Sunday, August 31, 2008
Today I went to the grocery store. I spent a large amount of money on food for the month, but I think it was worth it. We were there for over an hour so hopefully we made some good choices. It's a little difficult to buy food when you aren't entirely sure what you are buying and can't read the ingredients or instructions. I also can't figure out the sale signs. What does "2+1" mean? and what does "50%" mean? is that 50% off this item or the second one?
Friday, August 29, 2008
After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a desert oasis. There, we hiked into the nature reserve park and saw the desert and the oasis. We had the opportunity to get into the water and walked along the waterfall's path.
After Ein Gedi, we went to the Dead Sea. Our location on the Dead Sea was not the usual tourist area, but rather a less crowded spot near Ein Gedi (use of the bathrooms or changing areas still cost 2 shekels though). I have visited the Dead Sea once previoisly when I came to Israel in the Summer of 2005 with USY, the Conservative Youth Group, however, last time I was unable to really get into the water and did not float. Floating in the Dead Sea was a lot of fun and yes, I found several cuts or wounds that I did not know that I had. It was strange floating on water that was only a few inches deep where I started. I was also offered a little bit of Dead Sea mud that I put on. The whole experience at the Dead Sea was greasy and strange with my skin not feeling clean until I took a rather long shower upon returning to Be'er Sheva.
Getting up at 3:00 a.m. makes for a long day. I'll post pictures from today shortly.
Tonight though, myself and some friends are getting together for a sort of potluck Shabbat dinner. It should be fun.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
So I've been meaning to send another email for a little while now, but there is always something to do (or Hebrew to study here)
I've been in Israel for four weeks now! Wow! I can't believe how time flys. I still feel like I just got here and am still getting used to life. My Hebrew is getting better, but still has a long way to go. We had our third test today and it went pretty well.
A lot has happened since I last emailed, so I'm just going to mention some of the highlights. I've been doing better (but not great) at blogging. Check it out at http://joelportman.blogspot.com. I've got more details about some of what I'm writing hear as well as a lot more such as random observations around Israel, about my roommates, etc.
I've gotten know a number of the people on our program fairly well. I think we've got a very diverse yet cohesive group of participants. We have people from all over the world studying here with a variety of perspectives and a large range of Hebrew knowledge. I have been having Hebrew conversations with some of my friends on a regular basis. While these conversations are limited by my small vocabulary (English helps by filling in) they are definitely helping.
I've been going to the pool a few days a week. It's really nice to have an outdoor pool across the street in the middle of the desert. It's always crowded and I've met a number of people. I had a nice conversation with some elementary and high school age boys and girls. I tried to use my little Hebrew and they worked together to translate my English to Hebrew for them and their Hebrew to English for me. I also met a guy named Gilad who is a student at the University. He decided that we didn't have enough personal interaction with Israelis so he invited a group of us over to his house next week for dinner and to meet his friends.
I've also done karaoke twice with some friends at a place near the dorms. I never actually planned on singing, but it's been fun. They said that they have like 40 Israeli songs and around 4000 English songs.
We've spent a lot of time in the desert. I went to Ayalim, a student village built by and for students as well as a goat farm. I've never seen so many goats in one place. We also did a night hike in the desert that was really amazing under the full moon. I wish my camera could have captured some of the scenery, dark as it was. I finally saw a herd of camels this past weekend. I was really excited.
A few weeks ago a few friends and I went to a beach on the Mediterranean Sea in the city of Ashkolon. We weren't able to stay as long as I would have liked due to the buses stopping for Shabbat, but it was a great time. The beach was beautiful and the water was clear. We're planning on going back in a few weeks.
This past weekend we had a trip to Jerusalem. We went to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum, around the Old City of Jerusalem, and to the Kotel (the Western Wall – the holiest site in Judaism). Yad Vashem was much more powerful than the last time I was in Israel after I had just visited death camps in Poland. The Kotel has also seemed very spiritual and meaningful to me each time I've been there since arriving in Israel. Our group came back to Be'er Sheva on Friday, but I stayed in Jerusalem. After overpaying for a taxi, I met a friend of the family (i.e. her family belongs to my synagogue) who I've never met before and I stood with her for Shabbat. We had a great time at services at an amazing synagogue, Shira Chadasha, over food, and relaxing. I'm hoping to spend more Shabbatot with her in the future.
