Writing calls on the light of my soul, and keeps me human...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Middle Eastern Christmas in Bethlehem

"On the night of Christmas, hatred will vanish. The Earth blooms. War is buried. Love is born.Where there is charity, God is to be Found." - Ubi Caritas

As I sit on Sulaiman's cushy red couch
, looking out at the pouring rain over the white brick and olive trees of Ramallah, I can recall a lovely Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, filled with excitement and a touch of sorrow...

Bethlehem was beautiful. The songs tell of a sleepy little town, and sleepy it was under a blanket of fog and chilly air. But first, there was the festivities.

Rachel and I arrive to the city center via "service" (Palestinian bus/taxi) after befriending a family from Belgium and spending the hour-long drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem translating from French to English to Hebrew in a swirl of holiday excitement...

It is almost World War 3 in the sherut (Israeli bus/taxi) en route to the holy city. The Arab driver wants to charge the Belgians extra money for their humongous suitcases, which we translate for him from Arabic to French. He next shouts at the Indians in the back of the bus to pay up (in Hebrew), which we translate to English. They shout back that 33 shekel is a rip-off and that they'll call the police if he doesn't lower the price. He roars with laughter. The Belgians look scared and confused, and the Chinese woman behind us mutters under her breath. The young Israeli demands to be let off before the old city much to his anger, and so we arrive at the Damascus Gate feeling both frazzled and exhilarated.

An hour and one (unguarded) checkpoint later, we're in Bethlehem, following throngs of Christian pilgrims from all over the world in search of the rumored 50 foot Christmas tree and Jesus's (rumored) birthplace: the Church of the Nativity.

We decide to follow the Germans, since they seem to know the way (as Germans often do)-- a cheerful and adorable family of six that we had spotted on the bus. The father is dapper and unfazed by the cold in his snowflake sweater, jaunting along quickly with an adorable blonde daughter underarm.

We're greeted by the Arabic version of "Jingle Bells" (Layla Tay-eid) blasting from a second floor cobblestone apartment window. We follow the Germans through narrow alleys crammed with stores selling shark balloons and Slutty Santa outfits. The smell of roasting nuts and Arab spices hits our noses, and the bustling of visitors from every corner of the world sweeps us along toward the center.

Suddenly, there stands the tree-- rising from the stone square up in the crisp air and completely bedecked in glitzy lights. Blow-up Santas bearing the Palestinian flag draped diagonally across their chests teeter back and forth on their mechanic bases, and people hurry in and out of the gift shop selling everything "holy" (including holographic Jesus playing cards and bejeweled camel figurines)-- "We'll take 8 of these nativity sets," bosses an American woman to the shopkeeper, "One for Joe, one for Maggie and Bob, two for the grandparents...oh, do you have bubble wrap?" I guess commercialism is not just a thing of the West and never has been...

We resist the urge to shop and duck into the Church of the Nativity, which I was at three years ago but have never seen so crowded. Everywhere I look are different faces: Africans, Asians, Arabs, South Americans, U.S. Americans, Europeans... and of course several familiar faces because you can't go anywhere in the holy land without seeing people you know. I run into Aziza, a multi-lingual nun who works at the Free Clinic for Refugees with me in Jaffa during the candle-lighting service. Monks garbed in brown robes smile and joke with each other as they pass light from their candles into the pews... I feel my soul warm as my candle catches fire and the harp strikes up to begin the Latin prayers for Christmas.

After the church, we eat neon pink cotton candy in the street and run to meet up with Sulaiman-- a friend I know through coexistence circles, and some of his friends from Europe. We drink mint tea in a cafe and then head to the Lutheran Church where I convince the whole group of us to sit for the "traditional Christmas songs in Arabic renditions" concert, and then through the Brass for Peace concert right after. I'm elated... In Exelcis Deo is my favorite song and we get to sing along, under the cover of a bright blue ceiling inscribed with gold Arabic writing.

We have dinner and dance the night away in Beit Jala after braving the pouring rain to get to a restaurant club where the sweet smoke of the argilleh and comfy couches can't keep people away from the dance floor, where all of my preconceived notions about "proper" and "traditional" Arab culture once again fly out the window (they keep sneaking back in somehow, in Israel).

These Palestinians know how to MOVE! Men and women alike shake their hips like there's no tomorrow, and Gigi, one of Sulaiman's friends, performs a dance solo to a song crooned by the Palestinian MC/singer for the night while we all chant "Hayyaaa" (snake) and clap along loudly to the rhythm. Before we eat, Sulaiman asks us to hold hands and begins a prayer... "Thanks to God for this food and...." but suddenly the music starts up again and I find myself shimmying with my hands pumping joyfully in the air, clasped in Sayyeed's. I wish wistfully that my Israeli friends could be here to take part in the celebration... both sides of the wall are so similar in their passion for fun... and yet they each make merry in total separation from the other.

