Saturday, August 15, 2009

Life Update

Since I’ve been in Israel a little over a month, I figured it was time for a general update -- something that wasn’t just travel snapshots.

In general, things are going well. I’ve met a lot of nice people here and I’m starting to make some progress on my project. I also do feel like I’m getting some sort of meditative soul-searching benefits from all of this time out in the desert. Below are just some unrelated thoughts about my life in Israel that may or may not be interesting.

Things I haven't gotten used to:

Ibex. Yesterday I went outside and there was, literally, a heard of Ibex standing across the street from me. An ibex, for those of you who don’t know, looks something like a cross between a small deer and a ram; many of them live around here -- mostly in the valley – but come up to the Midrasha to look for food because it is so dry right now. They are a quite common sight around here, but they still take me by surprise every time I see them. I think it’s because of their horns – which are spectacular – and their familiarity with people. You can get very close to them before they spook. The other day I went for a walk at dusk along the cliff edge. I walked down a ways and as I was on my way back up, I walked over a small rise and into a group of at least 25 of them. I turned around, and from in the midst of the heard, looked out over the amazing view below.

It’s okay to talk politics…all the time…even if you offend people. Perhaps one of the most striking ways you know you are in Israel and not the U.S. is that people talk politics and religion a lot [it’s impossible to separate the two in a place like this] -- in public, at the dinner table, with their friends, with their boss, with people they just met. Unlike in the U.S., no one seems overly concerned about offending people; “political correctness” is not a virtue. As far as I can tell, when there is a disagreement [as is often the case] it’s not a big deal. [At the risk of over-generalizing] Israelis seem to have an uncanny ability to separate political discussions from personal relationships. I guess, when you live in a place like this, you don’t have much choice.

This interest in talking about issues is, oddly coupled with a strange distance between political happenings and daily life. When I was in Israel the first time I recognized that Tel Aviv was a bubble – a place where hedonism reigned supreme and it was surprisingly easy to avoid seeing evidence of the things you read about in the newspaper. [A very visible exception was the recent hate crime against a member of Tel Aviv’s gay community.] Then, I came to Sde Boker…which is also a bubble. It’s isolated, the people are left-wing and overly educated, there aren’t really any visible signs of racial tension or political discord…life is pretty good; people are happy; they get along. Then I went to Lotan…which is also a bubble; Ketura as well. From what I remember Eilat was also a bubble…and Nitzanim; certainly the Kinnaret…and the kibbutz nearby here. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re Jewish and you hang out with other Jews, it’s pretty easy to avoid seeing evidence of the things you read about in the news no matter where you go; in fact, surprisingly, it requires some concerted effort to see what’s going on.

Shabbat. Despite my being Jewish, I have not adjusted to the idea that Sunday is a work day. I guess the days of the week are just one of those things that are pretty ingrained into one’s psyche. Not that it really has any effect on anything, but for me the week still starts on Monday and the weekend is Saturday-Sunday [as opposed to Friday-Saturday]. Also, I mean, I know it’s a holy day and all…and I know that the rabbinate controls a fair amount of things in this country [marriage, divorce, burial, kashrut certification, the bus schedule…] but no public transportation from Friday afternoon to Saturday night? Seriously?

This country is really small. You can get anywhere in a matter of hours and often you get this sense that everyone knows each other somehow. Combine that with a Jewish tribal mentality [“kulanu yehudim!”] and it makes for absolutely fantastic networking. But, as often happens to me when I travel, I am reminded of how special the American West is – the way you can drive for days through amazingly beautiful and barely populated country.

The Israeli idea of democracy – i.e. the notion that a state can be both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Living here, I feel very aware of my American-ness – of certain ideological biases that I have, as a result of growing up in the U.S. Now, I know it’s trendy among ex-pats to bitch about the U.S. and I’m not at all saying that our country doesn’t have major issues [which it does] or that there aren’t things to improve [which there certainly are]…but I have to say, I’ve never been such a defender of the basic tenants on which the U.S. government was founded as I am now that I live in the Middle East.

For example, the idea that Israel could be both a “Jewish” and a “democratic” state makes no sense to me. Now, I know that “democracy” does not, on its own, imply “for everyone,” and obviously early American interpretations of “liberty and justice for all” were…um…not particularly inclusive. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that today, most Americans agree that “for all” really should mean for everyone…and when it doesn’t, that’s a problem. That’s very very different than believing “for all” should mean “all Jews.” And of course, the complexity of defining who is and who is not a Jew, only make reconciling “Jewish State” with “democracy” that much more difficult. If you treat Judaism as a religion – a tradition one can adopt – then you’ve got an institutionalized preference for one religious belief system over another…which…with my American biases…is difficult to get behind. However, if you treat Jewish as an ethnicity then you’ve got and institutionalized form of racial discrimination…whic isn’t any easier to stomach then a unification of church and state. Since the government, in my understanding, views Judaism as a tradition encompassing both religion and ethnicity, it’s…well...complicated. Anyway, the point of this was not to critique the Israeli system, but rather to illustrate how ingrained my own American ideological biases are. Fortunately for me, I think that if one has to have ingrained biases, one could do worse than the American variety.

Things I miss:

Aside from people, the list is actually pretty short. And I think most of the things I'm going to mention are less a factor of my being in Israel, and more a factor of where, specifically, in Israel I am [i.e. a remote settlement in the Negev]. In general, I really love being in the desert in the middle of nowhere, but there are a few things I would change, if I could.

