Sunday, July 29, 2007

Shabbat in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

The last few days have been so very full. Friday morning, the last tour of the Ulpan took us to Jerusalem. Three groups of us did the quickie tour of the Old City. As with Tzfat, Friday afternoon is probably not the ideal time to go, but not quite as crowded. We began with the walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel—a tunnel built to save the Jews during a siege. Walking through the tunnel was the high point of the visit, oddly enough. The trip begins with a walk down into fairly large, lighted tunnels. After ten minutes or so, we descended into thigh-high water in a very narrow, very dark tunnel. We kept going, single-file. This was not a place for anyone with any tendency whatsoever to claustrophobia (and we did lose a few that way). After a few minutes, the guide suggested we do the tunnel in complete dark and silence. Lights off, although we were never completely silent. For twenty minutes, we walked with one hand on the wall, one on our forehead (in case the ceiling got low suddenly) and we walked. It was quite effective as a way to progress. The darkness was odd—I kept seeing phantom light—but not frightening. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. It felt welcoming, as though the earth itself was cradling me. Without sight, too, I found that I smelled and heard more keenly. Even my sense of touch felt sharper. My one regret is that I couldn’t see the shape of the tunnel as we went through it.

We emerged into very bright, hot sun. Again, a day to stay inside but we were outside in the heat. Unlike at Nahal Amud, though, there were lots of places to buy food and drink. Which gave me a chance to practice my “no lines” skills. This is hard for me. I am used to lines and waiting my turn. I forget that this attitude doesn’t exist in Israel. So, after emerging from the dark, cool tunnel and climbing up a long road in the hot sun, I was absolutely set on a slurpee. There was a line. I waited. The group is about to leave. I’m still waiting. Two yeshiva boys cut in front of me and the seller starts to wait on them. At which I burst out in very bad Hebrew: “I was here first! Why is he waiting on them?” Immediately, another guy asked me what I wanted, got it for me, and apologized. Man, did I feel empowered! And much cooler as I sipped the slurpee.

Then onto the Kotel, the Western Wall. I did not expect much from it—when so much symbolism accumulated around something tangible, it’s tough for that object to live up to the reputation. But my feelings around the visit were more complicated than I expected. First of all, the Israeli Orthodox are simply obnoxious. Their sense of entitlement and ownership of the places is just rude. If the essence of Judaism is to treat each person as though he or she is made in the image of God, these people are no Jews—they miss the entire point of the mitzvot. A young mother with three children and a stroller stood behind me and kept bumping me with the stroller, even after I pointed out she was doing it. Then she pushed her way ahead of me. Had she even come close to acknowledging me as a person, I would have moved aside for her. But her rudeness just made me mad.

Second, the portioning of the wall—I had been told that the men’s and women’s sections were different, but I really wasn’t prepared for the reality of a space for women that is only about a quarter the size of that of the men; that has much fewer places for real prayer. I felt so deeply disenfranchised (if that word can be used in this context…). More on Orthodoxy later… However, there is the religion and there are the authorities and one thing that has been clear to me ever since I was informed by the Reform authorities that I couldn’t be a rabbi is that the two are different, that the authorities are not God and don’t even have a more direct line to God than I do. So here as well. I forced myself to go the wall and find a spot where I could simply touch it. That was very moving, much more than I expected. The stone was warm in the sun, almost alive like bread dough. Obviously, I don’t mean that it felt soft as bread dough, but somehow it felt alive in the same way. And the smoothness of the rock, polished with thousands of women’s hands, sweat, oil. The rock and the people, irrespective of the rules around the people—yes, that meant something.

From the wall, we went to get lunch, and I found a place to buy a map of the city so that I could with comfort get to the sherut station and find a way to get to Tel Aviv. We had a bit more wandering around the city and discussion by the guide, and then I said goodbye to the guide and the accompanying madrich and walked down to find the sherut. This was not a huge problem—while I wasn’t entirely sure which street to take, the minute I hesitated, someone asked if he could help and directed me to the right street. (This is apparently the flip side of the “no lines”—people notice if you need help and insist on helping. Not a bad thing, actually.) Ten minutes later I was on the sherut and had discussed where I was going with the driver, who complimented my Hebrew—lovely to hear.

If Jerusalem was hot and dry, Tel Aviv was hot and wet. The air conditioning at Nurit and Colin’s was a fine and lovely thing. Because of the weather, we mostly stayed in and talked, but it was wonderful to catch up. I used some Hebrew, but speaking English with people that you are used to speaking English with does feel more comfortable, so mostly that is what we spoke. I haven’t really seen Nurit and Colin since they left Livermore around twelve years ago. (They were back once about six years ago, but my memory of that is hazy—too much else was going on, perhaps.) I know it was twelve years, because Ma’ayin, their youngest daughter was all of two months when they left and she is now twelve and just celebrated her Bat Mitzvah (a very different kind of event than in the States, but that’s another story). It’s really funny, but somehow time doesn’t matter with some people. Both Nurit and Colin are down-to-earth, open people, interested in life, warm and welcoming. The time that had passed mattered not at all, something I find incredibly reassuring, though I can’t say why. Their daughters were very much teens, but very solid and grounded. Lily (Lior), who is fifteen, was full of giggles and a few eye-rolls here and there, but also did her summer homework without one bicker or word of complaint. Avital, in the Army but near home so she visits often, clearly enjoys and respects her parents and they her. Ma’ayin, all long legs and arms, is just growing into being a teen, just peering into what it means to leave childhood. All are very sweet, but clearly very much their own people, a tribute to Israel and their parents, as well as to their own individuality (that sounds trite, but I don’t know how else to say it).

All was kol b'seder until I noticed that there were several missed calls from an unknown number--no messages though. When the phone rang again, I answered to find my favorite madrich on the phone, wondering where I was. Now, I had signed a list saying I would not be returning to Haifa. I had told the madrich (not the same one) and the guide I was with that I was leaving and even gotten directions to the sherut station. So I don't know how poor Erez slipped through the communication cracks, but I will say that I'm really ready to do some travel on my own! Good grief, what does it take?

We had a fine time catching up on the past. Shabbat dinner was at Colin’s brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are architects and potters, with a mother-in-law visiting and a daughter about Lior’s age. So there was all kind of cousinly shrieks and giggles, lots of family talk, and much teasing as well as serious conversation. Made me miss home and those family conversations around my table, while at the same time feeling so cared for and welcome. A wonderful night.

The next day we simply talked some more—somehow the day vanished with talking. I wasn’t terribly interested in going out in the heat and I think (I hope) they were relieved as well. Colin is working on global warming models, so that was very interesting to discuss. In addition, I think we covered community, education, jobs, and children. All good fun. Around five, I made it to the sherut station and two hours later was in my dorm room doing homework.

Bits and pieces: One of the readings in our book was a completely untranslatable poem by Yehuda Amichai on Jerusalem. There is a suffix in Hebrew that makes a duo: feet are reglAYIM; hands are yadAYIM, and so on. Well, Jerusalem is YerushalAYIM. Amichai plays on that duality, on Jerusalem being two, not one, in a lovely lament. Amichai writes so beautifully, but because he uses word plays so effectively, I don’t see how anyone can translate him effectively. (Yes, I know there are translations; I even know the people who have done those translations. Nevertheless, my statement stands.)

Looks like I’ll be staying with a couple of people in Jerusalem and then at Nurit’s and Colin’s for the last week. I’m hoping to have one night at Masada—I’ve been talked into it, despite the heat.

And finally, I was informed that a fifteen-year-old boy died of heat exhaustion yesterday at Nahal Amud.

Here’s the information from

(Menachem Shlomo Shapira, 15, a student at Bnei Brak’s Ponovezh yeshiva, died after fainting of dehydration and falling down a steep incline while hiking in Nahal Amud in the Galilee. He was rescued within minutes and treated for hours in a hospital intensive care unit. Nonetheless, he succumbed to his wounds.)

