a couple of odd differences though than my usual gefilte fish and matzah ball soup filled holiday. One of course being the lack of acting out the entire story of the exodus from Egypt with puppets on popsicle sticks and stuffed animals, but really this could very well be restricted to something only my family does. Another was the addition of rice and ohmygod the best charosets EVER. It was blended and when I was handed it on a bite of matzah, I could only assume it was chopped liver as that is exactly what it looks like at my house. As I prepared for the deathly agonizing dense taste of animal innards, you could not begin to imagine my pleasure at the sweet yet, kind of a spiciness tastiness to the charosets. Mmmm…
Okay really here’s the weirdest part that I still didn’t really get an explanation for. About halfway through the seder, handfuls of green onions were passed around. And, you’ll never guess – everyone started HITTING each other with them! Yup, I swear. There was an old grandmother sitting next to me smacking me with a green onion. And some of the kids were really whacking each other with the onion part. So much so that I was really glad I picked the seat by the grandma. Anyone know anything about this?

Four glasses or more of wine later and after eating all this new delicious food (really, I even ate tongue!... but I’m not putting that in the delicious category) the boys at the table started singing and drumming on the table. They sang so many songs, one of which I actually knew which was really fun. Almost for an hour after dinner, they went non-stop. Amazing. I don’t think I could even sing Madonna songs for an hour without stopping and knowing all the words. All in all the night was another great cultural exchange for me in Israel and I really really like the addition of rice related foods for the week.


So Those Pollings Are Never That Accurate

Elections for the new parliament were held on March 28. Lucky for me even though I didn't have a vote, I still got the day off, as Election Day is a holiday in Israel. Relieved of my fruit duties and feeling the tingle of change in the air, I jumped on a bus to Jerusalem to see the action first hand.

Unfortunately there wasn't anything. As it is in America, apathy is a problem among the population when it comes to voting. Kadima was predicted to win by a landslide and most Israelis were fine with this outcome. Other than the litter strewn throughout the gutters having more of a common theme than usual, Jerusalem was in its normal state of being. I felt disappointed, because it turned out that Tel Aviv would have been a better place to spend my time, as there were rallies and election parties to attend. At the end of the day the polls closed at 10pm and the votes were tallied up. However, despite the topical appearence of indifference, the election results were suprising and spoke of an Israel more ready for growth of self than ever expected.

The final results are as follows:
Kadima 29
Labor 20
Shas 12
Likud 12
Israel Beiteinu 11
Pensioners 7
Meretz 5
United Arab List 3
Balad 3
Hadash 3

I'm not going to go into the different parties and what all these results might mean, but send me an email if you are interested in what I think.

Really, what I want to write about is how interesting the high tally of the Labor party was and how low Likud and Kadima did contrary to predictions. Throughout the campaigning, debate rarely strayed from talk of borders, security issues, and Hamas. Actually, Israel rarely seems to stray from the security issue anytime in past decades. Likud and Kadima both have strong but different voices on this topic, whereas Labor barely mentioned it, and so it was assumed that the people would vote to the way they felt about security.

But the results as they appear tell a different story. The closeness of Kadima and Labor suggest that Israel might be ready to move on from this land obsession and focus on other needs of the country. Labor concerns itself with internal Israeli issues such as the ever growing socioeconomical gap, horrendous education system, workers rights, and other concerns any good socialist nation should take a look at every now and then. While keeping the Israelis and everyone within the country safe from attack is important, what are we saving if systems within the country are falling apart both economically and socially? By Israel putting the power in Labor's hands, a new trend of acceptance is shown towards unilateral withdrawal and concern for helping the nation mature. I have seen a lot of social injustice during my year here and it feels good knowing the country feels ready to move in this direction.


It Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This

The army lifestyle was an eye opener, but I can fully say it is not the way for me. More to my liking has been the next and sadly last leg of my journey – kibbutz life. I’m living outside of a town called Rohovot, a 30 minute drive south of Tel Aviv, in a small community of families and a few random volunteers from all over the world that live, eat, and farm together. The volunteers live in two clumps of rooms next to each other and we have a hangout place – The Coffee Club, with a stocked fridge, couches, and mildly useful/ always-dirty kitchen.

During the day we wake up around 7ish and eat breakfast in the dining hall and are picked up from there and taken to work. We all jump into the back of a pickup truck made of more duct tape than truck, and are bumped along to the apple trees. The ride is treacherous. I’ve been informed that several volunteers have been lost due to the combination of a larger than average bump and the speeding pickup (joke I hope).

Once at the apple trees we are supplied with clippers and it is our very important, kibbutz-life-could-not-continue-as-everyone-knows-without-it job to prune the trees. Apples grow in a group of five and there needs to be only one to produce a fatty apple instead of five babies. So I clip off four of the buds. All morning. For the last week and this week. Thank god we’re done at one. Then the rest of the day is ours to futz around with. The days are sunny and I am getting so tan. The kibbutz is a great place to run around in. I’ve biked and run through all the fields. We play soccer and make toast (toasted sandwiches are a standard affair here for meals, I love Israel – everyone owns a sandwich toaster), walk around Rohovot, and keep making plans to go to the beach of which will hopefully reach fruition in the near future.

Elections are on Tuesday and the country is a buzz in small scandals and conflicts among the candidates. Predictions still lie with Kadima, but only time will tell.


The Mission


The second night rather than my 6 in the morning alarm clock, these foreboding words occurred around 2AM. In the fog of sleep, confusion, and annoyance, the girls in my room and I struggled to dress and stumble out the door. It was cold. It was dark. And we had no idea what the heck was going on.

