Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Heinz 57 Anxieties or Fry Me to the Moon

Continued from "The Adventures of Late Night Supermarket Man and BogoGirl Part 1:

We left our heroes in the checkout line of Super Fresh on a, well let's call it a Friday night, yeah. Late one Friday night. BogoGirl was preparing to purchase Store brand crinkle cut fries.

BOGO: Two for one!

Yes. Two for one. And Late Night Supermarket Man was trying to assess the Ketchup situation.

LNSM: I think we have enough.

BOGO: Or do we?

LNSM: No, I think we do.

BOGO: Should we
get more, just in case? It's very important. It's of the UP Most importance.

LNSM: What did you say?

BOGO: I said it's of the UP Most

LNSM: With a P?

BOGO: It's of the UP Most

LNSM: The UTT-Most importance?

BOGO: What?

LNSM: It's UT-Most, not Up Most.

BOGO: It is?

Meanwhile, a line began to form behind our heroes as they argued the idiom. Let's fast forward.


We rejoin our heroes after a brief fast-forwarding back at their hideout where indeed, there WAS NOT enough Ketchup.

BOGO: I told you.

LNSM: You did?

BOGO: I don't remember. Scroll

Just then, the phone rang.

LNSM: It's the Special Phone!

Yeah, that's the best we could do. The Special Phone. Deal with it. It was ringing.

LNSM: It's Grandpa Shelly.

BOGO: Maybe he has a mission for us.

LNSM: Will you let me answer it!

Just then, Late Night Supermarket Man, answered the phone.

LNSM: Was that necessary?

Just answer it.

LNSM: Hello?

GS: Late Night Supermarket Man, I have a mission for you.

What is it, Grandpa Shelly?

GS: I can't tell you over the phone. It's
not safe. I've got the mission right here on my computer. I'll print it out for

LNSM: You do understand, Grandpa Shelly, that by not revealing the
mission over the phone, you are continuing to avoid a plot?

GS: All in
good time, Late Night Supermarket Man, all in good time.

LNSM: But when?

Will Grandpa Shelly print out the mission? Will there ever be a plot? What happened to the crinkle cut fries? Find out next time on...

"Leavin' on a Laserjet Plane" OR "Ketchup if you can"

Monday, January 29, 2007

Three people killed in suicide bombing at Eilat bakery

Islamic Jihad immediately claimed responsibility for the first suicide bombing in Israel since April 2006. Jihad called it a "natural response" to Israel's tactics. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/819015.html

Strapping 8 kg of explosives to your own body, walking into a bakery and destroying yourself in order to kill innocent people is "natural"?

Read on: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/819042.html

Thank you, God, for not making me like them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Story of the Week - Week of Jan 21-26

Animal Stories

In his 6th State of the Union Address, President Bush pleaded with Congress to let him do what he wants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I guess, Iran, when it comes to that. The Senate Foreign Relations committee passed a non-binding resolution denouncing the new strategy, then haggled over the specific language, and in the end only one Republican, Sen Chuck Hagel voted for the toothless resolution.

There's a haggle-Hagel joke in there somewhere if you want to go get it.

So we've got wars and bickering Congress, and people throwing rocks at each other in Beirut (and, on at least one occasion, blaming Israel for it. Go figure) And Iran is developing nuclear weapons and now a spy satellite and--sheesh! There's a lot going on. News is chaos.

But you know, if we could get a bird to play golf...maybe that will help.

Move over, Tiger! There's a new animal on the links. (required Tiger-related animal golf quip) Meet AJ, the 5 inch tall Indian ringneck parakeet who plays golf! Watch him make a hole in one.

AJ can also dunk a tiny basketball in a tiny hoop on a tiny court. He can roll over and play dead.
He has his own profile on MySpace. And his videos appear on YouTube, adding dimension to a career that was once restricted to late night talk shows. And CNN filler.

AJ is the latest in a series of animal stories on CNN that include an anchorman-like following of the development of the newest baby Panda at the Atlanta Zoo, video of a woman essentially making out with her pet lion (so many things wrong with that statement) and who can forget the walrus doing sit-ups. Actually, you can't forget, because you had about 19 opportunities to see it last week.

But this week was all about AJ the putting parakeet. Ok, not really. But who needs to hear about wars and dying all day? AJ just made a hole in one.


Close runner-up:

Girls charged with conspiring to kill classmates, Oprah

Headline really says it all. Oh, except the Energizer Bunny was also on their hit list.

Kill the Energizer Bunny? Never! He keeps going and going and going and going....

I'm sorry. That was terrible. But it had to be done.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Suck it, Trebek!

My active status on the Jeopardy! contestant list has expired. And no phone call from Mr. Trebek. Or more than likely one of his many staffers. Although, that would be pretty incredible if Alex called every contestant himself. Maybe he does. How would I know?

No, I'm not mad or bitter. The chances are clearly mapped out. Every step of the way comes with no guarantees. And since I know I can pass the test, I'll just take it again. And in the meantime, I'll continue to stuff more useless knowledge into my head.

Also I'm not mad at Alex. I just couldn't resist the title.

Incidentally, my friend and fellow game show junkie Sam (who has already appeared on Who Wants to be a Millionaire) will appear on Jeopardy in the end of March, for an as-yet undisclosed amount of time. Happy Birthday, by the way, Sammy.

And Happy Birthday Mom.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pezmstr Returns

Still with me?

Not sure how the addition of a serialized, pseudo-comic book Rocky and Bullwinkle-style depiction of mundane and fictionalized daily events will effect my vast readership base, but hopefully I haven't lost too many of you. But indulge that, and there will be plenty of the other stuff, too. Like this.

That said, the inclusion of Late Night Supermarket Man prevents The Full Circle (title change upcoming) from being an online journal. Journals are supposed to be private. I'm not about to share all of my inner thoughts and feelings with the known universe (aka 37 people bored at work, and Grandma Ros and her friends. Hi Blossom.)

But I will share the stories I find fun. Here's one. It requires some back story.

Back story: First semester senior year I wrote and edited a 15 minute film called "Pezmaster." Neil, an awkward college underclassman and Pez enthusiast, is trying to find the missing pez dispenser to complete his "very rare" 1987 Looney Tunes special edition collection. Shelly, an awkward college girl and Neil enthusiast, tries to win Neil's love by winning said missing Pez dispenser on Ebay. Unbeknownst to both of them, Neil and Shelly get into a bidding war with each other on Ebay, driving the price up to $76. Shelly wins, gives the dispenser to a depressed Neil, and they fall in love. The End.

For the making of the film, we (me and my 2 partners) created a fake user name on Ebay, pezmstr (pezmaster was taken...of course) to show in close-ups. We also bought a pile of Pez dispensers for the film. Here's one of our old production photos (note the taped-up picture of a bugs bunny pez dispenser):

End back story.

In addition to working freelance at CNN and running my own essay services website (http://www.creativecollegeessays.com/) and writing this blog, I am fast becoming the resident Ebay expert of Concordia (where my grandparents and their friends live) and The Gentry (where my parents and their friends live). I have sold all sorts of stuff this year on ebay, collecting a nice little side pot for myself and getting rid of their crap for them.