What is there to say other that “zichrono livracha”?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

11 Av, 5767: Yom Huledet Sameach!

I’ve never celebrated my Hebrew birthday, but Israel seems like the place to do it. So yesterday, I went and got pastries and today I passed them out and told everyone I was fifty. It was a good day—our teacher is so impressed at having a rabbinic student in class that she’s been doing a mini-Shabbat at the end of class. I’m not hugely impressed by the student—she’s eager and diligent, but just isn’t that on the ball—but it is a great excuse for a party. Today the teacher played guitar and sang and we sang along with her. After class the anthro prof and I had lunch and she commented that the divisions between Jew and non-Jew stood out clearly (not surprisingly). I also noticed the divisions between young and old, in terms of comfort with self. (Those of you who are young—yeah, so really, while life continues to throw challenges along the way, fact is, you do learn how to deal with them as you go. Savlanut (patience).) My birthday wasn’t particularly acknowledged at the celebration (which included two classes), but my class knew and my friends here knew—it was just enough.

I’m continuing to contact people to stay with—slowly I’m getting comfortable with asking to stay. We’ll see where I end up in Jerusalem

While I was emailing, Emma, the recent Caltech grad with the Israeli boyfriend, sat down beside me and we exchanged medical stories. She had gotten a raging UT infection and spent a good deal of time in the ER in Haifa. So she beats my heatstroke story (which, based on previous comments, I would now identify as electrolyte and carb deficiency) pretty handily. Then we had a lovely time discussing the state of American and Israeli Jewry. Which is one thing I love about this place. The streets have Jewish names. The language is Hebrew. And even the secular Israelis know their heritage—they learn Tanakh with commentary in school.

Then I spent the evening watching a movie—Walking on Water, which is terrific, but largely in English, so it didn’t do much for my Hebrew skills. Not that I’m complaining—I’d watch it again, given the chance.

One more story—when we got to the Diaspora Museum Tuesday, the first thing we did, of course, was to find the bathroom. Two stalls, one of which had a soiled seat. So there’s this line of women all turning their noses up at the seat. I looked at it, sighed, grabbed a paper towel and got it wet and soapy and cleaned the seat. One of my roommates loved this—she laughed and said, “The only one of us who’s a mother! The rest of us are wimps, but she just does what needs to be done!” We all cracked up (and it being Tisha B’Av, this caused the madricha to come in and yell at us to be quiet), but I must say, I really appreciated that connection.

By the way, I still haven’t gotten the time really down. Sun is down now—it’s a new day, 12 Av, so my birthday is over—for a few weeks! And finally, I’ll be in Jerusalem tomorrow, then in Tel Aviv with Nurit and Colin Price for Shabbat, so out of internet contact til Saturday night.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tisha B'Av and more

July 24, 2007

Tisha B’Av

So I fully expected to fast and to feel something—anything—on Tisha B’av. This is the day that every Jewish disaster in history happened, if not in fact, in mythology, and so it is a commemoration and remembrance of all of them, with the notable exception of the Shoa, which gets its own day. What did I actually do? I didn’t fast. I didn’t go to services. I felt very little. I did ask others what they were doing and why. Israel, the guide from Brooklyn, fasts and thinks that Tisha B’Av is a good time for a people to collectively reflect on its past, present, and future (while Yom Kippur is for the individual—except all of the Yom Kippur liturgy is in first person plural…). Which is nice, but only if the community, as opposed to individuals, is actually doing that. Emma, the girl from Caltech with the Israeli boyfriend, fasts because it’s a way to remember. Erez, my hero, doesn’t do anything, but remembers good Jewish values like honoring his parents and not speaking ill of others. Joysa, the Recon rabbinical student, sees it as a way of mourning a Temple she doesn’t want to see rebuilt. I didn’t ask the guy at the falafel stand, but he greeted everyone with “yom tov,” which seemed rather contradictory. So I still don’t know how I feel, but the falafel was sababa (slang for excellent).

In the meantime, there was a trip to the museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv. That was interesting—not good, but interesting. It was a beautiful building, but a bit thin in what it presented. And it toed the party line all the way. All kinds of interesting issues and complexities never were dealt with. And in the end, for all the celebration of Jewish diversity in diaspora, where are we all supposed to go? Yeah, you guessed it. So a fundamental contradiction between vibrant cultures that are a response to and integrated with host cultures and one Israeli majority culture. Yes, I am more and more a fan of Ehud Ha-am, who saw the need for both, with ties between them, each strengthening the other’s understanding of self, religion, culture, and people.

One example—she spoke about the Jews of Alexandria and how that civilization was destroyed in 115-117 CE. Okay, guys, I wrote my master’s thesis on the subject (focused a bit earlier, but I read around the period). I know a little about it. She explained that the destruction happened because the Jews from Judea came to Alexandria after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and explained to the Alexandrian Jews that they needed to fight for their civil rights. Because, you know, the Alexandrian Jews hadn’t noticed they were missing. There are SO MANY things wrong with this I hardly know where to begin. But the most glaring is that the Jews weren’t kicked out of Judea for good and proper until 135, so the chronology is just a touch off. And we just don’t know what the trigger was that caused the Jews to be wiped out of Alexandria and around the Mediterranean in large measure—it’s one reason I chose to write on an earlier time; there just wasn’t enough information on this one. There’s more, but I’ve already written about it—just ask if you want to borrow the thesis. In any case, I said something to the woman next to me about the Jews responding to a change in policy between Greek and Roman rule, and the guide told the woman another story. I just walked away—what was the point in saying any more? Ignorant git.

Which reminds me, I started Harry Potter Sunday at 3 PM and between reading, sleeping, homework, and class, finished it at 2:15 on Monday and immediately loaned it to Mirit, the girl who loves capoeira (she’s the Berkeley girl who also dislikes Rosanne, my ex-Hebrew teacher). So it’s making the rounds. All I will say is that I was not disappointed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A bit too much excitement while hiking...

This weekend was the big trip to Tzfat and the Galilee hike. If a trip is supposed to include adventures, the hike would certainly be one, though not one that I would choose to repeat.

The plan for the trip was to spend the morning and early afternoon in Tzfat, then hike down from Mount Meron, drive to a campsite where would spend the night and the next day hike the Nahal Amud trail. Tzfat was interesting—though enormously crowded. Apparently it just keeps getting more crowded through the end of August. So don't go on Friday during the summer is the message!

Aside from tourists, Tzfat is full of the Orthodox in all kinds of dress. While being in Israel gave me a feeling of wholeness as a Jew, Tzfat reminds me how much women are not part of Judaism. When a man dressed in full black—hat, coat, knickers (yes, indeed)—turns his head as if I don’t exist, I feel, shall we say, alienated. The stones of Tzfat feel full of the events that took place there—but do they include me? I’m not so sure. The idea of my reading Torah in Tzfat just seems incongruous—wrong, somehow. But then what does that say about me and my Jewish practice? Very difficult to think about—an irreconcilable contradiction.

However, we also saw Luria's synagogue, as well as Joseph Caro's--the one a founder of Kabbalah; the other a legal mind. The synagogues reflect the differences in the two rabbis.

Then we took a bus to the top of Mount Meron and hiked down. It was absolutely beautiful—lots of good views, lots of shade. The guide was a guy from New York who had lived in Israel for upwards of thirty years and who had been guiding for fifteen years. Our path took us through places where Ketusha rockets had landed the previous years, burn patches still black on the hillsides. We saw a place where a volcano had imploded, sat under a “cedar of Lebanon,” and then out the end of the trail by an ancient olive tree. Then back on the bus to our campsite. It was a pretty fancy campsite—bathrooms, a whole cooking area, lots of places to lay out sleeping bags. We were divided into groups—some to cook a variety of dishes, some to guard, some to clean-up. I ended up on cold salad detail, something I know pretty well. It was me, plus my roommate Joysa (the Recon rabbinical student), and three other people—one girl from Wilmette who goes to Stanford and is planning on applying to HUC; another from Madison; another who is becoming a Jewish educator at JTS.

The range of students and interests continues to amaze me—from the very serious “I need this and I need to do well for X program” to the “I love the language and want to learn it” to the “Golly, need something to do with my summer and being Jewish is cool so I’ll come and hang with my friends and be cool while I use mummy’s credit card.” That last group—that’s why it’s important to remember that it’s “we will do and we will listen” or “we heard and we did” not “Yo! We cool ‘cause we was born Jewish and our friends are Jewish and man, just being Jewish—that’s so cool.” They are only a small minority of the students here, but, like a single buzzing fly, can be excruciatingly annoying.

