Thoughts on J-Street 2013

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Just got back from the fourth national J Street Conference, themed “Our Time to Lead,” and feeling– overall– underwhelmed. I think the biggest disappointment was the relative sparseness of discussion of occupation– or, in the rare moments it was directly addressed– the noticeable lack of detail offered up by panelists on what occupation actually looks like on the ground, for real people.

Of course, J Street is a PAC, and one that speaks in big catchphrases– “Peace Talks,” and “Two State Solution,” and “Pro-Israel.” So that’s no big surprise. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the two-state solution, or liberal Zionism I take issue with. Contrary to many of my friends and most role model activist colleagues, I actually believe that a two state solution is a) viable and b) just. But our camp needs to stop dancing around the terminology and recognition of occupation and all the dirty details that come along with it!
Livni, Tzipi

(Tzipi Livni, MK & Chief Israeli Negotiator)

I do, however, want to give props to Danny Seidemann of Terrestrial Jerusalem for fighting occupation & settlement expansion in East Jerusalem head on, claiming that “Jerusalem is a dragon that cannot be slain, and so it must be housebroken.”… Meaning: We need to be realistic about what a peace treaty will entail, and stop mythologizing peace as a concept. Treating important final status issues like Jerusalem (or refugees, or land swaps) with either reverent nationalistic speech (“Jerusalem will never be divided!”), or worse– impatient waves of the hand (“Let the crazy religious people have it!”)– has always pissed me off: and Seidemann argues that it doesn’t get us anywhere. In fact, the opposite. He explained to us in a panel this morning that if we don’t recognize that Jerusalem must be divided and shared (East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, West as the capital of Israel, and the Old City as a shared zone governed by international bodies & religious leaders), E-1 will be built and we’ll lose our dwindling chance for a two state solution in this decade… and there will be bloodshed.

Other highlights included Merav Michaeli on women in Knesset, Bernard Avishai on how Israel can represent all its citizens while maintaining its Jewish character, and Amal Al Hooj, who schooled MK Ruth Calderon  (whom I admire for her stance on Jewish pluralism) on the issue of treatment of minorities (such as the Bedouin) within a democratic state that is obsessed with giving preference to Jews over non-Jews.

I’d go again next year, but if these negotiations don’t get very far, I don’t really know if there’ll BE a next year for the 2 state lobby… Without an end to  denial politics, occupation, and settlement expansion in Israel, there will be no two state solution.

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Rushing to Relax

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I had a mild hump-day/Park Slope co-op induced anxiety attack this evening, following my third day back in New York. After a long month of pure relaxation on consecutive vacations in Israel and California, I don’t think my body (or psyche) was able to adjust to such a rapid change in pace of life.

I flew from San Francisco to New York Sunday at the crack of dawn, stayed up all night unpacking and moving rooms, and started work at the Jewish Disaster Response Corps Monday morning. So far, I love the job– Adina, the executive director, is wonderful and welcoming. She’s organized and motivated, and I think we’re going to make a great team. I’m playing the role of program director, which means coordinating all logistics, curriculum, and communication for the service-learning trips we’ll be running in Oklahoma in January and March. Those trips will focus on helping rebuild from the massive tornadoes that struck the state in May, but the JDRC also mobilizes volunteers for Hurricane Sandy relief, and any other major natural disasters that might hit the US throughout the year.

In any case, between switching time zones, starting a new job,  and trying to get back in the swing of things at Moishe House all in the same week– grocery shopping, joining a gym, oh, right… and the High Holidays… things have been a bit hectic. I finished work and rushed home, trying to make it back in time to join an interfaith walk for 9/11 remembrance day in Brooklyn. I think I bit off a bit more than I can chew, given that I spent the past two evenings out catching up with friends and needed desperately to make phone calls and answer emails. So I decided to drop my stuff off and head to the Park Slope co-op to do some grocery shopping for the next few days.

