Saturday, February 25, 2006
Monday, June 27, 2005
All Good Things...
And we're done.
Less than twenty-four hours before our departure from Israel, it is difficult not to wax philosophical and write a giant retrospective which somehow ties together our whole experience into one thematically unified and insightful thought. I probably won't succeed, but that won't stop me from trying--especially since this is the last entry I will write on this blog, in which I take some pride and whose original goal was to provide an easy way for friends and relatives to ensure that we were not killed in a terrorist attack. Obviously that goal evolved a bit into something more; I hope that it became a kind of chronicle of our time here, with thoughts about Israel, what it is like to live here, the political situation, etc. So, I need something that will bring that to a conclusion--seeing as how we are not going to have any more Adventures in Jerusalem (we've already left our apartment and are spending the last day in Ashdod), this blog's life is at an end.
This still leaves me the question of where exactly to start, and I think the only way I can do it is not to start at the beginning--if you want to start at the beginning, I recommend you click on the September 2003 link just to the right, and order some pizza (you're going to be here for while)--but at the end, with preparing to leave. So there I will begin, and we shall see where we end up.
Israel is, in many ways, a third-world place. Not because it's not technologically advanced--far from it, in fact, as Israel is the most wired country in the world, and all of downtown Jerusalem is a huge wireless hotspot--but because of the way in which things get done (or, more accurately, the way in which things don't get done). For instance, check out our travails with Misrad HaPnim. Many of the checkout procedures we were forced to undergo went smoothly, indicating that perhaps Israel is making progress in that regard. However, as a caveat to that, I will add two thoughts: 1. We are still not out of the country, and there is still time for the bureaucracy monster to get us while we are looking the other direction, and 2. Not everthing went totally smoothely. We cancelled our bank account with no trouble, and returned our rental car (although the guy working at Traffic seemed to have absolutely no idea what he was doing, despite having worked there for half a year at least), and sent off our boxes to my Uncle who lives in driving distance from Philadelphia, and cancelled our cable provider, checked out of our schools, and said goodbye to everybody. That all went smoothly. Still, somehow, I am going to be forced to contact Internet Zahav, our internet service provider, three months hence to confirm the cancellation of our service, or else they will, I suppose, assume that we were not serious when we said "Leaving the Country" and continue to charge us. We had some trouble coming to final terms with our landlord as well (once it came to the time to leave, he tried to wring every last shekel out of us). In other words: in Israel, nothing ever gets totally done in a timely or pain-free fashion. Our apartment roof was leaking in the winter; the landlord "repaired" it (the word should be taken in its Israeli sense, meaning: Enter with a workman, make us move all of our furniture, create a dusty mess, patch up the problem as cheaply as possible so that a much larger stain is created on the ceiling, spanning the entirety of the room, and make sure that it resumes dripping and crackling within a week; and then, out of the kindness of your heart, fix it again so that it finally stops dripping, but shortly thereafter chunks of ceiling fall onto the bed (better if there are people in the bed at the time) and a gaping black maw appears overhead.) Said gaping maw, over the last three nights, became a kind of wormhole to the mosquito dimension, which is apparently attempting to conquer flat #7 in our building (no doubt in retaliation for the annual Great Miller Moth Hunt at my family's house in Denver). We killed 7-10 mosquitos a night, and still got bitten while we slept; usually the mosquitos would wait until we had hunted down their compatriots and were just finally starting to doze off, when they would lunge for our ears with a great bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! We would then dutifully arise, grab a piece of kleenex, and usually stand around the room for ten or fifteen minutes, waiting for the little beast to make the final, fatal mistake of landing on the wall where we could see it and, if we were quick enough, smoosh it. It goes without saying that if we were slow on the draw, the mosquito would go into hiding for another five minutes before we would get a chance again. Once I awoke with such a start to the buzzing in my ear that I shot my hand up and closed it quickly on the mosquito, essentially lucking into a kung-fu-master, Daniel-san with the chopsticks maneuver. If you have lost the flow of the narrative and are wondering what in the world this little anecdote about mosquitos has to do with Israel, I remind you that the story started with the specifically Israeli-style "repair" of a leak in our roof.
