Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jerusalem: City of Hills.

.ירושליים: עיר הרים

I have now been in Israel for 48 hours and have been spending the past two days meeting and starting to get to know my classmates and the place where we'll all be living for the next eleven months.

Things started out slowly as I got four hours of sleep on Monday night, thus precipitating a two-hour morning nap and delaying the start of my day. So the first thing I did in Jerusalem was make my way to HUC (with walking directions provided by my apartment's previous tenant) for registration and campus tour. I finally had a chance to meet some of the administrators who have been emailing me for the past several months, and they were both extremely helpful. Helen gave me an orientation packet, which I read in the library until the 11:00 campus tour. After the tour, I went to a nearby bank to secure some cash and then went to meet Nancy, HUC's closest staffperson to a "dean of students." She and I had a lovely conversation, and I was off!

On the way to HUC, I had been fairly focused on walking directions and therefore didn't pay too much attention to my surroundings. Once I was free of commitments until 6:00, I decided to do some exploring. First, I went to get my passport photos made for HUC. (I got 6 for 20 shekels (~$6.15) whereas my one US passport picture cost me $15.00.) Upon checking my map, I found that I was near Ben Yehuda St., so I decided to go there to see if I could find an adapter for my laptop (so I could have enough power to make these precious posts!). And then, for the fourth time in my life, I was on Ben Yehuda Street.

I suppose that, since I've been to this place more times than any other in Israel, it should have been a familiar feeling - and in a way, it was. However, the majority of my emotion was of concern for finding an electronics store and surprise to find out how long Ben Yehuda actually is! There was so much delicious food that I had to remind myself several times that I was no longer on vacation and unhealthy eating habits were checked at the cruise-ship door. I did, in fact, find an electronics store and purchased my adapter for a cool 30 shekels. Upon checking my map (twice, for I started out walking the wrong direction), I found that my apartment is virtually around the corner from Ben Yehuda Street! That will make for a convenient fact at some point soon, I'm sure.

After unwinding a bit in the apartment, I went to a dinner organized to celebrate the birthday of one of my classmates-to-be. When I arrived exactly on time at 6:00, there were three other people there. By the time we left for the restaurant at 6:35, there were over thirty people! Apparently, a vast majority of HUC students that were in the area came to this dinner, and the excitement from our class to get to know one another demonstrated by this behavior gives me a strong positive feeling about the rest of the year.

We went to a restaurant called Colony, and I ordered some penne. It was pretty expensive (55 shekels ($17) after tip), but it was fairly good. More important was the atmosphere of friendliness around the table. Several people have mentioned the "honeymoon period" that we're all in, and of course there's a certain degree of truth to that. However, I've had some solid conversations (all beginning with name, place of origin, track of study, and destination after Israel) with some people, and overall I'm very excited to be about to learn alongside these fellow students!

After dinner, we had a short up-and-down tour of Emek Refaim, which is a hip street with a lot of restaurants in a fairly chic neighborhood. As I understand it, most people then went to get drinks, but I was still pretty tired from my lack of sleep, and there was plenty for me to do at home, so I bid everyone good night.

As I walked home, I began to realize that even if I don't get to the gym as often as I hope to this year, I should still be getting a fair amount of exercise. Jerusalem is very hilly! I was definitely feeling the burn walking uphill all the way home, though I took a detour when I saw that the grocery store was still open. "The time has come," I told myself, "to do some real Israeli shopping."

I basically picked up the essentials, not ready to commit to a lot of food before I know how much I'll be eating at home and what Israeli foods I find most attractive. Mostly, I picked up fresh produce, bread, and the like. Then I waited in line.

Now, I certainly can't say if this is characteristic of an Israeli shopping experience, but this is what happened: I changed aisles because I found a shorter line, and I saw that the person in front of me was loading groceries already onto the belt as the person in front of him was checking out. I was really trying to pay attention so that I wouldn't make a fool of myself when I was checking out. I noticed that, when the time came for the person in front of me to check his groceries out, he went to the bags to prepare to bag them himself. (Mark that, Daniel.)

Then, he sent his teenage son to get some milk. And the woman at the check-out waited for him! They just stood there, silently, not moving until the son got back. Once the son arrived, the check-out lady left. Just walked away without saying a word. I could tell that the Israeli man was confused (so it wasn't just me!), and she finally came back with some trash bag-sized grocery bags which he didn't want. Just an unnecessary waste of time, that's all.

