Thursday, November 19, 2009

I heart Dahab

Goats in the rear view mirror.

We got off the bus in Dahab and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The ride from Cairo took 11 hours. The bus wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected; offering a/c, comfortable seats, and a collection of slap-stick Arabic movies, played continually [and at an alarmingly loud volume]. The scenery we drove through was pretty spectacular – empty desert-scapes, majestic rocky mountain views, and the impressive sight of the Suez Canal.

We got a room at the Red Sea Relax [which might be the nicest place I’ve ever stayed], went for a walk along the beach, and found a restaurant on the water to eat and smoke sheesha.

Then…we got stuck.

The Red Sea Relax


We only intended to stay Dahab for one night; after all, we had things to do, places to see, rocks to climb! But somehow, we decided to stay another day…and then another….and….another…Matt changed his gmail status message to: ‘In Dahab, contemplating not leaving.’

As we spent more time in Dahab, we also met lots of other people who had gotten stuck there for varying amounts of time. Preston had come for 2 days and stayed 8; two Australian girls had come for a week and stayed 3 months; Lorraine had come for a two week diving course and was still there…4 years later. [Lorraine, a British podiatrist-turned-scuba-instructor, and I had a really nice conversation one afternoon about how the grass is always greener, choosing to live outside of ‘normalcy’, and the difficultly of having both things and time.]

It’s pretty easy to understand how people get stuck in Dahab. A laid back international beach community, it offers stunning scenery [rocky mountains plunging into the Red Sea], rock climbing, world class scuba diving, near perfect weather, and excellent food that is shockingly cheap.

I mean…sure…there’s also some downsides: an unstable political status and uncertain future, an incomprehensible and corrupt legal system, rumors of terrorist activity…bomb scares. But really, who’s thinking about any of that when you’re laying in the sun, or staring out over the Red Sea at the breath-taking view of….oh right, that’s Saudi Arabia in the distance.


We only did one day of climbing while we were staying in Dahab. We went to a place called Wadi Gnai, about 20 minutes from where we were staying. We hired Mohammad, a Bedouin guide, to take us out in his 4WD Toyota truck. He insisted on making us tea and cooking us lunch. [?!! How can we get a system like this going in Rumney? Pay for a ride to the crag and it comes with a Bedouin who’s psyched to cook lunch? Don’t worry, I’m just kidding…I’m not really advocating ethnic exploitation…although it was a very enjoyable, and cushy, day of climbing.]

Wadi Gnai.

Mohammad cooking lunch.

The routes we did were fun -- single pitch, on well-bolted granite with super technical balance-y moves. I don’t know why we only did one day…partly out of laziness, I suppose…but hanging out at the beach doing nothing was surprisingly fun. Oh right, so this is what normal people [i.e. non-climbers] do on vacation…I get it now.

We went snorkeling at a place called the Blue Hole, which was amazing. It’s apparently a pretty famous spot for scuba diving and for free diving. [A quick Wikipedia search reveals that a number of the world records for free diving have been set either at Dahab or Sharm-el-Sheik, an hour south.]

I didn’t know that much about free diving before our trip to Sinai, but I’m now convinced that it is one of the more impressive and absolutely insane things that people do voluntarily. The pursuit, also called competitive apnea, involves diving down to absurd depths, under water, with no oxygen. Apparently competitive free divers can put themselves into a meditative state that, when combined with an instinctual survival reflex, initiates several physiological changes [drop in heart rate, constriction of blood vessels, release of oxygenated red blood cells], allowing people to achieve mind-boggling depths…more than 200 m below the surface. 200 m!!??

Here is a video of someone free diving the Arch at the Blue Hole [where we went snorkeling].

I suppose, free diving shares something with free soloing [climbing without a rope] – the drive to push the human body to it’s physical, mental, and emotional limits, the meditative aspect required to attain those limits, the completely non-existent room for error, the face-to-face confrontation with fear…and death.

All I know is that, while some people think rock climbing is scary, it’s got nothing on this. But then again, maybe it’s partly a personal preference…I don’t even really like to be underwater. And I always sucked at that game where you try to hold your breath and swim across the pool.


More goats.

We met a lot of cool people Dahab…3 girls from New Zealand who we, randomly, ran into again a few weeks later in Bethlehem [weird], and several guys who were on epic-ly long backpacking trips…10 months, a year, etc. A bunch of us had dinner one night at this fantastic roof-top seafood restaurant, where we swapped stories about bizarre adventures in random places over a shared mountain of calamari.

