Sunday, May 25, 2014

An Extremely Unofficial Photo Tour of Nachlaot

Today is a beautiful, sunny day with a slight breeze, and as I took the #7 past Gan Sacher (the big park near the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and my work) I listened to some old Israeli music and watched the narrow alleyways and flowering balconies of Nachlaot whizz by my window, like every day. But as the bus pulled up to my stop at the top of Bezalel street (home of some great cafes, a weekend art and vintage goods sale, and the famous Bezalel art school) I made a spontaneous decision to seize the moment and explore this neighborhood.

A musical suggestion for your ears as your eyes peruse this post
(Avraham Tal "אני לא מבין איך היום עולה עליי")

Nachlaot has been described as the Tsfat of Jerusalem and the Soho of Israel. Founded in the 1870s by Jews tired of the crowded Old City, Nachlaot is a cluster of micro-neighborhoods known for their narrow alleyways, quaint yellow-stone houses and hidden flowering courtyards. The government offered grants to improve the neighborhood back in the 1980s as it had fallen into disrepair, and it has since become the home of artists, musicians, young religious Jews from the USA, students and families. It's an eclectic mixture of religious Jews (at one time there were 300 synagogues within a few-block radius, although the number is now "only" 100) and relaxed artsy types.

I've dipped my toe into it a few times, but never with a goal of getting lost and taking pictures (the best way to discover anywhere). Thus begins my Unofficial Photo Tour of Nachlaot, which will tell you nothing of use because the point is to get lost, but will maybe inspire you to wander a bit yourself on your next free afternoon.

I started off down Bezalel towards Gan Sacher, passing Shalom Felafel, which my ulpan said was one of the best (I've never had it, so I can't say!)

Peeking through a gate at a pretty walkway off the main road.

The first of several lovely door/wall paintings I saw.

And into the labyrinth I go.

I love this hand-painted mailbox.

Obligatory cat doesn't matter how many strays I see here, I still love them.

This one seemed a little surprised to see me.

This mural understands me.

Paper birds blowing in the wind.

I found this gorgeous alleyway with a hand-tiled fence and some really cool art objects.

I love this backyard.

And of course I finished my wandering at a cafe on Bezalel street.

I got all of those pictures in only 20 minutes of wandering! I like my wandering in short bursts with frequent lengthy stops at cafes. What can I say. There is my photo tour of a tiny corner of Nachlaot, which is quite large because it encompasses many neighborhoods. Explore some off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods in your city! Or come explore Nachlaot if you happen to be in Jerusalem.

!להיתראות (See you later!)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Aliyah Stories: Bishop

“In Israel people do what they’re passionate about, and people notice them. I don’t play music to be famous, but because I like it, and if other people like it that’s cool.”

Bishop, 20 years old, has just made Aliyah to Israel this past February, from Memphis, Tennessee. A young musical artist, spiritual but not religious, for Bishop Israel is about creativity and passion, and it is where he has chosen to come to make his music.

Bishop loves the vibrancy and variety of Israel’s music scene, which he says is a result of Israel’s general diversity, welcoming Jews from all over the world each with their own musical style.
His group is called Red Music, the color of both anger and love symbolizing life’s contradictions, just like Bishop’s music, which blends the style of the 1960s with modern music.

Bishop grew up Jewish in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of a Moroccan Jewish mother and an African-American father. He is often mistaken for Ethiopian or Sudanese here in Israel and people are always surprised to find out he’s American.

Bishop describes the Jewish community in Memphis as close-knit. He shrugs off anti-Semitism in the States, saying he has experienced it in the form of off-color jokes and references but that it was subtle and he didn’t feel hurt by it. Bishop doesn’t think the racist joke-tellers are necessarily anti-Semites or bigots, but the remnants of a worldview passed down for generations among a certain class of white Christians; a slight distaste for those who don’t share their religion and skin color.

After graduating High School in Memphis, Bishop first came to Israel on a Masa gap-year program. A group of friends encouraged him to sign up so he decided to give it a try. He participated in a program called Aardvark Israel, living in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv and studying Hebrew, Jewish business ethics and Middle-Eastern politics while volunteering at Ozen Bar, where he met many Israeli musicians and even performed himself.

