Thursday, January 31, 2013

Week 1: Welcome, Hebrew, and The City

I can't believe I have already been in this country for a week! It has flown by, but it also seems like it has been forever. I meant to update this sooner, but a combination of a lack of wi-fi and a lot of things to do has lead me to procrastinate as I tend to do too often.

My first day of this adventure was absolutely exhausting and overwhelming. Twenty-four hours of traveling, moving in, and no sleep did not make it a great start. It was like going to college for the first time all over again. I was immediately struck by how much of a minority I would be. I have met a few other non-Jews (affectionately, Gentiles), but the program is overwhelmingly full of Jews from the northeast and midwest who have grown up going to camp together or networking through other means. Many of them have already visited Israel for Birthright or have family here. Most people know at least some Hebrew from Hebrew School or taking classes in high school or college. As alien as I felt in this first situation, I knew I could not fault them for this at all. Growing up so connected to the Presbyterian Church, I have experienced this same sort of networking at Bethelwoods, Montreat, Triennium, or any other Presbyterian event. Even so, I have been able to make connections, such as finding a Pi Phi from Johns Hopkins and some people who know students from W&L. So many people I have met remind me of others in my life from W&L, Camp Shawnee, and high school. Even after a week, I feel like I have known some of these people my whole life.

I have learned that very few students in the program come from below the Mason-Dixon line (like 3). I get called out on saying "y'all" just about every time I say it and have become the token "Southern Belle" who will educate any and all about proper Southern culture. This is especially important for all my friends from Australia, Germany, Argentina, Canada, Russia, and Great Britain who want to learn about American culture. On occasions, the Southern accent has to come out so I remind myself of my roots.

For those of you who don't know, Jews are not abundant in South Carolina and Virginia. I only knew of two Jewish families growing up, and have made Jewish friends in college. I even took an intro to Judaism class last year. However, I am still ignorant. Thankfully, I think that just about everyone has found my inexperience endearing. They are all eager to teach me Hebrew phrases or explain why some people are dressed a certain way. It's especially helpful when shopping for groceries and every single label is in Hebrew. Before I started classes last Thursday, I could only recognize alef. Now I'm up to knowing every character.

I am not on a meal plan and have never really had to cook for myself in my adult life. I knew this going into this experience, and I planned on simply buying ingredients and following recipes. What I didn't count on was the fact that every label and recipe I would find would be in Hebrew. It kind of puts a damper on things if you don't know what kind of cheese you're buying. I bought 4 cups that looked like ramen noodles, which seemed safe to me. When I opened one the other night to eat, I realized it had no noodles. It was just some powder. I decided to put in the water and try it anyway. Once it was finished, I realized I had bought instant mashed potatoes in a cup, which was a pleasant surprise for someone who didn't expect to eat mashed potatoes for six months.

My first month of classes (Ulpan) is kind of like Spring Term at W&L...except it's not warm all the time. I am taking one class of the most basic Hebrew. We meet Sunday through Thursday 9:00-1:30. Most days are honestly a struggle to get through class. I am still adjusting to the time change and early schedule. It is so easy to zone out and fall asleep when you literally don't understand any of the words coming out of the teacher's mouth and the material is so dry. However, I think I actually am learning some Hebrew. My homework is taking less time to process. Having a background in Spanish helps to understand the grammatical portion of the language. The struggle is having to learn two different alphabets: one for reading and one for writing. Once you have learned that, it's still a matter of knowing what the words actually mean. I've found that it's easier for me to speak than to read or to write at this point. I already know how to listen and imitate sounds. It will be a long process, but an essential one for someone living in Israel for 6 months.

Life here is never dull. I live in a single room, which is one of five in our apartment. The view in my room and our living room is absolutely gorgeous. I look right over the city and can see the Dome of the Rock from my desk. The rest of the floor consists of three other apartments with the exact same layout, but their views aren't as great. The people who live in them are amazing, though. They come from all over the US and the world. Each person comes with different background experiences and opinions on everything. I have not gone a single day without having a deep religious or political discussion with people, no matter whether it's 2 am or 3 pm. I end up having the same discussion with multiple people mainly regarding my religious beliefs and reasons for coming to Israel. (I came because I studied Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time senior year in my IB History class. I decided I was going to go to Israel to study it where it all originated. So far, it's been quite enlightening to hear about it from my fellow students.) I tend to avoid the arguments about politics in Israel and leave those to my hot-headed Israeli/New Yorker/Jewish roommate and Canadian/Russian/Israeli/Jewish neighbor. I will be more involved once I know enough to actually have an opinion I consider valid enough to share.

The weeks here operate Sunday-Thursday rather than Monday-Friday. Friday is the Holy Day for the Muslims, and Saturday is the Holy Day (Shabbat) for the Jews. After about 2 pm every Friday, the entire city shuts down. It's basically like Sunday in the South...but a bit more extreme. The bus system and light rail don't operate because it is a Mishnah not to work on Shabbat. This has been expanded to mean operating anything with electricity for the more Orthodox Jews. Last Shabbat was an absolutely gorgeous day, and it was my first opportunity to visit the Western Wall in the Old City. My friend on the floor texted me asking if I wanted to go to the Kotel (Western Wall), and 30 minutes later we were on our way. I'm finding myself to be much more spontaneous here than I normally am, which is a good thing. Walking through the streets of the Old City and seeing so many different people of different faiths displaying that faith in different ways was incredible. Because it was Shabbat, I could not take many pictures while I was at the Kotel. The Orthodox are offended if people disrespect Shabbat. Another Mishnah is that you cannot write on the Sabbath so I was not able to write a prayer and stick it in the Wall. However, I know that I will visit this holy site many more times during my time here. I am so thankful for the opportunity to live 20 minutes away from the holiest of sites for three of the major world religions.

