Saturday, November 2, 2013

September Holiday

While school was starting through out the rest of the world that I knew, my friends and family in the United States, in Israel I finally had some time off. My Hebrew course ended on September 12 and another crop of very poor, slow, and confused Hebrew speakers were released to explore the land of Israel. Things started with a day on the beach and night out exploring the bar scene downtown to celebrate finishing the course and passing the final exam, which all in all, further convinced me there is no place I would rather spend the next 2~3 years. The downtown and waterfront scene has been renovated and our small group of students took advantage of live music in many of the pubs and plazas, promenades, and restaurants before calling it a night and heading back to campus. 
            September traditionally marks the start of the holiday season in Israel, as a Jewish state, all of the holidays revolve around the Jewish religion, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah; which this year started the first week of September, and ended the last week of September. What this means for most students is that on the day of the holiday there are no busses, trains, and most shops are closed from sundown to sundown. But it also means that most people are on holiday traveling through the country and my group of friends and I decided to follow
suit. Our first venture was a day trip to the City of Akko, a short train trip north of my hometown, Haifa. Akko (Acre in English spelling) is an ancient fortified port on the Mediterranean Sea, which has been held, at one point or another, by basically every major civilization that has existed in the Middle East; but may be best know as a crusader stronghold. Within the Old City of Akko, we toured the crusader citadel, Templar tunnels beneath the city, a Turkish Bazaar, and Mosques. Akko was the first time that I had visited any of the real history of Israel and seen some of the antiquity, and what I found incredible was the contrast in Akko’s old city to the rest of the country I had seen. For the most part within the old city, modern life has integrated itself in to the ancient buildings, but as we walked by different storefronts and markets you could see the history coming alive. People worked as merchants selling fruit, fish, meat, spice, pita, pastry’s and more, with no commute, no rush, and no large scale production, just a small store front as I imagined people have been doing, in the same place on the same streets for thousands of years.
            After visiting Akko, came the big trip for the break, a three-night four-day trip to Ein Gedi, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Jerusalem.  Our fist stop was Ein Gedi, a fertile desert valley with a spring fed stream flowing through the bottom, in an otherwise vast desert lacking any vegetation whatsoever. We spent the afternoon swimming through small pools, and waterfalls that you would never expect to find in the middle of a desert at 400m below sea level.

After leaving Ein Gedi we returned to the apartment we were staying at for two nights and renting though Airbnb (which I would highly recommend to anyone traveling looking for nice accommodations while traveling for cheap.) We woke up the next morning to tour Masada, and ancient stronghold taken from, and later attacked by the romans. The views from the top and the ruins are stunning, located atop a plateau adjacent the Dead Sea with more or less shear cliffs on every side. It really makes you realize how innovative ancient civilizations must have been. Even today, with modern technologies, I would not be interested in living on Masada. The heat and sun are oppressive, there are no resources on or near the stronghold, and the terrain all around Masada is relentless. (A Recommended aerial photograph:

To cool off from a morning in the sun the afternoon was spent in the Dead Sea, which was my personal favorite part of the trip. To start off I cannot describe the sea with words. Every thing you get used to after swimming in water is thrown away in the dead sea, all the properties of water you expect to feel are off, the viscosity is higher, the density is higher, and of course you float in the sea, but the more time you spend in the sea you notice other differences. Air bubbles don’t rise to the surface like you expect, the sea doesn’t splash, there is a film of oil on the surface, and your fingers don’t shrivel up like in a pool. Also, if you have even the slightest cut or scrape it BURNS in the sea, and I didn’t dare to my head underwater. We left the beach at twilight and packed our things to leave for Jerusalem in the morning. After an uneventful drive we pulled in to Jerusalem in the early afternoon, dumped our things at a downtown hostel and headed for the old city. Our hostel was centrally located in the city and we were a simple train ride away from the walls of the old city, however, our small group had misjudged the magnitude of rush hour in Jerusalem. The first train stopped at our station and we all looked at each other, with squinted eyes and grinding teeth coming to a nonverbal agreement that there was no chance that a child would fit on this train, let alone a group of 6. Naively thinking there would be another train in the next few minutes, we were optimistic. Actually realizing it was a bout a 35 minute wait the patience came to an end and as the doors opened on the next train I threw myself in to the cabin, and after making room for another 6 people in a spot big enough for a couple to stand and hold hands, we were on our way to the old city of Jerusalem. We started in the Arab quarter where we ate lunch, desert, dinner, and desert again. I would argue it is no question that the best food in the old city is in the Arab quarter, everything that I bought included various bits size portions of some type of magic, sweet cheese, light dough, and pistachios. Being a group of primarily Jews, including myself, we then moved straight to the Jewish quarter, which was alive in the streets, all of which filled with music and people celebrating both sukkot and Simchat Torah, on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest place of Judaism.