When he looks back on that semester he lived in Israel, Bishop recalls it was filled with signs he was meant to be there. He cites the extraordinary occurrence of finding an iphone on the ground at the shuk whose owner welcomed him into her family with gratitude and became his “Israeli mother”. He met amazing Israeli musicians, made great friends, and built his own fan base here in Israel.

He returned home after the program and started studying at the University of Memphis, but he knew it wasn’t where he was meant to be. When he looked around him, he saw his friends doing the same things they’d been doing in High School. Nothing was changing, and he couldn’t see himself living the life he wanted there.

So he came back to Israel, this time for good. At the moment he is working several jobs while performing his music. This summer he is going to volunteer at Kibbutz Magan Michael, learning Hebrew and working the avocado fields. “I’m a vegan, so it’s like heaven for me!” he jokes. Soon he’ll begin his army service.

And after that? Eventually, he wants to return to school, Bishop says. But until then he is happy making music and seeing what the future will bring. “If the universe wants it to happen, then it will happen.”

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Aliyah Stories: Becky

Becky's journey of return is part of a greater legacy: returning to the land that sheltered her grandparents after they survived the Holocaust, fulfilling her grandmother's dream to return, and pursuing her own personal and professional dreams in the place where she feels she was meant to be.

Today's Aliyah story is that of Becky, a young woman from Fairfax, Virginia who officially made Aliyah in 2011, but has been living in Israel since 2008.

Becky moved to Israel right after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and has been living in Jerusalem ever since. She is currently single, earning her master's degree in clinical psychology at Hebrew University while working part time doing research at the IDC.

Becky is in a sense completing the journey her family began decades ago.

Her grandparents on her father's side met and married in Israel before eventually moving to the United States, and her parents met while visiting Israel. Becky describes herself as coming from a "Zionistic traditional home" and adds that it was very important to her parents that she and her sister have a close relationship with Israel and a strong Jewish identity. Around every other summer she and her family visited Israel, and she celebrated her Bat Mitzvah here as well.

What prompted her to make Aliyah?

“It was a process and a decision that became clearer to me the more time I spent here,” Becky says.

Perhaps it began when she was first brought to Israel to meet her great-grandparents at 6 weeks old. Israel always felt like a second home to her, as she visited family there every other summer and spent a semester of high school traveling in Israel and living on a Kibbutz doing gadna (a week-long intro to the IDF for high-schoolers). She initially considered Aliyah after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for a year, but returned to America when she was unable to find a job. For Becky, life in Israel means progressing both personally and professionally, and she knew she would feel frustrated in Israel if she felt stuck in her career. But she didn't give up on her desire to return, continuing to seek out opportunities in Israel. Luckily, a professor at the IDC offered her the opportunity to be his teaching assistant in positive psychology.

For more information on ways to come to Israel to study, volunteer, or intern, you can see my blog post “Bored? Have I got a Boredom-Buster for you” (spoiler alert: it’s Israel).

After a year and a half as a teaching assistant at the IDC, studying Hebrew in ulpan (intensive Hebrew class), and working as a psychology research assistant at Hebrew University, Becky knew it was only a question of when to make Aliyah, not if. She was accepted to PhD programs in Clinical Psychology in the United States, and to a Master’s program in the same field at Hebrew University.

 It was decision time—and Becky decided to commit to building her life in Israel.

“I feel I can really contribute to the Jewish people here and that this is truly our home,” she says. “Although I get frustrated and disagree with Israel's policies a lot, I want to be part of the discussion here and try to make change. In the end, it felt right in my heart and I'm really glad I listened to my gut and decided to go for it.”

Her family was very supportive of her decision, both her cousins here in Israel and her parents, who visit often from America. Before accepting that initial teaching assistant position that brought her back to Israel, Becky recalls speaking with her grandmother, who was very ill. Her grandmother encouraged her to follow her heart, saying that it had always been her dream to return to Israel. Becky has carried this with her on her Aliyah journey. “I feel blessed that I'm able to fulfill something that she always hoped to achieve and feel connected to my heritage,” she says.

