Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jordan Trip Report Part 3: Return

I took my time returning home on Monday. I left Amman pretty early, sharing a cab to the Allenby Bridge with Peter [who was headed to a conference in Israel]. Although I had heard horror stories about this crossing [from Jordan into the West Bank] I was curious to see what it was really like and I felt a little more at ease traveling with someone else.

Once we arrived there were standard security/visa checks but everyone was nice and courteous and helpful. Peter had some visa issues which required him to go up to the northern check point to cross, but I had no problems and just got on a bus to take me to the Israeli side of things. Over all the crossing was much easier, quicker, and more efficient than I had imagined. Granted I am a foreign passport-holder [as opposed to someone with a Palestinian Authority ID card], which means that I was put on a separate bus, and waited in separate security lines. All in all, it felt a lot like being at an airport…you put your bag on a carousel and [after waiting in a bunch of lines in a terminal] you pick it up to go through customs. The whole process took maybe an hour.

After I got through, I boarded a sherut to Jerusalem which dropped me off at the Damascus gate to the Old City. I met some other Americans en route and we spent most of the ride peering out the window at the Israeli settlements we passed by.

I met my friend Ari for lunch in the Old City. Ari and I have been friends since college, and have, over the years, managed to coincidentally cross paths in a number of random places across the globe. It’s a strange and very cool aspect of our friendship that we actually don’t put any conscious effort into, but somehow it continues to work out. For example, in addition to the obvious places like Grinnell [where we went to school] and Chicago [where he’s from] Ari and I have also hung out in Stockholm, had lunch in New York, spent New Year’s together in Paris, and randomly run into each other on La Rambla, in Barcelona. And now Jerusalem

Since he began Rabbinical school in the U.S., Ari has sortof become my go-to-guy for questions of Jewish law, protocol and identity. [Ari: What is Sukkot really about? Is there an underground rebellious scene in the Ultra-Orthodox community? Why can’t women wear pants? Where in Israel can I find some version of religious Judaism that isn’t Orthodox and/or crazy?]

Ari is temporarily living in Jerusalem [going to Yeshiva] and has quite a few insights into modern-day orthodoxy and Old City culture, which he seemed more than happy to share with me on Monday, over shakshuka. One of the things we talked about was Elul [happening right now] -- the month in the Jewish calendar that precedes Rosh Hashana [New Year’s / Judgement Day].

Elul, as I understand it, is a time of intense introspection and self-reflection – of realigning priorities and taking responsibility for past mistakes. This practice is undertaken in preparation for the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What’s interesting about being in a place like Jerusalem during Elul is that it’s on everyone’s mind…and so one’s personal process of introspection becomes a common topic of conversation…small talk, almost. Ari had a really nice way of explaining Elul: he said that it’s about returning to a better version of oneself.

I know this isn’t always the case, but it’s interesting that this year Elul overlaps almost exactly with Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr [the end of Ramadan] is two days after Rosh Hashana.


While in Jerusalem, I also met Ari’s fiancĂ©, Becca, who works for an organization that brings futures Jewish leaders into the West Bank to interact with various members of assorted Palestinian communities. Talking to her made me realize how complicated it is to get dressed in the morning if you live in Jerusalem. Well, let me clarify that…how complicated it can be, if you don’t want to identify completely with any particular cultural group.

Example #1] Becca is engaged to a guy in Yeshiva in the Old City. If she wants to go visit him there, she has to wear a skirt. However, she also works in the West Bank…where, she said, wearing a long skirt is an explicit political statement…and not a statement she wants to make. Becca said that [as a white, Jewish female] if she wears a long skirt at work, Palestinians will assume she’s a settler, which [for obvious reasons] could interfere with her work there. She said she feels like she has two outward identities…one for the Old City, and another for the West Bank.

Example #2] Monday morning my intention was to dress modestly; my planned itinerary for the day included Amman, the Allenby Bridge, a bus from Jericho to Jerusalem, and the Old City, all of which are modest-dress kind of places. I wore jeans, and a long sleeve cotton t-shirt underneath a tank top dress [the hem is just above my knee]. I also wore a hat because my hair was really dirty after 2 days of climbing. When Ari and I were walking around the Old City he made some comment about how people who saw us probably assumed we were married because of the way I was dressed – me covering my hair and wearing a dress. I was confused…wasn’t the observance of my dress negated by the fact that I was also wearing pants? Ari said no…that actually, my clothing was very edgy and hip in the Orthodox community…my hat and skirt signaling my observance; wearing jeans underneath was a statement that I disagree with the [hotly contested!] rabbinical stipulation that pants are men’s clothes. Completely unintentionally, I was apparently challenging the Orthodox status quo from within…and all just because I’d been too lazy to wash my hair that morning. Who knew?


On a completely separate note, one really crazy thing about my life here is the opportunity I have to interact with so many people who are doing really remarkable things. This is, to some degree, always the case when you travel or work abroad, but it seems exaggerated here…maybe just because the context is so extreme.

On Monday alone, I had significant interactions and fairly involved conversations with: a Middle Eastern military analyst at the American embassy in Amman; a political scientist studying Fatah, and the effectiveness of violent vs. non-violent political action; the brother of an aid worker in the occupied territories; an Orthodox Yeshiva student; an employee at an NGO that organizes interactions between future Jewish religious leaders and Palestinians; an IDF soldier who works as a tour guide, teaching other soldiers about Zionism, and a Jewish-Italian engineer who lives in Germany and is traveling in Israel.

The engineer and I had a long conversation on the bus about the optimistic hope one often has about a new place when first moving there, and the [almost] inevitable realization that in some cases it’s better to have your own culture’s crappy things [that, at least, you understand], as opposed to foreign crappy things [that you don’t]. The trade off of spending time abroad – interesting people, unfamiliar crap?

Wow, that’s kindof a bleak note to end on....much more so than I intended……..

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