We got our salad done in a pretty good time, but other groups—hot salad, soup, meat, and potatoes—all took longer, so we didn’t eat until full dark. Then to bed—or sleeping bag. I hadn’t really paid attention to the sleeping bag, but when I got in, it was as if I had been short-sheeted. It was a sleeping bag borrowed from the Ulpan stash and it must have belonged to a child previously. Nevertheless, I slept—apparently through the fearsome hyenas that the guards chased away, along with a couple of scorpions. Why is it that I always sleep through the wildlife? I did it at 4-H camp too… Sigh.

The next morning, we were warned that it was going to be hot. I was a bit nervous about being able to make it—I had also been warned that it was strenuous—but everyone encouraged me and it sounded like the most difficult part would be in the morning. I switched guides (there were two groups, as the trip was too big for one guide), partly because of the “cool Jew” factor in Israel’s group and partly to get another perspective. Jeremy was an ex-Brit of the Marxist persuasion, who had moved to Israel and believes that this is where Jews are meant to be “a light to the nations.” More on that later, if I remember. He was fairly new to being a tour guide, but had done remarkably well on the test and lives in an urban kibbutz (which seems loosely based on Marxist principles). All this, by the way, I found out during a lunch conversation.

We began the hike at 8 and from 8 to about 12:30, it was shaded and we stopped frequently. Nahal means stream and Nahal Amud, which is the trail we took, means Stream of the Pillar. It was extremely interesting—the stream could, at other times of the year, be a flat out river and was used for water power, so all up and down the stream we saw aqueducts and small mills. There was a place where the water pooled near a stone mill fed by one of these aqueducts and there we stopped for a break—food, water, cool the feet and head and other necessary activities.

(By the way, no toilets and no culture of removing toilet paper from where you go in the woods. Which made for interesting additions to the scenery. And also meant that, by the end of the trip, I wasn’t bad at peeing in the bushes. (Yes, you did need to know that—it was not unimportant, given the amount of water we needed to drink!)

The trip was largely flat or slightly downhill and I was pleased that I had no trouble keeping up. It felt like Del Valle in the summer: hot, dry, and dusty, although the dust was a slightly different color, more gray and less brown. Similar kinds of plants—those adapted to the six months wet, six months dry cycle—although most were not precisely the same plants. Similar dryness to the air. Similar kind of terrain. So there was a real déjà vu—I felt at home in the feel of the place, and yet very much not at home in every detail. I was also very pleased that I could keep the pace that Jeremy set—I felt that my month of walking around Germany and climbing stairs to Haifa had really increased my endurance.

We ate lunch and I finished my second liter of water at what was more or less a shady wide space in the road. Some slept; I spent it asking Jeremy about what his background was. I also asked what was coming. He said were through the worst of it—it would be easier and faster from then on, although less shade and that shade would come from the hills themselves. At least part of this was a flat-out lie and was at least in part responsible for what happened later. I am still burning mad about that. I suspect there is a philosophy that people can do more than they think if they don’t know how much they are doing. I don’t support that philosophy. Even stupid teenagers who need to chivvied along do better if they are given control of their lives. Had I known what was coming, I would have gone slower, and perhaps slept at lunch. Would it have made a difference? Who knows? But at least I would have had a better chance to realistically pace myself.

After lunch, the road went through a gorge—a narrow path climbing up the gorge and then down. Okay, fambly—remember the hike where I sat on my butt? I did none of that. I climbed up like a champ, took pictures, and climbed down into the gorge again. Then we climbed up again, over pre-historic caves where people once had lived, and through a few olive trees.

By now it was about two-thirty and we were walking a very narrow path along the mountainside in full sun—later found out it had been 116. We went up and down, though mostly down, and I was enjoying myself, despite the intense heat, when I realized I was very dizzy and really hot—much hotter than I should be. So I sat down in the shade of one of the few small trees and waited for people to pass and the medic/security guard, Eido, and Erez, one of the madrichim, to show up. They did, along with one of the women from my class, whose family has a medical background.

For the next two hours we walked along the path, with Eido and Erez helping over parts that I couldn’t manage. The three of them kept making me drink water, but in fact that wasn’t the problem. I simply needed to be cooler, and (in retrospect) I think I had lost electrolytes from the water and hadn’t eaten enough. But by then it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other and try not to fall off the mountain. We stopped when I couldn’t go on and at one point I did get some halvah—I was so tired that it took me 10 minutes to eat a very small amount. After some time, we got to a resting point in the shade of the mountain where the rest of the group had been waiting. I simply lay down and closed my eyes and waited to cool off. Eido pulled out an icepack and put it on my forehead; someone else poured water on my shirt, at my request.

Jeremy got the others playing a game. What really scared me was two things—that I knew how hot I was and how unable to move in ways I was used to moving, that my body simply wasn’t functioning, and that the people who were in charge were clearly worried about me. But as the cooling happened, I regained energy and could feel my body start working again. Then we began the second part.

This was both harder and easier—easier because most of it was on flat ground, though still in sun, and harder because, despite reviving temporarily, I was deeply exhausted and my body really couldn’t cope with the sun and the hiking. We made it to the bus, eventually, and I collapsed into a seat. Jeremy gave everyone a lecture on drinking enough and making sure that we wore hats. By the end of the day, I had drunk around seven liters of water and I had worn my hat religiously, precisely because I didn’t want what did happen to happen. So a lecture like that gives the impression that I wasn’t careful enough and doesn’t give other ways to take care of yourself. I would add: pack and drink electrolytes. Make sure the food you pack is easy to get to. In heat, keep your head wet. Make sure you pace yourself according to the terrain. And perhaps, don’t go when it gets dangerously hot. If I had done all of that in addition to the hat and water, perhaps I would have been okay. In fact, I think that my age contributed to it—I’m in the hot flash stage of life, so perhaps my body’s not as good at regulating temperatures as those of the others. Perhaps I wasn’t strong enough. But I would have had a better chance.

As we walked, Erez kept telling me that I would feel proud when I was done. How do I feel? I would do it again in a flash at another time of year. It was truly beautiful and I would like to see the part I missed because I was simply letting one foot fall in front of the other and concentrating on the ground one step ahead of me. But this was far too scary and frankly embarrassing to feel any pride about. I am deeply grateful to the three who helped me, but also embarrassed to have needed their help.

When we got back to the dorms, I felt okay enough to carry my stuff to my room. One last note: when I took my shoes off, I found that both big toes were as bruised as if I had dropped something on them, simply from hitting the end of the shoe repeatedly as I walked downhill.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Halfway Point

Half the Ulpan is over and with it, half of my trip as well. This is Thursday, July 19—I left California on June 19. It seems like a very long time ago, but also like only a short time remains. Time is a funny thing, I suppose.

The past two weeks have really enabled me to come to terms with Hebrew and with the whole Jewish Studies to sociology switch. I no longer feel particularly spectacular in Hebrew ability, but I don’t feel bad about that. I am not defined by how I learn or how fast I learn and I didn’t realize to what extent I have come to feel that simply by being in the university system. Instead, I realize that when I learn Hebrew, I focus on my strengths: reading and writing, which are things I can do at my own pace and correct them as I go. So I can look up words while reading or cross out sentences and rewrite an essay. But the same things do not apply while talking. I have to keep the words in my head and on my tongue. I have to hear and comprehend without translating. To do that requires a whole different set of skills and they are skills that I haven’t properly valued, except with piano. I have to hear the sounds of the different words—the music of the words. So the future tense of the verb structure (banyan) “nifal” has the music “ee-AA-ah, like a donkey bray. That’s a little extreme, I suppose, but gets the idea. Seeing it, copying it over, really doesn’t help hearing the sound. The other half of that is speaking. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, that making the sounds correctly takes practice. I’m sure I’ve said to my B’nai Mitzvah students that they need to practice out loud so their mouth gets comfortable with the words. But I haven’t tried the same thing with my own practice. It also reminds me of piano practice—it is easy to understand the theory, but making the fingers move in the correct pattern and timing—well, that’s another story. So this has been a real experience in learning about my own learning.

On the other hand, the Ulpan really does stress grammar out the wazoo. This makes me happy—I like to understand the rules and the structures—the map, if you will. It is the kind of stuff that I was never clear on in the past, but this is giving me really clear tools.

The midterm was interesting, both in studying and in taking it. I studied with other people and alone and had my students in mind as I studied. It also struck me how very different this kind of study is from studying for the oral exams. Here, I was simply following directions; there I am making up the directions as well. The exam itself was (I hope) not too bad. I was fortunate in that the reading was on Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a spoken language. It is a subject I know pretty well so even if I didn’t know the vocabulary, I could figure it out. So a crap shoot and I won—unlike some of my fellow students. Then one of the essay questions asked about what traditions did for family unity. Again, made for me; I wrote about Shabbat dinners and it was easy (except for the part where I felt so nostalgic for them that I got a bit teary—stop laughing, my evil daughters). However I did, it’s over.

