Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your Engines

Monday morning started with already elevated blood pressure as I concentrated through all the booms and pops of the celebrations from the Muslim holiday on the other side of the city. It’s not so bad when you know that this acoustic backdrop is festive, but considering the proximity to the recent war and continued tensions in the area, I can think of more calming accompaniments to the tappings of a keyboard in our office.

I went for a walk around mid-afternoon and noticed a variety of incongruities that perked my attention to some sort of something going on. The traffic patterns had been altered around the base of the Old City; and a parachute hung in the air in the distance . At first glance, it simply seemed to be a strange choice of location for the sport, but it turned out to be tethered about 150 feet in the air by a barely visible strap. My boss explained that it was a security measure – they use parachute military instead of blimps for aerial surveillance. I wondered if he had balloons and a painted face or maybe was dressed like Santa Claus (that’s logical, right?).

Usually when I do a loop past the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, I pass groups of older Russian Orthodox women with delicate scarves covering their hair, tourists from South Korea clicking photos in front of David’s Harp, or groups of Jewish families dressed up for a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. On Monday, I passed a kid with a bull nose ring and jeans holding on for dear life just below his ass and a dude wearing a gray t-shirt with yellow splotchy letters that said My idea of balanced is a beer in each hand. Neither of these offended me, but they were nevertheless a jarring introduction to a new demographic taking in the consecrated scenery of the Old City.

I should have figured it out sooner, but it wasn’t until I heard the distant growls of gunning engines (and our director came to tell us that the office was closing) that I learned a Formula One racetrack had been set up at the base of the Old City and would be doing figure-8s along the route between my home and my office. Despite my profound connection to the Appalachian hills - where racing actually got its start running liquor during the Prohibition and still has a huge following – I have pretty much always despised everything about race car culture. My encounters with racing mostly center around Bristol, Tennessee, where I simply acknowledge its existence and move through as quickly as possible – taking extra care not to get bowled over in the passing lane by some yahoo with no muffler and a Bud Light in his hand.

To be fair, I’m not judging all race car fans individually – it’s also my fear of the commanding influence of stupidity that takes over in large crowds of people. ESPECIALLY considering that we live in a politically charged environment already and are now cramming thousands of people like sardines into the perimeter of less than a kilometer with engines and emotions revving. (Awesome opportunity for creative coexistence, or just needing a spark for the gasoline? Yes.)

Also consider the environmental factor: I can think of no more efficient yet meaningless way to burn fossil fuels than doing laps around a track – aside from maybe lighting up oil fields outright. And the only sound more obnoxious than the incessant honking already plaguing the roads of Jerusalem would be to add exponentially louder engines and more aggressive drivers. In short, I hate racing and the thought of being around it made my skin crawl.

I’d been hoping to leave the office before the hullaballoo got started. But given that our timing was slightly off, Lucy and I wound up leaving the office just as the race began gearing up. We could hear the motors roaring past the Old City and turning up the main drag towards Bethlehem. We took a longer route home and cut up behind the mall nearer to the City Center to try to skirt the course, but we missed by about a block and wound up at the main junction with a huge projection of the drivers coming around the bend and about 400 people all crammed into the four corners of the intersection. One car zoomed by, but didn’t slow down enough and skidded around the turn, coming within meters of the barricades where teenagers were perched with their lemonades and camera phones. I realized that the only way to get home was by crossing the rickety scaffolding staircase that led to a footbridge over the track. 

Scores of other people had stuffed themselves into a makeshift line to get across, but were bottlenecking as they lifted bikes and baby strollers and pausing to watch the race. Lucy, whose father had not taken her to football games as a youth and hence not taught her how to ‘shoot the gaps’ in the crowds (nor who was about 14 seconds away from a panic attack like yours truly), got caught in the line. I knew she’d catch up with me eventually and I crossed and came down the other side without looking back. Waiting for Lucy, however, meant that I was standing in the street just behind the barricades, during which I had the delightful opportunity to watch the environment-leech-sound-polluting-waste-of-every-possible-resource epitomes of human over-consumption come screaming towards me at death-defying speeds before slowing to turn and thunder past some of the most sanctified sites on Earth. I would've rather spent that 5 minutes pulling out my fingernails, but managed to continue breathing, which sometimes is all you can ask. We finally escaped the crowds and made it home in record time.

This city is full of surprises. I think I read somewhere that next week they’re doing a mobile Biblical petting zoo in the park – lions, lambs, serpents, the works…. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ultimate Cheer

My friend Seth has this cheer for before an ultimate frisbee game. He’ll come running into the huddle and start a story. The story escalates in absurdity and so does the team’s response with alternating “YAAAY”s and “BOOO”s. Something along the lines of:

“Guys – I’m so sorry I’m late – it’s because we had SUCH a great tournament party last night!”


“But now I’m really hung over.”


“But I’m ready to play defense anyway!” 


“But I can’t play because I threw my cleat in the ocean with a message for the people of Indonesia last night…”


And so on and so forth until either our team gets fired up to play, or the story becomes so outrageous that the other team gets engrossed and comes over to join us.

We also bring a couch to the fields...and bacon

This cheer is analogous to my experiences since returning to the Middle East from a few weeks in the States. Take any aspect of it. The war, for example: a real ceasefire (yay!) to the following land grab by Israel in the West Bank, thus continuing to ostracize international alliances or even compassion for the Jewish State and its cause (boo!). Or moving into a wonderful new apartment (yay!); and having the faucets and the stove immediately fall apart (boo!); but getting them fixed with the kind support of our landlady (yay!); who then proceeded to scold us like little children for getting overcharged (boo!). (I swear, dealing with Israelis is like eating Sourpatch Kids or Warheads – you just gotta pucker up and hang on for the ride ‘til the outer layer dissolves.)

Or how about going to play in a frisbee tournament on Saturday: I found out on Thursday that my toe had only been dislocated instead of broken, so I would actually be able to play (yay?); I woke up at 5am to catch a sherut (mini-bus) at the central station, only to remember after my 40-minute walk that they don’t run from that side of town on Shabbat (boo!). Huffing it back to the East side, I found many sheruts waiting to leave for Tel Aviv (yay!) and got juggled by six shouting Arab men into four different sheruts over the span of 30 minutes. Each time, I was the first passenger in a bus that must be full before it departs (boo). I returned to the shouting men and kindly declined one offer to drive me to Tel Aviv directly for 300 shekels (boo!), but then got in a cab to the secret sheruts  (and by secret I mean the ones I just didn’t know about) – a ride for which the kind old man, Rami, did not charge me at all (yay!) (I may leave the part out where he kept patting my knee…grandfatherly or creepy ? The ride was short enough that I did not need to make a clear distinction or assess the speed at which I could leap from the car, which was great because he seemed nice and it was still too early in the morning for a dive-and-role). I was the second-to-last person on the bus and was immediately whisked away to the big city very, very quickly (yay!)…on a speeding bus ride of death (blarf).