Last week, my mom's friend Carol asked me to help her get rid of a pair of Robin Williams tickets she couldn't use. I put them up on Ebay and they got immediate attention and bids, as I knew they would. By Tuesday morning, with the auction set to end Tuesday night, they were up to $910.

Half an hour before the auction ended, I got a call from Mike. Mike is one who offered Carol and her husband the two tickets and the one still going to the show with his wife. The conversation went something like this:

Mike: I found someone to take the tickets.

Me: What do you mean? They're selling. They're gonna sell in 35 minutes.

Mike: Can you end it?

Me: No. I don't--no.

Mike: Well, I need you to end it. My friends really want to go.

Me: It's a little late. Let me see.

Ok, you can't. You can't end an auction if it's already gotten bids or if there's less than 12 hours remaining. This auction had 15 bids. But Mike was relentless. And, he had the tickets in his possession. The last thing I wanted was to sell them for a thousand bucks, tell the buyer to meet Mike at the place in Atlantic City, only to have Mike tell them he found someone else. Tough luck.

But I also couldn't end the auction. The tickets were selling, and I was about to have a very unhappy buyer on my hands.

Until I remembered...pezmstr. "Hm, I wonder if this still works" Sure enough, Pezmstr remains an active account (and more importantly, I remember the password), even though he's never bought or sold anything on ebay since his birth in November of 2004. Until now. I placed a maximum bid of $5000, certain that nobody was that crazy, won the damn tickets and told Mike that everything was taken care of.

Did I just tell you I lost a potential $900? No. After I gave Carol face value, and half the profits, payed the ebay fees and the paypal fees, I probably missed out on about $150. But there will be more things to sell.

But I must say, it was nice to put pezmster to work again. Neil and Shelly would be proud.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Adventures of Late Night Supermarket Man and BogoGirl - Part 1

We meet our, um, heroes, as they embark on a late night mission to Super Fresh, which is the name of a supermarket, ironically suited for a pair of would-be superheroes.

Bogo: You see, it's because the name is Super Fresh, and we're super
heroes. And we're in a super market.

LNSM: I think they get it.

Bogo: But everything is Super!

We get it. That's Bogogirl, Late Night Supermarket Man's trusty and obligatory sidekick.

LNSM: She's a pain in the ass, really.

Bogo: Look, Late Night
Supermarket man, Crinkle cut fries! Store brand crinkle cut fries! Two for one!

LNSM: Don't those take too long to make?

Bogo: No, you just
preheat to 450, spread them out on a tray, put em in the oven, and 20 minutes
later you've got crispy, delicious--

LNSM: Stop reading the

Bogogirl loved to read the packages. Late night Supermarket Man never reads the packages.

LNSM: A real hero doesn't need instructions. Put them back, Bogo. This mission
calls for--wait, what is our mission?

What our heroes don't know is that there is no mission today. Only exposition.

Bogogirl: I don't know. I'm just a silly awkward girl with glasses, who
can't resist a bargain.

LNSM: Subtle.

Bogogirl: And I have a middle child complex.

LNSM: I'm from New Jersey.

Bogogirl: That about says it all, doesn't it?

LNSM: It serves as a basic explanation. There's more to come.

Bogogirl: So can we get the crinkle cut fries. Store brand two for

LNSM: You're going to buy them no matter what, aren't you?

Bogogirl: I'm not a very good sidekick in that way. Two for one! Come on!

Just then, the noble narrator began to wonder if anyone out there would find these adventures to be anything more than a colossal waste of time.

LNSM: Get the damn french fries. Do we have enough ketchup back at
the hideout?

Bogogirl: I...Don't...Know...

Dun Dun Dun!

Will Bogogirl get the Crinkle cut fries? Will there be enough ketchup at home? Will anyone want to find out? Find out next time on...

"Heinz 57 Anxieties" OR "Fry Me to the Moon"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I'm Beginning to See the Light


"No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once..."

Two years from today, it will officially become unconstitutional for George W. Bush ever to hold the office of President of the United States.

All bad things must come to an end, too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Story of the Week - January 15-19

Every Friday, I'll choose my favorite news story of the week. Or the one I'm most angry about, confused by, or can't get enough of.

Jade (who?) and Shilpa (wait, who's that?) Make Up (why were they fighting?)

"Imagine, someone in Somalia is lucky enough to find a television and he, I
don't know, steals some gasoline to run the generator to power the TV and he
turns on CNN International, cause he's desperate to know what's going on in the
world, only to find we're obsessed with a TV show he's never heard of!"
--anonymous CNN editor.

Ok, here's the deal. I'll try to give you a mostly unbiased opinion of what the hell is going on with this ridiculous story (I said mostly unbiased) and you try to tell me why on earth CNN International has spent days covering all the angles of this story, which they say has caused "international outrage."

The British reality show: It's another installment of Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother, in which a handful of "celebrities" are put in a house that's rigged with dozens of cameras, asked to do all kinds of silly tasks and watched round-the-clock by the voyeuristic British public, which determines whether each cast member stays or is evicted week after week.

The Money: for ₤4.99, you can sign up for unlimited 24 hour streaming video from the Celebrity Big Brother house. But only if you live in the UK or Ireland and have absolutely no life of your own to concern yourself with. For standard text messaging rates plus ₤1, you can nominate and vote for whoever you want evicted. And, Channel 4 is a commercial channel, unlike the BBC, so it has sponsors and commercials. The opening show had about 8 million viewers tune in. In England, that's a lot.

The Cast: 15 people you've never or barely heard of. The most famous of them all might be Dirk Benedict, best known for being Lt. Templeton 'The Face' Peck on "The A-Team." http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0070767/ , and Jermaine Jackson, aka Muhammad Abdul Aziz, aka Michael's older and probably-just-as-messed-up-but-in-a-different-less-pedophillic-way-I-think brother.

The Players:
Jade Goody, "the most successful British reality star ever". Jade finished 3rd in Big Brother 3, and was best known for being stupid, making such Jessica Simpsonian statements as "I thought Cambridge was part of London" and thinking East Anglia, where Cambridge really is, was another country. She also thought Saddam Hussein was a boxer. And she spun that reputation into an ₤8 million empire of tabloid publicity and subsequent reality appearances. And she dragged her lovely mother and brother into the CBB house with her. Charming girl, really.

Then there's Shilpa Shetty, the superstar Indian actress considered to have the best body in Bollywood. You know her as Tamanna Sahani in the 2004 smash hit "Phir Milenge."

What happened: Naturally, Shilpa and Jade didn't get along from the start, shared a few words, then a few more, then some screaming, some more screaming, some bleeped out words, all standard. Then, Jade called Shilpa a pappadon or a paki or something and it spawned an international incident. Sponsors threatened to pull support, Tony Blair got a question about it in Parliament, people protested in India. And CNN International has given near-hourly updates for the past 3 days, they brought in an Indian relations sensitivity expert, cut half a dozen packages and rounded up every Big Brother pun they could think of. You'd think it was the OJ trial.

By the way, Channel 4 is loving all of this. Also by the way, try to find this story in an American newspaper.