This week’s field trip was split—some to Galilee and my group to a collection of places. We went to Beit HaShearim, where Judah HaNasi who redacted the Talmud in 210 CE, is reputed to be buried. It is a necropolis—a limestone hill into which all kinds of caves have be carved. The caves go on forever and ever—one cool, dark room after another. They are full of sarcophagi, which are decorated with a variety of symbols—some Jewish, some not. They have all been looted. I had the impulse to put stones on the sarcophagi, but no one was in them—why would I? It felt very old, but not really sacred, can’t say why. Then to a nature park, where we took a short walk on one of the few areas that are handicapped accessible. Finally, a tour of Mishmar HaEmek, one of the oldest kibbutzim, and one that is very successful. After the tour, we spoke briefly with one of the first children born in the kibbutz (the founders have all died), and then had dinner in the dining hall. It is a bit like eating at Fresh Choice every night (although the food definitely has an Israeli flavor. The kibbutz philosophy strikes me as a lot like homeschooling, in that it is very difficult to explain, but if you’ve lived it, you get it. But the community feeling is very strong and compelling.

Had an interesting conversation with the friend of one of my roommates. It was illuminating in a number of ways. The guy, who ended up staying here a few days due to other plans falling through, is probably about my age and very much a wanderer. He builds “ecologically correct” houses and is also a chemist. He enjoyed talking, so until he left, the flat was full of conversation. But it was interesting to see how he heard or didn’t hear what people (by which I mean me—really can’t speak for anyone else) said. I think this comes out of different life experiences. So, I am really falling in love with Israel. I said before that I feel whole here in a way I have never felt before and wouldn’t mind living here. Which I said in conversation. He picked up on it—asked how many years I’d been married and said that it sounded like it was my turn. My immediate reaction was distaste—almost revulsion. I find that kind of language completely inappropriate in thinking about marriage. I responded (he quoted back—I actually don’t precisely remember) that I loved my husband. By which I meant that marriage isn’t—or shouldn’t be—based on equity, but on love and on care. That isn’t to say that some sort of fairness doesn’t apply, but making sure that the halves of the cookie are even doesn’t work with children, with spouses, or with anyone else that I care about. The right question is “what do you need? What can you give?” There are of course, negotiations involved about how those needs are met, how that giving takes place, and there are places (who sits where in the car on what day) that fairness absolutely applies. However, in general—not useful.

I never could make him understand the point. I think he saw me as a woman who was submitting to her husband, who somehow kept her down. What I see, though, is someone who hasn’t been rooted in a place and with people long enough to understand the nature of long-term human relationships. Part of the reason I wouldn’t move to Israel is because I wouldn’t leave Dave to do so. And, assuming I could make him move (which I couldn’t—the man is remarkably stubborn when he wants to be), I wouldn’t because the level of misery I would cause in doing so would be too high. Why would I do that to someone I love?

Now, the other side of that is that I don’t, in fact, want to move here. I can say that I would be happy here, and I think that is true, but I have enough ties to home—meaning the US—that I would not do so. Which is another difference in perspective. For this guy, to want to go somewhere is to do so—he has no ties to anywhere. No roots. I really value my roots, my friends, my family.

So this conversation was the flip side of the walk through Winsen with Ilka’s mother-in-law. There the roots were centuries deep, so compelling that leaving would be very difficult indeed. What is the balance between being rooted and being free (roots and wings, I suppose)? Both individuals and societies need some of each, I think.

A bit later—just came in from an hour and a half of flat-out Israeli dancing. It was out of this world fantastic. I could do it every night and not get tired of it. Which tells me that I need to find a place to do it on a regular basis.

And I’m checking out places to stay after I leave the Ulpan. I emailed Nurit and she called me within the hour—I’m going to Tel Aviv for Shabbat and they extended an invitation to stay there as long as I like. Other contacts will follow, but that’s the most exciting.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Yesterday, I went to the market with Laura, my roommate who is from Holland. She was quite intent on making Shabbat dinner and I was pulled into the plan, although homework nagged at me. I wore my hat, slathered myself with sunscreen, and decided not to mind the sweat. And I didn’t—somehow it’s becoming part of the environment. The market is like Livermore’s farmers’ market, only with lots more food and open every day (except Shabbat). Fruit, vegetables, sundries, dried fruit, challah and more challah, falafel. It is alive with people engaged in living in the physical world, in contact with that world. Whole families sell food. I bought a couple of items at one store and a ten year old boy handled the transaction with great competence and confidence. I saw mothers with several children shlepping bags of groceries, each child carrying something. The children clearly felt a sense of belonging in a way that I don’t think our American children do. If I am needed to make the business run, to help in some way, then I matter and am real in the world. The activities that our children engage in—homework, sports, music, and so on—matter to them, but do not contribute to the well-being of their family. There is no reciprocity—even when we create it (you will do chores, for example), it is hard to create a real sense of need. There is a big difference between weeding the yard, for example, which can remain weedy without affecting the family’s well-being and not helping in the family business. What I am saying here is hardly new information, but the marketplace demonstrates the issues with particular vividness.

When we got home from the market—many bags shlepped onto a sherut, which hauled us up the mountain—we cleaned the refrigerator. It was a necessary task—that thing was seriously gross—and had the effect of making me feel at home in the kitchen. Then homework and preparation for Shabbat.

About ten of us went to the conservative shul for services last night. Very interesting—similar to the conservative services in the US, which is not surprising since that’s where conservative Judaism began, but nice to see a vibrant congregation that is doing some Judaism other than Orthodoxy. Last night was the send-off for the group of young adults going into their military service. I could only understand a bit of the speeches that were made, but the absolute seriousness was clear. I have heard the saying that Israel can’t afford to lose even once—the way the young people moved showed that they knew that as well. Just to be clear—this was a ritual of a sort, so I was only seeing one bit (and understanding less!) of the complexity, nevertheless, it made concrete that one aspect.

Then home for dinner. Six of us sat around a table with the night above us and Haifa below us, singing the Shabbat blessings. My first real Shabbat in Israel—Sheheheyanu!

This afternoon I went to lunch at Dina’s, who was one of my professors in Jewish Studies. Her daughter, who was just a baby the last time I saw her, is now a very cute, very feisty bi-lingual five year old, by turns adorable and obnoxious. A army friend, with her family—husband, son and one of two daughters—also came. It was a lovely, long afternoon, but completely exhausting. I spoke Hebrew as much as I could, but my understanding was so minimal—I think I get about 10% of what is said in normal conversation. But I can feel the language getting easier—the words are distinct, not a mishmash; it’s now the vocabulary I lack.

One interesting point came up in course of (English) conversation. I am realizing how complete as a Jew I feel here. I don’t feel split; I don’t feel the need to explain myself. I described that to Dina’s friend, a woman who has spent time with an organization connecting American and Israeli Jews. She commented that what she thought was interesting about American Judaism is its consciousness. Her children simply swim in the sea without thinking about why the weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday. The larger issue, of course, is being a minority versus being a minority. I think it is really important to know both feelings. As a member of a minority, one is always questioning without ever feeling completely at peace. As a member of a majority, one gets a sense of being grounded. The immediate response, by the way, is that everyone is, in one way or another both majority and minority. True enough, but I have to say, this feels different. And for all of those who said I would love Israel—indeed I do. Indeed I do.

Sof Ha-Shavua

Last day of the first week and everyone is tired and a bit sick—it’s the food thing. I don’t think that anyone is laid out badly, but everyone is adjusting to new intestinal flora, new diets, and new schedules. I know that I am, anyway.

I have until Sunday morning to relax, do grocery (or other) shopping, observe Shabbat, and do my homework. All of us have to do a presentation on a topic of our choice. I volunteered for Monday, which means I get to write mine over the weekend and turn it in to be corrected on Sunday. However, it will be done and over with by Tuesday, when we go to Mishmar ha-Emek (Guardian of the Valley). (The same day that Harry Potter comes out. Which I did order at the campus bookstore. Our midterm is next Thursday, though, so I may not get to finish it as promptly as I would like…).

