Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Color of the Light

The Color of the Light

Forward.
Onward.
Toward the rough rope ladder that will lead me up to the light.
But the light is blue and green and black and white and pink and blue (did I already mention blue? And black?)
What color is it, really? Can you tell me?

Even if I knew what color it was
and even if I wanted the blue or the green or the black,
my arms are too sore to pull myself up
and my chest is weak and full of holes.
My body has holes in it.
Actually, it is one big hole.
All the reasons and the logics that filled it are gone—they drifted away into the space behind me—because they heard from their master that she must be a hole right now.

Holes crumble in on themselves (especially black ones).
They pucker and suction and vacuum and suck in emptiness                      emptiness
emptiness

The master says that she is a villain and in order to pay for it she must curl up around her gaping middle and doubt. She may not go forward and the past will not have her, either.
But you, Reason,
and you, Logic,
will go back to her one day
and show her what color that light really is.

 - Naomi Bilmes
April 11, 2014

Sometimes, Sara Bareilles says it better than anyone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cleaning the Kitchen with Underwear

(No, not cleaning the kitchen in my underwear. I'm not that much of an exhibitionist. And it wasn't even my kitchen, so cleaning in my underwear might have been a wee bit inappropriate.)

Thank goodness for Passover, the holiday without which most Jews would never clean their kitchens. But in preparation for the holiday that requires the elimination of all bread-ish products from our homes, Jews in Jerusalem bring out the big guns (and by 'guns' I mean cleaning products). On almost every telephone pole and bus stop wall this time of year, signs in Hebrew advertise someone's scrubbing skills, their heft with a vacuum, or their ability to sniff out cookies from four kilometers away. Every poor student turns into a professional cleaner, and the market is ripe.

Hire me!

I got my chance to earn maid-hood this week at the home of one of my teachers. I signed up for a three-hour shift in which I conquered one of the stoves, the range top, and the freezer. Her youngest kid put on the weird radio station that alternates between Israeli and American pop songs and we promptly got to work. She checked her six-page list of Passover tasks as each of her kids came home, and despite the complaints of having "a really loooooong day," they were mostly willing to participate (I think there was some incentive involved).

The army assembles.
There were latex gloves, water buckets, and myriad cleaning supplies. My chosen ones were scratchy green cleaning pads and the two highly-chemical oven cleaners, which I made the mistake of breathing in close proximity to after I sprayed them, leading to a bit of coughing. Yes, cleaning kitchens is disgusting, but I felt an odd sense of peace as I was cleaning: I had a three-hour block of time, and all I had to do was clean. I could take my time. I could make things sparkle. I could promise myself that when the time came to scour my own kitchen, I would take on the task with a similar determination and peace.

And as I was down on my dirty knees behind the pulled-out oven, I all-of-a-sudden realized what was in my gloved hand: a balled-up pair of underwear. The box of rags which we had been drawing from was made up of old socks, t-shirts, and worn-out underwear (laundered, don't worry). I had been mostly trying to use the socks and t-shirts, but at the moment, a pair of Spiderman boy-briefs was in my hand, soaking up the suds and getting at the grime.

The irony was not lost on me. In preparation for the holiday of utmost cleanliness, I was using an object that most of us associate with uncleanliness. In addition, underwear is something we don't usually see or talk about; and to be honest, I felt weird holding the underwear of someone I knew, the underwear of a family I love and respect. But none of the family members were the least bit embarrassed, nor did they even mention the word the whole time we were cleaning. I guess it's their long-held tradition. And long-held traditions need no discussion.

But I was having an inner discussion. Here I am, holding an undergarment and cleaning cleaning cleaning cleaning. It is as if I am taking my intimate insides and wringing them out, examining them, and finding the stains. But I am also using them for a bigger purpose. And what a metaphor that is: using my secrets and my intimate knowledge to help clean up our world. And examining those secrets in the process. Cleaning the house? Cleaning the soul.

In the coming week, I will clean the floor, the oven, the stove, the sink, the cabinets, the tables, the chairs, the walls, the windows - anything I can reach with a gloved hand and cleaning spray. I have a good deal of cleaning to do. Inside the soul and out.




Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Oven of Retelling

What is the purpose of a story? To be re-written, of course! Below, I have composed a re-telling of one of the most famous stories in Jewish tradition. It is originally found in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia, page 59), and I recently learned it from a new angle with one of my teachers at Pardes. My re-telling, in the style of folktale, is inspired by the new eyes through which I now view the story. Enjoy the ambiguity!

*     *     *

The Oven of Akhnai

Once upon a time, there was an oven.

This oven was made of slats.

In between the slats was soft sand that held the slats together.

This oven belonged to a man named Akhnai.

Some say, however, that his name wasn't Akhnai; rather, that there was no man at all. Some say that akhnai means "snake" and that the oven of akhnai was actually an oven with a snake wrapped around it.

These people would say that the oven was the oven of a serpent. The oven of temptation. The oven of knowledge of good and evil. 



There was another disagreement regarding this oven (because it was built with sand): was it a complete vessel and therefore subject to impurity, or was it merely a pile of rubble and therefore always pure?

The majority thought the oven was subject to impurity.
One man thought the oven was always pure.

That one man was right.
And God made sure everyone knew it.

When the man said, "If I am right, let the carob tree prove it," the carob tree uprooted itself and moved.
When the man said, "If I am right, let the stream prove it," the water in the stream flowed backward.
When the man said, "If I am right, let the walls prove it," the walls started to cave in.
When the man said, "If I am right, let the Heavens prove it," a Heavenly voice called out, "The man is right! And not just in this matter, but in every matter!" 



And the majority heard.

And the majority disagreed. 

And the majority said, "There is no law in Heaven. We make the laws down here."

And the man was sent away. 

And the oven was deemed whole. And any bread baked in that oven was fresh and aromatic and tangy and sweet. But when the majority ate the bread, they ate it in a room where the walls were still partially caved in.
There was always the fear that the walls would crumble, crushing them all, and that the snake in the pipes would come slithering out.
Because the majority had been tempted. They had seen an oven wrapped in a snake and called it whole. They used that oven. And when they used that oven, they accepted the snake that came along with it.

Because who would pass up the chance to take an oven and use it to make perfectly good bread? 

The majority took the law for itself.
The majority took ownership of all the ideas within the law.
The majority grasped the law and shaped it and molded it and held onto it for all time.
The majority did all these things out of love. Love for the law and love for God.



And God watched.

Was God angry? Did God want to keep the law for himself? Did God want to rule for all time and strike down those who disagreed with him?
Or did God want us to take the law? Did God want us to own it? Did God want us to be responsible for it? Did God want us to change it?

We will never know.
But maybe the snake does. 


*     *     *

In the Talmud, the story continues. (There is also no bread in the Talmud; I added that literary element.) The man, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, is excommunicated. The rabbi who orders the excommunication dies on account of this order. The decision to exile the rabbi whom God supported haunts the rabbis for a long while after.

But God seems to accept that the law no longer belongs with him. An Aramaic insertion in the text gives an image of God smiling and saying "My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me!" as if it was meant to happen all along.

It seems that God stepped away. God gave the law over to us and tied his hands behind his metaphorical back. In return, we get a mixed bag: We get to decide. We get to legislate. We get the authority to change what is wrong and substantiate what is right. But we also receive responsibility. We receive the onus of making decisions for the masses. We get the uneasy feeling of never really knowing what God wanted us to do. We might be straying from God's intention and we will never know. Because God is in the heavens, and Torah is not. Torah is down here, and we are down here, and God is up above. Our religion is a religion of man. It once belonged to God, and now it belongs to us.

So we must ask:
If it still belonged to God, would we even want it?
If it still belonged to God, would we be able to understand it?
What good is religion if it does not belong to the people?
Or, one could ask, what good is religion if its manifestation may not be what God intended?

There are two sides (at least) to every story.

Pick your side.

Re-tell the story.




Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Carving out Freedom


וְהַ֨לֻּחֹ֔ת מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים הֵ֑מָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹהִים֙ ה֔וּא חָר֖וּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹֽת
"And the tablets were a work of God; the writing was the writing of God; it was carved on the tablets."
(Exodus 32:16)

Moses has smashed the first set of tablets. He has pleaded with God to spare the Jewish people or to erase Moses himself from history. God has listened. God has called him back to the mountain and has given him a second set of tablets - those described in the verse above. 

A midrash reads: 
"אל תקרי חָרות, אלא חֵרות"
"Do not read charut (carved); rather, read cherut (freedom)."

Just by changing one vowel, the midrash changes the entire verse: And the tablets were a work of God; the writing was the writing of God; it was freedom on the tablets. 

Freedom on the tablets? What does that mean? Rav Moshe Taragin, in a lecture entitled "Stones of Freedom" explains the implications of this phrase. He posits that Torah makes us free. Yes, that huge book of laws actually makes us more liberated human beings. 

Let's unpack that statement, please. What at first seems like a contradiction is actually a beautiful insight into what laws and boundaries can do for us. My little brother once went into a grocery store with the sole purpose of counting how many varieties of peanut butter the store stocked. Quite a lot, it turned out. My little brother decided that this was just nuts (pun!). By providing customers with so many choices, stores are increasing the potential for consumer satisfaction but also increasing the potential for consumer anxiety. The uncertain shopper will stand in the aisle for minutes, pondering the choices. One variety will be chosen. Perhaps the shopper will be happy with the choice. Perhaps not. Perhaps, when the shopper returns home and tastes the peanut butter, he or she will greatly regret not choosing a different variety. There will be disappointment, frustration, and maybe even a sense of personal failure at making the wrong choice. 
See the problem here?

Yes, this example is a bit dramatic, but consider applying the same principle to a legal system. Having too many possible courses of action leads to indecision, anxiety, and failure. Sometimes, we just need to be told what to do and when to do it, and then we will be free of anxiety from that particular decision.

Now, I admit that this logic does not hold in all cases, because some people enjoy the idea of choice. For some, making decisions is the ultimate freedom. It gives us a sense of humanity and a sense of control. It makes us human.

I also admit that even if one does let Torah make decisions for him or her, there are still plenty of micro-choices after the big decisions have been made. Once a Jew has accepted halacha (Jewish law set down by the rabbis), he or she is faced with the decision of which community's halacha to choose. 
Which is my lot in life right now. 
And the lot of many, many other Jews. 
Which is why I think that the "freedom" of the midrash means something else.

Rav Taragin mentions a second way that Torah gives us freedom: by studying texts, it is possible that we can be completely drawn, temporarily, into the world of Torah. We can be drawn into something immortal and long-lasting. We can escape the worries of the present and live for something larger; something trans-generational. As we ascend into Torah, we leave our stresses, our hormones, our jealousies and our fears. Our greatest prison is our own mortality. Torah frees us by binding us to the immortal.


And I believe with perfect faith that Torah has the ability to do just that. On Monday morning, I joined friends and family for the brit milah (circumcision ceremony) of a new baby boy. Friends I hadn't seen in ages were at the gathering, as were my brothers and my Jerusalem neighbors. Here we were, brought together by a Torah commandment...and I had never seen such happiness in one room. I, for one, forgot about yesterday and forgot about the day before me. I was absorbed into the ritual, the company, the food, the joy - all brought about by Torah.

Later that day, I studied the weekly parsha on my own in the Beit Midrash. I read the verses and the commentary. I wrote down questions. I listened to Rav Moshe Taragin give his thoughts on charut/cherut. Then I stayed for night seder: a session of evening study in the Beit Midrash. A friend and I had decided to study midrash on the weekly parsha - and what did we come across? The exact passage that Rav Taragin had quoted. And not only that, one connection after another was made with the texts I had read earlier that day and something I had learned in class the day before. I was flying. Whirling from text to text; rejoicing in the connectivity of my religion; focusing on nothing but the words before me and the wonder that is Torah.

And I was free.

And this freedom exists beyond the world of Torah as well (although I'm not sure Rav Taragin would say so). But I believe that the same is true for the worlds of philosophy, psychology, archaeology, literature, mathematics...anything bigger than ourselves. Anything that, when you study it, connects you to people before you and after you; connects you to ideas and abstractions rather than physical details; removes you from your present state and makes you present in all places and all times. Find what frees you. And carve it on your tablets. 