For Becky, already living in Israel, making Aliyah did not involve a dramatic flight or so many physical changes. Instead, she says, she felt a strong emotional difference. “I was making the conscious decision to build my life here. I started really investing in my friendships, learning the language and culture, and creating a home for myself in a different way than when I was here temporarily. And of course, there was a lot more bureaucracy to deal with!”

She spent the whole first month dealing with various government agencies, as her case was especially complicated due to her father renouncing Israeli citizenship, and her making Aliyah while possessing a temporary residency permit. However, Becky kept her sense of humor and even gained something from the frustrating experience of bureaucracy. “I felt I was truly becoming Israeli as I learned to be more assertive and make good friends and connections with those who could help. A lot of friends have sent their new olim friends to me because they consider me an expert in dealing with Israeli bureaucracy!”

If you don't have the same bureaucratic skills as Becky, the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption can help too. We have personal absorption counselors that can help you once you've made aliyah, to ease the absorption process. Click here for more information and links to contact information for Absorption Bureaus and Branches all over Israel.

 Becky's biggest challenge after making Aliyah was adjusting to a Master’s program in Hebrew. Although she spoke pretty good Hebrew, high-level statistics and conducting therapy in Hebrew was a new trial. Luckily, the support of her classmates and professors helped her through the difficulties of that period.

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption can help with this too.  The Student Authority was established in 1968 to help new olim students with their unique challenges in adjusting to life in Israel academically and in general through trips, social and psychological aid, tutoring, and financial assistance. You can find more information here.

Overall, Becky says she feels at home here in Israel and is grateful to be able to contribute to the Jewish state and grow personally and professionally while surrounded by friends and family here. She concedes that it is difficult sometimes to be so far from her immediate family and close friends in America, but between visits and modern technology they can keep in touch.

“There are things that I miss about American culture and values,” Becky says, “but some things I've tried to implement here while also accepting the differences and appreciating the things I love about being here. I love how people open up their homes and are truly there to help, that the holidays the country is celebrating are my holidays, and that I feel I'm making a difference to the Jewish people and our home.”

Looking to the future, Becky hopes to continue to build her life here in Israel, help people as a psychologist and get married and start a family.

Thank you for sharing your story, Becky! I wish you the best of luck here in Israel.

As always, feel free to comment with your impressions and let me know if you would like to have your Aliyah story featured on my blog!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Adventures in Hebrew

I didn't learn the Hebrew alphabet through the nice little song, but a plain chart, when I was seven years old.
My Hebrew School teacher would point her stick at each letter on her big poster and we would dutifully recite them after her. To this day the only way I can recite the alphabet is in a rushed list—"alef, bet, vet, gimel, daled…" including all the sofits and soft letters. But I followed along in the siddur in shul when I was a kid while my mom led services as the cantor, and every Thursday evening we would sit down and read a children's book in Hebrew, my mom translating every few lines of Eloise or The Giving Tree after I laboriously stumbled through the letters.

I didn't start actually learning what the words meant until 9th grade, when I started an after school program in Hebrew.  Sure, I had learned scattered words from Jewish summer camp. Words like cheder ochel (dining room) and chugim (electives). But even when studying for my bat mitzvah we focused on learning the torah and half-torah trope, those extra symbols and tunes, and learning my portion.

In my after school program I didn't exactly give 100% effort…it was once a week after school for four solid hours, and then Sunday mornings. Neither were the best of times. I threw a fit my first year that I had to go, despairing of ever having time to get all my homework done, hang out with friends, and go to Hebrew School. In the end, it was a great experience, resulting in some good friends I am still in touch with, and I even somehow managed to learn some Hebrew and Tanach in those four years.

