The Land of Milk and Honey, Work and Play, Religiosity and Secularity: A Year in Review

A little over a year ago, Doug and I left for Israel. We knew we were going to stay until January 2012, at least, but were hoping to find jobs and stay longer. Luckily, we did find jobs, allowing us to stay through June 2012.

When people hear we spent a year in Israel, they ask, “So… how was it?” They watch me eagerly, seeming to expect some sort of grand story. I usually just smile and say, “It was amazing.” What else can I say? It’s hard to sum up nine month’s worth of experiences succinctly, especially considering the wide range of experiences we had in Israel.  But at this point, I’d like to reflect on some of the most memorable moments.

Arrival

We landed in Ben Gurion Airport on September 8, 2011. We made our way to a sherut (taxi service) to Jerusalem, where we needed to go to join our Career Israel group orientation.  To say we were exhausted, hungry, and disoriented would be an understatement.  So when security officials began shepherding people away from the airport exits, we were incredibly confused and frustrated.  As we stood with our four suitcases and watched the security personnel doing their thing, we couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.

We eventually managed to hear the story:

As the doors of a train that runs through the airport were closing, someone had thrown a suitcase onto the platform.  A “suspicious package.” So, as we waited and chatted with fellow travelers (one Oregonian, who had admired my Powell’s Bookstore T-Shirt, managed to get a picture with a security guard despite the prohibition on taking pictures of them), security personnel brought over one of those bomb-deactivating robots and rendered the suitcase harmless.

The sherut “lines” were terrible after that. Masses of people rushed to get on one and there was no rhyme or reason to who got on which.  Whenever we told a driver where we were going, we were turned away.  We eventually boarded a sherut.  We spent the next few hours on the sherut as it drove to Jerusalem and then zigzagged its way across the city, dropping off passengers until we were the only remaining riders.

As we sat on the sherut, I looked over at Doug, for whom this was the first trip to the country, and said, “Welcome to Israel!”

Slichot Tour

The night before Yom Kippur, Career Israel took us to the kotel (also known as The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall).  People were packed so thick that we only managed to get within a quarter of a mile of the wall.  The group of us stood huddled together, listening to the Rabbi over the loudspeakers. With all the excitement, I almost forgot that we were at a religious, very solemn site.  Despite the fact that many of the people at the wall that night would soon be fasting for 25 hours, there was an atmosphere of glee.

Yom Kippur

We returned to Tel Aviv after our amazing slichot tour just in time to prepare a pre-fast meal (it ended up being a little saltier than it should have been, considering we were about to fast, but it turned out ok).  After eating and going to a local, overflowing Sephardic synagogue, we walked back to our apartment.  Since it’s illegal to drive on Yom Kippur, the streets were taken over by bikers, skaters, and pedestrians.  The holiday has unofficially become known as the national bike day.  We got back to our building and spent some time playing card games with friends.

Our strategy for getting through the fast as easily as possible was to stay up incredibly late and sleep in incredibly late—that way, when we woke up, there would only be a few hungry hours left.  So, in an effort to keep busy while staying awake, we took a late-night stroll with a friend.  We walked around the then-quiet streets of the city, awed by the silence that lay over Tel Aviv like a blanket.  We ended up by the Azrieli Towers, where Doug and I enjoyed a short dance in the middle of the intersection while the traffic lights changed colors to direct non-existent traffic.  Little did I know that I would soon be working for Playtech, whose offices were in the round tower.

Little did we know, as we danced in the middle of the intersection, that we would soon be working in the round tower.

We frolicked a little on the deserted Ayalon highway before peacefully strolling home, where we promptly fell asleep and stayed asleep through the late morning, just as we planned.

Goofing around on the Ayalon highway during Yom Kippur

Playtech

I went to Israel hoping that I would be able to work at the Praklitut (Tel Aviv’s district attorney’s office).  Getting through all the red tape involved in working for the Israeli government was a time-consuming process (/non-process), though, and time was one thing I did not have.

While I was waiting on some paperwork from the Praklitut, I ended up babysitting for an attorney who worked for Playtech, a high-tech company that does software development for online games. She passed my resume along to the legal department and, within a week, I was offered a full-time position.

