Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Note on the State of Things in My New Home

Over the last week, violence in Israel has escalated and resulted in the death of four Israeli citizens, three of them in front of children who are now orphaned because of their parents' tragic murders. I have read, with increasing alarm, the grossly misreported incidents that show not only a shameful anti-Israel bias that express sympathy for the Palestinian terrorists who have shot and stabbed unarmed civilians in a fervor of Jihadist violence and deeply ingrained antisemitism, but shocking ignorance of the context for the ever-present conflict that Israel and the Palestinians seem to be endlessly stuck in. From the BBC to the New York Times, the Palestinian terrorists who have robbed Israeli citizens of their lives and continue to threaten us with more stonings, molotov cocktails, knives, guns and lynchings, have been depicted as victims.

Yes, that's an actual headline from the BBC. That Palestinian who was shot dead, stabbed to death Rabbis Aharon Bennett, 22, of Beitar Illit and Nehemia Lavi, 41, of Jerusalem near Lion's Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday evening.  Bennett's wife Odel and their 2-year-old son Natan were also wounded. Odel woke up in a hospital as a widow and her son is now fatherless. Aharon, Odel and Natan were on their way back from praying at the Kotel. Nehemia Lavi was trying to help defend the victims when the attack occurred. The Palestinian that was shot dead was killed by police on the scene in the middle of the attack. Should we let the BBC know that, since they seem to be unaware of what happened?

 As a Jew, as an Israeli, as a person who values honesty and accountability, this is beyond infuriating. I want to assure my family and friends in the States of a few things, especially those who have not been here and do not know what day to day life looks like in this region:

1. I am doing okay. I am safe, and staying aware of my surroundings wherever I go. I am avoiding the Old City, where some of the murders and attacks have taken place, as much as that deeply saddens me. Usually, I love the Old City and have spent plenty of time there in the past.

2. Please don't worry about me--I have a wonderful network of friends, teachers, colleagues, peers and neighbors who are here for me and are an endless source of wisdom, advice and hope. It's one of the many wonderful things that I love about this country and the people in it.

3. I have lost "friends" in the past for my association with Israel. If your are going to be one of those "friends," I don't really care. However, If you don't believe me when I tell you that I haven't joined a legion of evil in Israel, that we are not an Apartheid state, that we are not killing innocent unarmed Palestinians because we are the new Nazis and we just hate us some Arabs, then please talk to me. I hope I can point you in the direction of honest and unbiased news sources and tell you about my own experiences living here. Maybe we can learn something together instead of perpetuating more misinformation that leads to hostility and hatred.

4. Honest and open conversations take place in Israel, amongst Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, etc., all the time. There is a wide range of political backgrounds that make up the conversation and debate, from the far left to the far right, and that's exactly how it should be.

5. This is not just about religious tensions. If you think this conflict just boils down to a bunch of religious extremists, both Jewish and Muslim, then you have a lot to learn, my friend.

6. I don't hate Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians, and I'm not interested in conversations about how evil and terrible you think they are. We are all human, and the moment that I forget that and degrade the conversation to a place of hatred, is the day that I have lost touch with the core of my morals and ethics. You can think what you want--I won't descend into that dark place with you.

7. Similarly, if you think that the blame of this situation all falls onto the shoulders of Israel and her citizens, please educate yourself. I live here now too. My life could just as easily be taken for the fact that I'm here, I'm a Jew, and I'm an Israeli. Your belief in misinformation fuels this conflict further, and it endangers my life, and the life of every person here, Israeli and Palestinian alike. Think about that.

8. If you want to know if I'm a liberal or a conservative, I'll tell you now that I'm neither. I find those labels increasingly useless, divisive, and a misrepresentation of what I feel and think, and ultimately how I choose to live my life. I will read, listen to, and consider conservative and liberal sources alike. The point is to think, not to choose sides in the interest of being "right."

9. Stay hopeful. I know I am.

10. Breathe.

Stay safe, wherever you are in the world, and never forget your humanity.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Complicated Love Affair

Three weeks ago, I made aliyah. It had been a long time coming, something that I have been thinking about, dreaming of and longing for since I was first faced with saying goodbye to Israel after a year of living in Jerusalem in 2012. Back then, months before I even had to go back to the States, I had already made a plan to return to my new beloved homeland; I knew I was far from finished with life here, and the thought of leaving filled me with the dread of an impending loss; there was a farewell on the horizon that I couldn't bring myself to face. When I did return to study at Pardes for a second semester the following spring, the need for a more permanent solution to the constant longing to be in the land aggressively occupied my thoughts. I didn't want to be an occasional visitor, leaving my heart in Jerusalem every time "the real world" beckoned me back to the States. When I was away I missed everything about being here; from the warm and multi-faceted communities that became like second family to me, to the possibility of treading a richly, Jewishly spiritual and meaningful path in the heart of the Holy Land, to the religious, cultural and political significance thriving right in my backyard, to the street shwarma, and the very flavor of the air I breathed, I knew with utter certainty that I wanted that to be my new day to day life, always.

