Friday, December 14, 2012

Hanukkah in Haifa

Hey everyone, I know it has been over a month since I blogged last, but I promise this post will be long and thoughtful to try to make up for that as best as I can.  The truth is that midterms snuck up and sort of took over, leaving me with very little time, and then some things here started to change.  I have been processing a lot in the last few weeks and I think I am now ready to put them down on "paper" and out to the web.

First, my classes are continuing to go well.  I had midterm tests or papers in all of my classes, and even though one of my scores was a bit lower than I liked, I did well on all of them and I feel like they solidified a lot of the information I have been taking in this semester.  I realized that a lot of the courses here are very unique and taking many of them is a really special opportunity.  Having 4 hours of Hebrew each day has given me so much time to practice reading, speaking, and to learn new grammar concepts and put them to use.  I remember when I had just started taking a language at Brown and how nervous I was, but all of my teachers from then until now have been incredible and created a relaxed environment where I could make mistakes and get the encouragement I need.  Also, my Biblical Theology class is something totally unique to the University of Haifa.  As much as I love the Brown Judaic Studies department, the professors are so intent on never mixing personal belief and connection to the religious material with an academic standpoint.  I understand why, especially in America, there is such a strict division, but I have learned far more from the professor/rabbi who teaches this class than I thought possible.  Other classes are going well, just a ton of reading an writing, but all about topics that I enjoy.

Me eating a Rolladin
sufganiyah. It has a chocolate
injection inside!
More importantly, it is Hanukkah in the Holy Land :)  I thought that I would miss Christmas lights, music, and trees, but they are the furthest thing from my mind.  When Christmas comes around in America, I feel like an outsider, never knowing where I stand and trying to show that my holiday can be just as much fun.  Here there is no question about it; Hanukkah is everywhere! There are giant hanukkiot on the street, shops selling sufganiyot, and Hanukkah specials in the stores.  No candy canes or santa hats, the goodies are all gelt or things shaped like driedels.  I feel so at home here.  But it is not just the general culture that makes me feel that way; I have started to feel like I have a community here. Every night I get a call from some Israeli friends who live a few apartments away and we all hang out, chat, and light the menorah together.  To see so many "sabra"-types chanting the prayers and then singing other Hanukkah songs is amazing, especially when they say "a great miracle happened here" (and their driedels read the same).

This brings me to the bigger-picture things I have been processing.  I realize that the more I step outside of the international program and find connections to Israelis, the more I feel comfortable and at home.  I love the culture here, even with its pushing and shoving.  I love how upfront people are, the juxtaposition between being carefree and able to get serious when there is work to be done, the warmth and genuine welcoming.  I love being surrounded by Jewish culture, hearing Hebrew everywhere I go, seeing cooking shows making sufganiyot rather than Christmas cookies.  I don't know where my path will take me, but I know that I will be back here.  Even though adjusting to being here was difficult at first, especially when I felt like I was stuck in an American program that happened to be in Israel, branching out has introduced me to some incredible people.  Don't get me wrong, people in the international school are great too much of the time and I have good friends there, but I love feeling like I am planting roots here.  I still have time to go back at Brown, and I will enjoy every second there, but after that phase of my life is done...who knows where I will end up?  All I know is I really took to heart something a friend told me last night: Ultimately, you are the one who must make and live with your decisions.  People are always going to have their opinions about what you do, but you need to do what is right for you.  I certainly don't know for sure, but in many respects, Israel feels right for me.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Classes and Concerts

After two weeks of shopping classes, I finally decided on the ones I am taking this semester and officially registered.  I am taking Leadership and Organizations, Biblical Theology, and Terrorism and Response.  I am also enrolled in Hebrew level 6, but still attending level 7 every day as well, just not for credit.  That leads to a whopping total of 4 hours of Hebrew instruction each day.  It is a bit overwhelming at times, but I am really happy to have the opportunity to improve quickly from all of this work.  We actually just had our first Hebrew test, and I felt really confident after hours of studying!

Leadership and Organizations has a fairly laid back atmosphere, and the class is not always as talkative as I would like, but the readings are fascinating.  They are a combination of psychology, political science, and international relations.  We just read a study on George Bush's speeches before and after September 11th and the way the incident affected his use of language, and subsequently his measures of charisma.  Biblical Theology forces me to read the Tanach closely, so closely in fact, that we have spent three-hour-long classes studying only the second chapter of Genesis.  Still, I have never interacted with text like this and I come out of each class feeling enlightened...and a bit dizzy! Finally, Terrorism and Response is taught by one of the most accomplished and impressive professors I have had to date.  He approaches the subject with very specific and strict definitions and, while he welcomes argument, he rarely wavers on his approach or opinion.  The topic is fascinating and looking at its overall effectiveness leads to some unexpected conclusions.  This professor is very high up in the Israeli military, and he agreed to meet with me and help with my independent study project about women in the Israeli army.  I am looking forward to that meeting!