And may your freedom be as beautiful as this!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Parents Come to Town

I have been living in Israel for 10 months, and everyone knows what happens after 10 months in a foreign country: you go broke and finally start paying attention to the foreign country's politics. In addition to that, your parents come to visit!

It had been five months since I had physically been in the same room as my parents (I say "physically" because Skype allows us to be "virtually" in the same room whenever we want). It had been a great five months, but what had made it even better was sharing with my parents everything I had been up to (thanks to weekly phone calls and emails). And now, I was going to get to talk to them face to face. And maybe even give them hugs.

That first evening (Thursday) after dinner at a trendy cafe on Emek Refaim (with my brothers, too), my dad and I went for a short father-daughter walk. In a span of about 20 minutes, I showed him my apartment, my favorite synagogue, my grocery store of choice, and my school, Pardes. It was at this point that he decided I needed pepper spray.

And so the quest began. My parents would not be leaving Israel until I had obtained a sufficient amount of the precious liquid. And perhaps a reflector vest, as well.

Our first Shabbat together passed without incident. My brothers were available to walk me home after dinner, so the yet-to-be-found pepper spray was not needed. During dinner, we had feasted on meaty take-out fare (who wants to cook on vacation?) and revived numerous family jokes from the graveyard of humor past. Many times I looked around the table and noted happily to myself: one, two, three, four, and me. Just like it should be.

During Shabbat day, after my mom and I had selected one shul and the my dad and brothers had selected another, we had another take-out buffet - this time, with someone else at the table. Gulp - a stranger! But I haven't bought my pepper spray yet! 

Not to worry. A gulp is in order, but not because the guest is a stranger. A gulp is in order because the guest is, gulp, my boyfriend.

Don't worry, he survived. I think.

So how did my parents entertain themselves during their stay? Contrary to what some students of Torah do when their parents come to visit, us siblings did not skip school and spend every minute with Mom and Pop. I did not want that, my little brother did not want that, and goodness know my dad not want that. My older brother, well, he was out-voted. As a result,
Sunday was "Uri Day,"
Monday was "Eli Day,"
Tuesday was "Naomi Day," and
Wednesday was "Tel Aviv, Old Friends, and Fancy Hotel Day." (I have to admit, though, that Naomi did get to see her parents on Uri Day and Eli Day. And Eli got in on Naomi Day. So it was all kind of mashed potatoes. With pepper.)
On Thursday, I got some special mom time, in which we went grocery shopping and cooked for Shabbat - in the same exhausting fashion in which we once conducted these same rituals all the way back in West Hartford. Meanwhile, the boys bought, um, things in Mea Shearim (which my dad fondly calls "Mea"). Then we were sick of going to restaurants, so we bought bread, cheese, veggies and salatim at the grocery store for a light Mediterranean  dinner. I also received a special gift that night, but I will only reveal its identity once I describe "Naomi Day."

"Naomi Day": Let's just say the Bilmes family invaded Pardes and conquered it. My dad, shying away from a three-and-a-half hour Talmud class, opted for afternoon-only classes, but my mom met me at Pardes at 8:15 am and the fun began. We got her the appropriate books from the beit midrash and got all settled and ready for school. (I couldn't help but stride around the halls with her on my arm, showing off my really cool mom who is awesome enough to penetrate the hallowed the learning chambers of this great institution).

She completely followed the snaking logic of my Talmud class, and we even learned together in hevruta (tractate Kiddushin, about the rabbinic laws of betrothal). My dad joined us at noon for a lecture on Jewish treatment of refugees, and then the head of Pardes whisked both of my parents into his office for a short, impromptu parent-teacher conference.

Don't worry, they survived. I think.

After a short lunch break and some sunshine, we attended my afternoon class on the Book of Samuel. My dad asked a great question about Islam (it was relevant, I promise) and then we learned in a small group until...Eli came to join us! Then we learned in a bigger group. My mom and I wanted to read the text and focus on the assignment sheet, while my dad wanted to jump from commentator to commentator without really understanding any of them. Eli followed along in a different book and kept the peace. Sort of. Then we all trucked back to class and listened with awe.