There is just absolutely nothing in this world like waking up in the morning to Jerusalem.

I suppose you could call my experiences leading up to my aliyah something of a whirlwind romance; I had just completed Jewish conversion two weeks before my plane touched down in a strange country that I had never been to, and while many people spend years contemplating taking the plunge with aliyah, the decision for me, deep down, was rather fast and on the surface even impulsive. The longing and yearning to be here was overwhelming and all-consuming, and made "normal life" back in the States seem like a shadow existence that lacked substance and deeper satisfaction. Life in Jerusalem on the other hand, was like love at first sight.
Admittedly, my love affair with Israel sounds like an idealized romance that seems to only be true in Disney fairy tales. While I enjoy such fanciful stories, we all know that underneath the magic and facade of perfection, is the reality of the situation: infatuation disguised as love.

After all, Prince Charming is about as charming as a cardboard cutout through anyone's eyes except Cinderella's, and I give their marriage six months, tops.

It's true; my love is not without flaws and blemishes, and ours is a relationship that is complicated beyond measure. The responses one gets from olim and native Israelis alike upon aliyah is also complicated, as though there is a certainty that aliyah carries with it an unrealistic infatuation with Israel as an ideal, a fantasy that olim chase with wide-eyed bedazzlement until the honeymoon period inevitably ends, and all that's left is to settle for something far more bitter and ugly than that pretty thing we fell in love with and got oh-so-excited about. Some never seem to get out of that honeymoon stage, and others seem to barely remember it at all as the years go by. In these three short weeks that I have been back, I have received quite a number of different reactions towards my decision to make aliyah, on a spectrum ranging from extreme happiness and excitement for me, to dismay and confusion regarding the status of my sanity. Here is a sampling of those reactions:
  1.  "Mozel tov! That's amazing!"
  2.  "Kol ha'kavod! Your strength and determination is so admirable."
  3.  "Mozel tov! Now what are you going to do to make a living? Because nobody here ever has money. You know that, right?"
  4. "Why are you living in Jerusalem? You'll never learn Hebrew here. You should be learning Hebrew, like, yesterday."
  5. "Mozel tov...any regrets yet? No? Just wait."
  6. "What is wrong with you?"
  7. "Nobody who starts out on a year program here really wants to make aliyah. They do it and then they regret it. You don't really want to be here for good. You'll see."
  8. "No seriously, why would you make aliyah? Are you a masochist?"
  9. "So when are you going back to the States?"
  10. "Are you crazy?"
Many of these reactions, as you can see, are less than helpful. Anyone who has spent significant time in Israel knows that this country is far from perfection. This love affair is not simple and is far from idyllic. For instance, Israeli bureaucracy is a wonder to behold in its Kafkaesque senselessness. A simple trip to the post office becomes an exercise in patience. People run into you with their shopping carts to let you know that you are in the way in the grocery aisles. Israelis are not shy about telling you exactly what they think regardless of how welcome or unwelcome their opinion is, and like any new immigrant coming to a foreign land, language and cultural barriers are bound to jump out at you at every turn. And of course, there's always the precarious political situation we find ourselves in with our Arab residents and neighbors, and Israel will never win a popularity contest among the nations of the world. Nobody would ever make the argument that living here is easy, simple and always like living a dream.

But in case you are thinking of making aliyah, or you already have and are in the same boat as me, I've come up with a handy list of reassurances for making your "crazy" decision that simultaneously seems to inspire awe and contempt from people who are now your fellow countrymen:
  1. You're going to feel an overwhelming amount of anxiety and fear. It's normal, and it will come and go in waves.
  2. You will cry yourself to sleep more than once. You will cry in the shower in the morning as you question the sanity of your decision, and you will cry at random points throughout the day, for no apparent reason. You will feel the urge to cry when it is completely inappropriate, absurd and even comical. Let it out, and then move on.
  3. You will wonder why you made such a stupid and rash decision. Then something wonderful and seemingly small will happen, and you'll remember why you are here, and wonder how you could ever question yourself in the first place. This could happen repeatedly throughout any given day, up and down, like a roller coaster. Just go along with the ride.
  4.  Other people's opinions about your aliyah are irrelevant. Don't let jaded, cynical people tell you how you should feel about what you are doing with your life.
  5. It's going to be tough, and you knew that. You aren't here because you think an easy life is automatically the best life. You worked to make this work, and some of the best things in life come as a result of hard work.
  6. Seek out like-minded friends and peers who will support you during this transition. If there was ever a time to say goodbye to the lingering Negative Nancies sucking the positive vibes out of your life, it's now. 
  7.  Think of aliyah as a chance to start over, or at the very least, a chance to do things the way you want to do, and in your own way.
  8.  Breathe.
And to the olim who have been here a while and feel the need to rain on the parade of the new arrivals, repeat steps 1-8 yourselves. Maybe you'll rediscover that spark you once had with Israel. Rekindle the relationship and remember why you are here.