The smoke and food and dancing has made us tired, so we head out-- 3 Americans, a Palestinian, and a Cuban, to find a cab to Ramallah. At first the air is cold and clear, and I can see the famous shining star over Bethlehem over the sleepy little houses, tucked into the hillsides with twinkling lights protecting the city from any harm that might befall it on a less silent night. But then the rain starts fiercely pouring down on us and we surrender to a greedy cab driver who wants an outrageous 300 shekels to take us to Ramallah... in the end, perhaps the price is fair because we are stopped for 20 minutes at a sudden checkpoint at 2 in the morning where we watch the van in front of us unload six children (decked in their Christmas best) into the pouring rain at the soldier's orders. I feel tired and frustrated, and our driver swears under his breath.

The whole day has felt peaceful, everyone helping one another and smiling with excitement as they bought sweets and made peace through their music. If only the true Christmas spirit could break free of its single day and place, and spread around the whole region paying no mind to borders or state religions. The checkpoint feels ugly and cold... out of place and unyielding even on the most charitable of holidays. I don't breathe as the driver rolls down our window. We and the soldiers peer into each other's faces, each scanning for signs of trust in the other's eyes. I guess I should be grateful, because we pass through unscathed and are spared another rainy interlude.

The roads are windy and dark, slippery from the rain and flanked on either side by steep and rocky cliffs. The driver, though I distrust him out of paranoia for his greed (what if he kidnaps us for ransome?) drives slowly... coming almost to a stop round every curve. Our lives are all in the hands of the same God, no matter how different the name we call him. I think of how much I want to return safely home to Jaffa where my Israeli boyfriend (who was dressed as Santa Claus last I saw him) waits for me with warm arms and gentle Hebrew. I want to warm myself from the damp chill and return to the love and joy that belongs in this season of miracles.

We arrive safely, and at long last I release my breath. The driver speaks to us in Hebrew (I didn't know he could) and laughs loudly at our surprise. He wants to show off what he knows, but we want to get inside where it's warm. We're damp and it's early. Christmas Day. Christmas in the Middle East.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Whenever you're feeling sorry for yourself, do something nice for others.

This week has not been the greatest. I'm in the middle of my penultimate month of my Tikkun Olam fellowship here in Israel, and I'm trying to stay in the moment even as I look toward the future. But sometimes, staying in the moment is easier said than done. For example, I haven't gone to either of my 2 weekly yoga classes because I've been trying to use all my free time finishing the scholarship and job applications I've started in order to figure out what I'll be doing come February. Ironically, though, not going to yoga has left me so stressed and unfocused that I have yet to finish one single application!

Things got worse yesterday when I came home from a long day of (boring and frustrating) classes and grocery shopping to find that my laundry room was flooded, the zipper on my new boots was broken, and my laptop (which is only a year and a half old) was no longer working-- thus thwarting my efforts to finish projects and get applications in. Plus of course there were dishes in the sink, a dinner to cook, and a hundred tasks to be done. In Judaism, this type of situation calls for an OY VE VOY!

Luckily, I have friends who are amazingly kind and supportive. Miri and Niran lent me their laptops to work on, while Rachel helped me edit a cover letter. But I went to bed exhausted, and woke up early this morning in a cranky mood-- about the program, about the lack of clarity in my life, and-- I hate to say it-- about money. I arrived to my volunteer location at Muzot High School for Artistically-Gifted high school students at-risk, and found that none of the students had bothered to show up to class. After two hours of waiting around doing nothing, I walked home with Melissa and we made a "positivity pact" to stop complaining about the things we cannot change.

That didn't last long. I came home to try to finish an application, and ended up muddling my resume into a jumbled mess of nonsensical life experiences. I felt frustrated and defeated... why couldn't I finish one tiny task to move myself forward in life, when I seem to have all the energy and focus in the world to help others achieve? I'm behind on projects, stressed about my next career steps, and confused about whether to stay in Israel or head back to the states where things are not easier, but at least they make more sense. I ended up in tears, standing over a huge pile of dirty dishes, pondering my pathetic existence over a kitchen sink floating with disgusting pieces of soggy food waste. I was late for my next volunteer placement, and lost in my decision to figure out what I'm doing after this semester of Tikkun Olam.

I felt like crap, but knew I had to get myself to the Refugee clinic to help run things. I arrived an hour late, but immediately jumped into action opening files and translating in triage for a patient who was from Cote d'Ivoire and spoke only French. After 4 hours of nonstop filing, translating, and interviewing, I had forgotten about my worries and felt more at peace. I headed home for the night, and on my way thought to myself how lucky I am to be part of a community with such a strong support network of peers. I decided to stop by "Piece of Cake" to buy Rachel a small pastry for helping me with my cover letter.

When I got inside, they were closing. The woman behind the counter told me that for 10 shekels, I could take a whole box of Sufganiot (Hanukkah doughnuts) since it was the end of their evening. I walked home feeling grateful that the kindness shown to me by my apartment-mates had given me the energy to help the refugee patients. That the generosity of the woman at the pastry shop will now allow me to thank my roommates for being there for me. And that the whole chain of kindness has made me feel, well... not so sorry for myself anymore. If only we could channel our pain to reach out and touch others around us in kindness more often. I think it might make the world a happier place.

