Saturday, February 28, 2015

Reflecting On A Visit To West Bank: History, Citizenship, And The Accidents of Geography

When I am walking back to Jerusalem's city center from the German Colony area, I often like to cut through Liberty Bell Park.  Not only does it provide more compelling scenery than King David Street, it also features super cute and curious cats.  It's also a great place to observe the demographics of the city.  It's one of the few places where you see Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis interacting with each other--there is even a plaque that states that the playground is for "All of the Children of Abraham."  On early Friday evenings, when most of Jewish Jerusalem is observing Shabbat, the park is full of Muslim families enjoying barbecues to wrap up their holy day.  Saturdays the park fills with secular Jewish Israelis looking to give their kids some fresh air.  I've often longed to know what goes on in the heads of the guys who run the ice cream truck that I always see parked at entrance, how they observe the coming and goings of the different communities.

When I returned from my Encounter trip to the West Bank this afternoon, I decided to walk back to my apartment instead of taking the taxi.  Like I have many times before, I cut through this same park and sat down to decompress this the past few days.  As I observed groups of smiling Muslim families watching their kids play on a shiny new playground in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Jerusalem, I couldn't get out of my mind the contrast in what I had only seen a few hours earlier in the West Bank village of Khalet Zakariya.  In the last several years, this village has found itself surrounded by Israeli settlements on either side.  We met with the community leader of the village, who discussed how because residents are often unable to obtain building permits, most of the houses have corrugated metal roofs so as to avoid becoming a target for demolition.  Even the minaret of the mosque remains unfinished due to army restrictions.  When roadblocks made it impossible for parents to send their children to their regular school, there was no schooling for five years until the community managed to raise money to build one there.  The tiny three-room building not only serves as a school for 45 students, but also a school, clinic, city council building and a community center.  On a hill above we could clearly see the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion, where children where playing in front of a state of the art three story school complex.  Looking at this tiny village surrounded by the development of settlements, I couldn't help but think of the classic children's book
The Little House, about a quaint little cottage that over the course of industrial development finds itself squeezed into an urban center.

The school in Khalet Zakariya, with the Israeli settlement Gush Etzion school in the distance

Friday, February 27, 2015

Wherever You Go, There's Always Someone From Ohio--Even In The West Bank

It's always a thrill to find something unfamiliar when you're in an unfamiliar place. I get really excited when I am traveling and I meet people from Ohio. People who understand my context of growing up on the edge of the midwest, who were shaped by economic stagnation of the rust belt and hold hold self-evident the truth that cookie tables (including buckeye candies) are an integral part of any celebratory gathering (this also applies to some extent to people from Detroit and Pittsburgh).   In my life in New York, I've met fellow Ohioans while working at Trader Joe's, Amnesty International and the Dramatists Guild of America.  

The last place I didn't expect to meet an Ohioan was on a tour of West Bank.  

To back up:  I just got back from a tour of the West Bank town of Bethlehem with an organization called Encounter.  Over two days we met with various individuals active in Palestinian society, from filmmakers, to educators, to two young women who started the first yoga studio in the West Bank that gives classes to people with special needs.  In our last session, we met with a guy named Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American working to develop the high-tech industry in Ramallah.

"I was born in Youngstown, Ohio," he began and I squealed in delight.  

After the discussion, he told me he grew up in Liberty, only a few minutes from the Jewish Community Center where learned to swim and attended Hebrew school.  One of the things that often makes me hesitate in approaching intercultural work is the fear of fetishizing the Other.  What is the line between reaching out to people from different backgrounds because you are generally interested in their stories or because you just want to feel special as a white person?  Essentially: how do you avoid being completely awkward? Meeting a Palestinian who happened to be from my hometown went a long way to overcoming some of that awkwardness, giving me a personal way into the conversation.  Now whenever I am able to take a day and go to Ramallah, I will actually have someone specific to talk to and visit.

Sam Bahour and Me

I'm not totally proud of feeling comfortable just because I met someone who dresses and talks like me.  In an ideal world, I'd like to think I should feel comfortable to talk with Bahour as I would with any of the people in the Palestinian villages we visited that lies sandwiched between two Israeli settlements.   

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Who Owns Jerusalem? The Cats

Those of you who follow me on Facebook may have noticed something about my feed since I moved to Israel:  I take a lot of pictures of cats.