The latest in this proverbial roller coaster (were there roller coasters in Proverbs? If not, what would they have said instead? A Judean hill chariot race? Fishing boat on a stormy Galilee?) – anyway, the latest escapade of this sort was navigating the medical system. I’ve recently diagnosed myself with a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria (boo!) but had a not-so-painful appointment yesterday during which the doctor actually answered my questions and even drew me a map of where to go to the pharmacy. I found a receptionist who told me where to go to drop off my packet and then encountered a super friendly pharmacist (all yay!)

And by comparison, I’d much rather be at the doctor than the bank. My roommate and I returned from our respective life errands at the same time, but her simple chore to remedy a wrongly dated check spawned treks to two separate branches, a series of blank stares accompanied by completely fabricated fees with multi-step transactions, and hostile rebukes for messing up the check in the first place…none of which resulted in any clear way to solve the issue because that task is just too tricky to tackle. My tough-as-nails Brit cried in public. She has never cried in public, at least not since England lost a war (oh, wait – yeah, she’s never cried in public.) They gave her a glass of water and asked her why she was crying over a silly piece of paper. …boo.

New roommate Lucy and I bonding over Proverbs, roller coasters, and cactus fruits

Lately my life has felt like playing he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not with the flower petals of my sanity (which is, ironically, a not-so-far-off analogy to be frank). It’s a gentle roulette that turns me to meditation and chocolate. But I am not so blind or narcissistic as to not understand that this is all a hyperbolic anecdote of what every other creature is going through: that is, simply life itself – a cosmically balanced cycle of ups and downs to which we are intended to respond with grace and an open mind and perhaps someday even influence through positive intention. And like the freezer door that falls out every time we open the fridge, it’s actually quite funny when it doesn’t make you cry. But when you are in a foreign land and everything is just a smidge more complicated and those cycles come in large waves that coincide with a particularly emotional other cycles in the month (which is not an excuse but simply a reality), then this life roller-coaster-ancient-fishing-boat-on-the-stormy-seas makes me want to curl up in the fetal position or barf - depending on how much chocolate I’ve eaten already. 

Frankly, I usually enjoy these free-falls - the moment of seeing that huge drop in front and reaching the realization that it’s coming whether I want it to or not - so I might as well commit and enjoy it. (Let’s define “commitment” at a surface level for now, though. We’re talking small decisions - not life choices - for the time being. Yesterday I spent quite literally 10 minutes in the baking aisle trying to figure out which chocolate to use in the brownies I was baking for my friend in the hospital. Didn’t matter I guess – I burned the SHIT out of them anyway (boo). But my point is that decisions are not my strong suit (yet), so I’m taking one small commitment at a time). I acknowledge this about myself and so I think that leaning into these drops is actually a healthy thing. I can’t change the banking system or predetermine which sherut driver doesn’t have a death wish, so maybe the best thing to do is to get out on the field and tell the story with vigor; to sob when it feels right and to cheer when the heroine conquers the flesh eating bacteria and gets new faucets in the bathroom. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Here and There

It's been awhile since I've written, so before I dive into this blog, I might offer a bit of context: I wound up taking a whirlwind trip home to the States for three weeks at the end of July. The trip started off with a bang when a rocket hit near the airport and the American airlines shut down their Tel Aviv circuit. I spent two days on hold with the airlines to see if I'd actually be able to get out. I finally made it via Spain (Olé!) and went immediately from the desert and a war to a week at the lake with weenie roasts, Bingo (where I won big: $4.75), water skiing, and family that I hadn't seen for over five years.

From there, it was two weeks at home with more family time, doctors' appointments, feasting on Asheville's plethora of organic meats and ice cream flavors, wonderful friends, a frisbee tournament, and oh, working part-time from home with the dogs and the doorbells during that whole period.

When I returned home to Jerusalem, I immediately started work again and finished moving apartments - a process that had been turned into a tight-quartered circus of frustration and solidarity. I'd technically moved in before-hand, but joined forces (and space) with the departing roommate as we were both trying to figure out how to escape the country during the airport shutdown.  I'm now living with a delightful British friend in the same neighborhood as before, with so many trees, functional internet from anywhere in the apartment, AND A PATIO! (The only downside is that I can no longer randomly take on a British accent without wondering if I might be offensive instead of just strange.)

I took on all of these life adventures with full force, and then spent last weekend kind of laying on the couch, alternating between a book and staring off into space (...and yet, couldn't seem to figure out what was wrong with me). So, that's what's new with me, and this blog is about the parallels that I've encountered as I bounced between my two homes.


There, a far off rumbling is a thunderstorm trying to gauge its ambition. You can set your watch by its timing, but it doesn't often telegraph its might. 
Here, perhaps a truck shifting into second gear; perhaps a rocket being intercepted and falling in defeated shrapnel on a neighboring village. The magnitude is a point of boastful pride, but its the timing that will catch you off guard. 

There, ISIS is my friend’s bar – I watched his family turn the dilapidated movie theater into an elegant restaurant and festive music venue. I’d often walk over from my house for the best habanero cocktail I’ve ever had, or important civic causes like bluegrass shows to raise money for bike lanes and the esteem of self-impoverished hipsters.
Here, ISIS is also my neighbor (but they’re not so big on the cocktails): the increasingly powerful Islamic state garnering support and beheading babies in Syria and northern Iraq. Are they the ones taking advantage of the volatile times to launch a few friendly reminders of their presence across the northern border?

There, everything feels exactly the same as as how I left it - like a dollhouse discovered in the attic. 
Here, there is a mild breeze whispering of change, and everyone is holding his breath to see which way it will shift.

There, I dodge street performers and vagabonds in a bustling downtown, waving to the occasional familiar face.
Here, I dodge between tall, pointy hats of bishops, swiveling tourist cameras, and high-speed pita carts. I make my daily greetings to vendors, beggars, and taxi drivers stationed along my route to work.

There, I wait in line to be handed a menu, but I already know what I want: the chocolate mousse stout cake and a liquid truffle – smoked sea salt and maple of course. 
Here, I stand in a gaggle at the sneeze glass (if I’ve chosen carefully). There is no menu, but I already know that I want tabouleh, a carton of hummus, and some baba ganoush if they've got it.

There, the world around me seems certain, and I feel restless. 
Here, I feel a sense of calm despite the world’s uncertainty. I wish I could understand why this paradox guides my course.

There, I worry if my brother will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on him? Would strangers turn on him? 
Here, I worry if my neighbors will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on them? Will strangers turn on them? I sit in the comfort of my home, nestled down with a cup of coffee mixed with guilt, compassion, and a spoonful of sugar; never doubting my own safety, I watch the borders of my worlds blur. A protestor asks despondently of those holding the power and pointing the guns: “Why won’t they walk with us? Why don’t they want better?” Is there any difference between Ferguson, Missouri and Damascus Gate? And I can’t remember if I’m here or there. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How do I Eat This?

