Monday, July 12, 2010

להיתראות, ישראל: See you soon, Israel

Trying to find out how to enjoy the stay in Israel and, at the same time, to understand some attitudes of the Israelis, is very hard if you imagine that what is normal or logical for you is the same for the Israelis. Reading a few days ago an article written by Gloria Deutsch in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, where she interviewed a doctor who did Aliya (Immigrate to Israel) from London, I found the answer for all of my thoughts related to this issue. Maybe this reflection is a little late, since in few more days I will be leaving the Holyland and come back to my “regular life” in Chicago, but it is worthwhile to keep it on mind for a “next time”!!

In the article, I assume that the reporter asked Dr. Simeon Asher about his successful Aliya and his response to her was: “One, you should have low expectations; two, a good sense of humor; and three, you should understand that every Israeli truly believes, in his absolute heart of hearts, that the rules don’t apply to him, that they are basically guidelines for someone else”. And, assuredly, the doctor is almost right 100 + %. Not most of the Israelis fit in this descriptions, but few of them yes, and is really sad if you will meet one of those who fit the above description. So keep this in mind if you are coming to stay for a long period in Israel.

When we (my husband and I) came to Israel, last January, we had huge expectations and dreams, and we met some of those people that -like Dr. Asher- said: “the rules don’t apply to” them. Nevertheless we met a lot of Israeli persons, who made our life in Israel a great and wonderful experience, like Amir, Mashiach, Pflanzer, Savion and Katzir's families. Also we were blessed to meet the Honigsberg's family, almost at the end of our stay in the Holy land, who hosted us for our last week in Ma'ale Adumim. To all of them our gratitude and we wish to each one of them the best in their life.

Among great Israeli people, also we met professors and classmates at Hebrew University; who, each one of them, made our months here a great and unforgettable experience. Also, thanks to them, this period of time in Israel was amazing.

In two days, we will take the airplane to Chicago, we will leave behind memories, learning and experiences which we never can find in any page of a book. This blog is the last one I am writing here, and I will try to open my heart and describe as well as I can my feelings right now.

On our way to Jerusalem, we are just 500+ meters above sea level

We see Jerusalem from the bus

These signs are telling us that we almost arrive to the University

At the University…

A "White Elephant" is telling us that we are close to the University

A huge Welcome sign

My first days at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem were a mix of reflection and apprehension. Being a student again was a great experience. My classmates were people who hadalready fulfilled their obligation at Tzahal (Israeli Army), two of them were already parents, we are talking about students of whom the youngest was 25 years old. This is very normal at the Universities here in Israel.

Most of the undergraduate students need to finish the army in order to get into the University, unless he/she is a foreign student. Most of the students who have finished high school in Israel enter the army (the boys at least for 3 years, the girls at least for 1.5 years -- unless they want to continue with a military career). After the military service (national service or real army service), a lot of them go and travel with their friends whom they met during the time they were in the army, around the world. Some of them choose Latin-America, others Thailand, Greece, Italy, etc. During three months, they “enjoy their life”, or as we say in Hebrew: “o’sim chaim”. It is not easy to be in the army, especially here in Israel where the soldiers need to face terror, kidnapping and war, but each one of them dreams of the day they can go to the Army -- it is kind of pride to be a soldier, here in Israel.

Well, to return to my classmates, they were very friendly and very interested in knowing what I am doing, why I am studying here, where I live, and if I like to be in Israel. Likewise, I was interested in knowing about them, what their lives here are like, etc. We have interesting and memorable conversations every day before or after classes. Each one of us came to class prepared; we also sat together, sometimes, and prepared an exercise collectively.

Our professors were great. One of the things that amazed me is that, at the very beginning, when they speak about the Syllabus, our obligations and their office hours, they also give their phone numbers -- not only of their office, but also of their home! So, if you do not find a professor at their office, you can call his/her home and even cell phone, at that! It was amazing! They also give you in class or send to you by email materials that we need to work in class or as homework. They were always ready and prepared to listen to your questions, and try to answer them -- if the instructor does not know something in one class, the very next class he/she was bringing the answer. They meet with you in the cafeteria or in one of the hallways of the university to make the meeting more informal, whereas they take their work very seriously. They are very humble: it was amazing, the feeling I had every time I met with a professor, and not necessarily one of mine, each one of them with Phd degrees and well known, recognized not only here in Israel but all over the world, yet completely unassuming about such recognition. Although their academic degrees are important, such high standing in the Academy of scholarship will not take from them their essence as being a normal and simple human being.

