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Friday, July 15, 2011

Home is Where the Mezuzah Is - 07.15.11

Judaism has a wonderful tradition where Jews affix a mezuzah to door frames within their home (generally all main doors except for the bathroom). If I am interpreting correctly, mezuzot are actually the special pieces of parchment (made from a kosher animal) which have the Shema hand-written on them by a sofer or soferet (Torah scribe). These kosher mezuzot are then rolled (in a specific manner) and stored inside a small rectangular case (what is often referred to as the mezuzah). I hope I got all that right :)

Since my decision to convert to Judaism, I have begun to think about my own collection of Judaica. Items like Shabbat candlestick holders, a menorah / chanukia, and a mezuzah are all items I have looked forward to collecting and using. Most recently, I have been on a quest for a mezuzah. As someone who moves a lot, and is often a bit confused about where “home” is, I love the idea of taking my mezuzah to each new apartment and house with me – I want it to be the first thing to go up and the last to come down.

Today I spent a lovely and full day in Jerusalem and found myself with a little bit of free time at the end of the day to do some shopping in the Jewish Quarter. Since it is a Friday (and thus Shabbat was about to start) the narrow alleys and usually crowded stores were surprisingly empty and peaceful. As I have been doing for over a year, I looked at all kinds of mezuzah covers - shiny, colorful, antique and metallic - yet nothing spoke to me. Then, on the very bottom shelf of a lovely store advertising hand-made Judaica, I came across the most beautiful mezuzot I have ever seen. The storekeeper informed me that they were hand-carved out of Jerusalem stone, and I immediately spotted and picked up my mezuzah case.

It is incredibly beautiful and unique. The purchase of my mezuzah and case is made a bit sweeter by the fact that yesterday I went to Tel Aviv and signed an agreement to sub-let an absolutely amazing apartment near the university for the months of August and September. For the first time, I really feel like I will be living in Israel. In August, before I unpack a thing, I will say the special blessing and affix my mezuzah to the door of my new “temporary” home. For me personally, the mezuzah has a special meaning - the special scroll inside contains the Shema, the same words I recited out loud in front of my congregation, family, and friends during my conversion ceremony, which are the same words that have been echoed by the Jewish people for ages.

In the midst of my chaotic life, I have often pondered the phrase “home is where the heart is.” If that is true, my home is in Texas with my baby brother, San Francisco with my friends, Minnesota with my college buddies, and a dozen other places. Just the thought of such division makes me feel scattered! But I think for me, home is truly where the mezuzah is. My mezuzah stands as a reminder of who I am, what I love, and all the people that love and support me – just as I am. Each time I enter my home (wherever it may be) and touch my mezuzah, and then bring my hand to my lips, I know that no matter how many times I move, grow, or change, I am always able to take my religion, relationships, and identity with me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Home, and Nature – 07.04.11

Today I once again trekked from Tel Aviv to Haifa on the train (the third time this week) and moved into my room at Haifa University. I love it here. I bumped into several people I know, including someone from San Francisco who told me I looked very “zen,” and then I made a new friend and traveled (quite effortlessly) to the grocery store, the shuk (local market), and closed my evening with a lovely hike. There is no logical reason for this city to feel like home to me, for me to be able to find a store that I shopped in one time over a year ago with simplicity. And yet, as it goes with Israel, I find myself hopping on buses all over town, reading the labels in Hebrew to find the best deal on laundry detergent, and arguing at the shuk to be able to buy only two onions. I love this crazy place that does not make me feel afraid with it’s fast buses and new faces and loud feral cats, but instead makes me feel at home and safe and alive.

Well, except for the cockroaches. Holy wow they are big and scary. I bonded with my new roommate this evening when after my hike I turned on the water to take a shower and the largest cockroach I have ever seen appeared from nowhere (and I saw some big ones growing up in Texas!). After confirming that he could not, in fact, survive the swim the shower was providing him, I ran to the living room where my roommate (aka savior) killed and removed the beast from my shower. I opted to wear shoes in the shower (and will from now on) and am happy to report that the rest of the evening has progressed quite lovely.

