The Pow-wow Paradox

I still remember the Ulpan class (perhaps only our third) in which our teacher Liora invited Dima to introduce himself. The Israeli man stood cautiously before us, shy but clearly eager to appear friendly. After he stumbled through some English and quickly reverted to Hebrew, Liora explained to us that he was interested to find a once-a-week speaking partner from our class.

“Maybe someone can take his phone number!” Liora suggested, always with a smile on her face. The eight other fellows and I looked at each other questioningly, no one ready to commit to the responsibility.

Though I didn’t volunteer at the time, I would soon realize the fortune of Liora picking me out of the group that day to become his contact.

I set up our our meeting over text, plugging in each incoming and outgoing Hebrew message with Google Translate. I tried to imagine what our meeting would be like, what we would talk about, and how we would divide the conversation between Hebrew and English. I brought along my friend Steph, and together we all sat at a nearby coffee shop, where we started to talk over steaming cups of tea.

Two hours later, Steph and I waved goodbye, completely exhausted. The conversation had been 90% in Hebrew, which required full active listening power to understand Dima’s many stories and questions, and even more so to put together answers with our limited Hebrew.

Back at home, Steph and I exchanged concerning looks. “Are we really going to do this every week?” We knew the challenge was good for us, but it felt like we had just spent two hours at the gym after a lifetime of couch potatoery. We wondered how we would ever survive such mental marathons.

In the following months, Steph and my friend Sarah would alternate between meetings, but I always made the effort to pow-wow with Dima when his busy schedule also allowed. The more we met, the better we understood how to communicate around our limitations, and the more fun it became to speak with him, on both a lingual and personal level.

Today, Dima invited me to go on a bike ride with him around Ashdod. I brought my friend Paul along, and the three of us spent the whole afternoon exploring an off-road sector of orchards and flowery hills that I never would have discovered on my own. The weather was a perfect 67 with clear skies, and Shabbat brought many families outside, while the streets remained quiet and sparse.

We all talked throughout the ride, learning from each other, joking and laughing. Dima snapped photos when we rested along the trail, as well as in the park, and by the ocean.

A victory shot on the main trail

A victory shot on the main trail

As we ended our travels enjoying ice cream on a city bench, I felt the satisfaction of the perfect weekend activity, exercising mind and body, spending time with fun and interesting people in new ways.

Ice cream selfie

Ice cream selfie with Dima, me, and Paul

Not soon after returning home, I started to receive messages from Dima with pictures from the day and comments on how much fun it was. In the last message I received, I could mostly understand, but not quite piece together the meaning. I plugged it into Google Translate, and read the following:

There’s nothing too bad I do not know good English, sometimes I want to tell you a lot, but I do not know how 😦

My heart twisted. I couldn’t tell if I was delighted or distressed by how much I could relate.

It’s fun to practice speaking in another language, but the limits of using simple language can be utterly frustrating. I sometimes feel stuck on a surface level of self-expression, though I try to be honest and true to my personality with whomever I speak. On the one hand, I was glad the feeling was mutual, to know that I wasn’t alone. On the other, the obvious problem was still a bummer.

Despite all of this, Dima has become someone I trust, and I would even comfortably say is my friend. For me, this is a major accomplishment among my experiences in Israel. To whatever extent he and I will stay in touch, the time we spend teaching each other now is undeniably valuable. We help each other reach parallel goals, just like the daily work I have with my elementary students. Here, I am constantly testing the patience of learning a new language, and learning to accept the mistakes, restrictions, and disappointment that comes with it. Honestly, it’s all very much worth it when you finally hear, “Ahh, havanti” for “Ahh, I get it now”… and even better when you get to say it yourself.

My “gam ani” response to Dima didn’t feel quite right, but what else could I say? “Me too” is such a simple response to such a complicated experience. Yet, I’m hopeful that on this point, we understand each other more than the language barrier would seem to allow, and that with time, the issue will shrink beyond worry.

What Happened?

If you’ve been regularly following this blog, you may have discovered that I have not posted in a while.

This is due to the unfortunate event in January of my computer having suffered a mysterious crack in its screen, rendering the whole device unusable. It can’t be fixed here, or there, or anywhere, so I must replace it under warranty (kind of) in the States. Without my precious modern writing tool, it’s been very difficult for me to keep up, which makes for very sad times on the blog, and a very creatively frustrated Chloe.

