Friday, October 23, 2009

HaDegel Sheli (My Flag)

The Jewish Eye Film Festival is currently going on here in Ashkelon, and last night I saw a very thought-provoking documentary called "HaDegel Sheli" or "My Flag". It was written, produced and directed by a Canadian Israeli, and the premise was to go different places in Israel with an Israeli flag and ask people what the flag means to them.

Two scenes in particular hit a strong chord - the first took place in the Meah Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, which is populated exclusively by different groups of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews,  most of whom believe the State of Israel should not exist because the messiah hasn't come yet. There's even a sign that hangs in their neighborhood that says "Zionism = Holocaust", which is troubling enough on its own but is nothing short of revolting coming from anyone Jewish. These are the same people that throw stones at people who walk by who aren't dressed modest enough, riot on Shabbat because a parking lot is open and people are driving, and desecrate Torah scrolls at the Kotel because women read from them. Oh, yeah, and some of these groups openly support Ahmadinijad and Hamas. Yet somehow God sees them as better people...give me a break. It's one thing to disagree with the government on this issue or that issue, but to live in Jerusalem (and in many cases take charity money from the Israeli government) and say, "I wish the Arabs were ruling us" is vile, and is more disgusting than seeing a 4-year old Palestinian child with a suicide bomb strapped around his body yelling that he wants to blow Jews up.

But the most shocking part for me was when the film cut to Ashkelon and showed raw footage of the aftermath of the Palestinian katyusha rocket attack on the Hutzot Mall in May 2008 - 90 people were injured. I knew the mall had been hit, but it's something completely different to see the video of the damage to the building, and emergency crews carrying out people in stretchers...and then going to the mall and seeing it re-built. Thankfully none of the rockets that have been fired from Gaza while I've been here have come too close to Ashkelon. And yes - this attack was one of hundreds on the towns in southern Israel before Israel's military operation in Gaza last winter...none of which are mentioned in Goldstone's "report". Brandeis is hosting both Goldstone in two weeks in a forum for him to defend his report, and his views will be opposed by Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN and who knows just about everything there is to know about the military legality of war.

So what does the flag mean to me? It's the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, to the land where our Temples stood over 2,000 years ago, to Jerusalem, to where we've prayed to return for centuries upon centuries. It's the establishment of the only Jewish government in the entire world, a place where Jews can live in freedom without fear of being persecuted for practicing their religion (or not practicing it as they choose).

Monday, October 19, 2009

In the Negev

 What a day in the Negev – we took a tour through the Negev Desert to meet with and learn about some of the small communities that live there.

The highlight was clearly this and my twin brother Dan, who naturally had done Otzma back in 1994.

We first visited a town called Segev Shalom, one of 7 Bedouin Arab towns that have officially been incorporated into Israel. In the 70s, the Israeli government encouraged the Bedouins to settle in 7 specific towns in the Negev, rather than continue with their nomadic lifestyle. Some Bedouins agreed and are currently living in those towns, but some did not, and they currently live in towns and settlements the government considers illegal. Additionally, many of these communities have created problems for the Jewish towns in the Negev because of drugs and crime. There’s also a big problem with Bedouin men attracting Israeli teenage girls and showering them with money and gifts and encouraging them to leave home to live in the Bedouin community. Then, when these girls leave, they marry the Bedouin men and become trapped: they’re not allowed to leave their house, they don’t have a cell phone, they don’t have any money and it’s very hard for them to escape.

From there, we visited Yerucham, a small developing community that’s trying its hardest to expand and become an attractive place for people to live. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, had a vision to  “make the Negev bloom” and to populate it with people.  There are some sizeable cities and communities there, but while the Negev makes up 60% of the State of Israel’s land, it contains just 8% of its population.  Some of the small towns there, like Yerucham, are making a push to attract people and jobs by portraying themselves as tranquil oases where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a very interesting situation, because at one point in Israeli history, the Negev was considered their “Wild West”, a frontier full of exciting new adventures. But as beautiful as the landscape is, the reality is that currently, many Israelis see nothing attractive about living in an oppressively hot town in the middle of nowhere. The land and the housing there is much cheaper and the government provides some economic incentives to live there, but with public transportation becoming increasingly efficient, people can still live in a suburb of Tel Aviv and commute an hour and half to work in a desert city like Be’er Sheva. We saw a very nice, state of the art community center there, but it seemed that while the Yeruchamites were telling us about their town, they were trying to convince themselves just as much as us that it’s a great place to live. I’m sure it is great for some people, but they still have a lot of work to do to convince most Israelis to move from the cities.

