“Free” time

(Okay, get ready for a long one.)

I like very much to be kept busy.

Especially being here, in Israel, I feel a strong and consistent desire to engage my foreign surroundings and to learn new things. I came here determined to take advantage of my incredible opportunities, and to grow from them as both a global community member and as an individual artist. Sounds cheesy, I know, but this is really how I feel.

And this has inspired countless adventures in the quiet, but still marvelous city of Ashdod: many in a posse of curious friends, and many just out on my own. It’s also encouraged me to spend weekends traveling around the country, meeting incredible new people in each city, and exploring what these new places have to offer. I love being out and about, and almost always prefer to walk or bike to my local destination (if there is one) to soak it all in. I often feel like I’m on an incredible vacation (it’s no doubt helped by the climate).

But there’s still a busy work-week, and days with volunteering and Hebrew studies make me more of a homebody. I started to spend my free time at home reading, or listening to music. I’ll write quite a bit as well (no hiding that here) and I’ll archive the photos I’ve taken throughout the week. This means I spend more time with my computer than I’d like, but I’ve recently been making the effort to make that time creative or reflective, and to not become a hermit. I’m trying to minimize the social networking site mind-mush, and not fall into the deep, dark rabbit-holes of “funny” internet videos.

On the one hand, I’m grateful for this mentality. As an artist, my dream “career” is to sustain myself and engage others with a fulfilling, creative, and meaningful creative practice. I want my many experiences here to fuel this internal journey, and to help me understand how I want to achieve my goals, now and in the future.

However, I’ve been struggling with applying those creative forces to creative tasks, and the anxiety that it brings is building upon a familiar psychological state. Ever since graduating with my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, I’ve understood well that no one else is going to make my art but me. Especially now that there are no more professors giving me assignments, and no more grades. I have the power to set out to make anything and everything, and I just need to sit down and try to do it.

But I’m a little stuck at the moment. A case of artist’s block.

And that voice in my head that urges me to be “productive” all the time is getting more and more upset. That makes it more and more frustrating for the physical me, who can’t seem to get the sketchbook doodles to reflect the overwhelming enterprise of living in Israel. The year before my departure, I fretted about the lack of artwork I was producing on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. Any day that I didn’t draw felt like failure. On the days that I did, I often couldn’t make something that I was excited about and then felt even worse, like I was getting even farther from my dream. It feels silly for me to describe that which I love so much as something so stressful, but it was (and still is) so important to me to resolve. I felt affected in everything else I did, scolding myself for leisure activities, and still feeling more and more restless.

Now I’m playing with a new idea, and I think it is helping.

The idea is to be okay with “wasting time.”

Because…is it really wasted time?

For instance: to lie down in the afternoon, without setting an alarm, for the sake of having some quiet time to myself, should be an okay thing. I shouldn’t need to justify it. I don’t need to fill my schedule with activities #1, 2, 3…. just to feel productive and like I’m “experiencing my fellowship.” I am so grateful to have an early work day: it is full of so much interaction with my kids, and then I often have from 1 or 2pm on for the rest of my day. On the one hand, I’m not going to “waste” these hours of my ten months here sitting at home every day. But I’m not going to hurt myself setting too high expectations either.

I spend a lot of time with the other fellows, too, and that is very meaningful to me. We’re all so different, and yet find so much in common in different ways. I don’t doubt that it’s helping me tremendously in sorting out my confusing array of emotions. I would never consider my time with them wasted.

And since I’ve given myself the psychological break, I’ve found myself sliding more easily into times that I actually want to draw. I mean, I always want to draw, but I had built up a fear of what would happen if I did, and that fear is starting to extinguish itself. The drawing is becoming more regular, but not because I’m yelling at myself to do it. And I think it’s getting closer to some ideas and images that I’d like to pursue further. It’s still not a perfect process, but I’m getting back into it, and I think in the right way.

And as far as experiencing Israel and the program…I can see how much I’ve done and learned in just three months, and it’s both gratifying and inspiring. It’s more a matter of continuing to explore my surroundings and building my relationships. I have so much to thank the people here for giving me that, but this blog post is already so long…so let’s leave it for now.