I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I came away from the meal feeling like I had somehow really changed a lot in the last couple of years without realizing it. In college I was perfectly happy to wander around Europe or Mexico or India, not knowing what I was doing there or why...just looking around and meeting people. But there on that beautiful restaurant rooftop in Dahab, in the company of a cadre of travelers, I really thought that I might be done with aimless backpacking.

I don’t know what happened…but I just don’t have the same desire to go somewhere for that long unless I have a reason to be there: a project to do, or people to visit…or rock climbing. I’m also just not as psyched about staying in the typical backpacker jaunts, i.e. really gross places – places where you know how dirty the sheets are, or where you put something over the drain at night to keep the roaches at bay. I liked our room at the Red Sea Relax. And while it was really cheap by American standards, it wasn't 10-month-backpacking-trip-cheap.

Oh no…does this mean I’m getting old?


Back in Boston, just in time for winter. What the hell was I thinking? Why didn’t I spend the summer and fall in New England, and then head to Israel in the winter? Why did I go to the Desert for the hottest months and then return to Boston for the coldest?

I flew back Saturday night and arrived in Philadelphia in time for sunrise. We had some mechanical issues on the connecting flight, requiring us to de-plane and apparently steal another aircraft from an unknowing group of passengers. The delay, which really only took about an hour in total, had the effect of visibly annoying a large percentage of the American passengers. There was lots of sighing, eye rolling, and complaining at the injustice of it all.

I don’t know if it was my lack of sleep, the surreal state of mind that is a common side effect of transcontinental travel, or a [Middle-East-induced] newfound tolerance for logistical mishaps, but for some reason I couldn’t share in my fellow passengers’ collective distress. I just sat there, content to be reading Love in the Time of Cholera, and figured we’d get there sooner or later, Insha Allah.

We did. And it’s good to be back. It’s funny the things you miss, without even realizing it…like being able to understand what people are saying, even if they’re not talking to you directly. I mean, it’s not that I make a habit of eavesdropping, but it’s nice to feel like I could, if I wanted to.

The surrealism of boarding a plane in the Middle East, going to sleep, and waking up in America was heightened by a phone call that I received just after landing at Logan. My college roommate, who I love dearly but who’s residence on the other coast prevents me from seeing her often enough, was coincidentally in Boston, staying at the Ritz. [Yes, the Ritz Carleton…just off the Boston Common. The circumstances by which she ended up there are surreal in and of themselves, but unfortunately folks, that is not my gossip to share.] Anyway, I headed over to where the other half lives [or rather, where they stay when they come to Boston], feeling under-dressed and very broke for a wonderful, if incongruous, welcome home.

Since then, surrealism has been slowly dissipating. More often than not, everything seems totally normal and I kindof feel like I never left Boston…except for that reoccurring conversation:

“Oh! You’re back! How was your trip?!”

[Holy shit, where do I even begin? I feel like telling them to read my blog.]

“Um…good. The Middle East is a crazy place.”

“Did you have a lot of fun?”

[Fun…hmm. Not exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think about Cairo, orJerusalem, or the West Bank, but somehow I have a feeling that’s not really where this conversation is going. Better to go with the stock answer:]

“Yea, for sure.”

“Cool. Did you take a lot of pictures? Are you glad to be back?”

“Yes and…um…yes?”


In the next few days, I’ll try to fill in the missing posts from my last few weeks in the Middle East.

Coming Soon:

I heart Dahab

Abdul Aziz Abu Fayed

Climbing Insha-Allah

Israel Road Trip Part 1: Eilat à J-Lem

Israel Road Trip Part 2: The North

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pyramids: never-before-seen photos!

Don’t worry, yes of course we went to the pyramids.

We opted against the hired driver service offered by our hostel [£160] and decided to take the public bus [£2 each] to Giza. This involved locating the public bus station [not obvious], figuring out which bus to take [thank you google], learning the Arabic numerals so we could recognize our bus [we needed not 357, but ٣٥٧], and then, of course, finding it [trust me, harder than it sounds].

I still don’t have a clue where one is supposed to find ٣٥٧, but eventually we asked for help from several uniformed “Tourist Police” who insisted on waiting with us and flagging down our bus when it drove by their post [under 2 intersecting overpasses next to the bus stop]. I assume this isn’t standard procedure, but it worked quite well. In general, being female and sweetly asking men in uniform for help usually works out okay. And in this region especially, there seems to be an indirect correlation between the rights women have in a particular culture and the willingness in that culture for officials to help out a lost-looking American female.