But hark! A new dawn breaks on the horizon! For my computer has now found its way back to the States. With a bit of luck and lots of good faith, I’m hoping to have my new computer at the start of March. Just like a phoenix, rising from the ashes…

In the meantime, I’m continuing to document my adventures, and have still managed to contribute some to the Masa Israel blog and The Jewish Voice newspaper. I encourage you to check those out, especially if you haven’t seen my articles there already, and to look out for more of my pieces in the future!

So, in short, be back soon. And, as always, thanks for reading 🙂

Haifa, soup, and oh yeah, Christmas too

When my friends and I arrived in Tel Aviv on Christmas (Thursday) evening for Guy’s Secret Santa Christmas party, we passed by the occasional decorated window, a few pedestrians with hats on…but that was about it. All holidays in Israel feel less commercialized to me, even the “big” ones that shut down most schools and businesses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been a refreshing experience to enjoy the lack of advertisements and pressures of holiday shopping.

Needless to say, we still decked Guy’s halls with plenty of hokey Christmas joy.

Guy and Paul beginning to admire the job well-done

Guy and Paul beginning to admire the job well-done

The party was great fun – as always, I met great new people, saw some old friends…

A Christmas Selfie! With Paul, Me, Steph, and our new friend Amira (a British girl, living in Denmark, who visited Israel on Christmas)

A Christmas Selfie! With Paul, Me, Steph, and our new friend Amira (a British girl, living in Denmark, who visited Israel on Christmas)

…and I even ended up with an incredible Communist Russia hat from the Secret Santa gift exchange.

Showing off my new every-day hat

Showing off my new every-day hat

On Friday morning, I struggled through a well-deserved hangover to make an early morning bus to visit Haifa, but the journey was worth it. I met up late-morning with my host, Yonatan, who showed me to his apartment in central Haifa (on the high-side of the mountain). Shortly after, he had to go to work, leaving me for some independent travel time. I was so eager to start exploring, but my body wasn’t %100 adventure-ready, so I hung around the apartment a bit to regain my strength.

(minor digression:)

"Marak Batzal," onion soup

“Marak Batzal,” onion soup

This powder soup stuff? It was my saving grace when I came down with a cold. And it’s so easy to travel with. And it tastes amazing, and I eat it all the time… We need this, America.

While souping, Yonatan’s roommate Nitsan came home. I tried not to scare her by making myself visible, but I totally did anyway. It was fine, she told me, she knew I was coming, just not when. My scare must have charmed her, because after she joined me in the kitchen, and as I talked about my lack of plans, she kindly offered to take me around the city a bit.

My lovely tour guide, showing me the German Colony

My lovely tour guide, showing me the German Colony

Together we toured the mountainside by bus, by foot, and even underground cable railway, which I had no idea existed in Haifa. The “Carmelit” looked kind of old and strange, but it had some really cool art on the walls of the stations, and made for a quirky and delightful ride back up Mount Carmel at the end of our afternoon travels.

Looking up the spooooooky tunnel

Looking up the spooooooky tunnel

The cable car itself was constructed on an angle, with different levels. Neat!

The cable car itself was constructed on an angle, with different levels. Neat!

After arriving back at the apartment, a solid nap, and some sketching, Yonatan got back from work and we started preparing dinner together. I brought the makings for my spicy lentils, and he whipped up a mean veggie soup. While cutting the taters, we discovered one was rotten, but also rather beautiful and tree-like. Art, art, everywhere!

Don't worry, we didn't eat it. We had plenty more tates.

Don’t worry, we didn’t eat it. We had plenty more tates.

Stuffed from dinner, Yonatan offered that we take a short walk to see an incredible nightscape. The view from the heights of Haifa is spectacular, especially with the port, the Bahai gardens, and the German Colony. Spending most of my time in the flat landscape of the south, the depth of field appeared surreal.

Haifa at night, looking over the port

Haifa at night, looking over the port

The Shrine of the Bab (golden dome) in the Bahai Gardens, with the holiday lights lining the German Colony right behind

The Shrine of the Bab (golden dome) in the Bahai Gardens, with the holiday lights lining the German Colony right behind

As we walked, Yonatan also pointed out some fun graffiti art as well. How amazing it is to have welcoming hosts, who can show you the non-tourist sides of their home. I’d like to do more research about the sub-cultural art forms in Israel, so I was really glad to gather some super serious documentation for my studies.