The co-op, God bless it, is a bit disorganized when it comes to keeping track of memberships. I’ve had issues with them in the past, but always written it off as a lovable quirk that comes along with belonging to a super funky, hip and healthy alternative to big box grocery chains. You trade in your pesticides and jacked-up prices for a bit of kookiness & the occasional accidental suspension of your account thanks to some colossal error in the membership office.

Tonight, though, I didn’t have the patience. I had an hour to shop and get home with groceries before a yoga class I desperately wanted to get to in order to blow off some steam, but the co-op had other plans for my evening. After being told I was suspended for being on leave, I navigated through several clerical SNAFUs with the friendly yet discombobulated membership coordinator, and finally thought I had my account all squared away aside from several phone calls I’d have to make later to clear up several errors he wasn’t authorized to fix and switching a shift I already knew I had to miss. Whew. As the coordinator so cheerfully informed me, “You’re good to shop!”

Wrong. I got through my quick run of the store and handed the cashier my membership card. “You’re not authorized to shop right now because you’re suspended. I can’t override,” he told me apologetically. “You’re gonna have to go settle this with the membership office.”

I fumed. “It’s getting to be more work to shop here than not!” I told him, knowing it wasn’t his fault. He looked sympathetic. All co-op members have been through the whole rigamarole at one point or another… most of them numerous times… and he could relate. I left my purse and cart with the confused looking line manager and dashed through the co-op and up the flight of stairs back to the membership office, waited with waning patience as the membership coordinator explained the seemingly never-ending list of ways one can prove his or her residence to a prospective new member, and then begged him to kindly update my account status so I could go back down and pay for my groceries.

By the time I got back down, waited in line again, and paid, I was going to have to make a mad dash to get home and unpack the frozen items before jetting over to yoga. Breathless and heart racing wildly, I thought to myself, “Oof, what a ridiculous hump-day co-op induced anxiety attack,” shortly followed by, “I need an Ativan,” … and “Hey, that’s good, I should tweet that!” Of course I couldn’t reach my smart-phone while balancing my box of groceries and speed-walking down 5th avenue, so I decided it could wait ’til I got home. Still though, the oh-so-clever line stuck in my head on repeat, as I simultaneously thought of the massage I wanted to book, the dinner I wanted to make, the email I had to send, and the yoga class I now needed to sprint to in order to be there the necessary fifteen minutes early to get a spot in the eternally jam-packed studio. My heart rate spiked and sweat ran down my forehead in bullets.

The sad part, I have to admit, is how common this type of experience is. We pop xanax and valium as we rush to yoga, facebook message furiously as we walk the 10 feet from work to the subway, and make mental note of the tweets/emails/facebook messages we want to send the second we get out of the subway and back into wi-fi. Even as I type this, I’m panicking about how I have to confirm my soccer team roster, write a blurb for a poetry workshop, pick a day to volunteer with my ESL student, and somehow make time to say hello to my roommates who have also just returned from various parts of the world. Not to mention ten billion other enjoyable activities I’d love to plan and meals I’d love to cook if I could just make space in my brain to make it all happen!

If scheduling a massage, joining a peace march, writing a blog post, and making it to a yoga class have turned into stressful events, then what on earth CAN we turn to when we need to take the pressure off? I realized things today have gotten a bit ridiculous when I looked down at my to-do list and saw “Map out free time,” jotted down just underneath “Lie on floor and stretch,” “Call Dad for his birthday,” “Go Outside to sit in the backyard” and “Decorate Room” as if those were stressful chores that need to be in my google calendar with plentiful reminders if they’re ever going to happen. How sad is that??!!

The state of affairs in our modern day life, especially in fast-paced cities like New York lived out by overachiever, neurotic Jewish- joiner types like myself, has the potential to really screw up our priorities. As I take a breath now to breathe, letting my fingers slow down just a tad from their typing, I wonder what I can cut out to make my life a little more sane. It’s a new year on the Jewish calendar, and some reflection is in order.