When the school day was over, my mom said,
"I can see why this takes some getting used to. My brain is totally fried." Welcome to Pardes.

When I think about all the Pardes students I've met thus far, a minority of them have parents who
 a) understand them Jewishly
b) understand what they are doing at Pardes
c) can insert themselves into class for a day and and experience everything along with their kid.
Wow, do I feel lucky. And when I was cooking with my mom on Thursday afternoon, she said meekly while cutting vegetables:
"I loved Pardes. I want to go back."

And now back to my special gift. Yep, you guessed it: pepper spray! My dad found it in a camping store near Mea Shearim, and as he carefully handed it over to me, he said with a Dumbledore look in his eye, peering over his half-moon spectacles:
        "Use it well, Harry."
Well, he didn't really say that. And he has circular spectacles, not half-moons. But he did instruct me on how to keep the nozzle in the safety position and how to flick it open should the need arise. I am to have it in my hand whenever walking alone after dark in Jerusalem. Or anywhere, for that matter. West Hartford, watch out.

The week ended on a wonderfully high note. My boyfriend came for Shabbat lunch again (gulp), and my mom observed that he seemed more comfortable with us now:
      "He ate more, that's how I know."
We all sang raucously and gave even more raucous divrei Torah. We had all attended the same shul on Shabbat morning (hey, it happens) and no one had hated the service, so we pondered the rabbi's speech over lunch with enjoyment. Relishing a combination of take-out and home-cooked food, Shabbat was definitely in full swing.

We completed the afternoon with a family walk, the Jerusalem Post, challah rolls, mincha, and havdalah. We then ran around the apartment for ten minutes cleaning it up, packing my parents' stuff, and claiming the leftovers they were leaving behind. Then we sat around for an hour waiting for the taxi to arrive.

And then, as soon as they had come, they were gone.

Saying good bye was hard, as I knew it would be. On Friday, I'd had a little meltdown, crying to my boyfriend about God-knows-what, but ultimately coming out with, "It's been so fun having my family all together and I don't know when it's gonna happen again and I don't want them to leave."
      "Don't be sad that they're leaving," he said. "Be happy that they came."

And I am. So happy. And every time I use my pepper spray I will think fondly of this wonderful visit.


*     *     *


(Pictures to come!! I decided not to put the usual Google Images into this post because there is nothing like photos of the family. Once my parents go through the camera and delete all the pictures of stray cats, I'll post some here.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

While You were out Running

While you were out running
I walked along the shore
and squinted into the distance
where I knew you were
and watched countless pairs of legs,
long and spindly,
pumping and stepping
endlessly

While you were out running
I ate a speckled green apple,
slicing pieces with a plastic knife
and popping chocolate chips into my mouth
along with the tart, white flesh
and wishing you were there to share it with me.

While you were out running
I thought about sleeping,
but how could I sleep
when every muscle in your body
was clenching, tightening, twisting, working?

While you were out running
those 26 miles
I wondered what I should present to you
when you returned;
An icy water bottle?
Your blue jacket?
A bar of popping chocolate?
I thought with despair
of the vastness about you
which I do not yet know.

So when you were done running
those 26 miles
I stood there
with nothing but a camera and a smile.
And all you needed
was to see my face
and to fall into my arms
and to tell me what happened
while you were out running.


 *     *     *

And now, the story in pictures. Read the captions to follow the narrative!

0700: Pre-race stretching. At this point, he had been awake for two hours, humming "Chariots of Fire," eating protein, davening shacharit, and downing his pre-race half-cup of coffee. 

0735: The race begins. I fail to get non-blurry pictures.  There are about 3,400 marathon runners, ready to run around the southern shore of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).  They run 13.1 miles, then turn around and run 13.1 miles back. Therefore, spectators are really only legitimate at the very beginning and very end of the race. I have a good chunk of time to myself:

I took an hour-long walk along the shore. Beautiful! I was accompanied by a cloudy sky, a strong sea breeze, and other residents of the lake-side town of Tiberias. The next day, Saturday, was even more beautiful: sunny and in the 60s! But alas, no pictures on the Sabbath.