Those that made it out the door were standing around outside the dining hall while our group leaders were just yelling and yelling a lot. Things like "STAND IN A CHET!" (what the heck was a chet?) "NOTHING IS FUNNY ABOUT THIS!!" (actually 20 slumpy, sleepy, out of place Americans was fairly funny)

We were ushered into a square shape with one side open, the shape of the Hebrew letter chet. Then told to put on all this equipment in front of us - backpacks, helmets, other clothing. Yelling continued - "WE NEED A VOLUNTEER!" (only one girl raised her hand) "EVERYONE MUST VOLUNTEER WHEN WE ASK FOR ONE!!! EVERYONE MUST RAISE THEIR HAND!" (all of our hands go up, but not too high of course)

A stretcher carrier was picked in case someone was hurt. Someone else was picked to carry the radio. Then they yell - "START RUNNING!!"

And we did. We ran in two lines at 2 in the morning all around the base. We ran up hills, we ran down hills. Sometimes we had to stop and crouch on the ground. Sometimes we had to stop and lay on the ground. Someone got "hurt" so we put her in the stretcher and then had to continue while holding the stretcher with the body. Then ran up a hill with the stretcher and the body. Whoa. It was pretty terrible.

But at the top of the hill we stopped and saw candles set out (in a chet) and a whole ceremony to conclude our initiation and mini basic training. We all got things to put on our uniforms to show we were volunteers. The scene was really something. All of us standing in the cold, sweaty and tired from all the running around, but in this almost magical place surrounded by candles. It felt good. And we didn't have to get up later to do morning exercises!


Like Summer Camp, But With Guns

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting while volunteering for the army, but I have had the most insane two weeks of my life. The sleep has been lacking, the food has been too greasy, and the sleeping conditions are sub-par. But I am loving it! Interestingly enough, while my whole year is supposed to make me feel connected and a part of Israel, nothing has worked so well as the army. While living in places like Kiryat Malachi showed me issues that many people, even living in Israel, never see, participating in an Israeli rite of passage like the army has done wonders to make me feel right at home here.

Here's how I've been spending my time at the base

The base is called Q'tzyiot. It is south of Gaza right on the Egytian border and totally desert all around. The purpose of the base is to be stocked in case there was ever a war and it is our job to help make sure the hundreds of warehouses have the right things inside of them. As you can imagine, we have seen a lot of action.

We arrived and first unpacked. Our room has seven girls squashed into a space the size of a small kitchen (four bunk beds back to back). We then got our uniforms. Girl army uniforms are actually pretty cute booty pants. What I didn't know was that these are not what is worn on base. The attractive clothing is called A(alef) class and what we got was (one pair of for the whole week) referred to as B(bet) class. These are your typical army green baggy cargo pants and shirts. I cannot explain how rank these two pieces of clothing were at the end of the first week.

The passing out of uniforms took all day and dinner followed. I'll just take a quick moment to describe the food situation. Every meal has an Israeli salad (only cucumbers and tomatoes) but this salad is glistening with grease. I can see my reflection in it. If there is meat, the base can often be counted on to serve a big pot of chopped up hotdogs and other miscellaneous canned veggies, also infused with grease of course.
The days begin with 6:30 calisthenics, then we eat, raise the flag, and then go to work. The first day we were driven to a huge warehouse that was filled with bottles of water. It was our job to move these into a huge truck and then put them in another warehouse. So we made an assembly line and tossed big packs of liter bottles into a truck all morning. When this was full, it was driven to another warehouse where we were told to put the bottles of water into. But the shelves that the bottles were to go on were holding large boxes of copy paper. These needed to be moved first. Then the truck was emptied. Then it was lunch time.

Doing tasks such as this, along with painting shelves army green and sweeping up sand out of warehouse and into boxes, not just back to the desert is how I have been spending the last two weeks. One day I got to clean out a warehouse with a fire hose! This was probably one of the most fun things I've ever cleaned with. Apparently firehoses are standard issued cleaning equipment in the army.


Movin' On Out

This will be my last entry of Track 2 with OTZMA. All of the Kiryat Malachi roommates have packed their bags and are awaiting new adventures. We have finished our last days and said our goodbyes to all the children and students that have been a part of our lives for the last three months.

Lately, the sun has been out in full force and we have been spending a lot of time in a park near our house. I had a really special moment this week when I was playing Frisbee with my friend Brent and a little boy came up and looked like he wanted to play. Brent tossed him the Frisbee and he joined right in. We taught him how to throw with our broken Hebrew and body language and by the end this little guy was actually giving the disk a good spin! It was the cutest thing!

I’m really going to miss these little interactions. This has been such a touching place to live. Everyone we have interacted with has been much more generous, patient, and hospitable than I would ever have imagined which has added so much to my experience. It will be sad to leave.

But new exciting things are in store. For the next three weeks I will be volunteering in the Israeli Defense Force. It’s not really as extreme as actually joining the army, but we do get to wear uniforms and live on the base. I am really excited about it and will post an entry soon.

After the army, it will be Track 3 where I have decided to live on Kibbutz Shiller for the rest of the program. I have always wanted to spend time on a kibbutz and felt like this was the perfect opportunity to take in order to carry out this goal. Last week I got a chance to visit. The kibbutz has tons of fruits and vegetables and when I go I’ll be picking oranges and avocados! I love avocados! The other volunteers are from all over the world and all around my age which is always fun. I can’t wait! Expect to hear fun stories from here as well! That’s all for now.

Almost As Good As Alaska

I was sure I’d have to go a whole year without hittin’ the slopes. There is actually one mountain in Israel, but really, skiing? In the Middle East? I didn’t even think it got that cold here (It does. It gets really really cold!) let alone that I would take a ski trip. But my arm was twisted when my friends suggested renting a car rather than figuring out all the transportation. We all piled in and headed way up to the top of the country – Mt. Hermon.