Israel is a difficult place to live. It has, as I have already mentioned, improved; I know that in the seventies and even the eighties, it sometimes took two months to get a phone line installed. But the most frustrating part of the society is the way in which just about everybody tries to take advantage of you whenever they can. I need not mention the Shtinker (though I will anyway), the clunky boat of a lemon which found itself in the shop a quarter of the time (see the definition of repair), whose bill-of-health was suspiciously overstated at the time of purchase. Of course, we eventually gave up on what the Israelis insisted was called a Soo-BA-roo Le-GA-see, and for the final half-year rented the little green French car (a Renault Clio) which was so underpowered that it seemed to roll backwards when you took your foot off the break even if you happened to be facing downhill. However, after a year-and-a-half of Shtinky driving, I must say that Marvin was blessedly trouble-free.
I don't want to come across like I'm totally down on Israel. I'm not. There was so much that we loved about this place, that we are truly going to miss. Take, for example, the cats. The Talpiot Mafia has changed much since we first got here--Raggedy Sam, for instance, no longer rules the roost, but has moved on to the great pizza pie in the sky. Napoleon (since renamed Napoleanna) moved in with her red-coated beau Joseph two blocks away, and has become a kitty factory. But by far the most inspirational story is that of Tamurlane, the female cat born with two good legs, one lame leg, and one stump. Of her first litter of kittens, three were born; two survived long enough to be named (Glim and Feather) and climb all over us, and only Glim lives to this day. Now a blossoming gorgeous tomcat, Glim hangs around his mother and her new, half-grown kittens--Sherlock, Pouncer and Shrimp--all of whom are healthy and energetic. Tamurlane took a long time to trust us enough even to eat the sour cream we would bring from time to time; now she lets us scratch her behind the ears. She's an excellent mother, always making sure her kittens are fed before she herself eats. We're proud of our little Tamurlane, who looks now to be the matriarch of a clan all her own. Our feeding of her family has been taken up by the residents of the house next door.
Our programs, of course, were exactly what we were hoping for. For Elana, JSS provided her with the kind of art instruction and atmosphere she felt she needed before continuing on to her MFA. She met many interesting painters, saw a plethora of shows and exhibits, exhibited her own work, had private students and, most importantly, grew in her art. At the University, I also met interesting people, had some truly wonderful classes and developed a close relationship with some professors whom I admire very much. I also found a direction for my life--a great moment for me. My Hebrew improved tremendously, I learned some conversational Russian in Ashdod, I can now read, write and translate newspaper articles from Arabic (looking up perhaps one-third of the words) and began to study German. We are continuing with our studies in Philadelphia next year.
Then there was getting to know Elana's extended family. The sheer numbers alone are staggering. I found in the relatives in Ashdod and elsewhere a group of lively and fun and kind people, who were of tremendous help to us, first in getting set up and then in general throughout the year. We are now in Ashdod, where we came when we first arrived, and where we have been on many weekends. The most recent addition to the family--the dog Shemesh--is among the friendliest and gentlest animals I've ever met. An appropriate choice for this family.
Of course, we have made some friends here with whom we will be keeping in touch, from all walks of life; religious and secular, immigrant and sabra, American and French and Russian. It's a wonderfully cosmopolitan place.
We are going to miss good Middle Eastern food, falafel, humus, shawarma--but most especially Valya's cooking, which was better than any of the restaurants we ate at over our two years. In addition to the family, we'll miss something about the culture. As frustrating as it was to constantly have to fight for every little thing, the society was nowhere near as antiseptic as in the States. This should be read as both a good thing and a bad thing. What the culture lacked in politeness, it made up for in sponteneity and genuineness; what it lacked in cleanliness, it made up for in joi de vivre. Israel is certainly a Middle Eastern country in its intensity, a Western country in its entertainment, and a Mediterranean country in its often bafflingly inefficient public services. One of the more potent examplars of this inefficiency is the unfortunate road-kill fox on the highway near the entrance to Ashdod, which Elana and I termed the "time-lapse project" for the longevity of its stay. The time-lapse project began eight months ago; it remains even today in the form of a few lumps of decayed fur and bone. I guess the strategy on the part of the clean-up crew was to let nature cart the poor animal away in its own good time. You see this also in the remains of construction sites (and Jerusalem, currently constructing a light-rail network, has no shortage of them); the leftover debris is allowed to blow away in the wind.