I've heard several lectures on topics ranging from David Ben-Gurion's ideal vision for Israel to Jewish Philosophy to Beduin Society in Israel and the Middle East. They've been really interesting and I've learned a lot. I've been trying to go to as many activities with our program as possible from lectures to a potluck dinner to movies. We even went bowling. They had all American equipment that was old and I'm pretty sure the lane wasn't entirely flat. It was a lot of fun though, even though shoes cost less than $1 and a game was about $8. Last night, I went paintballing on a course that the Israeli Defense Forces sometimes practice on. I've never gone paintballing before and it was a lot of fun.
Last week we walked to a monument on the city limits of Be'er Sheva that was built to honor members of the Palmach who fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. You could see the whole city and we watched the sun set over Be'er Sheva and the desert. On Monday we went around Be'er Sheva with a Professor who studies and teaches Negev Desert development. He showed us several places around the city including a British World War I cemetery and where the Headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces Southern Command is.
We have two weeks left of Ulpan an approximately 11 day break and then the semester starts. I am starting to work on figuring out what classes I will be taking during our semester. We had our academic orientation today and I am working on figuring out my classes. We'll take four classes plus Hebrew. Right now, I am looking at a track called "Peace Studies and Regional Security". You can read more about the actual classes on my blog.
I've heard from a number of people concerns about security. The situation has luckily been rather peaceful while I've been in Israel. There have been a few rocket attacks from Gaza into the Negev, but don't worry – they've never made it anywhere close to where I am.
I have uploaded a number of pictures since my last email. You can see all of my albums at http://picasaweb.google.com/mazeltovjp.
Tomorrow we are leaving at 3:30 a.m. (!) to go hike up Masada for sunrise and we are then going to the Ein Gedi spring and on to the Dead Sea, all before returning to Be'er Sheva before Shabbat. It's going to be a fun, busy, and tiring day.
That's all from me for now. Stay in touch. I'll be blogging and will email in a few weeks.
After Ulpan, we had our "Academic Orientation" and they went over our class options a bit. I'm still looking at the same classes, but in a slightly different way. Everyone takes Hebrew plus four other classes. (They said that they are trying to put at least two field trips into each class around Israel.) You can either choose classes you want in any order you want, or you can choose one of two tracks: Peace Studies and Regional Security or Sustainable Development and Environmental Justice. In the tracks, you take three set classes and have one elective one. It's sort of like a mini major. They suggested doing it as the classes are selected to compliment each other. They used to be only for the year, but now the tracks are also designed for the semester. I am considering Peace Studies and Regional Security - http://web2.bgu.ac.il/CISP/
I had wanted to for sure take International Security and Conflict Resolution and Critical Decisions in the History of the State of Israel. For the other two, I want to choose between Arms Control in the Middle East, Jewish Identity and Contemporary Issues, and Environmental and Natural Resources Policy in Israel and the Middle East. In the track, Arms Control is required so I would have to choose between Jewish Identity and Environmental Issues - the two I wanted to take a bit more than Arms Control. Arms Control though sounds like a really good class. Both of my last options are unique to Ben-Gurion University.
International Terrorism and Arms Control are both popular classes and are taught by a Professor who I am told is world renown - Jonathon Fine.
Right now, I am kind of leaning towards Jewish Identity and Contemporary Issues, but I'm not sure yet.
Anyway, we leave tomorrow morning at 3:30 a.m. (!) to climb Masada for sunrise, go to Ein Gedi, and go to the Dead Sea, all before coming back to Be'er Sheva in time for Shabbat. It should be a fun and busy and tiring day.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Yesterday we had a lecture on the Beduin by a Professor who also happens to be a Beduin. I'm not entirely sure what he talked about, but it was great. He was a character. I then spent an hour at the pool during which time I met an Israeli guy named Gilad who said he would invite me and some friends over for dinner some time. That'll be fun. Last night we took a brief tour of some sites in Be'er Sheva with a Professor who is an expert on the Negev area. We went to the remnants of a town prior to 1948, visited a British World War I cemetary, and saw the headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces' Southern Command.
Today I saw the movie The Syrian Bride about a Druze woman marrying a Syrian man through an arranged marriage and the complications associated with making the wedding happen. It was very interesting.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Over the summer, there were two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem that involved tractors. The tractors were driven by terrorists into buildings, structures, people, etc. and resulted in multiple deaths. As I was preparing to leave Jerusalem this weekend, we were at the bus stop and heard a loud noise on the street. The people that were waiting started looking around and the person I was with quickly stepped back from the street. Along came a large tractor down the hill. We live in a very different society.