40 Shekalim

My first two months here seemed a flurry of realizing how many small, everyday items I had taken for granted in Pittsburgh. Many small kitchen-wares (a proper spice collection being one very important one), some nicer clothing items, art supplies, some school supplies, and general household items were purchased before my first stipend arrived, halfway through the month. My bike was the most significant, and perhaps my best, purchase, and when I started exploring the country, I noticed I was again dishing out cash for travel expenses.

Although my spending was not so extravagant in retrospect, I was discouraged at the time, having to dip into my savings so much. I vowed that once the madness had normalized, I would have a plan, to live comfortably and reasonably on my stipend. Now that I feel I’m establishing my flow, the idea still seemed like a good one, so earlier this month, I finally started a reliable budgeting spreadsheet to effectively use my humble monthly stipend.

My plan:

40 NIS a day. ($10)

That’s on average, of course. Some days I don’t buy anything. And then you have a day, as I did this month, where I spent 100 NIS on contact solution for the rest of the program. You can’t buy everything for ten bucks or less…but, it’s certainly helped me a LOT in putting my purchases into perspective. Even just having some quick notes on what else I’ve bought in the previous weeks helps me make decisions about what purchases make sense.

This list may not be interesting to the folks outside this program, but here’s what I feel has helped the most (and if you want, just skip to the bottom for more self-reflection on consumerism):

– I rarely buy clothing or beauty care products. If I want to wear something new, I kindly ask one of the lovely ladies in my apartment if they would share, and in return, I offer my…spices…and uh, cooking, I think. It works, okay? They’re nice.

– I buy almost all of my fresh groceries once a week, when the shuk is open. I ride my bike there after school, with only my backpack and some limited handlebar space for carrying my purchases. I generally already know what I want to buy before I arrive, but I’m open to switching out something for a new fruit or veggie that’s come into season. This prevents me from impulse purchases, and from buying more than I can eat before it spoils. Usually, my total is around 20 NIS.

– I don’t buy lots of processed food or snacks. Mostly whole ingredients to make something delicious out of: produce, legumes, grains, nuts, oils, sauces and spices…and humus and fresh-baked pita. The grocery-store humus is probably the most processed thing I eat, here.

-I visit the grocery store once every week or two for any other pantry items, but I do my best to be creative with what I’ve already got on hand. I’ve found that restaurants in Ashdod are…okay…but I love to cook, so I do that during the week. I prefer to save my going-out money for a weekend treat meal in Tel-Aviv (where the vegan options roam wild and free).

– On the note of traveling, I bring some food and snacks with me. Usually, a friend is hosting me, so I can bring ingredients to cook my own meals (and/or cook for them), or buy cheap groceries once I’m there for the weekend.

– I don’t buy drinks at bars. I won’t be fooled anymore. It’s just ridiculous. You can buy three bottles of wine at the grocery store for the same price of one, teeny tiny beer, which I don’t even like. Wine forever

I don’t consider this being too frugal. I don’t feel my fun or my experiences here inhibited by my budgeting. I feel it prioritizes what’s important to me (mostly travel, healthy, tasty food, and art) and lets me worry less about spending on things I really don’t want or need. Ever since I packed my three bags to come live here, I’ve been enjoying the liberation of living on less, and I’m looking forward to experimenting further with how my time here can impact my level of consumerism in the future.

Chnoon

“He say…he don’t like everyone in class.”

The fifth grade girl paused, trying to formulate her next statement. The two other fifth grade boys held the same, thoughtful expression, trying to add to the explanation. T’chelet, Itai, and Shai were the students in my tutoring group today, but something kept them chatting away in Hebrew, and I wanted to know what it was (and why it was so much more important than completing their exercises in English).

“Itai,” I said, “Is that true? Why don’t you like some of the other pupils?”

Israeli textbooks, by the way, teach the word pupil instead of student. Every English class begins the same way:

“Good MORNing dear PUPils.”

“Good MORNing dear TEACHah.”

It’s still pretty funny.

Back to my fifth graders: Itai’s palm rubs to his forehead as he tries to find the right words for my question. He is grinning, but his English is weak and he’s stuck with no answer. Finally, he starts to say something in Hebrew, stopping to hold up fingers around his eyes.

“You wear glasses, Itai?” I say, holding up my fingers to mirror his.

Yes, yes, glasses” He responds, in Hebrew. “And…ehmm…”

They call him…ehmm…” Shai shakes his fist trying to find the word. “How do you say it, ‘chnoon,’ in English,” he asks T’chelet.

Chnoon,” she wonders. “Chnoon…” 

Finally, I hand my phone over to Shai, and he enters the word into my translator app. He passes the phone back to me, and I see the English text, sitting bluntly on the screen:

Geek

“Ahhh,” I say. Then my face twists. “Geek? They call you geek? That’s what this is about?” Itai shrinks down a bit and gives me a half-smile, looking a little embarrassed that I found out.

“It’s not nice for them to call you names, and try to hurt your feelings. But Itai…you know who is really a geek?”

I point to myself and laugh. The three are taken aback, eyes wide.

“No, no,” T’chelet tells me, “Kloowee, you are not chnooneet…(the feminine form)”

“Sure I am,” I retaliated. “I LOVE school. I LOVE to learn. And THAT makes me a geek, no?”

The three looked at each other, unsure, but also excited by this new idea.

“When I was your age, Itai, I was a geek then too. And guess what, I wear glasses too! And, yes, sometimes other pupils made fun of me, and tried to make me feel bad. But these are not such bad things. Today, I am so, so happy to be a geek. I love being a geek!”

T’chelet nearly leapt out of her seat to speak next. “Klowee! Last year, they called me…they called me…SMALL! Because…I was small!”

“Oh, did they…” I responded, equally wide-eyed, and looking to Shai. He nodded firmly, and I could feel the sense of unity building.

“Well I don’t know what’s so bad about being small,” I told her. “When I was your age, I was small, too. But I do know one thing – you three are fun, and great stu- erm, pupils, and I LOVE being your teacher, AND chnooneet.”

The bell rang, and the three quickly gathered their things, excitedly continuing the conversation with each other in Hebrew. As I waved goodbye and watched them go, my heart felt torn. The “when I was your age” speech is no new trick, but I felt I had accomplished something special today, providing comfort and perhaps helping to grow small seedlings of self-confidence.

Yet, I wished I had more time to listen to this way, about how these kids felt about school, about their friends, about life in Israel, about…so much more, outside of English. We fellows are constantly trying to take the material from the books and create personal connections. It’s hard to do so with the language barrier, and to still keep the kids on task, but it’s so worth it to make this time. I hope that as I get my art-and-English volunteering underway with personalized approaches to learning vocabulary, I will have even better opportunities to know my students.

Touring Ashdod Pt. 2: The Big Dune

After our morning presentations and visits to the Russian and Orthodox quarters, we found ourselves in a much more hands-on exploration of Ashdod. Our bus landed near the train station, at a spot I’d rode by many times before by bike, on my way to a weekend trip. We climbed down from the main road, down into a vast expanse of sand and arid landscape.

Trekking up a sand dune - still in our conservative clothes, on that matter!

Trekking up a sand dune – still in our conservative garb!

 

Our tour guide, Shahar, explained to us the variety of ways that Israel both works with the environment, and against it, to make city life work in what is essentially the desert. I was fascinated by the immense concept of Development vs. Nature that surrounded our journey.

Now, for a quick, but important note:

I was thinking a lot of a very special friend today, who I knew would have loved the trip as much as I did. It just so happens that today(ish, November 10th) is his birthday, so I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to him…Happy Birthday Billy!!! I miss exploring and learning about nature with you, and I hope the leaves are extra colorful for you today!

For you Billy, we started to learn about native and invasive species! The first we approached had these fig-like, low-hanging fruit.

Any guesses on what tree this is?

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It’s a sequoia! (Not native)

Shahar showed us how to choose a ripe fruit and open it, in half, with your fingers. “Then, you check the insides for bugs,” he said, “since the inside is very soft and nice for them.” Then, we took a taste…and they were really nice. The texture  and taste reminded me of a very mild peach. I’m going to be looking around Israel for more of these…

As we continued walking over the hills of sand, Shahar pointed out to us the different creature tracks in the sand. They were everywhere. We found those of small birds, lizards, gerbils (and other rodents), and even fox tracks. I was struck by the collage of so many natural tracks, also were ridden with traces of man and machine.

Tracks on tracks on tracks

Tracks on tracks on tracks

Guesses on whose tracks these are?

You can tell because the feet pull in slightly at the end of each track, covering what would be the trail of the shell on the sand.

You can tell because the feet pull in slightly at the end of each track, covering what would be the trail of the shell on the sand.

It’s a tortoise! Probably.

At one point, Shahar pulled out a big bush of flowers, declaring “These are invasive – they’re not nice!” Between that and the proud smile here, I’d say I’ve found Billy in Israel form.

A little different from the knotweeds we pulled in Pittsburgh...

A little different from the knotweeds we pulled in Pittsburgh…

Shahar clearly loves nature very much, and I feel like my friends and I fed off of it and had a blast. Here, he showed us “the plant of his childhood,” lovingly nicknamed the “digdig” or “tickle” plant. “Because,” he said, “you can touch it without getting pricked. Like this!” And he threw his whole body onto the plant for a big nature hug.

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Then there was a huge sabra plant (cactus). Yes, sabra, like the humus.

Cactus selfie

Cactus selfie

I’ll conclude with my favorite photo of the day:

As we leave the dunes

As we leave the dunes

(Please keep in mind that in Israel, narrative images are read from right to left, just as in Hebrew.  On the right, the bounty of nature, and to the left, the gas station and road full of parked cars, just before the train…and, us, walking between the two…)

Touring Ashdod Pt. 1: Religious Sanctuary

On today’s “enrichment” journey, we toured a few parts of Ashdod that not all of us have had the chance to explore yet.

During our first stop, at the New Immigration Municipality, we had the chance to learn more about the social and cultural makeup of Ashdod. Ashdod has relatively large Ethiopian, Russian, French, and South American populations, and a representative from each gave a presentation, including their own personal immigration stories. The Ethiopian representative only just scratched the surface of his incredible story: trekking a year on foot at the age of seven, travelling at night to escape government eyes, living on little food and water, and avoiding danger and death at every turn. This threat to Jews is not something just of the past, either. Most recently, Ashdod has been preparing for an incoming wave of 6,000 French immigrants, due to the rising antisemitism in Europe.  It is amazing to realize the kind of sanctuary that Israel represents for Jews all over the world.

We then took a quick visit to a Russian marketplace, and observed the differences in wares (mostly food) and signage. While here the signs were mostly in Russian and Hebrew, everywhere else has signs predominantly in Hebrew and English.

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English, we learned, is attractive and “cool” to have on your signs, because it represents the wealth of America, the “land of gold.”

Not only is McDonalds ridiculously expensive in Israel, but they name their combo meals brilliantly. "I'll have one Big America please..."

Not only is McDonalds ridiculously expensive in Israel, but they name their combo meals brilliantly. “I’ll have one Big America please…”

For our trip, we were told that we would be visiting some Orthodox neighborhoods, so the girls wore long skirts and dresses, and the men wore long pants and shirts. Turned out we would just be driving through these parts of Ashdod. As we drove through, I realized how very rarely I encounter Orthodox Ashdodians on the streets where we live and work. Our tour guide, Shahar, said that these Orthodox areas were actually recognized as “ghettos” – isolated neighborhoods – and while the term usually has negative connotations, Orthodox populations actually embrace the term, preferring to be kept separate from the outside world. The street names we passed here (normally named after historical leaders or magnificent natural structures) were all named after great rabbis.

I had mixed feelings about seeing these neighborhoods. At first, I was frustrated that we had made the effort to dress appropriately to visit the area, only to be stuck peering through the glass at passing families and synagogues, like fish at the aquarium. It felt very much like we were tourists in our own city, and intruding on these spaces. My picture of Ashdod was changing, and I struggled to find a way to fit the very open way of my Ashdodian families with these new, closed settlements. This is not to say I find Orthodox families unwelcoming at all – just a few Shabbats ago, Todd and I were invited to and dined in Michal’s home. But most Orthodox families do not even use the internet, without which I would have never got in contact with Michal. There are many walls in place between the cultures that are difficult to make connections through.

The Orthodox separation from contemporary society is crucial for their dedicated religious lifestyle, and such divisions can be found throughout Israel. I am in awe at how they continue to lead their lives this way, upholding their traditions and particular communities’ values. I find it, in a way, beautiful, to have such spiritual awareness. Still, I can’t shake the estrangement I felt today.

Especially as we departed from these developments to experience the natural dunes and parks, I remembered the Orthodox separation not only from society, but also from nature, that their religious practices often dictate. In Israel, I have felt that there is so much awareness and action to protect the land and the environment, and I’ve thrived in it – but this is not a priority for all of Israel. I don’t want to be so frustrated by this difference. Instead, I will continue to take part in the beautiful and compassionate relationship with nature that is offered to me, and benefit from it in a way I can only find here.

Winter is coming…

But certainly not in the same way as the Starks fear. We don’t exactly live in the same climate, you see…

My apartment building - I actually took this the first day I was here!

My apartment building – I actually took this the first day I was here!

Ashdodians have told me time and time again that even though it’s technically fall, winter is going to hit very soon, when it will be 21-23 C during the day, and maybe 15-17 C at night. They have to keep telling me this, because I just can’t accept that as winter weather.

Balcony view, on a sunny, summery day

Balcony view, on a sunny, summery day

I’m used to Pittsburgh winter, which means gray. So gray that you’re moping around like Eeyore all the time. Gray until you’re ready to sell your first-born, just a moment of warm, sweet sunshine.

In short, gray forever.

And five sweaters, and two pairs of pants, and you’re still losing feeling in your toes as you bike home through slush.

And snow.

Freshman year of college, first year in Pittsburgh - look at how much I'm enjoying the cold! And wow...look at how long my hair was...

Freshman year of college, first year in Pittsburgh – look at how much I’m enjoying the cold! And wow…look at how long my hair was…

Winter in Ashdod, however, is the time for rain, in a way that reminds me of Pittsburgh summer. Though my first month in Israel, it didn’t rain once. When it finally did, it was hard to predict. It comes down fast and hard and scattered, sometimes with the sun still shining.

Our view from the apartment this afternoon was amazing, as a short but intense shower came down over the city. As the rain was lifting, the sun began to shine down on the water, and created this “God is speaking to me” scene, in an eerie mix of light and fog.

afterrain3The light was shifting gorgeously. These photos really don’t do it justice, but I’d still recommend opening the photos in a new window (click on ’em).

afterrain2

If this is Ashdod winter, I think I’ll survive.

Tel Avivee Halloweenies

In the lobby of our apartment, hopefully in regards to Halloween

In the lobby of our apartment, hoping in regards to Halloween

Halloween isn’t a big deal in Israel – at all. None of my students in Ashdod knew what it was, and only one or two somewhat recognized it when I described the idea of trick-or-treating for pillowcase-loads of candy. But they still loved the Halloween stickers that I used in and after good lessons (thanks Mom, for sending those in my care package)! So, to celebrate the well-timed holiday on Friday the 31st, Paul, Stephanie, Todd, and I decided to hit up Tel Aviv, which is one of the only places we could hope to find any kind of Halloween-themed party or club.

Our host for the weekend, Guy (a different Guy from Sukkot), was (like other Guy) an great host. Yes, this is due to his hospitality, personality, and epic mustache, BUT he was also totally up for an all-out Halloween party, and had invited lots of friends for the Friday event.

Paul and I got in Thursday night, with the other two to join us on Friday. Our host took us to get takeout from the hip and popular Pasta Basta. We took our meals back to eat on the balcony of Guy’s apartment, which overlooks the big, beautiful square at the southern end of Rothschild street.

Wall art in Pasta Basta

Wall art in Pasta Basta

First night with Guy!

First night with Guy!

On Friday morning, Paul and I walked with Guy ALL over, picking up decorations, costumes, food, and drinks for his party that night. We were out walking and shopping for an exhausting, but very productive five hours. Not sure how Guy was planning on having done all of that by himself (he admitted this too), but it felt good to contribute our manpower for the greater good.

Israeli pumpkins! not a big thing here, either.

Israeli pumpkins! not a big thing here, either.

A similar example of goodwill and eagerness to help arose again, while we were at the Carmel Market for pumpkins, party food, and the ever important humus. The weather was pulling a Pittsburgh with crazy and intense on/off rain and sunshine. The main market strip, still packed with people who would crowd into the side stands to escape downpours, had a river of water gushing downhill.

This was only the beginning of the heavy rain...

This was only the beginning of the heavy rain…

There were literally pieces of fruit getting knocked off of stands and floating down the street. Vendors and shoppers would try to grab the fruit and throw them back to the correct stands. While waiting for a lighter rain, I helped a vendor selling slippers and flip flops cover his wares with a tarp, after his roof started leaking. I know such acts seem small, but to be among so many all at once, with everyone working together to conquer the rain, I felt the familiar, strong sense of community rise up, naturally and powerfully.

Once we returned from errands, all of the Americans, Guy, his girlfriend Efrat, and his other travel guests (a young Polish couple), spent the rest of the day hanging out and decorating Guys apartment.

Steph decorates a spookymballoon

Steph decorates a spooky balloon

Todd's pre-party selfie

Todd’s pre-party spooky selfie

Not going to lie, the apartment looked pretty amazing. Pumpkin and ghost-shaped streamers, glow in the dark skeletons, balloons with LED lights inside of them, spiderwebs, and much more covered the apartment.

Decorations! It may not look like much here, but trust me - there was Halloween everywhere.

Decorations! It may not look like much here, but trust me – there was Halloween everywhere.

The party itself was a great time, with maybe 50 or 60 guests coming by, almost everyone in costume. I got to meet a lot of Guy’s creative, designer friends, which was cool to compare the kinds of work we do and what our plans are to make creative “careers” in the coming time.

Efrat and Steph

Efrat and Steph

Pauldemort

Pauldemort

My costume, by the way, was Twiggy, but I’m realizing now that I never took a photo of myself. Yes, I know, I really dropped the ball on that. I was so caught up in the shopping, the decorating, the partying, that the picture never happened… so hopefully someone else with a camera that night has a photo of me. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who were able to guess who I was first try, no hints or nuthin’.

Real Twiggy (placeholder pic?)

Real Twiggy (placeholder pic?)

Saturday was a relaxing day of sleeping in (for those of us who can, not I), cleaning-up, and chilling out. We also had a short visit with other Guy, our first host in Tel Aviv. The two Guys live about ten minutes walking distance, so it was cool to check in with him and hang out, before we hopped on the evening train to get back to Ashdod.

In retrospect, I realize how nice it was to not have had Halloween take over all stores and advertisements this past month. Even with Israeli holidays, such consumerism is so much less present here than in the States. Now, I get to not hear about Thanksgiving sales! Although, the other fellows here are already starting to talk about planning a special dinner…more to come on that later.

One more different but important note: next week my teacher host Rachel is going to take me to talk with the principal about my idea for extra volunteering. I am requesting to lead after-school integrated art and English lessons. As long as I can keep the materials list short, I think it can work. I have been working on a list of project ideas from online research, specific for ESL students. I also asked my mom (who was an incredible art teacher for many years) if she would share some of her ideas, since I’m sure she has TONS of project that fit the bill perfectly. Hoping it works out!