Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ha-Kotel Chic

Not your regular Saturday night.

"Kippa up!"

Shimi and Rami reach down and, in one fell swoop, secure their kippa’s in perfect unison. Sporting fitted dress shirts and tight, dark blue jeans, the men transform their Tel Aviv formal club wear into Saturday-night-at-the-Kotel appropriate. It may seem conflicting to refer to one of the most revered religious sights as a new hot spot, but it also sums up Israel perfectly, the constant seesaw between religious and secular. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the whole country flocks to Jerusalem to repent for their sins, closest to the twilight hours at the Western Wall within the Old City. It is a motley crue of religiosity; driving in, cars vie for space on the tiny streets, windows roll down and people yell out "Eifo ha-Kotel?" A Mercedes Benz with an orthodox family points the known route to a group of young friends squeezed into a baby blue Shevrulet. Everyone's anxious, excited and looking for parking.

For my part, it had been a spur of the moment decision to join in on the ride to Jerusalem. Wearing only jean shorts and a tank top, I was literally plucked from a Tel Aviv bar and put into the Old City. My outfit was not Kotel appropriate, knees and shoulders bare for the world to see. The solution to my immodest dress was to raid the reserves in my friend Shimi’s car. A pair of Hawaiian print cargo shorts reached below my knees, a white t-shirt covered my shoulders and a sheer black wrap with sequins provided the only femininity to my outfit. My friend Tara, equally sinful in a sexy black dress, covered up with an oversize sweatshirt. As she said, she was most Kotel appropriate when a woman’s Yeshiva tried to usher her onto their tour bus when rounding up the young students dressed in long skirts and red sweatshirts.

Bad boys on the way to the Kotel

Oy-va-voy, lo toda.

As embarrassing as our outfits were, Tara and I didn’t worry too much, if anything we could go ahead and repent for it along with our sins. As the covered alleyway’s of the Old City opened up to the Kotel Plaza, it dawned on Tara and I how far gone our outfits really were. It was clear this was the place to be and to be seen. Women pushed and vied for their chance to touch the wall, all the while holding their designer purses and teetering on high heels. Men compared kippa’s, from knitted warmth to bejeweled relics of Barmitzva’s past. Teen girls with flat-ironed hair and makeup perfectly applied gathered in intimidating numbers to pick apart the fashion choices of the passerby’s. Tara and I equally joined in with our own observations. Is a leopard print blouse and skin-tight black pencil skirt Kotel chic? Are white pants allowed before Yom Kippur and not after like the American tradition of Labor Day? Is wearing a fur vest more appropriate because it symbolizes Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram instead of his son?

We contemplate these nuances of Kotel Couture when Shimi, Rami, and two unbelievably beautiful Israeli women come back to join us. Immediately more self conscious than before, Tara tuggs on her sweatshirt and I readjust my sequined wrap. The ladies before us, one in stylish jeans, a fitted blouse and coat, the other, impeccably accessorized with gold jewelry offsetting a flattering black dress, eye us curiously. Shimi explains that we are his friends from America. I ask if the ladies speak English. They smile politely and say only a little, Tara and I reply with the little Hebrew we’ve picked up. We compare experiences of driving into the city, finding parking, and fighting our way to the wall while also trying to be pious. For a moment, Tara and I forget about the horrendous outfits we wear and enjoy the solidarity of joining with people from all over the world coming to pray at the Kotel. It’s then, a group of good-looking soldiers pass by; Tara and I make a vow, then and there, to never be unprepared for Kotel Chic.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Where is the real life?

What's Tel Aviv like? It's not real life. That's how I feel being here. One day in the early afternoon I received a frantic call from my mother, it must have been around 5 or 6 am in New York. "What's going on, are you alright?" I had gone to a bar the night before with friends; I drank, danced, had a romantic night swim. The problems I was faced with in the morning were getting the sand out of my bed and switching between turning the AC on or off, did she sense my distress at being too hot or too cold?

