Friday, December 23, 2011

The Time For Miracles

I've always enjoyed celebrating Hanukah: the colorful candles and wax designs that form as they melt, the delicious oily taste of latkes, and the story of the Maccabees. Then, growing up, there was the added treat of presents so that us Jewish kids wouldn't feel so left out from Christmas. I've been in Israel at least a dozen times on Hanukah and have always given thanks for the opportunity to be surrounded by my holiday and my people instead of blinking lights on Christmas tress, jingle bells everyone from the radio to the streets, and Santa ads as early as Thanksgiving. It even turned out that a few times my family just happened to have Chinese food and then watch a movie, returning home only to then realize that it was ironically December 25th. So I'm used to Hanukah in Israel and used to Hanukiot surrounding me instead of colorful trees.

But being in Israel during the weeks leading up to Hanukah and right on through the holiday season has been a completely different ballgame. In the past I have found beauty in the story of the eight nights of oil. I have marveled in the connection to real history while walking on the exact land the Maccabees fought on thousands of years ago. I have thought about the miracle while lighting the candles and singing the songs. But the miracle takes on a whole new meaning here: "nes gadol hayah po." A great miracle happened here. And right now is the time of miracles. Everywhere around me there is talk of this month as a period of nes.  With the flickering of the Hanukiot I see all around, I can't help thinking that maybe they are right.

All different people I have met and spoken to have indicated that this is the moment when miracles are in the air and after hearing it enough times, I have been trying to decide what small miracle I am going to focus on. I am already thankful to the miracle that I am in fact here this year. I am thankful for the miracle of my family, the miracle of thinking in a new way, the miracle of sharing ways of thinking and belief with those around me. There area also plenty of miracles I hope for: to succeed in my work here this year, to one day fall in love, to one day have a family, to one day choose the niche where I most belong. Then there are the more global miracles to wish for--peace, the healing of our environment, the healing of our global economy, using the power of technology to fix what we have broken, just to name a few. But like anything else in life, it is not enough just to hope, you have to work for the miracles you want. The people in the days of the Maccabees didn't simply hope to change things or that the oil would last, they made real sacrifices and once winning the Temple back, they worked hard to churn out oil as fast as they could, to reclaim their holy space, and to give thanks for each of the triumphs and miracles as they came.

Here are a few examples of ways that people I have met have reminded me that this can be the time for proactive change if you work for it: A religious girl I work with at one of the moadoniyot says each year she prays before the candles with all her might across the eight days. As the candlelight grows and grows each evening she says she gets more and more strength and fulfillment. She prays until they burn out each night and tries to harness the strength of the light for her personal journey. Another friend told me that the period of nes during Hanukah always inspires him to try something new, something he wouldn't have necessarily done before. Each year that he's pushed himself to do something different, he says he has learned something new about himself. It doesn't have to be anything big, it can be as simple as testing out a new food or saying hi to that person you always pass by in the hall but never have spoken to before. Lastly, a woman I work with told me that the time leading up to Hanukah is the time she uses to reflect on all the small miracles of her life and then think of what she can do for others. She leaves little envelopes of coins on park benches and hopes that a deserving person will find it. She packs herself some extra food for lunch and searches for someone in need to share it with during her lunch break. She leaves little anonymous, inspirational notes on peoples' desks and in their coat pockets for them to find later on.

All these little acts are miracles of themselves. One is through the miracle of prayer, one is through the miracle of self-reflection and improvement, and one is the miracle of small forms of tzedakah. It is up to each of us to decide which type of miracle most speaks to us. During this holiday season, may we all reflect on how we can give thanks for all of the miracles of our own lives and how we can add to the miracles of others.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hanukah, Oh Hanukah

One of the most exciting things about being is Israel is living the Jewish year. Everywhere I go lately, the smell of sufganiyot fills the air. There are chocolate sufganiyot, the original jelly sufganiyot, powdered coconut sufganiyot, and whipped cream sufganiyot. I sound a little like Bubba, but it's true, the choices are endless. There are tons of Hanukah parties and events happening all over every major city. There's Hanukah vacation, and we're working on Christmas. And there are the Hanukiot. I'll keep collecting and posting Hanukiot and other sites as I see them, so come back to check out all eight days:

 Preparing for Hanukah 

 Hanukiot being sold near Ben Yehuda. Turns out the artist just made aliyah one month ago and already has a studio and gallery. Also, she happens to know a good childhood friend of mine that also made aliyah around the same time that I arrived. She has beautiful things and is very sweet!

