Sunday, 14 September 2014

'The British'

I have now been in Israel for two months, as of yesterday.

I really don't know where the time has gone - between waiting out the war and settling into ulpan, it seemed to have just slipped away.

Lately I've kept myself busy writing satirical news reports at (because the only way to deal with the ever-present situation is to laugh at it, really): I've written about Kate Middleton's pregnancy; The West Bank starting their own bank; Evangelical Christians becoming radicalised by IS. A little bit close to the cuff, perhaps, but why ever not?

Anyhoo. Not much has been happening, as I've been a working lady. My job finishes at 9pm, so my social life has been pretty non-existent, as I'm usually exhausted and starving afterwards.

But, ladies and gentlemen. The real reason for which I write is to tell you of a particular, varied experience I had one day this week.

On Wednesday last, the ulpan took us on tiyul - a trip - to the north. The north of Israel is a very interesting place - beautiful scenery, very hot heat, as opposed to the humidity down south and in Tel Aviv, and an all-together different sort of vibe to the rest of Israel.

The last time I went up north on a tiyul, I ended up on a drip, having dry-retched for 3 hours after a 6 hour hike, although out of iron deficiency, not dehydration. It was perhaps one of the worst days of my life. So I was quite excited that we'd be going back north-wards, as last time that whole business had overshadowed my previous visit somewhat.

The day began at 6am. Yes, 6am in the morning. Us ulpaners seem to have some issues when getting up for 8.30am class just downstairs (I look back on all of those 6am wakeups in London and wonder how I did it/how I became so lazy), and this was no exception. What should have been a 6.15am leaving time became a 6.45am one instead - Israeli time.

But, no matter. Off we went to Ganei haNadiv - the Gardens of the Benefactor. It is next to the lovely, picturesque (and eyeballs-bleedingly expensive) town of Zichron Yaakov. We visited the gardens, which is actually a collection of different gardens , which our tour guide (called Ben Hur - am I the only one who finds that funny?!) told us included a traditional European rose garden; a garden with all fauna and flora from each different world continent and a sensual garden especially for blind people. Amazing, innit? there's also a wildlife park surrounding, which is home to many wild animals, and is more like a nature reserve. I have to go back and explore it all properly one day.

We were knackered and starving, and so we were fed (a very interesting Israeli 'continental' breakfast, of two rolls, some cheese, cream cheese, a pot of tuna, a pot of salad, butter and jam. I loved it!) and then taken off to our next location: Mount Carmel, just before Haifa.

Last time I saw the Carmel was on that disastrous trip up north, a month or two before I returned to England for a Very Long Time. Aside from that, I have many fond memories of Carmel - I stayed for a time in a youth village up there called Yemin Orde, where - coincidentally enough - my old school used to take the Year 9s on a trip. Just after I left Israel that last time, there was a massive forest fire, which destroyed a lot of the forest, scars which are still visible today from most angles. It also burned down Yemin Orde (which I believe was relocated somewhere else) and an artists' village just below it.

And off we went for what had been described as a 'stroll'. Maybe I hadn't been listening, but everyone seemed to be wearing proper walking shoes. I had on my favourite sandals, which, while comfortable, are unsuitable for a 'stroll'. I was also wearing - for some stupid reason - a little dress.

Readers, never EVER trust an Israeli 'stroll'. We were schlepping up and down vertical rocks (everyone must have seen my knickers when I was climbing) and going over sand and cliff edges - it was quite unlike any stroll I'd ever been on - way more exciting, for a start. It was absolutely amazing. And the views! Totally worth it. It was also lovely just to be in the fresh air, as opposed to cooped up in an alternatingly freezing cold/sweltering classroom.

After a pit-stop to view the memorial for those killed in the forest fire(the explanation of which I listened to in the French group, because I couldn't find Ben Hur), we went to our last destination of the day - the Atlit Detention Camp.

It's a name that I've seen so many times in books I've read, and never really taken in. I didn't really put two and two together until I realised that we were walking into something that looked like a DP camp; we were near Haifa and it was fairly modern looking - not from the 'ancient' side of Israeli history, but from the 'other' more recent bit.

Now, non-Brits reading - I want to tell you that people of my generation - unless they've studied History in university - don't know much, if anything, about the British Empire. Even if you'd attended Jewish schools your whole life, as I have, you learn absolutely nothing about the British Occupation and the British Mandate, pre-State of Israel. Except for those times when your dad holds up a map and exclaims, 'all this used to be pink!', which, I confess, used to leave me confused, and wondering if half the world used to maybe be gay.