Today, the celebrities (who, because of the big brother set up, have no idea of the controversy they've created) apologized to each other,(http://www.channel4.com/bigbrother/news/newsstory.jsp?id=1298&housemateId=16) and later tonight, the two will discover they are the nominees to be evicted. And CNN will carry that decision LIVE.


Isn't there a war going on? Isn't Congress doing something? Aren't people being mutilated in Sudan? Or starving in Africa? Or Drowning in New Orleans?

The "most trusted name in news" is taking benign British tabloid fodder seriously? Could somebody tell me why?

No seriously... tell me.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Coming Up Next on The Full Circle

Now that I've finished reliving every moment of Birthright and sharing it in detail with you, I'd like to move forward with my blog while I still have the attention of the thousands of people who have begun reading this.

Ok, hundreds.

Would you believe...57?

Actually if you really think about it, I have about 500 gmail contacts, maybe 300 of them got an email from me about The Full Circle, and I have 299 friends on Facebook who have access to my profile and therefore a link to The Full Circle if they choose. Plus anyone in Syracuse or New York who doesn't know me but takes the time to examine my profile, so that's a few thousand more. Then there's anyone who hears about this by word of mouth. And then there's all of my Grandma Ros' friends. Oh but you have to take away the people who are both my Gmail contact and my Facebook friend. So using the Group Formula, I'd say my estimated total audience is about:


Sounds about right.

I'm wrong? Prove it. Write comments. 59th unique person to comment gets a prize. Maybe. Plus you get to be right.

Also when you write comments, see if you can think of anything I should be writing about. Because I just wrote a paragraph about nothing. And again.

Anyway, as I move forward, I make the following promises to you, my loyal and trusted readers (aka Grandma Ros, Benetti, anonymous creepy Facebook stalker):

1. I promise to continue writing The Full Circle until I am a published author or screenwriter OR until my friends, family, unknown future wife and subsequent future but as yet fictitious children beg me to stop OR until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kills all the Jews using methods inspired by an event he claims never happened OR until Congress amends the constitution to allow George W Bush to serve a third term and I kill myself (and/or go to jail for conspiring to kill him)

2. I promise to begin writing certain features and add more as they come to me, for your enjoyment, so that The Full Circle is less random and at least feigns a purpose. One such feature will be "Stupid Story of the Week from the Belly of the 24 hour news beast" Good?

3. I promise to live up to my current standing as 2006 Time Man of the Year.

4. I promise to continue an intelligent discussion/dialogue of the Iranian Threat until all of you can spell and pronounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with confidence, or at least better than Bush can (shouldn't be too hard).

5. I promise I will change the title of The Full Circle to something I feel is more appropriate and to change the web address from www.spiegalion-thefullcircle.blogspot.com to something easier to type. This will happen sometime next week.

A few things I will not do:

1. I will not discuss my love or sex life, since it's not that interesting really and since Grandma Ros is one of my aforementioned "loyal and trusted readers."

2. I will not show my work. Nor will I give partial credit.

3. I will not refrain from making more obscure references to old TV shows like "Get Smart" (see above, if you can find it) nor will I apologize for them. Dis-missed! (anyone?)

4. I will not promise that next week's title change will be the only title change this blog experiences in its lifetime.

5. I will not make the world safe for Democracy.

All right, I think that's enough. Stick around.

Monday, January 15, 2007

First One's Free - Final Thoughts from Israel

Not all free trips to Israel are created equal. While the Birthright program takes away the burden of cost, it does not take away a number of decisions regarding trip provider, trip dates, etc.

There are over 20 different trip providers under the Taglit Birthright umbrella, all with different missions, trip options, experiences, and agendas. I chose Israel Experts because they offered a trip for people age 22 and up, and this turned out to be a great decision. I've written a lot about how special the people on this trip were and are to me, and part of what made them so special is that they are all passionate, intellectual young adults old enough to appreciate the Birthright Experience and make the most of it.

What I also like about Israel Experts is its mission. Never on this trip did I feel like I was being imposed with a strong religious or zionist agenda. Nobody was forcing me to put on tefillin or even eat kosher food (though it's hard not to eat kosher food), nor was anyone pushing me to drop everything and move to Israel. Israel Experts' mission was more like "We love Israel. You will too. See for yourself."

Left to see for myself, I was able to explore my connection with Israel and Judaism and discuss it comfortably with people from all walks of Jewish life. I was able to draw my own conclusions.

I get it now. I understand why rabbis and cantors and Nancys have been pushing visits to Israel as long as I can remember. I get why its important to support Israel, if for no other reason than from the moment I got there I felt like I belonged there, that in spite of the fact that often I didn't know where I was, I felt like I was in a familiar place. I have an address.

From home, I want to maintain my newfound connection to Israel. One way I can do this is to keep in touch with everyone I met there. This is already happening, but the key is for it to continue.

I also want to make a more concerted effort to keep or at least acknowledge Shabbat, and I believe there are many ways this can be done. Observing Shabbat can be as simple as calling up friends and wishing them Shabbat Shalom. But I'd also like to make an effort to have more Shabbat get-togethers with friends and family, the type of gatherings that make Friday night special from all other nights of the week.

The Shabbat thing isn't all about Israel, but its observation as "something Jews do" around the world singles us out, in a good way. There's an old story, maybe it's from a movie, maybe I saw it on West Wing and somehow can't remember the exact episode, but there's an old story: an inmate at a concentration camp sees a man saying his morning prayers and asks what he prays for, what's the point? And the man says "I wake up every morning and thank God for not making me one of them."

100 years ago, Israel was a swamp and a desert, and Tel Aviv didn't exist. Today, Tel Aviv is a metropolis, the swamp is dry and grows bananas and oranges, and the desert blooms. Israel has a diverse, vibrant population and for the first time in thousands of years there are more Jews there than there are in any other country. Israeli society is based on great education, cutting edge technology, and the value of all human life.

I do believe that the majority of Palestinians and Arabs want to live side by side with Jews in peace, and that they hope for peace. But the people in power in the territories and in many of Israel's neighbors supress education, mislead their people, and are willing to kill innocent people, including their own, to reach their objectives. And I thank God every day for not making me one of them.

And I hope there will be peace, too. One of the most striking features of Israel is its obsession with hope. The arab Israeli girls who give peace a 20% chance have hope. So does the guy singing "Every Little Thing's Gonna Be Alright" at the bar in Tel Aviv that has been hit at least once by a suicide bomber. And the bar's manager who plays "The Times, They are A-Changing" when the guy singing goes on break. And there is hope in our voices when we sing "Imagine" in Rabin Square. Literally, the national anthem of Israel is Hope.

10 Days is not enough. I know I have only begun to understand this amazing country and it's inspiring people. Which means, of course, that I have to go back soon, and I'll be thinking of Israel every day until I'm there again. And after that.

One last thing that struck me about this deliciously complex and beautiful country was the graffiti. Everywhere - on bus stops and overpasses I kept seeing the same hastily-spraypainted phrase - Am Yisrael Chai. The rebellious, defiant vandals of the State of Israel take the time to announce "The Nation of Israel lives." Israel is on the front lines of the latest attempt by others to eradicate the Jewish people. So far, in over 5000 years, nobody's been sucessful.

