July 6, 2007
We arrived at the Tel-Aviv airport at 5:00 am today feeling groggy and cramped from the flight on Israir airlines (I had a funny suspicion that our cheap airline tickets would mean result in very skimpy legroom). Our cab managed to fit our entire luggage into his European-sized car and he tugged us to Jerusalem. Part of the route went along the security fence/wall that divided Israel from the territories (also called the “Schtachim,” “Occupied Territories” “West Bank” and “Judea and Samaria” depending upon your political leanings, level of Jewish observance and place of origin. There is certainly plenty of meaning in how a piece of land in this country is signified!) In some places it looks like a fence, and in other places (like around Jlem) it looks like a wall.
Eric mustered the strength to lug our heavy duffel bags up three flights of stairs to our apartment on 13 Bilu Street (no elevator, obviously) and we unpacked everything as soon as we could. It’s funny how long it took to pack those backs in comparison to how quickly we unpacked them.
Despite several months of mental preparation for this trip, I was a bit disoriented in our new surroundings and baffled that I was actually here. I’ve been to Jerusalem a few times, but I’m still struck by the visual differences between Jerusalem and cities like DC. The sun is a lot brighter here (it’s the desert, don’t ya know). Most buildings in Jlem are intentionally built with Jerusalem stone so even recently built luxury condos have that old city feeling. In comparison, the visually palette of DC is more muted and building material is also different. You also get that “I’m in the middle of a spiritual vortex” feeling that you just don’t sense in the nation’s capital.
Additionally, my Jlem apartment looks different from my Charles E. Smith rental in that it’s smaller (you don’t often see McMansions in this part of the world). Like many apartments, it also is populated with the obligatory Ikea furniture and has one of those funky, hand-held showerheads in the bathroom (I’m still trying to figure out how to use it). Fortunately it lets in a lot more light than my previous rental and has a much more spacious balcony from which I can see the stars at night. And I think it has a lot more character than the monotous apartment in DC.
Second, it’s one thing to visit Jlem for a few days and it’s another to live here for a year. You have to start from scratch, build a routine and make the unfamiliar familiar when you live in a new place. You have to do things like find the local supermarket, set up your Internet and phone access, buy supplies, navigate public transportation. And while many English speaking folks reside in this part of Israel, it doesn’t hurt to know some of the local lingo–especially to ensure they don’t overcharge you. Fortunately we’ll be studying at an Ulpan (a Hebrew immersion program) for 7 weeks, and unfortunately we live in a part of Israel where many English speaking folks reside—so you have to make an effort to speak the language.
Third, I am surrounded by many Jews and many more different kinds of Jews than I usually see. Our apartment building includes a large Kurdish family and a Russian couple, and several families of Haredim and Modern Orthodox Jews live on my street. Synagogues are like Starbucks here—it seems like there is one on every corner—and they are unlike many of their American relatives in that they are typically modest structures without much ornate decoration. As far as I can tell, Jews and Arabs pretty much live in separate neighborhoods in this city and they tend to live in separate towns throughout Israel. More about that later.
Before we had a chance to settle in and accomplish mundane activities like buying groceries, we were whisked away by Eric’s distant cousin Etamar to stay in his place in Zichron Ya’akov (a town to the north of Jerusalem that’s close to Haifa). Eric ‘found’ this fourth cousin through some genealogy research and he’s been in touch with him for over a year. Last time we came to Israel, we ended up meeting his parents and didn’t see Etamar because his wife was having a baby.
Etamar was incredibly helpful about finding a place in Jlem and dealing with Israelis in general. So when he invited us to stay with him and meet more members of the family, we eagerly accepted the invitation. This guy is definitely a mensch–he had to drive several hours to pick us up from Jerusalem and schlep us back to to his place. I’ll write more in detail about our meeting with the Israeli cousins in my next entry. Until tomorrow….