I just thought that I'd share.
So I spent Friday and Saturday in Jerusalem. It was pretty awesome. Our Overseas Student Program group traveled as a group to Jerusalem on Friday morning, leaving at 6:45 a.m.
We first visited Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum where we saw the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews recognized by trees who sacrificed to protect Jewish people in the Holocaust), the Museum, and the Children's Memorial. When I came to Israel in 2005, we also went to Yad Vashem, however, this was after spending a week in Poland and while the museum was obviously well done, it did not move me as much as it perhaps could have. This time around, I was very much affected by the museum. Yad Vashem is powerful in every aspect of the museum.
After visiting Yad Vashem, we went to the Old City and got Falafel. We then walked around a bit and discussed (briefly) the history of the Old City of Jerusalem and the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. we then went to the Kotel (the Western Wall - the holiest place in Judaism). There I prayed and put a note into the wall. It is an incredibly moving place, especially when you feel the wind to your back or see groups of people praying or individuals praying and crying.
After our visit to the Kotel, our group left to return to Be'er Sheva and I took a taxi (and overpaid) to a friend's (Flo's) apartment. I'd never met her before and we spent some time getting to know each other and getting ready for Shabbat. we then went to services at an awesome liberal Modern Orthodox Synagogue called Shira Hadasha. The way they sing the prayers creates an amazing spiritual experience. We then went back and had dinner with six other people that went until about midnight. Flo was leading Psukei D'Zimra in the morning so we had to get to services by 8:30 a.m. Services flew by and ended around 11:15 a.m. (Although apparently this is long for Israel) We then went to lunch with a friend of Flo's. We were there from about 12:00 - 6:00 p.m. eating and talking and hanging out. We then went back to the apartment and hung out, read, and ate again. I then took a bus to the central bus station and then on back to Be'er Sheva.
It was a great weekend.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
The past few days have been a lot of fun. Ulpan has been going well. I am using my Hebrew in conversations, albeit small and simple ones. Such words as those for yes, no, I know, etc. make it into my English conversations as well. I figure that this is a good thing and I am becoming more comfortable using Hebrew. We had our second test today in Ulpan over opposites, three verb conjugations, and infinatives. After the test, our teacher gave us carrot cake that she made. It was really good.
I’ve spent parts of the past three afternoons at the campus pool which is used by a lot of people from around Be’er Sheva and is conveniently located across the street from the dorms. Today I also played volleyball, but not too well. On Tuesday, I started talking to some kids in the pool who only knew a little English. There were two boys and three girls and between all of us we were able to have a conversation. A different boy asked one of the girls from Germany if he could watch her and she told him that she was almost old enough to be his mother. He then turned to me and asked me in Hebrew to tell her that he was 18. I was amused.
On Monday night we saw the Israeli movie Walk on Water about an Israeli intelligence agent searching for a Nazi in hiding. Tuesday, we walked to the Be’er Sheva monument which commemorates the Palmach who fought for Israel’s independence. There, we looked out over the city of Be’er Sheva and the surrounding area and watched the sunset. Later that evening a group of us went to karaoke at a place called Black and White behind the dorms. I figured that I would just listen but I ended up singing two songs – "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" (with someone else) and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" (by myself; I love The Lion King). It was a good time. Last night we had a potluck dinner and then hung out and listened to people play the guitar. Tonight we just took it easy.
Tomorrow I am going to Jerusalem with our Overseas Student Program (OSP). We are going to Yad VaShem, the Israel Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then on to the Old City and the Kotel (Western Wall). I am interested to see what my reaction to Yad VaShem will be like. The last time I was there was in 2005 after I had just spent a week in Poland and I didn’t feel as affected by Yad VaShem as I had thought I would. I expect that this will be quite the opposite experience. After the Old City, the OSP group is coming back to Be’er Sheva, but a bunch of people are staying in Jerusalem for Shabbat. I will be staying with a friend’s sister who I have never met. She belongs to a liberal Modern Orthodox synagogue. It should be a good time.
I hope the next three weeks of Ulpan and the rest of my time here in Israel go as well as the beginning has.
The other night a few of us were hanging out on the grass and one cat came and sat on one guy's lap. He kept trying to get the cat off, but it really liked him and kept coming back to his lap.
