Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Israeli PM and me

Yes this blog title is slightly over-zealous, but this is my party (blog) and I'll lie if I want to - you (so) would too if it happened to you. I realise I blogged only earlier today, very uncharacteristic of my behaviour of late, but I was reminded of an episode I forgot to share.

About a month ago I interviewed a lovely British man, Joe Wohlfarth, now living in Israel, who competed in the third and fifth Maccabiah Games (1950 and 1957 respectively) as a footballer representing Great Britain. Joe was born in Frankfurt and came to England on the Kindertransport, aged seven, and unfortunately lost his mother and two brothers who perished during the Holocaust. In England Joe spent much of his youth living in hostels around the country, which is when he first realised he had a talent for football. (The full article can be found on The Jerusalem Post website). He returned to the games this year, aged 77, this time representing Israel in the tennis masters.

Joe was a pleasure to interview, and a real inspiration - we had several chats after the interview and after the piece was published. One of these took place a few weeks ago - the morning after the 18th Maccabiah opening ceremony. Joe, as calm and modest as usual, called to explain that while at the opening ceremony he was approached by some government officials - the Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's "people" - who told Joe that Bibi had requested to meet him. Joe thought the whole thing was an elaborate practical joke, ringing his children to rumble their game, but they had no idea what he was talking about, and before long Joe found himself in a room with Netanyahu. He'd read about Joe in my Jerusalem Post article, telling Joe that he was a source of inspiration for world Jewry. Bibi asked Joe to sit with him during the Maccabiah opening ceremony, and sure enough was celebrated in Bibi's speech which quoted parts of my article. (Take a look at the English transcript of Bibi's speech from 13th July).

If you have some time, take a look at his story, it's an amazing one and he definitely deserved to be mentioned by the PM on this momentous occasion.

Ok, that's it on the over-zealous front. For now.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Endings and beginnings (again)

I didn't finish summing up last time, and as usual my "get back to you next week" turned into a fortnight... I'm blaming the ridiculous scorching weather (the tan lines are more than disturbing, and I'm pretty sure my swimming costume marks glow in the dark, though I've yet to find a nudist nightclub here that wouldn't involve me being forcibly contorted around a poll) and I'm also blaming my five-hour long Hebrew classes that begin at 8.15am and end with me in a gibbering heap, audibly reciting verb forms to myself, without blinking for minutes on end.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, thousands of thrilling things happened before I hauled myself back into a classroom... At the beginning of July, my group had a rather emotional closing seminar to sum up the past five months, discussing what we'd learnt and loathed, and it was also a good opportunity to see who'd been brainwashed into staying out here = a lot. I guess "brainwashing" is a little strong, but there was a lot of emotive and transformative phrases bouncing gleefully around the room, like "I feel like I've come home", "I'm a changed person in Israel", "I never want to leave" and "everyone is my brother and sister here" - which may, in another life, give me goodbumps if I wasn't busy being so crushingly cynical in this one.

Part of the seminar featured a talent show, which I and three other girls wrote and presented. We got the group to nominate people they'd like to see compete for the title "Mr and Ms Career Israel 2009", which required them to go through a number of treacherous but rigorous rounds to demonstrate how much they'd learnt about Israel and Israelis throughout their time here. These rounds, determined by a certified academic board, included fitting as much Bisli (Israeli crisps) in your mouth as possible and saying weird and wonderful Israeli-themed sentences in English but with an Israeli accent - such as: "You’re asking if my falafel balls are healthy? They’re made of chickpeas and after I cooked them, I dropped them in floor cleaner. Nothing gets your heart rate moving as healthily as bleach" (a reference to all the dodgy falafel stands that are curiously absent from the department of sanitation's records) and "Are my trousers too tight? I’m only asking because my testicles feel like they’re being used as stress balls by Michael Jackson’s life insurance company" (a nod to the millions of pairs of tight trousers currently on sale in mainstream Israeli men's shops).

Between rounds, various members entertained the group with their juggling, singing, dancing, drumming and comedy, and the organizing committee also presented awards as voted for by the whole group - including "best-looking", "most athletic" and "best fictional couple". I won "most intelligent" but would like to stress (though not too much, obviously) that many of the Americans are fooled by my apparently "posh"-sounding British accent. Nonetheless, I'm not one to argue with the wisdom of the masses. It's proven itself many times over the years if we skip over the minor incidents occuring in historical "episodes" such Nazi Germany.