In terms of cultural events, I went with the university to the Masa opening event in Jerusalem, which was an Idan Raichel concert.  It's "world" music, with a lot of unusual instruments and singing in Hebrew, Spanish, and Amharic.  Joey has played his music for me before, but seeing the group perform in concert showed how even their great recordings did not do justice to how unique and talented they are.  Interestingly, before the concert there was a long opening ceremony for the Masa program.  The first 10 minutes or so were typical Zionist advertisements and calls for unity and such, but as the ceremony progressed, it became more exclusive and offensive.  I know a lot of my friends, both Jewish and not, religious and secular, left with a bad feeling from the ceremony, as enjoyable as the concert itself was.  It certainly gave me a lot to reflect on when I got back to the university.

I am off to write my second Hebrew presentation, which I am delivering on Tuesday. I will post the content later...wish me luck!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shabbat in Jerusalem

After a long week of shopping classes from 8am until 6pm most days, I headed off to Jerusalem for Shabbat.  I was excited to get out of Haifa, a city that seems to be getting increasingly smaller the longer I stay here.  I left on Friday morning from the university to the central station and caught a bus right away to the holy city.  The ride only took about 2 hours, and with my ipod playing and beautiful views passing by, the trip seemed very short to me.  I got off at the central bus station and walked along the train tracks (which run in the middle of the main streets) to the shuk (outdoor market).  The shuk in Jerusalem  right before Shabbat is incredibly busy and the sights and smells passed by in a whirlwind while I tried not to get trampled by all of the other people.  Shopkeepers shouted in Hebrew about their goods and prices, and the stands of challah loafs quickly started depleting.  I purchased a whole wheat one for my host and proceeded to Jaffa Street.  After about thirty minutes of walking I sat down at a cafe and ate a salad, drank some water, and read a book for my Terrorism and Response class.  I received a call from my host that she was returning in an hour or so from a trip to the West Bank, so I started walking toward her apartment.  I was very proud that I found my way around without any problems.

My host was Elana, an HUC student that I had met on Yom Kippur who spoke with me a lot on that day because at one point she was deciding between JTS and HUC, the Conservative and Reform rabbinical schools, respectively.  When I came over, we immediately stated making cookies together to bring to dinner at another student's apartment later that night.  We packed up an Israeli salad as well and headed to Shira Hadasha for Friday night services.  This is a famous Orthodox community which uses a mechitza (physical division between men and women) only when necessary, and has a woman lead Kabbalat Shabbat and a man lead the rest.  Essentially, they permit women to do everything that they are lawfully allowed to, while most other Orthodox communities limit a woman's role in the community simply out of tradition.  I have never felt so comfortable in an Orthodox community nor so inspired by the strength of pluralistic practice.

Afterward, Elana and I sat with a friend who is attending Pardes in the park, and then we left him and headed to an HUC student's apartment for dinner.  The meal was great, and about fifteen people were there.  We all sat around and spoke about pretty much every topic I could imagine.  The people were incredibly welcoming and interesting, and I did not feel separated at all because I am not in their program.  The next day, I attended their student-led services as well as Yom Sport, where the students play basketball and do homework in the park before attending Havdallah services in the evening.  Even though Shabbat observance varied across the board, but appeared light in general, I felt that they really celebrated the spirit of Shabbat, connecting with friends, family, and newcomers through prayer, conversation, and play.

For the evening, we walked back to the school where there was an interfaith Havdallah service.  A group of Muslims, Christians, and Jews from New York/New Jersey came to the school and asked the students all about their program before they took out guitars and we lit candles, smelled spices, etc.  Everyone put their arms around each other and swayed, and I felt like I was back at summer camp.  All around, this was the best Shabbat experience I have had in Israel, and I cannot wait to return to HUC as long at my invitation stands.  Returning to Haifa, I felt a bit disappointed about my city choice; I would have wondered what Haifa was like if I had chosen Jerusalem, but knowing what I do now, I cannot wait to spend as much time as possible back in Jerusalem.  Still, many programs, HUC included, stand open to me for graduate school and have campuses in Jerusalem, so I know I will be back for an extended period of time in the near future.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

First Days of School

Shalom everyone! School has started up here (finally) at the University of Haifa and I am so happy to have something to do!  Yesterday, I took my Hebrew placement test from 9-12pm; it was really long and rather difficult, but I ended up placing into the highest level of Hebrew offered.  As great as I felt for doing well on the test, today in the first day of class I felt a little insecure about my level of Hebrew. I am currently working on a reading assignment and I understand very little of it, so I might have to move down a level, but either way I will have a great teacher and a good class.  I am mostly just excited to get back into learning Hebrew, which is the reason I came to study abroad in Israel in the first place.

