Thursday, May 19, 2016

How Many Types of Israelis Can You Name?

One of the most common games we play with our Lod program coordinator, Mike, is called splategories. Participants begin this game by sitting in a circle and having one person say, "How many types of ___ can you name?" The participants then go around the circle naming items in that category until someone messes up, at which point we say, "SPLAT!"

I love Mike and the activities he presents to us. However, with all the matters I am facing in my work here, there have been days when I have lacked the motivation to participate in an activity that seems childish and counterproductive. While I have been focusing on helping my kids and dealing with Lod's major problems, with particular focus on school violence, I have occasionally found it trivial to take a break from this important work and have a day dedicated to playing games. What I have begun to realize, though, is that there can be significant meaning found in the most simple of activities. True, when I am playing this game I am just thinking of naming fruits, cities in Israel, or types of trees (thanks to my roommate Becca J). However,  the nature of this game also reflects the notion of diversity, which is especially relevant to my work in Lod and Israel in general.

While living in Israel, I have been especially fortunate to explore the significant diversity among my fellow Jews in the ways we think and act. At the same time, observing the groups of Jews from around the world who are living in Israel has shown me that even though we have different traditions, there are still central ideas that unite us as members of the Jewish people. Luckily, there has been no better time to capture these two notions in Israel than the past couple of weeks, during the observances of Pesach and Yom HaShoah.

While spending Pesach in Israel this year, I had so many chances to feel connected to my fellow Jews and different components of my Jewish heritage. I loved having the chance to travel around the country and explore the unique areas of Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Beer Sheva, Kfar Saba, Caesarea, Akko, and Rosh Hanikra. The trips I took were very special because they reminded me of the main reasons I came to love Israel in the first place: its insurmountable importance in the history of the Jewish people and its ability to contain so much diversity in terms of landscape and Jews from all walks of life.

For these reasons, the places I probably enjoyed the most were Beer Sheva and Rosh Hanikra. I loved Beer Sheva because it is one of Israel's many great examples of a city that combines ancient and modern. When walking through the streets of Beer Sheva and looking at its big malls, cozy cafes and restaurants, and intimate pedestrian walkways with shops and entertainment venues, it is hard to imagine that this city also held importance during the Biblical period and was home to Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. The place I cherished the most in Beer Sheva was Abraham's Well, which according to tradition is the place where Abraham and Sarah settled when they lived and received guests in Beer Sheva. The ancient well is surrounded by a massive visitor's center that contains different attractions for visitors about the life of Abraham, including a short movie, and actors dressed as Abraham and Sarah who greet the visitors and share the site's story. While making my way through the site, I was inspired by how prevalent the Jewish history and stories I grew up with was featured in the middle of this modern city, and how relevant it was for all the Israeli vistors I saw walking alongside me. At moments like this, I know I am in a country in which the society as a whole is uniquely connected to my identity and my heritage, and this makes me feel very much at home.

Another place I went to that truly left an impact was Rosh Hanikra. I had been to Rosh Hanikra many times before, but like with many sites in Israel, it is so special that every time feels like the first time. Located on the Mediterranean coast next to the border with Lebanon, Rosh Hanikra is comprised of beautiful marble cliffs and breathtaking grottoes where the waves of the Mediterranean smash against and completely engulf the rocks. I always used to go here as part of group trips to Israel, and it was always a reminder of the awe-inspiring beauty that exists in the Jewish state. I have been to many beautiful places in my life, but nothing has ever compared to the feeling of being right next to the waves crashing on the rocks in the grottoes. The fact that this beautiful sight exists within a short distance of other beautiful spots in nature, such as valleys, mountains, and desert, within a small country has also always amazed me. The diversity of natural beauty in this country has inspired me to maintain a strong connection to Israel and is one of the biggest reasons why I keep coming back.

Over Pesach, I was also inspired by the people I met and the Jewish traditions I was able to take part in. Of course, one of the most prominent rituals that occurred during the holiday was the Pesach seder. This year, I decided to stay in Lod and go to seder with my host family. To my surprise and interest, I did not notice any drastic differences between how the seder was conducted with my host family and with my family in the US. True, there were some foods like rice and lettuce that were featured more prominently on the seder table this year (though now more Conservative Jews in the US are accepting rice and legumes into their Pesach diet) , and the readings from the haggadah went a lot quicker because everyone except for me was a native Hebrew speaker. However, the songs, readings, and rituals were all the same, and there was at no point where I felt unfamiliar with the customs. It made me feel very comforted to know that even though I was halfway across the world from home, I was in an environment where there were other Jews practicing my customs and I could also feel at home.