On the surface, this isn't that unusual--cats are adorable.  I am certainly not alone in this observation. There is even an Internet Cat Video Festival held in Minnesota and Brooklyn every year.

Still, I've gotten a bit of strange looks from some people here over my fixation on Israeli street cats, which are after all as common as rats or squirrels in the U.S.  On many levels, these are hardly the cuddly house cats people keep as pets.  Frequently they can be seen foraging in dumpsters.

And yet I find them irresistible.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Shabbat Struggle

The journey to Kesher Hadash so far, has come with numerous adjustments. There's the Hebrew, for one. The other big adjustment is living as a full-time student and not taking any part-time work.  As a member of the over-achieving "Lean In" generation, prioritizing personal and creative growth over income is extremely difficult for me, but it feels good to give this gift to myself (with thanks to the generous support of the Jim Joseph Foundation).  

My status as a full-time student also means that for the first time in about four years, I have a regularly scheduled two-day weekend.  During most of my time in New York, my two jobs have meant taking days off whenever I could--lately some combination of Tuesday/Friday or Thursday/Saturday.  While not having regular weekends sometimes made it hard to make plans or do things like take classes or get involved with a synagogue, I also enjoyed having days off to break up the monotony of my work week.  The other big upside to having downtime in the middle of the week is I got to enjoy empty grocery stores and open library hours while everyone else was at work.  

But now I am here, with two days off in a row every week that I don't have to negotiate for fear my hours might get cut.  One lovely benefit to this has been that every Friday evening since the beginning of January, I have observed some kind of Shabbat minyan. Those have ranged from the soaring melodies at Shira Hadasha (even though the whole gender separation thing kind of ticked me off) to the energizing drumming in Kol Haneshama's monthly Rosh Chodesh renewal service.  This past weekend at our group shabbaton by the Dead Sea, one of my classmates led us in a beautiful activity that had us at one point identifying different meaningful Hebrew words from one of the prayers and chanting them at different pitches all at once.  I experienced the kind of spiritual transcendence I've only received in glimpses during kirtans at the Bhakti Center in New York.  

With my soul filled up with warmth on Friday, I can then look forward to taking Saturday to catch up on the rest of my life.

Except it's Jerusalem.  And nearly everything is closed. 

When I was living in Germany Colony, I was absolutely dumbfounded walking down the main drag of Emek Refaim.  While 24 hours earlier the street had been bustling and lined with people sitting at sidewalk cafes, now every shop and cafe (with the exception of McDonald's) was completely closed. I felt like I was one of the last survivors of a post-apocalyptic Ray Bradbury short story or zombie film.

A family walks over the dormant light-rail line on a typical Jerusalem Saturday

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The View from Jerusalem's German Colony

What I have loved so far this semester on Kesher Hadash is getting to experience a Jerusalem I would never get to see as a tourist here.  When I'm traveling in a giant mob of 30 people, it's difficult to be spontaneous.  Maybe it's too many Madeline books as a kid that filled me with an insatiable need to investigate the mysteries of my surroundings. Today I'm going to talk about some places I've discovered around German Colony, the neighborhood I've been staying in for the past three weeks and just moved out of today.

For some background--why is it called German Colony?  Isn't that a kind of ironic name for a neighborhood in Israel?  The other night I actually ran into a group of American tourists who were coming to the area thinking they might find some good German restaurants.  The name, I explained to them, refers to the Templars, a group of German Protestants who moved to this area of Jerusalem in the mid 19th century to wait for the Second Coming.

19th-century house with a German inscription above the door
The area attracted  Germans throughout the rest of the century, giving much of the architecture a particularly European flair combined with a Middle Eastern aesthetic.

I have no idea what the story is behind this building, but it's fucking gorgeous

 After WWII, the British sent the Templars back to Germany, and the area became a home for Jewish immigrants.

Today, German Colony is one of the more trendy neighborhoods in Jerusalem.  Demographically, I would say it reminds me of Park Slope or Lincoln Park--lots of little boutiques, cafes, and strollers. The abundance of signs in English makes it an especially attractive neighborhood for American immigrants to Israel, religious and secular alike.

And while these amenities are lovely to walk past every day, I am personally too much of a cheapskate to actively partake in them.  I want to focus on some of my favorite spots I discovered while living there.