Posted by: lifeinthelevant | July 15, 2009

Wow, this trip is almost over!

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 πŸ™‚ ) – 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 πŸ˜‰

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.

Posted by: lifeinthelevant | May 4, 2009

Visting Jordan – Part 2 – Petra

Man, have I been lazy! It’s been a month since my last post and high time that I published Visiting Jordan – Part 2. The last post left me overlooking the Nabatean city of Petra – so, let’s make some progress there and actually visit!

Petra was once the capital of ancient Edom – descendants of the biblical Esau. But during the Babylonian exile starting in 586 BC as the southern kingdom entered captivity, the Edomites began trickling into Judah. This left Petra open to occupation by the surrounding Nabatean tribes that slowly began occupying the formerly Edomite territories. By the first century BC they had made Petra their capital and carved most of the rose red city you see today directly into the surrounding mountains!

Here are some of the most photographed structures in Petra: (The Treasury, The Monastery, and The Theater – click to supersize)


The Treasury

The Monastery

The Theater

There’s something remarkably serene about Petra – maybe it’s the calming effect of the dull reddish hue all around you or the stillness of the desert. The structures are indeed magnificent and it’s amazing to see the level of artistic detail that survives even two millennia after they were carved. This is in spite of their being fully exposed to the elements. Put it’s grandeur, serenity and antiquity together and you can begin to see what so inspired John William Burgon to pen his famous poem on Petra:

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.


Petra EntranceIf you were looking to pick a city as your capital, there’s yet another reason to pick Petra – it’s virtually impregnable! You enter the city after walking through narrow mountain gorges where you can barely have two people walk abreast in some places – kinda tough to march an invading army through. Add to that the tricky terrain and vertical rock faces all around from atop which stones could be thrown at you and it’s easy to see why this city wouldn’t need a large defense budget.


What you see on the left is the entrance to the city!


The only downer with Petra is that after all the grandeur and glory on the outside it’s disappointingly sparse and empty on the inside – a metaphor for all kinds of things I’m sure!! The interiors are usually just giant halls without any divisions into rooms or corridors or any other obviously livable structures. On a pragmatic level this made sense to me. The Nabatean cities were strategically placed to control the trade routes across the desert and profit off the merchants traversing these routes. So, it seems important for them to have built an impressive looking city on the outside – which would be all that most pass-through merchants would ever see – but it would have been a tremendous effort with little reward to do something similar on the inside. Feel free to shoot this theory down or suggest another!



A note to future travelers: Don’t opt for the horse-cart rides if you visit Petra. Most of Petra is very rocky and you’ll be tossed around the cart like a bag of rocks in a cement mixer! It’s a lot more relaxing to use your own two feet and just observe the sheer look of terror in the eyes of the cart-riders as they rock on by πŸ˜‰

And this brings us to the end of the post on Petra. The next post should be a little write up on living the Bedouin life in Wadi Rum near the Saudi-Jordan border.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by: lifeinthelevant | April 9, 2009

Visiting Jordan – Part 1

This was actually written last week (on Friday, April 3rd) but the upload had to be delayed till I got back to normal life in TLV and could access some of the trip pictures.

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I decided to stop by at an internet cafe in Petra, Jordan and finally write something to revive the blog!

The past few days before heading to Jordan: Got a couple of invitations for Pesach (the passover meal). One with a new Jewish believer whose family isn’t yet aware of his beliefs which could make for a very interesting meal. And another with a family from the assembly who were expecting their next child at any moment.Β  So, she invited me with the caveat that she’ll have to cancel the meal if she’s in the hospital! And, the passover meal conflicts with meetings at work on Wednesday – so I’m not sure if I should skip work or the passover meal. I told them I’d let them know by Tuesday when I get back to TLV. And the assembly has their own Pesach meal on Thursday – so, that might be my best option!