During the spring semester, where I was student at the Hebrew University, I had the opportunity to attend numerous events: International Colloquium: The Literature of the Conversos in Spain after 1492: Identities in Conflict in the Literary Arena, on January 18-20, 2010, (Some Presentations were in Spanish, others in English and others in Hebrew). Identidad Lingüística y Modernidad: La comunidad sefardí de Viena (1860- 1925), by Stephanie von Schmädel, from the University of Berlin, on March 17, 2010, (in Spanish). On the Value to her Translations from the Hebrew New literature into Spanish, by Prof. Raquel García Lozano, from the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, on May, 16, 2010, (in Spanish). Sueño y Realidad de Latinoamérica Latina by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, on May 26, 2010, (In Spanish). Fourth International Congress of the Center of Yewish languages: Leshonot yehudiot: Yetzirot mekoriot veyetzirot meturgamot, on June 21-24, (Presentations were in Hebrew).

Coming to the University by bus, from Ma’ale Adumim, the neighborhood where we live, also was a great experience. We live, as I mentioned in one of my blogs, in a place which I call “Israel”, but some others call “the territories”. It means that we may be the object of any terrorist attack by bomb, stones, or any other unimaginable thing that a terrorist can use to scare the passengers. Therefore, every time we are leaving Ma’ale Adumim and try to enter Jerusalem, there is a “check point”. Depending on the day, if this check point received some warning, one (male or female) or two soldiers (male and female) get on the bus, ask the drive how everything is, and check all the bus just in case there is some “suspected thing”. Sometimes, when two soldiers get on, one walks in front, and the second stays next to the door ready to shoot. The driver drives few meters, and then the two soldiers get off the bus from the back door. During our first days in this routine, I felt a little worried, but then I got used to the situation One day, just a little before entering Jerusalem, we feel a “rain of stones” falling in our bus!. This situation or the “check point” are part of the “price” the Israelis are required to “pay” in order to live in their own country.

The trip to the University (if I am lucky and catch the express bus to the University, which is only once a day) is only 20 minutes. Is great because it leaves Ma’ale Adumim and goes straight to the University, otherwise, it will take me around 45 minutes or 1 hour, because I will need to take two different buses.

Arriving inside of the University is another great experience. First, just before the entrance of the University, there is another “check point”. The process of passing through the check point is the same as the one we experience when we leave Ma’ale Adumim. Sometimes, we have one soldier, sometimes two, depending on whether or not there is a warning that day. When you arrive at the entrance of the University’s building, do not expect an entry line --… there is none! So, we need to do what people do: just “push and go”. In he same way, if you want to get on the bus at the University. there was one place where you get off the bus, and another place where you get on the bus. Showing you the true picture is amusing, especially if you want to feel like one of the students...

Once you are at the building of the University, you go and find your school and classroom, the library, or the cafeteria -- where ever you want to go. Most of my classes were at the Humanities School (Mada’ei Ruach). The faculties’ offices and the Departments were on the 2nd to 6th floors, the classes in the basement -1, -2. At the beginning, as usual, I got lost, and then I learned that every section (gush) of the School is color-coded, so it was easier to identify the room 2203 or 2301 or 2705.

As in any other university, there is a dining room, cafeterias, and a little store. Once a week, the students meet at one of the “parks” of the University and give concerts for one or two hours, always at lunch time (12-2) I joined it when I did not have class. One day, I remember, there was also a demonstation, which lasted just a few hours!

Also, during the same period of the semester, I was invited to give some workshops in Hebrew (at the Office of Immigration and Absorption in Jerusalem; at the School of Education and at Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University), as well as in English (at the Foreign Language Division of Tel Aviv University) And I was also invited to offer two workshops in Spanish (Spanish and Romance Languages Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Cervantes Institute, Tel Aviv). These workshops were open to teachers of Hebrew, Spanish and English and related to my experiences as a teacher of Foreign Languages. I share with these teachers what I do in my classes: activities with written texts, movies, songs, and my use of tools in technology such as e-mails and clickers in order to engage my students in my language classes.

