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Sunday, January 29, 2012

January – 01.29.12

What a month.

I started this month still on the high of my December trip to the states. In two weeks I was in Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Texas, San Francisco, more Texas, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Moscow, and back home to Tel Aviv. I ate on Thanksgiving until my sister and I had to lie on the floor, rode a train with my baby brother on his 3rd birthday, had locally brewed beer and organic pizza in Berkeley, enjoyed a mini high school reunion in DC, and visited Philadelphia for the first time. I was completely filled (as I so often am these days) with love and gratitude for my family and friends. My friends have noted that my happiness is bordering on grotesque and obscene. Some tell me that no one should be this happy, but I like to argue that perhaps everyone should.

This trip and these memories – still so fresh in my mind – remind me to love.

On January 5th, a day that used to hold significance for me as the 12th day of Christmas, I went for a late-night stroll and tripped. As I fell, scraping my hands, knees, and hip, I also hit my face on a slab of concrete and broke my nose in multiple places. Before I even had a chance to start crying, three young Israelis scooped me up and practically set up a triage center. As I sobbed on the sidewalk, a kind man my age held my bloody face in his hands and whispered for me to breathe calmly. One girl bought me water and tissues and cleaned me up in-between my crying, and another girl located all the belongings from my purse and used my cell phone to call a friend I directed her to. Five minutes later my friend showed up and took me to the ER where my nose was x-rayed, re-set, and in less than an hour I was sent home with a black and blue face and an ice pack. The heroes from the street called for regular updates on my progress. As I spent this month healing, friends have visited and brought me food, endless Israeli strangers have asked me “what happened to your face?!”, and I have pondered what my endless injuries might mean on some deeper level.

In these moments of pain, healing, and dependency on others, I am reminded of humanity and compassion.

This month I started a new Hebrew class. If I thought my Hebrew was bad before, it’s somehow gotten worse. Just today I was asked to describe how to make tea. Sounds easy, right? First I told my teacher “I do hot water,” and then I said “I put water on fire,” and finally “can you please put me in an easier class?” She said no, refused to give up on me, and we laughed until we nearly cried. I’m not sure if all my tears are from humor these days, but I’m not giving up either. I’ve also started studying with a tutor – who is amazing – and who is making it his personal mission in life to make sure I don’t embarrass myself (as much).

In continuing my struggle to learn Hebrew, I experience humility and growth.

January was also a month of travel. I put a new country on my list, Jordan, even though I didn’t particularly like the city of Amman. All the same, I had a great trip with my friend, and learned that I prefer cities with actually lanes in the roads and restaurants that serve alcohol. I also took a day trip to Jerusalem, full of humorous shopping, and a visit to the Western Wall. After writing my prayer and putting the folded paper in the Wall I sat and prayed – first in English, then in Hebrew, and finally in sign language - just to make sure the message got across. I prayed for healing, for my family and friends, and then, as always, I prayed a prayer of thankfulness for this life.

With tears in my eyes, on a sunny afternoon in Jerusalem, I felt gratitude.

This month also marked over a month since I officially applied for aliyah – to be an Israeli citizen – and seven months since I moved to Israel. I’ve received no news on my citizenship saga despite my endless calls, and I give a great deal of consideration to selling my belongings in preparation of my feared deportation. But I am still here, and my friends give me determination when I am lacking. Two of my friends offered to take my case public, to call news channels and write articles in order to raise the deeper questions of my conversion and religion, my potential contributions, and my desire to be in Israel. Another friend connected me to the most helpful contacts I’ve spoken to in the last seven months, two experts with experience in cases like mine, and now a lawyer is consulting on my case.

In these moments of support, I feel new hope.

This month has been full of all sorts of other shenanigans, too. I resolved to go to the beach more, and I went nearly every day. I read three books so far and may finish a fourth. I knit a really ugly hat with my first ever pom-pom on top; I like to wear it when I’m alone in my apartment. I made new friends, and I said goodbye to those who returned home. My dad bought a ticket to come visit me in March, and my baby brother in Texas asked me “lama lo?” (why not?, in Hebrew) during a skype chat. My big brother turned 29. I did my taxes. Also, I think I perfected my Spanish rice recipe, and you are all invited to come over and try it.