 Above is a huge, blinking Chanukiah in the school lobby in Gilo, where I went to participate in a Hanukah and Goodbye Party. On my way out, I saw that some kids had been hard at work setting up some special celebratory decorations. There was also an art display set up by some of the students in the school. Each candle had a different message on it.

When I was leaving the school, I happened to look up onto the roof of the music center and there was another Chanukiah on the roof, waiting to be lit. 

Erev Hanukah 

A Chanukiah painted on the wall near the Bakka Moadonit (after-school program) that I work at. It actually only has seven candle holders but I still count it.

On my walk home down Aza I saw another Chanukiah by one of the most delicious hummus places in Jerusalem. 
Hanukah, 1st Night

Our neighbors were lighting their Chanukiah across the way at the same time we were. I tried to get a good shot but it was too far away. There was a lot of swaying, singing, jumping, and smiling across the way. 
Our collection

We decided to have an impromptu Hanukah party for the first night. On our way to the supermarket to buy applesauce, eggs, and gelt, we saw another. 

Next to the supermarket, I saw a beautiful Chanukiah shimmering from someone's window. 
We were swimming in sufganiyot.

The whole apartment filled with the smell of oil. We didn't have a food processor or blender, so did some research on using an old fashion grater. When googling the pros and cons of grating vs. processing I came across a fascinating conversation stream about the status of kashrut if blood is included in the recipe (because, of course, it inevitably drips from the cuts one gets from the grater). One person commented that a latke isn't a latke without the blood. Another person explained the intricacies of law that prove it would still be kosher. Others talked about putting potatoes in water to keep them from browning and one had the idea of boiling them so that it's easier to grate. Maybe we should all rethink our favorite latke recipes! (Here are some unique ones)

Meanwhile, we collected dreidles to add to our collection of gelt. I got really excited when instead of reading nun, gimmel, hey, shin (for "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham") it had a pei for "po," or here. A great miracle happened HERE.

 Hanukah, Day 2

Today I went to one of the moadoniyot to decorate Chanukiyot with the kids. On my way there, I saw plenty of others on the streets.

Hanukiot hung from street poles and were propped up by fountains, squares, and buildings.

 There was even one on a car. One could only guess as to why. I wished I had time to stick around and see!


We lit candles together once again in our apartment on the second night and sang some Hanukah songs on guitar. One of the Chunakiot was an oil lamp.  

 Hanukah, Day 3

The next day, all of the JSC Israel fellows went to Beersheva to visit the Center for Independent Living (CIL) that Orly, one of the fellows from last year who stayed longer for a few months, worked at this past year. It was an inspirational place where people with disabilities in Israel are given all the support and help they need to fight for their equal rights and services they deserve. 

But the place is more than that: Dalyia, the woman who founded the restaurant next door and who built up this CIL center (the second one in Israel, and a beacon of example across the country), works hard to help people with disabilities to believe in themselves and accomplish things they never thought they would. She trains them and fights for the greater outside society to accept them. She also is very close to the Bedouin community that is right nearby and has done a lot of incredibly hard and inspirational work on their behalf. It was truly an honor to visit them. We lit candles with the staff of the Center for Young Adults of Beersheva and then had a delicious meal in a beautiful tent that houses "Inca," the restaurant that has its home right next to the CIL center. The flower-decorated log on the top right was designed and made by people who live in the center. All of the murals and paintings in the background were also done by those who work there.

Last night, I came home to the Kibbutz and Saba (my grandfather). We lit candles and sang Ma'oz Tzur (click here for an interesting version) and Nimla, the incredible Sri Lankan woman who takes care of my grandfather, surprised us with latkes! We ate while watching my Savta's (grandmother's) Chanukiah glow. 