By the time I arrived in Israel this past September, I hadn't studied Hebrew in four years. The diagnostic test I was asked to complete before arriving was pathetic, with most of my answers in English. When my program started our month-long intensive ulpan (3.5 hours a day) I was placed in the beginning class. However, as we learned the verbs "rotzah" (to want) and nouns like "eesh" (man) I quickly realized that was not going to be useful to me. I switched up to the lowest intermediate level, and found my groove. Somehow I went from not being able to say more than my one trademark sentence "ayfo hashirutim?" (Where's the bathroom?) to whole conversations and sentences! Once I started my internship full time we stopped ulpan,  but my Hebrew continues to improve because I am so immersed in it every day.

Everyone in my office speaks Hebrew, my computer desktop is in Hebrew, all the inter-office emails I get are in Hebrew. Our Facebook page is mostly in Hebrew, and I even manage our Hebrew-language Twitter account. The standard morning tradition, I soon discovered, is chatting over an instant coffee for 10-30 minutes first thing in the morning with my coworkers. In Hebrew. Lunch discussions are in Hebrew, work meetings are in Hebrew...I could go on.

This is a great way to immerse myself in Hebrew, and my comprehension has infinitely improved. However, it is also quite challenging because my Hebrew is nowhere near a level where I can say what I want to say, and understand everything I hear.

In simple conversations where people aren't speaking too fast, it's on a subject I happen to know something about, and I concentrate very hard with minimal distractions, I can understand the gist of what is going on. Without these specific factors, or if the conversation features a key vocab word I don't know, I am totally lost. My coworkers are used to the blank and slightly panicky expression they are faced with when they casually aim some rapid-fire Hebrew at me.

But I am improving. I can hold basic conversations, depending on the subject, when I really need to, and when I have the energy. I can tell you one thing for sure, trying to learn Hebrew has definitely made me appreciate my French, which I've studied for 9 years much more intensively than Hebrew, and which I majored in at University. Of course, I also lived in France for a year, which improved my French exponentially. But when I was 13 and just starting French I couldn't imagine speaking it like I do now. I'll take that as an inspiration that maybe someday I'll say the same thing about Hebrew.

I do have some funny stories from my early attempts to speak Hebrew…

For example, when I was introducing myself to my coworkers on my first day at the office I tried to say I was excited, but instead said I was getting married (they sound similar in Hebrew, ok??) My coworker congratulated me and I thanked her with a huge grin, slightly confused. Another colleague who saw this drama unfold and understood the miscommunication enlightened my coworker before she bought me a wedding present. They got their revenge on April Fool's Day, when they convinced me another coworker was getting married (I didn't know Israelis celebrate April Fool's!). But the joke was on them because she got engaged just a few weeks later! But back to embarrassing stories about me...

On another occasion, while exploring the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv with a colleague after a work meeting, I accidentally told her I am a taxi. Let me tell you, she got a laugh out of that one.

Luckily my stories are quite benign, but I've heard of some that are much more cringe-worthy (and hilarious of course). For example, my flat mate was trying to tell her colleague that she loves strawberries…but she used the wrong gender ending for the plural. Instead of tutim she said tutot. The first means strawberries… the second is a slang word not to be confused with a cat.

In the meantime I am struggling along with my Hebrew, generally only speaking it when absolutely necessary, i.e. confronted with an unfamiliar Hebrew speaker on the phone or in person, for work, or on the bus, in restaurants…

But 8 months in, I can definitely feel the improvement.

Hebrew really isn't the hardest language to learn, especially compared to the complications of French grammar. There's no conditional tense, no subjunctive, no compound tenses and only one form of past tense (phew!). Basically, Hebrew grammar is very orderly and simple once you know the verb families. I am just seriously lacking in vocabulary, which is completely my own fault.

Like I said…it's a work in progress.

Do you have any funny stories about your adventures learning Hebrew? Any particularly frustrating moments? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Bored? have I got a boredom-buster for you...

Bored at work? Ready for something new, a change of scene, an adventure? Have I got an adventure for you...

Come to Israel! Aliyah is of course an option, but there are lots of ways for Jews to come to Israel without making Aliyah, just to experience life in the Jewish State and discover the Israeli side of Judaism. Programs ranging from 10 days to 10 months will give you unforgettable life experiences and professional and personal growth. 

And if you like it so much you don't want to leave…the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption is here for you!

