November 28, 2011

Giving thanks.

I have to say that Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. 

When it comes to the food, yeah it's tasty, but there are other meals (like my family's traditional prime rib Christmas dinner) that I prefer. Also, I don't hate football- but I'd rather go to a game (or tailgate one) than watch it on TV. Also, I went to college nine hours from home, so I haven't spent Thanksgiving with my family since I was 18 years old. 

There are things, of course, about Thanksgiving that suit me just fine. I heart long weekends, for sure. As a grown up, I enjoy the freedom to day-drink and have it be socially accepted. I really have come to love the satisfaction that comes with cooking a big meal (including mastering some family recipes) and watching others enjoy it. I also relish the inevitable food-coma and nap which follow said meal. 

Chiefly, however, over the last nine years Thanksgiving has become a holiday to spend with friends, new and old. None have been with the same exact group of people around the table, or had an identical menu. 
But each has been special, and this year was no exception.

Being an "ex-pat" (as a friend recently called me) in Israel on an all-American holiday unexpectedly made my observance of Thanksgiving imperative. I kind of figured before I left that it wouldn't be a big deal for me this year (there are, after all, plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate while I'm here), but the opposite was true. All of a sudden I was willing to do whatever it took. 

A friend from my program, Daniel, lives downtown, in an apartment with a full kitchen (something my dorm room is lacking), and graciously offered to host. So I assembled a group of new and old friends and in a true team effort we made it happen. Nicole's roommate Carmel is an incredible chef and offered to help plan/execute the menu if I assisted her. Noa's mom lives in a nearby town with the only grocery store in Israel which sells canned pumpkin (that piece was HUGE) so the pie became a reality. Libbie was looking for a group of Americans to celebrate with, and I was so happy to introduce her to some of my new friends from school- she also donated some bakeware from her grown-up, real-person inventory (thanks, Lib!). We ate like kings, had some drinks, and shared what we are thankful for. 
I was thankful for another Thanksgiving memory that is as unique as it is special.

It was a wonderful way to spend a holiday that has never been my top priority, but has never failed to be one of my favorite memories of the year. I have to admit to a twinge of homesickness. But, at the same time, making Thanksgiving happen this year helped to add another brick to the emotional home being created for me here. Another little piece of this place is mine. So, this year, I'm grateful for the family I'm finding in Israel. 

Thanks to each of you for making this feel a little more like home with each day.

November 22, 2011

I like learning this way.

So today was our second study tour, and this week we learned about areas in and around Jerusalem that have held specific importance in the long history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Our guide this week was Brig. General (retired) Shalom Harari. He served in the IDF for twenty two years in intelligence (and still performs reserve duty). Now he serves as a senior research fellow at the Internationoal Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC in Herzeliya,  as well as a senior research fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Also- he's totally hardcore. He speaks fluent Arabic (which he whipped out many-a-time today), had his own wireless mic and speaker (which he made someone carry for him all day), and gave us a unique perspective on how the Israeli military works and the realities Israel faces from the enemy of radical Islam.

Here is my photo homage to our teacher:

Our (very full) day began in Letrun- a point along the via Maris (way of the sea) that has been a strategic military location for thousands of years. Located along the natural geographical route from Tel Aviv (on the sea) to Jerusalem, Latrun is high up on a hill and whomever controlled that location was at an advantage to defending their control of the region. Today there is an Israeli military museum at this location- we walked through an old British fortress, wandered through rows of tanks and military equipment and viewed a memorial to the fallen Israeli soldiers from the many wars Israel has endured in her short modern life (which Shalom compared to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. as far as the structure of the memorial).

While we were there an Israeli black hawk helicopter flew overhead from the direction of Tel Aviv towards Jerusalem. Shalom explained (from his experience) that based on what it was, and the time of day, that the helicopter was likely carrying the Minister of Defense or the Prime Minister. Awesome.

After the museum we drove on to Jerusalem. We spent the afternoon driving around different suburbs of Jerusalem located in areas which are either in dispute during peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, or have been the sites of periodic violence during times of upheaval in the area (areas to the south of Jerusalem which border the West Bank/Bethlehem). Shalom explained to us how issues of demography affect the conflict (i.e. a village or neighborhood that is home to Jewish residents but is close to Palestinian-inhabited areas and changes hands when borders are re-drawn during peace negotiations), we discussed the security fence that Israel built to protect civilian populations from terrorism launched out of neighboring Arab areas, and got to see first-hand just how close these quarters are. 

We also learned about how holy sites in and around Jerusalem have effected the stability of the region- holy sites must be kept safe not only for the tourism industry that is so vital here, but also to protect the whole region from melting into a war between religions. After lunch we drove into Bethlehem to visit a holy site- the tomb of the matriarch Rachel. The last time I was in Israel in 2005 this area did not look so heavily fortified. Unfortunately, terrorism has forced Israel to step up security to protect tourism and the citizen population. 