January has been a reminder of everything life should be – love, pain, humanity, adventure, disappointment, hope, creativity, humility, and gratitude. I’m not sure what February will bring, but I’m looking forward to whatever comes.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Reason Why – 11.05.11

People ask me a lot why I chose to be Jewish and why I choose to live in Israel. I don’t mind the questions, and I really do try each time to answer honestly, but I have to admit, the whole inquiry seems a bit silly to me. Like asking someone, “why do you like sunshine?” or maybe “why do you keep your hair brown?” or even “so why do you like chocolate?” The answers to these questions are mostly “givens,” right? I like the sun because it is keeps me alive and feels nice. I like my hair the color it is, because, well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I like chocolate because it makes me happy. I could have replaced “Judaism” into any of these answers. I like being Jewish. I like the Jewish people. I like Israel. It feels nice and like home to me. I realize others view my choice to be here as different, but it just is. Not all things in life really need to be explained, do they?

But I guess that’s not a really good answer. In addition to people asking me about why I’m Jewish and why I live in Israel, the Jewish Agency would also like to know. In fact, they recently asked me to write a letter explaining (in detail) exactly why I want to be where I am and how I am. Isn’t this an interesting concept? If someone asked you to explain why you are the way you are and why you live where you live, what would you say?? Would you have a good answer, or would you find the inquiry challenging? I was happy to write my answers to the Jewish Agency, but as with the inquiries from individuals, I felt a bit baited. People tend to believe that life in Israel is more difficult than that in America and that being Jewish is (in some ways) a burden in addition to being a blessing. I honestly do understand this opinion. Everything from the buses to the phone company to the university to the politics takes extra patience in Israel. However, for me, I simply need to try my hardest to be here in order to be true to myself.

Perhaps an example will help. Right out of college I got my first professional job working at a university. It was a pretty easy job at a nice, small, private university in southern California. The people were very nice and happy. The biggest problem I had was that of “helicopter parents” – those who called every day to make sure their student got the best room, the best roommates, and the perfect meal plan.

After I finished my master’s, I accepted a job at a community college and moved to a rural (and very poor) county in northern California. My eyes were opened like never before. I had homeless students, mentally ill students, and brilliant 18-year old students all together in the same class. One day a “star” student came to me after being beaten senseless by her boyfriend. I talked to her and tried to get her help, and when she left my office I quietly closed my door and sobbed. I caught students doing crystal meth, and I saw students receive full athletic scholarships. My time there completely changed me, and in many ways the work was so much more difficult than the quiet private university. However, that college was exactly where I needed to be. After working there, I knew I would not ever be able to return to the helicopter parents. That first year, I remember praying that even one parent would call in concern of their child, but they never did. So I’ve spent the last 5 years building my career and writing my dissertation around community college students – my students, and I plan to continue that work in some capacity as long as I live. They will always be part of me.

In just the same way, Judaism and Israel are part of me. Once I came to know them, I was changed in such a profound way that I can never go back. So I became Jewish in order to be true to myself, and now I came to Israel in order to be part of the Jewish people. It is hard. I don’t have a “real” job or a resident visa. Living here takes perspective, trust, and hope. I am practicing that each day. I just signed a lease on an apartment for a year and I’m applying for post-doctoral fellowships here. I’m building a life, and I’ve got to tell you, it feels as warm as sunshine, as natural as the color of my hair, and as easy to love as chocolate.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Chicken Time List - 10.17.11

Last week I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my conversion to Judaism. In true Israeli fashion, the week did not disappoint – I attended a concert, met new friends, ate delicious food, and enjoyed many celebratory drinks and several nights ending after 3am. I thought about writing a sentimental post about my conversion, about what it means to me to be Jewish, and about why I keep choosing to be in Israel; but I think I’ve been sentimental enough in recent posts.

Instead, I have compiled (for your enjoyment) a list of 10 ridiculous and otherwise silly Israeli moments. Most of them occur because of my complete inability to speak the Hebrew language in a comprehensible manner. There are so many of these moments that I try to keep track of them in a small green notebook I carry around with me everywhere I go. The list is affectionately called “The Chicken Time List” and you will find out why if you read all the way down to #1. Some of these moments are mine, and some belong to friends. In fact, some of my friends have their own dedicated page in “The Chicken Time List” because their lives here tend to be so outrageous.

There is truly never a dull moment here. Sometimes the moments are embarrassing, or funny, or even frustrating, but never dull!

(And sorry to my family who has already heard most of these!)

10. A friend wanted to know if a restaurant had any grapes. Instead he asked, “Are there any rocks here?”

9. I often mix up the words for “hour” (sha-ah) and “year” (shanah). I say great things like: “I worked on my doctorate for 4 hours,” and “I lived in California for 9 hours,” and “I came to Israel almost 3 hours ago for the first time.”

8. Instead of asking about someone’s family (mishpacha), I kept asking about their kitchen (meetbach). “So, do you have a big kitchen?” “How many people are in your kitchen?” “Do you like your kitchen?” They were very confused at first.