Happy Hanukkah everyone, and thank you for reading.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Same Shit, Different Country...

Pomona College Protest: Terminated Undocumented Workers Chant 'We're Here And We're Not Leaving'


I was incredibly saddened and angered to read last week that my beloved alma mater, Pomona College, was requiring all employees of the college with missing pieces from their files to provide documentation showing their legal right to work in the country. Now, they've fired 17 workers-- some of whom have been beloved and loyal employees of the college for over 10 years. Though these actions were in response to a complaint, and conducted according to federal law, I am disappointed to see that Pomona did not stand up against injustice to protect valued members of its community. Yes, I want legal reform so that employers like Pomona will not be put in this difficult position, but I also know that it takes brave leaders to stand up and refuse to enforce unfair and racist policies before anything can truly change.

In Israel and America alike, we need to reconsider our priorities. The right to make a living, the right to protection from sudden deportation back to an unsafe situation in your country of origin, and the right to feel safe admitting to your true identity are inalienable and vital to a true democracy. When border control and preserving "national interest" is placed before individual human lives and rights in our communities because of their country of origin, something is deeply wrong.

(Above: at a refugee and asylum-seeker protest in Tel Aviv for equal rights and freedom from deportation)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

State of the Jew-nion. I mean... Union...?

"Shma Israel, Shma We are One." - Shir Neshama Chavurah

A few more words on this Jewish state we're in...

Jewish favoritism in Israeli policy and rhetoric may or may not be justified, but the reality is that it is just no match for the greater forces of globalization, mobilization, and love between peoples. While a Jewish state was once a noble (and, I'd argue, successful idea) , to try to preserve a Jewish majority in the state of Israeli today via discriminatory immigration policies, expansive building beyond the green line in the West Bank, and withholding civil rights from non-Jewish peoples living, working, and seeking asylum within Israel's borders in order to discourage further diversification is neither ethical nor realistic. It's denial-politics.

Similarly, intermarriage between Jews and non Jews, (or American Jews and Israelis) does not have to be viewed as a threat. Rather, as Jeffrey Goldberg eloquently puts it, "intermarriage can also be understood as an opportunity." Not just in the sense of freedom to choose whom we marry, love, and raise children with, but also as an opportunity for better understanding between people and countries. To enter into a committed and loving relationship with someone from a different culture or value system is challenging, yes, but also ripe for growth and spiritual reawakening on both parts.

It could even be the missing piece to Peace, as shown in this video that suggests Israelis and Palestinians might no longer be able to hate one another if their own blood was running through the veins of the other. Or in this article, where Natalia Simonovsky suggests that Arab-Israelis can use their in-between-ness to help foster "people based" cooperation between Israeli civil society and the civil societies of its Arab neighbors. Or in the case of my grandmother, who grew up believing that Jews were Jesus-killers to be avoided at all costs, but ended up marrying my Jewish grandfather which led to her current belief that the essence of most monotheistic religions are the same and that the Jews are an upstanding and moral people who serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Israel does itself (and Jewry worldwide) no favors by alienating its friends and dependents through the language and practice of discrimination and Jewish-favoritism. It will only keep out the people who most want to learn about, or even take part in, the beautiful and rich traditions of Judaism in less orthodox ways, and may pose one of the greatest threats to the vitality of the Jewish people worldwide. In truth, Jews or non-Jews, we are all interconnected and interdependent on this planet, and cannot waste time building boxes that confine us. Because I believe it's not only the environment that stands to benefit from hybrids...






Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Tribute to the Mixed-Up Mixed-Jews of the World

(above: my beautiful Korean-Jewish-Iranian family)

“Once, when I was in prayer, I saw, for a very brief time and without any distinctness of form, but with perfect clarity, how all things are seen in God and how within Himself He contains them all.”
- St. Teresa of Avila, one of my favorite religious poets of all time, and... half-Jewish

Jewish identity has been on my mind lately.
I wonder why ;) I've just finished a course in Tikkun Olam Jewish Peoplehood, a class that often had me feeling ill at ease, confused, and even-- at times-- angry. The biggest culture shock for me thus far in Israel has been the transparency with which Israeli Jews speak about preserving Jewish-ness as an ultimate priority over just about anything else. Being Jewish and preserving Jewish majority, to many of my Israeli friends and teachers, is an unfaltering and "given" necessity-- oftentimes equated with the survival of the Jewish culture and peoplehood as a whole.

It doesn't sound half-crazy. In a century that has been host to a number of colossal threats to the Jewish people worldwide (need I spell them out? okay: Pogroms, Holocaust, Intifada... somebody please educate me and share others from outside Europe and the Middle East!), I can understand why we might be concerned with our own survival. Speaking as the daughter of a psychotherapist, I am well versed in the language of trauma and self-preservation. I completely see the rationale behind a "me and mine first" mentality, and the promise "never again." Though Jewry worldwide has expressed these survivalist instincts in different ways according to societal pressures and situations (Israelis have built physical walls and established a vigilant army to stand guard, while American Jews have hidden behind bagels, yoga, and Hollywood actors in order to charm the others into thinking we're just like them and thus not be hated), none of us can deny the enormous influence of fear in our public relations strategy.