Rock climbing. This probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this, but I really miss rock climbing…a lot. There are, rumor has it, places to climb in the North, but without a car (or climbers who know the area) they feel very inaccessible. It’s also kindof too hot right now for climbing outside. There are climbing gyms in Israel, but they are far away from where I am…and they are nowhere near as nice as CRG or Metro. And it’s not just the climbing I miss, it’s the scene…the other climbers…my people…

A gym. As if it weren’t bad enough that there isn’t a climbing gym…there also isn’t a regular gym. Which, I’ll admit, is driving me a bit crazy. I really don’t think that I’m that high maintenance, but there are, apparently, certain things that I really don’t want to live without and a gym is one of them. There is a pool here, which is awesome…and I’ve been trying to do a sort of modified cross fit to stay in some semblance of decent shape. Check it out:

A nice coffee shop…to go, have a really good cup of coffee, and just sit and talk or read or write or whatever. Let me just add that in general the coffee in Israel is really good and in Tel Aviv there are tons of cool coffee shops. We just don’t have any here in Sde Boker, which is unfortunate. There is one place that’s like a cafeteria; they do have outside tables, but they serve instant coffee and it’s really not the same kind of atmosphere.

Take-out Ethnic food. I know, I’m spoiled from living in the city. Israeli food is great. And the quality of food here is amazing – the fresh produce and fantastic dairy products. (It’s a good reminder of how crappy our institutionalized and over-processed American food industry is.) However, it’s nice to be able to order Thai food to go, or Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Tibetan…or just burritos. Also, I have to say, Goldstar, the most popular Israeli beer, is just alright. I’m sorry, but it’s no Rogue Dead Guy or Hazelnut Brown.

I also really miss the MIT and Harvard libraries, but I guess this one really has nothing to do with my being in Israel. I mean, even if I were still in Cambridge I would no longer have access. I think I sortof didn’t realize how spoiled I got over the last few years…having access to basically any intellectual material ever printed. When did Google say they’re going to be done digitizing everything? 300 years?

Things that are surprisingly difficult and/or time consuming:

Shopping for dairy products without knowing Hebrew. This is actually the only time when I really feel the language barrier. There are too many options in too many different containers with too few clues as to what is inside. Often I just end up picking something; thankfully, most of it is really good.

Reading the news. In the U.S. I usually just scan the headlines in the NY Times and call it a day. But here, I feel like it’s really important [and interesting] to keep up on the more local news…most of which isn’t covered [or at least not in any detail] in the American media. So…I get up and read the NY Times site, then I look at Ha-aretz, the popular left-wing Israeli paper. In general I find the coverage in Ha-aretz pretty terrible and I just read it to keep track of what Ha-aretz is reporting on. So, after reading Ha-aretz, I read Aljazeera-English, which is actually really good. However, the process takes a while.

Traveling across borders and/or on the weekends. In general, traveling in Israel is really easy and convenient. Public buses go nearly everywhere [except rock climbing destinations]; they are dependable and cheap. However, since they don’t operate on Shabbat, traveling on the weekends requires some advanced planning. Also, despite the insanely small distances, if there are political borders in between you and your destination, it is very difficult to predict how long it will take to get there. For example, I am in the midst of planning a climbing trip in Jordan with another American who is living in Amman. As the crow flies [or by American driving standards], Amman really isn’t that far from me [about 90 miles]. However, since there are only 3 border crossings between Israel and Jordan, getting their either involves traveling to Eilat [going 3 hours south, in order to go 5 hours north], to Beit She’an [going 5 hours north-ish to go 1 hour south], or crossing through the West Bank and over the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge [indeterminate travel time]. Have you ever been to Vermont and heard someone say ‘you can’t get there from here’? It’s like that…only worse. [If you ask Google Maps for directions, you get a message that says ‘We could not calculate directions between Sde Boker, Israel and Amman, Jordan.’] I’m still going to go, I think. It promises to be an adventure, at the very least.


  1. Andrea,

    Sounds like you are having a very interesting stay in Israel. I've never really spoken to someone who has an "outsider's" perspective - nearly everyone I know who has gone has been steeped in the "Israel = home" mentality - so it's fascinating for me to read your thoughts on the place, the people, and the food.

    You mentioned Eilat as a "bubble." Eilat is not simply a bubble - Eilat is one of the few places in Israel that politics just doesn't seem to exist, at least in my experience. It's like Tel Aviv, if Tel Aviv were apolitical and not situated toward the middle of the country. You should really visit - they have an underwater restaurant!

    I've enjoyed hearing about some of your adventures from Matt, and now that he's pointed me toward this blog, I look forward to reading more about your travels first-hand!

    Be well, stay safe, and have a schawarma for me!
    - Josh

  2. Thanks for reading.

    It's funny to think of myself as an "outsider." I mean, the first time I came to Israel was in March, on a Birthright trip. I had an absolutely amazing time...and a big part of why I wanted to come back was because I felt an incredibly strong draw towards this place. I really do feel comfortable here in a way I wasn't expecting.

    That said, I still think it's important to look critically at what's going on...maybe even more so in this situation...because it is so easy to get wrapped up in the Israel=home mentality.