Excuse me, but how do I eat this?
 “The land of milk and honey” is somewhat misleading as a description of the Holy Land. More like the land of processed white bread. The pita is like Mexico’s tortilla or China’s white rice…or Asheville’s whole grain, organic, free range and spiritually harvested quinoa. And after five months of a steady diet built precariously on a foundation of empty carbs, I noticed one morning in April that my body was beginning to say “Halas!” (enough in Arabic).

No one likes to admit they have a bizarre rash – just the very word itself induces collective jitters in travelers around the world. But that’s what I got – a fierce Lichtenstein complex on the upper half of my body (thank the Lord for small graces) from my shoulders down to my fingertips, culminating in a hulk-like swelling and bubbling in the palms of my hands. And oh does it itch? Like hell.

But even when my instincts about the correlation between gluten and my “manky” hands  - as my British friend calls them - were confirmed by a local doctor, I still continued to explore alternative factors like cleaning solutions and laundry detergent while trying to scrape away the truth with my fingernails. Since reality set in, I’ve gone through a number of series of committed anti-gluten regimens and cookie-driven denial, cycling me through varying degrees of maddening itchiness.

At the moment I’m back into a semi-committed relationship with rice cakes and exploring how the hell I can also enjoy what I love most about the region’s food culture: falafel and hummus and all of the other delectable dips, goos, spices, and tapenades the Middle East is famous for. I’ve come to realize that bread is simply the vehicle for the awesomeness, but I’m having to adapt my digestion patterns to accommodate my new reality. I can spoon the falafel and its toppings out of the pita; the makings of a bagel are just as good on a salad; and croissants…well, sometimes I still shed a tear or two over the loss of chocolate croissants (or steal a bite of the Belgian chocolate cake that has melted onto my side of the ice cream bowl. It’s a process…)

But I was recently considering this question of having to consistently ask “how do I eat this?” as I deal with a completely other form of digesting the Middle East. I have no idea what international news is focusing on outside of the World Cup, but around here and splattered all over Facebook are outcries, speculations, and escalating emotions about three young settlers who were recently abducted in the West Bank. At the most basic level, this is a tragic and terrifying story of families experiencing their worst nightmares. It’s one we are unfortunately not unfamiliar with in the US in terms of wayward hikers and the nauseating rise in school shootings. But this kidnapping is also part of a greater political narrative here – that of the occupation. These kids and their families are living on contentious land – land that by international law does not belong to them. They are intentionally residing in harm’s way as an expression of their political and religious values, and their absence is naturally causing a ruckus on both sides of the wall.

Feeling overall saddened and confused about the situation, I’ve turned to a social compass for support, but my community seems just as perplexed as I am. Some of my friends are in a complete dishevelment about this kidnapping, demanding the return of our boys, cursing the evil of the Palestinian leadership and spending hours praying at the Western Wall. Others are focused on the politics of the situation –they are asking why no terrorist organization has yet claimed responsibility for the assault as it traditionally would; why the Palestinian Authority is being held accountable publicly but behind closed doors the Israeli government is rejecting their help; pointing out the hypocrisy in the scores of arrests have been made at random throughout the West Bank. Nearly one hundred young Palestinian men are being held for questioning – simply not coming home to their parents at night. Still others have no idea what to think about where they stand politically, but are just aching for the individuals caught in the conflict as they watch tensions rise in their back yard (and holding their breaths as we welcome over three hundred Ultimate Peace campers and staff to camp).

I’m wondering how to eat this. I think that in a previous chapter of my life, I would have swallowed this frenetic energy and carried it deep in my belly - digesting it like the Eucharist to somehow feel connected. But this time I feel disconnected from this crisis, almost like I’m floating above it. I’m choosing not to read the articles and pay attention to the news - to instead focus on what I want and what I can control. I remember someone asking me once how I could possibly help a beaten man simply by letting myself get beaten.  Does understanding someone else’s inner turmoil make me better serve the world? If the answer is no, which is a relatively new theory I’m entertaining, then what I seem to be doing with my life experience now is taking a lick or two off the top and then leaving the rest – acknowledging that if I chew it up and swallow, it will make me too raw to function. But isn’t that cheating? Is it okay to dig all the good stuff out of the middle and leave behind the stuff that hurts? Are we allowed to suck the falafels and meat out of the sandwich and leave the pita behind?  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Parental Advisory

For the first time in 22 years, these fine, upstanding citizens are flying across the ocean. 
Mom & Dad Winner
As I write this, they’re landing at Ben Gurion airport in Israel and making their way to Jerusalem. In their honor, I’ve thought of a few words of advice to help curb their culture shock and embrace this adventure. I think this will be an ongoing blog post as I imagine there will be a couple of times throughout their visit when I will say, “Woop, should have thought to tell you that…” (I also totally welcome any readers who are familiar with the area to send me other thoughts to add.) But without further ado, here is the first installment:

Scroll to the bottom for updates 
  •            Bring shoes with traction. Thousands of battles and pilgrims trodding the stones of the Old City have worn them down quite a bit. And avoid the area altogether in the rain – it becomes like a luge. Once I saw this Orthodox Russian woman slide straight from the Jewish Quarter into the Muslim Quarter’s barbershop in one quick run – she made incredible time, too.

  •           Throw your concept of space out the window. You think that bus can’t fit? It totally can. (Just get out of the Armenian Quarter tunnel before it does.) It’s not uncommon for a vendor to help you make change by digging into your purse or the next customer “in line” at the nut stand to breathe down your neck (or more accurately, shove his cashews right past you). They may look like us and many of them speak our language, but this is not the wide-open plains of Kansas anymore.
  •           You can drink Jerusalem water (and most anywhere in the country) from the tap. It’s perfectly safe. Just note: drinking too much of it can lead to delusions that you are the messiah.
  •           Upon my arrival, my good friend gave me some powerful advice that I have never forgotten. We were on our way to get some shwarma from our parking spot on the hill. Once across the road, he grabbed my shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes and said, “Rachel. You must be very, very careful. Look both ways when crossing the street here or you will die.”
  •           Do not take anything personally. The waiter may scream at you. The taxi driver may scream at you. You may ask for help, and the man on the street corner may scream at you…and then kindly point you in the right direction. Do not take anything personally – it is the Israeli way.
  •           And since we’re on the topic of asking for directions, most people speak English if you need help. Just look lost (or sometimes don’t even bother and they’ll offer to help anyway). Two important tangential comments, however: 1) If they don’t actually know the directions, they’ll advise you confidently just the same. 2) Do not let makeshift tour guides follow you through the city, point out random facts, and ask you for money.
  •           I think I’ve said this before, but it really could do to mention again unless you are a masochist and/or really love crowds: avoid the shuk (market) on a Friday. Think Gasparilla (for all you Florida folk), but with an emphasis on produce instead of beads...and I guess showing your boobs won't get you cheaper avocados. So, maybe not the best analogy, but in any case, we’ll go and get a nice slice of halva on Sunday afternoon to avoid the swarms of people 
  •           The money here is make-believe. This is a survival tactic and I strongly encourage you to adopt this philosophy while you’re here (especially while I’m in tow ;)).
  •           Most of the large explosions are celebratory firecrackers. The rest are better left under the same aforementioned assumption.
  •           Drinking tea with a shop owner means you might have just bought yourself a new rug.
  •           Watch out for the cat poop.
  •            “Hakol yihieh beseder” – everything will be fine. “Eiffo sherutim?” – where’s the bathroom? What else do you need to know? 
These are the posts I'm adding throughout our adventure, or that others are contributing
  • Sooooo, precisely 4.5 hours after I thought my parents had landed, I came upon a very important life lesson in international travel: The international dateline. I have no idea where the screw up came about as every itinerary I've seen, sent by my very meticulous father, indicates their arrival today, May 15th, in year of our Lord 2014 (according to some, I guess). But alas, they are really coming tomorrow, May 16th, which makes me very sad as I a) do not get to see them for another 20 hours and b) purchased a significant number of chocolate croissants and savory pastries this morning, which will be stale by tomorrow. (Please note the subtextual lesson here: purchase fresh, hot biscuits. Always.) To be continued...