Hermon had surprisingly nice slopes. There were three lifts on the front side and one on the back and a lot of different runs all over the mountain. Both of my friends were fairly inexperienced and hung out on the bunny hill for most of the day. But it turned out that inexperience was not such a big deal on this mountain. Israelis really are not the greatest skiers. In Alaska and Canada, and everywhere else I have skied, my abilities are about average (I could even keep up with Josh Schorr for a few runs during the ski weekends). But I am used to people just FLYING down the mountain. At Hermon, at any given time, at least 50% of the people were splattered all over the slopes. Random skis and poles littered the run. I picked up and delivered three different hats and a pair of sunglasses to thankful owners throughout the day. On the lift one time, I saw an empty snowboard go straight down from the very top, no rider in sight. So when my friends attempted the mountain and (ohh the poor guys) fell the whole way down, they kinda fit right in! It was quite a funny sight. The best part was that I was a pro here! I was the one flying down the mountain this time. It was great!

The weather was perfect awesome sunny spring skiing. For some of the day I was even just in a t-shirt. It was really some of the best skiing I have done in a long time. I wish I had a ski buddy, but the ipod worked almost as well. If you have the means, I highly recommend checking out skiing in the Middle East.


My Jewish Identity (or lack there of): Why did spending a year in Israel completely altered my concept of what it means for me to be Jewish?

I was a late bloomer. I was, and although for some hard to believe, shy. And yes, sadly to admit there were many times of social awkwardness in my younger years. But I knew this way of life was not for me, and I slowly began to develop my identity of self. It started towards the end of high school. But really it wasn’t until college that I really felt it, I was finally – cool.

Once I began to feel comfortable with my individual self, and as everyone does during this large leap of self-awareness, I took on different traits to see how I could further develop Jess. There was Party Jess, Studious Jess, Social Butterfly Jess, Sexy Jess, and to draw in the topic at hand – Jewish Jess.

I would go through these identities in different waves, sometimes too strong, and sometimes too weak, but through many years of trial and error, of extremes and lows in each trait I settled into the Jess, much more balanced and with a more defined sense of self than ever before, that walked across the UO graduation stage last June.

Now of course each of these strong aspects of my personality have some great and pretty hilarious stories of development, but what has driven me to write this article was an unexpected twist in Jewish Jess. Really upon reflection, Judaism has really been the only personality trait with the most stability throughout my life. So it only seemed natural for me to spend a year in Israel when I was lacking direction everywhere else in my life journey. Imagine my surprise to find that living here has made me feel less of a Jew than I have ever felt in my life.

I’ll explain how this happened with a short comparison of the American Jew and the Israeli Jew. As a minority in America, we are constantly bombarded with reminders that we are not like the rest of the population. The real kicker’s Christmas time, but I’m also talking about every year that I’ve had to explain what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were to my teachers (and professors), I’m talking about every time someone says “Oh I didn’t know you were Jewish – cool,” I’m talking about this assumption that we are something we’re not – Christian. Due to this, American Jews desperately try to hold on to everything they’ve got to identify with Judaism. Whether this is through the lens of Orthodoxism, Conservatism, or Reform observances, the methods practiced are to reinforce what it means to be Jewish and to connect us together as a people spread wide and far in the Diaspora. For me this was done as it was for many of my Jewish friends. I was sent to Sunday school, had a Bar Mitzvah, was sent to Jewish summer camp, sang Jewish folk songs even if I didn’t know what the words meant, lit candles and ate challah on Friday nights, knew many of the prays for services, wore a Star of David necklace for many years, and spent time with other Jewish people doing similar things. From this I classified myself as culturally Jewish. I have not believed in God for a very long time and anything religious my practice I would call traditional. These are things “Jews do” and I want to identify as Jewish and so I do them. I love matzo ball soup. I love tearing apart a loaf of challah. Everything I hold as Jewish reaffirms my identity of self and brings me comfort and contentment.

But this all gets flipflopped when the minority part of the equation is taken out. In Israel, being a cultural Jew is just being. What I did to identity as Jewish in American can now be accomplished by stepping into a grocery store (it’s a Jewish grocery store). By going to the mall (it’s a Jewish mall with Jewish shops). By going to a concert (the band is Jewish and so is everyone dancing around me). No longer do I have to pick things out to do specifically Jewish, because everything I now do in a land of Jewish people is, by definition Jewish. So why do I feel like I’m not?

Finding out that being Jewish is not by definition being Israeli has been a destruction of my foundations. I thought I would step off the plane and be just as home as in Eugene, but it hasn’t been like that. Israelis do weird things like park all over the sidewalks, they don’t understand my social boundaries, I still don’t understand their language, and people seem to be okay with not being polite. So now I am stuck with this cognitive dissidence and learning how to deal with it. Its not that I don’t love Israel, I do. It is just learning to see it as a foreign country and not home sweet home that creates this conflict.

And as I reflect now I have learned to appreciate what a special situation we have in American. It is a place where Jews can express their Judaism in ways that Israelis are not able to. There are as many degrees of religious and cultural observance as one can imagine, not a black and white – you either observe all the way or do nothing at all. The paths to finding one’s own Jewish journey and identity are flexible and individualized. I cannot be in Israel and do what I need to do to be Jewish. As contradictory as this sounds, it is comforting to put into words. I have had an amazing time spending the year here, learning more about life and myself than I ever expected, but I also know I could never live here.


Europe Is a Little Chilly This Time of the Year

I moved out of Alaska for the first time in my life at age eighteen and found to my surprise, in the lower 48, it is possible to drive for 5 hours and be in a completely different state, as opposed to just being still in Alaska. Similarly I have recently discovered since moving out of America that one can hop on a fairly cheap flight and be in a totally different country!

On this note I just spent the last weekend in Budapest. A friend of mine on the program found an amazing deal on the Internet for a $200 ticket that included a nice hotel. So off we went. Other than a small run in with the mob, freezing cold weather, lots of Goulash and drab communist housing, the trip went flawlessly. Below are the details of the fun and beautiful things we saw.
Continued ...
2/3/06 First Day

Walking Tour on Our Own
We spent the first morning checking out the sights on our own. First walking down a cute street with lots of little shops. I went to my first H&M, and there were pink phones in the telephone booths! Budapest was once two cities Buda and Pest. They are divided by the Danube River, which you can cross at several bridges. The oldest of which is called the Chain Bridge. It was huge and beautiful. At the other side is the Buda side of town which is on a hill. This was the transportation to get up to the top. The view was awesome, but definitely a bit chilly.