This whole experience is very interesting. Here I sit, overlooking a hazy valley with squares of farmland, a few ponds and hills in the background. It looks very much like Livermore, but…not quite. The roads are smaller, the cities less overwhelming and shine a bit brighter—the white stone, instead of wood and paint, and also the humid air affects the look of the place.

The first day of class, I found myself in the fourth of six levels of Hebrew. This pleased me mightily. I am very much at the head of the class in some ways, but one of the weaker ones in understanding and speaking. (Over the course of the week, however, both skills have improved tremendously, so that I can understand some fraction of the Israeli spoken by passersby, and feel like I’m cheating when I speak English.) The class has a wide variety of people from a wide variety of places: Danna from Long Island, who is fluent in Hebrew, but can’t conjugate a verb; Hanni, who is preparing to study for the Reform Rabbinate; Viola from Germany; Helaine, an anthropologist from Wisconsin; Liz, who is here from Manchester, England with her husband, a retired college professor; and many others—eighteen in all. Range of ages from maybe 20 to 70. Everyone is capable in some areas and lacking in others. Despite different personalities and goals, everyone has some desire to learn—although I don’t really know how getting grades (for those taking it for credit) affects their relationship to the material. I am, however, paying attention to how my own sense of Torah lish’ma is affecting my relationship to the material.

Class runs from 8:30 to 1:00 PM. To get there, I leave my apartment at 8 AM and walk down a flight of stairs, across an outside terrace, with plants and cats wandering around, to a set of stairs. I climb two flights, cross another terrace and climb another two flights of stairs. Then I am in the main area, near the community hall and mini-market. I climb another set of stairs and walk through the guard booth and I’m on campus. Pass by the Multi-Purpose Center to the law building which I enter. I climb four flights of stairs inside, then outside climb another three flights to a stretch of grass between the law building and the main building. I enter this building, pass by the library, the Hecht museum, the bookstore, climb one set of stairs, pass by an art exhibit, and then exit the building in front of a set of shops. Cross the street to the education building, where I open my bag so that the guard can make sure I have no bombs, then climb one more set of stairs and walk down a hall to my classroom. Have I mentioned that Haifa is built on a mountain?

After class, my inclination is to simply study—deciphering the texts is fairly intense. I can spend five hours on the material and not get bored. Having a single focus is a really interesting experience—I don’t think I’ve had that for the last 27 years. Not an experience I’d want for long—I need connections and community too much. But to know what it’s like is a gift. I have been told for years how different my experience in grad school is from those around me, as I have this other life. I have denied it for years, saying that everyone has responsibilities; it’s just different responsibilities at different stages of life. But really, that isn’t the case. I have never really known what it was like to be able to choose what to do—to simply be responsible for myself. To fix food for myself alone—or not. To have only one small room to care for. To be able to go to town or not go to town.

On the first day, I went to the bookstore and as I searched for my books, someone called out “Trish.” It was Dina, one of my teachers from GTU several years ago. She has since come to Haifa University to teach midrash. Very strange, indeed—the Jewish world is indeed a small world. She invited me for Shabbat lunch, so that should be interesting.

One other thing—I chose Haifa for the diversity of people who live here. So I don’t know why it came as a surprise to hear Arabic all over the university. There are plenty of Muslim women, dressed modestly, wandering around campus with that university look to them (gotta get to class on time, hope I’m prepared). And in the campus shops and cafes, I hear as much Arabic as Hebrew. Despite wanting this, I find myself somewhat hostile—a bit like my reaction to the German language prior to having German exchange students. I don’t intend to get to know any of the students (Jewish or Arab), simply because they have their lives and it would be an intrusion, but simply hearing is enough. As I listen, I begin to hear the ordinary language of college students, not a language of hate and destruction.

On Tuesday, we went to Akko. Jumped on the bus right after class and didn’t get back until after 8 PM. We were led on a tour by an Arab guide (named Abdul, of course) who addressed us in Hebrew and English. He was absolutely fantastic—funny, smart, an actor and teacher, and passionate about the city. I’m not going to detail that—I’ll post pictures, but really it was one of those “had to be there” times. Okay, there’s a trip to a Haifa bar planned and I’m going. L’hitraot!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Prologue: There is a kind of story, mostly found in children’s literature, that I really love. The shape of the story can vary tremendously, but part of the dénouement has a scene where the protagonist’s soul is recognized, nurtured, and loved. For example, in Bridge to Terebithia, a boy longs for his father’s love, but his father is overworked and not comfortable showing love for his son (as opposed to his daughter. After the death of his best friend, he is angry at himself and her and runs until he collapses. It is his father who picks him up and holds him, giving him the love that he needs so badly. There is a completion—the Hebrew is sh’lamut, from the same word as shalom, and it conveys that sense of peace that comes when something is whole and complete. I have often wondered whether it was a real feeling—or simply something found in literature, a way of evoking pure emotions. Here’s my story of how sometimes one word can be enough.

The back story: When I began at Berkeley, I began with not quite enough Hebrew. The summer before I began, I took an intensive program—an Ulpan of sorts—that was designed to bump me up to third year university Hebrew. It was pretty intense—an immersion program that felt more like drowning. But I went into the third year class of Hebrew, taught by one of the few people in the world (let’s call her Rosanne) I strongly dislike—oh, let’s go with hate, my visceral reaction is that strong. Rosanne is an anti-Israel Israeli whose teaching style is entirely aural, lacking in formal structure, and, as discussion material, uses as texts literature and essays that show Israel at its worst. I endured her classes for two years, then gratefully moved on.

At the end of my fourth year, I was informed that the Jewish Studies department had decided that sociology would be a better fit for me. It was, as anyone who was around knows, a fairly traumatic experience. Despite sociology being a better department in terms of breadth, structure, and care of its grad students, enough slipped out for me to understand that my Hebrew ability (or lack thereof) was part of the problem.

So I put Hebrew aside for Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. I closed the Hebrew Harry Potter books and left them on the shelves for old times’ sake.

Sociology has been a challenge—in many ways, I am indeed, a sociologist, although having had the one rejection, part of me is always defending against another. Also, it was hard to embrace sociology fully, as that felt (rational thought notwithstanding) like agreeing with the rejection. But, of course, I did agree—somehow, I allowed that stupid Rosanne to define my ability. And, despite putting the Hebrew away, I knew that I still wanted to learn Hebrew and knew that the only way for me was to go to Israel where I could hear the language spoken.

The next chapter: In these first few days of the Ulpan, Rosanne has been present in my thoughts. My teacher, Etty, is an actress and a woman who uses both structure and care in her presentation. I only understand about half of what she says (well, more but it feels like half), but she uses the board and her acting training to demonstrate what she means to say, so that, by the end, I am understanding almost everything. I sank into her class with the feeling that “this is how it is meant to be.” It turned out that another person in the class was from Berkeley. Miri’s about twenty and had taken Hebrew with Rosanne. When she mentioned the name, my fists clenched and I said that I had taken classes from her and she was terrible. Miri agreed and catalogued her deficiencies as a teacher. It was liberating, but strange. It has been five years since I’ve needed to take a class with Rosanne, but I am still carrying that baggage with me.

Yesterday’s homework included an essay on the story we had read. The lovely thing about the Ulpan is that I am responsible for no one and nothing—only for learning. So, despite going to Acco yesterday (oh, yes, I will get to filling in those gaps, but don’t know when!), I spent a glorious five hours (8:30-12 and 6-7:30) doing homework. I didn’t finish, but I read every story about four times, translated every word, and wrote my essay. After class, I asked Etty to read it and she looked through it quickly and asked me something in Hebrew. I couldn’t understand and explained that I process the Hebrew very slowly. She asked if it had taken me a long time. It hadn’t—maybe half an hour for a couple of paragraphs on the sociological underpinning of the story (yeah, I know, I AM a sociologist; I can’t help myself). She read through it more carefully, fixing the plentitude of errors of first draft variety, but finding no serious errors of understanding. She finished and wrote “Mitzuyon” (Wonderful! Excellent!) at the bottom. I said, “So basically, then, it’s okay.” She looked at me like I was nuts and said, “No, basically, it’s mitzuyon.”