Monday, April 28, 2014

Directions to the Church of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday

For everyone who is concerned that technology is taking over the world, I would like to put forth the argument that Google maps cannot tell you like it is. Here is how Google Maps says you get to the Church of Gesthemane from my house.
But I'd like to offer up a slightly more accurate snapshot of the trek. I say snapshot because the stones are the same, resting there for centuries; but the smells and sentiments and travelers are as variant as the wind that carries them. 

Take a right out of the apartment building – not the quickest way, but we must factor in a prettier walk and the proximity to the Supersol for a late-night snack. Abandoning your hopes of acquiring peanut butter during Passover and paying too much for a bag of apricots, proceed down the hill then up the hill then down the hill past the mall and the light train to the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Pass your friendly neighborhood falafel man who remembers not only your preferences – no onions, extra spicy – but also your zodiac and the name of your first boyfriend. Walk firmly through the Muslim Quarter looking determined so as not to engage the men selling fabric and TV remotes. But do pause to wonder why on earth there are so many Haredi Jews (ultra-orthodox – big fuzzy hats) in the Muslim Quarter. Easter miracle of coexistence? – is suggested by one friend; We (Israelis) do it occasionally just to taunt – rationalizes another. Feel free to ponder, but you must acknowledge that there are far too many idiosyncrasies in this city you will never ever understand, and to try to do so shaves years off of your inner child. Speaking of inner child, maintain speed or slow for a small indulgence because the knafeh salesman is looking hopeful.

Finally, you’ve gone too far. It’s okay – don’t get exasperated. This happens no matter where you’re going and from whence you’ve come - it is part of the Old City vortex and luckily you left early to account for this (and of course by early we mean you left late as usual, anticipating that the rest of the world would be even later than you. And thus, the clock ticks more slowly in the Middle East.)

Stop to ask a group of young Muslim guys for directions. You must carefully follow their words as one tells you straight then left and the other tells you right then straight. Look cross-eyed and smile politely. Inevitably, they will switch from English to Hebrew, the latter of which you must feign understanding until you hear buzzwords that you recognize (i.e. Austrian Hospice! Right!) “Shukran” is thank you in Arabic. Huff back up the mild incline past the chanting nuns following a hefty cross along the Via Dolorosa and turn right at the massive gathering of Israeli soldiers, down the hill and out the gate to an intersection. Name of the road? Unclear – it’s printed in 3 languages and most likely a different interpretation and transliterated spelling for all 3, so it’s best just to know it by the view of the Church of Mary Magdalene outside of Lion’s Gate. Keep right and follow the pilgrims. You shall know you are in the right place by the incessant honking because no one thought to close the road whose name no one can remember. 

And once you adjust to the honking (we recommend thinking of it as celebratory…because you cannot change a culture with a death glare), look up at the Mount of Olives and the Sacred Garden and the space where Jesus hung out in his final hours (most likely playing Catch Phrase with his disciples). Look up at the worshippers’ candles lining the processional down the walking path to Mount Zion. Look up at the skins and robes of many colors, worn by hundreds singing the same chorus in a different tongue. Look up at the unity, brief as it may be; in this moment it is everything. You are here.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Are we Doing it Right? (A Jewish Guide to Decision-making and Holiday Festivities)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about right and wrong. Not in the moral sense, for that compass has been unbendingly pointed north since I was four - much to my inner rebel’s chagrin (and my parents’, who started calling me “Sergeant Winner” around that time) - but more so in the what-the-hell-are-any-of-us-doing kind of right and wrong. Starting with yours truly and rippling outward, I’ve noticed that we compare ourselves to a malleable standard that bends and moves with the economy, the media, the friend circles we run in – consistently dodging our outstretched fingers.

But, seriously, what the hell? We create this image of what we want and then let all of these external factors influence our determination of whether this is the right thing to want, and the right way to go about getting it. Some of us want a brick cottage – we want to raise our kids as religious, wholesome individuals and provide them good health and a golden retriever. Others of us are determined to live out of a cardboard box until we see social justice in the form of poverty eradication, gay rights, and equal educational opportunities for left and right-handed students. While simultaneously admiring the rainbow of values and aspirations within our peer groups, we are casting a dark shadow across our own domains. No matter what we do, we are not good enough. Not right enough. I have a good friend who has been studying Arabic for over ten years. He is living in the West Bank and I am in constant awe of his beautiful elocution whenever we wander the streets together. Its sounds like a dance. He has recently been struggling with whether to give up or not because he doesn’t feel like he’ll ever be good enough. Another friend has been working in social justice in various forms for nearly a decade. She volunteers for women's empowerment organizations, has been a lobbyist for a number of environmental causes, and is dedicating her savings and her life’s work to become a social worker to help troubled youth. And she recently called me in hysterics, mourning the expansive gap between her aspirations and her reality – the kids she can’t fix, the bills she didn’t help pass, the drowning sensation that the world will never ever be as bright as she envisions. And I was seeing these examples surface only after I began to acknowledge the profundity of this question in my own life. 

The angel and demon – the latter of which is far better at getting our attention – continue to argue in our ears. You’re not good enough. You’re not doing it right. What is right? What is the right way to make a difference? What is the right way to achieve the American dream? Do you focus on impact or on what brings you the greatest joy?

Amidst a whirlwind of celebrations and spontaneous adventures this weekend, I found out that I was accepted as a head coach at the Ultimate Peace summer camp this June. Ever since I heard about Ultimate Peace back in 2009, I’d planted the seed in my aspirations pot to become a coach.  Maybe I’m doing it all wrong; or maybe I’m doing my best but we’re trapped in a system that itself is wrong. Sometimes I feel like a social chiropractor, financially positioned atop the shoulders of the Man whose back I’m trying to realign.
 Instead of taking a moment to soak up the honor of this coveted and prestigious position - “holy crap! I did it!” - I immediately shifted to thinking of the friends and family I would disappoint by not coming home to the two weddings this summer; wondering if that means I’m staying in Israel; how I’ll fund the coaching opportunity and my life here in general; do I get a work visa or stick with this program for longer; which then got me angry and confused about why I keep having to pay to live out my professional dreams.

