Category Archives: Cultural Learnings

Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Coming to Israel

I’m not normally into pithy list-based blog posts but today I am making an exception. There are less than two weeks before I leave Israel and I still have a ton of school work to do. So in the interest of procrastination I give you the 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Coming to Israel.

1. It is possible to become bored with Hummus… And all mediterranean food.

Tuna and Egg Sandwich on Kosher for Passover Bread (read: edible styrofoam)

I found my culinary experiences in Israel quite lacking. Yes, being here turned me on to a variety of ingredients I wouldn’t otherwise have learned to cook. And, yes, the food here is good (most of the time). But…

I have gotten bored with pita and hummus. There is only some many months one can live on pita and hummus before they lose their charm.

And I swear to god if I see another olive — someone’s eye will be replaced with it!

Israeli sandwiches are gross. I still do not believe that hard-boiled egg and tuna salad are a valid sandwich combination (Sorry Adi!)

Also, cucumbers. The winner of the Most Wasted Veggie Award. I hate you because you lure me in with your sweet siren song of, “I’m cheeeeaaaappp!!”.How do I cook with you? You aren’t a cookable vegetable. You are only good cold and in salads. And you go bad to fast.

2. I would become racist.. against everybody.

I have learned an equal opportunity dislike toward everyone: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arab-Israelis, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Jewish-Israelis, orthodox people, Ethiopians, Yemenites, Russians, Americans, Druze people, Arabs, Europeans, etc.

(I think there might be something in the water here.)

To expand on one group particularly close to my heart. There is nothing like leaving the United States to make me realize what a unlikeable bunch Americans can be.

We feel more comfortable traveling en mass. We are loud as hell and can be incredibly disrespectful towards local customs and people. We perpetuate the stereotype  of the drunk, slutty American woman. I know that I am an offender of all of the above at one point or another, however, I try to at least recognize when I have made a mistake. Sometimes, I suspect my introspective qualities might be more the exception than the rule.

3. How beautiful this place is.

Beautiful Eretz Israel on a cloudy day.

Israel is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I have never lived in a place where the sky was so blue or where the top of every hill offered a beautiful view. Even the Negev Desert, the most barren wasteland I’ve ever seen, has its own stark beauty. No one told me how beautiful it would be here. The Mediterranean is gorgeous. Even when it rains it is beautiful.

I was totally prepared for a dry and dusty desert. Basically, Fresno, CA with and abundance of camels and a dearth of Mexican food. What I got were rolling hills, lush greenery, wildflowers, and sandy beaches!

4. More people die in car accidents than terrorist attacks.

Even at the height of the Second Intifada this was true. (I have a reference for this… Just to lazy to link to it. If you want it, email me.)

Israeli drivers drive stupid fast and believe the lane lines are just for decoration. Throw in bus drivers with something to prove, general Israeli bravado, and you have a recipe for death with a side of road rash.

I thought India was bad but I think this might be worse. Israeli driving is deceiving because, unless you look closely, it looks like American driving. People stop at stop lights, avoid flattening pedestrians, and follow basic right of way rules. Then you get in a car or a bus with an Israeli driver and begin to reconsider all of your life decisions.

One quickly learns the skill of sizing bus drivers up and rating the likelihood that their driving will result in death or serious injury.

5. I’m jealous of Jewish people.

This country is very hard to live in if you are not Jewish. I feel like most Israelis are warmer and more open with Jewish students than they are with non-Jewish students.

When meeting a new Israeli the conversation will inevitably turn towards religion. This is always my least favorite part of the conversation because it can completely change or derail it. One of the parties (Normally, me. Because I want to rip the band-aid off fast.) with ask the other, “So, are you Jewish?”

“Yea, I am. What about you?” they ask.

“No, I’m Christian,” I say, waiting for the Inevitable Shoe to Drop.

“Oh. That is good. I guess.” they say as I watch the Welcome-Sister-From-Another-Country expression in their eyes fade. From here the conversation will turn to the usual questions, Why are you here? How do you like it? And the conversation is essentially killed.