At the same time, I was also inspired by my exposure to Pesach customs that are very different from the ones I grew up with. One of my favorite traditions I learned about was that of Mimouna, a celebration that occurs at the end of Pesach when Jews can start eating chametz. Mimouna is a tradition brought to Israel by Moroccan Jews, and at the center of it is a sweet dish called a mufleta, which looks and tastes similar to a crepe. After having five of those (as the hosts made sure I did), I definitely felt the joy of finally being able to eat chametz again! The family that hosted me, which is friendly with family friends of mine who live in Kfar Saba, also had tasty cookies, cake, and beer, and of course lively conversation. While sitting at the table, I listened to the family's father figure speak in Hebrew about his early life in Morocco, coming to Israel as an immigrant, and keeping his traditions intact while living in his new country. I felt really special that instead of having my usual end of Pesach celebration with tons of pizza, I decided to learn about a unique tradition that celebrates the same holiday I celebrate but in a different and creative way. Attending this celebration also gave me the sense that I was allowed this opportunity because I was in Israel, the Jewish homeland where so many Jewish cultures from around the world can exist together.

My entire Pesach celebration was very special because it provided me many examples of both Jewish interconnectedness and diversity among Jews. It also reminded me of the strong Jewish connection I have with Israel and the initial bonds I formed with the country, which is not something I have had the chance to think about much through my participation on Yahel. My time on Yahel has exposed me greatly to the periphery of Israel, especially the Arab and Ethiopian populations, and the many pressing issues Israeli society is facing. While learning about these aspects has been very rewarding, it was great to have some time to reflect on what made me fall in love with Israel in the first place.

Another special way I connected with Jewish Israeli society was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was very meaningful to know that the entire country came together on this solemn day to remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This was especially apparent during a two-minute siren, at which the whole country stopped and everyone on the roads got out of their cars to pay tribute to those who died in the Holocaust. I witnessed a siren next to a busy street in the center of Lod, and was shocked to see how many people actually stopped their cars and stood in the middle of the street for the full two minutes. I was similarly impressed by the conviction young Israelis have in signifying the meaning of this important day. On the evening of Yom HaShoah, I attended a student-organized event that featured a Holocaust survivor telling her story. From the large number of university students in attendance, I knew that these generally cheerful individuals understood the solemn mood of this day and took this oman's story very seriously. I was able to gather this even more after the event, when I was invited to watch "The Boy with the Striped Pajamas" at one of the students' apartments. I had seen the movie before and knew how sad it was going to be, and I expected my fellow American Yahelniks to feel the same. I did not expect, however, for the Israelis present, especially the young men who had to serve in the army, to get so emotional. As I looked over at the Israelis, I saw many either crying or curled up next to each other during the most provocative parts of the movie. Though the subject matter was far from happy, I really appreciated seeing how strongly I could relate to these young Israelis through our common remembrance.

My experiences during Pesach and Yom HaShoah in Israel have showed me the beauty of unity: as a Jewish people, as the State of Israel, and as humanity as a whole. However, these experiences, as well as my time on Yahel in general, have also taught me of the beauty that diversity holds within a community. This is a message the Lod Yahel group is trying to get across through our community project. To solidify our legacy in Lod, each Lod volunteer is reaching out to his/her volunteer placements to spread the message of yofi b'givun (beauty in diversity). We have begun conducting discussions at the schools, nonprofits, and community centers we work at about what Lod means to each individual and the value of diversity in Lod. We are also planning on having representatives from our different placements come together to create a big mosaic in the center of the city. With this beautiful creation coming from Lod's many different groups, we hope to capture the notion that diversity truly is beautiful.

From living in Lod and through my exposure to different aspects of Israeli society, I can truly say that Israel is a diverse country with so many components, and that is one of its most beautiful and unique aspects. From now on, whenever I play splategories (which has become a group favorite among the Yahelniks), I will appreciate the many items in each category as an indication of the diversity that lies in our world. As I approach my final month on the Yahel Social Change Program, I am taking this notion to heart and am trying hard to appreciate the diversity in my city as much as I can. After I leave Lod on July 1, who knows when I will next talk to an Arab or Ethiopian, or make an effort to interact with a Jew with very different customs from my own. I do, however, know that the time I have had meeting people from diverse backgrounds over the past eight months has allowed me to learn so much about humanity and life, and that is something I will carry with me. I know for sure that after I leave Yahel, I will forever be the champion of the splategories category, "How many types of Israelis can you name?"

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