By the time we had left the old city, and made our way back to the hostel night had fallen and we walked the long way around the perimeter of the old city before hailing a taxi to take us to rest of the way back to our hostel. Of all the hostels I have stayed in, this hostel in Jerusalem was the hands down nicest. Everyone enjoyed an evening in the second floor lounge where our coffee cravings were satisfied, followed by humus and pita for dinner and even behind a crowd of people in the corner of the lounge was a small bar serving Israeli beer on tap.

We woke up the next morning to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, one of the few places that everyone in our group unanimously wanted to visit. The only word that I can find to try describe the experience is heavy. The museum is relatively small, and its exhibits tell the story of the development of Nazi Germany to the end of the war and the Nuremberg trials. There are no dramatizations, for the most part the exhibits are solemn concrete rooms displaying artifacts of the holocaust and the facts of what happened. I had the unique experience of walking through the museum with my closest friend I have made in Israel, who happens to be German, giving a unique perspective to the entire experience, providing translations of letters, propaganda, and videos recovered from the Holocaust. After visiting Yad Vashem I can defiantly say it is one of the places I believe everyone should visit if in Israel, there is something to draw for anyone who would visit.

As our trip came to a close the group of students I traveled with split ways, two of us returning back to Haifa and two of us heading to the airport in Tel Aviv to continue their travels though Europe. But when arriving back in Haifa I was presently surprised by the “change of seasons.” Coming from the Midwest one of the few things I have found myself missing from the United States is autumn, and especially the first day of crisp air, maybe a 60 degree morning with no humidity that forces you to grab a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, or a light jacket. A day that always came within the first few days or weeks of school starting foreshadowing the break of the summer heat. Even though, at its coldest, the airing Haifa has never been below 65 degrees, there was a noticeable difference between the temperatures before I had left and when I got back. Now for a few years at least, there will be no color change in the leaves, no frost, no first snow, no halloween, and no thanksgiving, but I think I will still be able to say; my favorite time of year is when the temperatures begin to drop and whatever winter you have in store starts to show its self, and winter is pretty pleasant when its just at an arms reach.

Arrival in Israel

                                                                                 (24 August 2013)

After being in Israel for approximately 21 days now with the last 19 being slow enough to comprehend, I think I can now for the most part say that I have settled in. Although I do not move in to my permanent residence (on campus graduate student apartments) for another 7 days, I no longer am living out of bag. I am eating plenty of falafel , I know what is being put on it and am confident enough with my Hebrew I can convey to the chef that I am not just an American tourist who can be charged 1.5x the price for a sandwich, but I’m here for a bit longer of a haul.

Before leaving to start graduate school I had made all my arrangements and was sure I would have no problem getting to Israel except for my visa. For the months leading up to my trip the Israeli ministry of the interior was on strike, and not issuing visas. I called my university in Israel asking what they might recommend, and was told that they were given an ok from the ministry to issue student visas to incoming students during the strike after they arrived and recommended I just come to Israel. I had figured I would be safe, I knew I could get in to the country and there should be no problems getting my visa. But the strike ended up coming to a close two days before my flight left, something that worried me; I was now flying to Israel during a United States issued travel warning with a tourist visa and without return ticket. As I made my way through the US to Philadelphia I had no problem, I went through airport security no problem, I went through a second batch of security at my gate no problem, and I plead my case at customs in Israel and was issued my tourist visa with little hesitation.  