One is assumed Jewish until proven otherwise. When one is Jewish, people will speak to you with a little added bit of warmth, they will invite you to Shabbat dinner, they will find out who your relatives in Israel are, they will tell you the best places to visit in Israel. When when is not Jewish, people relegate you to the category of amicable stranger. They are polite but there is always a distance. The easy amiability is lost.

It sucks watching Americans with a different religion get a warm reception, while I am pushed to the sidelines.

At least the cats don't care I'm not Jewish.


The Holocaust in Israel

Yesterday, was a national holiday here in Israel: Holocaust Remembrance day. There is a national time of silence at 10am where everything in the country stops and people stand still to commemorate those lost in the Shoah. It was eery experiencing the act of an entire country stopping for one minute. The only silence deeper than that of an entire country taking a collective breath, is that of death.


"The Stones Weep" by artist Miriam Brysk

This year, I was in Jerusalem for Easter. I decided to make that the day that I would go to the Israeli museum devoted to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. Normally, I go out of my way to avoid all things related to the  Holocaust but I felt that this museum was important for my understanding of Israel.

I went into my experience in Yad Vashem with memories of the Washington DC Holocaust Museum. The DC museum is an architectural work of art. It is beautifully designed and inspired the redesign of Yad Vashem 5 years ago.

The content, however, is a different story. The Holocaust is depressing and there is no way around it. But there are ways of presenting the narrative that end with a measured amount of optimism and hope that humanity has learned something. The museum in DC does not do this. In fact, one of the last rooms you into in that museum describes genocides and ethnic cleansing that have happened since (Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, etc.).

Also, it is worth begging the question: why is there a Holocaust Museum in the capital of the United States? The answer lays in America’s powerful Jewish lobbies vested interest in perpetuating the narrative of Jewish victimhood. Their interest is in keeping the attention and thoughts on what will happen to Israel should America withdraw its support.

Yad Vashem’s purpose is different. It has a three-pronged purpose. The first, is to research the victims and keep their memories and stories by collecting interviews with survivors, documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.), memoirs, photographs, and personal items belonging to victims (clothes, toys, etc.). The archive of Holocaust items in Yad Vashem is the largest and most thorough one of its kind in the world.

The second purpose, is to tell the story of the Holocaust and its victims. They do this through the Museum. The narrative presented is surprisingly balanced and detailed. As one walks through the exhibits there is special care to explain how ordinary people are swept up by extraordinary events. As I walked through the museum I found myself wondering if it had been me in Nazi Germany what would I have done? Like most people, I would like to hope that I would have fought in the resistance or helped hide a Jewish family but who knows? The propaganda of the time was so insidious and Hitler was so charismatic.

Yad Vashem’s final purpose is trying to interpret the impact and cultural significance of the Holocaust while it happened and since it ended. The museum has a huge collection of art and literature having to do with that time. While I was there, there was an exhibit of art from the ghettos.

As the people who were alive during WWII pass on, I feel that this is the most important thing that Yad Vashem does. As the years go by the legacy of the Shoah will be less asking how it happened and more how do we interpret it.

Passover: The Biggest Holiday of Them All

My passover break started a few days ago. I have 2 and a half weeks off to do as I please. It feels wonderful to not be forced to get up at 8am for Arabic.

Tonight, there is Passover Seder. I am being hosted by a family that was found for me through the university. This is my first real seder with actual Jews. In the past, I have attended Christian knock-off seders but I feel that there is a certain authenticity and sincerity that was missing from those (read: Jewishness). This meal is sure to be an interesting experience, expect a full report later.

Later this week, I am going to Jerusalem. I am going to be couch surfing and attending Easter services. Before I leave I will post a semi-coherent list of some things I am going to do while I am there. Suggestions are welcome.