I hadn't read the news yet and seen that the entire Middle East was in an uproar over an ignorant, incitable video about the prophet Muhammed. The US ambassador to Libya had just been killed, American embassies the Middle East over were hotbeds of protests. What then, was happening in Israel? Nothing really to my knowledge. I walked onto the street and it was business, or lack of business because of Shabbat, as usual.

When it comes to the obvious question of "who wants to destroy Israel today," I saw that most Israeli's didn't preoccupy themselves with the answer. One reason for this is the lack of influence people feel in the decision making progress. Israeli's obviously don't want to go to war, but they don't want to be destroyed either, what can one really do? The more popular conversation I've come upon is discussing current social and economic problems in Israel. In another conversation with my mom she said to me, "It must be so interesting to be over there at this time." She was referring to normal Middle East uproar. I, in turn, wanted to shame her in her ignorance over not thinking Israel had internal problems just like any other country.

"What's so interesting here?" I brattily asked, also being tired and cranky from not having my afternoon nap. I wanted my mom to be interested in the divide between Israeli's. That the time now is interesting because people are talking about the shortcomings of their own government, of how their society should run, what works and what doesn't. What's interesting is that now, as opposed to any other time, Israeli's are dealing with the problems that plague societies the world over. Affordable housing, universal healthcare, opportunities for advancement, immigration, taxes, accountability in government. Being an American and from New York, these are topics I rarely stop hearing about, and it's interesting for me to be here now and here these issues discussed with a new excitement and urgency. Also, one can't deny the Israeli passion for confrontational arguments. Its not only the discussion being had but how Israeli's express themselves that breathe new life into these conversations.

So I'm still not in real life. I can go out every night and sleep all day. I can explore the city and try and meet new people. I can talk to them and hear their views and insights for the first time and ask questions, and try to understand, and put forth my own thoughts. I'm still a visitor, still a tourist, the most interesting thing is experiencing something and someone new every day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My first Israel Social Protest

Cops, crowds, cameras, a suicide trampoline! The situation seems extreme! On my walk home from doing my laundry yesterday, I unexpectedly came upon a social protest at the mall near where I live. On a closed bridge crossing over the main Dizengoff street, 8 young Israeli's had climbed outside onto the balcony and stood there holding hands in protest of...well to most people around they didn't know. They were protesting to protest, some said. They were protesting the situation in Israel. What situation in Israel? You know, the situation. Some reporters were thoroughly engrossed in the action, running in and out of the crowds, filming and narrating into their iPhones. Others seemed less impressed and slightly annoyed at the non-news that was now making news. At the moment, the protestors would stand tall above Dizengoff just as long as the crowds remained. The crowds were happy to oblige in the hopes that some action, namely a jump, would happen. It was a mediocre tense standoff.

I stood there for about an hour to try and gage what was going on. If I was in New York, I would have walked right on by. No way would I give credence to a bunch of misfits causing a traffic jam and wasting unnecessary tax dollars and services when in reality, nothing will happen. But this is Israel. This is what people are talking about. The time is now for the rhetoric to be switching from, "Which outsiders want to destroy Israel," to, "How are we destroying ourselves from the inside?" So I stayed and tried to figure out what was going on.

The 8 remain looking straight ahead, to justice? To change? To not see the drop below?

Police try to start some sort of crowd control, for the controlled crowd.

After two hours of standing not doing anything, the 8 unfurl a banner.

Tensions run high as police anticipate a jump, they try to move the crowds back, much more dramatic than it seems.

When the protesting 8 first appeared over the street, they had dropped a note to the ground which is unclear whether it was a "suicide" note, or a note condemning the "socioeconomic situation" in Israel, I wasn't there for that part. The crowds watched and chanted along. The 8 stood there stoically, eyes facing forward, stone faced. At times, some individuals looked like they were losing their nerve. A girl in pink nervously stepped forward to put her hands on the rails, a young man swayed from left to right. Vertigo? Fatigue? Drama?