The cats are definitely territorial. They stalk each other and often pounce and swipe at each other. If you've never seen a real cat fight, they are definitely scary - I thought at least one would die.
Besides cats, there are also some stray dogs at different spots around the city. At a corner near the dorms there are two dogs that always sleep in the dirt under a tree. One of them looks like my dog Pudgie and I always want to pet him, but I don't want to be scratched/eaten.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
2. Alon. He's also a senior engineering major. He's in and out. I didn't meet him until almost a week after I'd been here. He's a nice guy, but his English isn't as good as Vladik(?)'s. He seems to have a decent number of friends in the dorms and I've met some of them. Their cool.
Neither of them are the cleanest individuals. My suite has only been sorta cleaned once and that was because one of our counselors asked whose rooms were dirty. I was in the majority of those saying they had dirty rooms and the next day a note appeared on our door from the Av HaBayit, the person in charge of the dorms saying the room needed to be cleaned. I helped too, but there is a lot left to be cleaned. Everything is dirty and my roommates don't really ever do their dishes so they pile up in their awesome grease-filled-ness.
3. Christian. About a week ago, I got a third roommate named Christian. He is German and is here for two months. He is in the second year of medical school in Germany and is here to volunteer in the Hospital on campus, the largest one in Beer Sheva, for his degreee. I like him a lot. He's a bit quiet, but nice and he knows English pretty well.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Our weekend is also a bit limited in that Saturday is Shabbat. On Shabbat (beginning Friday night), most restaurants, stores, tourist sites, etc. are closed and there is no public transportation. Taxis, our only way to get around then, are more expensive. I have thus far enjoyed my Shabbats in Israel though, so even though we really have one day of weekend with a lot of options, the weekends are enjoyable.
I am in the 2nd of five levels of Ulpan and my Hebrew is definitely improving. I can understand words in conversations I hear now and am feeling more comfortable with the little bit of Hebrew that I know. Today I asked a question about our homework in Hebrew. It might not sound like much, but I was impressed with myself. The biggest thing I need to work on I think is my vocabulary.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Israel is awesome for those of you who are wondering. The desert is hot.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
My time here in Israel has been great. I had planned on writing my first weekend here in Israel, but time got away from me. We arrived in Tel-Aviv slightly early after a great flight (even though I didn't sleep more than 30 minutes). We then made our way down through the desert to Beer-Sheva and moved into our dorms at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
My group is actually made up of several smaller groups. There is the Overseas Student Program with about 20-25 students from across the United States as well as Mexico, Kenya, and Norway. We are all here for either a semester or the entire year. There is also a group of about 7-10 (so far, but this will grow to about 30) people who are here for the year in an intensive Masters of Arts in Middle East Studies program. Additionally, there is a group of 20-30 people here from Germany learning Hebrew with us.
My dorm isn't too bad, but definitely isn't as nice as the University of Denver. There are four rooms in my suite. One of them is empty and the other two are both Israelis whose English isn't too bad. They are cool guys, but aren't exactly the cleanest.
Because I know some people will ask, there is a gate to the dorm complex in which I live and it is monitored by guards. The University is fenced in and you have to enter through one of several gates by showing your University ID to an armed guard. There are also guards walking around campus with oozies. We had a meeting with the head of security for the campus who went over a number of things with us. The University has over 200 guards and it is safe to ride in buses and in taxis.
Currently, I am in the Ulpan program – an intense Hebrew study during which we spend three hours a day, five days a week learning Hebrew in Hebrew. I am in the second level of classes and have definitely had a lot of homework so far. Each day we also have an activity ranging from lectures to trips around Beer-Sheva or the Negev (desert in the southern 60%ish of Israel) to an Israeli movie. The rest of the day is free or spent doing homework. The Ulpan lasts for six weeks then we have approximately 10 days off followed by the semester. We have not yet signed up for our classes for the semester.
I spent this past weekend in Jerusalem for Shabbat and Tisha B'Av (a Jewish holiday/fast day commemorating the destruction of the temple). I also was able to see Stuart, my brother, who is in Jerusalem until Tuesday with USY, the Conservative Jewish youth group, on the same trip I was on. I was able to spend much of Shabbat with him and also saw one of his counselors who I know and my friend Matan who was in my group to Israel in 2005. For those of you who are interested, I davened (prayed) Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night at the Kotel (Western Wall) with a group who my friend said he believes to be settlers from the West Bank and did Eicha for Tisha B'Av in the City of David before returning to the Kotel, which was quite the sight to see.
