Monday, September 29, 2014

The Wandering Jew(ess)

             Generally, I'd wait til the next chag (Yom Kippur) to post something, as not to inundate you with the minutiae of my life, but I gotta tell ya, this past Rosh Hashana was chock full of tears, laughs and chavayot (experiences). If I had to sum in up in one phrase: I walked, I prayed, I ate. But since this is my blog, allow me to expound. This year, the 2 days of Rosh Hashana fed into shabbat, leaving observant Jews with essentially a "3-day chag." This means that we kept the general laws of shabbat (no electricity, no transportation) for 3 full days. This also meant that I had to find 6 kind souls to feed me six festive meals over the next 3 days and walk to each location, as buses weren't an option. I spent the weeks before the holiday asking (read: begging) for my supper, and made a schedule of all my meals. I knew the addresses, times to be there and what I was bringing for each meal. I was a lean, mean meal-mooching machine.
            My first cousins (henceforth referred to as "the boys") have an apartment in the center of town. The importance of this apartment and the hospitality of the boys can not be stressed enough. There are 2 bedrooms, a living area (separated into dining/kitchen/living room) and a bathroom. My 3 cousins live in the bedrooms, leaving me a very comfortable couch to sleep on. Let's keep that in mind as we proceed. The first night, I ate a quiet meal with the boys. Nice and uneventful, we retired to the couches to eat candy (what else do young cousins do when no grown ups are around?) and I realized we were sitting on my bed. I also realized that while the lights were creating a lovely ambiance in the room, there were three lights on in the main room alone. And they would stay on through Saturday night! Which meant that I would be sleeping in a virtual state of midday light for 3 straight nights! No problem, I thought, I'm so tired I'll conk right out. Not so! Between my eyeball suffocation from the eye mask my cousin lent me to the non-existence of any breeze in a usually very breezy autumn Jerusalem, sleep was not my companion on night #1.
               I woke up a bit tired, but mentally preparing myself for the long News Year's prayer service. Since I live in ulpan and don't have much family here, I attended services at the only synagogue I really knew of nearby. I worried that since I hadn't bought a seat, I'd be standing for a very, very long time. Not to worry! There were rows set up with no designated names on them so I chose a seat between 2 ladies who you could identify as Israeli even if you had never met an Israeli in your life. They oozed blue and white, if you will. Lots of bright nail polish, a hair coloring which was essentially a dark black with vibrant purple highlights and jewelry to match their hats and sandals. You know the type. One shot me a look whenever I shifted in my seat and the other offered me a hard candy during shofar, so it pretty much evened out.
            Now to the services. You know those people who adore cantorial music? Can't get enough of an older man, resplendent in his white turban, belting out every word of every prayer? I am NOT one of those people. It's definitely a flaw, but give me a cantor who zips through the prayers at a respectable pace and I am a happy camper! This cantor may have been the best cantor in the whole world, but I was having none of it. I felt annoyed that what I thought was Rosh Hashana prayer services turned out to be a 5 hour cantorial concert. I will say, however, that Mrs. Hard Candy next to me was loving it. By contrast, the shofar blower was magnificent. Like, if that man has another job besides shofar blowing, he needs to quit, because he truly has a gift. Never have I heard such loud and sustained tekiot- his tekiah gedolah literally clocked in at 25 seconds! It's like Kenny G decided to convert to Judasim, move to Jerusalem and grace us with his skills. Magical.