I walked by Rachel's tomb. No, not that Rachel (she's back in Bethlehem). This is a different Rachel: the wife of the great Rabbi Akiva. Stories in the Talmud tell us many legends about this woman: she proposed to Akiva on the condition that he study Torah; he was gone for 24 years during their marriage to complete his study and gain wealth; Rachel sold her hair in order to get money to fund her husband's Torah study; Akiva gave his wife a golden head-dress to thank her for being the best, most supportive wife the whole Talmud has ever seen.
None of these are fact, some of them contradict, and her name probably wasn't even Rachel. Oh, well.

The 10k started half-an-hour after the marathon. Here are the leading runners!

Another grave: Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness ("Rabbi Meir Master of Miracles"). The Talmud tells us that when he instructed someone to invoke "the God of Rabbi Meir" the speaker would be saved from all harm. It worked! Especially with prison guards, rabid dogs, and almost-hangings. Rabbi Meir also learned Torah from Elisha ben Abuyah, the rabbi turned heretic, but Rabbi Meir knew how "to pick out the seeds of the pomegranate and discard the peel," so he only absorbed Elisha's non-heretical teachings. Lastly, Rabbi Meir instructed his students to bury him standing up, so that when the Messiah came he would be ready to run out and greet him.

The actual tomb. Oddly enough, it can only be accessed through the women's entrance. Ha!
Note: It was 8:30 in the morning and I was the only one there. Creepy? Yes. Spiritual? Always.

A sign on the door tells worshipers to enter only if wearing modest clothing.

My free time is cut short! Yishai finishes half-an-hour before he expected to. And who doesn't like a little post-run music?

Walking up the stairs post-race is a project. A project best done while wearing a plastic bag (for warmth. Not style.)

Victory lunch: an entire roasted fish with a squeeze of fresh lemon, hot pita bread, fries, and some beer. And ketchup.

*     *     *
Other notes:

There are three synagogues in Tiberias: a Chabad, a sephardi shul, and a Karlin Hassidic shul. On Friday night, we picked the Chabad, thinking we had the best chance of getting a Shabbat meal there. We were wrong. Good thing we brought tuna fish.

On Saturday morning, I skipped shul altogether and walked down to the Kinneret. I found a sunny rock where I prayed and reflected, while listening to the light waves lap against the shore.

Shabbat for us held a visit to Rambam's grave. No one ever tells you that Shabbat is the best time to visit these places - we were the only ones there! Located in the center of Tiberias, the site also holds the graves of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Rebi Ami, Rav Assi, and other Talmudic sages. Oddly enough, the Rambam never lived in Tiberias. He is buried there because a) He wanted to be buried in the place where the first Sanhedrin convened, or b) His students loaded his remains onto a camel and followed it wherever it wanted to go. It stopped in Tiberias, and they took it as a sign to bury the Rambam there. Either way, it is generally accepted that the Rambam was first buried in Egypt, where he lived the last chunk of his life. His bones were later exhumed, and one way or another, brought to Eretz Yisrael. 

As lovely as Jerusalem is, I enjoyed spending a Shabbat somewhere else. It was refreshing to see secular Israelis and be reminded that not every city shuts down completely for Shabbat. There were no buses in the streets, but about one-fourth of the restaurants were open and the boardwalk was filled with camera-toting tourists. Sure, there were some religious Jews, but they were definitely not the majority. Sometimes, it is good to get a larger picture of Israel as a whole: in addition to religion, people live in Israel because of its history, its geography, their families, their traditions, and its true, natural beauty. Amen!



Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Country where Christmas Wasn't


            On Tuesday night, I went to Bethlehem.