Although I my travels went smooth enough, still there were many things that I did have to change to acquaint my self with the new culture. The most obvious, and probably the most un-natural was to acquaint my self with life in a city. I am living in Haifa, Israel, housing 300,000 residents making it the third largest city in a country the size of New Jersey. No longer was a car my means of transportation or even an option, and having never been a big bus rider, it was new and in a foreign language. Luckily enough I was able to learn the ways of the bus with fellow students from Los Angeles, who by nature were also unaccustomed to anything “public” especially transportation. With my small group of ~5 English speaking Americans our first stop was one of the nearby malls. The trip TO the mall can best be described by comparing it to the trip BACK from the mall; to the mall was about a 1 hour endeavor of asking people questions, looking for bus stops, google mapping, underpaying, and security bogging. Our return trip was a 15 minute bus ride back to the campus. I knew this would happen before I even left the United States and I couldn’t wait, the trip TO the mall was one of the exact things that I had been looking forward to the most, and summarizes one of the real virtues of studying abroad. There are always huge barriers when studying anywhere away from your home country, the cultures are too different and the United States is a bit of a bubble. East or West there are two large obstacles to leap before the rest of the world, they take no less than 8 hours to topple, and most likely a $50 excessive luggage fee.  As a Michigan Tech undergrad I studied on exchange in Canada, there I quickly met the fellow international students once I arrived at the University, who all ended up being my best friends. I was confident this would happen in Israel and was not disappointed. While we were trying to meander our way to the mall everyone was at their “worst” so to speak. None of us knew Hebrew, no one had been to Haifa, no one even knew the name of the mall. It is the best icebreaker because everyone looks foolish, and everyone was having a great time doing it. I have found in instances like this, you learn from your mistakes, other wise it is just luck. Culminating “mistakes” in record time, we were able to urbanize and acquaint ourselves in an afternoon, and now have the bronze aged, high-tech capital of one of the most rapidly growing countries in the world, on a 24 mile sandy stretch of the eastern Mediterranean coast to explore.

On another note, this is my first time in Israel, and it is only fitting that I quickly become adjusted to the complex political situation that I am now living in.  During my third week in Israel 4 rockets were fired from Lebanon in to Northern Israel, with one being intercepted mid flight and the other 3 landing about 15 miles north of Haifa, my current home. I was on the train at the time, and had no idea it had happened until I saw it on the nightly news, and when I told my parents, they had no idea at all. Having 4 rockets fired in to my home country and landing 15 miles north of my actual home I would have thought to be a big deal, something that deserved a reaction. However, this news was quickly overshadowed because the following news segment would prove to be quite a bit more lasting. That morning news had broke that the neighboring country of Syria had used chemical weapons in its most recent attack at the rebellion within the country, with major civilian casualties. Even as I write the situation has not cleared up, Obama is waiting to call upon congress to decide what to do, but the immediate impact was still something wildly foreign to any Midwestern United States citizen. As the Middle East prepared for the immanent, and “promised”, American strike on Syria, life in Israel didn’t change. Every day life continued. With the constant howl of fighter jets overhead, class went on. Students stood in up in class and before leaving, politely explained they had been called up from reserves to be stationed on the boarder and the teachers understood. I can only imagine what reaction a sonic boom overhead at Michigan Tech would cause, or 3 rockets being fired on to the nearby town of Lake Linden.  With wild statements coming from almost every country in the world my thoughts were a bit unnerving, I am living off campus with a relative at the time so I feel pretty safe, and knew he would know where to go, and what to do in the event of an attack, but I don’t really expect anything to happen. Some of my fellow Americans were not as lucky and were genuinely worried and convinced that we were going to be attacked, stocking up on water and joining the lines to purchase their gas mask. After a week of this though, I had begin to grow a tolerance to the situation and came to realize the actual situation I am in. There are constant threats to the state of Israel by their neighbors, the country knows this, the people know this, and they have learned to separate reasons of concern from less likely threats. I will be here for two years and I have a feeling in another 6 months, the threats from America, and plans for Syrian strikes will be forgotten, its just a way of life, and a new perspective of global politics that I am sure I will be glad I was able to take away from the whole experience. But in the meantime its reassuring to know that I can look out over the balcony at the apartment I am temporarily living from, and know that life goes on.