The Matthias Church
This church was so gorgeous. We got lucky because there was a free English tour right when we showed up. This is the building where all of the Hungarian kings had been crowned and had also been destroyed several times through out Hungary's history. Both the Nazis and the Communists had their way with this place, putting stables in the church area and using the crypts underneath for sewage storage. But each time it was rebuild. Now it was almost completely restored.

Fishermen's Bastion and St. Steven
St. Steven was one of Hungarianain kings. I think his statue sorta looks like the old man guarding the holy grail in the last Indiana Jones movie.

Labyrinth Caves
Umm.. this was a mistake. So Budapest is apparently on top of a huge cave system and there are places to go explore and crawl through them. We thought this was it so we paid the admission fee and went inside. It started off a little cheesy, but with potential. The guide booklet told us the beginning was supposed to represent the beginning of the world and center of "our soul” and some other weird hippy stuff. The air was dense and damp and it was really dark. There was also this drum beat sound like a heartbeat that was honestly a little freaky especially when my friends would run ahead and jump out of dark corners. It was complete with fake cave drawings and odd heads coming out of the ground. Sorry I can'’t offer more of an explanation - there was nothing that made sense! When we finally meandered through all this craziness, we got to this one thing that said while they were "excavating" they had to stop because of a miraculous find. A fossil from the extinct species "Homo Consumpionous”. And the fossil was a Ked shoe print! It went on to show a fossil of a computer and the last straw - a Coke bottle! Are you kidding me???!! We only had two days in Budapest and we wasted an hour of it here!

More Walking
It was night by the time we got out, so we went around the rest of the sites in the dark. This was okay because most of them had really cool lights,but the museums were closed by then. Also what was really a bummer was we missed being able to see the great synagogue. Hungry had a Jewish population of around 40% before the Holocaust and there was the Dohany Street Synagogue built in 1859 in Budapest that fit around 3,000 people! We saw it from the outside, but it was closed when we got there.

2/4/06 Last Day

Opera House
Our first stop was to see the opera house and get tickets to Swan Lake, which was playing that night. Unfortunately the tours were later in the day and that’s when we were planning on going to the bathhouses so we missed that.

Turkish Bathhouses
When the Turks took over in the 1500s they put these amazing bathhouses all over Budapest. The one we went to was this huge structure with three swimming pool sized hot tubs in the courtyard and inside there were all these rooms with fancy columns and all these different tubs of different temperatures! It was AMAZING! And there were saunas and steam rooms all over the place.

Swan Lake
Then we saw the ballet Swan Lake in the opera house. I'’d never seen a ballet besides the Nutcracker and this was so cool. The dancing was absolutely amazing and kinda made me wish I had stuck with ballet lessons when I was little.

Authentic Dinner
For food that night, we got recommendation for a real authentic place for Hungarian food. After wandering super sketchy alleys to find it we arrived. It was so worth it at the moment, but not so much on the stomach later. Hungarian food is very heavily fried meat and potatoes and fried. A little too dense for my taste.

And that was it. The next day we hopped on a plane and headed back to Israel. Not such a bad way to spend the weekend!

The OTZMA Volunteers of Kiryat Malachi

Mindy Goldberg, Jess Mauer, Jeramie Bloom, Alissa Goldstein, Jen Matlin, Stephanie Hanna


Well, it could be raining...

Lately big changes are at hand in the Middle East. In our ever-long-lasting clash with the neighbors, the latest to change is the leadership of the Palestinians. As a result of last week’s elections, the old guard of Fatah is no longer in power. In its place is Hamas, a party that has been a more grassroots, for-the-people type of party, noted for making new schools and feeding the poor. Unlike Fatah, under Hamas people now are getting paid for their jobs, health care is being made available, and other necessary community services are being provided. These basic needs are being met after so long without. So, good for the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, Hamas is also calling for the complete destruction of the state of Israel. They are a known terrorist organization and while some have high hopes that once they become a governmental institution, Hamas’ extremist ideals will tone down, they have yet to change anything about their fundamental philosophy.

Israel allies like America say they will refuse to give the funding they normally dole out to the Palestinians if Hamas continues to hold on to its destruction-of-Israel platform. If other countries follow suit, Hamas will be hard-pressed to locate money for the social services it has been providing. Interestingly enough, Israel gives Palestinians a lot of money through tax returns and other things, which the Palestinians rely upon. As of now, Israel plans to provide that money to them with Hamas in power because it was earned in the month where Fatah controlled.

So now a lot of different things could happen. Israel has elections coming up at the end of March. Kadima, the new party of the comatose Ariel Sharon, is still expected to win, but stranger things have happened with Middle Eastern politics. For now it seems as though the country sits and waits. An attack by Hamas against Israel right now seems unlikely, while Hamas’ hands are tied up in clashes with Fatah over the power change and dealing with setting up a new government. Yet, for the first time my program has requested we don’t use public transportation at all in cities and stay away from large pedestrian areas. This is the longest such a warning from program officials has ever been in place and it is very weird to live in a place were I sorta flinch every time I’m in crowded areas.


Who’d Ya Vote For?

Surprisingly, voter turn out in Israel is very high, over 80%, which is a lot better than anyone can say for our great nation. This has a lot to do with the fact that Israelis know when they vote they are making news. The country is always changing and it is quite obvious to them that in such a small location, one vote makes a difference. In America we watch the news, in Israel they make the news. Plus, Israelis get a day off from work!

The big issue in the upcoming Prime Minister elections is borders, what is Israel, and what is Judaism. Israel is a very new country and has tons of issues that need to be dealt with (2nd largest social gap in the world, women trafficking, failing school systems, etc) but at the moment the idea of safety is the only concern in the eyes of the voters. This is what matters.

Then we have the three main candidates:
• Amir Peretz from the Labor party
• Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud party
• Ehud Olmert from the Kadima party

So what are they about?