It was also frustrating the way Israelis tended not to care about the aesthetics of their cities. Elana's teacher Israel tells a story that involved a man refusing to clean up after his dog until Israel threatened to make him eat the piece of refuse in question. Though the story is most likely exaggerated, we cannot dispute its possibility; the unfortunately large numbers of little brown piles wherever you go are still less smelly than the large green dumpsters which adorn the streets. Although there are some lovely buildings which are newly built, and some stunning ones which are very old, the large majority of the buildings were built in the fifties and sixties, when it was important to get enough housing to all the Jews flooding in built very quickly--and aesthetics were not a consideration. I am not criticizing that aspect of it, but it was certainly a contributer. In fifteen-twenty years, with all the new buildings, Israel's cities will probably be gorgeous, as long as its residents allow it to be so. Though Israel will never be Italy, Israelis, and especially children, have a destructive streak in them; I point to the lovely little garden wall near Alla and Vova's old apartment, which was wontonly destroyed, and the bottle that hit my car in Jerusalem, thrown by a little religious boy who fled in giggling terror when I pulled off and stepped out of the car to stare at him and, hopefully, give him a little fright and make him think twice about doing something like that again. This does not refer to the entirety of the people, of course--in general, I don't believe in generalizations--but, as the sign outside the Sataf forest with a giant picture of a burning cigarette laments, "It takes only one fool to destroy the Forest of Peace." Here's hoping that Israel can overcome those bad apples.
Then there is the driving. I've heard its worse in Cairo and Riyadh, so I won't complain in case anyone from those places visits this site.
The political situation right now is, as always, a mess. Disengagement is looming in August; a Professor of mine mentioned that he turned down an offer to teach in the States next year because he sensed "blood in the water" in his country. I take some issue with that assessment--I don't believe, like he and many others do, that the disengagement will lead to an Israeli civil war--but unfortunately I can't totally discount the possibility either. The anti-disengagement activists--most of them young religious teenagers--have taken to blocking the roads with protests and burning tires. They sport bright orange T-shirts and stand at intersections handing out "Jews Do Not Expel Jews" and "I am also Connected: Gush Qatif and Samaria" bumper stickers, as well as bright orange ribbons which many cars have right now. I get scared when I see a lot of people wearing the same color and they're not throwing or kicking a ball around; the comparison to fascism is hard to resist. The ironic thing is, they say that Sharon is a fascist for forcing the settlers from their homes. I see bumper stickers and signs that say "The Land of Israel for the People of Israel" which frighten me even more. An Arabrein land is no better than a Judenrein one, and I personally find it especially disgusting to find such sentiments coming from the mouths of Jews, who have suffered such indignity in the past and really should know better. Everyone should.
If you're paying close attention, you've probably noticed that this entry drifted back into criticism. Well, if that's so, consider it part of the culture. Israelis in general spend a lot of time complaining--largely justified, too. If you don't complain and hassle and cajole and sometimes scream, you simply will not get done here what you need to do. I point to my post on the first of last December, where I discussed the bureaucratic hassles of life here. Complaining is an art in Israel, one which must be carefully cultivated. If you don't get the cadence right, you end up sounding like a whiny American. And you have to be a bit nosy, too; if you don't try to find out more than is your business, odds are you won't find out anything at all. Unfortunately, this is often taken to an extreme, and it can be off-putting to Americans when the first four questions they are asked by an Israeli they have just met are their name, their salary, how much they paid for their car, and how much they pay for rent (not necessarily in that order). When this nosiness is combined with the complaining aggressiveness, the results can be explosive.
In many ways, Israeli society is hafukh--upside down. Rap is on par with literature. A mournful Memorial Day and a madcap Independence Day are consecutive. On the more serious side, Israelis will efficiently and calmly respond to an explosion, treating and evacuating the wounded and cleaning up the scene, but when faced with an overcooked piece of steak they will fly off the handle. That last part, I think, is a symptom of living with terrorism: you can't afford to panic about that, so you save it and let it out when it will do the least amoung of damage.
