Saturday, January 31, 2009

Holy Mullet!

For all who were wondering if my hair has gotten long, here's Kyle and I in front of the "security" wall in Bethlehem.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vodka-swigging rabbi and stray guardian angels

Friday's services turned out to be rather short--we spent longer walking there than we did at the services--and though it was not officially an orthodox community, the men and women had to sit separately. And, surprise, the gender segregation was not my cup of tea. The men's side was very active in all the prayers, while all the women but three or so sat around barely even reciting them. The rabbi, of course, was with the men, and couldn't be seen by the women because of folding screens. During the very short talk in English, a small upper portion of the screens were opened so the women could peer in at the rabbi, but that was all the contact we had. Still, this was much better than it could have been. Kyle went to one service where the women were all crammed into a space the size of a parking spot. After that service, the men did kiddush (blessing and sharing bread and wine, minus that "blood of Christ" part) and then lobbed their leftover, bitten-into hunk of challah bread over the dividing screen for the women. Nice.

Our service ended so early that we had time to head back to the student village for the free Chabad dinner. The Chabad (a certain type of Orthodox) rabbi was theoretically there to try to get secular Jews to become more observant, but the dinner turned out to have no more of a religious bent than any other Shabbat dinner. This one just included lots of poor students trying to mooch a meal. Let me tell you about the rabbi, though. He gave the impression of a doofy, bumbling American guy in this mid-thirties wearing a rabbi costume. He kept asking Kyle and I if we were sisters or roommates.

Midway through the meal, he brought out two huge bottles of vodka and two smaller ones of banana schnapps, and announced that everyone was to order a shot and then introduce himself to the group. We proceeded, one by one, to tell the rabbi what we wanted (half a shot of vodka, half vodka-half banana [ew], etc.) and say our name to the group. This took a good half hour. The rabbi announced that the second round was "self-service." More food came out. I had thought the rabbi was joking about seconds until he started taking more shots. Then he stood on his chair to give a little talk, during which people were passing the vodka around. Every time it came within arm's reach of the rabbi, he would grab it and pour another half shot. He'd toast, drink, and continue. When people started to get rowdy, he pounded the huge bottle on the table to get their attention. The guy was trying so hard to be heard that he started losing his voice, which prompted even more frequent vodka shots--as much as one every half sentence--in order to moisten his throat.

By the end of the talk, of course, the rabbi was drunk as a skunk. He started singing traditional Shabbat songs and pounding on the table with his vodka bottle. A pipsqueak adolescent who was at the dinner (why? I dunno) had had his own shot of vodka, and had weaseled another shot or two from the crowd. This kid decided that the bottle-pounding was a great idea. He picked up an empty schnapps bottle and imitated the rabbi. By the second or third tap, the bottle shattered and everyone shooed the kid away. The evening concluded with the rabbi dancing with three of the male students, who took turns wearing his hat.

So that was Friday.

Saturday evening, Kyle and I went to Bethlehem for a party. Long story short, getting home was something of a production. Around 2:30 am we got a ride to the checkpoint , where there was a little market set up outside with everything from coffee to canned tuna. We had to step over about fifteen men lounging on the entrance ramp outside. Whether they were waiting for an appointed time to cross through, were homeless, or just thought it would be a great idea to take a snooze there, we're still not sure. We proceeded through the deserted, fluorescent-lit checkpoint maze as someone yelled in Hebrew over the loudspeaker. There were no soldiers in sight at most of the expected places, but they must have been watching us because they buzzed us through a couple of doors. Finally, after watching a Palestinian guy have to show his ID, special papers, finger prints, blood type, and DNA swab (kidding on only the last two) to a nineteen-year-old soldier who was paying more attention to telling a story to her colleague, we gave a quick flash of our US passports and exited.

On the other side, we started walking toward Jerusalem in search of a taxi. A medium-sized, collarless dog came bounding up to us just outside the checkpoint and Kyle and I each tried to jump behind the other in fear of a canine attack. Rather than biting us, the mutt was just running up in greeting. He ran ahead a bit and sniffed around, then continued forward. Kyle noticed a similar dog several hundred meters behind, who kept trailing us. After a few minutes, we realized that effectively, we were being escorted by the two mongrels. It was 3am, the streets were deserted, and the evening was starting to feel surreal. Our buddies escorted us in safety for about 20 minutes until we flagged down an off-duty bus, who whisked us farther toward civilization, where we picked up a cab.

Thanks to Kyle's new video camera, we have these lovely grainy movies of our protectors.

Rear guard:

Front escort:

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shabbat for the uninitiated

Last week Friday, Kyle smuggled me in to services at a "conservative" synagogue, one of the most liberal places of Jewish worship in the city. Dinner followed in the attached yeshiva, or religious school, where men study Torah full-time. She told me I had passed well for a Jew, but I'm not so sure. My light hair and eyes betray my Gentile identity, but fortunately, thanks to the desert air and he fact that I haven't cut my hair since I left Chicago, I have a semi-authentic looking Jew-'fro.