Here at the University, there is a place that touched me profoundly, the place where 8 students were killed as a result of terrorist attack. It was in July, six years ago, when a bomb exploded in the cafeteria, next to the Rothberg International School. Last summer, I came to the University to participate in a Conference, and, one of the days, without knowing, I went to drink something at the same cafeteria were the terror attack was. I saw a lot of chairs, under a huge white tent. A lot of people were sitting and speaking in between them. Honestly, I did not have a clue what was happening, until suddenly a student stood and started to speak. A cold blood started flowing throughout all my body, giving me the sensation of an “electroshock”. This girl, maybe 24 years old, was describing in front of the assistants her feeling that afternoon of July 2002, when, while she was speaking with her best friend, a terrifying sound deafened her ears, and blood from everywhere splashed her face. Just next to her, a bomb had exploded. When she reacted, she saw her friend lying on the floor, she was sitting back-to-back to the table that had the bomb… While she was telling us this story, she was looking at the parents of her friend and told them: “I’m so so sorry, I did not help my friend. Since the day she died, I have not slept, I cannot stop to think what and why it happened”. Her voice was faltering; tears were falling from her eyes down her cheeks. Each one of us felt her pain and sorrow, and the worst thing was that no one of us could give her a word of comfort.

Momument in Memory of the students

Usually we see pretty flowers in the cemetery or at the memorial places, but ... here ... the flowers are different... they do not smell, they hurt as the memories of what happened here

This is the life here in Israel, where the young people are also facing the horror of losing a loved one -- not because an accident or sickness, but just because of “unfounded hatred”, as we say in Hebrew, “sinnat chinam”. Without a reason, a bomb was planted under a table just before a group of students came and were chatting, perhaps, about classes, teachers, friends or just their dream for that summer, a dream which, for that group of students, will never come true. And, for those who were witnesses and experienced that moment, they never will be the same, and the sound of the bomb will still be shaking their memories.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

צפת Safed

Shabat in the City of Kabbalah and multiple Art Galleries, named: Safed, Tsfat, Tzfat, צפת. Throughout this blog, I will use these names interchangeably).

Safed was the first city where the expelled Jews from Spain came and settled. This city became the center of Jewish learning. And, for “the next 80 years, the vibrant Jewish community of Safed formulated mystical philosophies, composed liturgies, and instituted religious customs that are an important part of Jewish life to this day”. Just to mention a few, we have: Rabbi Israel Nagara, who wrote the song Yah Ribbon ha-Olam, Yosef Caro, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch (Prepared Table), the codification of Jewish law; Shlomo Alkabetz, the composer of the song Lecha Dodi (Jewish liturgical song recited on Friday night, usually at sundown, in every synagogue in the world), and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar (“The Brightness”).

I always thought that the best place to spend Shabbat in Israel is Jerusalem; there is no place like Her where anybody can spend the rest day. But, after being in Tzfat this past Shabbat, I realized that there is another city in Israel where celebrating Shabbat is likewise truly marvelous – indeed, words cannot express such a great experience.

We arrived Friday around 2 PM, after 4 hours of a bus ride from Jerusalem. The scene gently touched my heart, and my eyes were rinsed with a few tears caressing my cheek. The fields of sunflowers and olive tree companions line the road to Safed.

All the stores were closed, with their proprietors preparing to welcome the Queen: the Shabbat.

We stayed in The Central Hotel, one of little hotels of the Old City of Tzfat. What we did not know, was that Meir Meiv, one of the very active members of Etzel had also once stayed there. Etzel [אצ"ל] (acronym for "Irgun Tzva'i Leumi" [ארגון צבאי לאומי] was a military organization for the defense of Jewish people during the British domination in the Holyland.

Across the street, we saw another hotel “Herzlia Hotel” (known also at that time as Perel House), where, during the same era, 1944, other members of Etzel also had stayed under the supervision of Menachem Begin.

We left our belongings in the room, had a little lunch, and then walked a little around the town. Two hours before Shabat, we came back to the room and got ready for Shabbat. It was around 7:10 PM when we went down to the lobby, and, there, candles to be lit in honor of Shabbat. I lighted two candles to welcome the Queen of Shabbat, and then Shabbat started for me. After this, we, my husband and I, walked in the direction of a synagogue. The streets were wafting with the smell of Shabat. People from place throughout Israel and from all over the world were walking through the backstreets of Safed to find a synagogue that would accommodate each and all of us. There are “tons” for this little city!