Back home, I see bumper stickers and facebook groups proclaiming "wherever I stand, I stand with Israel." I know what that means now, and I do too.

May God bless Israel, and may I return there soon.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Eizeh Yom, Eizeh Yom, What a Day - Jerusalem, Sunday December 24

"8 days ago we were all learning each other's names at the airport. Now we're sitting half-naked in a giant hot tub giving each other massages? This is some trip."

I don't think you can summarize what it felt like to be nearing the end of the Birthright experience any better than that. After dinner on Saturday night, we put on bathing suits and went off to another kibbutz for a soak in a hot sulfur springs bath. Within minutes, a massage train snaked its way through the whole thing.

The kibbutz pub is closed so we make our own party. More vodka and tapuzim and shitty Golan Heights wine. We huddle close together with blankets and we take pictures and we put off packing for one more hour. By next morning we're singing and dancing on the bus with regular frequency. We can't get enough of each other. I'm obsessed with these people.

"Dani, do you have 'Don't Stop Believing' by Journey on your iPod?"

Of course he does. What kind of trip leader would he be without it?

"Just a city boy. Born and raised in South Detroit." I don't really use song quotes in my writing. I guess that's an example of why. Let me try again.

"Yerushalayim shel zahav, v'shel nechoshet, v'shel or, halo l'chol shirayich ani kinor. Jerusalem of gold, of bronze and of light, behold, I am a violin for all your songs."

After a week of experiencing Israel, we have returned to Jerusalem, awakening to the light reflecting off the stone and the sound of Naomi Shemer's anthem to the holy city. It's one of those perfectly timed moments that I won't forget.

Our first stop of the day is Mount Hertzl, where we will begin our formal tour of Jerusalem (last week, it seems, was just a quick, post-Shabbat glimpse) Mount Hertzl is Israel's version of Arlington. I like the sign that reads "to the tombs of the great leaders of the nation." In addition to the great leaders of the nation, there are hundreds upon hundreds of military graves from all of Israel's wars, of which there are too many.

At the top of mount Hertzl is, well, Theodore Hertzl. Hertzl was the man who, in the late 19th century, first envisioned the modern state of Israel in his 1896 book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and is credited as the father of the Zionist movement. He also wrote a romantic Zionist vision, Altneuland, "Old New Land" in English, or "Tel Aviv" in Hebrew. Hertzl died in 1904, more than 40 years before his dream was realized by David Ben Gurion and the crowd at Independence Hall in the city that took its name from his book.

Hertzl proved to be an accurate predictor of the future of the state of Israel, and for that reason he is Israel's Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and you name who else all in one. And it is also for that reason that his bones were moved to Mt. Hertzl in 1949, according to his wishes.

"I hate this place," Rami says to me, as we are walking among the hundreds of military graves. The modern reality of "this place" is that every Israeli knows somebody buried here. Rami visits Mt. Hertzl 3 or 4 times a year. "To visit friends," he says. As we leave, Rami stops us. "You have to wash your hands. To get the...to wash it off." We wash our hands, and leave Mt. Hertzl.

I call Annie when the bus pulls in near the Zion Gate to the Old City. As we plan a place to meet, I walk past literally dozens of tour buses, some birthright, some other tours, and I feel like I just stepped off of a cruise ship, except I'm not being hustled into a taxi. But the purpose is similar.

One of the reasons the Israeli government has continued to contribute to Taglit Birthright Israel is what's about to happen here in the old city - shopping time. Each year, Birthright participants pump millions of dollars into Israel's economy by buying stuff. And I have found I'm happy to spend money on food and things to bring back all in the name of helping Israel. The free trip helps loosen the purse strings, too.

The best part of the trip to the old city for me, though, is getting another chance to see my best friend and wander around with her for a couple of hours. It isn't hard to see that this place is very special to Annie, and I'm thrilled she was able to share that with me.

We say our goodbyes, and I rejoin Double One for our tour of the Old City.

The archaeology of the Old City is fascinating. All around evidence of past civilizations in Jerusalem has been uncovered and left exposed as a living tribute to the city's history. There are roman columns and old walls and all sorts of other markers serving as reminders that this city has been the center of everything for a long, long time.

We see the new Menorah, ready to be placed in the Third Temple just as soon as it's built, which won't happen in my lifetime and probably won't happen in my children's or grandchildren's lifetimes either. The reason why is waiting to greet us upon our return to the Western Wall.

The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is all that remains of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. (The First Temple, for the record, the one built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians) Above the wall, sitting on the site of the altar from the Temple, is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic monument and holy site. And that's why I'll never see the Third Temple built. So we have the Kotel.

A week before, I stood at the Kotel in awe, not quite knowing what to do, eventually approaching the wall, putting my note in between the stones, saying a short prayer and walking away. Now, a week later, with a full week of new experiences to consider, and with a new love of Israel and a deeper understanding of my own Judaism, I still don't quite know what to do here.

So instead I follow Oren and Cobi to the far left edge of the wall, the part closest to the location of the Holy Ark, pick up a prayer book, and participate in a Mincha (afternoon) service led by a man who walks around chanting the prayers and nicely helps others do the same. It's an incredible experience. Every now and then I glance up from the book and look up at the wall and think "wow." Then I look at the book and realize I've lost my place (it's very hard to keep up) and Oren points me back to the program. It all goes so fast, and in about 10 minutes I put the book down and walk out, thanking Oren and Cobi for their help.

And that was it. We had some time at an outdoor market where I picked up some chocolates and things to bring back home. Then some hot chocolate at a little cafe and back on the bus to our farewell dinner at Moshav Tirosh, where a Moroccan food-poisoning awaited some of us. For others it was just more hummus and pita and chicken.

Then it was time for some final reflections, tears, hugs, one more bus ride to Ben Gurion airport, more hugs, and a 12 hour flight back to New York.

I'll have some final thoughts, but it is my intention to leave this as an open-ended experience. I plan to return to Israel eventually, and not just once. I plan to stay close with my new friends from Bus Double One. And I plan to keep the silent promises I have made myself and to Israel.

As Ran tells us, "Remember, in Israel, you don't say goodbye, you say L'hitraot - I'll see you again soon."


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Conversations with Israelis - Mashabe Sade, Shabbat December 23

I got two questions over and over again when I came back from Israel.

1. How was the trip?

Read my blog.

2. What was your favorite part?


Shabbat in Israel is special. It's not just a religious day of rest, it's a weekly national holiday. All over, people wish each other "Shabbat Shalom", and you can feel that this day has been set apart from the other six.

On this Shabbat, after the hike at Masada and floating in the Dead Sea and the greatest shower ever, we convene to welcome in the day of rest and to look back at the week gone by. Last week at this time we were strangers. This Shabbat we are family.

In talking to our Israelis, I learn that family is the key to Shabbat in Israel. Above whatever degree of religious ceremony each individual chooses, Shabbat is about coming home to have dinner with family and spend time with friends.