The truth is, I don’t know what I can cut out. But I better figure it out soon. As soon as I post this blog post on facebook so all my friends can like it.

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A Punctuated Peace

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(View of Nablus, Palestine from above)

Today, we got bad news that one of our participants has been detained at the Allenby border crossing between Jordan and Israel and will not be allowed to enter Israel without first acquiring some kind of Palestinian ID (since her mother registered her when she was young on the Gaza population registry, though she is a Canadian citizen). If that goes through, and she’s allowed to enter the West Bank, she’ll then have to apply for a special permit to enter Israel… which could take weeks, or even months—rendering the effort completely useless since she’d miss our whole trip.

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A frustrating start to the day, especially since I woke up so sweetly, as the men next door were chanting and singing in beautiful, rich, deep voices the prayers for Shabbat morning. I felt so lucky to be in Jerusalem, and in typical Middle East fashion, the beauty was punctuated by strife & conflict. We’re working on pressuring the Canadian Embassy to help get her in. Fingers crossed.

The rest of the day was busy, despite it being Shabbat for everyone else in our neighborhood: Matt and I spent a bunch of time finalizing our itinerary, decorating the apartments, drawing up Hebrew and Arabic lesson plans, and hanging out with our first participant to arrive successfully. We all napped in the afternoon, then headed into the Old City for a stroll.

It had finally cooled off, and people were milling about in the streets in that special end- of-Shabbat fashion… not rushing, but pulsing with excitement as the week draws nearer and nearer. Kids were running everywhere, lovers were canoodling along the ramparts of the old city watching the moon rise, and our footsteps echoed softly on the slick white stones of the city floor.

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We visited the Kotel, arriving just in time to hear the men chanting Havdalah prayers, as we women stood on the other side of the mechitza to listen and pray along silently. For the first time ever, I wondered how bad it really is to just listen to the men sing. Though I softly chanted along in my own voice, I—for just a flickering moment—thought it was rather nice to be serenaded from across the divide. Someone passed me a sprig of mint to awaken the senses, and I awoke from my romantic reverie.

I prayed at the wall, draping my scarf around my head like a tallit, asking for a peaceful and healthy trip for all of us. We then wandered back through the Arab quarter, stopping for baklawa and dodging the street sweepers and teenage boys hauling empty boxes away from the shuk.

When we emerged from Damascus Gate, we heard cheering, and ascended the steep stairway to find the finals of “Arab Idol” being broadcast from a projector and perhaps a hundred excited Palestinians gathered around, standing on cars and leaning on gates cheering on Mohammad Assaf (a Gaza-born Palestinian refugee and aspiring pop idol) croon out traditional Palestinian love songs. People waved flags of black, green, and red, and twirled checkered black and white kaffiyeh in the air as their roar rose and fall with the honking of cars and the appearance of Nancy Ajram on screen.

I spoke with a middle-aged woman, a teacher, who knew Mohammad when he was young… “He always had a beautiful voice,” she told me. “We are so proud… and he will win!” Her excitement was contagious, and we ended the night by clapping along to the highlights reel as people whooped and cheered, hoping this one Palestinian boy would bring pride to their people… and a symbol of victory to all peoples who find a way to rise above the prison of their oppression.

Shavua Tov, and Goodnight. 

Jerusalem, if I forget you…

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If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill…

-Psalm 137:5

I had a conversation this evening with an Israeli war hero  about Israel and its importance, in contrast to the diaspora, for global Jewry. I argued that the connection Jews have to this land is real, but he minimized the difference in Jewish value & history between Israel and the Diaspora. His claim seemed to be that while Israel is beautiful and important and sacred, the history and places of Diaspora Jewish communities are equally as central to Jewish peoplehood. I disagreed, though I could see his point.