             Okay, now to lunch. This was the only meal where I was asked to contribute food so I made (read: my cousin made for me) rice and salad for the meal. This meant I had to carry this bounty from the center of town to Katamon- not far, but not optimal shlepping distance. I left shul a few minutes early to make sure to meet my friend on Jabotinsky and Balfour so we could walk to lunch together. I finally got there and he wasn't there! Oh wait- maybe it's because I walked to Tchernokovsky and Herzog! Grrrr. So there I was, making a U-turn, huffing and puffing up a huge hill in the beautiful (read: swealtering) Jerusalem sunshine, rice and salad bags making my biceps burn. Finally, I find the meeting point and my friend is nowhere to be found! You might remember, there is no technology during the holiday, so I couldn't exactly call him! So I sit, a pathetic-looking immigrant girl, until fellow Anglos see me, give me exact directions to my lunch location, and I find the apartment. My friend wanders in minutes later, explaining that he left the meeting point just moments before I got there. I failed to see any humor because I was sweating and starving so then I had some white wine and the misunderstanding magically became much, much funnier!
              Dinner that night was so lovely and at a very close friend just a stone's throw from the apartment where I was staying. It also marked the first of the 4 meals I had lined up at chareidi (ultra Orthodox) families. I will say this, regardless of your opinion on the hareidi community, the food is delicious and super-duper kosher! Unfortunately, after 2 huge meals, I wasn't that hungry and couldn't eat all the food I wanted to. First world problems, am I right? After another fitful night in the brightest room in Jerusalem, and a repeat concert by the cantor par excellance and his amazing shofar blowing accompanist, I took the long walk to Ma'alot Dafna. 
               To get to that area (where I had set up my dinner meal too- pretty smart, huh?) you have to pass through Meah Shearim (ultra-ultra Orthodox) and similar areas, so by the time I had reached my destination, I passed more streimels, black stockings and payot than you can possibly imagine. After another fantastic meal, I took a nap in my friend's spare room and made the short walk to dinner. Once there, I told my hostess about my whole "sleeping on a lightbulb" issue. She suggested I stay at her place. "Do you mind sleeping in my boys room?" Not at all! "Then it's settled." Five minutes later "oh, it's cool that you're on the top bunk right?" Couldn't be more excited to literally bunk up with these little boys. After possibly the best night of sleep ever, I made my way to my last meal- shabbat lunch.
              I was eating at my cousins in Mattersdorf. If you have never been there, allow me to paint you a picture. There are a bunch of neighborhoods close to the central bus station that are super- ultra- Orthodox/Hasidic. They have different names, but the basic rules apply throughout. It's the type of place where 5 year olds take care of their 3 year old siblings, gates keep out cars on shabbat, Yiddish is spoken as frequently as Hebrew and clothing in the color baby blue is considered provocative. Walking there, I read the posted signs (one of my faves: "Daddy, save me from the Internet and iPhones"- emblazoned above a crying baby.) Let it be known, I am cool with these residents putting whatever signs they want in their neighborhoods. I may not agree with them, but if that's what they believe- power to them. My cousins are this kind of religious, but so warm and accepting and, well, cool, that I never feel the least bit weird in their home. I did get lost on the way over, when my shortcut turned into an impromptu hike up a trash-filled dirt path with the icing on the cake being hopping over a low fence, but it was worth it. I had a delicious meal with my cousins and their nine (k"h) children, and took my final long walk back home with a belly full of chulent and a smile on my face.
                 I waited for the end of chag at the apartment with the boys and congratulated myself on my first holiday in Israel as an Israeli. It may not have been relaxed or simple, but it was exciting and special, and that's kind of the perfect memory for my first one here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