Christmas in America
Growing up in America, all I saw of Christmas were signs reading “Buy One get One FREE” and “Sale: 70% mark down! 5-7am only!!” All I saw was consumerism and a huge traffic jam outside of the church. But this year I’m in the Middle East! I thought. I’ll be able to see the real thingI spend most of my time among religious Jews—but now I have a chance to see some pious Christians! The actual amount of piety I witnessed left something to be desired, but it turned out there was more to the evening that just the celebration of Christmas.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I decided to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Last Thursday, an adventurous friend (whom I greatly admire) casually threw out the suggestion: “Want to go to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve? It’ll be so much fun!” Trying to ignite the courageousness that I know is inside of me, I said yes without much deliberation. I’m in Israel, right? I should be doing things exactly like this! This seemed like a once-in-a-long time chance. In most of Israel, Christmas is nowhere in sight, and now I had the chance to see the ‘somewhere’ where Christmas was.
On Tuesday evening, five of us gathered: three girlfriends, my boyfriend and me. I had been cautioned ahead of time to be “as Christian as possible” so, for the first time in about 10 months, I put on jeans and wore them out in public. I also tried to call my boyfriend by his English name (Jesse) rather the Hebrew version he usually goes by (Yishai).  
We all met at a bus stop on Hevron Road, equipped with cameras, passports, hats, scarves and bus fare. The Arab buses don’t stop at the Egged stops unless someone explicitly asks, so when we saw a bus coming, we ran to flag it down. It was a white coach bus, complete with cushioned seats and working heat. Is this how the Israelis try to pacify the Arabs? I wondered. Coach buses for the 30 minute rides to and from their homes?
After about 10 minutes, we began seeing Christmas lights through the windows of the bus. After another ten, we were riding through the sloping streets of Beit Jala, seeing buildings and signs telling us we were in Palestine. Soon the bus bumped along into Bethlehem (Beit Lechem in Hebrew), and as soon as we got off the bus we were grandly heckled by cab drivers offering to take us to “The Church.”
We walked instead.
(But the cab drivers wouldn’t leave us alone until we said “Merry Christmas,” which, I have to admit, felt sacrilegious when it crossed my lips. Such is the price of being an undercover Jew for the night.) 
 After about 15 minutes of walking through streets full of crowds, lights and litter, we entered the “Old City” portion of Bethlehem. There were no more cars, and infinitely more seasonal decorations. We stopped every few minutes to snap some pictures, but mostly I just enjoyed hearing the Arab pop music, smelling the roasted nuts, and seeing the big, pink, jelly-like blocks of powdered Turkish Delight. It was American consumerism meets Jerusalem stone, Arab culture, and international tourism.  