Or don't, but hush up about it. If there's trouble in paradise, maybe it isn't all Israel's fault, and as a new arrival still in the honeymoon stage, it's not my fault, either. It's not me; it's you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Smiling Through Anything

If there is one thing about me that I don’t think people instinctively pick up on or see in me as much as I would like them to, it’s that I am a true optimist. I'm not na├»ve or unrealistic; no, indeed I am a realist, and let's not mince words; reality is often a rather grim affair. All the more reason, I say, to cultivate true and sincere optimism to see you through to the next day. The grim stuff in reality comes and goes in waves after all, and it’s all those bright moments of happiness in between the tidal waves of misery that we stick around and keep living for. In fact, I am so damn optimistic, that the very real masochist in me is sometimes capable of finding perverse pleasure in every tidal wave of misery that doesn’t manage to drown me completely, because it makes that calm, sunny eye of the storm all the more satisfying to savor. Plus, I get to look back at the storm that has passed over me and scream triumphantly at it like a half-insane Lieutenant Dan on the mast of Forrest Gump's fragile shrimping boat in the middle of a hurricane. Moments like that just don’t happen for sullen pessimists.

"How you like me now?!" and "You sure you want a piece of me?!" have also escaped my lips after weathering a particularly difficult life-storm, but I think God and the Universe just roll their eyes at me at this point.

But I don’t believe that you’d immediately recognize that truly positive little detail about me upon first glance, or from our first meeting, or even the second or third. It’s just that I don’t, you know, smile all that easily. Or at least, when I think I’m smiling, and the muscles in my face give off the sensation of what feels like a genuine smile, this is apparently what is actually happening:

I'd like to claim that I have some sort of disability or a muscular disorder that makes my facial expressions feel like they are appearing on my face in a certain way, when in fact, the exact opposite is manifesting itself upon my countenance, but I don't think that is the case. Somehow, somewhere along the path of my life, smiling became a very difficult thing for me to do, despite being a friendly, and honestly, rather nice person. Admittedly, I'm not the easiest person in the world, but "mean," "bitchy," and "rude" are not adjectives that commonly get attributed to me, even behind my back. (I think...) I am however, a not completely recovered shy and timid person. And trust me--being shy is the pits.

This last weekend, I was fired from a job for the first time in my life. The reason? I wasn't smiling enough. I was serving wine at a local winery that is earnestly attempting to recover from bad Yelp reviews and a previous ownership that didn't cultivate a loyal local following in an incredibly competitive industry, and despite being openly complimented for my superior service by my customers themselves, and being told that I didn't seem to be new at all because I seemed so comfortable and natural, I was let go in an email the next morning, after going home the night before and feeling really good about how things were going; talk about a rude awakening. To punctuate the whole unpleasant experience, the assessment of the degree of my smileyness was given by the most unsmiley manager imaginable. Imagine being told to smile and to project overt happiness, rainbows, glitter, and cutesy emojis by MTV's Daria. It just does not compute:

Actual portrait of my former manager

I have held down plenty of jobs since high school, most of them in customer service, or some other sort of position in which I regularly engage with the public, and I always excel. I have always favored being friendly but genuine over creeping people out with fake smiles and awkward attempts to pal around when the situation doesn't call for it, and people generally tend to warm up to that approach. If I were the cheerful, bubbly type, and that kind of behavior just flowed naturally from me, then sure, that would work too.

But it just isn't me, and being naturally shy, I have struggled with smiling outside of some natural trigger to make it happen all of my life--I smile when I am amused, or when I get a sudden tidbit of good news. I smile when I feel happy, but even then, the upturned lips are not plastered there eerily like The Joker. I have never wanted to be that person; you know, The Constant Smiler, because they have always been a disconcerting bunch to me. We all know the type, and we encounter them from time to time; perhaps like me, you always get the sense that behind the mask-like smile lurks a terrible, sinister monster of a human that is hiding a terrifying secret--like a freezer full of hacked up animal meat that is not of the commonly and socially acceptable to eat variety.

