Sunday, April 28, 2013

Okay, so setting goals isn't my strong suit...

Previously, on Lost in Jerusalem, I made the grand pronouncement that I was setting for myself no less than three goals in an attempt to be healthier, happier, and perhaps something more of a writer than a poser who talks about how nice it would be if I were a writer. If you tuned into that episode, you'll recall that I was going to read a book a week, run every other day, and publish a blog post by the end of said week, whether I had anything worth saying or not (and if I didn't have anything worth saying, I'd make up for it by providing my hapless readers with a gripping book report on whatever novel I had decided to read that week). Well, it's more than one week later, and I can report with certainty that I've already failed in all three of these lofty goals. If only my goals were to set goals and then abandon them at the first sign of an obstacle, I'd be in great shape.

This helpful diagram depicts exactly what I do when attempting to accomplish something more difficult than clothing and feeding myself in the morning. Just put the freakin' puzzle piece where it goes, idiot! It's in  your hand!
Now, to be fair to myself, I haven't been a complete failure when it comes to actually achieving my goals--not yet. Indeed, I did finish F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise in audiobook format on time, even though that wasn't reading so much as listening to someone read it for me. Still, I experienced the story word for word from some very nicely voiced readers, all while doing mindless household chores, grocery shopping, or sitting on the city bus--In fact, I was so into it, that when Amory, the protagonist (who is clearly based on Fitzgerald as a young man) goes on a socialist tirade in the concluding chapter, I exclaimed to no one at all, "Oh, come on! Fuck you!" only to remind myself (also aloud, because I talk to myself, my books, my movies, and any inanimate object that I happen to interact with, on a far too-regular-to-be-normal basis), "Now, now, it was 1919 and he was a young, disillusioned man after the Great War, so let's be fair..." Upon finishing the novel, I am happy to say that I am hungry for more Fitzgerald, especially since learning about how This Side of Paradise was semi-autobiographical, and that his charismatic debutante wife, Zelda, also wrote an apparently under-appreciated novel called Save Me the Waltz after living in his shadow during their intense and tumultuous marriage.

I also have been writing poetry. Clumsy, clunky, rusty poetry, but poetry none the less. I have even sent a few trusted confidants the drafts of those poems, and self-consciously shared a number of them at a salon that I participated in with some friends, and nobody pointed at me and laughed, and as far as I know, I'm still friends with the people who were present at the reading. My awkward lamentations about the complications of relationships, sex, and how my bizarre brain insists upon processing those things hasn't made anyone turn suddenly and walk the other way when they see me coming down the halls of Pardes or the sidewalks of least, not yet. So far, so good.

As for running? Well, I had a few days where I was under the weather, then Jerusalem got confused and thought it was winter for about a week (and now it's suddenly, Middle East summer), and I've been so stressed about finances, the Sword of Damocles that is my student loans hanging over my head, boys, and my inability to handle stress in the first place, that all of my life energy had been sucked into whatever deep abyss it disappears into whenever I attempt to work up the nerve to take care of myself. That energy is coming back, just now today. So, I'm going to publish this little update and go run around the Valley of the Cross for a while. No time like the present.

But before I go and try to get this show of life back on track and on the road, I guess what I'm trying to say is that even if I haven't been keeping up as much as I'd like with my new reading/writing/running goals, I have been working at them, and with some success. I may feel inclined to get myself a  custom made t-shirt that states "I Put the "Suck" in "Success," and wear it on days when I don't measure up to my own expectations, but maybe I should be a little easier on myself. 
This is coming from someone who once ordered and publicly wore this exact shirt in my early college years. I am, unfortunately, 100% serious.
I am, after all, not doing so bad. I could do better, and as long as I realize that and take my own life seriously enough to realize that the alternative to not striving for better is the compounding sense of personal failure that drags me down all too often, well, then it's quite an incentive to start reaching those goals and making new ones all the time to strive for something better. 

There you go. A blog that isn't a book report, my running shoes are on, and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint awaits me when I get back from my run. See? This isn't so hard after all!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Pain, but Numb.

Monday was my second Yom HaShoah in Israel. I was standing in the middle of the partition in the road on Rivkah and Pierre Koenig to get a good view of the people stopping their cars and getting out to pay their respects to the dead when the wail of the memorial siren sounded. Another woman stood with me, her phone out for video taping the streets during the two minutes that all of Israel stops on its tracks, and hopefully, takes the moment to remember what the world has lost. Last year, I was standing in a similar place, quietly battling an inner turmoil that comes with the day, and had been carrying around an ache that had settled from my throat to my chest, like I needed to let out a good cry, when I witnessed the unified mourning of a country at a standstill, even if only for a few moments. This year though, something happened that deeply disturbed me.