The first day of shopping classes was long, and I was not overly impressed with the quality of the classes.  I shopped one on Rabbinic Literature, which was alright.  I really want to learn Mishna, but I am not sure if that classroom was the right one for me to delve into that material.  Afterwards, I went to one called Leadership in Organizations, which had a really bubbly and sweet teacher and the readings look amazing.  It is a combination of psychology, international relations, and political science; it is especially appealing because this is one of the only classes not specifically on Israel or Judaism, and a little variation is nice.  Still, the workload was quite small from what I could tell, but that is not necessarily a bad thing if my other classes are more demanding.

Today, I was way more inspired by the classes I looked at.  At first, I was planning to attend a class on Holocaust History, but it was postponed until next week, so I looked at one on the Social History of Israel.  Originally, I did not think this would be appealing, but the teacher is the awesome feminist professor who really knows how to command a classroom.  The topic is not the most intriguing to me personally, but the class is 3 hours once a week, so I think that the quality of the professor is a very important factor.  Finally, I looked at Biblical Theology and I was totally blown away.  At first, I sat in the class unsure of how to feel, but the professor/rabbi touched on so many advanced concepts and really started to alter the way I interact with religious text in just one session.  I decided to take that class to fulfill the ancient studies requirement of my Judaic Studies concentration, and I bought the books (basically just the Hebrew Bible in English and Hebrew) and I am quite excited.

Overall, the courses here are good, with some a little sub-par and some really amazing.  I have another week or so to shop for more classes to fill my schedule, but suffice to say that I am much more excited today than yesterday to continue shopping for them, and generally in higher spirits than when I was sitting around with nothing to do during Sukkot.

Also, in terms of social activities, we participated in a drum circle last night, which was really fun!  We got to pound on some bongos, use other percussion instruments, and generally laugh and have a good time.  I also found out about volunteering opportunities in the city for the semester, and I have an interview tomorrow where I will pick which is best for me...I will keep you all posted!  Now back to Hebrew homework...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sukkot in Israel

Since the study tour ended and Sukkot began, life at the university has been relatively slow.  A lot of the Israeli students who were living here before went back home for the break, some of the other Americans decided to travel to Europe, and many people simply don't arrive until the end of the month. Still, those of us who are living on campus have tried our best to keep busy during Sukkot/the holiday break.

One nice thing about the holiday is that its focus on time outdoors translates into a lot of festivals and street fairs here in Haifa.  I walked from the university into the center of town (about a 1.5-2 hour walk) with a handful of friends to get froyo.  We ended up passing a film festival and stopping by after eating mounds of yogurt, fruit, and chocolate.  Not only did we see crowds of people all around, but an outdoor craft market was also set up, and we spent our time walking around the stands, checking out the art, and playing some really cool handmade instruments.  Another night when we passed by, on a mission once again for froyo goodness, we saw a Charlie Chaplin film playing on the side of one of the buildings, just one of the many free showings that week.

Ivri Lider in Haifa!
Besides eating froyo, we have enjoyed other meals in the center of town and had fun hanging out at pubs downtown.  We also go out dancing from time to time, but because there is only one club to go to, some of the novelty has worn off.  Still, I love dancing as opposed to sitting in a bar, so it is hard to convince me to get off the dance floor :)

Another night, I headed to a different part of town somewhat close to campus, and there was a music festival going on with a big stage, flashing lights, and loud speakers.  I got there with some friends just in time to hear Ivri Lider sing a song.  He is one of Israel's biggest pop stars, and certainly my favorite, and he is the face of gay rights activism in the country.  I was so happy to see him perform; that was definitely a goal of mine before leaving Israel.

Brown is always with me,
even in Haifa!
Otherwise, I have been hanging around the university, talking with friends here, keeping in touch with others back at Brown and those who are also abroad, and speaking with family regularly.  I also started work on my independent study project about women in the Israeli military and I have plenty to read and learn.  It is great to have the time to get ahead of some assignments before classes start here; that is definitely not something I get to do a lot back at Brown.  With all of the downtime I am certainly missing Brown and my communities there, but I am also looking forward to the start of the semester on Monday!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Post-Study Tour

Since the study tour ended on Thursday, life in Haifa has been relatively slow.  Still, we are all trying to keep busy, especially because the campus is so quiet.  In fact, the study tour participants are some of the only people on the campus right now.