Honestly, the bus ride was kindof miserable – hot, loud, crowded, and filled with an almost overwhelming amount of car exhaust – but it was cheap and it got us to Giza relatively unscathed. I say “relatively” because I suffered a bit of personal discomfort after being groped by an old man with a bandage on his head sitting behind me. Without thinking, I immediately turned around and yelled “stop touching me!” publicly embarrassing both him and myself. After my outburst, the man immediately got up and exited the bus and I looked around to see dozens of Egyptian male faces staring back at me. Ick.


So… the pyramids are cool.

I don’t really know what else to say.

They are definitely big, impressive, and…pyramid-shaped. I mean, you know what they look like.

When I was there, I kept thinking about that book, Ways of Seeing, where Alan Berger writes about the irony of making a pilgrimage to the Louve to witness the “authentic” Mona Lisa after seeing millions of reproduced images over the course of one’s lifetime…only to feel disappointed by the diminutive size of the original.

We went inside the great pyramid to see the tomb, which was cool and bizarre, and a bit claustrophobic [not much air flow in there]. The surrounding area was, like the Egyptian museum, strangely devoid of signs, maps, and explanatory information and, surprisingly, filled with scantily-clad white foreign tourists. I mean, I’m not an overly modest person, but when traveling in Muslim countries I tend to observe a rather conservative dress code [in an effort to avoid, for example, getting molested on public buses.] I figured this would be standard in Cairo, but it’s not…we saw all sorts of women wearing all sorts of things I would never think to wear in public in the U.S., let alone in Egypt – bikini tops, see-through blouses, shorts with the same approximate coverage as my underwear.

Seriously?! Who goes to a museum wearing a bikini? At Matt’s request, I’ve included the following colorful description: “One girl, in particular, was wearing shorts that would make a stripper blush; a full 1/3 of each butt cheek was hanging out at any given moment. In fact, she was wearing less than any of the strippers we saw in Vegas last week at Dan’s bachelor party.”

I know I haven’t said much about the pyramids, but that’s all I got. We went because when you’re a foreign tourist in Cario you can’t not go to the pyramids. And we had a pretty typical experience – we looked around, took photos, and got hassled by tons of Egyptians hawking various incarnations of a super-aggressive tourism industry [private guides, “super-duper” camel rides, photo ops, cheesy souvineers]. But…now when we go home and everyone says “Egypt, wow! Did you go to the pyramids?” We can smile and say yes.

And then we went to Dahab, a.k.a paradise and changed our plans for the rest of our trip, editing out Petra and opting for more time in Sinai and Wadi Rum. One Middle East uber-tourist extravaganza per trip is more than enough.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Even in the cloudy mental haze of 3am, I knew I was in Cairo as soon as I stepped off the airplane. It was hot, dirty, and immediately disorienting.

My arrival was uneventful. Miraculously, my climbing gear arrived at the same time I did, despite having been checked to Cairo via Rome, and the fact that I already had Egyptian pounds in my wallet [along with Israeli shekels, Jordainian dinars, Euros, and US dollars…WTF?] made the requisite ritual of purchasing a visa that much easier. As soon as I stepped outside of the airport, Matt was there to meet me with a hired driver from our hostel, a fantastic surprise that had the added benefit of saving me from the hassle of negotiating with the overly aggressive cab drivers.

Downtown, we walked through a dilapidated door, up a decaying staircase [that doubled as an elevator shaft], passed a carpet-seller and what seemed to be the sleeping-spot-of-choice for a number of homeless men, as Matt assured me that our room was nice. He was right; as soon as we stepped on to the 3rd floor the ramshackle building we had entered was suddenly transformed into the relatively* clean and very friendly Australian Hostel.

[*Very-clean-in-Cairo is still rather dirty by American standards. It’s more like India-clean…no, actually, it’s dirtier than that…now that I think about it, in India I was often surprised by the cleanliness of interior spaces in contrast to the filthiness of their exterior fronts.]

Tuesday, after breakfast at the hostel, we went for a walk along the Nile. I didn’t have time to form much of a first-impression of the city, since the sum total of my mental/observational energy was directed towards surviving the re-occurring adventure that is crossing the street in Cairo.

[Coming: Matt note on the art of crossing the street in Cairo]

Drive thru coffee, Egyptian-style.