But when we look inward, and consider what it means to be Jewish today, we may find a big question mark staring back at us. In a globalized 21st century world, we may no longer be able to fall back on religion and tribalism to define who we are. How can we in good conscience put a Jewish agenda "first" when we now share communities, culture, and even genes with non-Jews? Though we might deny it, no-place in the world (not even Israel) is (or ever has been, if we're being honest here) entirely Jewish! How can we live our lives according to outdated interpretations of Biblical traditions and stories when they fail not only to make sense to us in the practical day-to-day, but also cease to be cognitively viable in combination with a modernizing world that has given us new concepts of morality through social movements for civil rights, environmentalism, and economic justice? We have new prophets, born from Feminism, Critical Race Theory, and Occupy Wall Street! How can we stay true to our innermost desires to love the other and embrace intelligent growth, and simultaneously preserve those traditions, laws, and prayers which our Jewish ancestors fought so hard to give us the freedom to practice?

To me, the clear answer is Jewish Renewal-- reinterpretation of texts paired with return to the Jewish spiritual connection with the Divine. But that's not enough for some people. Some of us are concerned with numbers, and I have to tip my hat to that because having seen charts, I know that the numbers of those identifying as Jewish and educating themselves in Jewish law, texts, and traditions are steadily decreasing. To be clear, I happen to be a big fan of the Jewish-Other combo (yours truly is a proudly unique blend of Jewish/Korean/Buddhist/Yoga/Suburbs/City/East Coast/West Coast/SF Giants, daughter of a nature-loving Russian-speaking acupuncturist and a Palestinian-loving Dead-Head psychologist), and a big believer in the idea that being mixed does not make you any less of one or the other. But I also appreciate the concern on the part of those who worry that we Jews need to stick together and keep our guards up to avoid being caught unawares, or suddenly we're in concentration camps again, or speaking English and decorating our Christmas trees during Hanukkah-- oops, wait, that might have already happened...)

I'd like to believe that with intention and inclusivity, we Jews can have it both ways. Inter-marry, give equal rights to all, and still make sure we protect ourselves and our history. That we can create a beautiful mish-mash patchwork of all the different values and symbols we attach to being Jewish-- baseballs, matzaballs, yarmulkes, kibbutzim, synagogues, hummus, swords, guns, minyans, candles, and Torah, with a little bit of kim chee, Jesus, and vinyasa thrown in. But I know that for the most part, Israel is still set on the Zionist mission of creating a Jewish state-- by Jews and for Jews-- so that there will be one corner of the world that we can just call Jewish and not have to ask what that means. And likewise, America still asks us to check just one box and wonders aloud "Is Jewish really an ethnicity, or is it just a religion?" while American Jews wonder if our future grandchildren will have any reason to call themselves "the chosen ones."

I guess I don't have a clear answer to all this.
(For someone else's great answer, see: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-problem-with-worrying-about-jewish-continuity-1.395277) But for now, I'm going to wave my little Berkeley Jewish-Korean peacenik flag high, and hope that it gives hope to those who wonder where all the Jews have gone, and courage to those who-- like me-- owe their existence to the bravery of mixed-marriage and march forward in the name of Jewish-based social justice and ultimate loyalty to humanity, even if humanity at times takes the form of "the other." Because I like to think that G-d would smile favorably on this kind of parade.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Tayelet

Nov 25, 2011 Sunset on the Tayelet with Miriam and our Bikes

Whenever I come to the Tayelet to watch the ocean, the sunset, and the people, I always think to myself, "Why don't I come here more often? Heck, why don't I come here everyday?" I'm so blessed to live near the water, where troubles blow away with the breeze of the Mediterranean, and the evening call to prayer sets the tone above Jaffa's gorgeous peninsula silhouette. "Allah Akbar!" Indeed.

While sitting on a bench discussing life with Miriam, we are approached by a Nigerian woman. My first instinct is to smile, my next is to be afraid... What does she want? Is she one of the refugees we've been learning about in seminar? Will she ask us for help? For money? Why is she reaching her hand out to me?

I am shaking it, and she is asking us where we are from. We tell her, "America," and ask her where she's from. She wants to know where we are staying. She is here for two weeks, "visiting," "tourist." I ask if her companion, standing unobtrusively a few yards away is her husband. "No!" she laughs, "Just a friend." No more words are exchanged, just smiles, and she walks away to rejoin her friend on their stroll. That's it. Just a sweet, simple encounter of human recognition that we are, in this moment, occupying the same small piece of Earth.