In this picture you can see the high cement walls with the stone walls of a the shrine:

Apparently, praying at Rachel's tomb is supposed to grant women fertility. I went in to see the shrine, but decided not pray for fertility. I'm not looking to start a family anytime soon.

We also stopped at the ruins of a church which had been built around a rock. Shalom explained that this rock was (according to legend) the place where the Virgin Mary stopped to rest on her way to Bethlehem. He also told us that religious lore states any woman who sits on this rock will allegedly "become like a virgin" again, no matter how many children she has given birth to. I'm not convinced, but some of my classmates gave it a shot.

The day ended with Shalom taking us to the highest elevation point in Jerusalem- an old church turned mosque turned intelligence satellite location (also an archaeological dig). Some of his Arab friends provided tea and coffee (it was really cold today) and we enjoyed a spectacular view before driving home. 

November 15, 2011

Today I saw Lebanon.

One of the classes I am taking this semester is called "Sites of Conflict and Diplomatic Horizons"- twice a month we go on study tours to different sites in Israel which hold strategic or historic military/security importance for the state of Israel. Today was our first excursion and we traveled to the Lebanese border- about two hours north of Tel Aviv. We visited several sites along the border and discussed the reality on the ground along this part of Israel's perimeter, the history of the confrontations with Islamist militant groups (specifically Hezbollah) during the last 30 years and the circumstancecs/results of those incursions, especially the second Lebanon war in 2006, the internal situation in Lebanon, and the ramifications of the Arab Spring for security along this border. 

Needless to say, it was fascinating. Our guide was a journalist who was a military correspondent for Haaretz News in Israel, and he knew his stuff.  It's amazing how small this country is- about the size of New Hampshire, and after two hours on a bus (that left at an obscene hour this morning) we were standing on a hill looking at Lebanon. 

It's also noteworthy to explain that seeing the geography of the country really changes the way one understands the security concerns along Israel's borders. She is surrounded by enemies on basically all sides. And to have citizens living in towns visible from the borders with hostile territories creates certain complications for Israeli decision makers. A couple of the sites we visited today were places where Israeli soldiers stationed along this border were attacked or killed just for being so close to Hezbollah militants who wanted to capture soldiers and broker prisoner exchanges. 

We also visited the memorial for a helicopter accident that took the lives of 73 Israeli soldiers. It happened in 1997, and I hadn't ever learned about this particular incident before, check out the link I'm providing- its actually very interesting. The memorial built there was beautiful and very moving.

The whole event wasn't completely heavy though. At one point we stopped at a checkpoint outside of a village which straddles the Lebanon/Israel/Syrian border, and I noticed that there was a distinct lack of stray cats...but a LOT of stray cattle. Huh.

Winter is here (for probably a few weeks) which means every few days it rains for awhile. Today was one of those cold, rainy days, and on our drive home I saw a rainbow. 

"I wish I could bake a cake made of rainbows and smiles." - Mean Girls

In all seriousness- the moment on our drive home this evening when I saw this rainbow (which was a double arc, by the way, it just didnt photograph well from a moving tour bus) was a moment of clarity for me. This was a day where I was legitimately living the dream I've held on to for four years- learning about security and diplomacy, meeting new people who share these interests, and doing it in Israel. I fell asleep on the ride home knowing I'm exactly where I should be.

It's 1:23am here, and I can't sleep cause the peals of thunder keep waking me up, but I have Amal Jamal's class tomorrow. It's so boring. I need to be rested so I'm not yawning like an asshole all through his lecture on democratic theory...

Layla tov!

November 11, 2011


Week two of school is under my belt, and I almost made it to all of my classes!

My shitty little rented Samsung phone died yesterday (just like the bee I killed- they're the same size), and in order to get my replacement phone before the weekend I had to skip Political Economics in the afternoon. I was a little pissed about it, cause I'm really interested in this class, but our professor told us that we get no points for participation or attendance, so we could skip every class if we wanted to- as long as we turn in the take home exam at the end of the semester. I don't plan on skipping every class, but I needed to have a phone this weekend, so I did what I had to do.

While I was waiting for the phone to be delivered I studied in a coffee shop on campus, and was propositioned by a few Israeli dudes. I love it here. It's like they've never seen gingers before. The best line of the bunch was "when your phone is delivered will you be able to use it?" Yeah, that's the idea, Ariel.

Some other recent wins:

1. Gym membership- check. 
Yoga, zumba, Krav I come.

2. Israeli bank account- check.
(Yes, I now have TWO, but I'm closing one soon. Don't ask.)

3. Converter for my straightener- check. 
The weather is cooling down and I'm finally able to straighten my hair again without it immediately curling up when I walk outside. It makes me feel like myself. It's also gotten really long since I last was able to blow it out, and I love it- check it out!

4. MASH.
Not the show, the bar. Nikki, Noa, Jared and I went out last night for a drink and ended up at a bar called MASH. There was a sign inside that said More Alcohol Served Here. Fantastic. They didn't have sweet tea vodka, but I think we convinced the bartender to look into it. The place made me feel like I was in Boston again- lots of dark wood, Dropkick Murphys playing, a dog inside. For my Boston friends- it really reminded me of JJ Foleys. I plan on being a regular. But I'll miss Jerry Foley calling me "Sweet-haaat" when I walk up to the bar.