I remember what Shabbat meant to me at Syracuse. It had that feeling of coming together, praying and singing together and having dinner together. And what it meant at Tranquillity, when we got dressed up, wished each other Good Shabbos, had what was usually the best meal of the week, and recited the same service they've conducted there for generations. Now, whenever I celebrate Shabbat at home, I will feel a connection to Israel in addition to those things. And that is, I think, one of the most important things I will take away from this experience.

After our service and Shabbat dinner on the Kibbutz, we reconvene for an Oneg Shabbat, an activity. We are broken into groups of about 5 Americans and an Israeli, and Bill, the Israel Experts program director, offers a number of discussion questions.

"I'm Jewish because__________." Most of us begin this answer with "because my parents are, and my grandparents are." But then we expand. I'm almost 24 and I know that I'm not just Jewish because mom and dad said so. It's hard to describe, but I feel Jewish in the sense of a deep-rooted connection to people in my life and the Jewish world as a whole. In America, I discover, you have to seek out this community and this connection, and you have a choice at some point whether or not to seek it out and feel the connection. So I am Jewish because I personally choose to seek out and feel a connection to the Jewish community. In Israel, you are connected. Period. What you do religiously is a different choice. But the sentence "I'm Jewish because I live in Israel" makes sense. It's easier to be Jewish in Israel.

"Shabbat is _________." The overwhelming answer from Israelis was "family." For the Americans it was totally mixed. It's much harder to keep Shabbat here. I want to do better, to separate the weeks from the weekends and from the other weeks, and to feel that weekly connection to Israel, to my friends, to my family, to everyone. Shabbat is special to me, now more than ever. And it is my short term and long term goal to at least acknowledge Shabbat each week, and to observe it as much as possible.

"One thing I'd like to say to Israelis/Americans is________." Most of what we heard from Israelis was "you're welcome here" and "Israel is as much your home as it is ours." I continue to be amazed by how a place halfway around the world where I had never been before can feel so safe and so much like home. And I can't return that favor to them. In America they would feel like foreigners. But they are welcome here, of course. In fact, it wouldn't bother me at all if they all booked their flights here tomorrow. Seriously guys, we visited you, now it's your turn.

We said plenty of that to them. But the one thing I wanted them to know, I really had no idea I wanted them to know until it came out of my mouth. I said: "I'm not in a position to pick up a gun and stand next to you, but I want you to know that I'm right behind you."

I hope I can keep that promise.

The conversation continued. For an hour and a half or so we discussed, and then in more informal settings throughout the weekend, I got to learn more about my Israeli brothers and sisters.

On our tour of the Kibbutz, Ma'ayan and I had this discussion of race in America:

Me: Ma'ayan, where are your parents from?

Ma'ayan: Why?

Me: Are you Yemeni, or like half-Yemeni?

Ma'ayan: Yeah, Yemen. Why do you ask?

Me: Because, your skin, you have a very olive complexion. It's nice.

Ma'ayan: I have a what?

Me: An olive complexion. Your skin color, we call it olive.

Ma'ayan: I'm olive?

Me: Yeah.

Ma'ayan: An olive is green.

Me: No, yeah, I know, but your skin, we call it olive, but it's not green.

Ma'ayan: So why do you call it olive?

Me: I don't know. Anyway, it's really nice.

Ma'ayan: So I'm olive. Is anyone else olive? Like, what's that?

Me: she's white.

Ma'ayan: And he's--

Me: He's white.

Ma'ayan: So i'm the only one who's olive?

Me: Yeah. It's ok, it's a good thing. We're not gonna make you go sit in the back of the bus or anything.

Ma'ayan: I have been sitting in the back.

Me: No, I mean. It was a...ok, in the 50s in the south in the US, they used to make black people sit in the back of the bus, and drink from different water fountains and stuff. And that was the reference I was making.

Ma'ayan: I've heard about that. That's terrible.

Me: Yeah, it is. But they don't do it anymore.

Ma'ayan: Thank God!

Me: Yeah.
I think we put way too much thought into skin color in the US.

Ma'ayan: Yeah, they really do. It's stupid.

The cultural diversity of Israeli Jews is phenomenal. Maya's (and Maya, correct me if I get this wrong, cause I probably did) parents are Finnish/Iraqi and Polish/Moroccan, which led me to say: so you're an "Iraqi Moroccan Eastern European Scandinavian Israeli Jew who used to live in Dallas??"

"No." she says. "I'm Israeli."

Rami and I find common ground flipping through channels -- bad reality TV. "This is a funny one," he says. It's called "Who wants to be a SuperHero" and it's so bad that I don't think it made it past 1 or 2 episodes in the US. But we sold all of it to Israel. We sell a lot of our TV to Israel. A lot of them like Six Feet Under. They have good taste. I find out that this is why they have no trouble pronouncing our names - they hear them all on TV.

They do have trouble pronouncing Massachusetts. But that I understand. I try to explain the electoral college to Rami, and he tries to explain the Knesset to me.

Even though we lit the menorah for the last time Friday night, Shabbat is the perfect day for the Israelis to teach us Chanukah songs and show us some of the games they play at Chanukah time. Either that or it was their chance to put our faces in flour, spin us around and make us look silly under the pretense of Chanukah games. Whatever the motive, we had a blast. And after that we got to poke some fun at each other, breaking up into groups and performing skits about the trip.

The skits were funny, to us, all inside jokes of course. And you pile up a lot of them on a trip like this.

We closed Shabbat with Havdallah, separating the week spent in Israel from the week in which we would return to the United States.

But first, there would be one more day.

L'yom haba'ah b'yerushalayim!

Monday, January 8, 2007

Sun, Sweat, Salt, Shabbat - Masada and The Dead Sea, Friday December 22

I'm alive. The gas leak in our tent was contained, fixed, and it didn't happen again, and the men and women of double one are all alive and awake at 4:30am. Ready to race the sun to the top of Masada.

It's our first real hike of the week, and it comes at 5am after 3 hours sleep, and it's a steady uphill trudge. And I'm loving it, because I'm finally doing one of those things I've been told "you have to do this" for the better part of a decade. Luckily, I haven't really been told why I have to do this or what it is I have to do. That I get to find out for myself.

What I find as I arrive at the top is a magnificent pre-dawn view of the Dead Sea and the surrounding mountains, the same view that the Jewish King Herod saw when he built Masada, that the Romans saw when they conquered it, that the Jewish martyrs saw before they died on it, that my friends saw when they came here for their first times.

And then the sun arrives, peeking out over the horizon beyond the Dead Sea and Jordan. All around cameras are at the ready to capture this moment. But the moment is beyond photographs, the pictures don't do it justice. Nor do words, because hundreds of thoughts run through my mind, but really it's hard to describe.

After a while, we gather together and say these words: shehechiyanu, v'kiyemanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh. - thanking God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this moment. That's at least the 2nd time we've said these words together, at least the 5th time I've said these words to myself since landing in Israel.

We tour the ancient fortress of Masada, built by King Herod during the Roman occupation and eventually seized by the Romans when they felt threatened by the Jews. It has remained remarkably in tact, a much higher testament to Israeli archaeology than our visit to Tel Maresha. We are frequently told "don't stand on that wall. It's 2,000 years old." You don't hear this kind of thing in America.