That’s the word. I really heard it and believed it. And in the hearing and believing, I recognized the amount of damage that I had allowed Rosanne and the whole Jewish Studies program to do to my belief in my own ability. Suddenly, too, my work over the past few years does not seem like the work of someone who isn’t very good and is barely hanging on by a thread, but the work of someone who is very determined—because without that determination, I would have given up long ago. Suddenly, I feel complete—I feel a sense of shlamut. What a gift! How wonderful!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I stayed up until 1 AM on Sunday talking and so was in no shape to write anything. But it’s going to get very busy very quickly. Tuesday, after class, I go on the field trip to Acco. And homework starts in earnest. So let me try a quick update now. And I really hope to have a bit of time for other things too.

So on Sunday, I registered. It was a most of the day affair. I continued to meet people—lots of very interesting people. My apartment is now full. In addition to Hadas and Monique, there are Fabienne, a lovely, tiny, energetic woman from just outside Paris; Joysa, who is studying for the reconstructionist rabbinate; and Laura, serious and studious, from the Netherlands.

In the “it’s a small world department, part 1,” I met Emma, who just graduated from Caltech in physics. She’s here because her boyfriend is Israeli. And yes, she does know Vera. And “iasw” part 2, the head of the program got up to talk at our orientation meeting and looked very familiar—not that I had met him, but he reminded me of someone in the clear, direct, and kind way that he spoke. He mentioned that he was from Berkeley and then, about the third time he introduced a speaker, it dawned on me that he could have been Stu Kelman’s brother. I went to introduce myself afterwards and in playing Jewish geography, it turns out that Irene Resnikoff, who is one of the authors of First Hebrew Primer, is his sister and, while Stu is not his brother, they are very close friends.

Tour of campus after that. I think I will not get a gym membership. Yeah, the number of steps between my dorm room and classroom—it’s enough. I hadn’t appreciated that, in fact, Mt. Carmel is, well, a mountain, which means up and down (repeat as needed). The tour of the city, for example, included a tram ride in a station that was on about a 30 degree angle. The train station was a set of steps and landings. I think I will not get down to the city that often—it’s actually a long way and a very long bus ride.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

In which I discover that the water in the Baha’i Gardens is a tease.

I was awakened early by the sun, which comes right in my window. It was hot. As it turned out, about 15 degrees hotter than outside. So I won’t be doing any sleeping late, I think. I had a cup of tea with Hadas, then went down for the breakfast and movie the program had provided—and this time there was plenty of food and coffee. I got my phone and called home—oh, god, it was good to talk to them! Then we left for a tour of the Baha’i Gardens, to be followed by a trip to the Wadi Nasnis, where there were open shops.

Because of the morning cool, I forgot 1) a hat, 2) a water-bottle, and 3) the kerchief that Valerie gave me. I had previously lost the bag containing sunscreen and bug repellent. So, yeah, not terribly well prepared. There is a long bus ride from campus into town. By the time we arrived at the entrance to the Baha’i Gardens, the sun was already high. Haifa is built on a mountain—or at least a very high hill. We began at the top and made our way slowly down the gardens, as the tour guide explained the religion and its holy sites, one in Acco; the other in Haifa. The gardens are pristine, symmetrical, and elaborate, a mixture of flowers, grass, and fountains. They are carefully without symbolic meaning so that all can enjoy their beauty. They surround the shrine in which one of the founder’s bones are buried. We walked down 700 steps to the shrine and there are 700 more below, so that the shrine is located midway down the slope. As we walked, the guide stopped us at various places to explain one point or another. We got hotter and hotter and the water in the fountains was more and more appealing. But we were all well-behaved and didn’t leap in, tempting as it was.

It was close to noon when we finished, after which we left for the market. We walked through narrow streets with small stores selling pita or dry goods and through open air markets with lots of fruit or vegetables. Eventually, we asked—meaning that I asked—where we could find a falafel stand. And we found several. The guy handed us a falafel ball. It was the best falafel I have ever had. I may go there every day. It was incredible. So we got pitas stuffed with the works, sat on the street in the shade and ate and groaned with incredible pleasure.

Then we shopped the market. I used as much Hebrew as I could, but have had a bit of trouble—I swear I heard one guy say “twenty” when he really said “tai-she” (9). I was listening for the Hebrew, but just assumed he was speaking English for the poor incompetent tourist. So there’s a ways to go. I did manage to get enough food for Sunday and Monday—including veggies!—as well as some of the missing items. Then I tried to head back to where Or had said to meet. Not successful. However, I did meet up with Steven, one of the group I had been hanging out with. He is maybe ten or fifteen years older than I am, from Sacramento, and just wants to learn Hebrew. (There’s also Chris, who is from Alaska and was a part-time bush pilot until his plane was wrecked. Now he and his family are planning on making aliyah next year. And Harriet, from Davis, whose Israeli husband is divorcing her after 23 years. And a couple of med students (Ariella and Jenny) from the Seattle-Vancouver area. Yeah, a real mix and a lot more older people than I expected. The older people are here because it is a long-term goal; the younger to have a good time—and to learn. At some point, I hope I’ll comment on how people came together, how similar groups found each other, and so on. But it’s really interesting to see how the different age groups act, what they want, and so on.) We walked and walked and walked. We read signs, asked people, and eventually ended up on a bus that got us back to the university. At which point I soaked my head. Completely exhausting, incredibly exhilarating (especially after cooling off!).

This is pretty much a summary of the day—haven’t had time to think about a bunch of stuff: the mix of languages, ages, and different programs. How different groups form. How that will change tomorrow when we are placed in classes. And I don’t know what else….

The road to Haifa

I got up this morning at 5:30, made it downstairs to catch the bus that would take me to the airport—about ½ a mile from the hotel. It cost 4 pounds to go that short distance, but the claim was that it would go door to door. Yeah, this is Britain. If the French can be officious, the British can be…inefficient. So the bus didn’t, in fact, go to Terminal 4. It went to Terminal 1, from which you could take a shuttle train to Terminal 4. A poor woman who spoke only Spanish got on and couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was to do, so I told her to follow me, because of course I knew what I was doing (or not—but at least I knew the language!). It took a pretty solid ¾ of an hour door to door, but I had allowed 3 hours, so I was still plenty early. And then both check-in and security were extremely fast (Okay, so not completely inefficient).

Breakfast was a venti latte and a chewy something from the airport Starbucks. It was a bit of comfort from home and I enjoyed every bit of it. Got to the gate easily on time and met Edward, who is a rising senior from UConn, planning on being a professor of Middle-East Studies. He already knows Arabic well and was coming to pick up a bit of Hebrew.

The flight was as smooth as could be. A good breakfast, a good book followed by most of Amazing Grace listened to on my noise-reducing headphones—I felt so well-traveled. And in the window, I watched the Mediterranean go by—parts of Italy, then all the islands of Greece. Then, toward the end of the flight, I pulled out the Ulpan papers and the guy next to me turned out to be an administrator in the international program. He has been in Israel for 44 years and Haifa for 36. His field was somewhere between sociology and social work and so we talked for a while about Jews in Israel and the US. The conversation was interesting, however, I found myself feeling like a bit of a fraud at the end of it. I’ve been in school long enough to need to explain myself and feel like, if I were any good, I would be done and out by now. I’m realizing that part of my task in is to find a way to feel confident, to believe in my path, however haphazard that path may appear or be—and it is and I really don’t care but I care that others might care and judge me.

When Israel appeared in the plane window I was surprised at how many and how tall the buildings were. It looked like a set of children’s building blocks laid out below. Unreal. But when we landed, it was hard to believe I was anywhere special. Turns out that all that stuff about California having a Mediterranean climate is true. The vegetation is somewhere between LA, SF, and Nevada. I don’t think I really believed that I was in Israel until I exited the plane and made my way down into a beautiful airport. The whole country, starting with the airport, seems to be made of beautiful light stone, pink, beige, not-quite white. In the airport, there is glass and stone and somehow there was quiet—perhaps because we were coming in just before Shabbat. And the signs were in Hebrew and I could read (some of) it. Then we were through passport control, had picked up bags, and were trying to find the taxis. It is clear that my Hebrew will improve a great deal—I am forced to read the signs and can speak enough to get by. I did manage to ask where the sherut (shared cab) to Haifa was, then to tell the guy that two of us were going to the University. Ten of us piled into the sherut, then began the two hour ride to Haifa. I tried really hard to stay awake, but didn’t. And when I awoke, we were driving along the Mediterranean and the landscape was hillier and greener. The roads and buildings feel so modern, but then there are curved shapes, white stone, and it is so different and so new.