The day after the seminar's end, I completed my last day at The Jerusalem Post. I'd been working on a feature for a few weeks which I'd filed a few days earlier, so my last day was spent feeding chocolates and cake to the editorial team and writing a small news story. The day's highlight was easily receiving a white Jerusalem Post t-shirt, which I shall wear with pride forevermore. It was definitely a challenging five months at the Post, but worth every minute (especially the minutes filled with my bad Hebrew grammar and laughable wannabe accent...)

After finishing work, I took a few days to do touristy things I hadn't managed to fit in. Ticked off my to-do list were: The temple mount in the old city of Jerusalem, the arty "Museum on the Seam", the old city of Caesaria (where I met (the projections of) King Herod and Rabbi Akiva), the Marc Chagall windows at Ein Kerem in western Jerusalem.

The next challenge was to move to Tel Aviv... very stressful but happily the tension was kept at bay because Jennah's boyfriend, Guy, drove us and our mountains of crap in his car. I have no idea how he managed it and I'm pretty sure the amount of sheer stuff compromised our air supply, but we all arrived in tact. Once becoming a fully-fledged Tel Aviv-ian, the next week or so was filled with sombre goodbye "parties" as a lot of the group were preparing to return to their homelands. The last parties concluded last week, and it dawned on us that we'd been saying "goodbye" for ten days and that the same frickin' people had attended every single party.

For the past week I have been attending Hebrew classes or "ulpan" (which literally means "studio"), and it's hard work. Tough because I haven't been in a classroom environment for two years and five hours is a long time to concentrate when you're prone to getting distracted by shiny things. Our first teacher, Leah, was very laid back and amusing, but she left after a week (apparently this was planned) and our new teacher, Sara, is very scary. She gets particularly frightening while making the class perform oral verb structuring. I won't get into the nitty gritty as you'll start to feel that life has very little to offer, but you get the idea. She also peppers her lessons (all in Hebrew only) with Jewish religious content, (perhaps because she is an orthodox Jew), and a healthy dose of guilt-trips about people not arriving on time. I'm signed up for another three weeks, and I just hope that by then I haven't figured out a way to craft a noose out of my multi-coloured biro collection.

That's a bit of a bleak way to end a blog entry, isn't it? So here's a happier final thought - if you times the number of students in my ulpan class (40) by the number of times we went over the verb structure "nifal" today (a lot), the number you'll be left with is still lower than the number of kilos worth of stuff I have to transport back to Blighty. Happier final thought for you that is. Now where HAVE those biros gone?

Friday, 10 July 2009

Endings and beginnings

This month has probably been the craziest so far - trips up north, south, around the middle and to Jordan, finishing at the newspaper, finishing my programme, moving out of Jerusalem and into Tel Aviv... wowee.

So, to start with, Jordan. I'd been planning on going for months. A few groups of friends had been and gone and I had to miss out because I had writing/transcribing/researching to get done over the weekends. I hadn't really thought about what to expect - my housemate Jennah and I booked it pretty last-minute, without really looking into culture, history, language etc. The five of us got a midnight bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat (taking around five hours) - a great experience everyone should try. One of my friends booked his ticket separately and found himself on a 'party bus' full of hormone-fuelled teens in tight jeans. Me and the others found ourselves on the 'other' category bus - children, loud Americans and the elderly. Once we reached Eilat, we realised no one had done enough research to know how to get to border or what time it opened. Luckily we found a helpful taxi driver to fill us in and soon we were on our way... at 5am.

I have an Israeli and British passport, so I made sure to get both stamped at the border, as instructed by friends. Although Israel has had relative calm with Jordan for the past 15 years, I was advised to keep my Israeli passport out of sight and to speak only English - the full foreigner act for a whole weekend. Bliss. Once we'd crossed the border into Aquaba, people were very keen to help and identify where we hailed from. Once Mandy and I told people we were from London, we had several "double-take" moments upon hearing "lovely jubbly" in response... Had Del Boy really visited Jordan? Of course he had, I thought, he'd probably dragged Rodney along to make some cheap deals on Jordanian shisha, camels and other 'cultural' nick naks...