Next, I notice a circle forming on the grass down the beach to our right. There's music. I don't know what they're doing-- it appears to be a Shanti Banti (Israel for "hippie") gathering of some sort. Perhaps related to the "Love Revolution" people who just a few minutes earlier approached us to give us hugs and hand us fliers about their Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. People are embracing calmly in the circle, embracing and swaying gently... dancing.

But as I look closer, I see that they are not just Shanti Bantis but Tel Avivis from everyday walks of life-- people with kids, couples, guys in business clothes. They encourage people strolling along the Tayelet to join in, and some do. I feel afraid to join in too, though I want to, what if it's some kind of cult? But as I observe, I think to myself that year really seems to be about spontaneous public gatherings between people who are tired of isolation. Tired of materialism and individualism. Groups of people who want to protest selfishness and reclaim the public for positive expression of humanity. So I join.

After embracing in a circle, singing along wordlessly to a niggun, we sit and somebody invites us to go around and each share what we are feeling in this moment (in Hebrew). Somebody feels "excitement!" Others feel "fun!" "hope!" "gratitude!" "Ja Bless!" "ayayayayayayyayayaooooo!!!!!" I feel "Happiness." Happiness? Can it be? I just woke up this morning feeling numb, wondering what I care about in this world anymore, and totally confused as to the path of my life. But somehow, as always here in Israel, there is perfect timing in spontaneity.

The next question is in Hebrew too complicated for me to understand, so I slip away to sit with Miriam on the bench again. We talk, and the next time I look back, the Shanti Bantis are dancing ecstatically with the sunset, near the waves of the Mediterranean. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Most Wonderful Day

Where to begin?

I am so full of inspired energy right now, and everything seems to be coming together. It's such a weight off my shoulders to feel this moment of clarity, after so many weeks of confusion and the feeling of being overwhelmed. As the late Steve Jobs pointed out in a commencement speech, it's often in retrospect that we are able to connect the dots that once seemed so random and disparate.

This morning, Niran (my Israeli housemate) and I went to eat hummus at Abu Hassan, finally, the most famous of hummus places in the Tel Aviv area. Feeling full and happy to be on vacation (it's Sukkot! festival of the Sukkah), I came home and grabbed my swimsuit before heading out with my roommate Miriam (from Mexico/Miami) to wander around Jaffa with our cameras-- since both of our families have been demanding photos! (see below) One thing in particular I noticed, amongst the many beautiful and interesting things about our city, is the prevalence of beautiful and thought-provoking graffiti street art appearing after every corner you turn. Though I'm not an artist, I love this colorful and organic avenue of expression. (Perhaps not by coincidence, I am volunteering in two different art organizations: one--Muzot-- is an alternative Arts high school for Youth that have failed out of the Israeli public school system, and the other-- Omanoot--is a start-up online platform that seeks to represent Israel through up and coming artists.)

After our photography excursion, Miriam and I sat for a drink in a place I've been wanting to try along the beach in Jaffa. It's a funky living-room esque cafe with everything you can imagine hanging from the ceiling. The view faces out to the Mediterranean, and the menu is limited to organic juice (they were out) and limonana (my favorite Israeli drink-- lemonade with fresh mint leaves... so refreshing!) We chilled to the sounds of beach reggae, watching the people go by and the waves crash on the beach until I had to head out to meet my friend Zadok.

Zadok Tzemach, playwright extraordinnaire, is a friend I made last time I was in Israel via couchsurfing. He lives in Neve Tzedek, the cutest neighborhood known to mankind, the first Jewish town established in the Tel Aviv area. It's now a trendy arts colony, but it maintains the old architecture and religious-inspired calm in its winding streets. Anyhow, Zadok is an amazing person, and he and I enjoyed a nice stroll in the sand, wading in and out of the water heading North as we discussed relationships and the futility of arguing over politics with lovers who hold different perspectives than ourselves. Zadok walked me back to Jaffa, and left me with an invitation to attend a dance show tomorrow evening at the Suzanne Dallal Center, where he directs the Kibbutz Dance company and can get me into free shows :)

I thought of heading back home, but the approaching sunset kept me riveted to my spot on the wall overlooking what we Tikkun Olam-ers fondly refer to as "Sever Utah Ether Beach" (a nickname given in reference to the most prominent graffiiti art scrawled along the southernmost wall of the southernmost beach in Tel Aviv before Jaffa). I sat for a while, enjoying the scene, until I noticed a cute guy my age standing alone at the edge of the water. He was stretching his neck and back in a way that reminded me of my life pre-Tikkun Olam (read: when my laptop was so much a part of my workday that it had begun to feel like an extension of my arms). I smiled at him, he smiled back, and we struck up a conversation as I joined him in the water. Adam works in IT (as many young Israelis now do), speaks perfect English and French, and called me the "weirdest girl ever." I gave him my number and I hope we'll be friends :)

My next stop was a meeting in the flea market with a man named Eden, who I was connected to by Danny Gal-- founder of Hub Tel Aviv. Eden is currently the Israeli director of an organization called Center for Emerging Futures, or "CEF," one of many acronyms associated with a group that facilitates two day gatherings for Israelis and Palestinians cautiously curious about meeting "the other" in Beit Jala, an Area C zone in the West Bank. Eden and I had an excellent conversation about the organization, and he had some very inspiring stories to tell of collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians-- including a joint soccer coaching program, a "Peace Cookbook," a Palestinian-Israeli "Hack-a-thon," and a cross-border field trip program. I feel so relieved to see that through the Hub, I am once again making sense of my varied interests, and I am excited to attend the upcoming Global Village Square conference put on by CEF in November. I feel filled with hope and excitement about getting involved, in whatever capacity.