We made it to the University around 6:30 PM. I hadn’t eaten or drunk since breakfast on the plane—I had simply forgotten. But the program is really welcoming. After they gave me my packet of stuff and Edward, another student, and I were standing there trying to figure out where to go, an angel appeared. Okay, his name is Or and he is one of the madrichim (counselors). He was very kind—first showed us the common areas, then took each of us to our respective apartments.

Each apartment has six rooms—three on the first floor, three on the second—plus a kitchen and a common area. My room number is 344-1. The first number is the block or “street,” the second the particular stack, the third, the level, and finally, the room within the apartment. So I am on “street 3”, block 4, on the fourth floor, and in the first room. I have two roommates—Hadas, who is a regular student at the university studying psychology, and Monique, who hails from Cupertino originally, and is now studying to be a rabbi in England at the Leo Baeck School. Monique and her husband, who is an Irish Jew, live near Cardiff in Wales, although they only see each other on weekends because of her program.

Or had told us there was a dinner at 8:30 PM that we would be welcome to. So at 8:30, I show up along with lots of other people and wait. And wait. Finally a short welcoming of Shabbat and the line begins to move. At some point it stops. No plates left. So, being my own obnoxious self, I go to find someone to get more plates. The person I’m directed to asks if I can speak Hebrew. “A bit,” I say (in Hebrew). So he launches into really fast Hebrew (yeah, when they say “typical Israeli,” he’s the one they’re talking about). Then he repeats in English that there are no more plates, so we’ll have to wash off the plates of those who have finished and reuse. Okay, so bad temper when hungry runs in my family. And I STILL have not eaten or drunk anything. So I go back in and announce what he says to the group. Then a few people go and bring down personal stashes of plates; another guy (from Brazil and London) and use a plastic lid as a shared plate. There was no chicken left, nor any other main dish. But there were enough side dishes to get by. As several of us are sitting and exchanging information, another guy comes by and apologizes.

It turns out that the Ulpan madrichim had told us to crash the university students dinner. And because of timing, there had been a lot of us. So the guy with the mouth was really responding to the Ulpan people who had screwed up his dinner. Very interesting—once I had eaten!

After dinner, someone loaned me laundry soap and I headed back to my room. There, I met Hadas for the first time, who was talking with her friend Dekla. I asked which language to speak and she said “Hebrew,” so I did—badly. But they helped and it went okay. A bit later Monique showed up, but with little Hebrew, so we exchanged life stories in English.

Oh, and the cats—I forgot the cats. The place is crawling with cats, everything from small adults to six-week or so kittens. I am trying hard not to get attached—I mean, there is no way one is coming back with me!—but we have named the one that Hadas adopted “Kaftzanit,” meaning—“the jumper,” for reasons that should self-evident!

So that was my first day.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Notes on food—I’ve been eating really well, I think. But brother, is there a lot of meat in general and pork in particular here. The quantity of meat is a bit hard to take—I’m just not used to meat with every meal. And no beans at all. Virtually all protein is animal; being a vegan here would be very, very difficult. Unlike Deborah, I’m maintaining my level of kashrut, minimal though it might be. Somehow my hosts got the idea that the only problem was pork. So Ilka was very worried that I might not have enough to eat or that I might somehow slip and it would be her fault. Miriam was less worried, but certainly conscious. Neither was really aware that milk and meat together were are a far more common problem. It doesn’t bother me—I’m just used to dealing with it (in fact, I hadn’t realized how I simply do it) and what other people eat doesn’t concern me in the least. But it was clear that my hosts were trying to understand this weird practice (good luck to them is what I say!). On the one hand, I think they thought I would be offended if they ate pork, as if I might think eating it at all was a bad thing. It isn’t, of course; it’s simply part of Jewish practice. I might find a Jew eating pork offensive, particularly if done in such a way as to disrespect other Jews (or, as a Reform Jew, might not—it is a matter of choice), but I don’t give a damn how, what, or where other people eat. On the other hand, I think they thought this practice was unnecessarily weird and troublesome for them because as hosts they had to and wanted to accommodate me, but didn’t really understand how to.
And much of this is guessing on my part—everyone trying to be polite to everyone else, so I couldn’t address what I guessed were questions because they were being polite by not asking and I was being polite by not noticing their discomfort. (And I could be wrong, of course, perhaps the discomfort was all my imagination!) After services on Friday night, I had long talk with Ingrid about kashrut and gave her a detailed description of what and where kashrut comes from and how the easiest way to understand it is as a discipline. She got that—and we discussed how people gain strength from the ability to say no consistently.
The next day, walking with a bunch of Jews from synagogue, they talked about how much the Germans like their pork and how hard it is to eat. One of them, from the Netherlands, said that it’s worse there—bread is all made with pig fat. So she bakes her own.

Jews in Germany, again

As I leave Berlin, I find myself a complete tangle of emotions. On the one hand, I have great respect for what the Germans have done in wrestling with their past. The Holocaust should not overshadow all of the rest of German history; neither should it be forgotten. I think Germans are really trying to manage that. However, there are really no Jews in Germany. Oh, I don’t mean there aren’t synagogues here and there. Deborah went to one in Bremen; I went to one in Berlin. But I felt like I was part of a dead piece of history, not something that could ever come alive again. Native Americans in the US are dead and gone in a similar way. That is, we Americans have wiped them out so completely that the few who exist cannot have a healthy society. Then we build museums and explain how it usta be before we came along. Here there was a tribe; there a confederation. But fact is, the population isn’t there to recreate what once was. The customs, the languages, are going. And the dominant society appropriates what symbols it will and tells the story through its own eyes—separate and apart from “real” American society.
So it seems with the Germans and Jews, only Jews in Germany are still under threat both from neo-Nazis and from Muslims. I think of France or England as having anti-Semitic strands, but the reality is that there is a whole section of kosher restaurants in France. The mere presence of that many restaurants, along with visibly Orthodox Jews on the streets of Paris speaks to a very different climate.
I do not blame today’s Germans for the Holocaust—they bear the sins of their fathers—I saw only a handful of Germans who could have been old enough to be in any way responsible. (And even in those cases, I am old enough now to wonder what I would have done in their places. I am not at all sure I would have acted, rather than simply hoping for better days.) But I think that one thing they—and the rest of the world—may not have fully reckoned with is a country that is ultimately Judenrein, although one which is condemned to tell the story of why that is the case.