During the siren, a single car, a worker's vehicle, came careening down the road, as if the driver not only refused to stop for those two minutes, but was driving in such a way that indicated that he wanted the rest of us who were standing and acknowledging the siren to know, that he was in no way with us on this. The woman with the camera on the partition stepped out into the road in front of the car to get him to stop, which he was forced to do, and at that point, he was caught at the red light. She shoved the camera close to his smug face through his open window, where he proceeded to present his middle finger to her, and then made an exaggerated shooing motion with his hand. The red light changed before the siren ended, and the car sped away, leaving the rest of us there, motionless in our stagnant and perpetual grief.

Some of us watched the interaction between the callous driver and the angry camera woman--since I was standing right next to them, and was close enough that I could have reached out and pounded my fist on the hood of his car, I couldn't help but watch in quiet anger and frustrated disappointment with such a display of blatant and proud disrespect. But after the driver shattered the moment of necessary silence that we can afford to offer the dead, I forced my attention back to what remained of that moment; people standing outside of their cars in the middle of a busy street, heads bent in respect, and Pardes students lining Pierre Koenig with solemn faces, some witnessing Jerusalem's Yom HaShoah for the first time, just as I had last year. The wind blew a man's kippah from his head into traffic, but he didn't budge an inch to get it until the siren had ended. People had stopped on their tracks on the street, as if frozen in that moment--their lives on hold, just for those two minutes. Most of us were not like that driver--most of us were decent enough to show some indication of respect to millions of lost lives, and to the countless lives that such a loss continues to affect, even decades later.

As we collected ourselves and went back into Pardes, I mentioned what I had seen to a couple of people. One person who had overheard me seemed upset about the whole encounter with the driver and the woman with the camera, and he asked me to repeat what I had seen as if he couldn't believe it. So I told him the story again. Without responding, he turned away from me with a look of anger on his face, and walked stiffly back inside. So I shut my mouth about it and went back to my day, too. Back in the classrooms and beit midrash of Pardes, we watched a documentary about survivors and immigrants discussing what life in the shtetl and big cities of Eastern Europe was like before the war. We then listened to Warsaw ghetto and death camp survivor, Morris Wyszogrod, tell us his story. Both of these programs were meaningful, both important to preserve and to remember as we commemorate and mourn every year. But I have a confession to make; I felt a numbness the rest of the day after the incident with the siren that not only disturbed me, but made me wonder if there might be something wrong with me. Was it possible that I had ceased to be affected by one of history's most tragic chapters?

The answer is of course, no. Feeling numb to the events of the Shoah, I would argue, does not necessarily make one unsympathetic or indifferent. Some students with a Hebrew school upbringing and Israelis that I've spoken to have described a certain sense of overkill on their Holocaust education from their upbringing, or such an awareness of it from a very early age, that eventual desensitization was the result. After years of being pummeled with stark Holocaust imagery, harrowing stories of death and survival, staggering statistics and numbers of an entire world devoured by sheer evil and inhumanity, quite understandably, at some point a person might shut down a part of themselves from over-stimulation to the shock and the pain, and what replaces it, is numbness. It's a human reaction to trauma, in any case, a built in emotional defense mechanism that makes us resilient enough to even have such a thing as a Holocaust survivor.

I am aware of this basic human response to such trauma, but this is the first time that it has really happened to me when it comes to the Shoah. Personally, I didn't start learning about the death camps, the mass shootings, the mass graves, the gas chambers, the ovens, the death marches, the forced labor, the starvation, the disease, the ghettos, the yellow star patches, the medical experiments, the Nazi hatred and evil, until junior high, where I was in a secular, public school, with hardly a Jew in attendance. The rest of my education has been picked up over the years here and there from various history and literature classes throughout high school and college, my own foray into Holocaust and genocide literature, and involvement with the Jewish world since the beginning of my conversion process four years ago. It hasn't been "drilled" into me, so to speak, despite the fact that I know a lot about it and certainly don't shy away from the topic. So perhaps you can sympathize with my feelings of guilt as I listened to Mr. Wyszogrod tell us his story, while I felt detached and aloof.

How could I feel such a way during such a remarkable story, told to me right from the mouth of the man who had lived it? Morris Wyszogrod is small in stature, perhaps shorter than myself at 5'4", and is old enough to warn his audience, that if they have questions for him, then they need to shout or get up and come ask him to his face because, "his hearing aide needs a hearing aide." And there he stood, in the middle of the beit midrash in Pardes, in Jerusalem, the capital of a Jewish state that did not exist when he was suffering through the war, speaking to a room full of mostly young Jews embracing the Jewishness miraculously afforded to us in the post-Holocaust world, and with great enthusiasm, a kippah clipped onto his silver hair, and with a humble disposition, despite his harrowing story of survival. Wyszograd is a graphic artist by trade, and he brought us some of his sketches of the horrors that he'd witnessed in the ghetto and camps, each with their own ghastly story. Usually, I'd be fighting back tears at a lecture like this.