7. At a restaurant I very confidently asked my friend, in front of the waiter, if he wanted to order someone (mishahoo). I, of course, meant to ask if he wanted to order something (mashahoo).

6. In a serious discussion about prisons in Israel I repeatedly referred to the prison (cavah) as a dog (kelev). "So, how many people lived in the dog?" "Was it a dog for bad people?" "Who worked in the dog?"

5. I was really lost in Haifa at night with my friend when I saw two men walking down the street. I wanted to ask them for directions so I enthusiastically rolled down my car window and yelled "Excuse me, miss!"

4. At SuperPharm (like Walgreens) with my friend buying contacts, we proudly determined that one box was for the left eye and one was for the right eye. Later we found out they were monthly and daily lenses.

3. During class, my Hebrew teacher asked a student (in Hebrew, of course) what color his shirt was. He quickly answered, "Cat!" but his shirt was plain blue.

She asked the next student, who said “white!” but his shirt was also just blue.

She gave up and asked us to turn to a new assignment in our textbook.

2. I went into a store and said to the clerk “I need to help you!” instead of saying “I would like some help!” I really did not understand the look on her face and why she kept saying “why?” Duh…“because I really need to help you!” I kept saying.

1. Repeatedly yelling, “chicken time!” instead of “never!” (Slight difference between of and af in Hebrew). Finally someone asked me why I was talking about chickens and I realized my error.

As a final note, I promise that my Hebrew is getting better. Some evidence: last week at a bar two men started talking about me in Hebrew thinking that I did not understand. They didn’t say anything bad, but were just trying to find out how old I was, etc. I turned and said in Hebrew to one of them “I understand what you’re saying!” Their look of surprise was excellent. Almost starts to make up for all those chicken time moments…almost... :)

Monday, October 10, 2011

My Partner in Good - 10.10.11

The High Holidays in Judaism are in full swing. First was Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur, and Sukkot begins this week. Rosh Hashanah – the start of the New Year – began just a couple days before what we otherwise know as October 1st. I took the opportunity (a new year and a time for reflection) to start a little project I’ve been thinking about.

This idea all starts with my family. Even though I tend to think of myself as very “different” from my extended family, each day I seem to learn I am more similar to them than I thought. Apparently my grandmother also rode a camel (in Israel) years ago! But the connections are, obviously, deeper than that. One of the most resonating similarities I continue to see is the desire to give. My parents should receive some sort of award for good-doers. Growing up we were always putting some kind of positive energy into the world – volunteering at the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving, choosing where to donate the family tithe, buying goats or bees for families through Heifer international (it took a long time to explain to me as a child that buying bees for someone was a NICE thing), the list goes on. Even today, my mother spends her days working with special needs high school students and her nights working at a group home for adults, and my father runs a charter school system for troubled youth living in residential facilities. I am so grateful to learn from their positive examples.

I am also fortunate enough to have gotten even a small dose of the giving gene. I, too, have spent endless hours making sandwiches at Glide Memorial shelter, sorting food at the SF Food Bank, making safe sex kits for the SF AIDS Foundation, painting murals for the Salvation Army (see photo above!), pulling weeds at the SF Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park…my list goes on and on, too.

I also think it’s important to donate monetarily. Even a few dollars can go a long way at a well-run non-profit. I have my “standard” organizations I donate to – my synagogue, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the library, and so on. But I’ve decided that on the first day of each month for the next year I will donate a minimum of a dollar a day to a different organization each month.

But who likes to give alone? I sent a quick message to one of my very good friends and asked a simple question: “Will you be my partner in good?”

I feel like in this life I’ve got partners in fun and in “crime,” but the older I get I am realizing just how important it is for me to have friends who support my deep lineage of giving - friends who might spend a Sunday afternoon reading to kids, participate in a protest against inadequate pay for Mercado workers, or give a small amount each month to support a non-profit organization.

This month, I chose an organization one of my former students was raising money for. I was so touched by this student’s efforts to save an institution (on the brink of closure), and I’m sure they appreciated the two anonymous donations that went towards their personal fundraising goal.

