The first week (השבוע הראשון)
So I literally have only gotten time to write this blog post, which will be disproportionately long because it’s been a busy first week.
I know that I came here to get out of my comfort zone, and I certainly am out of it. I don’t like that, but I do love Israel. It’s so cool to walk outside and see all signs, etc. in another language, which for some mystical magical reason I am actually beginning to understand…
First things first: it is super hot here. We’re at the middle of the country, top of the desert (מדבר or midbar). While I’m here, it may never rain. It’s 90+ every day. Anyone who knows me knows that historically I hate heat…and yet, I am starting to get used to it. To enjoy it even, because it is very dry, and as long as the heat is cool with me, I’m cool with it.
I did get over my jet lag quite quickly, and we really had to because our first weekend (8/3-8/4), we took a trip to Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, an even hotter part of the desert in Southern Israel on the border with Jordan. A kibbutz (קיבוץ) is basically a communal community (redundant much?) that originated in the 50s when Israel was a new state, with the idea that everyone would live and work together, belonging and contributing equally, and regardless of the amount of work one puts in, everyone takes the same. Kibbutzim were agriculturally self-sustaining and did not use money, though in recent decades as things have privatized and perspectives have changed, they have become significant economic butter-churners.
There are 270 kibbutzim in Israel today and ours happened to be an eco-community. On Friday in Lotan, we participated in a tour during which we were used as free labor making clay bricks for a new project (but really, it was fun). We got super dirty, mixing equal parts sand, clay/silt I can’t remember which, and water, and then adding straw. When dry these bricks are crazy sturdy and are used to make the houses volunteers live in. They also have composting toilets. You know what that means: no flush, baby. Our guide told us the most important thing regarding easy sustainability initiatives is to share the knowledge, and he’s totally right.
Later on in the day we attended a small, casual Shabbat service. Something crazy I learned before leaving for Israel was that 60% of the Jewish community is secular; I had been worried but amazingly, most people don’t judge you here (unless you happen to be in a really Orthodox community). For many, it’s enough that they live in the Promised Land, where they can BE Jewish without having to outwardly “prove” it. It sounds like it would be a cop-out, but really it’s this laid-back sense of just belonging.
On Saturday morning, I and a few other crusty-eyed brave people rose at 5:30am to go on a desert nature walk with this apparently crazily robust older man, Michael. You cannot go outside in Israel without putting on sunscreen, which is a huge bummer for me because I hate it, but I am the definition of Ashkenazi so I have to. We learned about different types of deserts: sandy, stony, rocky, etc and looked at animal tracks.
Everyone has communal meals so when we got back, the cottage cheese with jam and challah stuffed with goat cheese, both made by the kibbutz, was extremely welcome. Our group later had a Parsha discussion with a kibbutznik about the week’s Torah portion, the seven commandments. It’s interesting that very few of the commandments are positive (“Do be a cheerful butterfly of inspiration to the world”) among the mostly negative (“Don’t fuck your neighbor’s wife, you got that?”). Our conversation brought up some amazing questions about the nature of Jewish volunteerism and the ethics of charity in the developing world.
It was dark while we readied ourselves to leave. But there was one thing left to see- the desert sky, which is honestly one of the reasons I’ve returned to Israel. Too bad I can’t post pictures of that, but on the other hand, you have to see it to believe it. There were no lights, just this immense spiderweb of stars like a dome above us, and only the susurrus of wind through the palm trees. On this night, the middle of the Jewish month of Av (the Jewish months are lunar), a 98% full moon rose as we watched. Incredible.
Sunday, the craziness started (classes here are from Sunday-Thursday, which is a lot to get used to). We were given oral placement exams for Ulpan, the Hebrew language-learning program, and I am in Rama Gimel (the third level up out of four). Honestly, it’s a struggle. I am the least advanced in the class with one year of Hebrew under my belt while the others have one and a half or two, but I’ve already begun to study like a madwoman to stay in, because Rama Bet is too easy, my morah (teacher) Ilana is super nice, and because I’m here to kick ass like duh. Today in fact, I translated “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into Hebrew. I’m really proud of myself.
One cool thing about Beersheba is that fewer people speak English/speak English well than in other Israeli cities. Most students are better in English than I can probably ever hope to be in Hebrew, but I try to pretend it’s not true. This is a college town and all of the people attending are in their mid-20s+, out of the army and ready for careers. The campus has great food and it’s all Kosher, AND I’ve already had a few run-ins with people with whom I’ve had to use my limited Hebrew/miming to get service. Surprisingly fun.
Some new things I did: try Goldstar, the token Israeli beer, too mild (I’m going to Jerusalem beerfest 8/23 though!). Hookah, which was interesting in that it fills you up with euphoric smoke, but something I don’t think I could become obsessed with. Watch Giv’at Halfon Eina Ona, a ’70s slapstick comedy of the Boureka genre about the lo tov side of the IDF.
Things that have sucked so far: the process of my body getting used to the food and water, and the jitteriness of being in a new country. The ant infestation in my room. The first cockroach I think I ever saw in real life yesterday in my kitchen, which I killed with Raid and then spent an hour crying about because I was homesick for a place where there are no cockroaches and because I am clearly not cut out for surviving in “the wilderness.”
Getting up to speed on the last few days. On Thursday, we hiked in a place called Mitzpe Ramon (מצפה רמון) which is mistakenly called a crater but is really something more of a machtesh, or a geological formation unique to the Negev of vast layers of gypsum, dolomite and limestone eroded by water and time. We saw the sunset there and that was really beautiful. At night we had a poike dinner; all I know about that was that the potatoes, rice and spice dish was delicious, but I have been made to understand it is supposed to be something like, you take whatever ingredients you have, throw it in a pot in a fire pit and let it cook.
I also visited a shuk, or market, which has super cheap, super fresh fruits and veggies:
Last night was my second Shabbat here. In Israel, most everything closes from mid-afternoon Friday through Saturday. I elected for a Friday-night host program where you get a Shabbat meal with Israeli students living nearby, and went with my fellow OSP students Sam and Francesca. I’ve gotta say, the night was super awesome. I find Israelis to be really open and friendly so far. There were 8 Israelis there besides us, all in a large friend group that is obsessed with foosball and drinking. We had challah, techina, roasted veggies and shepherd’s pie (which I was excited about because I haven’t had it since the 8th grade in Canada), some cheap Kosher wine courtesy of us, some more wine courtesy of our hosts, Irish iced coffee and some shots. All mellow, we sat around talking about various things. I’m happy to make Israeli friends/neighbors and hope that with time I’ll feel increasingly comfortable talking in Hebrew. For now, everyone’s getting free English practice 😉
KITTENS I MADE FRIENDS WITH!:
By the way did everyone see my cat video. I mean. I really miss you all. I will leave you with one thought: Why does Israel have fruit-shaped Trix and we don’t anymore?!