Ten days or ten months or a lifetime—it's up to you to take a chance and discover somewhere new!

Taglit-Birthright Israel:

What it is: A FREE (really, actually, no-strings, including 3 meals most days, free) ten-day heritage trip to Israel, for Jews living all over the world between the ages of 18 and 20

Length: Just 10 days!

The details: Taglit-Birthright Israel is the non-profit group that sets the guidelines for the trips and funds them, but the specific trip you go on is organized by one of many trip organizers, ranging from your university Hillel to your community synagogue, federation, or summer camp. You can go to your local organization of choice to find out when their trips are, or you can search through the Taglit-Birthright Israel website for details on the various trips, as there are slight differences. For example, some are non-denominational while others are more religious (although in general Taglit-Birthright is geared toward less-engaged Jews), and some are "adventure" trips which include more physical activities in Israel, while others are geared toward those with disabilities.

Dates to know: Taglit has trips twice a year, winter and summer, but exact dates vary based on the organizer. Summer registration for North America is closed already (it's still open in the rest of the world!), and Winter registration will open at the end of August. You have to register with a specific trip organizer, so do your research in advance, taking into account the dates of the trip!

Onward Israel:

What it is: Onward Israel provides six to ten-week resume-building experiences in Israel for alumni of short-term Israel trips, including internships, service learning, academic courses, and fellowships to get a deeper understanding of Israel.

Length: 6 to 10 weeks, usually during the summer.

The details: The program is organized through local communities in North America and around the world, including local federations and other Jewish organizations, and provides cross-cultural resume-building experiences. Each program is organized with a specific community outside of Israel and is up to 70% subsidized by the Jewish Agency, meaning you pay an extremely affordable price for a summer in Israel. Go to the website to find out what organizations in your area have Onward Israel programs.

Dates to know: Programs are over the summer, but specific dates will vary by program, so start looking now!


What it is: Masa offers over 200 different programs ranging from five to ten months, both for gap-year students (18 year olds) current university students, and university graduates (22-30). Programs range from academic to working on kibbutzim to volunteering to professional internships in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Length: Programs range from 5 to 10 months, but the exact dates depend on the program.

The details: Masa offers over 200 different programs of all different kinds. Whether you’re looking to study Hebrew for a year, volunteer on a Kibbutz or in Tel Aviv, teach English in cities across Israel, or intern with different companies, non-profits, or Government ministries, you can search through the Masa website to find programs! Masa offers a grant to help cover the costs of the program, which varies according to program. Masa also organizes conferences and events for participants of various programs so you can meet people on other programs.

Dates to know: Fall and year programs usually start at the end of August/beginning of September, and Spring programs start at the end of January. Exact dates vary based on the program! Applications are usually rolling, although the earlier you apply the better!


And there are lots of ways to stay involved once you get back to your home country too! From Birthright NEXT Shabbat dinners to Yom Hatzmaut festivals and your local Hillel, JCC, or synagogue, there are lots of Israel programs you can look into.

Some helpful websites you can look at to learn about Israel as well:


Resources for educators, Jewish communities, and individuals to learn about Israel, discussing its controversies and current events and how they relate to the Jewish diaspora.

Hartman Institute iEngage Project:

The iEngage project is all about connecting Diaspora communities, especially in America, to Israel in a new and dynamic way. There are some great articles on their website, and opportunities to work further with them via internships and gap year studies.

And of course, if you decide you want the adventure to keep going, you can contact Nefesh B'Nefesh if you're in an English-speaking country, or your local Israel emissary or Aliyah organization, or The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption at one of our centers in Israel: 

If you have any other programs to suggest, I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mourning and Memory: Yom Hashoah

Yesterday, April 28th, was Yom Hashoah here in Israel. The National Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.

It started Sunday night, April 27th (In the Jewish calendar one day is from sundown to sundown).

My program was invited to attend the official State ceremony at Yad Vashem, where we listened to speeches by Bibi, President Peres, and the Speaker of Knesset, heard musical performances, and most importantly, heard the brief testimony of seven survivors, six of whom lit torches in honor of the 6 million.