Labor – Left of the political spectrum. Peretz may have some good ideas about how to help this country fix its vices. He’s all about getting back to Israel’s original ideas of a connection, both spiritually and literally with the land. He’s strictly focusing his campaign on social affairs of the state and a bit on the economy. He also seems to be okay with skipping the first stage of the road map (putting a stop to Palestinian terror) and feels that there could be an agreement with the Palestinians within a year. Unfortunately for him and the Labor party, he probably won’t get a chance to try. The fatal flaw of not focusing his platform on the borders makes the party unattractive to voters and lately his popularity has plummeted.

Likud – Right of the political spectrum. Netanyahu is campaigning around both borders and economics. Since the people are interested in half his platform he has a chance. Netanyahu talks about reciprocity meaning that if Israel gives, Palestine must give as well. He also is very focused on stopping the culture of violence, but also very into nationalism and having the Jewishness of Israel be self reliant and economically independent.

Kadima – Now here’s an interesting development in Israeli politics. Sharon who was the former head of the Likud party recently left his post and created something entirely different. Apparently this man has had some internal agendas for quite some time. Once he was voted Prime Minster of the Likud party before, he quickly ditched the platform he was running on, and created the Disengagement plan that more resembles the Labor party’s ideals. It has both supporters from the left and right of the spectrum. In Hebrew, Kadima means forward, but is also a slang phrase people say in traffic, kind of like “okay get on with it already”. The standing theory is such – complete withdrawal from the West Bank and the border be drawn more or less where the security fence is now. Yet, when it comes down to it, the platform of Kadima remains unknown. Now that it is pretty much certain Sharon will not be running for Prime Minister, the future of Israel’s borders are in the hands of Ehud Olmert, the most likely candidate to get voted into office.

Israeli Politics: Confused About What the Heck is Going On?

A quick run down of the running parties and what their platforms are –

On The Left:
Balad – A pro Palestinian nationalist party. Would like to destroy Israel.
United Arab List – A religious party consisting of Bedouins and Arabs. The UAL has 3 seats in the Knesset.
Hadash – A communist party. This party is all Arab and has 3 seats.
• Due to the recent raised voter threshold for a party to be in office, for any of these guys just mentioned to have a fat chance they would have to come together as one party. I would say this is a bit unlikely for a nationalist, religious, and communist party to come to any major conclusions.
Meretz – agrees with the Geneva Convention and believes that Jews and Palestinians can agree on the borders, willing to give up more than what was decided at Camp David. This party has 5 seats
Green Leaf – Understands marijuana to be the answer to the conflict. How can this be you ask? With the opening of the Egyptian border, it was estimated that 10 tons of pot was brought up north. And for the first time, there where 2 weeks of calm. This party has 0 seats.
Shinui – A party focused on the separation of religion and state. This is the 3rd largest party in the Knesset with 15 seats and was a hit in the last election. Unfortunately Shinui has absolutely nothing for the duration of its office and is expected to have 3 to 0 seats in the upcoming elections.
Labor – Focusing on the main issues of the social-economic status of Israel. Unfortunately, nobody cares. This election in the eyes of Israel is about borders, but the labor party is all about closing social gaps. Their popularity is going down. The slogan for the Labor party translated into English is “The times has come” meaning – forget the other big-ticket issues, the time has come to feed the poor. Regrettably because of this, Labor is getting forgotten in the poles.

In The Center:
Kadima – Ariel Sharon recently broke away from the Likud party to create Kadima. This party is pretty much an enigma wrapped in a question mark. Now, Sharon will not be heading it up, but Ehud Olmert will be, Sharon’s next in line. There is no policy or platform and what they are about is unknown. But also this brand new party has no ideological baggage holding it to certain ideals, so there is a freedom none of the other parties are allowed. Also it has been proven clear with Israeli politics that party policies cannot be trusted, especially with Sharon’s plans. Kadima is expected to win the next elections.

On The Right:
Israel Beytenu – This party's goal is to have as small of an Arab population as possible, except its ideas on how to achieve this are different than most. They would like to give back a lot of the Galilee and most of the West Bank to Palastine (areas in Israel that are mostly occupied by Israeli Arabs) and expand the areas around most of the settlements. This is a center party because both members of the right and left support it. The right because it means more Arabs out of Israel and the left because it gives more land than the Labor party.
Likud – Runs on the platform of stopping terror, violence, and incitement. This is the one and only platform that Israelis are uniformly concerned with and so they are doing very well with 26 seat now. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likud
National Union Party – This party was the strength behind the anti-withdrawal of the settlements struggle. They are truly against giving anything to the Palestinians.
Herut - Running on a platform to expel all Arabs.
Jewish National Front – Wants a completely religiously Jewish state and anyone not supporting that out of it.

The Real Story of Hanukkah

During the time of Greek control over the Israelites, Antiochus ruled the Jews as many of you know. But interestingly enough to note was the Hellenistic culture that had slowly seeped into the Jewish way of life. The Greeks brought sports, a new way of dress (hey who doesn’t like togas?), and other trendy cultural additions to the Israelites. This created a polarization with the religious Jews on one end and the Jews beginning to assimilate on the other. Sounding familiar anyone?

A lot of the wealth was tied in with one religious family. It was them who funded the Macabees to fight the foreign influence for the power of the religious side of the two extremes. Seems like it would create an interesting situation if the highly religious Jews of our time hired mercenaries to take over the influence of Western society.

At one point there might have been an old temple with a bit of oil that lasted a really long time, but really when we celebrate Hanukkah we’re celebrating the religious right taking power. We’re celebrating a war against assimilation and for the religiously observant. Just something to think about over dreidels and greasy latkes.


Israel Au Natural: A trip not to be found in the Let’s Go Israel tour book

I got word a few weeks ago, from a good friend of mine up north in Kiryat Shmona, that her federation was given her group a mini trip to hot springs close to her town. She invited me to tag along and so off I went!