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(me on the roof of our apartment in Nahlaot)

One thought I didn’t have while we were talking, but that just now occurred to me in the shower, is that perhaps I and other Diaspora Jews still place strong significance on Israel and the holy land because we have yet to live in it. Sure, we visit, and develop stronger connections to our identity, and stronger aversion to the social and political ills of the place, but we don’t ever really get to claim it as our own. Our opinions and hopes are, at best, received as suggestions rather than normative claims. Our critiques are cast off as ignorance. Our knowledge only skims the surface of the tanakh because we, unlike Israelis, don’t get to set foot the dirt our ancestors walked on each and every day, nor can we point at a tree in our backyard and explain its significance. We don’t know how to navigate the desert, nor fly planes into Lebanon on heroic missions with a bravery that only comes from mandatory civil service and a mandate to protect your country at all costs.

We only know how to clutch on to the past, and reimagine the future, to adapt, filter, and modify the traditions of our ancestors. We rarely touch anything directly. We empathize with Palestinians but support Israelis out of loyalty, and never really feel the conflict in a way that impacts our immediate safety or well-being. We try nobly to keep the Shabbat, but our country does not provide us with the moral support, that deliciously quiet hour where the siren rings and everyone slips out into the silent streets to walk to shul, or sing, and feel the peace of the Sabbath. Maybe we need our chance to make the desert bloom, and give our Sabra friends a break from carrying the weight of Israel on their shoulders. Country swap, anyone?

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Golden Gate Hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City

Sunday, June 16 11:50pm

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I have an entire six-bed room to myself here in the Old City, in a nice hostel tucked just behind the Damascus Gate. I’m playing Grateful Dead, catching up on emails, and frolicking around. There are no windows, but a large photograph of a Greek Orthodox church is plastered to the far wall. The ceiling is stone, the beds look like those of adorable Christian orphans. It’s warm, but not hot.  I feel a bit displaced, but also content.

I spent today drinking coffee and schlepping around Jerusalem with Matt running errands, finalizing itineraries, and checking out our new digs. We met the people who are subletting to us: really nice Israeli students who are headed to the US to do some adventuring of their own. Our apartment is cute, airy, and tucked away in a flowering alley of Nahlaot: a religious neighborhood that’s become newly trendy in recent years for students and young professionals. Very excited to live there, and get to know a different part of Israel.

Later this week, Matt and I will visit Nablus, and possibly Ramallah. Today, we met with a man named Yehuda HaKohen who believes strongly that Jews and Arabs should have no beef with each other, but rather with capitalist westernizing influences. He’ll be speaking with our students about the one state solution and why he supports it. The students arrive a week from today. I can’t wait to meet them.

Jerusalem definitely feels different from Tel Aviv: more religious, less sexy, and more stone than sand. But I’m keeping my mind open for this new experience, and hoping it brings some beautiful and challenging experiences. Shavua tov l’kulam!

Amsterdam

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Sitting here in the comfortable grey city of Amsterdam, sipping a cappuccino at a café in an alley, with a pretty red flowerpot in front of me and a sweet couple celebrating what must be an anniversary beside me. I sit on a wooden bench with a small wooden table on the side patio. Across the way is one of Amsterdam’s many canals. A bright graffiti decorating the brick wall in front of me, and of course several cute bikes leaned up against it. A gaggle of hooligan boys walked by just a moment ago, before stopping to pause outside of “Club 21- Thai Massage” with a heart saying “love” above the sign. They stop, and one of them hesitantly enters. The rest wait outside, with their arms crossed like guards.

Though I’m tired, I’m glad I took the train into the city here. I love the feeling of traveling. Sitting outside with the breeze on my face, watching the Dutch pass by on their bicycles. The city is beautiful, with a classic European feel of wide streets, canals, alleys, and beautiful architecture adorned in gold. It feels old, and quaint, but young. Backpackers spot the streets, and cute older people ride by in their bicycles decked out to look like gardens, or strange creatures. Tanned, blonde 20-somethings speed by on motorbikes, weaving in and out of the foot traffic.