After an unpleasant experience on the bus - my friend getting her back fondled as she slept by what looked like a pre-pubescent - we arrived at our hostel in Petra. "Cleopetra". After clocking the name, we knew we were in for the time of our lives. Petra, the ancient Nabotean city, was beautiful and we spent two days wandering its paths, peeking into caverns, riding donkeys, gawping at the great vastness that seemed to have no end. Mandy was in her element speaking to the locals in Arabic (with a distinct North London twist) and even managing to blag a few freebies (including a horse ride). After having torn ourselves away from the awesome view, we chatted with some Bedouins and had full Bedouin makeovers (complete with thick eye liner, applied by some very burly Bedouin men, and head scarves).

We found ourselves often wondering where all the women were, and when we asked one of our hosts, he looked away, deliberately distracted, muttering "you welcome to Petra" - he had a habit of doing that when he either didn't understand us or didn't want to. We saw lots of women in the national park, most of them tourists, and also some Jordanian male-male hand-holding, which we hadn't expected.

After two days in Petra, we returned to the Israeli border and spent the weekend in Eilat, where we did a lot of nothing and I did a lot of moaning about how much I loathed Eilat and the distinctive nothingness it contained...

Our Southern Trek took us back to Tel Aviv for some partying before we headed back down south, just for a day, to Sderot - most famed (or INfamed) for its close proximity to Gaza. We visited the Sderot media center, where we heard about the "15 seconds" countdown that occurs every time bomb sirens (or "tzeva adom" alerts) are set off. We were also shown around shelves upon shelves of katusha rockets that had hit Sderot during Operation Cast Lead. Along the Gaza theme, though this time more specifically on disengagement, we were then introduced to and shown around Nitzan, an area that was designed to house those settlers who were removed from Gush Katif in Gaza. The first family was only now about to move in to permanent housing since the IDF withdrew four years ago. We also met a former settler whose right-wing opinions were not going down too well with my left-field group, though everyone was very patient with their time and sparing with their gasps and pained expressions of disbelief as the woman made generalisation after generalisation about how "Palestinians" want for nothing more than worldwide extermination of Jews and their apparent ubiquitous influence.

On a different note, though in many ways still a political one, for the first time I got to attend Gay Pride in Jerusalem. The Tel Aviv march had happened a few weeks before and reports universally marked it as pretty groundbreakingly-crazy. I was hoping for repetition in Jerusalem, but as usual, Jerusalem had to do it differently by "Jerusalem-afying" it... in this case making it much more education-heavy and fun-lite. Sure the star of David/Gay pride flag fusions were incredible as they billowed in the wind, but speech after speech made everyone a bit restless - though it did give me an opportunity to look around the national park in the capital, where it was held, and translate some of the signs being hoisted upwards. "There's nothing wrong with being fabulous" read one, "my son is gay, so what?" blared another, and "Lesbian Jews count too" was one other. The transexual marchers took centre stage on the whole, cavorting and screeching around the park in mini-skirts and blonde wigs. It was quite a spectacle and they got plenty of media attention. I was interviewed by a TV station, though I'm still not quote sure who by and during the line of questioning became more and more inquisitive on this point:
Presenter: "So what are your feelings about the hosting of gay pride in Israel's holy city?"
Yours truly: "I think it's great that the capital can celebrate freedom of expression in this way"
P: "But god is against homosexuality, isn't he? Do you know what it says about it in the bible?"
Yt: "Yes, it says it's an abomination and that people shouldn't therefore practise it."
P: "Yet there is a gay parade here in Jerusalem."
Yt: "Yeh but... well, I am pretty secular although I'm Jewish. I think it's important for a modern city like Jerusalem to afford its citizens the right to celebrate their identities."
P: "So they're not all sinners then?"
Yt: "Er... I don't think... er.... I don't believe in "sinning" really, as I'm secular, but I guess if we're all meant to be made in god's imag..."
P: "Surely they're all going to hell..."
Cue my look of alarm/disdain, followed by my exit...

Loads more to say, but this is too long already, so I'll get back to it this week...