Having fun at Loft
Some good friends :)
On Thursday night, we all went out dancing at a club called Loft.  It was a New York-themed night, which made me miss home a bit.  Still, I stayed out until around 2:30am there, dancing the whole time.  We went out with a handful of Americans and some Israelis on campus who I had not met before.  They were all so nice and really fun to dance with.  One of the guys belts out the lyrics to all of the songs, which is pretty funny.

Me very sweaty after a night of dancing!
On Friday, I went out to a few bar/restaurants with friends.  On Saturday we went out to Asian fusion food and then returned to one of the places and there was a big concert in the park happening outside.  We sat out playing cards on a picnic table with the concert in the background, and some local kids came up and asked to join.  One of the boys looked like he was ten, and he cursed a lot in Arabic and was pretty fresh, but entertaining nonetheless.  After the concert we met up with a few of the guys in the group and chatted and continued playing.

Sunday was pretty slow too because everything was shutting down for the beginning of Sukkot.  Becky (my suite-mate) and I still wanted to be social, though, so we invited some people over for a potluck dinner of pasta, sauce, chicken, and veggies.  After that, I watched a really terrible movie at another friend's apartment on campus and fell asleep.

All in all, not the most exciting time in Haifa, but I am getting a lot of work done, which is a good thing before the semester starts up in just two weeks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hiking and Yom Kippur

Hello everyone and sorry about the relatively long time between posts.  The time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur was a bit crazy, but I am settled back in at the university and excited to write about a great final study tour trip and my time in Jerusalem yesterday and today.

We had our last study tour trip (the last on campus seminar is tomorrow).  We traveled to a development town where my professor lives in Karmiel.  He talked with us about the communal ethos in his town and how it stemmed from kibbutz mentality, but today the residents retain their own income and raise their children in their own personal homes.  As we walked around, we saw a group of pre-school or kindergarden students wandering outside with their teachers to learn about trees and nature.  One teacher was cracking open a walnut as we passed by, and all of the kids were gathered close to see the insides; it was an adorable scene.  After, we continued to wander about and consider what living in such a place would be like.  I think that as a 20-something year old, it is not appealing because it is rather quiet, but it seems like a lovely place to raise a family.  Everyone has a say in the government of the town and everyone pays taxes according to his/her means, but they always pay something (even just a symbolic amount) so they are full-fledged members of the community, even in times of economic hardship.  In all, I was very impressed by the area and the individuality expressed in dress, apparent religious observance, and architecture in the small socialist (ish) community.

Next, we hopped on the bus and went to hike in the Golan.  This was my favorite hike so far because it ended at a chilly and beautiful waterfall.  I changed into my bathing suit and scooched into the ice cold pool around the falls.  It took me a few minutes to catch my breath because the chilly water made my chest constrict.  Still, I had a big smile on my face the whole time, especially when I felt the mist of the falls blow around the area.  I swam up to the waterfall itself and went under the stream of water to an alcove where I climbed up with friends and looked out through the rushing water.  It was gorgeous; definitely one of my favorite sites so far.  I felt so small compared to the scene around me, and I really like that humbling feeling.  The hike back up was pretty steep, but I was so content from the swim that I was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

After Monday, I transitioned into Yom Kippur, and headed to Jerusalem to stay at HUC-JIR (the Reform rabbinical school).  I stayed with a really sweet first year student, and we talked about her experience so far at the school.  Because I am a prospective student, it was really helpful to hear from her and her peers about their year in Jerusalem so far.  We went to services in the evening and then walked through the city streets because there are no cars that drive on Yom Kippur.  We saw a bunch of secular kids biking and they looked like they were having a great time.  Naturally, we ran into people we knew in the city, and it turns out one of the HUC students used to song-lead at Crane Lake Camp when I was younger.  Small world!  That night, we returned to my host's apartment and her middle-aged Israeli landlord/suite-mate had friends over and we all spoke Hebrew together.  I was shocked at how much I understood and participated.

Today, we went back to HUC for services all day.  I left with some friends to see the Kotel, which was surprisingly empty in the afternoon, but it was cool to be there on a high holiday nonetheless.  After a long day of fasting we devoured challah, bagels, fruit, and brownies and headed back to Haifa because I have class tomorrow at 9am.  And because it is close to 1am here, I should really head to bed to be awake tomorrow morning.  Laila tov, and I hope everyone had an easy fast/a meaningful day!