Finally, as I walked home, I was wished a "Chag Sameach" by a Muslim woman walking on Sderot Yerushalayim (the main road in Jaffa) and her four smiling children. What a beautiful end to a beautiful day, and an amazing start to my Sukkot Vacation. Jaffa, I think I'm in love with you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It's a Bittersweet Symphony... This Life....

Just something small I wrote on the bus:

I feel God when I am happy.
God is in happiness? Or are they one and the same?
Happiness comes from
and Caffeine...
God is in gratitude...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Night of 1,000 Tables

I am finally starting to understand and speak some Hebrew. Today, I succeeded in ordering burekas and making small chit-chat tonight without the stand’s proprietor switching into English as they usually do the moment I open my mouth. I also understood my yoga teacher when she instructed us in Hebrew to do downward dog with our backs “more straight.” Waved hello to the rosewater malabi man and received a smile of recognition. Granted, that takes no Hebrew skills, but it means I’m a now a familiar face on the main drag of Jaffa!

Last week, I had the privilege of attending an incredibly inspiring event organized by several leaders in social innovation, including Danny Gal- the founder of Hub Tel Aviv. “The Night of 1,000 Tables” was an enormous display of democratic civic engagement inspired by in the desire to continue the momentum of the social protests that were sparked by the makeshift tent camps on Rothschild Bouldevard in Tel Aviv, and swept the Israeli nation this summer.

On a Sunday night, two other Tikkun Olam participants and I opted out of of one night of clubbing (in Tel Aviv, this is no easy task as the city never seems to sleep and enticing music throbs from every open doorway downtown) to attend the gathering in the vast outdoor courtyard of the Tel Aviv Museum. Upon arrival, we were met with an unusual sight. Tables of Israelis, stretching as far as the eye could see, were arranged in a manner I’ve only ever seen before at large organized (and often expensive) conferences or benefits--never in a public arena open to anyone regardless of his or her social status. Strangers, or near strangers, eight or nine to a group were gathered around each table, respectfully discussing the social and economic reforms they hope for and expect for work toward in their daily lives.

Live video coverage of the event was broadcast on a large screen overlooking the square, and volunteer transcribers at each table submitted the transcript of these dicussions to a public website (unfortunately, not available in English as of yet). The facilitators were also volunteers, having signed up for the role on the facebook event or through the organizers. At one point, it became apparent that the mayor of Tel Aviv himself (Ron Huldai) was present at one of the tables, listening directly to his constituents and their ideas around new and better ways to ensure greater livelihood and freedom for all the people of Israel. He was eventually booed out by protestors (angry about his removal of the tent city remnants), which was frustrating since it seemed important that he be there, but his presence in the arena spoke to the significant influential potential of this model.

People answered three questions: “Why are you here?” “What are the top two changes you want to see from this?” And “What can you do to help generate those changes, either alone or in community?”

It all sounds very simple, but to me it was revolutionary. Why it’s so rare for people to gather in the streets of their communities to respectfully and intelligently dialogue with one another about what’s working, or not working, baffles and frustrates me. I don’t mean to discount the discussions that still happen daily in cafes, barbershops, and other “third places,” but in an age where more and more of us are more tuned in to the social media conversations happening at warp speed on our iphones, I do maintain that it’s extremeley uncommon to see a physical manifestation of democratic political engagement at such scale outside of universities. While I didn’t understand much of the content at my table (the language barrier has been frustrating at times like this), I could read from the energy and body language of the participants that something amazing was happening-- connections were being forged and people were truly listening to each other’s narratives. And a diverse set of people were reengaging with their right to use their voice for social justice.

Granted, there were fewer Arab and Black faces than I would have liked to see (in order to truly have a representative section of the population), but as I’m trying to remind myself each day...baby steps. The experience felt particularly relevant as the High Holidays approach, and we turn inward to reflect on how we want to be different and what we want to do better in the year ahead. I hope someday to see these round tables in the streets of San Francisco, New York, Baghdad, Ramallah, Mexico City, and all around the world. And in the name of Rosh Hashanah and a new start, I’m going to nurture my little flame of hope that “someday” might be sooner than we might think.