Bitter Sweet – 06.30.11

For nearly all of the days since I arrived in Israel, I have found myself saying to myself at the end of the day, “what a great day.” I’ve gone to the beach, met up with old friends, gone to stylish and delicious bars and restaurants – all the things a vacation should be. Today was no exception. I woke up at a friends house in Gilon (a small town in northern Israel) and after a delicious breakfast (Israeli cottage cheese is life changing!), made my way to Akko, then to Haifa, and finally to Tel Aviv. Instead of going straight to my room, I decided last-minute to go to a museum at the University of Tel Aviv campus. I really didn’t know where I was going, but I’ve learned enough Hebrew and enough about the trains and buses to figure it out. I arrived on campus, found the museum easily, bought my entry ticket, and decided to grab a cup of coffee before I went inside.

Sitting in the Aroma café (somewhat equivalent to Starbucks…only better!) overlooking campus, indulging in a warm chocolate croissant and frozen chocolaty coffee creation while reading my latest book I was first overcome with happiness, and then sorrow. Sorrow to the point that tears threatened to slip from my eyes in the middle of the cool and comforting air-conditioned restaurant.

It is always this way with me – the sorrow never leaves the happiness. This may sound strange, but today the sorrow was for my students. I am so grateful to be on this journey of a lifetime. Just two weeks ago I became a doctor, quit my job, left my apartment, stored my belongings in Texas, and left for the first leg of my trip – five months in Israel and France. I am proud of my bold decision to travel, and the planning and saving it took to pull it off. And yet today I could not help but think about my students. The ones that kept me going (with a smile) on all of those dreadfully bureaucratic days. The college students I’ve worked with over the past nine years have inspired me with their tenacity and intellect. The former inmates and foster youth, the single moms, the young and idealistic, the undocumented – so many of who may never have the opportunity to sit in a café in a country of their choosing and read a book for an hour in the cool A/C although they are exceptionally deserving. I was a bit overcome by my privilege and it’s inherent contrast, as I often am.

I know that after this year, I will go back to education and use all the skills I have learned to be a better educator and stronger, wiser, and more balanced person. Perhaps when you love what you do – when you are what you do - you carry it with you; on vacation, in cafes, and in both moments of happiness and sorrow.

Shabbat Prophecy – 07.01.11

Shabbat Shalom! When my Rabbi asked me during my “Introduction to Judaism – Part Two” class what my favorite holiday was, I quickly answered “shabbat.” The only Jewish holiday we get to celebrate each week, I look forward to the chance to rest, reflect, and share the day with others. Today I was blessed to share Shabbat with a friend of mine – from San Francisco!

I was a little proud of myself as I hopped onto the #4 sherut (Israeli shared taxi) and found my friend’s hotel with ease. We had an absolutely lovely dinner with her cousins, and I was again blessed to be invited into the extended family of a friend. People always ask me if I have family in Israel, and the answer is always, thankfully, yes. They may not be biological, but I have always, always had family here. I think, in fact, that it was family that brought me here to begin with. But I digress…

After dinner, my friend and I found our way to a beach-front café. We both leaned back on our red salty couch with our glasses of wine, and relaxed. How amazing that we found our way to the port of Tel Aviv, with waves splashing on the broad wooden patio in front of us. We laughed as we watched children splashing in the sea spray despite the late hours, and young women in nighttime attire getting their too high heels stuck in the deck slats.

My friend patiently listened to my excited chatter about studying Hebrew, being back in Tel Aviv, and living in Israel. As I slowed my speech to sip my wine, she looked up at me and, perhaps unknowingly, said some profound and potentially prophetic words about my life:

“I think you have just made aliyah and don’t know it yet.”

We will see, in time, if she is right. Regardless of this particular outcome, her words struck a chord in me. My love for this place, for Israel, a place I so personally and passionately consider my home, is apparently just as tangibly visible to others as it is intimately known to me.

I walked her back to her room and easily caught a sherut back to my room, feeling like I belonged.

Too Much Talk - 06.29.11

For all those that know me, my love of talking is clearly apparent. I love to talk and laugh and otherwise discuss matters ranging from those of little significance to those of extreme importance. However, over the years, I like to think that I have become slightly less defensive, less loud, and a bit better at listening too.