 Hanukah, Day 4

I unfortunately forgot my camera so the only picture I have from today is a poor mobile upload, but nonetheless it helps to tell the story. Today I got a taste of the kibbutz Hanukah, one more along the lines of what I've always been used to. The kibbutz (mainly the children, including my cousin's two little cutsie-tutsies) put on what I would call a Hanukapalooza. First they did a great techno dance, followed by the lighting of the Chanukiah (pictured here). Then there was a sing-along of different Hanukah songs. After that, was the cutest presentation of a story about miracles, told using a projection screen that showed beautiful backdrops that flipped like pages of a book, and then the kids in costume acted out the story from behind the screen so that all you could see was their silhouettes. It was really magical. 

Then I went with my Saba, cousin, and the cutsies to celebrate the oldest tutsie's 9th birthday and my Aunt's birthday, whose age I will not reveal, but will say that the digits of her age add up to the tutsie's. My cousins, their cousins, aunts, uncles, their mothers, my Saba and I began the evening in front of a burning fireplace sipping delicious cinnamon spiked sangria they call "punch." It's something they have frequently this time of year and a smell and taste I've come to associate with Hanukah. The birthday girls lit the Hanukiah together and then my cousin (the little one's mother) and her cousin played flute and guitar and we all sang together. Then came the opening of birthday gifts, followed by an incredibly delicious dinner. My uncle, the chef, never fails to impress, and today he outdid himself. The evening was filled with laughter, incredible food, and was capped off by chocolate fondue with all sorts of fruits to pick and choose. Needless to say, day four is my favorite so far.

Hanukah, Day 5

 Hanukah festivities kicked off in a slight drizzle at the playground on the kibbutz. There was a "Hanukah Sameach" (Happy Hanukah) sign of fire (left) and an awesome dance with lights by the children, including my cousin's two girls and lanterns the kids made (below)

After eating special Hanukah fried gooey veggie balls, me and Saba lit the Chanukiah and sang the prayers while skyping with my parents back home.

Here we are singing together. The fifth night is also my brother's Hebrew birthday but he wasn't home. Instead he was on a flight to Thailand. A poor life he leads... :)

I think the design of this Chanukiah is a little problematic. This keeps happening each night! Ima didn't seem to mind, though. 

 Almost time to go to sleep...

Hanukah, Day 6
After spending Shabbat with Saba on the kibbutz, I went with my aunt, uncle, cousin, and her two daughters (pictured left) up north to visit another cousin. We had a beautiful drive and then settled in for a delicious dinner of latkes, both sweet (apple) and savory (potato). But nothing happened until we lit the candles for the sixth night. The two girls took turns, lighting three candles each.

 Hanukah, Day 7

The next day, following a delicious breakfast, we went hiking to go daffodil and crane sighting. 

Here is a beautiful, rusted bridge that went over the Jordan River. My uncle explained to me that we were in the "finger" on the top of Israel's map.  

There was incredibly vivid yellow moss growing on the trees. 

Cranes have migrated here for years, but more recently there has been quite an influx. They were eating crop and causing general destruction so farmers solved the problem by choosing one place to feed them, and there they were. We got so close we could almost touch them. There are no words for such beauty.  (For all of the pictures from the trip, go here)

Later that evening, I saw a very creative Chanukiah at the entrance to the restaurant. It as so nice when the entire restaurant got up to light a second Chanukiah inside.
There was another Chanukiah on the side of the road on the way back home. Obviously I wasn't able to capture it, but still thought it made for an interesting picture. And that brought an end to the seventh day. Hanukah is almost over...

The Last Day
It's so wonderful to go to work and see this. 

On the eighth night we lit Chanukiot together once again in our apartment and sang all the verses of Maoz Tzur. 

Happy Hanukah Everyone!!!

Ashalim: The Meaning of Kavod

I've learned a lot from my three months working in Gilo: about what it's like to try to fix problems that are completely out of your control, how to overcome cultural and language gaps, how to use my weaknesses to my advantage, and that sometimes it's OK to admit when a problem is too large to overcome. My experience at Gilo started out with anticipation for the potential change I could innovate. I came with high hopes, connecting with Moriya (the Maleh room's manager; click here for a review of what JDC-Israel's Maleh program is) instantly on both a professional and individual level, and with a plan of action. I was going to work in three stages: 1) get to know the kids and gain trust, 2) help them discover and/or cultivate a talent or passion that could support their studies, 3) guide them towards an end-of-year project that will help them improve themselves and share with the community in some way.