5. French toast.
Nikki's roommate Carmel is my new fave. She used to be a professional chef in Vancouver, so this morning she made challah french toast for us. I should've taken a picture for you guys, but I was too busy stuffing my face. Carmel is amazing, this indebted me to her forever.

6. Hebrew classes have begun.
Finally- ulpan. I'm so excited to finally be studying Hebrew. I decided not to take Arabic simultaneously, it was going to just be too much to keep straight. I've had classical Hebrew in college, and being here for 9 weeks has allowed me to learn some important/useful phrases- I feel like once I start studying it for real I'll pick it up so quickly. So excited to be bi-lingual.

Those are my updates! I'm loving it here, but definitely dealing with occasional homesickness. To that end, I have a quick request:

 My dad had surgery recently, and I really hate being so far away from him when he has any kind of health issue. So if you're the praying kind I'd be grateful if you set one up for him (and for my mom and sister who are home with him as he recovers). He's the shit. I'm so in love with him.

I'm happy you're doing well, Pop! Please take care of yourself.

November 5, 2011

I missed my first day of grad school. Oops.

So on Sunday night I felt like I was coming down with a cold. You know what the first day is like, right? Your throat is a little scratchy, so you get some decongestant (in anticipation), lozenges, OJ, and soup, and wait for it to move from your throat to your head...

The thing about being sick is, I can deal with a cold. As a nanny, I got used to having a cold for pretty much seven months a year. What I cannot handle (without becoming a whiny, crying, little girl who wants her mom) is a sore throat. I can't sleep, I can't talk. It's the worst!

By Monday night I realized this thing wasn't moving. It had taken up residence in my tonsils and become a raging case of strep throat. Last spring the same thing happened and I ended up in the ER- it was all I could think about. My health insurance here has the feature of house calls 24/7. Now, Tuesday was my first official day of classes, and at 3am on Monday night I realized if I didn't get a prescription soon I was gonna end up waiting in a clinic ALL day on Tuesday and missing class. So I called for a house call, and at 4am Dr. Rubin (who didn't speak much English and was wearing open-toed sandals) was in my room writing a script for antibiotics and telling me (charade-style...language barrier) not to kiss anyone. Thanks, Dr. Rubin.

I waited for the pharmacy to open at 8am, but by that time I was having trouble breathing. So I called the insurance hotline again and was told to just go to the ER. The doctor on the phone told me my script wasn't strong enough anyway, and I needed a steroid shot for the swelling in my tonsils. So I went. It was terrible- the doctor wanted to admit me cause he couldn't understand what I was telling him (again, no English) and the insurance company tried to claim I didn't have a referral and would have to pay $700 in the ER fees (after I had already been treated). And I ended up missing class anyway.


The point of this long story is that by the time I made it home from the hospital I was in NO shape to go to class. I was so traumatized and exhausted and sick. I was really upset about missing my first day- it was most definitely not the way I envisioned beginning my grad school experience. But, I was proud of myself. I relayed all of this to Sasha and Ellen the other day and they said basically "every American in Israel has to go through something like that," which was oddly comforting- believe it or not. I knew what I needed, it was a pain the in ass to get, but I did it on my own. And now I'm feeling much better- and a little more capable.

I'm also fortunate to have some friends in the emergency management program here- always nice to have your own personal medical professionals on hand.

They didn't actually make me well again, but the emotional support was there. Aren't the matching scrubs just so cute?

Seriously though, Nikki and Jared helped me feel better by having a pajama party and watching Heavyweights. Joel was there, too, but didn't have pajamas so I didn't take a picture of's one from another night so you can have a visual (I'm seriously obsessed with this kid):

I put the camera away eventually cause things got weird after this:

By 'weird' I mean that the security guards came into my room, saw a pile of people on my bed, and said we were being too loud. We weren't drinking (antibiotics...). It was 11:15pm. We are just so awesome and hilarious that campus security had to break it up.

A few months ago I was living in a beautiful apartment in Boston, and now I live in a dorm and get yelled at for being silly at 11pm on a weekend. This really is freshman year of college- round two (complete with dance parties!)...

it's great
(minus the strep, I suppose).

This week I begin my language course (finally) and will finally get to experience a disease-free, normal schedule. I'm excited about the classes I'm taking so far- on Thursday I had "Political Economy" and another called "Propaganda". It really does make studying easier when you're genuinely interested in the subject matter, but I can already tell this is going to be an intense semester. I'm looking forward to every moment (remind me of this when I post about the pain of exams and papers...).

Oh, one more story. On Thursday I got a text from the school saying "At 10am a siren will be heard in the Ramat Aviv area as part of a military exercise. Do not panic." I was told that if the siren lasted longer than 180 seconds I should just go to the bomb shelter. I need to remember to stock food stuffs and booze down there...