The next day was a normal business day, but it didn't feel like one. At 10 AM a two-minute siren went off and we stood, silent, heads bowed, lost in thought as the sound pierced the entire country of Israel.

What did I think of? The same thing that struck me at the State ceremony...that we were mourning these people from Israel, our own state. And the beauty and importance of this country struck my heart.

We are still here. A whole nation remembering and honoring our lost, but strong, vibrant, bartering in the shuk and relaxing at the beach. Those people in unmarked graves with no family left to mourn them will forever be remembered and cried for by us.

And our lives, with all our joys and sorrows, are a testament to the failure of the hatred that snuffed them out.

It was a hard day. So hard that just writing a brief post about it on Facebook brought me to tears multiple times. The pain that our people suffered, the memories that survivors live with every day, I usually push it aside. I couldn't function with that sorrow every day. But yesterday I faced it, I let it wash over me because that sorrow is part of who I am, is part of the Jewish people. It's a sorrow that pushes us forward, to be strong and brilliant, to empathize and to help whenever we can.

I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else in the world yesterday.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Through the Looking Glass: It's Coffee Time

I've decided to call this section, where I talk about my observations of Israeli life, "Through the Looking Glass" because landing smack in the middle of another culture and learning about how they operate can sometimes make one feel like Alice in Wonderland, wandering through an alternate reality. There are many similarities and there are also some differences—whether amusing, frustrating, or exhilarating.

Today's topic is: Coffee. More specifically: The Israeli obsession with instant coffee.

My New Best Friend
So, full disclosure, I love love love coffee. In America I would brew some vanilla flavored or classic Mokka-Java in my coffee pot every morning and drink it black. And then maybe get an afternoon iced coffee from Starbucks. With some vanilla syrup for good measure ;) The true coffee snobs will scoff at me. I didn't bother with a French press, or a pour-over chemex, I let my ground coffee beans sit in a bag on the counter for weeks, and I even added sugary syrups and flavoring occasionally. But I did draw the line at instant coffee. I experimented with it when living at the dorms at UCLA, where I couldn't plug in a coffee pot and we had to hide our electric kettle when the RA came by, but it was always disgusting.

However, here in Israel I have had to adjust my attitude. American-style drip coffee appears to be a rarity here (although I found one café on Emek Refaim that sells a good big mug of strong brewed coffee), it's mostly espresso-based drinks and instant. I haven't seen a single coffee machine in my 6 months here. In this environment I have actually grown to like Nescafe, the ubiquitous instant coffee here. The only other kind I've seen is the red canister of Nemes, which I personally think tastes like dirt. Based on the preferences of everyone at work, so do they. At work I have 3-4 small cups of Nescafe with a few tablespoons of 3% milk a day (the whole dairy-fat thing deserves to be the subject of another "Through the Looking Glass" post I think).

Most of my daily coffees are part of the delightful Israeli coffee-break ritual, which I love. It begins when I walk in first thing in the morning, and we spend 15-45 minutes (depending how much work there is that day) sipping milky coffee and chatting. I love this. It's a great chance to practice my Hebrew and ease into my day, catching up with the girls in my office. Of course, the spokesperson's office never sleeps, so they are answering calls and writing emails while we sip our warm beverages. Then usually around 11 I go back downstairs from my upstairs corner and sip a coffee and catch up, although sometimes if I’m very busy I skip this. Then in the afternoon, around 2 or 3 I’m back at our little coffee corner, dumping a tiny spoonful of instant coffee in a little cup, to swirl with hot water and milk for my latest fix.

I never thought I would actually develop a taste for instant coffee, but I suppose it’s more of a taste for the friendly conversation and the short breaks it provides in my day, when I can get away from the computer screen to interact with other people and walk up and down some hallways and stairs to shake off the cobwebs.

My office works hard, but they know how to enjoy the day as well—with a cup of Nescafe and a bageleh.

Bageleh: salty sesame cookies that go perfectly with a milky Nescafe.
Picture from:!/2012/07/jerusalem-light-and-stone.html