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
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
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…