Just stop smiling, already! We all know you have someone locked in the basement, okay?

I can smile at work when speaking with strangers to show them that I won't bite. I can smile even when I'm dealing with something privately that's tearing me apart inside; I have to go to work and be an adult, after all. Still, I have been told to smile more, to cheer up, and asked "What's wrong?" ever since I was a quiet, introverted little kid. Having adults get in my face and tell me to cheer up and ask (as though I'm incapable of hearing) "What's wrong with her?! Why doesn't she smile more?" only jolted me and made me more self-conscious about the expressions coming to my face. To overcome my once almost crippling shyness, I was often given the conflicting advice to just be myself, and then to smile more than I naturally do, be more energetic, and exaggerate positive emotions, and then that elusive confidence often missing from most adolescent lives would magically just fall into place. And then? Well, then I guess everyone would love and accept me, or something.

But as I got older, as I grew up, I found some sort of comfortable balance between my naturally reserved "resting state," and the more animated, cheerful me that family, friends and loved ones get to see from time to time. But still, the occasional glimpse of a smile doesn't satisfy everyone, including the people who often sign my paychecks. To this day, well into adulthood, every time some well-meaning person suggests that I cheer up and smile, my heart sinks a little. I am happy. I am cheerful--not always, but who, outside of a manic state, is? Why is it so hard to see those emotions manifest from within me so much of the time?

I've always told myself, well they just don't understand me, that ominous collective known as They--They think they've got me figured out. They think I'm depressed, They pity me, They think that I'm too sad and miserable to be fun, easygoing, and tender, that I'm just all rough edges and harsh grit. An attractive man smiles at me! I grimace in return, suddenly stricken with self-consciousness over my smile. Does it look genuine? Does it look happy enough? Is it a pretty smile? Does it convey what I actually feel, which is yes, I too am confident, fun, able to laugh, able to let go? Will he actually see that, or does the mocking grimace convey the anxiety, the neurotic worry, the nervousness that comes with years of being told to make my face look differently than it looks? All this in a passing moment floods my thoughts, my emotions, my bloodstream, my fluttering chest, my pulse suddenly in my overly pink ears.

And just as our self-made fears and anxieties often create our own personal hells, those cozy, confining, familiar little cages where imaginary boogeymen wait at the unlocked doors, all of the confidence that I had, all the easygoing feeling I actually felt mere seconds before dissipates and gives way to the worry. A thought comes to me so suddenly and jarring, it's like it came from outside of me, imposed by some cruel, overly critical little imp--"your teeth are a little crooked, and remember that one photo of you where you tried to smile when you were thinking too hard about it? You look like that. It's just weird." I shrink a little. I give in to that noise in my head and think, "What is wrong with me? Why doesn't everyone just leave me alone and let my face rest from all of this strained, forced smiling?"

I'm fighting a losing battle with those kinds of thoughts, though. Human psychology tells me that it doesn't matter what my intentions are--impressions mean a lot. And while pouty, moody women might look sexy in some static atmosphere, like a magazine or a Calvin Klein ad, it's not the most welcoming expression to see on someone's face when you're shaking their hand for the first time. My impulse has been to overcompensate, and it's had some success. But sometimes, I just don't think about it--and apparently, that's when I lose out on job opportunities.

So, what's a somber-faced, truly optimistic, overly neurotic woman still recovering from a lifetime of shyness supposed to do? Rock the pouty, moody look that comes so easily, of course! Hey, if you've got it, you're supposed to flaunt it, right?:

Obviously, if you can do this in black and white, it looks way better.

I suppose I could also take a queue from that optimistic disposition that I keep insisting that I have and just smile like a crazy person and not care how it comes off. The "fake it until you make it" approach has worked for me in other areas of my life, so why not here? It has taken years for me to just get at this current level of comfort with my outward appearance and self-expression, but I suppose such changes can only take root over time. I hate being disingenuous, and not because I am some paragon of the virtue of honesty, as much as I'd like to claim to be, but because I'm just really bad at it. You'd think someone like me would have a pretty good poker face, so to speak. I really don't--my heart is on my sleeve whether I want it there or not.

But perhaps there is something quietly heroic and impressive about being able to smile through anything, at any time, and even for no reason. My face often feels like a shroud at any given moment, perhaps because I've gotten used to being on guard, like any shy, overly self-conscious person that has had people in her face all her life over the state of her face. I'll try to take a queue from the many facets of cultural wisdom that tells me to shut up, get over it, and smile through every stupid storm that hits us in this crazy thing called "life."

After all, it was just a part-time job, right?

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile


About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

My photo
Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.