But the most interesting and best stop of the day was meeting the Black Hebrews at Kibbutz Shomrei HaShalom, or the Peace Village. They’re a community who see themselves as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel who fled the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE and moved to various parts of Africa.  They lived all over Africa until many were then sold in slavery and came to the United States.  Their spiritual leader had a vision when he was living in Chicago in 1966 that it was time for them to return to their homeland in Israel. So they traveled to Israel by way of Liberia and have a community in the town of Dimona.

The Black Hebrews have a holistic and independent attitude towards life. They don’t consider themselves to be Jewish but take all of their teachings and rules directly from the Torah. As part of their belief system, they are vegan, and they served us an amazing meal of salad, rice, pita and hummus, soy burgers and soy shnitzel, and a very tasty chocolate pudding dessert (apparently it’s very easy to make!) We spend just over an hour there, but pretty much everyone on our program wished we had more time to learn about the beliefs, history and lifestyle of the Black Hebrews because it’s something none of us know about. They invited us over to spend some more time in the future, so a few of us are hoping to spend a weekend there in the coming weeks to learn more about their culture.

I had a nice and relaxing Shabbat – it’s weird to think that I’ve been here a month and a half and this was only my 2nd Shabbat in Ashkelon because of all the holidays. Friday evening, a few of us went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Netzach Yisrael, the conservative synagogue in Ashkelon.  We had been there before to help them build their sukkah and they have a very nice congregation. The service was exactly like the kind of Kabbalat Shabbat service I’m used to at home, where almost every prayer is sung. I always find it a peaceful and reflective service so I always enjoy going and seeing how different congregations choose their different tunes. We came back to our absorption center and had a potluck Shabbat dinner (or to use Becca’s term, a Shabbatluck dinner). We’ve had a few of these already and this one was by far the best – everyone’s really stepping their game up. I started things off strong with my Handsome Salad, and then there was grilled chicken, a gulash stew, pad thai, mango rice, mashed potatoes, and about the best banana bread I’ve ever had (certainly the best parev banana bread I’ve ever had).

Hopefully I can get my camera situation all figured out before the weekend. On Sunday, we’re getting a tour of some of the holy sites in Jerusalem. We’ll walk down the Via Dolorosa, the path which Jesus took to his crucifixion and then go the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he died. And then we’re going to Har HaBayit, or the Temple Mount and see where the Two Temples once stood and where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosques are today. Then at night, we’re all going to see Idan Raichel live in concert – he’s so talented and he and his band put on such a great show.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Petra Pics

Finally got the Petra pics up click here to view!
For Part I (Tel Aviv and Eilat pics) click here

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sukkot Vacation - Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra, and Jerusalem

Back in Ashkelon after a busy week of traveling and a great Sukkot vacation. I traveled mainly with 3 friends – Brett, Derek and Ari, and then we met up with some other people from our program this past weekend in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah.

We left for Tel Aviv Friday afternoon and stayed with two of Brett’s friends, which was clutch. Friday and Saturday nights we stayed with his friend Jonathan, who is about to start studying at Technion University in Haifa. He gave us quite a tour of Northern Tel Aviv, where he grew up and his parents live and made sure we got to do the things we wanted to and volunteered to do some chauffeuring around. We also did a lot of walking around Tel Aviv, which was great because I’ll be more familiar with the city when I live there starting in April. We got some great falafel, checked out the Carmel shuk, and went to the Diaspora Museum which has so much Jewish history that I feel like I might need to go back because there was too much to absorb in a single visit.