My resume of previous Jewish religious experience was short. I went to Friday services at Tufts U Hillel a couple times freshman year with friends. The first time, I was the only one in the temple with bare shoulders (a result of seeking wardrobe advice from a guy so gay that he didn't even know what women wore to Temple, he was so busy checking out the men). After the service, when the guy with whom I was mildly obsessed wished me "Shabbat shalom" and tried to kiss me on the cheek, I had no idea what was going on and accidentally turned my head away. On another occasion freshman year, my blonde goy roommate got drunk on two glasses of Manichewitz and spent the rest of dinner flirting with the rabbi. Then, for much of my junior and senior years, I served as unwitting Shabbat goy at the weekly Friday night dinner. On the upside, all of us student caterers got to drink bellyfuls of (kosher) Dr Brown's cream soda and eat leftover latkes.

Tonight, I am willingly being dragged to a different Shabbat service, which might be followed by dinner at the rabbi's house. If anyone out there believes in some sort of god, please pray I dont make an arse of myself!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Goy among the Chosen

I had hoped that I'd already put in my time with the culture shock fairy, but she seems to be following me around the world. What is this strange place? I pester Kyle with questions but we are the blind leading the blind. Further, I don't know a thing about Judaism. It's allegedly all about the same god I knew from my Catholic upbringing, but without Jesus, sin, heaven, or hell. What's left?!?

I've been going to Bethlehem twice a week to volunteer at a small nonprofit that does recreationel education for Palestinian kids. It's run by some conservative Christians from the states, which has been a sort of culture shock of its own, despite the fact that the org itself is not religious. Whereas my last job conditioned me to cringe at any mention of religion in a grant application, now I'm editing proposals to Christian foundations that ask questions about our org's "statement of faith," "systematic prayer," and philosophy on converting the "lost." Oy vay. To further offend my American penchant for separation of church and, well, everything, Israeli ID cards include the bearer's religion. I miss the French and their laspsed Catholicism. (And their croissants. And pig products and soft, salted butter.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

No cause for alarm

So, it seems there is a war going on. One of Kyle's roommates had two classes cancelled the other day because her professors got called up. Professors. Called up. Professors! Other than the stray academic ditching the University in favor of combat, life goes on as normal here.

We spent New Year's Eve in Tel Aviv at a tacky British pub that had Strongbow on tap. I was still in the thick of the "French Crud"--the potent, fever-inducing cold that wiped out the whole family over Christmas. On Jan 1st, we reassembled my bike, which had been taped up for the plane in a box that was my approximate height and about three times my width. We wheeled the baggage-laden bike to the central bus station. A security guard at the door was checking everyone's bag on the way in, but Kyle sweet-talked him into letting us in with the bike, and the guard didn't even look at any of the huge bags strapped to it. So much for security.

Getting onto the actual bus was trickier. The bags fit into the cargo space easily, but the space next to the open hatch was filled with huge suitcases from all the other passengers. The hatch doors on the other side of the bus, where there was space, were closed. Two thin, middle-aged Asian men saw Kyle and I trying to figure out how to fit the bike. "Push!" one of them said. The two of them proceeded to wave us out of the way, bend 90 degrees at the waist, and shove the heap of suitcases toward the back of the cargo hold. The bus driver started honking at us, and finally, with a little more shoving, we fit the bike. As soon as we got to Jerusalem, Kyle fell victim to the French Crud.

A few days later, when Kyle had started to kick the Crud, we ventured out to the Old City. In one afternoon, we saw the holiest Jewish and Christian sites in the world: the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The 2000-year-old W-Wall was part of the retaining wall that held the Temple Mount, on which the Second Temple was built. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, and this bit of wall is the holiest part of what's left of the original construction. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the places where Jesus was crucified and buried. One can actually go see his tomb.

The day after our trip through biblical history, we decided to try a more modern excursion: to Jerusalem's mall. The way there involved a minor bus mishap, where we went to the northern outskirts of the city, only to find ourselves at the end of the bus line opposite the location of the mall. When we finally arrived, we had to stand in a ten-minute line to have our bags checked and walk through a metal detector before we were unleashed in a huge, US-style, indoor mall. We made a bee-line for the food court and were rewarded with lukewarm, kosher Chinese food. Delicious. We walked around the stores for awhile and then saw a bad American movie. Halfway through, a Hebrew word flashed on the screen and the lights came up. Was the film broken? Did we have to evacuate to a bomb shelter? No one around us seemed to be alarmed. It was only intermission.

Monday, January 5, 2009