Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One for the Books

Shalom!  Greetings from the holy land. I’m writing one last installation before Life 3 ships off tomorrow to India (yay!). This past week since Kibbutz Lotan has been busy-busy. We spent a few days in the North of Israel by Tiberias, a small city on the Kineret (a fresh water lake that connects to the Jordan River), learning about some of the first communities that settled on the land. It was absolutely beautiful up there--very green and lush-- and we had a relaxed, group-bonding few days. We came back to Jerusalem for a few intense days of orientation followed by our first free weekend. Here it goes.

The weekend began when Abby and I caught a last-minute ride with Noa, our program director, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Considering we were both leaving bags in the area we had to scramble to separate our India clothes from the stuff that was staying behind. After good conversation on the ride there Noa dropped us off in the middle of the city and directed us to the busses we needed to take. Abby and I grabbed some falafel for dinner and when we started to separate (we were headed to different friends’ houses) all of a sudden I felt like a child separated from my mother. It was almost amusing how strange (and kind of scary) it felt to really be alone for the first time. I made it to the Central Bus Station fine though, where my friend Anna picked me up. I spent the night at her place—this roomy house in an everyday Tel Aviv neighborhood.  She lives with 10 other people who are doing another service-learning year in Israel called Tikkun Olam.  I met the whole group when that night they threw a party.  We sat on their wrap around balcony in perfect weather until late at night eating homemade cake and drinking Arack (this Israeli liquor that tastes like licorice). In the morning Anna and I walked to local bakery and split a handful of mushroom, potato, and cheese bareckas… yumm! It was great to be with a friend from home and strange to see her in an entirely different context.

I then took the train with Abby to meet up with Itamar, an Israeli friend of hers that she met doing Birthright. Itamar’s adorable dad picked us up at the train station in Ashdod and took us to their house where we stayed for the weekend. Not only was their house beautiful—tile floors, winding steps, and a huge garden— they were also so welcoming and accommodating, that Itamar’s father literally offered us the pants he was wearing. We were given separate rooms, towels, a washing machine to use, a closet of clothes to wear, and asked if we needed “to douche” (I’m not sure if this was a language barrier slip or what). After some homemade lunch, Itamar took us to a park where we met up with some of his friends who took us off-roading on their motorcycles. It was only a little scary because my motorcyclist didn’t speak much English and I couldn’t remember the words for “slow down” or “I’m scared.” Abby and I didn’t learn until later that this activity is strongly discouraged…  woops. His friends brought a little backpackers’ stove and made coffee. Sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the Israeli woods drinking black coffee at sunset was  definitely one of those “Is this real life?” moments.

We returned home where Itamar’s mother made us a fantastic Shabbat dinner. It was interesting to see how an Israeli family celebrates the holiday. It was very relaxed and much more focused on just eating together and enjoying each other’s company rather than the prayers and the religion (for example, the challah consisted of sliced bread in a plastic grocery bag).  We ate a delicious meal followed by coffee and homemade pastries in the garden for dessert. That night Itamar took us to a club in the middle of the kibbutz that he manages. We hung out in the “VIP” area for a lot of the night which, practically speaking, meant we sat on couches outside trying to figure out how to eat watermelon seeds. Our VIP status translated into free drinks though, so no complains here.

After another homemade breakfast in the morning Abby and I, along with Itamar’s friend Alone, went to the beach in Ashdod. It was a gorgeous sunny day, spent mostly sun bathing and trying to learn how to surf (and by trying I mean failing). Alone’s mother made us a delicious lunch in their beachside home (complete with a view of the ocean from the roof and huge open windows). Afterwards we returned to our host’s house for a relaxing evening of homemade cookies and “The Biggest Loser” reruns.

So if I had to sum up this weekend in any way I would say: Epic. It was delicious and relaxing and unpredictable all at once. I’ve been back in Jeru for a few days now for the last few days of orientation and leaving on a jetplane as of tomorrow afternoon. I’ll write soon with news from Mumbai! Until then, Namaste.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Some of the "Deets" (ie details)

Hey everyone. So I have finally gotten a little less jet lagged and a little more settled so here goes an update.

I arrived in Tel Aviv on Friday and stayed with close family friends, Cliff and Laura Savern and their two girls Jamie and Jill in Ra’anana, until Tuesday. They were amazing—Cliff helped me buy a cell phone, Laura took me out to several delicious meals, Jamie lent me here fashioista nail polish, Jill introduced me to the illustrious “Milky” (a chocolate pudding snack pack with whipped cream on top), and they snuck around me in the mornings when I slept in their living room until 1pm. On Tuesday morning Cliff drove me to a hostel in downtown Jerusalem where I met my group for a day of icebreakers, paperwork, and preliminary seminars.

