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

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.