Miriam and I arrived in Berlin around mid-day. The ride there was easy—we stopped in Hannover to change trains. She mostly slept; I mostly wrote and watched the scenery. When we got there, Ingrid, Miriam’s sister’s godmother, who acts as an aunt or a second mother, met us and gave us the key to her apartment. We made our way to the place, in south-east Berlin, in an area that is a bit dicey—as Ingrid described it, it is not a slum, but could become one at some point. Ingrid lives on the second floor of an apartment building that has seen better days—the paint is peeling a bit, the floors are worn. Her apartment is directly above a little Turkish lunch place from which Miriam and I got more Turkish pizzas. Several men sat around tables outside and from inside Ingrid’s apartment, we could hear them talking all day and into the night. They were the one with no visible means of support. Ingrid’s apartment, in contrast to the stairs, was bright, open, and clean. One room serves as a living room/dining room; the other as a bedroom/office. Both are large and airy. In addition to the shelves of books, there were interesting pictures on the walls, rocks of various kinds, small and interesting knick-knacks. Even after several days, new things kept catching my attention.
Miriam and I shared her bedroom; she slept on the couch one night and at her partner’s house the other two nights. She and Gerhard have been together for a quarter of a century. They lived together for fourteen years, then she decided she needed her own place and moved out. They spend weekends together and are obviously quite devoted to each other—they just don’t live together.
Ingrid is small, with short, straight iron-gray hair and small, round glasses. She smokes a bit, but was very, very considerate to do so outside, or with the smoke blowing away from others. Everything she does is with gusto and she takes pleasure from everything, large or small. It is all “schoen.” She is apparently less neat than her mother, but from my sloppy American perspective, she was always cleaning—tidying the dishes, wiping non-existent dust from a container, noticing a scrap of shmutz on the floor and immediately wiping it away. It didn’t take very long, but it was a level of noticing/action that was awesome to behold.
Despite feeling really crummy, Miriam wanted to take me off to the Neue Synagogue. So off we went. It is an tremendously impressive building—its reconstructed dome stands out over the city. But it is protected by policemen day and night, as is the Orthodox shul down the road. Bags are security-checked when entering. Made me feel very uncomfortable. We wandered around a good deal looking for Jewish Berlin and every place we wandered was closed or under construction. Finally, we found a place for a cup of coffee and sat down. We had been hearing different languages all day, but it was there that I heard “ma nishma?” (how’s it going?)—Israelis meeting in Berlin.
That evening was very tired—we ate at home and Miriam told Ingrid of her pregnancy. Such pleasure!
Next day—Friday—we spent in Ingrid’s car criss-crossing Berlin, much of which was under construction. St. Hedwig’s church; Humboldt University, Pergamon Musuem. Monuments don’t tell the story of a city though. Nevertheless—rough impressions.
In the square in front of Humboldt University (yeah, I keep thinking redwoods, too), a square of glass about two feet by three is inset in the bricks. Look into the glass and there is a room with plain white bookshelves, all empty. It was hear that the Nazis burned books.
There is a memorial to all the war dead. It is an empty room with a mother holding her dead son and weeping.
The memorial to the Jewish dead just pissed me off, at least as a memorial. I’ve heard about it—rows of pillars of different heights on ground that undulates down. It is very moving to walk through—a very isolating and meditative place. However there is NOTHING that says Jewish, Holocaust, or anything else. It is one of those pieces of abstraction that lose all meaning. I’m sorry, but I simply don’t believe there are universal symbols that work for all human beings and trying to create that is arrogant. Bah, humbug!
The Permagon Museum is, like the British Museum, a place that holds some amazing artifacts from Babylonia and Greece. A complete altar with fantastic carvings of gods and goddesses. Some really, really cool mosaics. I don’t think I had really appreciated how very small are the pieces that make up mosaics.
The Permagon Museum also had the entire entryway to Nebuchadnezzar’s city (some of it reconstructed). Lions everywhere, as well many other animals. So the lions represent Ishtar, who is a might and powerful goddess. The other animals are Marduk, a god who is one of those combination beasts: scorpion, snake, and I can’t recall what all else. I knew that Esther was Ishtar and Mordecai was Marduk, but I hadn’t realized just how powerful the Babylonian gods were and so how much of an “up yours!” the Purim story was toward the Babylonians. Yes, Dave, I know you think the ending is bloody, but come on! With heroes like these guys, how can you not like it?
Friday night, after some backing and forthing, I took Ingrid up on her offer to take me to services. It was so wonderful, both to be among other Jews in a country that felt so free of Jews, where I felt like such an oddity. To hear the Hebrew, be able to follow it. My Hebrew is quite good, so I could follow the words despite the German-accented Hebrew, catch on to the unfamiliar melodies, and make my way from page to page without a lot of difficulty. (This brings home how important a good Jewish education is—had I been less familiar, it would have been tough sledding. Reform Jews have an obligation to teach more, simply to remain part of the whole Jewish community!) I really missed my community, missed my family, and at the same time, felt more at home, more understood, than I had since I had left California. Following the service, I took Ingrid out to Kadima, the Jewish style restaurant next to the synagogue. There was a long table next to ours filled with Jews from the service. After some time, I realized that they were lesbians—very much reminded me of the people I knew from the Bay Area, right down to the baby with two mothers. It was then that I realized that “egalitarian” in Germany was code for “gay and lesbian.” Well, it turned out to be more complicated than that, but I found that out the next day.
Saturday, Ingrid went off to a Social Democrat convention, Miriam stayed in bed (a very good thing, indeed!), and I went off to brave Berlin all by myself. The day was a complete success—which is to say, I didn’t get lost and accomplished everything I tried to do.
I made it to services in good time. The congregation was clearly for Germans, but welcomed English-speakers, so one of the choices for prayerbook was Sim Shalom, my personal favorite, and the Chumash was “Etz Chaim,” also my favorite. All good, and then I was given an aliyah, which was a nice honor. The Torah reading was great—I got lost in following the portion and it was Balak, the story of how Bilaam blessed the Jews, instead of cursing them (his words are used to open the service: Mah Tovu). It was also during the Torah reading that I realized how distinctive the American accent is—I knew immediately which people were Americans and was right (one a guy from the East Coast, the other a woman from St. Louis). The service was all the sweeter because a couple had been married the previous week and there was a special blessing in their honor.
Following the service, there was a full Kiddush lunch, complete with the seven marriage blessings for the couple married the previous week. I talked with the Americans a bit (there were actually four at the service—a college student entering his junior year at Brandeis who was doing an internship in business, the woman from St. Louis who taught singing to elementary school students and had the most nasal, grating voice I have ever heard—and no, I don’t understand how those facts go together—and whose Hebrew name means “dawn star” and she took it because it came to her in a dream, and the guy from DC, who taught music as well—played lots of instruments and had supported himself as a one-man band, and was in Germany to learn German—it’s what he does with his summers.
At the end of the Kiddush, the DC guy asked if he could tag along to the Jewish Museum with me—fine. And the young couple and friends of theirs from Amsterdam were heading that way and asked if we wanted to tag along. The Amsterdam couple, who are getting married later this summer, turned out to be very interesting. She is getting her master’s in cultural anthropology (her thesis is on Jews in New York and opinions about Israel. Turns out that within the community there is diversity, but there is pressure to present a united front to the non-Jewish world. Uh, and in what way is this news? There are pretty interesting questions this raises—why would that be the case? How does dominant society’s reaction to Israel affect how Jews present their opinion? How does that case compare to other issues in the Jewish community? How about other differences historically?). She thought it was pretty amazing that I was a grad student at Berkeley. But most interesting is that in fall of ’08, she’ll be a rabbinic student at UJ in Los Angeles. So I got her email and will definitely be in touch.
As we walked, I talked to the recent bride, who told me about the community. Turns out that this is the only egalitarian synagogue in Berlin. In all others, men and women sit separately. This one is the only one with a woman rabbi, which is somewhat controversial. And it is a synagogue for the unconventional, hence the gays and lesbians, but also a fair sprinkling of converts, as well as many Russians, and Americans visiting or living in Berlin. The rabbi trained at JTS in New York, so there is a reason much of the service was familiar. So what I got was not precisely German Judaism. Am I sorry? Not really. I needed something familiar at that point in the trip and was glad to get it.
The DC guy and I continued on the route to the Jewish Museum. At checkpoint Charlie, he became engrossed in reading the history of Berlin in the Cold War. I was less engaged, so we parted. Impressions of the Jewish Museum
Really interesting medieval to pre-Modern period, complete with representations of the kind of trade goods Jews traded, household items and so on.
A few people—Gluckl of Hameln, Moses Mendelssohn—received a lot of attention.
The architecture of the building has been criticized—it is jagged and you begin by climbing to the top and then walking down through two floors of Jewish German history. I found the nooks and crannies to add interest—I never quite knew where I was going, but there were always directions if I needed them.
The museum is designed with three axes: continuity, which shows Jewish life in Germany through the centuries; Holocaust, which is really a memorial, ending with a tower of silence; and exile, showing where German Jews went. Again, there was that balance between the longer history and the Holocaust.
At the end of the museum tour, I felt that Jews in Germany have never been German; they have always been other. This is not new information, but the museum, precisely in trying to show how Jews have always been a part of Germany also showed how they were not.
Fassbinder wrote a play that showed a modern Jew in a way that, some said, was anti-Semitic. I’ll look the play itself up later (no internet now), but the museum showed a documentary about the uproar surrounding the play. Many, many people in Germany protested. Only 23 seats were sold. Jews took over the stage and an argument debating whether the play should be seen or not took place. Ultimately, it was not produced at that time; I don’t know whether it has been put on since.But the arguments surrounding it are still going on in other ways. Fassbinder, as best I can tell, argued that the offending character, a creep who was Jewish, was not reinforcing old stereotypes, but simply a character in the play. The problem is that writing is not simple. It uses culture, history, the discourses of past and present. Good writing isn’t accidental; bad writing shouldn’t be produced. So I find Fassbinder’s arguments to be disingenuous or naïve at best—if the offending character was a Jew there was a reason for it. And for his supporters to say that Jews shouldn’t protest is also ignoring history and culture. But the arguments on both sides are important—they show up in how minorities of all kinds are portrayed in the US, in the Muslim cartoon controversy, and in some of the debates around Israel’s position in the Middle East.