My time at Playtech was amazing, despite sometimes-stressful conditions and frustrating encounters (i.e. providing technical support for officemates from home without internet access, having my office phone line stop working every other day, having my internet inexplicably die while at work).  I am incredibly thankful to have spent the year working in an office where my coworkers were wonderful, the environment was dynamic, and every day was different. As if that wasn’t rewarding enough, I loved that the company had fresh made waffles for us for New Years, threw an amazing Purim party, and distributed lovely presents for Passover.

New Year’s waffles!

Purim Party

Oh, did I mention we got fun souvenirs? Say hello to my Pink Panther flash drive.

Release of Gilad Shalit

On October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit was released after more than five years of being in captivity.  His abduction and imprisonment moved the nation.  People saw in him their own brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons.  For years, people prayed for his release; some protested in front of the Prime Minister’s house in an effort to get negotiations going. As I already wrote about his abduction and the exchange for his release (you can read it here if you’re interested), I’ll refrain from going into too much detail.

I will say that it was truly lovely to be in Israel when he was finally released, though. Netanyahu’s words to Shalit upon his return to Israel still ring in my head: “How good it is that you’ve come home.”

Bedouin

In 2007, I visited the Bedouin for the first time.  Through Birthright we stayed overnight in a large tent, hosted by local Bedouins.  It was a lovely experience (besides the less-than-spotless communal bathrooms and somewhat grimy sleeping bags), full of desert stories told over tea and good food.  In the morning, we took an early morning camel ride through the desert.  Unfortunately, our idyllic visit wasn’t representative of the actual Bedouin experience and lifestyle.

Our program arranged a visit to an unofficial Bedouin settlement.  The bus dropped us off a short ways away from the settlement since it wasn’t accessible by paved road.  A few minutes’ walk from the collection of lean-tos was their central “plumbing” area, if you will.  As the settlement isn’t connected to government infrastructure, they have to obtain water in an unconventional manner.  Somehow, they tap into the state water system and run rubber/plastic pipes to their homes.  But the pipes they use are all exposed, above ground, and without insulation.  This means that they are completely susceptible to breakage, leaking, and over-heating/freezing.  In the summer, the water is scalding; in the winter, the water is ice-cold.  Nevertheless, they record water usage using rudimentary meters.  One person in the settlement is responsible for recording each family’s water usage (the meters are located between the main road and the dwellings; each is covered by a little wooden box) and collecting payments.  Who they pay for the water is beyond me—it would seem odd if they paid the Israeli water supplier company, considering they were illegally taking the water, but I didn’t question it at the time.

Bedouin plumbing system

After a short walk, we arrived at the dwelling of a woman who agreed to have us over.  Our guide, who was studying the Bedouin, knew her.  In exchange for a small sum of money, she provided groups with tea and spoke with them.  She also graciously told us her story:

When she was a young girl, she went to school.  She never obtained her high school degree, though.  After marrying, she decided she wanted to continue her education.  She obtained her high school degree and was taking classes in Hebrew Literature part-time at a local university.  While she loved studying, she was frank about some of the difficulties she encountered.  Not owning a car, she would often need to get rides back home from university after classes ended as no public transportation serviced the route she needed.  But as a woman, she could only get rides with other women or her closest male relatives, lest someone accuse her of adultery.  She said that her husband had always been supportive of her, but that other people in her settlement were critical of her.  Her desire to be educated was looked down upon; women were meant to give birth to and care for children, home, and husband.

Despite this, the woman we spoke with said she was determined that her daughters obtain their degrees before marrying, a goal uncommon in the community.  When we asked if she would ever leave her community to live somewhere else, where equality between genders was greater, she replied with a resounding, “Never.”  Her community was her family and she had no desire to leave it.

Her story was simultaneously inspirational and upsetting.  This woman was clearly incredibly motivated, but the obstacles she encountered were great.  Despite everything, she had such an optimistic view of the world and had a wonderful sense of humor.  As a mother of several, including one set of triplets, she joked: “For my greatest enemies, I wish that they, too, have triplets.”

Tea with an inspiring Bedouin woman

Kibbutz Netzer Sereni

In January, Doug and I went to kibbutz Netzer Sereni with a small group of people in our program and our madricha (counselor), who was engaged to a kibbutz member.  We spent the day hearing about the kibbutz’s history and touring it on a tractor.

