It hit me today that this 6 month journey is nearly over! I left Austin in February and here we are midway through July. So, here’s a rambling update on what I’ve been doing throughout this trip.
On Hebrew (the stated purpose of the whole journey!)
Since mid March, I’ve spent 4 hours each day, four days a week at Ulpan Gordon, a Hebrew school. The Ulpan system was designed to help olim hadashim (new immigrants) acculturate to life in Israel and as such I think they do a thorough job albeit at a slower pace than I would have liked.
So, how far have I progressed in 4 months? I can hold very basic street conversations and have fooled the occasional cab driver into thinking I’m a local (mostly by saying very little 🙂 ) – but as soon as conversations speed up or become complex, my struggle becomes obvious!! More importantly for me though is the excitement in actually being able to read the Tanakh (old testament) in the original Hebrew and sometimes grasp at the basic idea in the text! It’s no doubt a small beginning but it is something I hope to build on in the future.
Another really cool benefit with the Ulpan system is the social network it provides – you’re in a class full of people trying to build friendships and adapt to life in their new homeland and there’s a lot of camaraderie within the group. This was a special blessing to me since I arrived not knowing a soul in the country and was very quickly able to feel like a part of a community at the Ulpan. Of course, even before joining the Ulpan, the messianic Jewish congregation in Yafo was very quick to accept me and treat me like family! So, all in all, network-wise I have a lot to be grateful for in Israel!
On Side Trips (what happens on the weekends)
There’s a lot to see in Israel from the beauty of the Golan in the far north to the dry Negev area in the far south. So, I’ve used roughly half of my weekends in Israel to travel around and see different parts of the country. What follows below is a summary of three of my most memorable trips during the last few months.
1. The Kinneret aka The Sea of Galilee: This has to be one of the most serene bodies of water in the world and there’s a sense of complete calm and stillness as you sit on it’s banks. There’s often a bluish haze over the Kinneret and as you get to Capernaum which is still an idyllic little village overlooking the sea, you feel you can begin to understand why Christ chose to call this little village home as he started his ministry (Mat 4:12-17).
2. Beit Jala: This is a mostly Christian town within the West Bank. It’s just a few miles from Bethlehem and feels a bit safer than other parts of the West Bank. What I loved about this town was hearing the viewpoints of Palestinian Christians about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is often seen as a fight purely between Islam and Judaism. This is a great place to start understanding the complexities of the Palestinian conflict and appreciate how hard life in the West Bank can be.
3. Mount Sinai: This wasn’t really a weekend trip but was part of a 10 day excursion into Egypt when my parents and sister visited. After they headed back to Ohio from Cairo, I headed for the Sinai with a Quebecois traveler, and man was it spectacular! It took us a good 3-4 hours to reach the summit (at ~7500 ft) and we got there just in time for a stunning sunset. While it was bitterly cold that night, watching the starriest sky I’d seen in a really long time surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Sinai more than made up for the physical discomfort! Fortunately, the Bedouin (who run little stations just a few hundred feet from the summit) did rent blankets for 10 EGP each without which I definitely couldn’t have lasted the night! By the break of dawn, tour buses arrived with dozens of visitors, totally ruining the solitude of the mountain – but the sunrise was still marvelous to watch!
On the Israeli Temperament (OK, just generalizations and of course there are exceptions)
Israelis definitely seem to have a temperament that’s quite distinct from most other cultures I’ve witnessed and so I figured it’d be interesting to discuss it here. There is a directness, a strong self confidence and sometimes even a contentiousness and aggression that I’ve noticed in all interactions so far. I’ve certainly been asked many questions during my time here that Americans would consider too personal or impolite – but they aren’t trying to be rude, they’re just very direct. People always look you straight in the eye, they always seem genuine – superficiality is rare. They believe in projecting strength and boldness and seem to do an excellent job in that department.
While this means that people seem less friendly at the outset there are some definite advantages to their temperament. One, there is almost no awkwardness or nervousness in public settings since people are generally very sure of themselves. In particular, inter-gender social interactions are bereft of much of the nervousness and social anxiety so common in the US, especially among teenagers. They seem a lot more self confident even at that age. Two, people mean what they say. If someone says they like your shirt they really do! If not, they won’t hesitate to tell you either 😉
So, I had an interesting conversation about the national temperament with Shlomo (my last landlord). He suggested that Israelis will always try to project a rough exterior and that it is a byproduct of the nation itself having to project a very tough appearance being surrounded by enemies on all sides and I fully buy that argument. Shlomo’s perspective was that any weakness displayed on the international stage would be an invitation for the Arab world to attack Israel and “push them into the sea”. So, that same boldness and projection of strength carries through to the personal level and accounts for what you see during any interactions on the street.