I remember a conversation with my friend the Arabic speaker, who was pondering giving up after ten years because if you can’t be fluent, then what’s the point? I remember asking him – but does it still bring you more joy than frustration? He said For now. And I said, Ok. There’s your answer. That sounded so great and ommmmm in the moment, but as it plays out in reality, does that answer convert into sucking away your own stability and savings in the name of your cause? Draining your energy on behalf of children whom you can never therapize enough to make the world bright again? Giving up friends you know you have at home in place of an unending line of question marks? Working in a job that may or may not actually be having the impact hope for? What is right or wrong? (And do the measurements come in meters or yards?) And then what the hell is that success, because that line will move again as soon as we focus on it – like a star you can only see from the corner of your eye. My friends' conversations shocked me - from the outside I see them as such remarkable individuals who are taking great and joyful strides in improving themselves and the world around them. But, as evidenced by these conversations over the past couple of weeks, I am not the only one toting around this rigid measurement of inadequacy. To know that they, too, aren't feeling enough in their world brought simultaneous darkness and light into my perspective because I wouldn’t be bringing this up it were not a question rooted deep within my own innards, walloping my thoughts with that hostile yardstick. But to see such tremendous individuals who feel the same made me realize that it's not just me, but instead a whole thought paradigm shift that we need to work on together.

This week is Purim. While there is an expanding movement of sexy bunnies, slutty nurses, and half-naked Smurfs, the true meaning of Purim is to dress up as what you truly want to become – like masking yourself to reveal your true identity. There were light of God fairies, mother natures, and I put a couple of balloon monkeys on my shoulders and painted a Namaste sign on my cheek to signify being Zen amidst all the external chatter. (The next day I went out with Speedy Gonzalez in an ultra-orthodox hat & hair twizzles that my roommate lent me, which had no significance whatsoever except that my monkey scarf smelled like beer.)

After a night of dancing in the market, in which Elvises, disco men, astronauts, Zorros, and leprechauns lined the tables and alleys in place of the strawberries and slaughtered chickens, I eventually made my way to the soup kitchen – my weekly Sunday hangout. I was scooping couscous into dinner trays and trying to keep down my holy Tylenol, and all of a sudden it hit me. No – I did not vomit. All of the angst of this big decision fell away and I knew deep in my gut that I want to stay here and be a part of this Ultimate Peace camp. I want to stay another year; I will figure out how to raise the money (each counselor is charged with fund raising $800 for the organization); I will figure out a work visa and a job; I will figure it out. I started to laugh and my co-worker looked at me warily, Do you need another burreca? (a fried pastry with potato and cheese – ie my breakfast to keep down the holy Tylenol). No. I just know what I want. I just made a decision. He backed away anyway – I think he was afraid I was either going to throw up or switch to tears.

My phone rang. My friends from Ultimate Peace were inviting me to the Dead Sea – a trip I’d been failing at planning for nearly two months. We’re leaving  in half an hour. I felt like this was a little gift from the universe for finally letting go and listening – like a gold star from the cosmic teacher. Sometimes a little monkey business and patience are all that we need to provide some perspective. Is there a right and wrong? Probably. But it’s like asking if a snapshot is right or wrong; but at the moment, I’m just trying to enjoy creating the album.

I made it back from the Dead Sea in time for one more hurrah at Purim…Like I said, it was a packed weekend:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dear Sir

Like dialects of a language, the way in which women get objectified is unique to each of the regions that I’ve traveled, but the basic message is still the same. I’ve been bowed to in Argentina, stared at in China, told not to worry my pretty little head in my own back yard, used as currency for a dance club entrance, whistled at, proposed to, taunted, and followed. And I absolutely consider myself one of the lucky ones.

There is a new, show-stopping word that has been added to my vocabulary since I began working in the Israel-Palestine conflict: normalization. It signifies acceptance of the current reality, and most Palestinian activists are very wary of cross-cultural collaboration because they see bridge-building as a subliminal agenda for normalization. (e.g. Don’t talk to us about becoming friends until we ourselves have the same access to water treatment facilities as you do.)  While this one word could provide content for my blog for as long as I’m here, I bring up normalization not so much in the context of the conflict as with respect to offenses committed so consistently and unconsciously against the largest minority in the world - women. They have become so normalized that to identify them as unjust draws perplexed attention to the unraveling of the tightly woven wool laying over our eyes for eons.

As this weekend we celebrated International Women’s Day, I have compiled a couple of questions and comments to some of the men of this region. I will preface that my critiques are addressing some of the barriers and challenges, but they are by no means the whole picture. I have yet to write an open letter to those gentlemen who have welcomed me warmly into their country, offered directions, Arabic coffee, and boundless hospitality. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to address the following...
  •            I can hear you. I just do not want to get in your taxi. You’ll note that I am perfectly capable of walking considering my quickening pace; and flagging a cab doesn’t seem too much of a problem either considering the gesture I have just produced for you. Therefore, I implore you to conclude that I do not require your services at this time and you may stop honking, following, and shouting at me, and drive on to procure clients elsewhere. Simple economics of supply and demand. Starbucks failed here and moved on. You can, too.
  •            Just because we twirled about on the dance floor a bit (I admit I tried to leave room for the Holy Spirit, but apparently He occupies a different space entirely here) does not necessarily mean that I now belong to you. And to be frank, I am intimidated by your instant and somewhat unexpected level of commitment as I still cannot even pronounce your name. To be clear, dancing with another the incredibly attractive man at the bar is not intended as a personal affront to your manhood. But assuming that I am interested, perhaps we can have more than two dances together or go for a coffee before I come home to meet Mother? (Survey: Norman Bates, or local culture? The jury is still out as I have yet to commit to a 3rd dance...) 
  •             Speaking of Mother – God rest her weary soul – what would she say if she knew you were wandering the streets beckoning to young women with your comb over flapping all over the place? I cannot imagine a scenario in which she would deem this respectable, and I am sure she would be just as curious as I to know from where this culturally acceptable habit derived. Tell me honestly - how will it impact your overall well-being to know where I am from? I am not a lost and delicate butterfly flitting from one burly branch to another , so please do not shake your stick at me. 
  •            When you stick your face in my face and say “Mmm, good!” I first must assume that we can get past the obvious acknowledgement that I am not a hamburger billboard. If we can make it that far, I would like to inquire – to whom should I relay this message? Are you congratulating me on the DNA swivels that sprung into my curly locks and the overflowing cups passed directly from my mother’s bosom (so to speak)? If that’s the case, I certainly wouldn’t feel right taking all the credit. But shall I take a bow? I first and foremost want to thank my parents for making this all possible. Perhaps I’ll send them a “congrats on the successful consummation” card? Maybe I’ll just save these compliments up like a Starbucks coupon: You’ve receive an official stamp of approval on your offspring’s physical assets by yet another dirty old vagabond. Two more and turn in her birth certificate for a free latte! I know my father is proud of my work and my character, but what he really loves is a free hazelnut cappuccino on the coattails of my international sex appeal. Prrrr. 