In the end the group held up two signs and dropped them to the whoops and cheers of the crowd. In English the signs said "Love Revolution"with it's equal written in Hebrew. Around 8 pm the group shouted to the crowd, "Ok, we'll be good people," and walked off the bridge back into the mall where they went to accept their fate of disturbing the peace. It was over and I wanted to go to my life, namely, the gym. I tried to enter the mall, the guards had closed the doors. Thanks a lot "Love Revolution," you see what you did? Now I can't love myself and revolutionize my body. Geeze la-weeze.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Movie Guide to Hitch Hiking

Like the flip of a coin, or the cool side of the pillow, many things in life are about opposites. In the example of hitchhiking, you can either have an amazing hitch, or a possibly very dangerous situation. I had never hitchhiked in my life and in two days I managed to catch six rides. Of those six rides, the last two were perfect examples of when hitchhiking goes extremely right, and when it can go scarily wrong.

I usually think of life in terms of how it would look in a movie. In the case of this specific hitch, I think an apt description would be a male-buddy-road trip comedy. With myself cast as the tempting lady hitcher, the three boys who picked me up fit their parts perfectly. Nir, the driver, is the strong, silent type. He’s the muscle of the group, coming to the rescue when his friends undoubtedly found themselves in a sticky situation. Matan, he’s the smooth talker, jester of the group. He’s the one that would put the three friends in the aforementioned “sticky situation”. The third buddy, who makes the group complete, is Moshe. Quiet, reserved, he’s usually the butt of Matan’s jokes and the usual recipient of Nir’s protection. The three boys have a friendship that could only have grown out of knowing each other since diapers. The personalities all differ, but they compliment and support each other in the way that is only seen in true and lasting friendship.

Enter the lady hitcher, with her bags still on, her shorts short and her arm extended. The boys pull over and she suggestively leans her head in the window. “Hi!” She says in her upbeat American accent. “Where are you going?”

“Tel Aviv,” Nir responds automatically and monotone.

“Wherever you need to go,” Matan counters with a sly smile. Moshe sits in the back with a sheepish grin on his face.

The girl throws her bag in the trunk and hops in for wild hijinks, bubbling sexual tension, and good times that can only be had by young kids who have little worries and their lives stretched out before them.

That was the good hitch. As the boys and I near closer to Tel Aviv, I say goodbye to them at a bus stop where I can continue on to Jerusalem.  From here the movie completely changes genres. The setting is a busy highway intersection with desolate wasteland on either side. The bus stop is lonely. About six people wait for one bus, and then I am left all alone. The afternoon heat is searing, the only shade is the shadow cast behind the bus shelter. I take my two suitcases and sit behind the shelter and wait for my bus to come. I think about maybe sticking out my hand but the intersection is so busy, it seems more of a hassle to weed out the good rides. I wait 5 minutes before the urge to pee is too much too bare. I walk a few feet down and crouch behind one of only a few bushes for cover but am sure most people can see me. I go back to my bags and wait another 15 minutes and very few buses pass. A car pulls up and the window rolls down. I’m sitting on my bags so I have to get up to see if he is trying to ask me for directions. “Jerusalem?” He asks me.

“Yea…” I answer cautiously.

“Jerusalem!” He says more emphatically.

“No, that’s ok, I’ll wait for the bus.”

“Come, I go to Jerusalem.”