After a while, we managed to navigate our way to the Egyptian Museum without getting lost [let me assure you…this is a feat, in and of itself] where we took a brief respite from the air pollution and heavy exhaust fumes to see a bizarre collection of Egyptian relics. The museum was super weird; I mean, they obviously have an amazing collection of things…but the various antiquities [spanning several thousand years] are strewn about the gallery space with little perceptible organization and virtually no explanation of what they are or when they come from. With my [admittedly] weak knowledge of Egyptian history, I had the distinct feeling of being in an antique-store-turned-theme-park, but as we saw more and more I really began to enjoy the lack of discernible curation. It was as if the objects were stripped of all historical and cultural context…no longer artifacts documenting some historical narrative, they became simply cool-looking objects.

Let me give you an example…upstairs, passed the Mummies…there is a hall where several rooms are filled with small-ish objects organized by type [as opposed to chronology or geography or associated meaning, like you tend to find in American and European museums] – 46 idols of Ra here, 8 tables of gilded jewelry there, countless coins in another place.

One room seemed to be dedicated to things-written-on-papyrus…no sign, no explanation, just a collection of things-written-on-papyrus. There were large framed pieces with hieroglyphics and cases of smaller tattered pieces showing pictograms and Arabic calligraphy. Only a few had descriptive index cards; one, describing a nearby Arabic text read “rental agreement.” Matt and I looked at each other, confused. Rental agreement? In contemporary-ish Arabic? Sure, we’re not Egyptologists, but this historical document [from an unknown date] didn’t seem to have much in common with the hieroglyphics beside it…well, other than the fact that both were written on papyrus.


Cario has excellent cheap food.

Two examples: Gad, a local chain serving all kinds of snack/street food that is open 24 hrs and seems to be busy nearly all of them. Schwarma on “Egyptian bread” [i.e. pita] costs 5 Egyptian Pounds [or $ 0.92, with the current exchange rate]. And they make this amazing dessert thing out of fried bread, cream, honey, coconuts, and powdered sugar. Very healthy.

I think Koshary El Tahrir only serves one thing, the classic Egyptian favorite after which it is named. Koshary is a mix of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, black lentils, spicy tomato sauce, and fried onions, topped with garlic & chili sauces. At El Tahrir you can get a “small” bowl for £5 or a bigger one for £10. It’s actually a lot better than it sounds, but the other night while eating take-out, I had the distinct impression that I was eating something cooked up by a drunken college boy, after a long night of partying…

Cheap beer, however, is another story.

I know that drinking isn’t such a big thing in Egypt [given that alcohol is prohibited under Islam] but we figured it had to be possible somewhere in Cairo [population 17 million]. After consulting google, we set out in search of a pub called the Fat Black Pussy Cat [ok, I’ll admit, we chose that one mostly because of the name] which was reported to be located within walking distance of our hostel. It took us about 15 minutes to get utterly lost, at which point we strolled into an area that was decidedly less modern and more crowded, than anywhere else we had been. I think I might have been the only female in sight, a fact I had trouble ignoring because of the [literally] hundreds of eyes looking my direction. We played it cool for a little while, but eventually enlisted the help of a cab driver to get us back to Talaat Harb, from where we made our way to a fancy Western-style rooftop bar atop one of the big hotels on the Nile. Although the view was pretty spectacular, we laughed at ourselves for paying £80 [$16] for two Heinekens…roughly 8 times as much as we had paid for dinner. Sure, they were ridiculously overpriced, but I was pretty glad to spend a few tranquil minutes high above the perpetual chaos unfolding below.


Here are some photos of the Khan El Khalili, a large souq [market] in the Islamic district. They don’t really capture the craziness of the place, but at least they give some indication of what it looks like.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


The beach in Schiermonnikoog

“The other day I was at a party and someone mentioned to me that he had read my blog and, in one of the posts, recognized bits of a conversation that he and I had. He didn’t seem that pschyed about it.”

“I can see that. If you and I have a conversation, I don’t expect things I say to end up published in a public forum. Besides, you have the opportunity to edit out all the nuances and context.”


“Ha. is this going to end up on your blog?”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I don’t really know what to say about leaving Israel.

I can’t believe it’s already been 3 months. I was just starting to get used to life in Sde Boker; it takes some time to adjust to a place, y’know? And it’s strange to be leaving now, when my feelings about this crazy place are as conflicted as ever.

I’ve spent so much time and energy over the past few months looking for, reading about, and thinking over the things I don’t like about Israel – the realities of the occupation, the pervasive militarism, the segregation of various sectors of society from one another….

