Saturday, April 2, 2011

Middle East Recap: Days 4 and 5

Jerusalem, If I Forget You, Let My Right Hand Forget What It's Supposed To Do
--- Matisyahu, Jerusalem

(Read Days 1 & 2 here; Day 3 here)

March 11, 2011
12:45pm:  I'm at the Western Wall.  You can feel the Presence of G-d in the soft breeze here.  Birds perch from the crevices and encroaching branches, chirping and looking down at the pilgrims like a flock of angels.

A bird watching the pilgrims.

March 12, 2011
Eight Israelis joined our group yesterday.  Birthright does this on every trip in order to acquaint us with the human side of Israel by letting us travel with people our age who live here.  Several of the people are soldiers or former soldiers, and a few are civilians.  They all seem nice.  Already I can see why many past Birthright participants consider meeting the Israelis to be the highlight of their trip.

After picking up our new Israeli companions, we went to "The Old City" in Jerusalem, which was originally the only inhabited part of Jerusalem.  Old City is Surrounded by high walls designed to protect against invaders and wild animals.  Walking through the winding alleyways within the neighborhoods, you could understand why people had once been reluctant to leave the enclosed safety of the old city for a more exposed life on the hills.

Cats!  In a basket!

We paused for a break in the Jewish Quarter and one of our trip leaders distributed "bagelehs" for us to share.  They looked like elongated American sesame bagels---as if two people fought over the uncooked dough and stretched it out in their tug-of-war.  We sprinkled it with a delicious green middle eastern spice called zaatar, which is a mix of salt, sesame seeds, thyme, and oregano.  It was DELICIOUS!  Soft and warm, and a bit less dense than the bagels we're used to here.  The shape was fun, and the zaatar was a wonderful, flavorful way to season the bread without the added fat and calories of cream cheese.

Bagelehs!  My new obsession!

Photo Op in the Jewish Quarter.  From L-R: Dave, Amanda, Eric, Scott, Jeff, Tracey, Robbie, Me.  Photo courtesy of Beth.

Our guide pointed out several Christian landmarks as we made our way through the old city, including the believed spot of Jesus's last supper.

Supposed spot of the Last Supper.

We ended up at the Western Wall.

This landmark was once one of the walls surrounding the Jewish people's most holy temple, built on the holiest spot in our religion called the Temple Mount (aka Mount Moriah).  Some Jews believe that the Temple Mount was the place where the first man was created from dust, hence its holiness.  The temple that once existed there had been built, destroyed, rebuilt, and re-destroyed; many Jews believe that it will be rebuilt a third time when the Messiah comes.  It was interesting to hear talk of the Messiah, incidentally---I'm not particularly religious and I don't believe that man was created from dust, but I've always associated the idea of a "messiah" with Christian religions.  I forget that Judaism also believes in the messiah---the difference is that Jews don't think the messiah has come yet, while Christians believe he has (from what I understand).

It was interesting to see a sign discussing the presence of the Divine as a matter of fact.  I suppose this is the difference between a religious state and a secular one.

As a second aside, I hope I'm not making people uncomfortable by discussing the religious aspect of my trip.  From my perspective, I'm talking about this side of things academically.  Hopefully that's the way it's coming across!

In any case, the Western Wall is an incredibly holy site for Jews because this particular wall is closest to the Temple Mount (I think).  Many people make a pilgrimage to pray at the wall, and it is traditional to leave a note for G-d shoved within the cracks between the stones.

The white spots are notes.

Interestingly, the notes must sometimes be removed to make space for the thousands upon thousands of new prayers...but since the notes are written directly to G-d they are considered holy paper and they cannot be destroyed or thrown out.  Instead, the notes are all buried underground somewhere in Jerusalem.  It's powerful to think that a page I just tore out of my travel journal a minute earlier became "holy" as a matter of law as a result of my actions with it.  There's a metaphor there!

I wrote a reflection yesterday while standing by the wall, so I won't repeat myself.  Frankly, I did not feel as emotionally overcome as I thought I might---the Western Wall is also called The Wailing Wall since many visitors are moved to tears by being there.  Thinking about the birds as watching over us, as I wrote, did move me deeply.

Genders are separated at the wall.  This is the women's half.

Way more stuff happening on the men's half.  Photo courtesy of Regan, who is pictured wrapping tefillin.

Mother and daughter on the women's half.

For some reason, the presence of the birds really moved me.

Still, I felt a very powerful sense of gratitude.  I was grateful to have the opportunity to see all of this, and grateful that it was so easy for me to just walk right up to the wall.  As Yael (our tour guide) told us, there have been many times in Jewish history when we weren't even allowed near the wall.  I even felt grateful for my lack of emotion, to whatever extent that lack was based on my own privilege and freedom from oppression.

After leaving my prayer in the wall and mentally reciting the one Hebrew prayer I could remember, I slowly backed away from the wall.  According to tradition, you may not turn your back to the wall after leaving a note, so you walk backwards---slowly, periodically checking over your shoulder for obstacles or people behind you.  It felt surprisingly unsilly, and more eerily reverent.

 Retreating from the wall.

Yesterday was Friday, and sundown would mark the beginning of Shabbat, so the entire city was on the verge of closing early for the day of rest.  We visited a large market at Mahane Yehuda, which was just swarming with people rushing around to buy the foods they'd need for Shabbat dinner and the next day, since cooking is not allowed on Shabbat.

Me at the market.  Photo courtesy of Ashley.

Yes please.