Happy International Women's Day. I hope it was a little abnormal. 


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Shabbat Dinner(s)

This entry kind of goes along with my earlier post about breathing into space. A while back, I decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem, working on just being. I dedicated Friday morning grinding into the thick layers of black mold that were caked onto the trim of my bathroom and creeping up the walls like the demonic shadows of a scary movie. Feeling somewhat accomplished, but by no means satisfied as it mocked me from the ceiling, I closed the bathroom door and went for a walk. I found a frisbee game being played by Orthodox men (i.e. No Girls Allowed) so I hung out on the sidelines and threw with a very chatty nine-year-old with a huge backhand (that’s frisbee lingo – he kept launching it over my head). Having made one pre-pubescent friend and one very ancient friend but no real progress at getting on the field, I bid farewell with a promise to join Shabbat dinner with the boy and his family.

I headed to the shuk – the market – which in every way, shape, and form is quite simply masochism on Friday at 2pm. Every Jew in Jerusalem (ok, maybe just over one thousand of them) and Birthright tours looking for the “cultural experience” are stuffed into a three-block maze of tiny shops. (I almost lost it on a tour guide cramming twenty kids into a busy intersection. You can talk about the history of salted nuts and gummy bears from across the street where there are not wall-to-wall Chosen people packed into a skinny passage all trying to get the best bargain and book it home before sundown. Seriously? This is where you choose to stop and have a teaching moment?) Everyone was at the market to buy the necessities for a feast and weekly celebration of Shabbat – sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. (As an aside, they mock our pre-Thanksgiving freak outs. “I don’t see the big deal. We do this every week!”) With last-minute invitations to two Shabbat meals and no prior awareness of the Friday shuk experience, I dove in on a hunt for something to contribute, and emerged forty minutes later with cookies and an eye twitch.  

The first Shabbat dinner was at the home of Chana (Colombian/American) and David (American) and their son. We were joined by two other girls slightly younger than I, which brought the table to six. At a pause in our pre-dinner conversation, Chana burst into song, quickly followed by the rest of the diners. Clapping and beating on the table, she explained during a lull that this was the ritual of calling in the Shabbat angels who just come in to say what’s up and then move on. We performed the ritual washing of our hands and more singing. There is no distinct rhythm or melody and the songs don’t rhyme. So this communal singing introduced a powerful and totally new, joyful sound to me. David blessed, sliced, and salted the bread, and the feast began. There must have been six different salads at the table. There is no holding back for Shabbat. And unbeknownst to me, this was just the first course. Slowing down, Chana explained their family’s ritual of sharing a learning around the table. This week’s emphasis was on Exodus and the plagues, so that was the foundation for the sharing but our contribution could really be about anything. At one point, Ari Lev (my young throwing buddy) was talking, and Chana interrupted to ask if I wanted some context. Without an ounce of judgment or checking any notes, she started at Adam and Eve, moving to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and eventually Joseph, who had a coat of many colors and was sold into slavery in Egypt. The story Ari Lev was talking about pertained to a side story of Joseph’s brother Judah, and his dealings with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. I sat in awe of how this narrative, one that I’d seen painted on a wall in Sunday School or sang songs about in youth group, was so deeply engrained in the very existence of the people at this table. Never in my life had I felt as connected to a nation or a narrative as these people do. I thought of how it would feel, sitting at the breakfast table with my roommate, rattling off the lineage of Roosevelt or Taft and how their stories would eventually get to me. I often don’t consider the roots of my own narrative. But on one level, that’s why I’m here in the first place.

We leaned back, totally stuffed (oops) and voted on a game (Dix It – like Apples to Apples with pictures), after which Chana invited everyone back to the table for another two rounds of food and more reflections. Then we benched, which I guess means to formally close the meal. We sang (or more specifically, I hummed and beat on the table) and everyone fell into a hushed whisper of their own prayers. I closed my eyes and listened to what sounded like muffled spirits in the wind. They each closed their prayer books and kissed the covers. I walked home with one of the girls, who explained that she too is a mutt (my word - she had more formal phraseology for herself), but that she boarded the Orthodox train a few years back. She explained that Jews don’t proselytize to anyone except people like us who have Jewish heritage. (Not knocking Christians, but it was a very different sensation to be educated by Jews and I couldn’t figure out the difference at the time. It is because there is no tenet that requires Jews to attract new followers as there is in the Christian faith; so there was no sense of recruitment in their teachings – just a flat but engaging offering of this is what is). She explained why many of the women wear wigs (in Hebrew, the root word for hair is also gate, so they believe that anywhere on your body with hair is also a gate and must be protected. Married women wear their hair wrapped or cover it with a wig, and men have the curls at their temples).

The next morning, still physically and mentally full from the dinner before, I walked back to Nachlaot for a mid-day meal with my organization’s director and his family. We were eight, nestled into the corner dining table with a feast of salads as plentifully packed onto the table as we were around it. We went through a similar ritual of songs and hand washing and bread breaking. Yonatan (my boss) hoisted his son onto his shoulders and they chanted in sync to call in the angels. I hadn’t learned my lesson from the night before, and satisfied myself on Asian salad, beets, hummus, tabouleh, and sprouted rye bread. We began the same ritual of reflecting on the week’s teachings around the table. They paused just before they got to me, and I was stunned (but not deterred) when they brought out the main course of quiche and curried tofu with peas and another salad. With a plate full of hot food, we resumed the reflections; I kind of cheated, or reflected more deeply, rather, on my Hasidic class again. We sang and listened to stories and when Yonatan’s turn came he asked us to create a rhythm – a subtle and consistent “oyoyoyoy”; and he began to sing/rap/freestyle his reflections on Exodus. The plagues were not random acts of an angry God, he explained. When you mess with the water, the frogs die; when the frogs die, the bugs arrive and take over; they consume the vegetation; which leads to famine; and so on. It’s like the skeleton song, except instead of the body, it’s the world. Pharaoh knew after the locusts that he’d really screwed up, and he told Moses as much. But he still couldn’t let his slaves go, not because of his ideology, but because slaves were the backbone of the entire economy. Similarly, American slaves weren’t freed due to a moral tipping point, but rather an economic one – the introduction of the fossil fuel industry, which started the shift towards the capital infrastructure of the country. Pharaoh was bound to his wrongdoing because of his economic obligations, just as we today are bound by ours. We are the slaves of today and our monster is the black gold we leech from the earth. We see signs and whisperings of greater forces of resistance to our way of life, but so far we aren’t doing anything about it. All of this was expressed so fervently and eloquently to the delicate rhythm of the other diners. And we continued around the table…worship by way of food, community, and reflection. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Defining Truth: Two Sides to Every Wall