I went to the Wall with my friend on my floor, my roommate, and my roommate's boyfriend who is in the Israeli army. My roommate has been to the Kotel before and was very upset about the overt inequality in the amount of space allotted on the wall to men and women. The women have about a quarter of the space, and it is in the shadows most of the time. It's interesting to stand back and watch the women in the shadows as the men stand, sing, and sway while praying in the sunlight. As a student who took Gender Role Development last term, I find all of the various gender inequalities in this country intriguing. I find myself struggling with the difference of religious practice and culture and masochism, misogyny, and sexism. Ironically enough, I have learned that the Hebrew language may be modified in the next few years to be less chauvinist (if a majority of a group is women, but it has one man, it may be possible to use the feminine word rather than the masculine).

As I approached the wall and watched Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews praying at the Wall, it finally hit me. I am actually living in Jerusalem. I am in Israel. This is the Holy Land. I sat and talked with my roommate about religion, politics, sexism, and history. I sat and absorbed the atmosphere. My thoughts wandered to the beginnings of the Wall that had been built to withstand thousands of years. I thought about how slaves built the Wall that is holy. Slave labor produced this place where "God has never left." I resolved to bring my Bible to the wall the next time I go. I will read the story of how the Temple Mount was built while I sit in its presence. I eventually made my way up to the Wall to stand and pray. I was surprised by how soft the limestone was. I instantly felt connected with the billions and trillions of people who have been to this place and felt a spiritual connection. I saw many small pieces of paper shoved into any cracks available. I saw where the Wall had worn away into footholds so people can sit and touch it while they pray. I leaned against the Wall and simply thanked God for all of the opportunities God has blessed me with, especially for this one. It was a very spiritual connection and brought me to inner peace. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the various quarters of the Old City. We started in the Armenian, and traveled through the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters for at least a small period of time. We met up with other people from the program, and I ended up returning to the Wall later in the afternoon with them. I visited this holy site twice in one day. That is so surreal to me, given that a majority of people never get to go even once.
The Dome of the Rock, the Kotel, and the Mount of Olives

This has been a very full week, and I'm sure the ones to follow will hold just as many adventures and stories. I'll end with a fun fact and food for thought that I learned in Hebrew the other day. The word ir means city in Hebrew. Shalom means peace. The roots ir and Shalom are used in the word Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the City of Peace. Think of the irony of that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

One Week Out!!

In seven days, I will board my plane from Charlotte to JFK. I will then retrieve my bags and continue to endure what I've heard will be a grueling security screening. Then I will board my 11 hour El Al flight to Tel Aviv with other US students studying at Hebrew U. In eight days, I will land at Ben Gurion airport seven time zones away from my home. I will get a shuttle from Tel Aviv to Hebrew U's Mount Scopus campus. I will promptly move into my room in a five-bedroom apartment that I will be sharing with 4 other people I don't know. At some point I will have some sort of an orientation that will include a trip to the local supermarket where I will buy everything that I will need that I don't plan on bringing (which is a whole lot of stuff). In nine days, I begin my first Hebrew class. Of all these things that will happen in these three days, it was my friend Molly mentioning that I start learning Hebrew in nine days that really jumpstarted my pre-departure panic.

However, this isn't a true anxiety attack level of panic. It is simply me getting hit in the head with the fact that this trip is really happening. I've been waiting for four years for this to happen, and it's actually almost here! My panic level is just catching up to my excitement level. I've been pretty fluid and flexible throughout this process. It seems like everyone else around me is stressing about me going to the Middle East for 6 months, but I haven't really been worried. I've had more than enough people ask me if it's safe enough for me to go. My answer: In the words of the beloved Hillary Duff, who just happened to come up in my iTunes tonight, "Why not take a crazy chance?" Just about anyone who knows me knows my strong sense of adventure. I just count this as one of the biggest adventures I've had so far in my life. I plan to fully enjoy this one and continue with more adventures after this one ends.

I'm not really sure what I had planned for this blog post when I began writing, but it has become what I expect many future ones to also be: a collection of musings, tangents, random thoughts, and sometimes just a stream of consciousness.

Hopefully if you have subscribed to the blog, you will receive a notification. Let me know if you thought you subscribed but didn't receive a notification of some sort. I'll try to get it figured out. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Welcome to the World of Blogging

I'm about to embark on my first long-term adventure abroad. In about 2 1/2 weeks, I head to Jerusalem, Israel to study abroad for 5 1/2 months. I've been planning this trip (at least abstractly) since my senior year of high school. In the recent months since this planning has become more of a reality, I have promised many people a way to follow and keep up with my travels in the form of a blog. This will be my first blogging experience besides the days of posting bulletins on MySpace that didn't really mean anything more than doing annoying surveys. If you are a more frequent blogger, please bear with me as I try to find an outlet to process my own thoughts and experiences as well as share them with those who wish to experience them with me. I chose this particular blog site so that people who wish to keep up with me could subscribe to the blog and receive some sort of notification every time I post. I would really rather not have to email individually everyone who cares to read this. I'm not sure exactly how this works, but I'm pretty sure there is a button at the bottom of the page that says "Subscribe." Hope it works for you! If you choose to subscribe, I really appreciate your interest and support in this venture. For those of you at W&L, I wish you a great first day of classes and rush week tomorrow! I'll see you Friday for a last hoorah!