I know that I have appreciated those who have taken the time to give to my own fundraising appeals, and have seen firsthand the positive ripples those acts of kindness have had in my life. This new year, I am going to try to keep giving at the forefront of my intentions and actions. And I’m glad I have my partner in good along for the journey.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Takes a Village… 10.06.11

Finally, I’ve had a bit of luck with the Jewish Agency. I officially have a file open to apply for aliyah – that’s right friends, with any amount of luck or fortune or prayer I may end up an Israeli citizen yet. :)

For the last two days I’ve been locked in my apartment trying to “prove” my Jewishness. What a silly thing to do. In case you were wondering, in the last two years I have read 17 Jewish books, I’ve spent 4 months in ulpan (in Israel!), I’ve traveled to Israel 3 times, I’ve attended 5 passover seders (and made two of the most delicious matzah lasagnas you ever tasted!), visited many of the world’s top Jewish museums (Museum of Tolerance - LA, Holocaust Memorial Museum - DC, Yad Vashem – Jerusalem, Jewish Heritage Museum - NY, Contemporary Jewish Museum - SF), I’ve been to 5 Jewish film screenings, participated in one 9-month long Jewish fellowship, served as a counselor at Jewish camp for 4th and 5th graders, and have spent more hours in synagogue than I could possibly begin to count. And that’s only the beginning of the list! The Jewish Agency may be sorry they ever asked me for a list of my “Jewish activities.”

For me, the issue is especially sensitive these last couple of weeks. I cannot help but feel rejected. First by Israel, a place I am so magnetized to, and then in those brief fleeting moments – a new man I’m dating breaks it off because “I’m not Jewish enough,” a new acquaintance refuses to believe I’m Jewish until I admit that I converted. These little rejections, piled one on top of the other, hurt.

So I’ll admit it, I’ve been moping. Moping around my new apartment (which I share with a very large family of lizards, if you haven’t heard).

But (there’s always a but with me, isn’t there??), this is still a great week for me. Aside from riding a camel (have you seen the pictures?!), this week I will celebrate the one-year anniversary of my conversion to Judaism. I will never forget that day. First there was the long and confident look in the mirror before the blessings and the mikvah, and soon after there was the day I filled the whole front pew of my synagogue with my family and friends – from Texas, from Los Angeles, from Israel - all there to celebrate my choice to be Jewish. As I held the torah and then stood in front of the congregation to explain to everyone present why I chose Judaism, I couldn’t help the tears from filling my eyes. Never have I been so humbled. Good thing everyone else was crying, too!! :)

A couple days ago, while talking to a surprisingly nice man from the Jewish Agency, he explained in detail the many, many papers and forms I would need in order to be considered for aliyah. He said at one point, “will your family be helping you get these?” My answer was “of course.” “But,” he said slowly, “they’re not Jewish...”

I may have had to prove my Judaism to countless people – to the state of Israel, the Jewish Agency, the men I’ve dated, and to acquaintances; but thankfully, I’ve never had to defend myself to my immediate family. I am enormously grateful that they accept and respect me exactly the way I am.

I’ve spent the past two days emailing my Rabbi, my friends, my family, and my teachers – the ones who invited me over for Channukah, and Passover, and the High Holidays; who studied with me all year during my Jeremiah Fellowship; who encouraged me and told me again and again that I belonged; that spoke broken Hebrew to me; and the ones who laughed and cried at my conversion ceremony last year. I realized, once again, that as with all things in life, it really does take a village. It takes a village of people, full of love and support, to help us realize who we are.

I know, without a doubt, that I am Jewish.

Have you thought lately about who you are?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fight - 09.14.11

I had a fight with Israel yesterday. Just a little fight, but I guess I got my feelings hurt. I had to go (for the 4th time) to the Misrad Hapanim (Office of the Interior) regarding my visa.

I tried to have a good attitude. I woke up early and packed snacks and water and my fully-charged ipod. Then I walked in the heat of the early morning sun, took a bus, caught a train, and stood in the line for security. After a short conversation in Hebrew (“No, I don’t have any weapons”), a thorough search of my bag (“No, I really don’t have any weapons”), and a compliment on the color of my eyes from the handsome young guard (“Thank you and have a good day”), my hour-long journey both ended and began again.

Once inside, I patiently took my number and although I arrived just 16 minutes after the office opened, waited for nearly an hour and a half to be called. When my turn came, I explained as simply as possible that I do not want to leave Israel. I tried to say in a casual and even tone the deepest desire of my heart. I felt vulnerable as I explained to a stranger, in a loud, crowded room, full of the sounds of babies laughing and crying, phone calls and conversations in Hebrew, English, Russian, and a handful of other languages, through a glass window, what I really feel and want in life: that I love Israel very much and want to live here, work here, and make this country my home.

The clerk – a tired lady with a big cup of coffee in one hand, ignored my vulnerability and deep dark confession, and simply asked if I was Jewish.

“Yes,” I answered. “But...”

There is always a “but” when I answer this question, and the layers of my story begin to unfold, despite the rush of the room all around me. I take a deep breath and find a little strength and describe in detail the history of my experience with Israel and Judaism. Finally I get to the main point:

“I converted to Judaism, last October. “

I tell her that I know despite my year of study, my 4 trips to Israel, my endless Hebrew classes, and my own personal desire, that I am not eligible to make aliyah.