The one thing that seemed to snap me out of my inability to really feel much during Mr. Wyszogrod's presentation, was when he choked up a bit while discussing a friend of his who didn't survive the war, and when he told us that his mother didn't make it, but he would spare us the details because, in his words, he didn't want to make us cry. I suppose it was seeing the emotion on his face, and hearing it in the break of his voice, even after all this time since his loss, that got to me. A wave of emotion hit me, and just as suddenly as it hit, it quieted down again. His emotions came back under control as well, and he continued with his story. That was when I wondered, does he feel a certain degree of numbness too, a detachment that is perhaps necessary when one experiences trauma, in order to move on from it?

It makes sense. If we were to constantly feel the effects of trauma all the time, in their most vibrant, intense forms, then how could we ever carry on? As I pondered this, I thought back to the driver from that morning. That incident had angered me, and to a certain degree, that anger came from feeling powerless. I can't make someone show respect in a situation like that, and what's more, I can't make them feel respect for the situation, either. I know with certainty that the driver was not a Jew, and while I appreciate and have a good grasp of the tensions that exist in Israel, and the reasons behind those tensions, and the fact that real people on all sides of the issue suffer unjustly for it, there is a limit to my ability to be understanding and sympathetic--six million Jews were killed in the most inhumane undignified way possible. Perhaps I live in an area of the world that commonly dismisses our narrative for political reasons as a lie/embellishment/propaganda/"Jews are evil, so who cares anyway?" kind of sentiment, but all reasoning behind such open displays of contempt like that driver showed are rooted deeply in antisemitism. It's not for the same reason that a Haredi person might decide to ignore the siren--he or she is doing it for a much more complex reason that illustrates the tension between Haredi and secular Jewish establishments and ways of life in Israel. The reason this driver decided to not only ignore the siren, but show such utter contempt for the situation, and did it with unmistakable intent, with his middle finger extended, stems from a dark, sinister place, where antisemitism comes from.

After that incident on Yom HaShoah, I sort of shut down, emotionally for the rest of the day. While it was nowhere near the type of shutting down that one experiences after suffering through intense trauma, I think it was a way for my psyche to take a deep breath, swallow down the anger, and keep going. The numbness and detachment eventually faded, like a drug used to mask the pain of an injury. The pain is still there, underneath the numbing effects of the drug, but perhaps duller, more distant, and easier to manage. If antisemitism is a chronic condition that the world seems to suffer from, then we have to manage, somehow. I only hope that, if Mr. Wyszogrod noticed a stone faced, glassy eyed member of the audience sitting with her arms and legs crossed and her back hunched as he told his amazing story, he understands that I'm grateful for the hope that he gives the rest of the world and for the fact that he can share his life with us. I just had to watch him from behind a wall that was necessary for me to erect in the moment, a safe distance from the darkness I had confronted in two short minutes that morning, despite the fact that all around me, where I wasn't looking, nearly the rest of the country had the decency to acknowledge the Holocaust.

Perhaps it's a good thing that I witnessed that driver's actions during the siren. We always say, every year, "never forget." I won't ever forget that driver, that look on his face, that crude gesture he made so proudly, the way he sped off, the siren still blaring through the air. He may never know it, but he is one of the sad reasons why I know that I won't ever forget.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reading, Writing, Running: A Personal Challenge

With only a little over two months left in my second round of adventures in Jerusalem, I've been disappointed in myself for not keeping up my reading and writing habits as a part of my day to day life. I have been clinging to the romantic notion that living in the Holy Land would inspire my creative side, and that perhaps my study of Torah and my so-called yeshivish lifestyle would instill the discipline necessary to keep up good habits, like reading and writing every day. But alas; bad habits are so much easier to keep up than good ones, and though the environment that surrounds me inspires all kinds of meaningful emotions, thoughts and impulses, it would appear that I still have to get off of my ass once in a while and take the initiative to be productive in my literary practices...or rather, to sit on my ass, but with a pen and paper in hand, a laptop with an open Word document in front of me, and a new book sitting at my side, waiting for me to turn the next page.

Where have I gone wrong? It's not as though I don't love writing and reading, so why have I not been doing it all the damn time? I've been battling the same aversion to good habits when it comes to running. I used to be a runner you see, just on my own time and for my own pleasure, and after doing it several times a week for a month or so, it started to feel really good. To get outside and beat the pavement, to feel the runner's high flooding my body, ear buds blasting my own personal, triumphant soundtrack to propel me along, to feel like I'm treating my body well for once, instead of depriving it of sleep, filling it with tar and nicotine, skipping meals that would feed it, and letting it atrophy from too many hours spent behind a computer screen (not spent writing, of course)...running was a good thing that I could have kept doing. But you see, there are a lot of YouTube videos to watch for cheap amusement, a lot of news articles available online to yell at, and a lot of obligations and responsibilities in the rest of my life to give me the necessary excuses as to why I've been choosing the way of the lazy loafer, instead of a path that would surely lead to a more fulfilling, healthy lifestyle.