DIY Purim Celebration

I have been mulling over how best to describe Purim to all the lovely goyim back home. For weeks, I worked on a post giving a long in depth description of the story and traditions surrounding Purim. This post would have been fabulous if I could have gotten past the first 100 words… or, hell… the title!

Last night, I was mulling this problem over as I was falling asleep when it hit me, Purim can be explained but there is a lot lost in translation. It is much better to live the Purim celebration and experience the madness first hand. So my friends, hang on to your yarmulkes and welcome to:

Emma’s Guide to a DIY Purim Celebration


The first thing, one needs for a successful Purim is a good costume. Costumes are essential. Purim is like Halloween, an excuse to get dressed up in the most random way possible. Everyone dresses up. If you are a girl, this entails hours of labor, days of agonizing and hundreds of shekels to find/make the perfect costume. And, like Halloween, the sluttier the better. For boys, a costume means putting on a funny hat or hawaiian shirt 15 mins before leaving the house. Luckily, I have included some helpful examples of good Purim costumes.

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Viddles and Dranks

This part is the best part of Purim. I mean it is the best part of any holiday but especially Jewish ones. I once asked a friend about why there is so much eating a drinking in Jewish celebrations. His explanation? They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!

I say that is as good an excuse as any.

Purim food is simple. All one needs is hamantaschen and lots of alcohol.

Hamantaschen are supposed to be Haman’s ears (or hat, depending on who you talk too). So far I have not heard a convincing argument about why we eat Haman’s ears (/hat) or why he was an elf. Make some. Eat some. Yummy Purim…

The first thing anyone told me about Purim was the importance of alcohol in a proper Purim celebration. The point, I was told,  is that one needs to get so drunk that it is impossible to tell the difference between Mordecai and Hamman. To help speed this process along I have created the Purim Drinking Game

The Greatest Purim Drinking Game EVAR!!!1!

This drinking game like all good drinking games will get you nice a shwasted. It is also quite educational and a good way to learn the story of Purim (sorta). The game is played while watching the movie “One Night with the King” found here or here. I watched this movie sober and it was a test of wills between me and my computer to get through it.

The rules of the game are simple:

  • Every time there is a slowing down of the action to add dramatic tension (read: make the movie more boring and longer) everyone starts waterfalling their drink. Stop when the real action resumes.
  • Take a shot for every time an accent changes midway through the movie. Ex: Esther’s accent fluctuates between American and put upon English.
  • Take a shot for every time you feel the weird erotic tension between Esther and Mordecai.
  • Take a shot for every time the king begins to look strangely Jesus-like.
  • Take drinks for every Indian extra you see.
  • Take 2 shots for each time you see Esther’s surfer boyfriend. (*Spoiler* The two shot are for his balls which are, sadly, cut off midway through the move.
  • Take a drink for every glaring historical inaccuracy you see.
  • A shot for every time Esther is a stuck up brat, acts like a child, or is a cold manipulating bitch.

If you can get through this game and still tell Mordecai from Haman, then you need to rethink your Purim choices.

Happy Purim! (Well for next year anyway…)

Re: The Weekend of Wandering in the Desert

Well, I survived. I was not horribly maimed or injured by falling off the mountains or by rock slides or by wolves. All of my worst fears did not come true. The hiking was not nearly as intense as I originally anticipated. The clambering over large rocks got tiring after a while but gave me a new empathy for this guy and his crew.

The law in Israel says that schools are allowed to have a casualty rate of 10% on field trips. Our group had two major casualties (sprained ankle and a sick person) and a few minor ones (scrapes, etc.). Which for a group of 70 foreigners, is quite an achievement.

The Negev is no joke. It is quite literally the most arid place I have ever had the dubious pleasure of visiting. I can count on one hand the number of trees I saw (3) and the amount of water I saw (0L). In terms of wild life, there wasn’t really any… I saw two birds (they were not stupid enough to land) and no scorpions (thank god!) even though they are rumored to be abundant in the Negev. The Negev is a wasteland as far as the eye can see. But, oh my gosh, it is a beautiful waste land.