Then, the check-out woman asked if they wanted to buy some nuts (which, I believe, were a featured special). They decided to get some and finally began to check out. They had left their cart in front of the belt, empty, while the man was bagging groceries, so I thought they were going to abandon it like all the rest. Once I thought the son had gone back for his last piece of candy (he stepped out of line to get forgotten items three times), I moved my cart forward to start unloading groceries. Then, they decided to get their cart, and urged me out of the way to do so.

So, I start loading my groceries, and the check-out woman starts running them through! I thought you were supposed to load ahead of time... Guess not. So, I held my groceries in my hand until she had rung the last one, and then I started loading. "Is this yours?" she asked the man of my salad dressing. "לא שלי (No, mine)," I told her. Yeesh!

I, too, was pressured about the nuts but politely refused. She asked (I think) if I had a membership card, and I told her I didn't. "Should I buy one?" I asked in Hebrew. "No, are you a tourist?" I told her in English that I just moved here "for a year" (in Hebrew), and she told me (I think) that the card is only for people קבוע, that is, steady or consistent. Maybe it's a credit card (like J.C. Penny's) or maybe it's like a Kroger card. Perhaps once I dust off my Hebrew and get back into ulpan, I'll be able to find out.

So that brings us to today. This morning, I slept in until 9:00, enjoyed a fine breakfast of cereal and orange juice, completed some work around the house, ate an early lunch, and headed to HUC at 12:30 for a tour of the Old City. The first part of the tour was slow as we stopped in one place and then most everyone got hummus while I and three other people who weren't hungry haggled for merchandise. (Or, more accurately, while two of my classmates tried to secure a tapestry for a reasonable price while I and another classmate looked on. In the end, after an hour of back and forth, coming and going, the classmate who really wanted the tapestry got it for less than her original asking price.)

Then, however, we went to the Western Wall, the only remaining architecture of any part of the Second Temple. We decided only to stay for twenty minutes, and the men and the women had to separate. The men and I headed to the enormous men's "half" and went straight to the naturally covered section that I didn't even know existed. It was sort of like a cave full of orthodox Jews, most of whom were praying, studying, or just hanging out. There were books like a library and in an alcove, a teacher was reading from the Talmud to a group of attentive students (some who looked like "black-hatters" and some who looked like "secular Israelis"). His preaching was impassioned, and I only caught a few words. We walked around, some of us took pictures, and we tried to drink in the experience. I definitely didn't feel compelled to pray. We leafed through some of the prayerbooks that were there and felt significantly different from those who would read those books regularly.

This experience at the Wall was both positive and negative for me. On the one hand, I was feeling the familiar discomfort with separation of genders that traditional observance demands, and I was slightly uncomfortable at being in a sea of Jews with whom I didn't feel a strong connection. On the other hand, I felt much closer to the other HUC men who were with me. We continued to make jokes about our privileged manhood in order to ease the tension of the practice. We talked of an alleged incident where HUC had a prayer service with men and women in the plaza outside the Western Wall that incited considerable distress and press. We commented on the differences between our learning styles and the rabbi-preacher who was imparting knowledge to his students. And so on. Before we left, we said a shehechianu (a blessing said after a new occasion), and I felt enormously positive about this Jewish affirmation. We were students preparing to be rabbis, and we had as much right as anyone else to explore our Jewish identity at the Wall. Although the experience was strange, it was very powerful and affirming.

I expect that this won't be the last time I feel this way in Jerusalem. Already I've experienced both excitement and disappointment in Israelis when I've told them I'm studying to be a Reform rabbi - and I've only been here two days! Perhaps we can conclude as my day (outside of the apartment) did: at the mall.

Just outside the Old City is a brand new outdoor mall called Mamilla. Most of the storefronts are in English, yet (according to our HUC summer Israel intern) Israeli's don't see anything non-Israeli about the setup. Perfume, shoes, clothes, and food are all being sold outside the Old City, a fact that can't be ignored when one sees the numbers on the walls. Apparently, one cannot destroy parts of Jerusalem above a certain age, so to build a mall where Mamilla stands, the walls had to be catalogued, taken down, and re-erected in exactly the same way. So, as one is shopping for new cologne, one is also walking through painstakingly preserved centuries-old architecture.

So it remains possible, yea, probable that the ancient and the modern can meet constructively. One of my missions for the year is to learn how to play a role in that combination positively and effectively. Any suggestions?

1 comment:

Josh said...

I'm finding your blogging fascinating! Please keep it up, it really is great reading (especially for those of us working until midnight!).