Art is serious

Art is serious

The next day, I wasn’t able to squeeze in to the small English tour of the Bahai Gardens, but managed to get in on the next Hebrew one. I didn’t exactly catch too much of the history, but I had plenty of time to gaze over the pristine grounds and the many viewpoints of the city.

Looking down the Bahai, creeping on other tour groups

Looking down the Bahai, creeping on other tour groups

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the “Holiday of Holidays” celebration that was happening at the base of the mountain. I didn’t realize what a large Christian population there was in Haifa, but here I found a plethora of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim symbols representing the three very strongly present communities.

'Unesco Square for Tolerance and Peace" - pretty extraordinary

‘Unesco Square for Tolerance and Peace” – pretty extraordinary

Heading back up the mountain, I decided to go off the beaten-path and main roads, though still climbing many, many stairwells through residential areas. Almost immediately, I ran into one of the teachers from my school in Ashdod. This is Israel, always proving smaller than you would think.

Soon after, while overcoming one of the many stairs of Haifa, I found myself with a walking friend and mini-tour guide. I still feel awkward when strangers here start conversations with me. My instinct is to guard myself from becoming too comfortable and trusting, to prevent from getting taking advantage of. Yet I don’t want to offend or seem cold either, and I value the spontaneous connections one can make by opening up. The social balance is hard to achieve, especially when there is a language barrier.

But in this encounter, “Gili” proved kind and hospitable, and showed me some great viewing points on our walk up. He showed me the house where he grew up, and brought me through a beautiful sculpture garden that I never would have found on my own.

Gili leads me into a "hidden" sculpture garden, where locals can relax, picnic, and enjoy the view

Gili leads me into a “hidden” sculpture garden, where locals can relax, picnic, and enjoy the view

Almost back at the apartment, I stopped by the neat little French restaurant where Yonatan works. He brought me a gourmet onion soup that entirely trumps my powder stuff (though I will shamelessly continue to thrive on it regularly). It was the perfect sunset meal to enjoy in the slightly brisk Haifa weather, while regaining some strength from my long trek.

Who wouldn't want to demolish this after 12 miles of walking?

Who wouldn’t want to demolish this after 12 miles of walking?

Haifa is absolutely gorgeous, and I loved getting to see it all times of the day. I loved its architecture, the incredible views, and the secret little gems of art and nature hidden all along the mountainside. It felt good to travel in a new city, and with an independent agenda, though my hosts (Yonatan, Nitsan, and Gili) were so helpful with helping me discover what to do, where to go, how to get there, and to give me unique perspectives and journeys through the city.

"Dine with a view" ... yeah, no kidding

“Dine with a viewpoint” … yeah, no kidding

The next time I’m in Haifa, I’d love to explore the more natural landscapes, with at least one nature hike. I’m not sure where or when my next “new-city” weekend trip will be, but I feel excited and comfortable to go anywhere that shares in the same Israeli hospitality I had in Haifa.

Interstellar

"Between Stars"

“Between Stars”

Earlier this month, my friend Todd and I were FINALLY going to see “Interstellar” play at the movie theater in Ashdod. We were very excited. We probably looked something like this:

This is Todd! With his favorite meal: Schniztel sandwich, chips, coca-cola (not pictured), and a rather beautiful array of sauces.

This is Todd! With his favorite meal: Schniztel sandwich, chips, coca-cola (not pictured), and a rather beautiful array of sauces.

We had tried to go before, only to stumble through an awkward Hebrew conversation at the ticket stand, and bamboozle ourselves into buying “Nightcrawler” tickets instead.

When moving to Israel, some of the simplest tasks became new challenges. In America, I took for granted my familiar and favorite stores, restaurants, and other “dependable” places. So, how do you find the best places – the locally trusted, tested and true – to fulfill your wants and needs? How do you navigate commonplace, even daily interactions, in a different and unknown language?

Don’t look like a tourist…don’t look like a tourist…you just want strawberries, you can do this…

You ask those who want to help you, without embarrassment. Yes, it’s nice to feel independent, and to practice our Hebrew is important too. Yet, our teachers, our new Israeli friends, and even others in the program, are key to helping us achieve our goals, and integrate effectively into these foreign communities.

This time at the theater, we admitted our previous mistake to the worker, who kindly helped us achieve success. And I totally recommend that you go see Interstellar, but be warned Israel viewers, there is a very abruptly placed intermission in the theaters…and what’s up with that, Israel?

Art and English

With the help of my host teacher, I’ve finally begun my series of extracurricular volunteering, in which I teach two small groups of third-graders, completing enrichment-level art and English projects.