The Beautiful Negev

What the Negev lacks in lush foliage, it makes up for in rock. My tour guide kept calling the Negev a geologist’s paradise. Think rock formations from Four Corner’s National Park, Yosemite, Disneyland rides, and Death Valley all in one spot. It is absolutely incredible. There was one particular portion of our hike where there were giant house sized boulders that were tossed about by the force of flash floods. The power of the forces at work here was awe-inspiring and made me very glad that God is not fond of smiting people any more.


Looks like part of Thunder Mountain in Disney Land!

I was also a bit nervous about spending such an extended period with so many international students. I like most of them but having classes and social activities with the same 70 ppl gets old very quickly. This trip was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, the amount of whining was a little excessive. Yes, it was a struggle to stifle my murderous impulses towards some people. But what made it alright was our Israeli entourage.

All of the nature trails in Israel are marked like this.

We had an entire crew of Israeli support staff with us. We had our two madrichim (RAs/social activities coordinators), Tomer and Michal; two tour guides, Iran and Israel; two security/first aid guys, Rambo and Guido; one survival extraordinaire, Bear; and one other random Israeli guy. Rambo and Guido (not their real names) were these very intense Druze guys. They only spoke hebrew and survived on chain-smoking, coffee, and intensity. In their army service, they were a part of an élite combat unit. Now they are security guards at the university.


Rambo (L) and Guido (R)



Guido was the younger one. He had a lot of energy and was constantly getting into trouble. While we were at a rest stop on the way he impressed a bunch of little kids by showing off his strength at an arcade game. He may have also dunked one of the our guides while we were in Eilat.

Rambo was the strong silent type. For about half the trip, I thought that he wasn’t human. I’m pretty sure that he is at least part machine and part mountain goat. He took his job incredibly seriously and as a result was very good at it. He was always counting us and was always bringing up the rear making sure no one fell or was left behind. As the trip wore on, I began to see his softer side come out. He is engaged and wears his fiance’s name on a necklace. When asked whether that is a Druze tradition, he responded: no it isn’t, he just really loves her.


This is the Egyptian border and one of the guard towers that lines the border. This picture is taken from the Israeli side.

My reward for 1.5 days in the desert and sleeping on the ground in a thin sleeping bag... Sitting on a beautiful beach for a day!



Flash! Bang! Update!

So, I have been incredibly lax with the updating. Sorry guys! That was combination of hebrew intenseness, alot of outtings, and a couple of nights of to much arak. I’m gonna break this down short, sweet, and simple.

Acre: Crusader City

So, I went to this place called Acre (pronounced: Akko). It is opposite Haifa on the bay. Acre was the main port for northern Israel for something like 3000 or 4000 years before the British developed Haifa into a deep water port in the 20th century. The city of Acre is interesting because the old city of Acre is one of the best examples of crusader architecture still standing. It is also pretty neat because people still live in some of the old crusader buildings. Also, if one knows what one is looking for once can very clearly see remnants of the the various civilizations that had control over Acre. In particular the Muslim and the Crusader influence. It was fascinating to see.

The only downside to this place was the fact that we went went on the rainiest and coldest day I have been privy too since coming to Israel. And we traipsed around in the rain and the cold for the entire day. This is going to sound awful but it is hard to notice the history of a place when one is trying to find shelter from driving winds and freezing rain.

Bottomline: I need to go back to Acre. I cannot say that I appreciate Acre as much as I could had I been dry and warm when I visited.

The Jewish Diaspora Museum

Mark Spitz: He's Jewish?!

Honestly, I didn’t get the point of this. Well, I do but I am not its prime audience, so some significance was lost on me. The Jewish Diaspora Museum (aka Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People) is from what I can gather supposed to be a museum that demonstrates the significance of the Jewish diaspora for Jewish culture and a preservation of pieces of the culture. To tell you the truth my museum experience could have been a little more information rich. We had a tour guide who took us through the museum. Maybe it was because we were all Americans, but she didn’t really give us any new information. That is a feat in and of itself considering how little I know about Jewishness. Also, the exhibits didn’t have a lot of information in them. I guess part of this comes down to the simple fact that, being a non-Jew, I am not the main audience of this museum.