Friday: Found a bus to Eilat (5 hrs from TLV) and got there in the afternoon. Then found a cab to the border at Arava. The crossing was trivial and all the border guards kept asking me my opinion of Obama. Of course, on the Israeli side (especially if you talk to older people) the correct answer is that he isn’t all that great and that McCain was probably better all things considered. This stems from Obama’s overtures toward Iran among other things and makes Israel very nervous. On the Arab side you better love Obama and say he’s the best thing since sliced bread and such a welcome relief after Bush. πŸ™‚ Yes, politics is a topic best avoided by travellers, unless you already know what the locals believe! πŸ™‚


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At the Arava border (above), a Brit and a Belgian came up to me and offered to share a private car and driver they had arranged to reduce their costs – which was great since I would have had to pay 50 dinar if I went by myself for the 120 km trip from Aqaba to Petra. Instead, I only had to pay 15 dinar.

I arrived in Petra after 4 pm and tried to get some Mansaf for lunch/dinner. I’ve been dreaming about Mansaf for a long time ever since Ravi Zacharias said it was one of his most memorable experiences in Jordan. Unfortunately, (being Friday when most things are closed) there was no Mansaf to be found, and I settled for some yellow rice with chicken. Perhaps, I’ll get my Mansaf tomorrow…

While we (the Belgian traveler and I) were sitting at the restaurant, a Jordanian guy nearby (who said he was from Seattle) decided to tell us about a great hotel in town (which we later found he owned). We checked it out (Saba’a Inn) and since it was much cheaper than the place I had already booked (12 dinar/night as opposed to 35 at the much fancier place I’d booked), I ended up staying there.

After dropping off some of my stuff, we went out for a walk around the streets of Petra. Most of the shops were closed but we ran into a group of Jordanian teenagers who took me to a few interesting mountain peaks with great views of Petra city below. They also had a really fast Arabian horse which seemed to be their latest toy and they were very keen to teach me how to ride. I really wanted to take them up on the offer, but looking at the cliffs and the huge fall into the valley below from the mountain I politely declined figuring that the horse would probably throw me off a few times before I got the hang of it. They then offered me a pack of cigarettes which seems to be the vice of choice around here given the scarcity of hard drugs and alcohol. I’ve always wondered whether the Altria group really has a future given all the regulations against smoking in the US. But seeing all the chain-smoking teenagers here makes it clear that their easy availability sadly gives cigarettes quite a stronghold in the Middle East in the absence of hard drugs and alcohol. They were also quite surprised that I didn’t smoke since their ad exposure had suggested that anyone from the West smoked heavily!

Here’s a picture of the young Jordanian rider.
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After watching the sunset from the mountain, I headed back to town for a simple Shawarma dinner after which I found an internet cafe to write up this blog post. And Lord Willing, here are the plans for the next few days.

Tomorrow: Walk through old Petra which has been preserved since Nabatean times a few thousand years ago and see the sites.

Sunday/Monday: Head to Wadi Rum which encompasses a huge area near the Saudi-Jordan border. It is supposed to be one of the most stunning desert landscapes around. Find a good Bedouin guide and a camel/horse and spend Sunday & Monday in the desert. Get back to civilization (Aqaba) by early Tuesday morning and then journey back to Tel Aviv by Tuesday afternoon so I can catch up with work. Please pray that my cold/sore throat would get better with the hot desert air and wouldn’t interfere too much with my trip.

That’s all for now, folks!

Posted by: lifeinthelevant | March 8, 2009

The city of Jaffa

I didn’t stray too far from Tel Aviv during my first week in Israel but I did spend many hours in an ancient city nearby.

Tel Aviv itself was founded only in 1909 making this year it’s centennial anniversary – a very young city by Middle Eastern standards. But head south along the Mediterranean coast and in a few miles you’ll get to the ancient city of Jaffa. This city also goes by the name Yafo in Hebrew and was called Joppa in ancient times. It was an important port city and quite a few things of Biblical significance happened here.

I’ve tried to put together a list of references to Joppa. If there are others you can find, please let me know!

1. Bringing in the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple (2 Ch 2:16, Ezr 3:7)

As promised by Huram, king of Tyre, to aid in Solomon’s construction of the temple: “We will cut whatever timber you need from Lebanon and bring it to you on rafts by sea to Joppa, so that you may carry it up to Jerusalem.”