Our ride around the kibbutz

Our madricha’s fiancée told us how he moved out of his parent’s home and into kibbutz dorms when he began high school.  He relayed stories of evenings spent drinking in the kibbutz’s orange grove, explaining how they would squeeze fresh juice into their glasses of liquor.

Picking oranges at the kibbutz

As if we didn’t appreciate his kibbutz roots enough, he later gracefully scooped up an agitated calf that managed to escape its pen and plopped him back inside it, letting the calf suck on his thumb to calm him.

Scooping up the escaped cow

Depositing the escaped cow back in his pen

Letting the cow suckle on his thumb to calm him

Afterwards, he took us to his parents’ home, where we had tea and were able to amass lemons and limes to go along with the bushels of oranges we took from the grove.  The day was absolutely lovely, heavenly in the stereotypical way kibbutzim once were.

Yom HaZikaron Sirens & Yom HaAztmaut

I was sitting at my desk at work at 10am on Yom HaZikaron.  I had never spent it in Israel before so, while I expected a solemn mood, I didn’t quite expect to see the entire country stop for a minute of silence as a siren sounded.  I looked out my office window, down onto the busy commercial area below, and was shocked by the sense of solidarity I felt with the men and women who stood below.

Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the intersection and stood silently beside them.  Store merchants stopped working and customers stopped ordering.  People stood facing all different directions, scattered along a pedestrian walkway by Tel Aviv’s Savidor train station.  A shared history of loss united us as we remembered relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors, who were killed serving the country.

The view from my office window

As the siren wound down and people proceeded with their days, I understood the common thread Israelis shared, all religious and ethnic divides aside.

(The siren starts at 0:57)

It was also a privilege to be in Israel on Yom HaAztmaut (Independence Day). Weddings

Oh the weddings… What are weddings about, anyways? Love? Marriage? Family? The happy couple? Family? No; no; no; and maybe a little. Weddings are about eating, drinking, and dancing.  Luckily, Israelis have mastered those activities (particularly the first one).

The two weddings we went to were beautiful.  They were also incredibly different.

The first wedding we went to was one of a distant maternal relative who I had never met before.  The only people I knew were my late grandfather, his caretaker, an uncle I wasn’t close with growing up, and Doug.  Despite this, we had a wonderful time.  The location was beautiful, like a little orchard fairyland.  The food during the reception was amazing.  The meat was delicious, the fish was delectable, and the French fries were absolutely perfect!  We spent the hour bouncing between the stations and the bar, occasionally checking in with my grandfather.  The ceremony was blissfully sweet and was followed by dancing and good humor.  My 91-year-old grandfather even spent a little time on the dance floor.  By the end of the night, we were exhausted. But lo and behold, just as we ran out of energy, a “midnight snack” of fries, pickles, and mini burgers was brought out.  Smart folk, those newlyweds!

My late grandfather at the wedding

Looking out at the reception area from the dance floor

At the wedding

The second wedding we attended was also beautiful.  The venue was also outdoors, but less nature-y.  The pre-ceremony treats were arranged around a large circular area, making it easy to go from one to the next.  The food had an around-the-world theme, each station serving up something different (Israeli, Asian, Mexican, etc.).  We were able to socialize more at this wedding.  The groom was my grandmother’s cousin’s son—pretty distant, sure, but a lot of my dad’s family was there.  It was amazing to see some of my second cousins.  I reminisced with one in particular, who I remember watching the Aristocrats countless times with as a child.  As we finished reveling in nostalgia and I went to grab some more samosas, I ran into a co-worker who went to high school with the groom, my distant cousin.  Small world? I think so!

Holidays

Rosh Hashanah with my dad’s family

With my baby cousin on Rosh Hashanah

Sukkot

The dog is going for the abandoned food on the high chair… even she wants in on the delicious food we ate in the Sukkah!

Channukah

Channukah in Jerusalem

Shavuot, my favorite holiday!

———-

I’ve organized these gems of memories onto a virtual shelf in my brain.  This shelf holds dusty memories from before Israel, going back through my time at NYU, my experience studying abroad in Madrid and all of the traveling I did in those short months, my high school days, and my pre-NJ life in northeast Philadelphia.