Then I hit a wall. Make that several walls. The kids didn't come. When they did they were extremely difficult. Sometimes I was so tired by what I knew the day was going to be like I didn't want to come myself. Many teachers and school leaders treated the space as somewhere to throw the least wanted kids. I was alone in the room a lot and had to deal with the constant flow of the problems that came through without having a firm handle on the school structure, layout, names of people, where things are, or which kids are even in the program for that matter. And then there were days I couldn't go because of other JDC related projects and trips. I simply wasn't able to establish a constant routine or weekly flow with the kids. And then I hit the worst problem: I felt myself sometimes disliking the children.

It started slowly at first, anger and frustration, overwhelming feelings of disappointment and irritation seeped into my bones. Then I started looking at the kids differently. The boy who tried to staple the other one's eye with a staple gun was unreachable. The boy who refused to pay attention to me or work during our time was a lost cause. The girl who would rather play with makeup and facebook was better off that way.  It wasn't constant feeling, it came and left, but I became guilty of acting just like everyone else who has interacted with these children. You are a waste. You don't matter. Get away from me, I don't want to deal with you. You are already too far lost... 

Ever since that difficult hump I've been trying to bounce back and think of ways to make things better. I brainstormed about what was fixable. I wrote up a proposal for a community circle program. I began talking seriously with all of the volunteers: shinshinim on their sh'nat sherut (year of service), chayalim (soldiers), teachers, friends at home. I tried going back to square one and connecting with the kids through sharing stories from New York, showing them pictures, playing games, asking about their lives. And it got better, but I still had thoughts of despair and criticism. There were times when all I wanted to do was grab my things and stomp out. But whenever I felt anger or frustration swell up, I tried to remember my original goal to connect with the kids. To give the kids who are told "no" by everyone a "yes" instead. I fought my emotions and fastened on a smile, looked the kids in the eye, and started over and over again.

But Moriya was never like that. With each child, teenager, soldier, volunteer, teacher, and school leader who came into the room, her eyes lit up with warmth. Kids would curse loudly and interrupt her mid-sentence. She wouldn't blink an eye and simply barrel through. She looked everyone directly into the eye and always smiled with sincere warmth and respect despite what might have happened moments before. She didn't just give second chances, with her it was understood that there would always be another chance. She never let the rough, angry, sloppy armor of fear the kids hid behind deter her. She never saw them as their weaknesses, rather celebrated every single small accomplishment. A child refused to show up and then poked their head in later? Kol hakavod (good for you)! A child punched the wall in anger last week and this week only kicked a chair? Kol hakavod! A child opened up and said all these horrible things about their lives? She helped them see what they were really feeling. It takes a true Tadzhik to bring out the best in every person all the time. You watch helplessly at the play that unfolds each day: gawk at the gaudy clothing and makeup, listen to the cursing and screaming, watch the hits and the rolling fights on the floor, sit helplessly as they do whatever they want with complete disregard or care. But Moriya doesn't see that. She sees what they can be and the jewels of goodness they have already collected. Giving true kavod to every single child.  That's Moriya's way. 

Today I said good bye to Moriya, Gilo, the Maleh room, the tzevet (team of volunteers and teachers), the kids with a mixture of relief and guilt. We had a beautiful Hanukah party that the kids planned from beginning to end. All were somber behind our smiles and laughter. N. flipped pancakes he made from scratch. L. and E. collected money from everyone, organized it, and arrived with heaps of delicious fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and pastries. B. and S. chopped the salad. Moriya baked incredible rolls and made hummus from scratch. We all sat down to a fancy, long table covered with a shiny green tablecloth and red paper napkins scattered among piles of food. Then we came together for a final good bye to Moriya, where she gave each person a thoughtful gift with personalized notes. When each person received their gift they were told to give thanks for anything they felt. All thanked Moriya for her kavod, her pure, untarnished respect and belief in them; for giving them the safe space they so yearned for, for helping them discover the good in themselves.