Some of the specifics: The group consists of 7 people—4 girls and 3 guys (better odds than I though) including one Israeli and one Brazilian. While I’ve only known everyone for a couple of days I am looking forward to getting to know them better. Everyone comes from a diverse background (Israeli army, a masters in counseling, and tracking monkeys in Nicaragua… just to name a few) and is very passionate/excited about the next 9 months. A pic of my Life-mates below on our second day together. On the couch (from l to r): Nurit, Abby, Phil, Gabe. On the floor: Amy, Alex, me

As for the schedule, we are going to travel around Israel for the next two weeks seeing different parts of the country--going to preparatory seminars, lectures, and classes. Right now we are in Kibbutz in the South of the country called Lotan.  It is a community of about 50 people (plus students, volunteers, and tourists) founded in 1983. They live in a socialistic setting with equal salaries, jobs around the kibbutz, and a general attitude of community first. They consider themselves an “intentional community” and an eco-village so they have all of these interesting ways of living to make the place a little Green (in both senses of the word) oasis in the desert. Most of their buildings are made of recycled trash covered with a mud/clay mixture. They compost everything, make their own fertilizer, use solar power, have an organic garden, use their own natural water purifying system, and all of their mud structures are painted with flowers and trees or other hippy-like designs. The best part by far though is the solar oven—a box painted black on the inside with a mirror perched diagonally above it. They used it to bake cookies! Basically, I’m in love.

In general though, it kind of feels like a little bit of a stepford community; there are no streets or cars, and perfectly manicured lawns, and everyone is always talking about community and support. I cannot imagine ever living full-time in such a small, insular place but I can see how it would be a nice place to grow up.

 On Friday night we went to their Shabbat services followed by a communal dinner where everyone on the whole kibbutz ate together. Afterwards all of the kids played on the front lawn and the people my age sat and talked. At 11 the kibbutz’s pub opened which was certainly an experience. I was drinking Goldstar (the Israeli version of Budweiser) with people from all over the world, on a dance floor made of tires, listening to Gypsy techno, all in the middle of the desert. That one goes down in the books. 

We leave Lotan tomorrow for some time in the Northern part of the country and then back in Jerusalem for the weekend. It’s nice to have some time to get to know everyone but I am definitely ready to get to India already…

So with that said, I thought I would leave you with a list of sorts. Who doesn’t love lists? This week’s theme goes off the idea of culture shock and getting used to a culture a little different from the one you are used to.

Israeli Culture I am Struggling With

1. Realizing that everyone isn’t in a fight. Considering I can’t understand most Hebrew I try to gauge social situations by body language. Unfortunately that is proving to be a little difficult with Israelis because they always seem angry with each other. When two strangers are talking they tend to keep a stern look on their face. They speak quickly, with a certain brusqueness in their voices.  For example, an exchange at a coffee shop: Barrista asks a question. Customer answers. Barrisata asks. Customer answers. Barrista asks. Customer answers. Money exchanged. Barrista mumbles something. Exchange over. No smiling, no laughing. Half the time it seems like people are arguing when really they are just ordering a coffee.

2. Reading and talking. The extent of my Hebrew vocabulary is about 20 words, 30 tops. I am trying hard to pick up the language and some of it comes back to me once I am reminded of the word again. It should be relieving that even if I can’t understand everything, at least I can read it. Wrong. All posters, signs, and store fronts are written without the vowels. For non-Hebrew speakers, the vowels are pretty much a pronunciation guide that after about first grade, most people don’t need to use anymore. So after struggling to read the name of a store or a street sign I will say it out loud only to discover I have completely botched the name.

Israeli Culture I Have Not Struggled (nor will ever) With

1.     THE FOOD. Cheeses and vegetables and pita oh my! Israeli food is the best. Period.

2.     The lifestyle in general. I just love how people are always out on the streets talking and shopping and just enjoying themselves. It much more social than anything I can think of in the US. 

Anyways, I’m off for now. Love you all and pictures to come soon!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fievel and Me

Greeting, welcome to my first ever blog post. For the next nine months I will be interning at non-profits in Jerusalem, Israel and Hyderabad, India (one month in Israel, four in India, then back to Israel for the remaining four) and will be using this medium to share with you all of my experiences, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, vendettas, and personal rantings about the trip.

 Let me begin by giving you a little history as to the name of this blog and my purpose for creating it. First of all, I hope you can gather from the blog's name a certain connection with the timeless childhood film, "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West." It is the story of a cartoon mouse, Fievel Mousekevitz, who immigrates from Russia to the United States with his family to escape persecution from the Russian cats (I'm hoping you get the analogy). Anyways, the title of my blog really has nothing to do with the Jewish mouse other then the fact that I was looking for a creative blog name and this was the best I could think of. However, when sharing the prospective name with my parents, they told me a Kutler family classic I had almost forgotten. When my brother was a young boy he loved Fievel. He had to watch the movie all the time. Around the same time as Ben’s Fivel obsession, Sears was selling an oversized stuffed animal version of the mouse, complete with beret and tunic. My parents tried to get the stuffed animal as a surprise for my brother but the Sears near their house was sold out. My dad ended up going to several stores and then finally acquiring the mouse at a Sears nearly an hour away in northern Baltimore. After working tirelessly to get the toy they revealed it to my brother, who to their dismay, looked at it for a moment and said, “What is it?”

So in honor or my parents, who have worked hard to give my brother and me everything we have dreamed of-- from stuffed animals to a year abroad in India and Israel-- this blog is dedicated to you. Thank you. I hope to explore Israel and India with the same energy and zest for knowledge as Fievel did when he arrived in America.