I have posted my pictures thus far online at http://picasaweb.google.com/mazeltovjp/Israel12MyArrivalAndFirstWeek. They will also be online shortly on Facebook. If the pictures do not have captions when you see them, they will shortly. There are a lot of pictures of my dorm and my room (which was definitely dirty upon my arrival).
Below, you will find a brief summary of what I have done each day in Israel thus far. You can skip this if you wish.
The Flight – I was asked to help with making a Minyan (prayer group of 10) for Minha (the afternoon service) at the airport in Newark before we left and then again for Ma'ariv (the evening service) on the plane. El Al has the best safety demonstration video as well as great food, just fyi.
July 31 – We arrived in Israel and moved into our dorms. We got our cell phones and met the director of the Overseas Student Program.
August 1-2 – We went into the Desert and did a hike through the Ein Ovdat wadi and learned a little about the geography of Israel. We then visited David Ben-Gurion's home in the desert and went to the kibbutz where we spent the weekend for orientation. We did a number of "getting to know you" activities in addition to learning how the program would work and swimming in a pool – which is weird when all you see around you is desert.
August 3 – We learned about dorm procedures, security, student life on campus, and other fun stuff. We were interviewed for placement in different levels for the Ulpan. They are aleph, aleph plus, bet, gimel, and dalet. I am in aleph plus. We then went to a mall to go shopping for things that people had forgotten and for some food. The mall is called "The Big". Next to it is "The One". It's weird…
August 4 – After Ulpan we had an orientation to Israel going over pieces of history and cultural adaptation. We met a number of Israeli students and learned about different opportunities on and around campus for activities and involvement.
August 5 – After Ulpan we had a lecture about Zionism and Environmentalism and how they relate to each other and affect Israel for better or worse. It was very interesting. Each week we have a different lecture by a professor who is teaching at least one course we are offered both to learn about the topic and also to help us decide whether or not to take that particular class. That evening we saw the movie Yossi and Jager about relationships between soldiers and the First Lebanon War.
August 6 – After Ulpan we learned about our health insurance Jand found out about different volunteering opportunities that we have. I signed up for several including walking dogs in a shelter, teaching Beduin students English, and helping with a group that does projects ranging from promoting environmental activism to planting trees to helping advance Beduin life to teaching English. We'll see what pans out. After all of that we went to the Old City of Beer-Sheva for an outdoor art and music festival.
August 7 – After Ulpan we went to the Old City to the weekly Beduin Market. They seemed to have a little bit of everything on sale. When we got back a friend and I went exploring the streets around our dorm and we found a number of small grocery stores, falafel and shwarma stands, and fruit and vegetable stands. Beer-Sheva is definitely a Middle Eastern city.
August 8-10 – As mentioned previously, I spent the weekend in Jerusalem. Friday night I got set up for dinner with a wealthy American donor for an organization in Israel (www.jeffseidel.com) at the King David Hotel. The dinner went from 9:30 to 12:45 and I had the largest (veal) steak I've ever seen it was amazing. In addition to what I already mentioned, I prayed twice at the Kotel (Western Wall). It was great.
Other points to note:
- There are a lot of stray cats (and some dogs) all over the place here.
- The Israeli students are actually finishing up their semester with the next few weeks being their final period. Their schedule got messed up with two different (one professor and one student) strikes this past year. Many of these students will be moving out of the dorms. Their new semester will not begin until mid-November.
- The school week in Israel is Sunday – Thursday. It is going to take some getting used to.
- The Kotel (Western Wall) is the holiest place in Judaism and it is a tradition to place notes to G-d in the wall. If anyone wants to mail me a note or email me a note, I can put it in the wall for you the next time I go.
Please be sure to stay in touch. My future emails will probably not be this long. My address again is:
c/o Overseas Student Program
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
P.O. Box 653
Student Union Building Room 235
84105 Beer-Sheva Israel
and my cell phone number from the United States is 011972526092556. You can also IM me on AIM at jwbs06 or Skype me at joel.portman. This email and perhaps other notes will be online at http://joelportman.blogspot.com.
I look forward to being in touch.
Lihitraot (Until next time),
Stay in touch!
BGU email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gmail email: email@example.com