And again, a few centuries later around 537 BC during the temple restoration efforts in Ezra: “Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and food, drink and oil to the Sidonians and to the Tyrians, to bring cedar wood from Lebanon to the sea at Joppa, according to the permission they had from Cyrus king of Persia.”

I did go down to the Jaffa port late one night, but it was rather dark (and creepy) and I forgot my camera! So, I promise to go back, get a picture and insert it here. In the meantime, here’s a picture overlooking the port and lighthouse from a nearby building.

2. Jonah and the whale! (Jon 1:3)

“But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”

And sure enough, in modern Jaffa, you’ll find a stone sculpture of a whale πŸ™‚

A stone sculpture of Jonah's whale in Jaffa

As a side note, it’s right next to the Illana Goor Museum, a massive and imposing structure in Jaffa. I walked into the museum and guess who I ran into – Illana Goor! I’m used to visiting museums named after people who are long gone and it came as quite a shock to realize that Illana Goor is a modern artist who actually lives in the museum named after herself! I was continually tickled and amused by this fact during my tour of the art gallery (oops, I meant museum). But in her defense, her art does focus on mixing the ancient and the modern and at least partially justifies the naming choice. But I didn’t find it worth the nearly 30 shekel entrance fee 😦

3. Tabitha lived in Joppa (Acts 9:36, 38, 42, 43)

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas); this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did. And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them.” (9:36-38)

Lydda is the modern city of Lod in Israel (around 20 kms away) and the story continues with Peter coming over to Joppa, raising Tabitha from the dead and then staying on in Joppa with Simon the tanner. Which brings us to the next mention of Joppa and I believe the most significant one.

4. Peter’s vision at Joppa (Acts 10-11)

“I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, β€˜Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, β€˜By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a voice from heaven answered a second time, β€˜What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky.” (11:5-10)

This vision led Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and while he initially took some flack for it from the other apostles in Jerusalem, it was an essential step in allowing the gospel to spread beyond the Jewish diaspora and reach all of mankind.

There’s now a Catholic church near the supposed site of Peter’s vision:

St. Peter's Church, Jaffa


Modern Jaffa is also home to one of only two Hebrew-speaking brethren assemblies in Israel (http://www.baj.co.il/eng/emain). It’s now my home assembly whenever I’m in Tel Aviv on the sabbath! The other Hebrew assembly is in Haifa. There are also Arab assemblies in Haifa, Nazareth, and Ibileen which I have yet to visit.

Posted by: lifeinthelevant | March 2, 2009

Settling in to Tel Aviv-Yafo…

It has been hectic and fun – here are some pictures to tell the story…

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Parking is a huge problem in Tel Aviv! Mere hours into my time here, I witness an all-too-common tow-away. While parking is hard to find, public transportation is excellent and nearly all necessities are a walkable distance away.

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That’s an apartment where I spent my first few days in Israel with Itay (pronounced ee-tai), an Israeli friend – he was an awesome guide to Tel Aviv and helped me get settled very quickly! Most of the population lives in apartments like this one with around 8 units in each mixed-use building (hence the law office in the picture).

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I walked around a lot on my first day in Tel Aviv and guess what I ran into – the Indian Embassy! Not what I expected at all πŸ™‚




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OK, just kidding! This is the actual Indian Embassy – not sure what the dilapidated building was doing next to it…







Finding an apartment can be a huge challenge in Tel Aviv. So, I was real glad to find this place. The location is perfect since it’s very close to the Ulpan (Hebrew school) where I’ll be spending many hours a day if I have any hope of learning Hebrew. It should be my home till the end of March at least. After that, the rent can increase dramatically thanks to all the “rich American tourists” visiting in the summer!

There, now, I feel settled! I have WiFi, a cell phone, and even an apartment – what more can I need πŸ˜‰ That’s all for now folks!

Posted by: lifeinthelevant | February 26, 2009

My first post!

It looks like I’ve finally moved into the 21st century – I have a blog!

This is where I hope to collect pictures and thoughts about the trip. Since people seem to believe that a picture is worth a thousand words and I’m lazy, I’ll probably be posting a lot more pictures than words.

Enjoy!

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