I hugged everyone good bye and whispered in each child's ear how special I think they are and how I know they will succeed in anything they work hard for if they believe in themselves. I tried to personalize each card with a picture that represents what I've learned about them. I'm leaving in the middle of something I committed to for the first time in my life. I'm ashamed of the relief I feel. I'm doing the one thing I swore not to do: I'm quitting on them. I know I've failed in some way. But as I said good bye, there were real hugs, real smiles, real tears. And that means something. Maybe making a difference doesn't have to be anything big at all. And maybe it doesn't have to be for a long time either. Maybe sometimes it simply means giving everyone the kavod they deserve during the moments that you are there. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Skirts of a Different Color

 When you look at these skirts, what do you think and see? Who are the women that would wear them? What do you think about the statement they may present to the world?

In New York, when I would open my closet to get dressed in the morning I would think about color, pattern, weather, what I had to do that day. I would have fun choosing pieces of jewelry to go with each outfit and think of how to do my hair. The shoes I wore would be chosen based on how much I would be standing on my feet and how much I would be walking. In New York, fashion is everywhere and everyone molds themselves to a certain persona. There are the bohemian-chic with their bold colors and avant-garde head scarves and fedoras, sometimes wearing a feminine tie and vest combo or classic tailored pieces mixed with flowing skirts or blouses. There are the conservative business professionals in their too high heels, precious stone jewels, sleek up-does, blazers, and skirt suits. There are the hippies with long, frayed curls up-swept by pencils and clips, interesting costume jewelry, clothes to reveal possible tattoos and varied piercings. There are the hipsters who are a mesh of the bohemian-chic and the hippies. And there is everything else in between. 

But in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, what you wear takes on a whole new meaning--more powerful than anything I have ever experienced. What one wears seems to seep into a crucial ingredient in making life choices. When you sit on the bus and look at the people next to you, you don't just make a judgement on what they might like to do on the weekends or what kind of work they might do. Instead, you make instant assumptions about their belief systems, morals, and values. A woman with a long black skirt is a different degree of religiousness to one wearing a modest yet figure-fitting dress with sheer tights. One wearing a hat means something different from a head scarf and the colors you wear make a statement too. There are those that let their hair fall loose from beneath a simple bandana-like band and others that don't let one lock stray. There are some who show their bra straps and wear short shirts with tight leggings in complete casualty beneath their deeply-dyed purple, frizzed out hair. There are the women with their high spiked heels and bleached, spiky crop who tend to have a certain kind of accent. There are women who line their eyes with long, thick black lines to help them stand out from within their covering. There are some whose hair is always, always up and others who overload on fantastic, bold, shiny costume jewelry. And when you look at each of these women as you pass them on the street, speak to them in the stores and cafes, and sit beside them on a bus or train, their clothing speaks volumes. From each of these fashions one can make a pretty accurate educated guess about one's family background, religious views and religion in general, culture, ethnicity, and whether they are sabras (Israeli-born citizens), new olim (immigrants), old olim, Russian, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, French, American, religious, secular, kibbutznikim, or a mix.

When I get dressed in the morning now, I don't just think about how I want to put together the pieces in my closet. I also now consider what possible assumptions and stereotypes I may fall into on any given day. On Tuesday I wore a long, layered, flowing skirt, high boots, a warm long-sleeved sweater, a scarf, and a floppy, knit hat. Instant frumification (my word for looking religious), and necessarily so as I was visiting my religious cousin and her family. Today when I went to one of the moadonit I work at (after-school center) I had on a shiny azure blue blouse, long dangling earrings and skinny jeans with the same long-sleeved sweater, scarf, and hat and I was NY-chic. Yesterday, for a day in the office and on a sight visit to this wonderful Arab and Israeli youth photography program luanch I wore my favorite corduroy black and white polka-dot skirt with thick tights and a simple black tee. Add on heels and a tasteful cardigan and I looked like a recent religious American or French transplant.

Every day I have to think about where I'm going to be and with whom I will be interacting and try to match my clothing to what will be most appropriate. I need to think about if what I wear will fit in with the role I am undertaking. And when I wear a long skirts now-a-days, I don't feel particularly hippie or artistic, rather, I feel like I look pretty religious. It may not be fair that these expectations exist, but they do. Turns out that here, fashion isn't just a creative display of how you want people to perceive you but can be an instant message to people about where you stand and where you identify yourself. Something I never thought about until now but that I think will stay with me even when I return to the city that never sleeps.