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!

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