Now these hot springs are not your ordinary overdone eat-a-fancy-dinner and have-a-spa-day at your expensive-suite-hotel complete with fake palm trees resort (this kind of place does exist as well, closer to Tiberias, but there are about 107 old fat men too many and I really don’t like fake palm trees).

The trip was planned for the next day and the night of my arrival was filled with the usual dinner making and wine drinking and of course the transference of the latest, juiciest, gossip of Otzma.

On Friday morning we were transported to the beginning of the trail to the hot springs to get the complete low down on them. Turns out they were not directly accessible and we need to drive ATVs to get there! It was like off road go-carts without a designated course and they went a lot freakin’ faster!

This beautiful Israeli man told us that the hot springs were just discovered a few months ago. A near by kibbutz was digging for fresh water and just hit this geyser of hot water. And while soon they are going to close it off and build an overdone eat-a-fancy-dinner and have-a-spa-day at your expensive-suite-hotel probably complete with fake palm trees, right now it is just a stream of steaming hot water that feeds into a little lake you can sit in.

We drove the life size go-carts for around 45 minutes through for all I know could have been Jurassic Park. It seemed like a Velociraptor could have grabbed us before we got to the geyser. No such excitement occurred and we arrived safe and sound. We got out and you could see the shooting hot water jet out from the ground. It went about 3 feet up in the air!

Then back into the ATVs to the site where we could get in. There was not much there, the point of entrance was just a part of the stream that got wider, but not that much wider. About ten of us pretty much filled up the hole and the water only came up to about your knees so we were sitting in the mud! It was quite a scene. Randomly there were also old bathtubs just floating in the water, so you could sit in a tub in the springs!

Winter in Israel in the north kinda reminds me of Eugene winters and so of course the rain started. I really love the effect of rain in while sitting in a hot tub and hanging out there, it felt so wonderful.

Getting out though? Not so wonderful. I’ve never been so dirty in my life. We were sitting in mud that didn’t come off fully as well as impassible puddles, and so I was totally saturated! We ATVed it back, not quite as exciting whilst drenched and freezing, but an awesome way to complete the adventure non-the-less.


Jess The English Teacher

The six of us have been living in Kiryat Malachi for three weeks and are really getting into the volunteering and the community. Everyday we go to schools around town and either work in small groups with students outside of class or go around a classroom helping students individually while the teacher is explaining the lesson. I work in a high school four days a week and an elementary school two days a week.

At the high school I work most of the time with 12th graders. They have a huge English exam coming up in the next month where they must speak about themselves and other topics like current events and important issues in English. I help go over things to talk about during the exam and help the students feel more comfortable about the test.

Then I also work with 8th graders who really don’t speak any English. This group is really hard because not only are their English skills really poor, but their attention spans are shorter than a baby Chihuahua. They get really frustrated having to look up every single word in a sentence that we are reading (and I don’t blame them) and end up running around the room or out in the hall or drawing on the board in massive distraction. Extreme ADD children.

At the elementary school I’m there to help kids that are struggling with worksheets or during tests I help explain what I can. The kids are really cute at that school and all know me and hug me when they see me in town. I love that.

But as much as I really enjoy everything I’m doing at the school, it is frustrating to see how things work in these small towns. There is absolutely no discipline. The teachers are referred to by their first names and this takes away power and respect from them. From what I see, the students do whatever they want. Whenever we go to school, there are at least 30 children around the halls and yard not going to class, just skipping with no consequences. In the classroom students come and go as they wish. If they get bored, they just leave. The teacher can (and does) scream and scream and the kids just don’t really listen. At the high school level they will just talk amongst themselves, show up late, have feet on desk, etc. At the elementary school, the classrooms are complete chaos. As the teacher screams at them, they continue to run around and climb on desks and hit each other (really this happens all the time!) and if the teacher gets them quiet it’s only for like 47 seconds. And the teachers are always complaining to me about having headaches. And I’m like… I wonder why???

But, ear splittingly loud children aside, and life in a town without a movie theater or bar aside, things are really fabulous. Everyone around town knows us and is so friendly. We get free pizza because one of our students works at the pizza place and free BBQ because another student works at the only other restaurant in town! I’ve taught everyone in the apartment how to knit and making scarves and watching DVDs has been most of our evening activities. It is quite the life.


Books and Movies

I'm going to use my profile section as a place where I can post about really good books and movies about Israel and Judaism. If any of you have any titles that you really like as well, send a comment or email and I will put them there as well.


I (heart) Turkey!

Thankfully I didn’t have to miss my favorite American holiday! About 15 people from OTZMA got together in Kiryat Gat, another partnership city like Kiryat Malachi, to eat turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and other yummy thanksgiving food. We gathered for the first time since splitting up for the second track. People came from all over the country; from way up north and from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and us from 15 minutes away. We actually couldn’t even get on the bus. While we were waiting at the stop, a bus pulled up that was jammed packed. In Israel, bus drivers don’t stop filling the bus when all the seats are full, instead people pack in the aisle so they are standing or sitting there the whole ride. Well, this bus had some people standing already when it came to our stop, and than only let in like 3 people before the driver shut the door in some poor girl’s face! As the bus pulled away, things were looking grim for our thanksgiving travels.

Since there wasn’t a sherut in sight, we had to get a cab to Kiryat Gat. We packed the car so it really wasn’t that expensive. About five dollars per person. During the cab ride, the driver turns on the light and takes the money we gave him and starts to explain (while lacking to look at the very curvy, busy road and while driving very fast) how to tell if bills and coins are counterfeit. It’s actually neat to look at the bills, there is a triangle on one side that turns into a Star of David when looked at in the light, the face on the money is made up of little tiny Hebrew letters, and some other things. Cab drivers here are so unreal, from making sure we don’t take counterfeit money, to marrying their sons, to getting invited to shabbas dinner, it’s always something weird!

Anyways we arrive and it was so much fun. Everyone made awesome food. My salad was of course super gourmet – candied pecans with garlic infused balsamic dressing and fresh cut strawberries. I also got to carve the turkey!

