I am writing this blog from the porch of my room in Ein Hod, an artists’ colony in the Carmel Mountains overlooking the Mediterranean; two days here, Shabbat with Levi in Harduf (see last blog), and then back to Sonoma County!
Since my last blog, I spent a week at Ulpan Or (Hebrew language intensive) in Tel Aviv, and a week at Ulpan Or in Jerusalem, as well as 3 days at the beach – in Tel Aviv – with Levi: Ezeh Kef/What fun! I always tell people before an Israel trip that the only thing I promise is that in some way, you will be transformed and that promise holds true for me as well.
Before this trip, my sense of Israel was similar to a New Yorker’s sense of the United States – have you seen the silly maps or T-shirts? New York City takes up 3 quarters of the space and with the rest of the country a shrunken fraction of its normal size. Substitute the U.S. for Israel and Jerusalem for New York City and that was how I saw Israel. What happened? Well, rather than just passing through Tel Aviv on my way to points east, north or south, I spent a week near its city center, on Rahov Bialik/Bialik Street, taking in as much as I could of what this first modern, Hebrew-speaking city has to offer. Yes, I was in school every day, but part of the Ulpan consisted of Hebrew-speaking tours of the city, and even with class, there was time in the evening, at lunch or on my walks to and from class, to explore Tel Aviv’s varied and eclectic neighborhoods, shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. If you love cities and you haven’t spent time in Tel Aviv, you should put her on your short list to visit!
In Jerusalem one feels the weight of thousands of years of history and conflict. The air in Tel Aviv is much lighter and more playful; it’s the big wide open, unrestrained and free! Music, theater, art, it’s all there and it is one of the most GLBT-friendly cities in the world. If you are a fan of Zionist History (which I am), you bump into important sites almost everywhere you walk. For example, just down the street from my apartment is the home of Chaim Nacham Bialik (there is a little museum there) as well as the first real City Hall, another museum which has in it the original desk of Meir Disengoff, the founding father of the city, with the original map of the City he envisioned and helped oversee its construction. Amazing!
Another big plus for me, that I had little if any awareness of until this trip, is the city’s eclectic, and beautiful architecture. Like many things Israeli, one gets the sense that the look of Tel Aviv was improvised; old and new, historic and ultra-modern, renovated and dilapidated, often stand side by side. Yet, there are neighborhoods with integrity (Neve Tzedek ) and there are more examples of Bauhaus Architecture than almost anywhere else in the world (see attached photos).
Of course, Tel Aviv, like any big city, has its problems. A few blocks from where I stayed, next to the ATM where I withdrew sheckels from my Exchange Bank account, a couple of abject, homeless people, slept on the pavement. Besides poverty, there is also a seedy underbelly to the place that one reads about – brothels, organized crime, violence, etc. – but which I did not encounter. Another relatively new phenomena are the estimated 60,000 African refugees mostly from Sudan. The country is at odds with itself over what to do with all these people. My Israeli friends regularly beat themselves up over their treatment. In fact, just yesterday, there were riots in the south of the city – where most of the refugees live. Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israeli Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, called it a “pogrom” against the refugees, not the Jewish residents. Her comments reflect both the tenor of Israeli public discourse, as well as the seriousness of the problem.
What I noticed was that everywhere you go in Tel Aviv, you see Africans working at menial jobs. During one Shabbat dinner at my teacher and friend’s house, Melila Helner-Eshed, I sat next to a Sudanese man and I asked him if he liked Israel? “Betach!/Sure!” he answered. (Hebrew was our common language). “I can work here. I can even have a bank account!” I am proud of the high moral standard many Israelis hold themselves to. It is also evident that, relative to other parts in the region – Egypt, Syria, Jordan– Israel does very well. In fact, that is part of the problem; refugees are making the arduous and dangerous journey to Israel from Africa because it offers so much more than they can find anywhere else in the region if not the world.
Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, began Saturday evening, May 26. It is also the time when our ancient Israelite ancestors celebrated the second and most important grain harvest of the year. Like Sukkot and Pesakh, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival; thousands of people from all over the country would journey to Jerusalem to bring animal and other material sacrifices to the Temple, to pray, eat and yes, party! The agricultural roots of the festivals are lost to most American Jewish communities (and many Israelis as well!); we tend to focus on the spiritual aspects of our ancient rites. Nevertheless, the land still has a story to tell and not just about what it can produce, or our interdependence, but also about who we are as a people then and now. Indeed, HaAretz/The Land, is as great a text as any Torah we have.
In order to see pictures of both Ein Hod and Tel Aviv click here: