Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Independence and confusion

Last Friday at Nava Tehilla, the Jewish Renewal monthly service I attend, the Rabbi spoke about the upcoming Israeli Independence Day.

"There are many people here working in Israeli/Palestinian dialogue.  With Israelis celebrating Independence Day this coming Tuesday, we have to realize that one people's celebration is not always that for everyone.  It's a sad day for others living in this country... and this causes a lot of confusion."

I had come home from that service so happy that the Rabbi acknowledged this, and also because my dinner guest had mentioned that she would be interested in joining my interfaith group, because of what the Rabbi said.  We have to understand one another.

And talk about confusion.  At the home front, things are most confusing.

"Black is such a negative color" my husband remarked to me one morning.

Huh?  He's always complaining that I'm so fat.  Doesn't he know that black makes me look thinner? Fool. I kept the black outfit on.

Meanwhile this week, he's been having withdrawal symptoms from trying to quit smoking.  It's been 4 days now since he's taken a butt and he's miserable, and the scowl on his face seems to me to be a permanent facial disfigurement.  He had been calling me an average of 25 times a day, while I'm at work.  I'm ignoring most of those calls.  I tell him he's only allowed to call me once or twice at the most.  He doesn't listen and catches the office manager on the phone, to tell her of all my sins. 

"Did you know that she eats Halal meat?" referring to non-kosher meat but rather the Arab version of "kosher".

I sighed when he told me he told her.  He loves to point out my sins to others.  Like when we were Chabad chassidim, and I used to go Israeli dancing with both men and women, which is taboo in the Chassidic world.  But he made sure that everyone in our religious neighborhood knew about it, when we had a tiff or two or three.

Yesterday, my office closed early for Memorial Day for Israel's fallen.  I've always thought it should be a memorial day for both Israelis and Arabs who died in our what-seems-like-an-eternity-of conflict.  I thought I'd head over to the YMCA where a joint memorial day ceremony for both Israelis and Arabs was being held.  I couldn't stay the full three hours as I had promised by daughter that I'd attend the local Independence Day celebration in Maaleh Adumim where her boyfriend was going to perform.  At the joint memorial ceremony, I listened to an older man talk about his boyhood in Ramle, where up until 1948, it was an Arab town.  People were involved in agriculture.  He knew nothing as a child of any conflict, Arabs and Jews.  All they wanted to do was play.  Until the War of Independence where he lost his home and described weeks of going without food, being sheltered in a local church, and the fear and loss they experienced. His last words were something like "Israel does not have complete independence yet", and I agreed with him.   I had to leave after an hour, but I knew that they would also hear an Israeli speak about their loss during a terror attack.  I would miss the listening workshops and the candlelighting.  I had to rush home to celebrate.

"I told them all about you" said my daughter about her boyfriend's parents.  "I told them you love Arabs and that you are trying to make peace between Arabs and Israelis.  His father asked me 'What ! Does she want to give back Maaleh Adumim?' but I said I really didn't know what you do, and that he should speak to you."

What a fabulous first impression.  I'm about to meet them in about two hours for the first time.  I put on my contact lenses, and fresh makeup so I could look nice.  Let them not think Arab lovers are all dykey-looking, makeupless, grungy people who wear clothes that need serious ironing.

We took a cab over to their home.  I expected a bit of a confrontation, but there was none.  They treated me with kindness, smiles and two large glasses of Coca Cola.  They were going to sit in reserved seats in the VIP section, and they wanted us to sit with them.  We got into the VIP place, I walked passed the mayor while my daughter's boyfriend's parents shook his hand.  I nodded at him, wondering if he already knows I had been to a joint Palestinian/Israeli Nakba/Memorial Day ceremony.  And I sat down to watch the beautiful fireworks display and the various performers in the crowded park from my up front VIP seat. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


On Thursday I was invited to be a part of the 1st conference of the Euro-Mediterranean Abrahamic Forum in Amman, Jordan.  Luckily, I was able to take time off work for this convention.  Because we are Israelis, we couldn't go to the much closer Allenby Bridge, but rather had to go over the Sheikh Hussein bridge near Beit Shean Valley, a 2 hour ride north of Jerusalem.  On the Israeli side of the border was a large photo of the late King Hussein lighting up the late Yitzchak Rabin's cigarette.  They're both smoking.  "Oh look, they're killing each other," I mentioned to one of my travel mates.  On the Jordanian side of the border, as Israelis we had to report to the Tourist Police before our passports were stamped.  I guess they want to take a talley of how many Israelis come into the country and to keep an eye out.  We're touchier tourists than others. 

Driving on the other side of the Jordan River, we passed by rows of small Bedouin villages and small shops.  I had seen the same vistas in photos of Pakistan, Iraq, etc.  They were remarkably similar. Photos of King Abdullah were everywhere, nearly at every intersection.  Our young driver told one of the women in our group who was fluent in Arabic that his parents were refugees from Jerusalem.  Ooops.  Sorry 'bout that, but please get us safely to Amman.  The climb up from the valley to the top of the ridge was slow, and the van had a rough time going up the steep road.  Eventually we did make it to Amman, to the hotel. 

But the hotel menu needed some fine tuning

We introduced ourselves and it was quite interesting to meet new faces - young Jordanians, Belgians of Turkish descent, Polish buddhists, Greeks, Lithuanians and Tunisians.  We branched out into 5 groups and one of the most interesting people at the conference was a Belgian man of Turkish descent, who was or will be running for mayor of his town, and who had written a book "who is afraid of Islam" - or something like it as the book is in Flemish, so I'm not sure I translated the title correctly.  He likes to push buttons so one of his chapters was titled "Belgian people are lazy" to counter the claim that Turkish people are lazy.  When the Turks arrived in Belgium, they were put to work in coal mines because the Belgians didn't want to do that kind of work - so, hence that chapter.

That evening the young Jordanians took us out to Books@cafe in Western Amman - with a pub, dj, funky colors, etc.  something you'd expect to see in any Western country. We passed Rainbow Street, a street of cafes and interesting shops - this was modern Amman.  They served liquor at the pub, and I was surprised to find so many liquor shops all over Amman - even in the more conservative downtown Amman area.

On Friday I invited a friend of my friend Ibrahim from the Mt. of Olives, whom I met on Facebook, to come join us for some of the sessions.  Mohammed, a man in his 50s, came over to the hotel to meet me.  He laughed when I wrote down my contact information.

"You write just like Obama" - and he curled his hand over the paper to show me that the president and I do indeed have that odd way of writing.

My Israeli Jewish roomate had gone with the Moslem women to the local mosque.  Of course, the women put on the special cover up over her head and body before she entered the mosque.  She apparently knew the prayers being fluent in Arabic. And we prayed the Jewish prayers in the mezzanine of the hotel above the lobby, being that the hotel management didn't want to give us the private room upstairs so we had held our sessions in the dining room.  Well, Jewish prayers aren't quiet and there was a lot of singing so we pretty much freaked out the hotel staff, who were nervous about the other guests hearing us (many of course from other Arab countries) and wondering what the hell was going on.  I guess the staff thought - enough is enough - and allowed us the use of the private room from then on.  Which goes to show you - when all else fails....pray.

Doing the Debka

Taking the chairs out from beneath you

when the girls did it - they got it right!

That night one of the local young women took us out to a traditional "coffee shop" which isn't like Starbucks or Cafe Aroma in Israel, but rather like a traditional nightclub.  We walked to one close by and as soon as we walked it, my Brazilian friend and I looked at each other.

"Did anyone slip us some drugs?"

That's what it felt like.  It was one of the trippiest places I had ever been too (and photos don't capture it), and unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photos (other than the ones we snuck in), but I'll try to describe.  We walked into a place where families sat together, most of the women were traditionally dressed with Hijabs and a few were dressed modern. I looked behind me to see a couple of women seated together, tons of makeup, with head coverings, but with ample cleavage showing.  Huh?  But never mind.  To each his/her own.  We arrived just as the Bingo game (yes, bingo) was winding down, with the prizes being household items instead of money.  Then an Iraqi singer took the stage and sang for like three hours.  Our waiter wore a black suit and his bangs were like pasted onto his forehead. 

This place was not 21st century I'm telling you.  Another young man had a foot-high pompadour haircut.  The menu was all in Arabic which I was happy about.  I didn't want to go to a tourist spot, and obviously I hit the right place.  We ordered desserts which were these giant strange conconctions of fruit and ice cream, which lit up in the middle.

And we danced and danced.  And my Jordanian friend told the singer I was from Canada.  I wasn't sure if this was a place where you can be openly Israeli, and at 2 am, I wasn't sure I wanted strange reactions so I left it at that.

The next day we strolled to downtown Amman to eat knafe at this famous little shop.  Downtown wasn't modern, people dressed more conservatively, though I did see small groups of tourists.We passed by the oldest mosque in Amman.

the oldest mosque in Amman

perfume sellers - I bought Turkish Rose

The tortoise and the hare - fighting for a red pepper - for sale on Amman streets

By the end of our stay, many of us had bonded closely with one another.  On Sunday we headed out to Madaba and Mt. Nebo, and said our goodbyes before our bus took us back to Israel.  Lots of hugs and kisses and teary eyes.

Mosaics workshop at Madaba

carpet weaver

Old Greek Orthodox church at Madaba

This is the famous oldest mosaic map (7th century) of Jerusalem (see the Cardo in the center)

Saturday, April 03, 2010


It's mid-Passover.  I have been hearing ludicrous things from all sides.  Everything from "Obama is building concentration camps for Jews" to someone on an "health food" email list who thought a person should die for not wanting to buy organic eggs from a violent anti-Arab settler, to Hubby complaining that I'm the sole cause of our family's dysfunction.  I had to get out of the house.  I just HAD to get out.  Anywhere. 

That anywhere was Ramle.  I saw a walking tour of what most people perceive to be one of Israel's pissholes and thought 'hey, this could be interesting' and signed up.  We would explore the Christian, Moslem and Karaite Jewish communities of the city.  Wow.

I took the bus into Ramle from Jerusalem, and taking holiday traffic into consideration, I left much earlier.  I managed to find the train station that was our meeting point. 

What a breath of fresh air.  Even if it was Ramle.  Ramle was founded by Moslems in the 7th century, taken over by the crusaders in the 11th century and then re-taken by the Moslem Mamelukes in the 12th century.  Our first stop were Helena's Pools, a refurbished Crusader era water pool, which served as the city's water reserve.  Now you can still see the arches and there are boats that glide through the waters for whatever tourist may happen to come by.

                                                                       Water is beneath these troughs

We went over to the ancient minaret from Mameluke times.  This area used to be a giant mosque, and there were still ruins from the 7th century structure, although some of the structures could have been from later years.  A Moslem cemetery straddles the mosque on both sides.  The tour guide said that one of Mohammed's "priests" was buried there, although I'm not sure Moslems have priests.

I climbed up 110 stairs to the top.  My feet are still aching from the steep climb.

view of Moslem cemetery

                                                               View from the top of minaret

Afterwards the guide took us to a place in the shade and proceeded to talk about Islam by telling us "Mohammad NEVER went to Jerusalem.  Ever!  And so what is this that Jerusalem is holy for them?"  I knew from enough interfaith meetings that the Moslem prophet did indeed go to Jerusalem, and so I interrupted our guide.  Me, a Jewish woman living over the green line, defending Islam.  What a Passover holiday I'm having. 

"Er, excuse me?  But it is said in their tradition that Mohammed went to heaven from Jerusalem, from the Temple Mount."

"Ha!  If you believe that, as much as you want to believe that Elijah went up to heaven in a fiery chariot, then fine.  It said he went to Al Aksa, which means "the farthest place".  It could be in Beijing for all we know."

OK.  I wasn't going to spend the entire tour arguing with the "expert".  So I let her guide, telling us at one of the last stops that if you say Allah Hu Akbar you automatically become a Moslem so "don't say it!!!!" she shouted at one of the people in our group.  I smiled at the thought of Rabbi Froman who often stands up on stage with a great big Allah Hu Akbar - and know that he hadn't turned into a Moslem from saying God is Great in Arabic.  I tried to tune out her political diatribes.  This wasn't what I came here for.  I could always read the papers for that or listen to my son-in-law.  Is there no refuge for me during Passover? 

Arab part of town

I went back to Jerusalem by train, thinking it will be a faster trip, because there is no holiday traffic on the rails.  I was right - although the most scenic part of the trip, the hills around Jerusalem was already shrouded in darkness by the time we got there.  And I met my two married kids in downtown Jerusalem and drowned my sorrows in a large cup of kosher-for-passover ice cream.