So, it's time for a change. The weeks in between blog posts have gotten too long, and my "to read" list hasn't had a title crossed off of it in an embarrassingly long time. My thin body has gotten flabby in places that I find flab to be most unflattering, and my lungs screamed in protest when I went on my first run in over two months last night, reminding me that my once-in-a-while smoking habit has ballooned into a pack-every-couple-of-days habit. While it feels very Israeli to smoke a cigarette after a good, invigorating run, it's not necessary for me to 'go native' in that sense. In an attempt to remedy all of this, I have come up with a new set of goals:

1. Read a book a week. Doesn't sound like much, right? It's not, really, if I consider all the time I waste on the internet, or when I'm sitting on a bus, or pacing around feeling bored and wondering what I should do with such moments of free time when I'm not entirely up for going out, and the fact that bed time stories are great segues into sleep. If the book is on the shorter side one week, then I'll start a longer book right afterwards and make finishing that book the goal for the following week. Those who are more voracious in their reading habits might scoff at this fairly simple goal, but it's a start, and is just the pace I think I can keep up with for now.

2. Publish a blog post every week. For the weeks when I am uninspired to write about my life here in Jerusalem (and there's plenty to write about, though I don't always have the focus to put it into words), I'll write about the books that I'm reading. I don't necessarily expect people to actually read such posts, but I mean, who knows? Maybe you're really bored and have nothing better to do than read about me trying to think of something witty to say about Jane Austen, or ponder if Henry James got paid by the word, or complain about I.B. Singer's horrible female character depictions, oddly juxtaposed with my begrudgingly admitted adoration of him. This is an exercise that I need to do just to make sure that I am actually writing something, and have something to show for it. The idea here is that by making writing a habit in this way and feeding my brain with books, I will be inspired to write more elsewhere, and start longer projects that will actually be worth working on to completion. You actually be a real writer before I dry up and die.

3. Run every other day. I can do this. I used to do it, and I loved it, so there is really no excuse for me to not do something that I once loved so much. To top it off, I have a shiny new obsession with audiobooks. That means, I can cram more bookstuff into my head, even when I can't sit and focus with a book physically in my hands, due to my body being otherwise occupied with other endeavors. I rediscovered the magic of audiobooks quite recently while I was cleaning my apartment for Pesach a couple of weeks ago, after getting tired of listening to my iTunes play the same songs on an endless loop while I turned the place upside down, looking for traces of chametz to destroy. The lovely audio of Librivox recordings kept me company, their volunteer readers telling me the story of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera while I scrubbed my cupboards and mopped my floors, feeling something close to being content. It made the never-ending cleaning go by more or less painlessly. Of course, remembering my love of audiobooks from last year when I used to listen to them frequently, does make me stop and consider the kind of trouble I could get into while focusing intently on a story being told to me through my headphones while I run in the streets of Jerusalem. Listening to G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday was something I couldn't comfortably do in public, since it would, at times, make me burst into sudden fits of raucous laughter. And listening to I.J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi would literally make me gasp aloud at some shocking new development in the plot, and, at least twice, brought a blur of tears to my eyes, along with the accompanying ache to my chest that one gets when they are about to sob. I can see the possibility of me running head first into a car while getting absorbed in my stories becoming a true threat to my safety because of my ridiculous emotional reactions to listening to audiobooks. At least my running shoes are bright blue, and my running shorts a disgustingly head-turning shade of garish orange--maybe the drivers will see me coming well before I fling myself obliviously into their oncoming vehicle. Putting such trust into the hands of Israeli drivers may be nothing short of insane, but what can I say--I've got a book quota to meet, damn it. This is important.

So to start off my book a week goal, I'll be reading Solzhenitsyn's We Never Make Mistakes novella, which I bought impulsively last time I was in a used book store--I kind of can't leave a used bookstore empty-handed you see, and since I enjoyed A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I read it a couple of years ago, the only Solzhenitsyn that I am thus far familiar with (although "enjoyed" might be an inaccurate way to describe the experience of reading about the grim world of Soviet gulags), I thought, what the hell? And because of how short it is, I'll surely get a second book in before the end of the week. And if I have nothing better to share with the class when my weekly blog deadline approaches? You'll all get to hear about my reading experience, which is sure to be riveting.

Stay tuned. 

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.