Being in a perpetual state of travel and tourism these days has resulted in many, shall we say…interesting conversations with individuals; many of whom I may not necessarily agree with. Recently I got sucked into a conversation with someone passionate about their ideals, but also rigid in their view of right and wrong, and how things should be in general. Strong words such as stupid, wrong, and ignorant were used over and over again. I found myself so tired from trying to politely interject, ask steering questions, and to share a differing point of view in a constructive manner. During the conversation I tried to remain genuine, I shared personal stories about my life, my experiences, and specifically my relation to Israel and Judaism. (For the record, this is a serious improvement from some of the screaming matches I engaged in growing up in conservative Texas.) I left the conversation pondering why people feel the need to fight extremism with extremism.

Afterward, I found myself on my computer re-reading (for perhaps the 20th time) a graduation speech given by author David Foster Wallace, which discusses, quite beautifully, the choices we have in life. I read the familiar words, skipping ahead to the final paragraphs, and felt their weight slide down inside of me, physically calming my nerves and easing tension on my spirit. I felt myself take a deep breath that perhaps I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I am reminded today, again, of the power of words, and of the importance of balance. I am grateful for the reminder to choose to live this life well.

How Bizarre, How Bizarre – 06.28.11

Today, during a journey to Haifa to visit the University, I had to wait about 30 minutes for my bus to arrive. I pulled out my trusty Kindle and soaked myself in a story, but was strangely interrupted when I heard the blaring sound of 80’s American music coming towards me. I looked up to see a rather normal-looking young lady pushing a shopping cart through the indoor bus station.

A little weird.

The only thing in her cart was an old-school boom box, which was blasting the tunes.

A bit stranger.

She calmly walked right past me, down the long hallway, and right into the women’s restroom.

Really weird.

She hadn’t exited when I got onto my bus 20 minutes later. The lady was pretty perplexing, but perhaps more so was the total lack of response from the people around me. I may have been the only one who even looked up! At least life is super entertaining, even if totally bizarre.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pigeon Pee - 06.27.11

Today I finally went to the beach. When I woke this morning I literally had no other objective than to go to the beach in Tel Aviv, indulge in reading my trashy murder mystery novel, and start my summer tan. Over the past year, as I have layered clothes to brave the San Francisco evening chill, or knitted scarves that I know will get far too much use, I have often closed my eyes and dreamed of the Tel Aviv beach. Imagine soft sandy shores filled with people laughing, eating, playing, and swimming. Loud Israeli music and classic American songs from the 90’s pour out of every beachy storefront. Envision the gazebos providing shelter and shade, and a wide promenade filled with bicycles, tourists, and restaurants offering cold Gold Star (Israeli beer) and fresh fruit smoothies. I have savored these visions in so many cold and frustrating times and places. Today was my day to enjoy it all.

I put on my new bathing suit, layered on the sunscreen, grabbed my Kindle, hat, and sunglasses, and set out to the beach with a smile. Ten minutes later I found myself comfortably sprawled under one of my mentally-pictured gazebos, perfectly half in the shade and half in the sun, with my Kindle clicked on and open to the tenth (yes, the tenth!) book in the Women’s Murder Mystery Club series. Ahhhh…ideal, fantastic, soul-fulfilling beach day….I am your beloved and you are mine!

I wish I could finish the story there, with me sunning on the beach and you smiling at the thought of such bliss, but we both know that’s not possible. Less than a page into my drama-driven San Francisco based novel, a sneaky, dirty, little pigeon that was suspiciously eyeing me from my blessed gazebo swooped down and pooped all over me!! In utter disgust I pulled off my hat and my shirt, and began frantically wiping pigeon poop from…well, everything. In ruined misery I decided the universe had declared my beach day privileges revoked, and hastily packed up my belongings, threw my pigeon-poop-hair into a rather un-stylish ponytail, and stormed down the street away from the beach. As I was approaching a street crossing a couple of blocks from the beach, a man started running towards me frantically screaming, in English, “wait, WAIT!!” Assuming I was about to be hit by one of the crazy speeding Israeli bus drivers, I stepped back from the curb and turned my attention towards the man. As he approached me, out of breath, he looked up and said in a strong Israeli accent, “You are so beautiful. Can I take your picture, please?”


