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...