This past week was my first time meeting my new students. Since I usually work with the students who are struggling in class, these third-graders were familiar only from quick smiles and waves in the hallway. As our first project, we created self-portraits with our name, age, and “likes,” then labeling the basic features of the head.

The example piece, you might know her - and yes, that is the way Israelis spell "humus" here.

The example piece, you might know her – and yes, that is the way Israelis spell “humus” here.

Right before my Monday students arrived...ready to go!

Right before my Monday students arrived…ready to go!

I worked with two groups of five on Monday and Thursday. At the beginning of each session, I was thrilled to see how excited the students were to be there, drawing and learning. My Monday students sat and worked diligently, though all the while eager to ask me any questions they could in their limited English. The period was filled with language exchange and guessing, silly faces, laughter, and plenty of eyes, ears, noses, and poses, crayons never leaving their papers for more than a minute. Angels.

Okay…but the Thursday group was a bit of a different deal.

My four boys there…they will be a challenge. The sole girl sits quiet and ready for anything I say, but the boys want to take charge of the lesson. Though driven at first to complete the portrait, the boys were soon out of their seats, crawling under desks, racing about and looking for anything they could throw to each other. Soon the lesson morphed, from “let’s make a self-portrait,” to “let’s make alien faces on the board,” to “let’s sit in a circle on the floor and talk about ourselves,” to…anything that satisfied their need to move.

But I dearly love both sets of kids. Already. How did they do that? Even the wild boys are so charming, and I know they want to be there.

It’s on me, to better formulate lessons that can entertain their restless spirits, to adapt to their needs appropriately. Next time I’ll be prepared to schedule in breaks between work, to have back-up activities if the primary one isn’t “enough.”

On the other hand, I also I know that I have to be more assertive. know I can change my approach to have more control over the class, while still having an organic lesson and fun experience for everyone.

Yes, it will be a challenge (and exhausting, after full days of classes) to lead these sessions, but I’m glad for it. I’m embracing the chance to become less timid, less compliant to resistance, and to achieve more from it, for my and their benefit.

Shmita

Our first speaker at the main stage for the summit

Our first speaker at the main stage for the summit

It is a beautiful coincidence that my year living and volunteering in Israel has fallen within a year of Shmita (translating literally to release). The concept of this Sabbath year was brought forth to us at the Masa Israel Leadership Summit, which was held just last week in Jerusalem. As the 200 other participants and I discussed this multi-faceted edict in Jewish law, we discovered some key representations of our journeys in Israel, both within our time at the Summit, and in the larger scope of our respective programs:

The ancient mandate of Shmita obligates all farmers in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave their fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the produce, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and animals, both wild and domestic) to take part in the land’s blessing. During this year,  financial debts are cancelled, and people receive the opportunity to start over in a new period of financial and social freedom.

During Shmita, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured, and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. Shmita invites us to renew quality of life in all spheres of reality, through a unique public effort.

It is a year of social involvement, spiritual and ethical renewal, and deep environmental reflection. It is a year of brotherhood and sisterhood, culture, spirit, family, and community. It is a gateway in time – once in seven years, a renewal of the covenant between humans and the earth.

It is a year that leaves a distinct impression on the subsequent six years.

– The Israeli Shmita Declaration

The most obvious parallel I draw is the “break” my peers and I are taking from our previous lifestyles in our native countries. While here, we have set aside time to achieve meaningful personal goals, to engage with our new communities, to self-reflect, and to pursue our passions in socially responsible projects for the betterment of humanity. This period for “renewal” seems to me absolutely crucial, in whatever respect one chooses to manifest it, so as to step back from the daily grind and examine what is precious and sacred. It is also a time for forgiveness – not just of others, but of the self, which especially in light of my previous post, holds great personal value.

And, depending on how closely you know me, you might have guessed that I’m also pretty into this year’s recognition of gratitude for the earth’s harvest (see: my obsession with Kachina dolls, food culture, green practices, compassion for all living beings, etc). These regenerative agricultural traditions are still observed in contemporary Israel, although they have lost some prevalence over the years. However, the heightened awareness of society’s broader impacts on the environment remains a dominant focus in this year of Shmita.

Within a period of individual, social, and communal significance (across an entire nation), I see Shmita as a sign that I am truly in the right place at the right time. Over the course of the conference, I met amazing young adults from all over the world. Together we bonded through an ice-breaker trip to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, an educational visit to the Vertigo Eco (and art) Village, and a night trek through the historic Cotel Tunnels in the Old City.