I suppose it’s because the last time I was here, I didn’t see any of these things. I knew, intellectually, that there was a lot to be critical of, but these opinions were someone else’s, not my own. All I could feel was an irrational, irresponsible love…and for that, I felt incredibly guilty.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten over that…both the guilt, and the irrational love. I’ve seen enough of the not-so-flattering stuff to have what I hope is a more realistic view of Israel, and with that has come a healthy dose of skepticism. But I still don’t exactly want to leave.

As insane and complicated and weird and scary as this place can be, there are still a lot of amazing things about it. There’s an intensity about life here that is addictive and exhilarating and it’s inspiring to see people who are so dedicated to, and supportive of, a collective cause…[it’s all the more dramatic when that cause is survival.] People are less materialistic and consumer-driven than in the U.S. and there’s a powerful emphasis on communal well-being…like however fucked up things might be, at least everyone’s in it together. The networking is insane and people help each other out in a way that is almost tribal. Plus, the weather is absolutely stellar, the people are hot, and the beaches are really nice.

The airport security, on the other hand…blows.

Anyway, that’s as much of a wrap-up as I can offer at the moment. The next few weeks should be really interesting…mostly traveling [with a little work mixed in] before I head back to the U.S. in mid-November.

I’ll be in touch.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kids with Guns

Sometimes I feel like all I ever post about is tension between Israelis and Arabs...

I don't mean to...seriously. And I don't want to give the impression that Israel is some crazy war zone, dominated by conflict and terrorism. In other words, I don't want to perpetuate the image of Israel you see on CNN.

In contrast to what the media would have you believe, things are actually surprisingly "normal" here...people just going about their lives, as they would in any similarly industrialized place. That said, there are definitely moments when I look around and think to myself "hmm...I'm definitely not in Kansas anymore [or Iowa, in my case]."

The other night I was playing Frisbee on a team that was made up of: 2 Israelis, 1 Jordanian, 1 Palestinian, and 1 American [that would be me]. That fact, in and of itself, is remarkable enough, but maybe even more interesting was how it was an ongoing topic of conversation throughout the entire if we were all jokingly translating cultural stereotypes into Frisbee truisms: Arabs are prone to erratic displays of physical aggression; Americans seem nice, but you have to watch out for the pre-emptive strike; and Israelis...well, if you cross them, they'll destroy you...or at least try to.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think I keep writing about the underlying tension here because it never really goes away...even when everything is good and life is at its most "normal" and peaceful, the conflict is still there...lingering on people's minds, even if only subconsciously. [Our team kicked ass at Frisbee, by the way.]

It's strange also, to realize how quickly you can get accustomed to that underlying sense of conflict. For example, yesterday afternoon I took the bus to Be'er Sheva. Since it was Thursday, the bus was packed with armed soldiers because all the kids in the IDF go home for the weekends. At the bus station in Be'er Sheva there were kids with guns...everywhere...and it really did seem totally normal.

But, I took some pictures anyway, because I remembered it seeming decidedly NOT normal when I saw it for the first time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sde-Bokerian Moments

I haven’t posted anything in a while and the reason is pretty simple: I haven’t gone anywhere. But I was thinking this afternoon – as I walked along the breathtaking edge of the Zin Valley – how crazy it is that after only 3 months, I’ve somehow gotten so accustomed to living in Sde Boker that it no longer seems exotic enough to merit a blog post. This is, of course, completely untrue as there are all sorts of weird and interesting things going on right here in Sde Boker, but it also just goes to show you how easy it is to get into the routine of daily life and to stop looking at things with the perpetually interested eye of a traveler.

I guess there’s something else going on as well, and that’s the fact that during most of the time I spend in Sde Boker, I’m not really experiencing Sde Boker in a very direct way – I’m thinking about my research, or writing about architecture, or talking to people about science, or chatting with people over the internet who have nothing to do with Israel. Much of the time I could be doing what I’m doing from anywhere in the world…there’s nothing particularly Sde Boker-ian about it. Now that I think about it, it’s kindof like being in studio all the time at MIT…which, as we all know, is not as much like being in Boston as it is like living in a hole...or maybe a shoe box...for overly designed and very expensive shoes.

That said there are, inevitably, moments when I step out of my architecture bubble and into the Midrasha and some of these moments are, maybe, worth mentioning. I dunno…I’m going to mention them anyway, and you can quit reading if it’s not holding your attention.