Today’s lesson is to try to define truth. The peace-makers often say “my truth” and “your truth,” but can truth also be objective? Depends on who you talk to…

I have crossed the Wall.(Kind of like in Stardust, except sans Robert De Niro in a tutu.) As a non-Israeli citizen, I am allowed to cross into the West Bank at my leisure. (Actually, anyone can cross in – it’s getting back into Israel that’s the issue.) Four of us Ultimate Peace coaches gathered for the first formal practice in the West Bank in about a year. The kids had been practicing on their own for a while, but UP now has a volunteer, Ben, living just outside of Bethlehem to establish more consistent programming. (Incidentally, this guy actually played for my club team’s rival based out of Atlanta. Small world!) On the drive in, my fellow coach and new friend Johanna and I tried to recap the West Bank’s history – piecing together which Intifada did what and elected whom and was recognized by which countries and how all that relates to the current political state of Palestine. It was a lengthy, convoluted conversation against the backdrop of a simple city – hotels, restaurants, supply stores, couches and dresses for sale on the sidewalk, etc. As we waited for our caravan on the side of the road, I felt a small, cold slap against the back of my head and something drop down between my lower back and the seat.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Breathing Room

I grew up going to church with my mom and my brother. My dad knows a few Jewish jokes and the first half of the prayer that you say when you light the menorah (he trails off in the latter half with odd guttural noises that he tries to pass off as Hebrew. Very PC, my father.). My folks gave me the option of whether or not to get baptized when I was ten; and having almost no experience in any Jewish community or customs, I stuck with what I knew. But the other side of my heritage has always tugged at me – asking for attention and begging to be explored. It is a significant reason why I wanted to come to Israel. And being drawn to the more mystical sects of most religions anyway, I perked up at the opportunity to go to a class on Hasidic Judaism, taught by one of my organization’s seminar teachers. This blog post is about my experience and reflections on that class.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

EcoME at Last

It’s been a while since I’ve written the last blog, so here is a bit of a synopsis of my adventure thus far, as written for a reading by Don LaFontaine: (We left young Rachel on a blustery Christmas Eve. Christmas offered a beautiful exploration of the Old City and Rachel’s spiritual identity, with a bit of existential confusion thrown in on the side. She met a stranger who invited her to an eco-village near the Dead Sea for a work-party weekend. In the final moments of their spontaneous plans, the stranger switched the agenda, finding young Rachel at an overnight peace party on the outskirts of Jerusalem dancing with the forest fairies and desperately seeking a place to sleep. Waking unrested yet ambitious, Rachel came to find her new stranger friend in the arms of a long-lost love, with whom he decided to stay rather than proceed on to the village. Rachel received directions from the reincarnation of Michael Jackson, and decided to proceed alone. We last left Rachel as she was disembarking from the bus and pushing open the gate of the village…) Thanks, Don. You’re out of this world.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Very Jewcy Christmas - Part 2 (EcoME...Almost)

When we met at the bus station the next evening, Johnny informed me of a slight change in plans. We were first headed to the PRV house for a party. And while I’m still unclear as to what that actually stands for, I was informed that it is a community of Non-Violent Communication peacemakers connected to an intentional community in Portugal. While I was more enthused about getting to the village than I was about the party (and had already capped out my spontaneity quota for the week), I guess if you’re going to dive in for a weekend at an eco-village, why not dip your toes in at an intentional community first? That, and my fearless leader was the only one who knew where we were going; so I let go of my preferences, embraced the opportunity, and hopped on the bus.

Upon entering the massive suburban home, a man in a sequined masquerade mask was welcoming everyone and showing slides from the group’s time in Tamara, the community in Portugal. As the applause faded, another host ushered us into the kitchen where I found carrot sticks and spelt bread and chai tea, and a chocolate cake being already devoured by the guys we’d walked in with moments earlier. I made small talk by asking how they knew everyone here. “Mostly from the outdoor fairy society,” he replied. I looked around, and noticed that the host’s mask was not a unique identifier, but rather lost in a sea of crowns, boas, and jewels adorning the men who were chatting, petting one another, and flitting around the room.
This was a farewell party as the home was to be demolished for condos. Markers lined the baseboards and beautiful drawings of children, skylines, and anarchy symbols were sketched across the walls. The clothing, the contact dancing, the peaceful rebellion through art, the familiar musk of patchouli and unfrequently washed body – it all reminded me of Asheville. I felt a strange equilibrium between the comfort of home and total isolation amidst these Hebrew-speaking hippies. Every time social anxiety resurfaced, I did a lap around the house – not so much like a terrier, but more like a slow and methodical search for familiarity and connection. If none were immediately available, I returned to the dance floor and submitted my seclusion to silent exchanges and Journey.

Having been misinformed that this party was on the way to EcoME, Johnny and I had brought our stuff to spend the night, which meant that a new challenge was emerging. It was 12pm and there was no sign of the party slowing down. I asked the host where I might be sleeping, and he showed me a room just off of the dance floor, currently packed with couples. He grimaced, “ It may be a while,” he said. Finding no other alternative, I returned again to the dance floor. After a conversation or two and just about as much sweaty patchouli as I could handle, I was on the verge of desperation for a bed, floor space, a nook. At the precise moment at which I looked panic in the eye, a gong sounded. A circle formed silently and swelled as couples flounced down the stairs together and emerged from various rooms. The leader, having removed his mask and now wearing a giant boa, said a prayer, blessed the space, and bid everyone goodnight. And within half an hour, the house was settled.

The next morning, Johnny decided to stay and sort some communication issues out with his lady friend. They called over “The Flaming One” (although, I wasn’t sure whether that was a complimentary nickname or not; and moreover, I couldn’t see how that title distinguished him much from the others, so I will refer to him as young Michael Jackson), who gave me very specific directions about how to go directly back where we’d come from and get on a bus to EcoME. I did exactly as I was told. I returned to the bus station and got in line…sort of. The woman at the end was either not in line, or her bubble of personal space was exceeding the Israeli norm. My former self watched as a mental and cultural metamorphosis took place: like a mermaid whose human time was up, watching the scales replace her smooth skin and her legs melt together, I pushed ahead of the woman and closer to the ticket booth. “Uh, excuse me, I am in line,” she informed me in an excessively exasperated tone. We rolled our eyes at each other – she, unknowingly judging how rude Israelis are, and I, judging how entitled and spatially gluttonous Americans can be. But my former self  rebuffed the emergence of its new, pushier version  and recaptured its rightful place in my consciousness. I stepped back feeling a bit disoriented.