The vendors wished us "Shabbat Shalom" (a peaceful shabbat) as we reached over piles of glistening pastries to collect our purchases.  Oporopolists (.) displayed beautiful split-open pomegranates bursing with bleeding, ruby red kernels.  For lunch, we ate a Turkish soup called Kubeh, which featured meat dumplings in a sweet beet and tomato broth.  For those who have had kreplach before, the taste was very, very similar.

Once back at the hotel, we showered and prepared for the Sabbath.  The hotel set out a hundred small tea candles and matches so that religious guests could light Shabbat candles, even while away from home.  After Shabbat dinner, we presented skits introducing each new Israeli in our group.  We had to structure them like a commercial or promotion of some kind, and everyone did an amazing job on their skits.  It was nice to learn more about our new participants.

Our skit.  My face is ridiculous.  Notice fellow group member Alexis is an Anthro fan, too!  (She's the one rocking the Braque Bodice Dress!)  Photo courtesy of Beth.

Today, Saturday, was the day of rest, and our bus driver observes Shabbat (i.e., he could not drive until Shabbat ended at sundown).  As a result, our pre-sundown activities today were based mostly in the hotel and involved lectures and group activities.  We began the morning with an optional Hebrew lesson,  led by the Israelis in our group.  We learned how to count, how to ask for a discount in a store, and how to pick people up at bars.  (According to Idan, "Yesh lach mashenu atsuv ba'eynaim," or "Yesh lecha..." if you are talking to a guy, is a winner in Israel.  Translation: "You have something sad in your eyes."  Would that work on you, ladies (and gents)?  What if a beautiful, sun-bronzed Israel was saying it to you?).  I've appended the Hebrew words I learned to the end of this post. :-)

Hebrew lesson, photo courtesy of Patrick.

Our afternoon included a fantastic discussion of Middle Eastern politics led by a man named Neil Lazarus (   We also held a session on Jewish identity that I got a lot out of.  The session included a reading of a short piece called "The Last Jew."  The piece is clearly a hyperbole, but it make me feel as though I want to do something a bit more to observe my religion.  More on this another day.

In the evening once Shabbat was over, we had some free time in downtown Jerusalem (within a three block radius).  I met up with a law school friend, Kiwi, who has been living in Jerusalem this year while clerking for the Israeli Supreme Court.  We had dinner and then began to tear through the list of miscellaneous Judaica I wanted to bring home.  Kiwi had an eagle eye and navigated me deftly through the stores until my entire list was checked off!

We even managed to take care of the most challenging piece---a Star of David necklace for my own use.  You may be surprised that I had any trouble with the shopping component of the trip, but it was more of a struggle than I'd expected.  The trouble with Jerusalem Judaica is that most of it comes from one manufacturer and looks the same in every store.  This isn't a problem if you find something you like (and in fact my menorah and mezuzah are both mass-produced items), but I was struggling with my necklace.  The standard designs didn't call out to me and I was beginning to think I should just settle for something---anything---just to avoid leaving empty handed.  Thankfully, Kiwi took me to a very off-the-beaten-path boutique called Poenta (Israeli phone: 972 2 6240383), where I found a beautiful and unique piece made by a local artist.  It's delicate and vintage-y and I LOVE it.  I already got a ton of compliments on it, including one from a jewelry designer elsewhere!

Kiwi also introduced me to a kind of Israeli chocolate that is mixed with pop rocks.  When you put the chocolate in your mouth, the rocks pop!  She made me buy three bars despite my sidelong glance; this turned out to be very wise, since after I started sharing it on the bus, two bars were gone in a snap!

Image courtesy Washington City Paper (here), who note hilariously that this chocolate is the "preferred snackage of all birthrighters."

So, thanks, Kiwi---you're a rock star!

Now, for a basic Hebrew lesson, courtesy of Idan:


Different ways of saying "What's up?": Ma hamatzav, ma nishmah, ma koreh, ma holech
How to respond to "What's up?": Hakol tov (everything is okay); sababba (cool); lo ra (not bad); lo mashehu (not so good)
Thank you: Toda
Thank you very much: Toda raba
What is your name (to a boy): Eich kore'im lecha
What is your name (to a girl): Eich kore'im lach
My name is ____: Kore'im li ___
Where are you from?: Meh efoh ata?

One through ten: echad, schteim, shalosh, arba, chamesh, shesh, sheva, shmoneh, tesha, eser
Twenty: Essrim (essrim v'echad for 21, essrim v'schteim for 22, etc.)
___-teen: ____ essreh (echad essreh is 11, schteim essreh is 12, etc.)
Thirty: Shaloshim (shaloshim v'echad, etc.)
Forty: Albaim
Fifty: Chameshim
(and so on)
100: Me'ah
I want this: Ani rotsa et
How much does it cost?: Cama zeh oleh?
This is too much: Zeh yoter midai
Give me a discount: Ta'seh li hanakha (just realized I didn't learn the word "please")

No: Lo
Yes: Ken
Yalla: Let's go (familiar)
Cadema: Let's go (formal)

An American Walks Into An Israeli Bar...
Hi honey (to a boy): hi motek
Hey baby (to a girl): shalom buba
You have something sad in your eyes: Yesh lach mashenu atsuv ba'eynaim (to a girl).  To say this to a boy, replace "lach" with "lecha."
You're looking good tonight (to a girl): at nir'et mamash yafeh ha'erev
You're looking good tonight (to a boy): ata nireh mamash yafeh ha'erev
He's hot: oo shevay
She's hot: eleh shevah

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