The other night I had dinner with some folks out in the sukkah. Afterwards, we were all sitting around talking and it turns out that one of the guys had been in Amman the same time that I was there [literally, he left on the same day and got back one day before me.] Unlike me, however, he’s from there. What was funny about the conversation that followed was that he and I spent like 20 minutes gushing over our respective trips to Jordan – agreeing on the quality food in Amman, the amazing canyons that make up the Jordanian landscape, and the beauty of Wadi Rum – to the exclusion of everyone else at the table [most of whom were Israeli, many of whom had never been to Jordan]. The conversation was interesting because for those few moments, it seemed like I had so much in common with someone that I, literally, had nothing in common with [I mean, other than the fact that we were both in the same place and had both been to the same place.]

It’s funny, you know…how you can go from outsider to insider, and back again, so quickly. In the next 15 minutes he [the Jordanian] translated for me select highlights of the Hebrew conversation around us…


A few weeks ago I was walking at night with another student from the university and his dog. A couple of guys were walking about 15 meters from us and the dog went ballistic. “It’s okay” the student said to me, “my dog always barks at Arabs.” When I looked back at him, obviously confused, he just replied “it’s because of how they smell.”


Just about every day, I go to the store. You might be wondering ‘what store?’ but if you lived here, you wouldn’t, because there is only one. Today I went to the store just to buy a chocolate bar and the lady who works at the store reprimanded me. I was like “What?! Come on, I eat healthy….you know that….you see everything I eat” because she does.


I still haven’t gotten used to the Ibex even though I see them every day. The other day, one ran across the Frisbee field….while we were playing. [?!]


One thing that I’ve learned, living in Israel, is that Israelis invented everything. No really…everything.

I brought this up one day in a car full of Israelis. They all immediately laughed, but then, one by one began to tell me about all of the things that Israelis have invented – drip irrigation, desalination, text messaging…

“I know” I deadpanned, “everything.” The second time around they just shrugged.


One Shabbat, I was having dinner with a bunch of Israelis and, for some reason, we were talking about racism and one of them made a comment about how Americans are much more racist than Israelis are. I was like, “wait a minute...a lot of Americans are definitely racist, I’ll give you that, but more racist than Israelis? I dunno. At least in the U.S. most people recognize that even if you think racist things, it’s not socially acceptable to say them out loud.” Then he said “yea, but aside from the Arabs, Israelis really aren’t racist at all…they’re very accepting.” And he wasn’t being ironic….I mean, at least not intentionally.


Every Wednesday we go over to the kibbutz to play Frisbee because they have a nice soccer field, with lights. The kibbutz is surrounded by a barbed wire fence [because, I’m pretty sure that all desert settlements are surrounded by a barbed wire fence] and getting in requires passing through an electronic gate, which none of us have the code to open because we don’t live on the kibbutz. [Btw, this kind of thing seems totally normal now, after 3 months in the Negev.] Turns out that if two people get out of the car, stand in the right places holding Frisbees above their heads, and jump at the same moment, they can successfully trigger the two sensors that are in place [to allow for public buses], automatically opening the gate.


Sde Boker is the only place in Israel where people are surprised when I say I’m Jewish. The response is always the same: pause, shrug, “sababa” [which means “cool” in Hebrew slang, i.e. Arabic]. I guess it’s because the campus is so international…that people don’t necessarily assume American-in-Israel = Jewish. But I still think it’s funny whenever it comes up…

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sukkot/Octoberfest in Israel/Palestine

This post is much longer than I intended. I had planned just to write about my weekend, but all sorts of personal thoughts about Judaism and Zionism kept creeping in and eventually I decided to publish it as is. I won’t hold it against you if you want to skip the spiritual babble and scroll down to see some photos from Octoberfest in Palestine

I met a Christian Eritrean man on the bus to Jerusalem; his wise words to me were this: “whatever you are looking for, you can find it in Jerusalem.”

Friday was the first day of Sukkot, and my friend Ari [who’s doing a year of Yeshiva in J-lem as part of his Rabbinical school program in NY] invited me to spend Shabbat with him and his fiancé Becca in Jerusalem. Coincidentally, this weekend also happened to be Octoberfest at the Taybeh Brewery in Palestine [near Ramallah], an event that appealed to large portions of the ex-pat community in this region, including our contingent from MIT. I figured…with the high-power combination of God and beer, how can you really go wrong?

My bus arrived in Jerusalem late Friday afternoon, as the sun was getting low in the sky. I took a cab to Ari’s place in Baka, a South Jerusalem neighborhood which he described to me as “progressive-traditional” [i.e. religiously observant and philosophically progressive]. I changed into Shabbat-appropriate attire and we walked to a near-by shul, with a reputation for fantastic singing and forward-thinking ideals. It was the first time I’ve gone to services since I’ve been in Israel.