“I don’t care about any of the benefits, I just want to stay here.”

The clerk shakes her head and explains what I need to do. She is the 4th person to explain this to me, and like the last, her version is slightly different. I need more papers, I need the originals, I need to send them all to America, and then – only then – if I am truly deemed to be Jewish, can I come back to this miserable office devoid of all the magic that I feel when I am in Israel and do what I do not want to do – try again.

I sigh. I give up a little.

“Can you please extend my tourist visa instead?”

After another hour, 8 passport photos, more security and lines, and 200 sheklim, I can stay in Israel for another 3 months. I look at my passport with its pretty new sticker and read the words “NOT PERMITTED TO WORK.”

As I leave the office and begin my journey back to the train, I feel sad and a little bit angry with Israel. I feel poignantly bothered by the inability of bureaucracy to understand fate. I yell a little bit in my head to Israel:

“Why are you making this so difficult?!?” “Why don’t you want me to be here??” “Am I not supposed to stay?” “What am I doing WRONG?!?!”

The doubt creeps in and each moment makes me angrier. I am mad at the loud hot train with no seats, I am frustrated with the stupid ticket machine which jams my ticket, I am so mad that there are no buses when I arrive. I storm down the street in the hot September air and by the time I meet my friend for brunch I am angry with Israel. We are in a full-on fight.

I slump into a chair and exclaim “I am cranky-pants.” She laughs and then patiently listens to me vent. As we cool off on the wide, white restaurant patio our waitress brings us giant cups of coffee (I swear, the coffee has cocaine or magic or happiness in it here) followed by an enormous Israeli breakfast of shakshuka (egg-tomato-cheesy goodness sent straight from Heaven), fresh warm wheat bread, Israeli salad, and tahina. As I stuff myself silly in the cool patio shade I feel my anger slip away with each bite of tasty goodness and every sip of caffeinated delight. I think about the day to come – the time with an old friend in town visiting, a trip to a museum, a visit to my new apartment, meeting up with more friends in the evening - and I am defenseless against my happiness.

I quickly apologize to Israel in my head, and say my favorite blessing of gratitude in Hebrew.

“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has bestowed great goodness on me.”

I mean each word. Real friends, amazing food, the history of this country, museums and beaches, beautiful weather and land, perhaps most of all the feeling of hope that rises in each moment of despair – that essence of redemption…these are the reasons I love, and have loved, and will keep loving, Israel. These are the reasons I will keep trying to stay.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Miss – 09.05.11

I keep waiting, with an air of nervous expectation, to miss my life. I have this occasional obnoxious nagging fear that one day soon I am going to wake up in a panic and realize that I have quit my job, sold all of my belongings, and left 10 years worth of friends and memories in California. In my worst-case scenario I wake up to realize that I’ve made a terrible mistake - I’m alone in a strange country where I don’t speak the language and where I have no family; the total sum of my existence stored in a few boxes in Texas.

The strange thing is that I’ve been in Israel for nearly 3 months, and not once has that feeling washed over me. Not once have I woken up in a panic, and not once have I felt alone or without a family. Instead, I wake up feeling happier than I can ever remember. With no stress or lingering dissertation, I find that my leg and back (having suffered 8 surgeries) have never felt better. I often find myself dancing with friends in the early hours of the morning, hiking in the nearby mountains, or going for a midnight swim in the warm Mediterranean waters, just because I can.

When I took this trip I told my dad that I realized the risk I was taking. I told him that I might be making the biggest (not to mention the most expensive) mistake of my life. But I also told him that it would be a wonderful mistake – perhaps the best of my life.

So far, this has been my favorite “mistake” of all. I may be unemployed, but I have never been happier, never more at peace. For the first time in my life, that nagging voice that continually and discontentedly whispers in my ear “keep moving” is quiet. Breaking apart my life as I knew it – leaving the comforts of my city and job and friends and furniture (and shoes!) - was difficult; but this life I get instead is completely worth the exchange.

Perhaps the most tangible example of my contentedness: For the last year in San Francisco I slept on an air mattress (aka “camp Liz” for those of you who remember) – surely some sort of sign projected from my subconscious that I could not commit to staying in one place; that even while living in San Francisco I was just waiting for something better. I’ve been in Israel for less than 3 months, but I’ve just signed a 2-month lease on an apartment with the option to extend for a year, and I’m looking to buy a bed.

I think it's time I let go of the fear of missing my former life, and embrace this current one just as it is.