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There are weed cafes and headshops, but they’re not as prevalent as I would’ve expected. Apparently, the city has cracked down a bit on weed—foreigners are supposedly no longer allowed to purchase? Not sure. Speaking of addicting things, I did wander into the Old Amsterdam Cheese shop, where every type of their 20+ cheeses was on sample. It’s funny how you can see the same cheese in a Trader Joes at home, but then again the forces of globalization should no longer surprise me at this point. I also took note of a Starbucks in the Amsterdam central train station, and a Maoz falafel joint packed with Europeans. The accents here are adorable: clicking, dipping, and sing-songing. The Dutch seem very friendly, and nurturing on my first impression.

I’ve now gulped down my cappuccino, sweet with sugar at the bottom, and stopped to ponder how I’ve gotten to where I am. After a 7.5 hour plane ride from John F Kennedy, I’m in Europe. It’s amazing how quickly one can be in a totally different setting. Just this morning, I was rushing around the house, despairing over the job decision, and hugging Melissa goodbye. Benji, Ellie, and Melissa saw me off this afternoon—Benji clapping and cheering as I hoisted my backpack on my back and walked out the door on Baltic Street. So easy! Just put on a backpack, head to the train station, and go! I guess I’m a veteran traveler now.

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I had a nice nap in the Amsterdam airport—they, like most foreign hubs, realize that weary travelers will have long layovers that are much more pleasantly spent napping on reclining chairs with a soundtrack of “rain sounds” and a screen of peaceful scenes from the city. I kicked off my shoes & socks, swaddled myself in the stolen airport blanket, wrapped a spare long sleeve shirt around my eyes and passed out in my pink neck pillow. Ahhh.

In an hour, I’ll meet my friend Yardena for a beer on the main tourist drag. On my way over, I wandered by accident into the red light district, which straddles another canal. I had no idea, but turning my head left I suddenly was startled by the sight of a scantily clad woman in a window. I thought she was a mannequin, but then she moved! Her eyes falsely wide, painted red lips, cliché lingerie getup. How strange! I awkwardly stumbled along, and then noticed that on every side of me were these girls in the windows. Some of them beckoning to men in suits passing by, but many of them looking bored and texting on their cell phones. Some sat in pouf chairs, and some stood in tall stilettos. I looked to my right, and two dirty swans floated, cleaning themselves in the canal. I hurried along, not knowing what to make of things, but feeling uncomfortable. Every man I passed in the street was a suspect… some looked old and decrepit, some dignified, but most looked young, straggly, & and excited.

As I walked along past erotic and exotic sex shops, peep shows, and “room for rent” signs, I wondered whether I should turn down an alley and escape. But I was also transfixed. Advertised on every woman-less dark window was a list of three or four women’s names, with phone numbers. I saw some large women, some young and sorority-like, but the strangest sight was a woman who turned to face me as I passed. She looked about seventy, with large sagging breasts and dyed brown hair. Hanging from her weathered mouth was a cigarette, her legs encased in fishnet and her eyes lined in thick black kohl. Startled, I scurried onward… needing to meet Yardena.

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A short, but interesting visit in Amsterdam. Next up, Jerusalem! 

En Route to Amsterdam

Listening to Dylan, my face bathed in the glow of the seatback screen and this laptop. I’m on my way to Amsterdam, and then on to Israel for Operation Groundswell. I feel oddly calm, though I did have a moment of panic on the ascent that there’s no turning back now. I spent hours today deliberating over a job decision: ultimately I went with my instinct (which was none too strong anyway) to accept the position of volunteer coordinator of the Jewish Disaster Response Corps. I hope it will be good. I hope I will make a difference. I hope I won’t be on the computer all the time. I hope it’s a good use of my talent and passions. I guess we’ll find out in September. I want to hear stories, and tell them still. I hope that the people of Oklahoma will have use for that.

 

Until then, I’m in Israel. Leading this trip that I can’t quite picture yet. Very excited to be back in Israel. I love it there. I hope I don’t get sick or hurt. I hope I’m a good leader. I hope the students have the time of their lives, or at least that they’re glad they went.