Society is splintered. Not just by the stress of terrorism or the coming disengagement from Gaza, but by each group of immigrants' perception of the others, and sometimes that manifests itself in rascist terms.
Worse and worse, isn't it? But that's really not the picture I want to paint; it's just the part that's easiest to express. It would be safe to say that we feel ambivalently towards Israel; I've already mentioned some of the things we'll miss. Most of all, though, as foreign as we felt here--well, we never felt as if we were in Mongolia. In other words, we weren't that foreign. For all its faults and quirks, Israel is the Jewish homeland, and it--and Jerusalem especially--seem to be, in one way or other, the focal point of the global Jewish community, insofar as such a thing exists, and we ourselves are subject to the same centrifugal forces which seem to draw Jews to this land. We are connected with America--hey, America is home, and that is why we are heading to the airport in about eight hours. But, still, something in our hearts and our souls tugs us towards Jerusalem and Israel. There's the overwhelming feeling that, Americans though we may be, it's all ours here anyway: our terrible drivers on the highway and our bureaucracy headaches, our cities and theatres and food and universities and studio schools. For the Jewish people, this is the fulfillment of a long-desired wish "lihiyot 'am khofshi b'artzeinu:" to be a free people in our country. So, any complaints I make must be understood as possessing a certain pride and relief. At least there are not today much worse complaints to make. You take the bad as the growing pains of the overwhelming good. Israel has a long way to go, but she has also come a long way from where she was.
And now, I sign off. The Adventures in Jerusalem are at an end. I thank you all for reading this page, for your comments, and for your discussion.
So I'll say, in the languages of our time in Israel, Goodbye, auf wiedersehn, до свидания, سلام and שלום.
Friday, June 24, 2005
On the Home Stretch
Papers? Turned in. Arabic Exam? Completed. Checked out of the libraries, closed our bank account, returned our car, sent off the boxes...apartment is almost packed up, just a few more details to take care of, and then we're off.
Yesterday was our third anniversary. I started off the day with my Arabic final and said goodbye to Mount Scopus; then I came home, and we went out to celebrate. We agreed that we couldn't think of anything better than to wander around the Israel Museum for a few hours. We headed ourselves over there and did just that; wandered through the art, the artifacts, and the various exhibits...almost all of them. Thoroughly satisfied and with much pain in our feet, we happily wended our way the German Colony for a celebratory dinner at a nice joint we know called Joy Grill, only to discover that the entire street was packed in a celebration of its own: in this case, Hebrew Book Week. There were a number of bicycle-with-cart book peddlers in Olde Towne style clothes, street performers, singers on balconies, activities for children; I wished that I had had our camera with us. As what is likely our last trip to Emek Refa'im, this seemed like a great send-off. We still had our dinner at Joy Grill, and afterwards we wandered up and down the carnival for a while, drinking in the atmosphere and utterly thrilled by the size of the throng. And there were a ton of tourists milling about in the crowd; it leaves us with a very optimistic feeling for the future of the tourism industry, which of course had been hit very hard by the intifadah.
This afternoon we said goodbye to our friend Yacov and his wife of three months, Tova. This evening we are going to dinner at Mandarin, a nice Chinese food place downtown. I will write one more entry from Ashdod on Monday.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Here We Go Again
I've again neglected. I feel our time coming to a close. Now, with less than two weeks left in our time here, I have been very busy with the following:
- Schoolwork. Finished my 102 pager, finished two other papers, now all I have left is a take-home final exam and my Arabic exam, which I will have the good fortune to take on the morning of our third wedding anniversary. I think I will do well, insha'allah...
- Family. My parents and my sister have been here for the past week or so; we've gone to the beach and visited family in Ashdod, walked around the Old City, and gone to see the Goat Hippie (actually a very sagacious entrepeneur who lives in the hills near Jerusalem and manufactures his own, very excellent cheeses). It's been great to have them here.
Tomorrow after class we're heading down to Eilat for a three-day weekend. Meanwhile, we've begun the process of packing up our stuff and canceling what needs to be cancelled. We'll miss Israel, but we're looking forward to heading back to the States.