My Israel memories are slowly but surely gathering their own layer of dust as I place new ones from law school beside them.

Advertisements

A Nation’s Joy and Fear in the Face of A Soldier’s Return Home After Over 5 Years in Captivity

“He who saves one soul, it is as though he saved an entire world.” – The Talmud

Every Israeli knows the name Gilad Shalit.  He has been mentioned at every graduation, every concert, and every public gathering since June 2006.  His image and name are emblazoned on T-shirts, walls, posters, and monuments.  His story has moved a nation.

On June 25, 2006, Hamas militants abducted Gilad during a cross-border raid.  He was 19 years old at the time.  Gilad has since been held captive somewhere in the Gaza Strip, denied all human rights due to captured soldiers, including visits from the Red Cross and communication with family members.

More than five years after Gilad’s abduction, an agreement has been reached between the Israeli government and Hamas for his release.  The deal holds that 1,027 Palestinian prisoners will be released in phases in exchange for Gilad’s liberation.  Among the prisoners being released are 280 who were serving life sentences, many as a result of their roles in terrorist attacks.  Still other prisoners set to be released are amongst the founders of Hamas’s military wing.

From my understanding, the majority of the Israeli and Jewish population, in Israel and abroad, support the deal.  Many would have supported any deal that would have returned Gilad home.  Others, notably those whose families have been torn apart by the Palestinian terrorists set to be released, oppose the agreement.

The arguments supporting the agreement are numerous and complex, stemming from a mentality inherent to Israelis.  Over the course of the five and a half years of Gilad’s imprisonment, the young soldier has become a national icon.  He is not just son to his parents and brother to his siblings, but he is part of every Israeli family.  In a country where all Jewish youths are enlisted in the army at age 18 (barring those who opt out for various health or religious reasons), he is perceived by every mother and father as a son, by every boy and girl as a brother, and by every youth as a fellow soldier protecting his homeland.  There isn’t an Israeli soul who doesn’t want Gilad Shalit to return home.

Yet while everyone wants Gilad to be freed, there are those who believe his homecoming shouldn’t come at such a great price.  Some of the arguments against the agreement include:

  • Israel should not negotiate with terrorists.
  • Israel should not release incarcerated Palestinian killers.
  • The release of known terrorists is a security risk.  Statistics show that 60% of released prisoners return to terrorist activity.
  • Such negotiations set a precedent that provides terrorists with a greater incentive to capture additional Israeli soldiers in the interest of obtaining the release of Palestinian prisoners.

I am sure there are many more, but these seem to be the most cited reasons.

In discussing the issue of whether the return of a captive soldier is worth the release of hundreds of cold-blooded, murderous terrorists, a particular statement in favor of the exchange stood out at me.

The imprisonment of Palestinian terrorists will not bring back the dead.  But their release can bring back the living.

It is partly the high price Israel is paying in exchange for Gilad’s release that has affirmed for many the fact that he is alive.  Historically, Israel has exchanged prisoners for bodies of killed soldiers.  In January of 2004, an agreement between the Israeli government and Hezbollah entailed the return of the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, captured during an attack in October 2000, in exchange for the release of approximately 500 Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab prisoners.  After the Second Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah agreed that Israel would return 5 Lebanese militants and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Unfortunately, as Gilad’s grandfather pointed out, no one knows what Gilad is being returned to Israel.  The Gilad once known by family and friends may no longer exist after over five years of imprisonment.

From my perspective, the most problematic element of the exchange is the precedent it will set.  Terrorists have a clear incentive to kidnap Israeli soldiers.  One terrorist has already said that they must kidnap another five Israeli soldiers to free the remaining five thousand imprisoned terrorists.  Unfortunately but thankfully, they have reason to keep Israeli soldiers alive as well, in the interest of having a stronger bargaining chip.  The ends to which Israel would go to bring home a soldier, whether alive or dead, are unparalleled.  All we can do at this critical moment is hope the exchange proceeds smoothly and that no additional soldiers or families must endure what Gilad Shalit and his relatives suffered.

Note: “Gilad” means “eternal joy,” “monument,” and “hill of testimony.”