The tour is followed by the hour-long hike down the snake path to the bottom in the early morning sun. Awaiting us at the bottom is a well-placed fresh squeezed orange juice stand and a box breakfast that feels like lunch. It's barely 9am. The day has just begun as we depart Masada.

Amazingly, it does get hot in the desert, and I have shorts on at Ein Gedi. Here, we take a short hike to a beautiful little waterfall to sit and relax and take in the beauty of the desert oasis. Some even go for a swim and a dunk in the waterfall, others stay on dry land. I went for the middle ground, walking around in the shallow cold water that feels good in the now blazing morning sun. This is the prelude to the much larger body of water at our next destination.

By the time we arrive at the Dead Sea, it's no longer so hot in the desert, and the sun is obscured by patchy cloudcover. But that won't stop us from invading the changing rooms and hitting the beach for a dip in the famed Yam Hamelach - the salty sea.

Two things I learned about the Dead Sea that I never knew. For one thing, it's beautiful. The word "Dead" refers to the salt content and the fact that it can't support any animal or plant life, but it has nothing to do with the sea's appearance - which is a diverse mix of deep, rich blues surrounded by mountains. And the other thing I learned is that in December, the water is pretty cold.

Very cold, actually, and no, you don't get used to it the longer you stay in. Still, we stuck it out, because we were there. I wasn't about to pass up a chance to float in the Dead Sea just because might catch hypothermia. The water may have been cold, but the floating is so cool! You literally can't go under the water, and you wouldn't want to, because (as one of us found out) you pretty much can't open your eyes for 5 minutes after you do. It's also hard to stand up once you're on your back, because you just end up floating on your stomach.

Once I was satisfied that I had explored all of the floating possibilities, I exited the sea and rinsed off the salt that was starting to settle into some as yet unknown cuts I apparently had on parts of my legs. The rinse was inadequate at best, but there was little time and I was hungry for yet another felafel lunch.

And in no time, it was back on the bus to race the falling sun to Kibbutz Mashabe Sade, where Shabbat candles and a much-needed shower were waiting.

The timing of this day and its orientation to Shabbat created an unmatched spiritual experience. A week of staying up late and waking up early, with the earliest wake up the most recent. A week of bus rides, tours, speakers, discussions, museums, shopping, circle games and more, and a day of hiking and swimming from sun-up to sun-down all leading to Shabbat, the day of rest and reflection. But before Shabbat, a shower, to wash off what feels like (and probably is) a week's worth of dirt, sand, camel hair, more sand, sweat, and Dead Sea salt.

I was clean, I was awake (no small miracle having been up for 14 hours already), and I was about to spend Shabbat on a Kibbutz in the Negev Desert in Israel. And I thought to myself shehechiyanu, v'kiyemanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.

Friday, January 5, 2007

My Camel is Broken - The Negev, Thursday December 21

By now, Bus Double One is experiencing two inevitable consequences of putting 40 Jews on a bus for 10 days; nicknames and sickness.

On this bus, there are 2 Davids, 2 Jens, Dani, a girl, and Dani, a guy, plus a Dan and a Daniel, a Maya and a Ma'ayan, and, just for fun, 3 Matts. And since Matt B, Matt G and Matt M is the lame 3rd grade teacher way of solving these identity crises and Bus Double One is a creative bunch, the nicknames were inevitable.

I was spared a nickname because the other David became "Tony" or just "Dave." Though I should say, we were confused a number of times so maybe one of those nicknames needed to stick better. We also had a girl take on the nickname of "Gypsy", though I'm not 100% sure why. As for the Matts, one took his last name, another was identified by his association with his best friend, as in, "Which Matt? Oh, Matt and Will Matt." And the last became known as "Bubonic."

Why Bubonic? (I ask, sliding seamlessly into inevitable consequence #2) Well, Bubonic arrived on our trip with a hacking cough and sore throat, and gave it a dozen others, and by the time we departed Tel Aviv for the Negev on day 6, the plague had spread, and I was guzzling Airborne every morning.

We all know the perfect cure for hacking cough and sore throat and everything else - get a partial night sleep in a tent with 80 other people, ratty old sleeping bags and no pillows in the middle of the desert in December.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The day in the desert began in the blazing sunshine at Tel Maresha, where we participated in an Archaeological dig. Now, almost everything on this trip that I thought would be really cheesy turned out to be great. That is, with the exception of the Archaeological dig.

Here we learned about the Edomite civilization and the underground caves that they destroyed when Jews captured the town around the time of the Chanukah story in 120 B.C.E. Then we went into one of the caves and dug for artifacts, and in about 20 minutes managed to come up with some pieces of pottery and animal bone. One person even dug up a handle. But the whole time, I had trouble believing (as did many others) that we had actually discovered anything important or even anything that hadn't been discovered already.

My skepticism was verified after our debriefing. The guide showed us some impressive pieces already recovered, cleaned and catalogued from the Maresha dig and explained some of the archaeological process. Then she offered us a chance to buy an official "we dig Israel" t-shirt (get it?) as well as take home a few pieces of pottery found in the site, pieces that are too small to be of any use to them. Pieces remarkably similar to the ones I'd dug up just a short time before. So, what I found either gets cleaned or put back into the dig? Glad I could help.

I appreciate the importance of archaeology in Israel, for sure. The entire country is "one huge archaeological site" as our American staff, Dani, put it. But our archaeological experience was on an elementary school level. Which explained all the grade-school kids I fought my way around in order to wash my hands, get back on the bus and get on to Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Imagine for a second, President George W. Bush decides to leave Washington, eschewing most of his duties to go live a simpler life on a farm somewhere in, say, Texas. It's...hard...to imagine...isn't...oh...

Well this is sort of what David Ben Gurion did back in the 1950s. He resigned as Prime Minister and went to live on Kibbutz Sde Boker, claiming that it was the kibbutznik that made Israel what it was. Eventually, Israel demanded his return to the Knesset and he did go back, reluctantly, but his heart was in his Kibbutz. And on Thursday, so were we.

Sde Boker overlooks the beautiful Zin Wadi, a cavernous, Grand Canyon-like desert valley mentioned in the bible many times. Ben-Gurion's tomb also overlooks this magnificent vista, and we stopped to pay our respects to the man who stood in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and declared the establishment of the Jewish State.

"OK," says Ran, "Back on the bus, quickly. It is already getting dark, and we can't ride the camels in the dark."

The sun was down when we arrived at the Bedouin village of Kfar Hanokdim, and we were just in time for the camels.

It's hard to recreate what it's like when 40 eager 20-somethings bound toward a pack of stubborn, not very happy camels, but let's just say there's a smell, there's a lot of yelling (from us, from the camels, from the camel handlers), and a lot of movement. I got caught up in the frenzy as our group members paired off and mounted camels and the camels lifted off the ground, and all of a sudden me and a dozen others are left without a camel to ride.

"If you don't have a camel, get on a donkey! You'll switch later!" somebody shouts, it's hard to tell.

Oh, good. A donkey.

So what's the best part about riding a donkey? Ass puns.

"Does my ass look a little big to you?"