As One Year Closes...

                I remember sitting in shul with my mom last year in Jamaica Estates, whispering "I feel like it was just Rosh Hashana!" She whispered back "Time only goes faster as you get older. Years go by in a blink." At the time, I had decided that I wanted to make aliyah sometime in the new year, an idea I hadn't yet broached with my family. I knew in my heart that this was possibly the last time I'd be sitting next to my mother and sisters in my childhood synagogue, praying where I had since I was eleven. I looked around my congregation at the faces of those I had memorized after so many years praying together, steeped in nostalgia for the High Holidays I had always known, while still anticipating the High Holidays to come.
               And here we are, one "blink" later, standing on the eve of the Jewish New Year, 5775. Except this year didn't fly by for me. I think when your year is filled with so many events, so many changes, the days don't blend into one another and the year stretches a bit. When I think back to one year ago, it actually feels like a lifetime ago. I was truly another person. I was solely an American citizen, I was a speech therapist in a NYC public school, and I was just starting to attend "pre-Aliyah" meetings, sticking my toe in the water. Over the course of the year I: applied for aliyah, sent in 9,000 forms, racked up many hours of speech therapy, spent as much time as I could with friends and family, celebrated a bunch of holidays, packed up all my belongings and made my way over to the Holy Land to start a new life. In that time I saw friends get married, babies come into the world, my grandmother leave this world, and countless other changes and momentous occasions that have shaped my worldview forever. When you see each year not as just another year, but a capsule of important events that change who you are and what you have always believed, the world tends to slow down a bit. This year of huge changes taught me to focus on the days, the weeks and the months, rather than the year as a whole.
               To think of where I'll be this Rosh Hashana, in the holy city of Jerusalem, as an Israeli citizen, is kind of mind-boggling. No longer will I look to my right and see my mom, devour my sister's delicious salads, gobble kisses from my niece and nephews or walk with my dad to tashlich. All those sentimental moments are now part of my rose-colored past. But I look forward to meals with good friends and family, finding the perfect synagogue for me in Jerusalem, and spending the holiday in a Jewish country where we are all lucky enough to be celebrating the New Year, together. Wishing you all a happy, healthy and sweet new year!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

               Last night I had the great honor of attending a good friend's birthday party. Normally, this would not be impetus enough for a full blog post, but the important detail here is that this party took place in Tel Aviv. I am wary to even write this post, as I worry that it will be my most controversial posting to date. Few things arouse the passions of Tel Avivians and those who love Tel Aviv like someone not loving Tel Aviv. And kids, I do not love Tel Aviv.
              Allow me to amend that. I love all of Israel. From North to South, East to West, disputed and recognized, I am fully in love with this land of ours. I could wax poetic about Hebron, yammer on about the Golan Heights, even muster some nice sentiments about Haifa. But when it comes to Tel Aviv, I am not sold. Normally I just shrug it off as something I'm just not that into, like brussels sprouts and the New York Mets. But last night, when I mentioned it in conversation (with an entirely Tel Aviv-ian group of people) I was forced to explicate what I did and didn't like about Tel Aviv in bullet-point format. I kid you not. For every point I made, my inquisitors made a counterpoint explaining why I was wrong and how Tel Aviv is actually so awesome. And while I admired their tenacity and obvious pride for their city, you can't force me to like brussels sprouts or the Mets! I don't like them! Don't sell me on their nutritional value or David Wright- I am aware, and I am not impressed! So what exactly are my gripes with this perfect specimen of a modern Israeli city, you ask. Here they are, in no particular order.
           A lot of who I am, both as a person and now as an Israeli, is national religious. It is difficult (but surely not impossible) to live the life I want to in Tel Aviv. I dress the wrong way ("Sleeves in the summer? Gross!"), I eat the wrong foods ("We sell Bacon!"), I have the wrong political outlook ("You like Naftali Bennett? Are you insane?"), in short, I am the Tel Aviv nightmare. Add to this the swamp-like quality of the weather ("but only March-November!") and the questionable aesthetic/architecture, and it's a tough sell for me. Even the process of getting there from ulpan (bus from ulpan-->Jerusalem central bus station (beautiful and well-kept)--> TLV Central bus station (horrific and terrifying)-->bus or sherut to wherever I'm headed) is a huge undertaking, and therefore only done sparingly. To be fair, it's pretty awesome that the trip from the 2 biggest cities in Israel is under an hour; can you imagine getting from NYC to LA in that length of time? But it is still time, and money, and so going to Tel Aviv is always an experience. 
(Kosher restaurant that isn't falafel? Had to document it!)

                  So let's get to the benefits, shall we? After all, this is Israel, the Jewish Homeland, right? There must be some things I like about Tel Aviv. Well, yes there are! First, I like the place it holds in Israeli history- what only about one hundred years ago began as sand dunes near the ancient Jaffa port has become one of the major cities in the entire Middle East! That's super- duper impressive! I also like the people- some of my favorite people in Israel live in Tel Aviv, (including my soul sister Natalie, who is the mirror Tel Aviv image to my Jerusalem one) and some of the most interesting people-watching you can imagine. And of course, I enjoy the beach. As much as I can sell you Jerusalem, I can not create the Mediterranean Seashore in central Jerusalem. And that, Tel Aviv, is a big ol' point in the plus column. No question. 