People always say you have to go with what your gut tells you. If you have a bad feeling, stick with it. I think something is wrong with my gut because I collected my bags and got in the car. The man, lets call him Bill, because between his broken English and my non-existent Hebrew, I couldn’t catch his name. Bill looked to be orthodox. He had on a white shirt, black pants, large kippa, unruly black beard and side curls. His skin was dark and his face was pockmarked and wrinkled. He showed me his ID to prove his age of 31, but he was an old looking 31 year old. As soon as I got in the car, all signs pointed to NO. The car was clearly not Bill’s. In fact it looked like it belonged to a woman. I could tell this by the blue and white lei wrapped around the gear stick. The car was shitty, broken down and beat up but with a brand new stereo. Like cars that belong to most young kids, they care about how loud their bass is in comparison to how well their car runs. Bill liked bass but he loved trans music. It was this music that he turned louder when I agreed to come in the car. The music was being fed from a USB stick that flashed red light in time with the beat that gave the car a weird club atmosphere. I immediately felt self-conscious about my bare arms and legs and pulled my backpack up to create a flimsy barrier between me and the now spastic dancing Bill. He wagged his finger to the beat and shook his leg uncontrollably; to him this was a good time. To me, I had just let all my friends and family down with the decision to get in this car. At one point I had the opportunity to get out, I even had Bill pull over, but he asked me not to be scared of him. I felt bad. Some people are just weird.

Out of all of this I didn’t feel that he would cause me any harm or want to hurt me. I just felt that he was a really creepy man. I felt a little sorry for him; his love of Torah seemed in extreme contrast for his love of trans music. He appeared to be pulled in two different directions. The desire to serve god and become a Rabbi, and his desire to flirt with pretty little white girls and get down and dirty with club music. I figured by riding in the car I was helping him experience a little of the life that he can’t really grab hold of. For my part I was getting a free ride to Jerusalem. As ominous as the situation started out, the ending was a little comical and anticlimactic. Bill declared his love for me and made me take his number. He then dropped me off at a random bus station on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I had no idea where I was or where I should go. Bill then peeled away in the car, adjusting his kippa and blasting that trans with not even a second look in my direction.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Day 1, Istanbul

I watched the carousel go round and round at the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. It was 5:40 am and I wasn't sure if it was a good sign that I hadn't seen my bags from my flight from New York. When I booked my flight to Israel, I gave myself a 12 hour layover in Istanbul so I could go out and see the city, a place I had always been dying to go to. However, a common theme I find in my life is my lack of planning and propensity to hoping things work out. So, here I was hoping that my large suitcase from New York would be put on my flight 12 hours later to Tel Aviv. "Off to Istanbul!" I thought to myself. I took out my iphone to pick up the wireless internet I was almost sure they'd have available for free in the airport. A friend of New York had put me in touch with a Turkish girl who I was hoping would show me around for the day. The two of us had not really made a plan on when to meet or what to do, so again, I was just having faith it would all work out. I was sure all I had to do was email her when I arrived in Turkey and I would be whisked away to an "Istanbul behind-the-scenes," locals only tour. My pictures would differ from every other person I knew that traveled to this tourist-trap of a destination. It would be a great start to my new adventure, everyone on facebook would be super envious. But first I needed internet.

I'm not picking up any wifi on my phone so I look for the food court area. The first thing I run into is a Starbucks. Of course. Why wouldn't there be a Starbucks here? At least I'm sure they'll have internet, and they did. But only for people with Turkish sim cards. That's ok, minor hiccup, its still only 6 am, no point in bothering the nice girl who has agreed to show me around for the day.

I head to passport control and it's a mob scene. I figure this is my first test of practicing my Israeli nerve. Lines are not meant to be queued up on, only pushed through. I do my best shoving and pushing from one end of "I don't know where" to the other of "Where the hell am I" before I finally ask which line I should queue on. 

When I get to passport control the guard looks at me, bored of course, and says "You don't have a Visa, you can't come through." 

My stomach drops, thoughts of 12 hours in Ataturk airport looking through a glass window at civilization, mosques and fresh air outside frighten me for a moment. But then I find out you can buy a visa at a counter in the back for $20, so I go join another queue. The rest of the day goes nice and orderly. On the metro to the city center, and Italian girl sits next to me and we start talking. She's finishing up traveling two weeks through China and has also given herself a layover in Istanbul to see the city. We decided to walk around together before she has to leave for her flight around noon. We see the mosques, we get some coffee, we go to the spice market. We talk about American movies and TV, about traveling in China and about traveling in general. We take some pictures and have some laughs. We give big hugs when its time for her to leave and promise to become friends on Facebook. She'll always have a place in New York and I have a place to stay in Italy. I've misplaced her name in my journal.