Shana Tova everyone!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quick Snippet

Everybody in Israel is constantly asking what's happening, and if you are okay. It's like having an entire country of Jewish mothers. Everywhere you turn, "Ma nishma? At beseder? Ha kol beseder? Mah koreh?" They'll ask you three times in a row, too, or just to fill a silence. Though it's off-putting at first (I just answered you for God's sake, how can anything have changed in the past 5 seconds?!), it's also comforting to know you're not going to slip through any cracks unnoticed.

In other news, I went to an amazing gay bar last night in Tel Aviv with my friend Elliot. It was Eurovision Night, which featured incredibly choreographed performances by painfully handsome men wearing makeup and black tank tops. Wish I had video but I left my camera at home. Played in the Mediterranean at sunset tonight, and was joined in the waves by an adorable 4 year old little girl "Elli." (see below)

More to come...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Yalla Jaffa!

Whew. It's been quite a ride already and it's only been 2 weeks. My head has been swirling with thoughts, images, feelings and foreign phrases, and I haven't had a free moment to make sense of them or connect the dots. Days have been flying by, and it seems that time has sped up such that I've lost track of the date. Until now.

There are grounding moments in life that often appear when you expect them least but need them most. Today, we visited a community center in Neve Tzedek, possibly the most adorable neighborhood in the world (I stayed there on and off with a friend for several weeks last time I was in Israel and fell in love with the narrow cobblestone streets and artistic-colony architecture). The community center wasn't quite as compelling as some of the other organizations we've visited, but our visit there was the start of something beautiful.

I wandered around with some friends from the program who preferred to straggle behind and explore the neighborhood. We sat for a coffee at the Suzannne Dallal dance center, then split ways to head back to our respective "homes." Melissa and I decided to walk along the tayelet (boardwalk) along the beach toward Jaffa, as it was getting close to sunset and the beach breeze was irresistible.

Since coming to Israel, I've felt less inspired and holy than I hoped. Maybe it's that the fever of Birthright-induced Zionism has subsided in me, (or maybe it's that I'm in my quarter-life crisis where life feels eerily meaningless even as the beauty and intrigue of it is constantly nudging me in new directions), but I haven't been feeling very rooted in reality. It's as if I'm wandering through a dream, turning left and right, accelerating and decelerating at the different crossroads that keep appearing, but not really getting anywhere or comprehending what it all means.

It was with such ennui that I found myself floating in the Mediterranean at sunset, feeling the warm water lap at all edges of my body and staring at the dual-city skyline of Tel Aviv/Jaffa. I kept wondering how I could feel such a lack of passion while surrounded by such incredible beauty. The thought that has plagued me for the past several years post-college arose yet again... "Who am I? What am I doing here?" And I began to feel anxious at the enormity of it all, and the terrifying feeling of, literally, free-floating.

I made my way out of the water, and climbed back onto solid land to join Melissa on the sand. I felt a bit disappointed at my failure to appreciate the incredible natural beauty around me and wishing I could once again feel the healing of ecstatic joy that the ocean often brings. But I also felt relaxed and pleased to be in a place of such diversity and calm for a moment. It was then that I noticed some guys playing soccer on the beach behind us, and with nothing to lose, mustered up courage to ask them if we could play.

They said yes and we introduced ourselves. They spoke only Arabic, but there is very little language needed to play soccer together. After a few minutes, I knew "wahhad-wahhad"... "one to one," and they told me I was "very excellent." I've always love how effusive the Arabic language is ;)

Through playing soccer with Arabs on the beach of Jaffa at sunset, I began to reconnect with myself. But it wasn't just my existential stress that was relieved. It was also the recent memory of a couple of small Arab children throwing sticks at us as we passed a traditional wedding on Rehov Yerushalayim en route to a club the other night, and the subsequent (and understandable) emotional explosion on the part of one of our Israeli roommates.

Though we are on a unique "coexistence" fellowship, I have been feeling uncomfortable and awkward about the lack of Arab participants in our cohort. With nobody to serve as a liaison to the community, even the best of intentions of living amongst those we serve seem to fall short. How can we understand sentiments of our neighbors without the help of a translator, someone who is versed in the history and culture of the place.

Playing together will not solve a half century of conflict, nor will it unravel my confusion about what the purpose of my life is meant to be. But in that moment, it centered me and helped me put my feet on the ground. I'm now sitting back at my apartment with the fan (to ward off the unrelenting humidity of this Mediterranean climate), hearing the Muslim call to prayer emanating from a nearby mosque, contemplating my new life in the ancient city of Jaffa, and feeling the gurgling of a stomach that is unused to the strange Middle Eastern diet of Hummus and Goldstar. Things are happening around me, and I am just a sponge.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Duality of Power

We, as humans, have the powerful ability to hurt, belittle, and demoralize one another. Whether we do it out of jealousy, rage, embarrassment, self-defense, ambition, or revenge doesn't matter. The end result is the stuff that wars are made of. Pain becomes pain becomes pain.

The paradox is, no matter how deeply we wound our brethren, we humans also have the amazingly unique capacity to apologize-- and to make amends. By showing love and empathy, we can undo even the worst of deeds.