It was really nice to see so many people from our group, since we really haven’t been separated since we met 3 months ago. We all told stories of our beginning adventures and of course went around the room saying what we were thankful for. We also told our favorite/ funny thanksgiving memories. Since most of the crew are born camp counsels, we always organize activities in our off time as well, which really cracks me up! And yes Steve, I told the story of mono and showing up mostly dead at your mother’s front door.

The whole evening was very nice and I am still full today, a day later. Next week I will post more with adventures of the weeks volunteering. I have internet here so there will be plenty of posts in the future! Happy Thanksgiving!


A New Town And Home

As we grow accustomed to our new surroundings, Kiryat Malachi is becoming more and more like home. In our apartment I have five roommates and so much space. With a living room and dining room, the ambiance is much more home-like than Be’er Sheva was. It looks like I’ll be volunteering with high school and elementary school students in the morning and with an Ethiopian after school programs after that.

Malachi is an interesting town. We are located right next to a military base and keep hearing planes take off. Up in Northern Israel, there have been some attacks from Lebanon and these same planes that are going up there to deal with the trouble. Hearing them all the time is really a bit scary, but at least I’m nowhere near the violence. Malachi has a quite zen feel to it. There is a market every Monday where we can buy all our vegetables. Underneath our apartment complex are a bunch of stores, like a knitting store, clothing store, and small grocery. The group of us have taken up making scarves as an evening activity since the town is not big enough to even have a movie theater. This weekend we are going to be given host families right in town for Shabbat dinner and so I am really excited to be welcomed into a home in town this weekend. Not much else to report as of now, but we do have internet here so more to come!


A Memorial For A Great Man

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the assassination of one of Israel’s greatest prime ministers – Yitzhak Rabin. The public memorial was held in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last night and so some fellow OTZMAnikim and I traveled there for the show. We were all very exited because Bill Clinton was going to speak there as well, and not only would he be speaking English, but … sigh, I miss him. The crew jumped into a way over priced sherut and was off to Tel Aviv continued...

I don’t know if anyone saw it on TV, but it was quite a scene. Thousands and thousands of people were gathered in the square and the surrounding streets. People were carrying huge signs saying shalom akshahv (peace now) and looking sadden and somber with thoughts of the fallen leader. A little after 8pm the memorial began. There were many speakers including the new leader of the Labor Party and Yitzhak Rabin’s grandson and in between each speaker was cheesy Israeli folk music that they all love here (think Od Yavo Shalom Alienu). Some of it was really good though and there were subtitles on a big TV so we all sang along which was a lot of fun.

Unfortunately I still hardly know any Hebrew, so most of the speeches were lost to me (I really thought I heard one the speakers say Clinton and Rabin loved each other every night, but I feel like that can’t be right). However Clinton came up to speak towards the end and was very eloquent as usual. He spoke of how not a week went by since Rabin’s assassination that he did not think of him. He spoke of how he had many years left and they were given up in his quest of peace and because of this we could not let his death happen in vain. Later all the speakers came on stage with a large group of singers and all sang the Israeli national anthem together. Clinton came out with both Hilary and Chelsea, both of whom I have never seen in person, so that was very cool. We were all desperately hoping Clinton would whip out the sax and jam along, but that didn’t happen.

The whole show was very moving. There were many tears in the crowd and at the end they played Imagine, which is one of my favorite songs ever. I felt very fortunate to have been able to participate in this event, as it was quite an experience.

Kiryat Malachi Here We Come

In the next week, we will be moving to new cities. OTZMA is broken into 3 different tracks, Be’er Sheva was the first, with a group of 30 that focused on getting us to learn Hebrew, integrated with the community and living in Israel. For the second track we are split into smaller groups and move to remote towns in the periphery of Israel to focus more on volunteering. The periphery pretty much includes everywhere that is not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and five other people and myself are moving to a town called Kiryat Malachi

Last week we got a chance to visit and check out some of the things we would be doing. Mostly the work involves working with students in school and after school activities. I will probably volunteer in an Elementary School in the morning and with at-risk children in the afternoon. We are there to help them with their English and be supportive older (but still cool) role models continued...

The population of Kiryat Malachi is about the size of Eugene and has around 40% Ethiopian immigrants. This has had a huge impact on the community of the town. We were told about 20 years ago or so things were really looking up there. Jobs were plentiful, the community center was a booming place, the youth were all involved in a huge student government project, and growth and progress was all about. Then the Israel government brought the Ethiopian immigrants to Kiryat Malachi, which has the highest population of Ethiopians than any other Israeli city. The problem with this is that the government has not extended the same rights they give to other immigrants to the Ethiopians. Normally when one makes Alyiah, they are given money to start up, a place to live, classes in Hebrew, and other benefits. None of this was done for the Ethiopians. So thousands have just been dropped off in towns like Kiryat Malachi, almost all not knowing how to read or write in any language and inside of the support given to other immigrants, if they are of the age of 3rd grade, they are placed in 3rd grade whether they are able to function there or not.

As you can imagine, this has completely crushed the school structure and community in Kiryat Malachi. Jobs are gone, and most people who lived there have moved away. There is no one our age in the town. Just families and older people. One thing I found amazing was the attitude of the people in Kiryat Malachi, Everyone was so positive and upbeat and they were living there because they wanted to help change and fix up the town. So I am excited about joining and doing what I can as well.

Also, the apartment we are staying in is so sweet. It is like a house. I have never seen an apartment so big in my life. It has a washer and dryer in it; which I have never had since I left home, a DVD player, bathtub, full kitchen and oven, toaster & microwave…yes!, and this huge dining room and living room so we can have people over to visit. Yeah! Living in style here I come!

Tonight I am traveling to Tel Aviv to see Bill Clinton, yes you read that right – Clinton! He’s speaking at the memorial for Yatzhak Rabin, so I’ll write all about that soon!


Bedouins: The Native Israelis?