I think that is one of the hardest parts about being in this country. All though all of the Israelis I have met have been warm and welcoming I often feel like an outsider here by virtue of the fact that I am not Jewish. It is a very strange experience to be surrounded by people who are Americans, some of whom are like me and have never been to Israel, who by virtue of their religious identity are able to feel more at home than I am.

Ceasarea and the Napa Valley of Israel

The seats in the ampitheather

Last weekend, we went to Ceasarea. That was cool I guess. Roman ruins, no matter where you are, all kind of look the same in my opinion. There are two very cool things about Ceasarea: the amphitheater and Herod’s Palace. The ampitheater is about half the size it was during the Roman times, however, it is still used for concerts today. How cool is that? In the same place that ancient Romans 2000 years ago used to go to watch plays, modern Israelis can come to watch modern artists perform! Seeing the remains of Herod’s Palace was cool because he was such a baller. Herod had an indoor fresh water pool in his house. A house who’s back porch looked over the Mediterranean Sea. So, Herod was able host pool parties with beautiful women and plentiful wine while listening to the sound of waves from the Meditteranean sea crashing against his back porch. Tell me that is not completely unreal and totally awesome.

Quaint, no?

After we were done at Ceasarea, we went to a town called Zikhron Ya’akov. I would describe this town as being a cross between Nantucket and the Napa Valley located in the heart of Northern Israel. It has all of the quaint and adorable shops that Nantucket has but has the wine industry like Napa. As a quirk from its history it has a lot of European architecture that makes it a very scenic little city. It was a great place to walk around and get some lunch. It has some great little boutiques and a really wonderful ice cream place. I would like to go back one day for a wine tasting. Also, I might be making this up but I think someone told me that this was the first place in Israel to have running water.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

There are a few last things I want the folks back home to know:

I am done with my Hebrew ulpan! I no longer have to sit in a classroom for 5 hours trying to learn me some Hebrew. It was great while it lasted and I achieved my goal of learning some basic Hebrew. But man, the 5 straight hours was killing me. (Also, the Sunday classes were not doing me any good.)

Because Ulpan is over, I start real school on Monday. Fun stuff: Arabic, Arab-Israeli Relations… It is going to be a good semester.

Finally, bwahahahahahaha!

The weather in Haifa tomorrow...

Hitting the Paper Trail

A few days ago, I dealt with the last major administrative hurdle to my study abroad experience – the Visa. The process of securing a visa into a country is the first major interaction a foreigner will have with a country’s culture. You can tell so much about a country by this process. There are 3 major points I have observed about Israel so far from this process.

#1. Strikes are an institution. I called the Isreali Consulate in San Francisco to ask some questions before I sent in my visa paperwork. The woman I spoke to told me to wait till I get to Israel to get my student visa. She said there was some sort of strike occurring. The resigned tone she had on the phone told me that this is something that happens with some frequency.

#2. Lost in translation. As I filled out my visa application, I became vaguely frustrated with a lack of specificity in the instructions. For example, in the visa application there is one section entitled: permanent address abroad. Is this my address in my home country or my address abroad in Israel? Maybe it makes more sense in Hebrew. I guess it makes more sense when I think about Israel being considered a homeland for the majority of the people who are seeking to obtain non-tourist visas.

#3. Short days and weird hours. My friend Eytan warned me about this. He told me that Israel operated on a 4 day work week because of the holy days of the various religions. The consulate office had the strangest hours. They are open M-F but only operate between the hours of 10am-3pm. America has spoiled me into feeling entitled that everything should be open 24hrs 7days a week (aka: if I want to get a student visa at 3am on a Sunday I should damn well be able too).