The long and the short of it is, the British were very, very bad in the region. That part of history is pretty much why everything is so f*cked in Israel and the Territories today. It's a tragedy partly of (unclear) promises made and then broken; anti-Semitism; people-pleasing, downright lies and some other random shit.

It always makes me a little bit uncomfortable.  Everywhere I go, there seems to be a plaque commemorating a tragedy where 'the British' did something inexcusable. Not to say that the Jews didn't - the Lehi and the Irgun certainly attest to this! - but kidnapping randoms and torturing them just isn't cricket.

 In Atlit, we heard about the ways in which the Jews - the majority of which had just survived the Holocaust - were gender-separated, bundled up into barracks and sometimes deported back to Europe. Not like a concentration camp, but not exactly welcoming  treatment either. We also heard about how Britain harshly restricted immigration to Jews; other countries refused to accept Jews and how the fledgling state were begging for the Jews to 'come home', yet the British refused, so as not to create a Jewish majority. So then the Jews began commandeering boats to get to Haifa, which the British then intimidated and refused to allow in to port, or would allow them to dock and then deport/detain those inside.

And - and - and. It always seems to be a story with so much more to say - they never mention the ramifications on British Jewry. According to Grandpa (who is my source of information on all things WW2/post related), those young enough to do so left to Haifa to fight/help etc (such as the late Vidal Sassoon), or stayed behind as wave upon wave of anti-Semitism hit the community in Blighty.

But I digress. It's always interesting to learn a bit more about one's history - both the Jewish/Israeli side, and the British side. Britain is what bred me and made me, and is an integral part of who I am. I've always felt that I was too Israeli for the Brits, and too British for the Israelis. I fit into this weird middle ground,where I find myself saying exactly what I think of something/someone, and then needing a cup of tea and to demonstrate the art of queueing.

With this new knowledge in mind, off we went back to Jerusalem, another place which the British f*cked over majorly, and continue to do so nowadays, politically and foreign policy-wise.

But maybe I shouldn't be so harsh. After all, I have the strongest British/slightly French (don't even get me started...!) accent when I speak Hebrew. I'm immediately identifiable - I out myself.

To be honest, it's not even an issue here in modern Israel. There are so many British tourists here- all of those I met during the war were non-Jews, actually - that it seems all has been forgotten. It's never something that is made an issue, just a historical, commemorated issue that I keep inadvertently noticing. I suppose it's inevitable, really. And a wee bit surprising.

All in all, an exciting, varied and pensive - if not all-out knackering - day out. Nice one, Etzion.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Lines and Wines

Or - 'The One Where I Start to Dislike Humanity and Visibly Show It'.

This week has been exciting in ways different to last; you'll be happy to know that this week, I have not suffered any animal bites, and the ones I do have have scarred over nicely (I have two little teeth marks engraved on my knuckles for a good few years yet), and due to the 'open ended ceasefire' dealy, it seems that there will be no further azakot for the time being, unless I venture up north, where there are rocket attacks from Syria and Lebanon.

I've started working 4pm-9pm at the MASA offices, answering calls about Israel programs and other hullaballoo. So far, so good, but I've been here since 12 and had to speak to my fair share of Americans who can't understand a word I'm saying. But, it's a half-Hebrew, half-English speaking environment, and everyone seems lovely, so I'm quite happy. 

Anyhoo. This week has seen hellos and goodbyes once more, aswell as a trip beyond the Green Line. By the way, did you know that the 'Green Line' name comes from the green ink used to draw the line on the map during talks? As in, it's nothing more symbolic than that, as some have suggested? This country never ceases to amaze me.

So. Last week, my Ulpan class said goodbye to one of our two teachers (for some reason, we have one teacher 2 days a week an another for the remaining 3. The other teacher goes to teach the class below. As they say in Israel: 'lama?(why)'- 'kacha!(because)'). Amira is a very sweet, docile older religious lady, who was actually really funny - she has a great sense of humour (barring some slightly random racist outbursts by way of demonstrative examples), speaks pretty good English and has the patience of an absolute saint.

It must be bloody difficult teaching adults, and not just that - a cross-section of olim chadashim, all of whom speak vastly different first languages - in my class, mostly Russian and French, but also Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. The class is all taught in Hebrew, but occasionally we slip into our defacto second language of English. Matters are further complicated as some of the class don't speak English. So, when something potentially confusing happens, such as the class doesn't understand some vocabulary, people start shouting across the room, at the teacher etc in every sodding language under the sun. Some voices are impressively (and irritatingly) louder than others, and it becomes difficult to concentrate.