I can’t believe that’s true – that I’ve been in Israel for 3 months and haven’t gone to services once – but it is. Somehow, my experience of being in Israel feels like it has had virtually nothing to do with Judaism. I know that sounds like an absurd comment, but let me try to explain…

I have, at various points, regularly attended Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist services, taken a number of Jewish Studies classes, read a lot of related books, and studied individually with three different rabbis (one of the three was even a Lubavitcher Rebbe…but this didn’t go very well or last very long.) I’ll admit, I’ve taken a bit of a respite from Judaism over the last few years, since I’ve been in Boston. Quite frankly, balancing any competing interests with the demands of Archtiecture school at MIT is a challenge…especially if you also have an absurdly time-consuming obsession like rock climbing. That said, when I decided to go to Israel last March on a Birthright trip, I saw it, in part, as a way back into my ongoing investigation of my own relationship to Judaism.

Fast-forward a few months; I’m back in Israel, this time for a longer stay and somehow Judaism is barely on my daily radar. For all the Jews in this country, I have been really surprised at the lack of options to pursue the kind of Jewishness that appeals to me – one that is flexible and progressive, that emphasizes social justice and community, and that doesn’t require me to abandon the Modern world – in other words, the kind of Judaism that you can find at countless congregations across the U.S. [and other places, I’m sure.] This is going to sound like a drastic simplification, but in Israel there is Orthodoxy [and Ultra-orthodoxy], and then there is secular society. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find anything in between; the smorgasbord of options available to American Jewry is simply not present here. [One notable exception is Lotan, a Reform Kibbutz, but even the kibbutzniks there will admit they are a rare exception to the rule.]

I can respect the Orthodox lifestyle, but it’s not me. It’s too different from how I was raised and requires too many concessions that I’m not willing to make. So, it’s not surprising that since I’ve been in Israel I’ve settled into secular society – a lifestyle that, on the surface, feels very Western and familiar and comfortable, but, as I’m realizing, demands it own kind of compromising.

I had a long conversation with my dad last week about this very thing. He asked me how being in Israel had added to my understanding of Judaism and I tried to explain why I feel like it hasn’t – that somehow Judaism has, ironically, been missing from the whole experience, but that I have learned a lot about a different ideological system: Zionism.

Maybe the distinction between Judaism and Zionism is obvious to everyone else, but it has taken me a while to get a grip on it and I think that’s partly because it’s to the benefit of the Zionist agenda to conflate the two concepts. There’s a book by Charles Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya called Civil Religion in Israel: Traditional Judaism and Political Culture in the Jewish State that talks about Zionist-Socialism [as opposed to Judaism] as Israel’s civil religion and founding/national mythology. For anyone who’s interested, there’s an excerpt here. I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of this – religion, or politics, or the Middle East – but thinking of Israel not as a Jewish state, but as a Zionist one has helped me a lot in trying to make sense of this place…and in understanding why being here has had the unintended consequence of making me feel less Jewish [sorry, Birthright…something’s not working].

Three thoughts about Zionism and Judaism:

1. For me personally, Zionism is a much harder sell than Judaism. I know that it’s firmly grounded in the idea of ethic autonomy/self-rule and the European mode of governance-by-nation-state. But it’s also about using the Bible to justify a territorial claim [I get worried when the Bible is used, cart-blanche, to justify anything in the public sphere] and secular nationalism [which has a pretty frightening history in its own right.] On this, I guess I’m pretty American; I definitely buy into my country’s ideals of secular pluralist democracy, separation of church and state, and nondiscrimination based on grounds of ethnicity/race/religion/gender/sexual orientation. [That’s not to say that I think U.S.-style democracy necessarily works outside of the U.S., in fact I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that kind of system to function in a place like the Middle East…but that’s a whole other issue.] Today Zionism, along with National Security, is also used to justify an illegal occupation and to legitimize institutionalized racial can't blame me for questioning it.

2. Any ideological system – whether it be Secular Nationalism or Religious Fundamentalism – is a little scary when taken to its extreme. If you can’t dispute it, or if it’s used to justify systematic violence and oppression…it’s probably not a good system. That said, I’m all for crazy radicals [of whatever kind] who just want to be left alone to do their own thing…to live in isolated communities according to their own values and leave everyone else alone. [This is also quite American, I suppose.]

3. Since I’ve been in Israel, I’ve been so preoccupied with the political issues at stake that I think I have, somehow, managed to forget about the spiritual side of things – as if Zionism had eclipsed Judaism in my own head to such a degree that I forgotten about the system that, theoretically at least, was at the heart of this whole project of creating and maintaining a Jewish state.