I finally got to the window, “Almog? Almon, maybe? Near the Dead Sea.” I found my bus and took a seat at the front so I could keep my eyes peeled for revolutionaries digging in the dirt. The bus lurched and paused through Jerusalem traffic and began to race towards the desert as the highway opened up. The beige buildings dissolved into sand as enormous orange dunes jutted from the earth, rounded by wind or a seasoned potter’s hands, and sliced in half like the Red Sea to make way for safe travel across their basin. I got off the bus at the Café Café, just as young Michael Jackson had instructed me to do; I crossed the road cattycorner to the camel parked out front; passed through the welcoming line of palm trees, and pushed open the gate to EcoME. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Very Jewcy Christmas - Part 1 of 3(ish)

While my family was brewing the first pot of coffee, warming a Christmas quiche and setting a crackling fire in annual yuletide custom (or, maybe they were still dancing around with sugar plums and whatnot given the time difference, but this is where poetic license comes in), I was rising from a fitful sleep of defending myself against an 8-year-old with a machine gun like the soldiers carry. I stirred the dehydrated granules of coffee into my mug and returning to my sleeping bag to celebrate Christmas in my own way. The rest of Israel, with the exception of Palestinians and the Christian Quarter of the Old City, is business as usual. Donning kippas and black skirts (but not usually at the same time) instead of bulky sweaters and flannel PJs, the Jews in Israel go about December 25th as they would June 3rd or November 14th. I found myself thinking of the few Jewish and Muslim classmates I knew in college and what they must go through during Ramadan or Yom Kippur – dancing a lonely jig through their holiest holidays, isolated from mainstream society in their sacred merriment.

I admit I’m being a bit melodramatic, though. While I hadn’t any roast beast or yams on Christmas Eve, I am in the holiest city on the planet according to much of the civilized world. So even though Christians only make up 2% of Jerusalem, and a pretty good chunk of that 2% celebrates Christmas on January 7th, there were still a great many revelers making their joy known to the world last night. With the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, every bell around the city was ringing with open doors and services in multiple languages. I elected not to join the masses of pilgrims waiting for hours at the Palestinian checkpoints to go to Bethlehem. I’ll go see the nativity when there aren’t thousands of visitors trying to cram into one church along with Mahmoud Abbas, who was making security all the more challenging for the rest of the tourists. Instead, I made edible Christmas cookies (success!), spiced rice, veggies, and hummus ~ a Christmas feast for my Dutch friend and myself. He and I wandered the unusually bustling nighttime scene of the Old City, scavenging for carols and mulled wine.

Like no other time in my life, living here during Christmas has called my faith into question. In Asheville, it is perfectly acceptable to call myself spiritual – a response met with a knowing look of “Ah, you left institutional religion to seek the Divine within, too, huh?” The question of what religion you are is as common as what is your major, what is your profession, or what sport do you play. I often get asked if I’m Jewish and I don’t know how to respond. Well, my whole family on my dad’s side is in accounting, and we sometimes lit the menorah…Once, I said yes – that my father was Jewish, so I was here to explore my Jewish heritage. The guy retorted that I’m not Jewish then, because lineage is only traced through the mother (a law that has more recently been brought under formal dispute). The answer each inquirer seeks is based on a grading system I don’t fully understand, so depending on whom I’m talking to, I base my response on what they want to hear. “I like some of your ideologies, but I really don’t know all that much yet.” Or, “I was raised Christian and now I’m exploring my Jewish roots.” “Or, I pull some philosophies from both my Christian and now my Jewish upbringing, with a little Buddhist and pagan ideologies thrown in; but to be honest I’m pretty over the whole lot of institutionalized patriarchal theology…” that one really freaks them out.

As I wandered the streets with my Christian friend on Christmas Eve, we started talking about faith. I had a hard time grasping how he could be so open and compassionate to other faiths when his beliefs were so firmly absolute. He had a hard time understanding how I could call myself religious when I pull from so many divergent traditions. And truth be told, as firm as I have always been in my belief in an Infinite higher power, I have no clue how to explain my tangible beliefs. Where does Jesus come into play in all this? I wondered this during a round of Hark the Herald (one of my favorites) at Christ Church. At that moment, a Jewish girl I work with popped into the church to snap a photo – observing the festivities and capitalizing on the free cookies and hot wine. She spotted me and mouthed, “What are you doing here?” Uh…This should not be a hard question. Tradition? Jesus? I love singing and cookies? I was not sure at all how to answer, so I simply shrugged and said, “Hugo is here too.” As if that in itself was explanation enough for my presence.

Continuing the celebration the following morning, I spent a few hours volunteering at a soup kitchen – an anti-capitalist approach I’ve always wanted to take for the holiday but had never done so. I started peeling potatoes with Jack, who was definitely an odd bird. He immediately informed me that he was a recovering alcoholic – a habit he started at age 2. But, he informed me, he was working hard at meditation – a practice that proves the human body can overcome anything. “For example, I’m currently growing back my teeth!” he flashed his seemingly perfect chompers at me. “Uh, they look great!” I backed up a little. “Thanks. It’s taken me about a year.” Luckily, I escaped Jack’s crash course in Zen dentistry to help expat and master chef Zev chop onions and prepare fried fish. I will take a moment to mention that I had to dig little plastic bits out of the fillets – I’m not sure if they got there through the fishes’ diets or packaging, but it definitely gave me pause to take in the expansiveness of our waste –our trash is in every nook, cranny and crappie. I worked with two guys, neither of whom spoke very clear English – one secular Jew who bailed on the army by getting a note for insanity and the other who is studying to be a rabbi. We packed lunches while they tried to wrap their brains around my religion and explain to me that all Arabs hate all Jews. I think it will take another session or two to understand one another.

I took my computer to get it fixed and wandered the neighborhood until I found a small coffee shop with outdoor seating. Pulling from my Buddhist influences (or maybe Hasidic Judaism?), I found reason to celebrate in the way that my brown sugar slowly rotated and sunk into the foam of my absolutely delicious cup of coffee. When Johnny, an American who was seeking to unlock the key to peace in the Middle East and the truths of Judaism by extending his Birthright trip indefinitely, sat down at my table, I closed my journal and braced myself for a slight shift in fate. ( Sorry to disappoint all of you who are rooting for my love life, but it was more of an adventurous twist of fate than a romantic one. Please don’t give up, though – my dad sat through 25 hurricane seasons in Tampa waiting for the Bucs to win the Super Bowl. Faith and determination of a strong support network are very powerful indeed.) Johnny informed me of this social network around volunteering that he is helping to implement, and we dove into conversations about peace work; the more mystical sects of Judaism; imperial complexes of volunteer tourism; and eventually he mentioned a weekend working retreat he was headed to at EcoME (Eco – Middle East) the next evening. EcoME is a community in the desert ~ an area in a zone that is accessible to both Israelis and Palestinians as well as internationals, offering a unique common space for coexistence. While many call me adventurous, I am a huge fan of a plan and a safety net. So the fact that I was headed for a weekend trip to a remote eco-village with a seemingly sincere, albeit squirrely stranger, was seriously popping my comfort bubble. Nevertheless, I was excited for some dirty fingernails and peace talks, so we planned to meet at the bus station the next night…