"Hey, did you touch my ass? Get off my ass!"

"Hey, Dani...nice ass."

And that's about all they're good for. The second best part was when my donkey (they're all tied together, by the way) snuggled up behind the one in front of me, and my leg was put in a very compromising position. Had the donkey in front of me decided to relieve himself, well let's just say I would have preferred the plague.

It came time to switch, and I got off my ass (there's another one!) and onto a camel. This is one of those things everyone talks about when they come back from Birthright. It's like a Birthright right of passage. Did you ride a camel? Of course I rode a camel, I was on Birthright.

Once the novelty wears off, the camel experience becomes a little unpleasant. Especially since my camel had an itch under her right shoulder and kept scratching it with her right front leg, leaving me eight feet off the ground on an uneven humped tripod. When the leg didn't work, the camel started trying to bite or lick whatever was bothering her. "Hey, pay attention to the road!"

The final challenge is getting down off the camel, which means the camel has to sit down. The camel does not like doing this. Clearly the up and down all day long and the walking around in circles all day doesn't make this camel, or any other camel, very happy. The camel lets out a loud and agonizing noise as she lowers herself to the ground, and then I graciously, but not gracefully, dismount. End camel adventure.

Begin the Bedouin experience. We pile our stuff into our evening accommodations - a large but somehow cozy looking tent - and head to a different tent across the way to hear about the Bedouin way of life. The Bedouins are historically nomadic, but Israeli Bedouins found themselves restricted by political borders and have adapted to modern ways of life. At Kfar Hanokdim, they are trying to preserve the heritage of the Bedouins.

We heard about the tradition of Bedouin hospitality, and had a musical presentation from a Bedouin musician who played a predecessor of the Lute and who was working on a PhD in music. All of this was followed by a traditional family-style dinner of kabobs and rice (nothing sharing a plate with 3 other people to keep that plague from spreading) and Chanukah candle lighting night 7.

After dinner, the evening was spent mingling with each other and with the other groups of young Jews there from all over the world. I found myself having a spirited conversation with a couple of young Jews from England, studying in Israel for the year. Meanwhile, our tent was evacuated because of a gas leak that robbed the sicker among us of some valuable rest. I missed all of that, well engaged in a deep conversation about Iran, the Holocaust and the Jewish world. You know, nice light campfire talk. (More on this to come, by the way.) It was almost midnight by the time I made my way back to the tent.

Whoever told me to bring a pillowcase with me to Israel - thank you. Bedouins don't provide pillows, only ratty, worn out sleeping bags and thin mattress pads. But somebody told me to bring a pillowcase, and I stuffed all of my clothes into it and created a makeshift pillow, wrapped myself in the sleeping bag and settled in to attempt a few hours sleep before our 4:30am wake-up call and the full and unforgettable day ahead.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Instant Gratification Day - Tel Aviv, Wednesday December 20

Somebody give me a freakin' orange.

For three days now we've been talking about how amazing the produce is here, how proud Israel is of its agriculture, of it's oranges. And we've been driving past huge orange groves and banana forests and every morning at breakfast and every night at dinner all I see is that goddamn salad with the cut up cucumbers and tomatoes and hummus! My goodness, don't you people ever get sick of all the hummus!

We had lunch at this Druse village Tuesday afternoon, before Dir el Asad. The Druse are...well they're some other religious group that lives in villages in Israel and we didn't learn much about them, we just ate in their village. And they had oranges the size of my head, but only for juicing. I don't want juice, I want the orange. I can say it in Hebrew, will that help? Ani lo rotzeh mitz, ani rotzeh hatapuz. Nope.

Tuesday night, after the Druse, after Dir El Asad, after another fruitless dinner, after the Israeli dancing, we sat in circles and evaluated the trip so far - what we like, what we don't like, what we want more of, what we want less of. And before the circle gets around to me, Jess says "we keep hearing about all the fruit they grow here, and we haven't had, like, any of it."

I could have kissed her, but I didn't, 'cause I know her husband and all he talks about is Brazilian jujitsu and cage fighting. But anyway, she asked about fruit, too. There were other requests for more physical activity and less sitting on a bus all day, for optional hikes or walks, for shorter lunch breaks and more shopping time. Ran addressed our wishes, promising to try to make the reasonable ones come true. "We'll get some fruit for the bus."

The next morning, after another breakfast without oranges, we left for our day in Tel Aviv. We began at the Independence Museum, where we learned about the beginnings of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv.

The city of Tel Aviv was built out of nothing. Really. Outside the walled Arab city of Jaffa, there was sand. And in 1909, a small group of Zionists left the walled city, scraped together $50 million or so, and began building what is now the most modern city in the Middle East and the center of Israeli urban life.

The museum itself is the former home of Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv's first Mayor (and our guide presented this information in all of its homophonic glory) In 1948, while Jerusalem was blockaded by Arab armies, the home became the temporary seat of the Israeli government, and the site from which David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence.

We sat in the room where Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state and listened to an impassioned speech from our guide, as he connected us as American Jews to the formation of the Jewish homeland. For thousands of years, he said, Jews all over the world were without an address. Now, they have one. You have one. For many in that room, this was the defining moment of the Birthright experience. Something clicked, and it made sense why we felt at home even though we'd never been here before. Then we heard Ben-Gurion's speech fill the room, followed by the playing of Hatikvah - "The Hope", and the national anthem of Israel.

If this had happened in Philadelphia, it would have gone like this: some guy in a Ben Franklin costume would read the words of the Declaration of Independence in a phony voice and rant about liberty and all men are created equal. Then the same schmoe would make everyone stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance while I rolled my eyes.

But here in Tel Aviv, we stood and we listened. I started to sing along when I heard the Israelis behind me start to do the same. I saw people tearing up. "You have an address here, always." Dude, you had me at "Mayor Meir."

As we leave Independence Hall, Ran asks me to carry something outside. It's a box of fruit (cue heavenly angel music)! But before I can get the chance to grab and devour an orange, I am handed something entirely different.

"This is the traditional Israeli winter snack," says Ran. "It's called a Crembo, and you eat it like this. You open it up the foil, and there's a cookie at the bottom for later, and you bite into the top and then, you just...eat it." Double One-ers reading this can match Ran's voice to his very detailed instructions. The rest of you, well, I guess you had to be there. But anyway, the Crembo was worth putting off my orange craving for a few more minutes. Instead I walked back to the bus experiencing the sheer deliciousness of the Israeli winter snack. We need Crembo in the U.S.
And then, I got my orange, and thoroughly satisfied my craving on the short bus ride to Jaffa, the Arab city adjacent to Tel Aviv. There, at the port, we met our Israeli soldiers - 7 of the nicest, sweetest, most compassionate people in the world. They quickly inserted themselves among the 36 Americans and we were whisked off to a park for more circle games, link tag and a picnic lunch, oranges included. (somebody ask for physical activity? picnic lunches?) The instant gratification continued as we had time to shop (too much time) the Jaffa flea market for piles of junk, and more importantly, acquaint ourselves further with our new Israeli friends.