Every Thursday, OTZMA takes everyone on the program to an Education Day somewhere in the country. Most of these are in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and have covered a range of issues such as Israeli politics, history, and religious information. But this week we went south to learn about social justice. Part of this day took us to a Bedouin Village. Now this is not the camel riding, tea drinking locale that Birthright and other Jewish programs often visit. Continued...

Bedouins of the Middle East have it pretty rough. Their plight is very similar to the saga of the Native American. Once they nomadically roamed through out the desert, now they live in shacks of which many can be seen along roadsides. Some of these are reservations created by Israel, but many are unrecognized villages. Places that the Israeli government refuses to acknowledge.

There are several reasons and problems because of all this. First of all I’ll talk about the recognized villages, the Israeli government has set aside land with running water and sewage treatment for seven Bedouin Villages. But when driving through these, one can see empty plots of land with hookups for water and electricity. The unused space is because Bedouins are tribal and territorial. Therefore only one tribe can live in an area and even if there is more room, another tribe will not move in the first tribe’s area. So there might be extra space and across the street are hundreds of people without water or sewage treatment, yet they will not move into another tribe’s space. Another issue is gender roles in the Bedouin community. In the past the women would gather everyday at the water hole where they talked with other women and connected. Their role was food preparation and keeping the home and children together. In the past they connect at the water hole, but today with out this space, Bedouin women do not even leave the home causing depression and isolation. Bedouin men today, do not tend to the animals outside, but travel far every day to factories to do boring numbing work such as watching bottles on a conveyer belt for cracks for eight hours a day.

Fortunately things are in place to change soon. The next generation is going to college, the women in fact more than the men, because they are unable to work in factories and need to seek work elsewhere. Hopefully with this influx of education from the next generation, they will be able to bring about change.

Sadder is the unrecognized village. There are around 45 Bedouin tribes in Israel. The government was willing to give some land to them, but not 45 different plots and so many tribes are living in the desert with nothing. OTZMA took us to one of these unrecognized villages where some of the people there spoke to us. Their situation really sucks. Borders between countries have ended their nomadic life style, so they must get used to having a village. There is no sewage treatment or new roads being built because no tribe wants any of these roads to go through their own village. So progress is at a stand still. Women are treated way worse here. Men can have more than one wife, and when they grow tried of one wife, they will often take another. Most of these women are smuggled across the border and because they are illegal they have no medical treatment or other help from the government and are totally at the whim of the men who married them.

Looking around at the makeshift village was difficult. All the homes where made out of tin siding and there was trash everywhere. Also drugs are a large problem for the Bedouins, because they are nomadic, they know the desert better than anyone else and therefore have taken over the drug trafficking trade.

There are a lot of issues that the Israel government has to focus on and the Bedouin situation is difficult, expensive and not life and death for the country and is therefore slipping through the cracks, so I thought it deserved a little recognition from my blog!


The Oregon Country Fair of Israel

I’ve spent the last week camping out at a festival called Beresheet along the Sea of Galilee. It was a three-day music festival for Sukkot, which is a huge holiday here. We get off 10 days from the program and Beresheet was the first destination. Check out the link to it, but basically it was the Israeli Oregon Country Fair, if you could camp out in it without being a vender and if only 15 year olds went to it.

The social scenes in Israel are often reserved for the younger crowd, but I was definitely not expecting such a low age bracket at the festival. Literally my friends and I were pretty old by comparison, very unlike the extreme variety of ages that attend any festival I’ve been to in the US. But that and quite a bit of Jews for Jesus aside, it was one of the most incredible things I have experienced here so far Continued...

We camped with hundreds and hundreds of other people in kind of a tent metropolis. At the festival, there was a main stage and a few other stages inside; there was lots of good food, clothing and jewelry stores, massage and yoga workshops, and a huge fire pit in the middle. Everyone was dressed up in these crazy costumes and the best part about it was the whole thing was really cheap. Big meals were around 5 bucks apiece and I got all these cool clothes and jewelry for hardly anything at all.

The music was incredible. Every night at six, a band would start playing on the main stage and after that two more would come on, playing until one in the morning! We heard Israeli reggae, jam bands, folk music, and rock. Amazing! The first night, the last act was this rock group and during one of their last songs, a group of people cleared out and started fire spinning right in the in the crowd!

The next day there was this massive drumming circle. Tons of people were around this big fire and drummers and dancers were in the middle. It went on for so long and I was dancing with them in the center until the smoke hurt my eyes! It was really cool though. Then the most amazing thing happened. They brought out a Shofar and blew it right along with the drums. Nowhere else, with no other crowd would this have made sense, but right then it was perfect and just totally seemed to flow with it. We all sang Israeli songs I remember from camp and English songs by Marley. It was pretty much the most fabulous thing I’ve ever been apart of.

Later that night the music was sweet. The last group was actually very well known and when they got to their final song I knew what it was! It’s a song they play everywhere, in the malls and bus stations and any other public area, but still it was exciting to sing along and I felt more part of the crowd when I knew what was going on.

At times I was frustrated because everything was in Hebrew, and my language skills are still way below par, so even though I know we got to experience the basic really cool things the festival had to offer, not being able to read the list of events or communicate deeply with the people we met made me feel at a loss.

Click here to see all the pictures I have of Beresheet.

Well after three days of all this, and some unexpected rain, we had enough and left for Deganya Bet, the kibbutz where our friends’ brother lives. While we stayed there we got a great deal on some near by hot springs, and some people told us about a near by hike. The hike was out of this world. You can’t bring a camera or anything (so I have no pics ☹) because part of the hike involves swimming through water. The hike started off at the top of a ravine that we climbed down. At the bottom, we walked through a few streams and got to this massive cliff. To get down you climb a ladder and jump into to a pool of ice-cold water. Good thing it was super hot that day! When I jumped in, it was so cold I had to remind myself to breath. There were two of these little swims and the rest of the hike we were scrambling over boulders and other fun things! If you have the means, I highly recommend checking this one out!