I found teaching Jewish children a nightmare, but we're all adults - (mostly) Jewish adults. Whether or not this means we are amplifications of the worst aspects I saw in my Jewish pupils - assumptions of superiority, general egocentricity and apathy - or not, it definitely does not bode well for the teacher, making her job even more difficult than mine ever was.

What most of us have is motivation (even me, when I don't give up completely). We need to learn this language in order to survive here. And we are learning - even though I'm still a bit shy to speak, in class and in real life contexts, I understand directions, words and more every day.

But I digress. Last week, ladies and gentleman, I learned not only Hebrew, but about human nature. It's a bit like ulpan is a petri dish , and I am presented with many wonderful opportunities to study the life and habits within.

It all began with a trip to beautiful Oranit, courtesy of David HaRomani (who you may recall from a previous post), who put me and 9 other people up for Shabbat. Oranit is kind of near Tel Aviv-Hod HaSharon (indeed I passed my kibbutz on the way there, and it has the sweltering humidity of TLV and surrounding environs). What I didn't know was that it's beyond the 'Green Line', but infront of the separation barrier.

It was interesting lesson in politics too - the 'Green Line' demarcates Israel's pre-1967 borders, separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. The separation barrier is there to...well, I don't really know any more. Especially when David's brother drove us to it and explained how the Palestinian Arabs behind the fence regularly - and illegally - cross over to Israeli Arab villages to work, as they get better pay and healthcare etc if they work here and not there. I did not know any of this. Like I said - a messed up but fascinating country.

But I digress once more. David had been kind enough to offer us full reign of his house ('Italian style') for the weekend and a fabulous time was mostly had by all. The one (or two) thing(s) detracting from this was the selfishness and unwillingness of those around me.

Now, I'm in no way suggesting this was an issue with everyone. Oh no, no, no. But what I observed was that some people are natural 'givers' in life (such as our gracious host), helping in whatever way they can, giving generously (although sometimes too generously, as it's not reciprocated or appreciated) and contributing to the group in whatever way - be this meal preparation, washing up or otherwise.

Unfortunately, I also saw a lot of 'taking' - people inviting themselves along, without having been asked beforehand, waiting for everyone else, usually the same people, to clear up after them; do their washing up etc. Maybe I've just been well brought up, but I found it disgusting. I had a real Holden Caulfield moment of misanthropy.

Even more so when, at about 2am, I was made to leave my bed (where I was just drifting off to sleep!!!) for another person to use. I ended up sleeping outside on the ground, resulting in not only a bad back, a lack of sleep but also numerous painful and infected-looking mosquito bites running all the way up my legs.But it gets worse. I went back to the room in the morning to retrieve my stuff, which was still in there, noticing an empty bed on the way down, only to find an 'opportunist', to use the polite euphemism (because there are oh so many disgusting and terrible words I could use to reflect my disgust and rage) had joined someone in the room.

I'll let you make of that what you will. Moving on to the other area of latent disgust I've acquired for our dear species, last week was the Jerusalem Wine Festival, a calendar highlight.

The way it works is you pay a certain amount, get a free glass at the entrance and are then free to taste as many (and there are MANY) wines as you like. You're then free to buy the wines you taste, or just to keep drinking more.

The price is kind of worth it, but a little on the pricey side - 85 schmekels, but, had shit not gone down, it would've been totally worth every last drop. Twice.

The night all started well. The ulpan took us on a trip to the Israel Museum during the day - the same place which was hosting the wine festival later. Because we'd been out since the afternoon, not many of us had adequately eaten beforehand. You can see where this is going, can't you?

The Israel Museum is fascinating, if not a little overwhelming - think along the lines of the British Museum, or the New York Metropolitan. I felt a little bit drunk just walking around there, if I'm honest - there was just too much amazing stuff to see.

But, off we all went, 'wine tasting'. It was incredibly fun. That is, until some twattish people could not handle their drink and managed to completely and utterly ruin the evening for everyone involved, including yours truly.

But, that has been dealt with now, and all respective parties have either been, as my darling grandfather would say, 'sawted aaahhht' ('sorted out', which usually means punched) and shouted at. And lessons have therefore been learned by us all.

And so... I feel like things are finally starting to settle for me here. I feel better now that I'm a bit more busy and, most importantly of all, I've discovered that Israel has Dorothy Perkins, my most favourite shop ever in the entire world other than Gap. It's a massive schlep - near Oranit, but one day I shall make a pilgrimage there. This discovery was perfectly timed, as I was ready to buy out almost all of their current collection in my size and have it shipped to the Holy Land.

As I have emerged from the past week feeling so optimistic, I may even make extend this approach towards my ulpan classes, and may even make it to a few of them. Note the conditional tense, and that I mentioned no word about homework.

Have a great week, people.