After Jaffa, we took our more-crowded bus to Rabin Square, the site where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Anat, one of our soldiers, remembered being in that place for the Peace rally in 1995, singing the songs, then watching the Prime Minister leave the stage and take his final steps. Every Israeli remembers where he/she was when it happened.

The day has been a roller coaster of serious and fun, as we go from Rabin's assassination to - snack time, it's very strange. But this is normal in Israel, I'm learning. So we enjoy our Sufganiyot in honor of Chanukah and Will's birthday (second birthday of the trip, we celebrated for Emily back at Kibbutz Gonen) as the sun starts to set on our long day in Tel Aviv.

And of course, when the sun sets in Tel Aviv, the day is just beginning. This is Israel's city that doesn't sleep. We have an optional walk to the beach to watch the sunset (somebody ask for optional walks?), hardly an option, why would you miss out on that? And later we return to the Tayellet, Tel Aviv's boardwalk, for dinner and drinks. Our group has gelled by now, these are my 40 new friends I'm out with, remember?

Even the bus driver can't resist the spirit of the amazing Double One. And this is how I'll end this report on Tel Aviv, with a joke, as told by Surin, our faithful driver. It goes something like this:

"A rabbi and a bus driver die and meet God at the gates of Heaven. The bus driver goes in right away, but the rabbi has to wait."

[long pause]

"Hang on, that's not the end. I got confused cause you used to be able to turn left here but now I can't...one second."

[he turns right]

"Ok, so, the rabbi says 'why does he get to go in, who is he? He's just a bus driver.'"

[pause. some laughter]

"Wait wait, that's not the end, I just have to make this turn...OK, so the rabbi says 'why, he's just a bus driver. I pray every day and I keep kosher and I lead my congregation, all he does is drive a bus.' And God says 'In your synagogue, you lead the service and all the people fall asleep. But when he drives them around the Golan Heights, they are all praying! That's the end."

5 days gone by...
more importantly: 5 more days to come.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Dir el Asad - The North, Tuesday December 19

"We're going to Moshav Shorashim to learn about Israeli Arabs."

That's all we were told. OK, fine, sounds interesting, Ran. Whatever. See, there's a lot I didn't know about Israel. Like, 20% of the population is made up of Arab citizens. Not Palestinians living in the territories. Arab citizens. 1 out of every 5 people in Israel is a Muslim or Christian Arab with full Israeli citizenship.

There's a lot I didn't know about Israel.

At Moshav Shorashim we met Marc Rosenstein. He had a time line on an easel that looked like some old 4th grade project that my dad would have made me redo. Bad visual aid aside, this guy knew his stuff. He had a complex understanding of the relationship between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

The oversimplified history goes something like this: At the time of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Arabs living within the borders of the new state had a number of choices. One choice was to leave Israel for Lebanon or Syria or Egypt, etc. etc. And some did this. But others remained in Israel, where they were soon granted full citizenship and found they were allowed to practice their religion and live by their own religious laws while taking advantage of the superior education and public services offered by the new Israeli government. Ask an Israeli Arab today if he'd rather be living in Gaza, and most will say no.

Most will say no. But the truth is, there's no one solid position that the Israeli Arab community takes on anything. "The best way to get a feel for what it's like to be an Israeli Arab is to meet them and talk to them," Marc says. And that's exactly what we did.

SURPRISE! A 15 minute ride took us from Moshav Shorashim to the Arab Muslim village of Dir el Asad (Arabic for "Lion's Den") and to a school where a group of Arab Israeli teenage girls were waiting to meet a pack of American Jews.

We broke into small groups and were given a few guidelines for our conversations. "Try not to jump right into political stuff." was one suggestion. But, given limited time, it's hard not to ask the tougher political questions.

Still, with the first panel, my group kept it light. The language barrier was significant, but there was just enough Hebrew and English to go around. We talked about American movies, and asked simple questions like "where is your family from?" Mostly Syria. For us, mostly eastern Europe. "If you're Jewish," they asked, "why don't you live in Israel?" Nobody's ever asked me that before.

Then Jeff asked the girls "what are your dreams?" I think it's possible that nobody's ever asked them that before. Jeff clarified, "what do you want to do with your life?" One girl said, "to get married and have a family." Another wanted to study psychology before returning to her village to start a family. In America our dreams are much bigger, more daring.

When it came time for the second group to sit with us, we were more comfortable, and so were they. And this group had more English, so the conversation was easier. That is, until Marc walked in to check on our progress and asked "what about the war? Tell them about the war this past summer" and then walked away. So much for "try not to jump right into political stuff." I saw one of the girls squirm a little, then with some encouragement she said "my friend was killed by Ketyusha. Two of my friends."

Dead silence.

I mean, what do you say? We never heard this part of the story from (dare I say it) CNN, or anyone else over the summer. But Hezbollah was lobbing rockets over the Lebanese border into northern Israel and killing...Arabs! Arabs with family in Lebanon and Syria, who aren't required to fight in the Israeli army because it's wrong to force someone to shoot at their own relatives, are being blown up by rockets coming from Lebanon paid for by Syria.

The war over the summer was terrible for everyone involved, and sitting in that classroom in this Arab-Israeli village I could sense the frustration from a group of people that might have the most cause to be frustrated. Somehow, the stunned silence was the right reaction, and from that point on, no subject was off limits.

"Do you have family in Syria?" we asked.


"Do you ever get to see them?"

---"We can go to the border and shout to them, but we don't really do that."

"You can't go to Syria?"

---"No." (Imagine you have family in Ontario, and the only way you can ever see them again is if you stand on opposite ends of Niagara Falls...)

These girls feel caught in the middle. In Israel, they have better educational opportunities than they would have in any Arab country, and they have the right to vote, drive, work, etc as full citizens. But Israeli Jews are naturally skeptical of their presence in Israel (the same way Americans felt about Japanese Americans during World War II, with one important difference - no internment). And Arabs in other countries are, at best, jealous of them, and at worst think they are traitors for living among and supporting the enemy. So, are they proud to be Israeli? some of them are. Some of them aren't sure. The questions continued.

"Do you want the Palestinians to have their own country?"

One girl says yes. The others don't know.

"Would you live in Palestine?"


"What do you think of America?"

---"We Love America."

That answer made me wonder what kind of answers we would get from Arab boys of the same age. The role of women in the Arab world is a controversial and well-documented subject in the west. But Arab Israeli girls are different. These girls, are not only allowed to go to University, they're encouraged to go. They still seem to stick to tradition by marrying early and having large families, but before that they can experience living and working and learning in cities like Haifa or Tel Aviv, while the men enter the construction trades or other industries, like their fathers before them.

Later, when we returned to Moshav Shorashim to debrief with Marc, one of us opined that the entire program was a waste of time since we didn't talk to the boys. "If you want to invoke change," he said, "you have to involve the men, because they're the decision makers in Arab culture." There was loud disagreement. Marc rebutted, "If more women were involved in decision making in the Arab world, we might not have as many problems. I'm all for empowering the women." Absolutely.

We had one more question. "Do you think there can be peace between Israel and Syria? with Lebanon? The Palestinians?"

---"I think there's a 20% chance."

Then all three together

---"We hope."

There's a lot I didn't know about Israel.