After walking around by myself a bit, getting a little lost in the winding neighborhoods before backtracking, I get in touch with Aycen, the friend of my friend in New York. We agree to meet around 7 pm for dinner and a night tour of the city. At this moment I feel its a perfect time to indulge myself in the one thing I've wanted since my first and only day in Turkey four years ago, a Turkish Bath, or Hamam.

At this point especially a Hamam was the perfect idea. I had woken up at 5:30 am the previous morning (New York time), barely slept on my flight to Turkey, and had spent about a day and a half in the same clothes and only recently brushed my teeth. 

I go to the bath and enter a very large, rotund, marble room that is apparently 500 years old. I sit there thinking I really should be more impressed but the exhaustion has dulled my senses for appreciating beauty and history. I sweat out all my impurities alone at first, and then am joined by two other Turkish women using the bath. I notice they sit by the sinks and take bowls to pour water over themselves. This looks like an excellent idea and I head over to do the same. Next came the part that I paid for, to be washed. A nice turkish woman comes in and gets to bathe me like I've never been bathed before. 

Seriously, I felt like I was transported back to being a baby, being washed by my mother with all the tenderness, care and love that can only come through when the dirt is washed away and you are made to feel like new. Which is weird I felt this way because I'm pretty sure my mom would just throw us in the shower as we cried that we were missing watching "The Simpsons" or "90210" (Yes, I was young enough to be forced to shower by my mom when Beverly Hills was the hot new thing). But in this bath, I was scrubbed from head to pinky toe. All the dead skin scrubbed off and rinsed with bowls of alternating cold and warm water. My hair was shampooed my scalp was massaged, she even seemed to get a bit frisky but I was so numb with the pleasure of cleanliness everything was wonderful. She finished, I dried and dressed and walked back out into the afternoon sun.

I still had time to kill before I met up with Aycen so I continued to just walk from place to place. I was aware that it was the month of Ramadan, the muslim holy month, and was actually a bit happy for it. It seemed Istanbul had all the energy it normally maintained, but just with the volume turned down. The reason for this is during Ramadan, all muslims are required to fast from sun up to sun down. They have to refrain from eating, smoking, drinking water, and of course a lot of them joked about refraining from sex. A normal day in Istanbul might consist of non-stop harassment. "Yes, yes! Come here good food! Where you from? You so beautiful!" But because everyone's energy was severely depleted from fasting, the harassment kind of went like this "Hello, you want to eat here? No? ...Ok." But in addition to everyone being very tired and subdued, they also practice more charity. I was taken in and offered tea and water more times than I have in my entire life! Add to that, I was never starved for conversation or stories. The Turks love to talk. Once you got one going he never shut up. I was in the square waiting for Aycen and I ended up talking to these two guys. One of the guys wouldn't stop bullshitting which was fine, but then when Aycen showed up, who they knew I was waiting for, it was like, "Oh wait, one more story! One more parable about life! One more nugget of knowledge!" 

The rest of the night went really well. Meeting up with Aycen was probably the highlight of my day. We had only exchanged a few emails and the only connection we had was our mutual friend. Yet as soon as we met, we had no problem filling in conversation or opening up about our views on life. We went to a wonderful seafood restaurant on the Bosphorous overlooking the city. I was able to see all the beautiful mosques and especially the lights lit up for Ramadan. Afterwards she took me to a main shopping street and I offered to treat her to coffee and dessert. We went to a really nice place, and even though we were in Turkey, I knew exactly what to order, "Tall skinny vanilla latte and a grande cappuccino." Yes, we went to Starbucks! The day had come full circle, and I was ok with it.