I went to services Friday night and it was great; the singing was beautiful and there was an oddly comfortable familiarity to it all. Granted, I was a little lost given my non-existent Hebrew and the fact that many of the melodies were different from those that I know [thanks Becca, for your help!] …but I wasn’t that lost, after all there is a lot of consistency amongst Jewish prayer services, no matter where you are. In fact, that’s one of the nicest things about Shabbat, and maybe about Judaism in general; it doesn’t really matter where you go…the tradition is well adapted to persist no matter where it is, inside or outside of the land of Israel.


I love Jerusalem. I kindof hate it as well, but I think that’s part of why it’s so incredible. It’s the craziest and most bizarre city I’ve ever been to and also one of the most beautiful.

One of the things I love about it is that I feel really emotional just wandering around. I’ve traveled a lot and most of the time my initial reaction is always to find the place I’m in “interesting” – a word so overused that it doesn’t mean that much – everything’s interesting…or can be, if you look at it in the right way.

But Jerusalem isn’t a place you can go to, and just casually find it “interesting;” the sanctity of the place and the tension that overwhelms it get inside of you. Every time I go there, I try to remain a detached observer, and every time I fail. Maybe it’s because I’m a Jew and the narrative gets to me…or because I really do feel an overwhelming sense of something – Spirituality? Mythology? – permeating the Jerusalem stone. But come on, even if you don’t believe in any of it, you can’t deny the historical significance of a place that so many people, over so many years, have considered holy. Yesterday, as I walked from Ari’s place in Baka, through Yemin Moshe, to the Old City and into East Jerusalem, for no particular reason, I felt like I was going to cry. And I’ve felt like this in Jerusalem before…there’s something so raw and awesome about the place...[Is there something wrong with me, if I like Jerusalem because just being there makes me feel like I’m going to cry?]


Sukkot in Jerusalem.

Being in Jerusalem for Sukkot was also really cool. I like most of the Jewish holidays, but Sukkot, in particular, really resonates with me [it’s so architectural!]. The premise is to construct a temporary dwelling for yourself and your family [a sukkah]…and to move into it for 8 days – eating all of your meals there and, if you’re ambitious, even sleeping there. The sukkah should be more rustic and less comfortable than your regular home, enough to protect you from the elements, but also exposed to them in a way that your permanent home is not [there are actually a number of architectural specifications to abide by; for example, the sukkah should have exactly 3 walls, creating a space within that is both inside and outside].

Staying in the sukkah is a way to remind yourself of the superfluousness of material possessions and of your own vulnerability [to the elements, to nature, to whatever version of God you believe in]. The holiday is about the dualism between what is temporary [your material ‘home’] and what is permanent [your spiritual ‘home’]. It is also about stepping outside of your normal life, in an effort to gain a better perspective.

Saturday morning, as I drank a cup of coffee in Ari’s sukkah, I was [literally] inhabiting a temporary dwelling, but I had also stepped outside of my life in Sde Boker – which has, lately, felt really isolating – and temporarily into Jerusalem, where I was glad to find old friends and to be reminded of a spirituality that had, for me, been obscured by politics. In fact, just being in Israel seemed like a kind of extended Sukkot – a process of stepping outside of my life in the U.S., into a place where I have fewer social and cultural comforts, and where I feel a great deal more vulnerability and confusion – in an effort to try think more clearly about the home I temporarily left behind.

Maybe the Eritrean guy was right – you can find whatever you are looking for in Jerusalem.


After coffee I went to East Jerusalem, then to Ramallah, then to Taybeh – an interesting contrast to the previous evening, to say the least. Octoberfest was great – a lot of fun, sprinkled with some interesting insights into life on the other side of the political divide. There was also good beer, Palestinian hip-hop, and a lot of German people [which I guess makes sense, but it was still surprising to see]. As promised, here are some photos:

Peter and Fernando sampling the local brew.

Peter winning [yes, winning] the strong-man contest.

Performance by hip hop group, Ramallah Underground.

Walking to the brewery.

David and I in Taybeh. [More pics of Taybeh below.]

I don’t know if this is weird, but I felt just as comfortable hanging out with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem as I did with Palestinians at Octoberfest. I can also really empathize with aspects of the arguments on both sides.

Anyone who goes to Jerusalem will immediately notice the cultural, political, and religious tensions that saturate the city; what I didn’t realize at first, was that all of those conflicts can somehow exist inside of a single person…and that somehow this internal confusion is part of what it means to be there.