I made many new friends, of all shapes and sizes (and species)

I made many new friends, of all shapes and sizes (and species)

The view from the main center of the Eco Village. It was a beautiful location, and I would love to go back in the future for more quiet self-reflection.

The view from the main center of the Eco Village. It was a beautiful location, and I would love to go back in the future for more quiet self-reflection.

Exploring an ancient aqueduct in the Cotel Tunnels

Exploring an ancient aqueduct in the Cotel Tunnels

The majority of our time, however, was spent partaking in engaging seminars, lectures, and discussions, centered around topics of Israeli politics, culture, and social reform, as well as in workshops aimed to develop our skills as leaders.

An interview with the youngest member of the Knesset, Stav Shaffir

An interview with the youngest member of the Knesset, Stav Shaffir

Perhaps most intriguing for me was hearing international perspectives from Jews outside of the U.S. and Israel, now from Argentina, France, Russia, South America, Africa, and many more countries, about what Jewish life is like there and how they hope to shape their future Jewish communities on a national and global scale.

I left confident that many of my new connections would have a meaningful impact on my time here and beyond. I felt overwhelmed at times, too, having not yet any real idea of what comes next for me, once my program is completed. Yet, in the company of my passionate companions, I felt ultimately supported in whatever path I take, and I know I am part of a larger community that will help me in more ways that I can presently imagine.

Also, you can follow the link here for this year’s post-conference promo video of the Leadership Summit, featuring yours truly, in an embarrassing “interview” clip.

Friend Dates

When you move to a new city, or state, or in this case, country that’s on the other side of the earth…how do you meet people and make new friends, to try to form meaningful relationships?

The other Ashdod Teaching Fellows and I spend a lot of time together working, volunteering, traveling, cooking, going out, and hanging out in the apartments. We’ve bonded in our shared experiences, and have created networks of friendship and support among us.

We’ve also met and become friends with fellows in other cities. This past week, I attended a week-long Leadership Summit in Jerusalem, where participants from programs like ITF and other MASA Israel-funded volunteer and work programs came together for seminars, workshops, and other Israel-focused activities. I met so many other young Jews from around the world, who are living in Israel now to achieve professional and individual goals that ares similar to my own.

But this sort of opportunity doesn’t happen every day in Ashdod, and to be honest, I don’t want to rely on this and find myself socially stuck in a primarily American volunteer/program bubble. So how do I meet other people my age in Israel, when most of them already have an established lifestyle and friendships, and speak a native tongue that I’m only just beginning to learn?

…Internet.

One method I’ve recently started using is the dating site OKCupid – wait for it – to find people with interesting profiles and to ask them out on “friend dates.”

So far, I’ve had two girls respond and meet up with me in Tel Aviv, and both were super cool people that I definitely want to see again. I felt a really natural connection on my dates, and I know it’s because I had the opportunity to read through their profiles and identify commonalities, and then talk with them a bit before meeting up. We all had similar experiences coming to and being in Israel, but we were so different at the same time, and I felt time passed quickly sharing stories and learning about each others’ lives.

I’m still a little discouraged about a few things. One is how difficult it is to find these connections in Ashdod, though I’m in Tel Aviv often enough that I can reach out to people whenever to make weekend meetup plans. I think this plan can expand as I travel to more cities in Israel, too.

Another is that the girls I met were also traveling American, and I’d like to be meeting more native Israelis. I do have some Israeli friends living in Tel Aviv, and it’s always fun to visit them and meet their friends, too. But sometimes, trying to communicate with their friends is difficult. I’ve had one guy tell me how strange it felt, trying to be himself with me, because he couldn’t express himself as freely, and specifically as humorously, in English (he was still very funny, I was surprised by his remark). I’ve had others tell me how much they enjoy practicing their English with me, but that it’s a big, and sometimes embarrassing effort for them. I always remind them that their English is FAR better than my Hebrew, and this makes me grateful of how understanding, accepting, and welcoming the Israelis I’ve met are.

Despite the geographic and lingual barriers, I’m hopeful that the digital world can aid my real-life experiences. I’ve found that dating sites are a mixed bag of opportunities, but for something like this, as long as you are clear with your platonic intentions from the start, I think it can be quite a successful way to make new friends. I’m happy that I’ve been able to use this technology to actually meet new people and start to form meaningful relationships.