            Something I did notice while this ridiculous party conversation was taking place, was that we were a group of young adults who felt passionatley about our cities, cities that we had all chosen to live in, cities to which we moved from various other countries. We had all made aliyah, and while I chose to start my journey in Jerusalem and they in Tel Aviv, we all chose to leave the comfort and ease of America or England and take the road less traveled. To move away from our friends and families and make new friends, start new families, in the Jewish Homeland. In those silly moments of "hometown pride" banter, we were a group of Zionists who love this new home of ours! So be it Tel Aviv or Jerusalem (yay!), we are so lucky to live here and I hope you all come visit me here in Jerusalem soon. Who knows? Maybe we can even take a day trip over to Tel Aviv!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Let's Go To the Mall!

                   When I lived in America, I enjoyed shopping. Perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word. Loved, adored, and maybe even delighted in the activity of shopping. According to many well-meaning friends and family, maybe too much. I can own that about myself. And so when I told people I was making aliyah, the questions "Where will you live?" and "How will you shop?" were posed with equal frequency. As I packed to leave, many wondered how I would fit my enormous, yet carefully curated wardrobe into just a few bags. Especially as that wardrobe was enhanced by pre-aliyah shopping trips. Whenever I asked people, "What should I bring when I move?" the answer was inevitably "Clothes!" (also Ziploc bags, which I still don't quite understand.) So I bought and packed, and decided to hold off shopping until I made a return trip to America, land of outlet malls and clearance sales. 
                  And I was doing great! I had gotten extremely good at mixing and matching my pre-aliyah wardrobe, utilizing accessories to keep things fresh; I was in the budget-concious zone! And then I realized that Rosh Hashana and the rest of the Jewish holidays were just a month away, and I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I am a full-time ulpan student. That pays me exactly zero dollars (/shekels) a month, for 5 months. This is the longest stretch of non-earning I've had in my entire adult life, and I am essentially living off my aliyah stipend and savings. The responsible thing to do would be to wait to shop, right? But on the other hand...there is no shopping as fun as pre-holiday shopping, right? So today I took the bus over to Kenyon Malcha, the big mall in Jerusalem to get a couple new things to bring in the new year.
             Clothes in Israel come in 2 basic categories- sold in the shuk (market) and marked up to 4 times the price. Stores such as the Gap and H&M are pricey in this country! Up is down! Left is right! So I decided if I was going to shop here, I should stick to what I know- international stores. I know, I know, I should be embracing Israeli culture, and that includes Israeli fashions and styles. But realistically, that is not my vibe. So I went to my happy place first- Forever 21. In America, one can got to "Forever," try on 10 things, buy 5 and not even think about it. For me, in Israel, it was much more involved. Prices are higher and instead of just shopping to shop I was shopping for survival (sorry, maybe that's a bit much.) But I made a strict budget and stuck to it. Whilst shopping, I noted the major differences between shopping in America and here in Israel.
            First and foremost is the child and baby aspect. Israelis, and chareidi Israelis in specific, are accustomed to bringing their children and babies everywhere. I don't mean parks and restaurants. I mean weddings and wine festivals. Therefore, malls are essentially just huge play areas for humans 3 feet and under. This translates into free, fun kids activities, stroller parking areas, carousels and rides for the little ones. It also means crying babies on store lines, in dressing rooms and bathrooms. Ask anyone, I am a real baby-lover. But stand on a fifteen minute line with a wailing bundle of joy and you're gonna ask yourself "do I really want this sweater that bad?" 
            Next is sales. I was well known in my circles for being a great shopper. Like 90% -off-great. I even had a short-lived blog dedicated to my awesome bargains, called "Dana's Deals"- true story. But in this country, a "sale" is quite a misnomer. It is not uncommon to see a sign offering "Spend 500 shekel, take 100 shekel off!" (Who has 500 shekel?!) or "Buy 3 get 1 free!" (But I only want one!) This doublespeak makes me long for the "Take 40% off Sale" deals I took for granted at my beloved Roosevelt Field. 
           But now to some mall upgrades. I would always walk around the mall in New York, starving, only to have a frozen yogurt for lunch. I would stare longingly at the food court, wishing I could try whatever greasy junk food samples I was offered. Now I live in a country where every shop in the food court is kosher! I can have anything I want! In the mood for sushi? I can have it. Craving pizza- I can have that too! As any kosher observant Jew will tell you, it's a huge deal! Another great thing about  Jerusalem mall is that they celebrate the Jewish holidays along with you! Today they were selling special wines and delicacies for Rosh Hashana and they are always decorated to reflect the Jewish time of year- how special is that? Sure beats a tiny menorah next to a gigantic tree during holiday season! 
             You take the good with the bad. I am much more okay with overpriced tee shirts from Zara when I think about the kosher Chinese food waiting for me right next to the kippa and shofar stand on the second floor. I am learning that just like everything else in this country, each grain of salt comes with a heaping teaspoon of sugar to make it better. And besides, I can always shop online!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wine, Cheese and Memories