Sometimes I just don’t even know what to say during the situations I encounter in Israel; however, this was not one of those times. I looked him in the eye, probably with poop still dripping down from my hair, and yelled, “No, no, NO!!”

I then continued my dramatic storming down the street, despite the death-provoking heat, until I reached my room. I showered, and only found content when I got comfortable on the couch, directly in front of the A/C, and read my murderous romance chick book until I fell fast asleep for my new ritual afternoon nap.

In re-telling this story to Israeli friends, I learned that being pooped on by a pigeon is supposed to be good luck, but unfortunately, being harassed by weird Israeli men is just irritating.

Here’s to visions that don’t turn out quite as we expected, but that turn out funny anyway! I’m still waiting on that good luck to come my way…I like it when the universe owes me one :)

Relativity - 06.26.11

Today I embarked on an epic journey (ok, mom, so it wasn’t really epic…how about ambitious??) to visit Ulpan Gordon – a Hebrew language school in Tel Aviv. Until today, I was completely convinced that this school was fabricated by a strange Israeli man who likes to play cruel jokes on American women. The reason for my speculation is based on my repeated attempts to contact this particular institution.

Being the diligent over-achiever that I am, over the past several months I have called the school, emailed the school, Googled the school, and employed various other helpful stalking techniques (mostly learned in my doctorate program when trying to solicit information from participants and committee members), yet never actual received a response.

Finally in Tel Aviv in-person, the school can hide from me no more! I looked up the address and using Google maps found that it was only 2 miles away from my hostel. No problem…or so I thought.

Now here is where the situation gets interesting. For starters, I do find it fascinating that in Israel I feel like walking two miles, one way, is no big deal. Never would I say to myself in San Francisco, “hmm…it will require four miles of walking to run this errand, but I’ll just get right on it!”

Second, Israel presents a strange issue of relativity for me. As most people who know me are aware, I broke my ankle very badly seven years ago and have had exactly six surgeries to repair it, the most recent of which was just this past October. However, as I was reminded immediately upon beginning my walk, in Israel, it doesn’t really matter if there is a 10% chance that during my four-mile walk I might fall down and break my ankle, because there is a 90% chance that I will die of heat stroke. And quite frankly, when every ounce of liquid in your body is sweating out of you and you can’t seem to drink fast enough to maintain equilibrium, and every few seconds you consider taking off all of your clothes and lying down to die next to a shady tree, you really don’t consider whether or not your ankle hurts.

My conclusion is that Tel Aviv in the summer is really good for my ankle, although perhaps not so great for my health overall.

Oh, back to the point for a minute - I survived the walk and did actually find the school! It is a real place and I survived all four miles, but I hear August is supposed to get even hotter…

Welcome to Israel - 06.24.11

I have done enough international travel at this point in my life to know that when you arrive in a country, you should really just stay awake until an appropriate time to go to bed, so that when you do finally lay down, sheer exhaustion will take over and you will sleep the whole night soundly and wake refreshed and accustomed to the local time zone.

As all my fellow travelers know, this rarely happens so simply, and has virtually no chance of happening if you arrive at your hotel at 3pm, take a shower, and promptly fall asleep for a 4-hour nap. Which is exactly what I did.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that on my very first night in Israel I found myself wandering in the lobby of my hostel at 4am, searching for a snack in my pajamas, ponytail, and glasses.

Luckily for me, Tel Aviv is a sleepless city, and even on erev Shabbat I quickly located an open convenience store. Shuffling across the street with my Bamba (favorite Israeli snack) and dark chocolate m & m’s tucked safely under my arm, I could not help but laugh at myself. As I waited to be buzzed back into the lobby of my hostel I stole a quick glance at the Mediterranean Sea; dark waves steadily rolling in to shore, a warm breeze wrapping around my bare legs. Back in my room, snacking away while watching the latest Harry Potter on my iPad, I smiled with the satisfaction that this is just the type of adventure I signed up for.

Brucha Haba’a to me…welcome to Israel.