We saw a map that includes all the Synagogues, and their location...

צפת has two Ha'Ari Synagogues: one known as the Ashkenaz Ha'Ari Synagogue, and the second one the Sephardic Ha'Ari Synagogue. Both of them are named for Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, an important Kabbalist. On the narrow streets, everybody was there: Rabbis, and congregations. The men were with the Rabbis, the women stayed a little behind.

Everybody was singing, the weather was great, not hot at all, the mountains surrounded us, the stars illuminated our book's pages, so that we were reading with no problem.

It was a great experience -- no words, I realize, could describe my feelings about it. After the first part of the singing, the people went to which ever synagogue they chose. We just stayed where we were and then came back to the hotel.

While we were walking back to the hotel, I remembered a Talmudic legend about two angels (one bad and one good) who accompany each Jew home from the synagogue. That night, I truly felt them. We arrived at the hotel and went to the dining room where the tables where set in honor of Shabbat. After eating and singing, we went to sleep and rested from the long day.

Early, the next day, we awoke, went to the dining room, ate a piece of cake and drank something cold -- then went to the synagogue. This time we choose the Beirav Synagogue. The Beirav Synagogue is named for the famous 16th century Torah sage, Rabbi Jacob Beirav, a native of Spain and student of the Ari HaKadosh, and the teacher of Rabbi Yosef Caro, who codified Jewish law in the Shulchan Aruch. The Beirav Synagogue is located on #10 Meginei Tzfat Street, (I will dedicate a space for the meaning of the street name, later in this blog), a modest building more than a century old, The special nature of the service here is the style they follow: the style of the tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which are especially touching and inspiring.

We continue celebrating Shabbat, as we usually do.

In the late afternoon, before Shabbat ended, we went and walked on the other side of Tzfat. While we were walking, we saw a few little synagogues: we were looking for the Rabbi Yosef Karo Synagogue. Asking the residents, they told us that it is a very little synagogue – but, to tell you the truth, we were not expecting that it was so little. But, here we are, right in front of this diminutive synagogue! We cannot go in because it was closed, but it was nice to see it from outside.

We also saw the following synagogues: Abuhav, Trisk, Tzemach-Tzedek, Chortkov, and others whose names I do not remember.Here are some more pictures of...

The Abuhav synagogue

This wall is all that survives from the synagogue named Lemberg.

On Sunday morning, we went to the Square Meginim in the Old City, and continued walking forward to the top of the Main Street of the city.

We came upon the Davidka Monument. Here you find also information posted on the memorial stone, and there is an audio information post, as well, which tells the story of the battle for Safed in both Hebrew and English.

Meginei Tsfat (Tzfat defenders)year 1948, symbol

This place, as every corner in the city, is full of history: her stones do not talk, but you can read in each one of them what happened at this specific point, who fell in that corner, and so on...

Some walls of this side of the city, still remember the bullets recieved in 1948.

And, if you need more explanation, there is always someone who can tell you more or answer your questions.

Also, that Sunday, we went to see the history written on some façades of the houses in Safed. In a few of them, you read : “Here lived…”, “Here fell…”: “Here lived Moisés Pedatzsur (…) he demanded the inclusion of Safed in the Jewish part of the partition plan…”.

In other plaque, we read “Here lived Rabbi Abraham Zeide Heller (…) Helped organized the defense of the Jewish Quarter”.

“Here lived Yitzhak Moshe Zilber (…) Ransomed Jewish prisoners held in Turkish jails and later illegal immigrants during British Mandate, (…)” .“In this house fell Gideon Ilon, age 21 (…)”, “In this house fell Yehoshua Prag’Ochana, age 18”(...). “Here fell Alrer Moshe, 23 years old”, “Here fell Abraham Shakror, age 42”.

Here in Safed we found a "Solar Oven"

Also we saw some electrical boxes very nicely decorated. This is something very common in Israel.

While you walk around Tzfat, you can hear echoing voices of the young soldiers from Etzel or Palmach [Strike Companies], who were fighting to defend the Jewish people from the enemy. Their echoing voices telling us that we, as Jewish individuals, can walk without fear and repeat their story to our children and grandchildren.

Safed’s streets are clean of dust . . . but rich in history and feelings.