Between the lights and balloons

Church doors

Heading to Manger Square

Glowing orbs and arches

There were people from every corner of the world. Africans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Spaniards, Koreans, Chinese, North Americans, South Americans. In my quest to disguise myself as a Christian tourist, I was succeeding mightily—especially because I speak perfect English. Sheltered American, anyone? Brought to you all the way from New England. What was difficult, however, was to resist speaking Hebrew. When I hear the languages of the Middle East, my instinct is to speak Hebrew (especially when in Israel.) I had to remind myself, however, that I was hearing Arabic, not Hebrew, and the speakers would not be too keen on hearing the mark of a Jew in their midst.
“Are Jews even allowed there?” my older brother asked as I told him about my adventure (ex post facto, of course).
“We’re allowed,” I replied. “Just not welcome.” And I had felt it. I had felt it all night.
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Sahlab: a Middle Eastern drink made from orchids,
milk, coconut, pistachios, cinnamon, and
sometimes banana. Yum.
We spent most of our time in Manger Square, the area just outside the Church of the Nativity. The square was filled with lights, balloons, milling people, vendors selling corn and sahlab, TV trucks, disaster control vans, and Palestinian Authority soldiers. There was a towering electric Christmas tree, a life-sized crèche, and a large stage where groups from South Korea and Africa sang Christmas songs (separately) from their respective cultures. The crowd was thick; the smoke was thicker. It must be decreed somewhere that if you are an Arab man without a cigarette on Christmas Eve, curses will fall upon your household for the entire next year, I thought, as I breathed into my scarf and rubbed my itchy eyes.
As we pushed through the crowd to see the Africans, the nativity scene, or to get a good photo, I felt the Arab men’s eyes always upon us females. Their hair gel shone; their clothes were tight; their smiles were sly and entirely too long. I held Yishai’s hand tightly, but when your boyfriend is a photographer, you’re going to be walking alone some of the time.
My friends indulged in the hot corn on the cob and the creamy sahlab, but when they proposed sitting down at a café for a little while, something inside me reached some sort of limit. I’m wearing pants and I’m in Bethlehem, I thought. One thing I will not do is sit at a non-kosher restaurant. What if the staff makes me order something? Or what if I’m tempted to try what my friends are eating? I don’t exactly know why I drew the line there, but I did know that I could eat nothing and still pass, unsuspected, as a Christian. I was going to hold on—tightly—to this one piece of Jewish identity. There was absolutely no reason to break kashrut here, so I did not. What made me scared, however, was the strength of the appetizing smells, the rare delicacies, and a rumbling stomach. When surrounded by another tantalizing (and delicious) culture, it easy to let it envelope you.
Despite our difference of opinion, my friends are extremely loyal, and they respected my discomfort with the whole café situation, so we sat on some steps in the square and watched the people go by. Soon, however, it was clear that people were watching us, too. A group of teenage boys came over with their cameras, and jostled to sit next to us for a picture.
“Where you from? Where you from?” they asked, wanting evidence that they had met a pretty American. We let them take pictures with us, but Yishai kept saying over and over,
“Hey! She’s my girlfriend! Watch it!” Clearly, they didn’t understand what that meant, because one of the boys tried to put his arm around my shoulder and another one asked Yishai, “Wife? Wife?”
We left soon after.
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On the way out, we bumped into another group of Pardes students who had also come to observe the festivities. It wasn’t until talking to them for a few minutes that I realized: some of these people have never seen me in pants before… But they knew how to get out, so we followed their lead.
Getting out of Bethlehem was nothing like getting in. We weren’t sure how to get back to the bus stop (or if buses even stopped there in the other direction), so we aimed to get to the check-point and take a bus from there. We walked. And we walked. When we got to the vehicle check-point, we had to stop and ask a cop for directions to the pedestrian check-point. He pointed us down a dark alley.
“Just follow the wall,” he said.
And follow the wall we did. We walked past a deserted gas station and then there it was—graffiti and all. A lot of it was in English; some was inspiring; some was offensive; some was downright art. And it was all scrawled onto the towering, gray security wall that protects ‘us’ from ‘them.’

The gas station and the wall

We finally made it to the check-point. We walked through a hallway made of metal bars and then zig-zagged our way through the metal detectors, gray-paneled walls, and bleak signs telling us we were in a military zone. When we had all passed through security, we showed our passports to two giggly Israeli soldiers who yelled “California!” as we were leaving.
“Some people have to go through that every day just to get to work,” Yishai told me. “Now you know what it’s like.”
But I don’t, really. I know what it is like to have an American passport and get checked by Israeli soldiers who probably figured out we were Jewish and let us through with no questions.
But I don’t know what it is like to wait at the metal detector, knowing you are entering a country where you are not wanted, and perhaps even a country that you don’t want to enter.
I don’t know what it is like to live surrounded by fellow Arabs, eating, drinking and loving like everyone else, and then realizing that I live in a sort of prison; I can only get out if ‘they’ let me.
I don’t know what it is like to look at the wall every day, to paint political anger on the wall, to see the wall on the way home from work and know that it means I am almost home.


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We boarded the Arab bus, and I leaned against Yishai’s shoulder for the short ride home. I closed my eyes and the tears started. They were few, but they were there. I didn’t want to listen to my friends talking and laughing about how “unimpressed” they were by Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Sure, I was also disappointed that there were lights, music, and vendors instead of candles and graceful nuns, but at this point, I didn’t even care that it was Christmas anymore. I had just been to Bethlehem. I had seen ‘them,’ and I was slowly re-becoming ‘us.’
Climbing into bed a little while later, the tears came more readily. Yishai tucked me in and didn’t want to leave me, but I told him to go; I needed to sleep. So he left. And I slept. Back on this side of the wall. Back in the country where Christmas wasn’t.




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Feel free to read Yishai's account also (and see photographs other than the ones I posted here)