Our Petra adventure was by far the highlight of the trip. It’s the remnants of an ancient city built by the Nabateans about 2,000 years ago, and it’s located in the middle of the Edom Mountain range in Jordan. We took a cab from our motel in Eilat to the border crossing and thankfully beat a big tour group to the passport control on the Israeli side and didn’t have to wait at all. We paid our exit tax, changed some money over to the Jordanian Dinar and then literally walked across the “no man’s land” and the international border into Jordan. Nobody hassled us with our bags or passports, and naturally one of the Jordanian security asked if I was an Arab. We then took a cab from the border in Aqabba to the town of Wadi Musa where we stayed (it’s called Wadi Musa because it was the riverbed created when Moses struck the rock and water started flowing from it).

The staff at our hostel was very helpful and friendly, and they insisted we have some coffee before heading out to begin our tour. They also invited us for an all you can eat buffet dinner for 5 dinar (about $8) so we signed up on the spot, and then walked down from Wadi Musa to the entrance of Petra. We definitely made the right decision to tour on our own instead of with a tour guide because not only was it cheaper, but we went at our own pace and stopped where we wanted to and when we wanted to. We had two different tour guides and an additional map to point out the major sites to see. To get to the main sites of Petra, you walk down a gravel path and pass by several tombs carved into the sides of mountains. Petra was the capital of their empire, but also a necropolis because they believed that if they showed respect for the dead, the spirits would look after them.

After about 15 minutes of walking down a gravel path through the mountains, Petra’s most well-known façade comes into view, the Treasury, which was featured in the Indiana Jones movie. Its size and detail was absolutely astounding. Somehow, the Nabateans carved this façade into the side of the mountain. I can’t even fathom how much time and cooperation it took, and how they were able to build that far up with the technology available at the time.

My favorite part of Petra was the Great Temple. Historians aren’t sure exactly who prayed there, but the most fascinating part to me is that it’s a gigantic structure with 3 different levels, and it was discovered by Brown University archaeologists in 1994 – a full century and a half after much of the rest of Petra was discovered by a Swiss explorer. We hiked up two different mountains (one the first day and one the second) and took plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular views down from the top.

One weird – and sad – part about touring Petra is that everywhere you look there are Bedouins selling cheap souvenirs, jewelry and even rocks for a one or two dinar. Many of them live in the caves in the Petra mountains and there are children as young as 5 and 6 trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. It was actually the way we knew we were on the right path on our hikes, is if we took a turn or climbed up some stairs and we passed by a table. I tried to take a lot of pictures to illustrate the scale of the buildings and how high we climbed, but I’m not sure how well it will translate when I upload them to Facebook.

We came back to Eilat Wednesday night and hit up Big Apple Pizza, which was really good. Apparently it’s a chain and there’s one near Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem too. My 3 friends stayed in Eilat for Thursday, but I took the bus up to Jerusalem to spend the day with family. I had a late lunch/early dinner in Efrat with Ephraim, Batya, Eli, and Ma’Or and then at night met my cousins Chaim and Rivka at the “Rock Ami” concert at Kraft Stadium and we saw a few bands play, such as Soulfarm and Moshav Band. Kraft Stadium was built by Bob Kraft and it’s where the Israeli American Football league plays. Inside the stadium there’s a wall with pictures of Kraft with the Patriots, and there’s a Benjamin Watson jersey hanging on the wall. Kraft brought Watson and his wife here two summers ago and he loved it. There were a couple of food vendors, and to my surprise, there were taps from Dancing Camel, a micro-brewery located in Tel Aviv. I had the stout beer and it was easily the best beer I’ve had since I’ve been here. The company rep handed me a sheet listing all the locations around Israel where they either have their different beers on tap and there are a few in Haifa (none in Ashkelon though)

I also wanted to be in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah and it did not disappoint. I went to a shul just outside Jerusalem for hakafot on Friday night and then had dinner with Datia, Guy and Michal. Then I went to the Kotel Saturday morning and joined different minyanim dancing and reading Torah. I got to dance with one Torah and had an aliyah at another minyan.

I’m sure I left some details out but if anyone has questions about the trip, let me know and I’ll holler back! I’ve uploaded a small batch of pictures from the first few days, and I’ll try to get the rest up on Facebook tomorrow and I’ll post a link to the pics.