                I love a lot about Jerusalem. I love that even though it's hot, it's a dry heat with breezes. I love that it's a bustling town, but not the metropolis that is Tel Aviv. I love that the air feels Jewish, which is a weird thing to conceptualize, but not if you've been here. But one of the things that I love most about Jerusalem, is that every summer they host the Jerusalem Wine Festival. There are a lot of festivals in this city; the Klezmer Festival, the Lights Festival (still never been!), the Beer Festival (skip it!) and the Arts Festival (super- fun!) but for me no festival compares to this one. This year's festival was especially welcome, since it had been postponed from July due to "the situation" (Thanks Hamas!) But as they say, you can't keep Jews from their wine!" (Does anyone say that? They should.)
              One of the really nice things about our ulpan is that they offer the students intermittent tiyulim/trips all over the city and sometimes elsewhere in the country. Usually, I skip them, having done Birthright an obscene number of times and therefore having already experienced the destinations. But yesterday, we were offered free admission to the Israel Museum! A perennial favorite and kinda pricey for an unemployed ulpan student, the museum is also host to the wine festival, so I jumped at the chance! After an afternoon of culture (still hate modern art, still love the Impressionists) a bunch of friends from the ulpan and I followed the jazzy music to the festival.

              For those who haven't been there, here's the scenario: Sunset, the Israel Museum's sculpture garden, breeze and music. You hand your ticket to the lady and she hands you a brand-new wine glass. Which is then yours forever! Well, definitely for the rest of the night. You take this glass to the myriad winery booths, both large (Golan Heights, for example) and boutique, where sweet and knowledgeable winery employees pour you as many tastes of as many wines as you want. Seriously! If this sounds like a dream, it is, but a very real one. You a red kinda guy? All the Merlot you can handle! You more of a white wine kinda gal? So much Emerald Riesling to choose from! Some people take the evening seriously, tasting and spitting, asking and purchasing their favorites. I am not those people. For although my friend Aaron tried valiantly to teach me a thing or two about the magical world of wines, I was not the greatest student. But for the tasting, I was all in, kids. 

             What's best to pair with all these wines? Some went for sushi, others chose pizza, but I was all about the cheese plate. There were 2 large cheese kiosks, chocked full of every type of fromage, so I just asked for some diverse options, bought a couple rolls, and had a fabulous little wine and cheese party on one of the festive cocktail tables they had kindly set out for their guests. Classy shindig, for sure. After several hours of tasting, everyone is happy, everyone is friendly and everyone is sleepy. So you just head out to one of the waiting buses and enjoy a delicious sleep after a delicious evening.
             I know this all seems like an advertisement, but I think everyone who attends this festival feels this same way. We wait all year for it, and if you plan a trip here, maybe try and have it coincide with this 4-evening wine extravaganza. And let me be your guide- you won't learn a thing about wine, but I'll share my cheese with you!