I hope that those of us with power in the world will someday recognize the duality of our power, and choose to move forth in the ever challenging direction of light and love.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

God is a Sly Dog.

Just when I was feeling ultimate confusion about why the hell I'm picking up and traveling again, leaving behind community, a job, friends, family, temperate sunshine-y weather, familiarity.... I ran into a fellow traveler.

As someone who has impeccable timing in life, I received an email yesterday about an amazing program called the LIFE program in Israel and India. Ten months of leadership training and individually customized professional internships in the field of social change and innovation. Five months in Hyderabad, India, and five in Jersualem, Israel.

Sweet. Here I am scheduled to be leaving in less than a month for Tel Aviv to do the Tikkun Olam program, and I choose to spend two hours on the phone with the Founder and Director of a whole other program this morning rather than sticking to the plan of braving the Israeli Consulate in SF to get my visa. It's my typical self-imposed decision insanity crisis. Maybe you're familiar.

So I brewed some beer with Warren and went for a walk. I always find that walking is a much better alternative to sitting and stewing over a big decision. Something about the movement, and the physical act of progressing forward in a straight line helps bring my rational thinking in line with my emotions. But today I didn't get very far. Laptop in hand, I headed for Philz Coffee in North Berkeley to think, research, and write. On my way in, someone caught my eye.

It was the front desk receptionist from my Yoga studio. Now, I have always been a yoga skeptic. But something about this past year has had me craving my downward dogs. Maybe it was the chaotic spiritual aftermath of what I now call the "dengue fever detour," or maybe it was just the undeniable magic of a good teacher, but I'm now a regular at Yoga Mandala. Enough to recognize the woman from the front desk with the incredible blue-green eyes and the strange semi-European accent.

We said hello, exchanged formalities, and somehow the topic of India was broached (she had just returned from a trip). I asked if I could pick her brain a bit, and we ended up in what turned out to be the best (and most honest) conversation I've had in 2011. I can't recreate it here, but it soon became obviousthat we were kindred souls (without using such a tacky phrase) and that travelers share the bond of speaking a common language. She told me about India, yes, but she gave me a kind of reassurance I've been craving since I told the first person that I was bound for foreign lands again.

"Don't worry about what you're trying to accomplish," she said. "When you're in India, or any country for that matter, you never know what will happen. It's magical. You'll find that you've accomplished or learned something completely different from what you set out to achieve."

Her words were like a soothing balm for my tormented soul. Not to be melodramatic, but I've felt to unsure of myself, like an awkward filly venturing out into the exciting yet terrifying world of independent adulthood. "I'm going to do a volunteer fellowship...?" I hypothesize when asked what I plan to do in Israel. "I'll be placed in an NGO that works for coexistence????" I assure people that I'm excited, when in my most anxious of hearts I'm terrified that I'll fail in my unnamed mission, or that I'll return to the U.S. completely clueless as to my next step, single and broke to top it off, with no degree or professional skill-set to show for it.

While I feel hindered by the constructs of American individualism-obsessed, goal-worshipping society, I also am sure that I don't want to float free and meaningless through the vast wide world like some kind of selfish tourist-gypsy. I don't fit in at festivals, and I think hula-hooping is stupid past the age of 12. I feel obligated to use my intelligence and education to better the world, and yet I feel panicked at the thought of having to choose a profession. Like most Americans, I care about making my family proud and looking attractive to potential employers. I want friends and boyfriends to think I'm cool and adventurous, but struggle with the doubt that they might dump me once they realize they can't count on me to be around for a while.

In truth, I don't know what to expect when I'm abroad. The best things usually happen when you least expect them, and the relationships seem to materialize from thin air. One day you're wandering alone through a crowded street trying to find your hostel, the next day you're boarding a ferry with your new best friend Jane that you feel like you've known forever, discussing ex-boyfriends and Nietzche. You set out to save the monkeys of China, and you end up re-discovering your childhood passion for writing in journals, and reveling in smog and nauseating overnight bus-rides in Vietnam.

After our chat, I felt reassured that the universe had FINALLY sent me a sign that I'm gonna be okay. That I'm not fucking up my life, or signing my death sentence for an eternity of isolation, poverty, and homelessness by going on an adventure. Whether I go to Israel, or India, or both or neither, I'm going to have an incredible learning experience by leaving my comfort zone and boarding a plane to another world.

This woman, this gorgeous international supermodel of a traveler, kissed me on the cheek, assured me of my own wisdom, and thanked me for stopping to talk to her. I hate to rest on the words of those before me, but in this case the Grateful Dead said it best:

"Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

God Bless the Dead, and God bless fortuitous encounters with strangers on the street of Berkeley, California. I'm home again in my own skin.

I'm baaaaaack!

So. I kinda dropped off after the dengue drama. But I'm alive and kicking in Berkeley, with new experience under my belt (namely: 9 months of launching two new programs at an AWESOME social enterprise network called the Hub)... and I'm getting ready to jet off again. Seems like a good time to bring this baby back to life. Stay tuned for updates!