 

I went to a weeklong creative writing workshop last week in Amherst. Realized how little I really know about reading: and how rarely I actually read literature anymore. I want to do more of it. Tell stories. Write. Express myself. Finish my Jaffa stories, make sense of it all, and help others do so too.

 

Not much else to say, I guess. I’m listening to Dylan. It’s weird being an adult. I sort of accept things as they are much more than I did when I was younger. I feel less idealistic, less grandiose in my dreams, less angsty. I pray for happiness for my friends. I take interest in the stories and thoughts of my grandparents and ancestors. I miss my family, and hope to be close to them sometime in the near future. I hope to get married and have a family with someone I love, and who loves me. I hope to create something that helps humanity. If it’s my writing, great. If it’s just a smile, or a bit of ease or empathy in troubled times, even better.

 

I don’t know how much I believe in a higher power these days. I certainly don’t leave much space for it. I want more prayer and meaning in my life, as always, but yet my life feels rather full without it too. I do a lot of Jewish activities, and wonder what it is that makes me Jewish other than my ancestry. What do I believe in, if not just humanity and love? Not sure. I don’t even think of the environment anymore, too much. Am I complacent, or just content?

 

Hanna’s meeting me in Tel Aviv this August. I can’t wait. I’m sure she’ll be married soon, so it’ll be nice to spend quality time with her, just us. In Israel. Enjoying the beach, the holy sites, the desert. Drinking cool drinks and eating sweets in cafes. I pray it will be safe. I pray there will be peace and no danger. I know better than to hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict… more likely, things will follow the course of history here in America…. Where inevitably the newcomers take over and suppress the natives, and claim their destiny in the land of promise. And then things will evolve from there. But I pray if that happens, there will be no more bloodshed. I pray Israel will respect multiculturalism. I pray it won’t stamp out Palestinian, African, Mizrahi culture. I pray people will respect each other. I pray no more children will die, or teenagers. I pray adults can live out their lives.

 

And For No Reason

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Last night, in honor of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, we hosted a poetry workshop on themes of joy, sadness, and conversations with the divine. It was guided by my new favorite poet, Elana Bell… who writes powerful stuff about Israel, Palestine, and everything else that crosses her mind.

At the beginning of the workshop, we played a really cool game called the “Hafiz Game.” You can play it on your own, but it also works in a group. Elana asked us each to concentrate on a question we have about our lives, and then direct it– silently or aloud– to her book of Hafiz poetry. Then, you open the book to a random page and read for Hafiz’s answer!

My question was: “Why do I move around so much?”

Hafiz’s response?

And For No Reason


And

For no reason

I start skipping like a child.


And

For no reason

I turn into a leaf

That is carried so high

I kiss the Sun’s mouth

And dissolve.


And

For no reason

A thousand birds

Choose my head for a conference table,

Start passing their

Cups of wine

And their wild songbooks all around.


And

For every reason in existence

I begin to eternally,

To eternally laugh and love!


When I turn into a leaf

And start dancing,

I run to kiss our beautiful Friend

And I dissolve in the Truth

That I Am.

___

Cool, no? 

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This is What Real Life Looks Like

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(Nobody ever looks like this– perfect hair, perfect, nails, shaved legs, cute nightshirt– while chilling in their room… I repeat, nobody.)


An empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s
, featuring lukewarm chocolate drippings around the folded white cardboard edge—poop stains, if you will– and a too-big metal spoon threatening to tip the carton over. Abdominal cramps and an expired bottle of ibuprofen with the label peeling off from age, that you noisily knock to the floor when you reach to turn off the lamp with the crooked lampshade that’s slowly turning brown in one spot as it’s burnt by the bulb. Rumpled blue flannel sheets, with a  reddish brown stain from the last cycle. Twisted comforter… everything’s warm but not like cozy warm, like awkward warm from a body staying in bed way longer than it should. Continue reading