Wednesday, July 22, 2009

First Impressions as a New Immigrant

As of today I have completed one full week as an olah hadesha- a new immigrant in Israel. I don't think my head has stopped spinning long enough to clearly synthesis my experience thus far... However, I would like to leave you with a few stories and impressions.

1) I'm wanted! This is so clear by the fact that the government has a Ministry of Immigration that focuses not so much on hunting down and kicking out "illegals" (think US) but welcoming and processing new comers. After one week in the country, I am an official Israeli citizen (actually- I was the moment I passed through customs at the airport as much of the paperwork was completed in advance), I have my Israeli ID card and my immigration papers. I've gone to a "fair" for new immigrants that had various cell phone/ internet companies, health care agencies (health care is provided by the Israeli government but I get to choose my provider), and banks. (How convenient is that!) And it was at said fair where I could pick up my Israeli ID card- a process that took about five minutes from start to finish.

2) I'm wanted! I've also been about town (Jerusalem! Ani garah b'Yerushalayim! I live in Jerusalem!) Every time I go into a store, the bank, etc, the other citizens welcome me. And it's like I'm living in a city full of Hebrew teachers... People with patience to allow me to try out my Hebrew even though we could complete the transaction in much less time in another language. Additionally, people take the time to teach me new words and phrases. I don't think any experience could be more welcoming. These experiences are not limited to my immigrant experience- last summer I had an amazing Hebrew teacher for a cab driver -he was so patient and clear as he used our time stuck in traffic to teach me!

3) Highlight of the day: Today on my bus I gave my seat up for an elderly lady with some bags. When the person next to her got up she stopped other passengers from sitting down in the vacated seat and pulled me towards it. Then we had a little conversation based on what I've learned in my first 4 days of ulpan (Hebrew class). She was so sweet and she invited me to her house so that she could help me with my Hebrew! (I was just so happy to have enough Hebrew to carry on a ten minute conversation... a very basic conversation, but nonetheless!)

4) Being trilingual is no longer such a big deal. Most people who are studying at the same ulpan with me already speak 2-3 languages, in addition to studying Hebrew. The primary non-Hebrew languages are Spanish (Latin America), Portuguese (Brazil), French (France, Morocco, Algeria), Russian (Ukraine, Russia) and English (USA, Canada, South Africa, UK). Other languages spoken here include Hungarian, Turkish, Italian, Yiddish, Afrikaans and Japanese. (I'm sure there are many more!) I'm having amazing fun living in a place full of polygots!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Second Morning in Jerusalem

There is something beautiful and calming about the early morning. Those precious hours where the coolness of the night still lingers and the soft sunlight gives the Jerusalem stone of the buildings a rosy golden hue. I wish I could distinguish between the different bird calls I hear. Most people, including my roommate, still lay asleep in their beds, recovering from the joyful night before. A few men in rush to shul, prayer shawls in hand.

I've always loved the morning- whether it be the pristine snow-covered winter wonderland in Wisconsin, a moment of footprint-less white and glistening tree branches- or waking from a tent on one of our many family camping trips as a child, the previous night's fire ashen, the dew bringing sweetness to the air.

And now- morning in Jerusalem. A moment of sacred tranquility to comfort me before I set off into the vaguely familiar setting of my new life. Even with my experience of plopping down in a myriad of different countries and the remarkably efficient way Israel processes and welcomes newcomers, I am slightly overwhelmed with the transition I have undertaken for myself- but I'm still anxious to start picking away at the challenges- new language, new norms, new rhythms- and I am awed by the determination of the Immigrant- be he from Ireland going to the United States, or the Russian Jews who found their way to Shanghai, and all the billions of wandering humans, pushing, searching, stretching, reforming, redefining their limits, their lives and ultimately, their new communities.

I'm still overwhelmed with my own STUFF, even though I managed to tuck it all away in drawers and cubbies. Creature comforts in excess...

My goal today is simple. Go to the shook (market) and wander amongst the many people shopping in preparation for Shabbat. Simply to go, to watch, to enjoy. And to find a few fruit treasures of my own to take back with me. Maybe I'll also find a chance before sunset to wade through some of the paperwork and try to sketch out a budget for myself. Maybe I'll find the perfect mug for tea to accompany me on this beautiful patio for the many mornings to come...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


With all of the flying and visiting, I've been remiss about writing- whether it be journaling or blogging. When I come back to the USA, one factor of life here hits me more than any other- STUFF. In the context of owning or buying, decorated homes or stadium sized shopping centers, the clutter of our American lives overwhelms me. Commercialism and materialism... and I find it much harder to resist when I'm reinserted back into my own country. Another pair of shoes to join the 50+ I already own, or another pair a pants that are just a tad different from the drawers, boxes and suitcases full I already lay claim to. I feel the fight in my head- the arguments- what I already own far exceeds "need" in any stretch of the imagination. But maybe buying more would provide a job for just one more Bangladeshi or another person in a similar situation. Consuming makes jobs. But it also uses up resources and creates waste. I feel that I'm constantly on purge mode, re-evaluating what I own and trying to convince myself to let go. And even as I purge, I binge, trading old for new.

In 2002 I studied abroad in Mali, West Africa. Mali is decidedly fourth world to Bangladesh's 3rd world status. To help me process my reverse culture shock and to share my experience, I wrote and performed a series of monologues that chronicled my voyage from conception to return. (And because Lawrence is that cool, one very generous theatre professor helped me with my project and I even earned credit for it!) Below is a monologue from that performance that touched on the same theme: Stuff.

The night I left the whole neighborhood came to see me off. Little Awa kept crying my name as we drove away: Masaran, Masaran, Masaran. Kind of like the game we played where we would chase each other calling out each other’s name. But this time, I wasn’t calling back. I held my tears back the entire ride to the airport, holding my mother and my host sister’s hands. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a hard time leaving…

Coming home. Wow. Now there’s a process. Flight cancellations and all the usual holiday airport fun. Didn’t bother me though. I was in no hurry. I was still in Malian existence. I left at night, December 30th and got back mid-day January 1st. I can’t imagine that I smelled so good that point, although I had tried to take a bucket bath in the airport restroom sink. I’m sure it helped… a little. (okay well, at least I thought I was cleaner.) When I got home I wanted to beeline strait to my beloved shower and it’s legendary hot water. Mom however, wanted to stop by the grocery store because “there was no food in the house”

That statement froze me solid. No food in the house. No food. None. Was this possible? I had just come from a house where food purchased was consumed daily and afterwards there truly was no food. I remember waking up hungry in the night and just laying there because midnight snacks was a revolution that hadn’t hit Bamako. How could there ever be no food in my American home. The entirety of the United States has more food than its gluttonous population could ever consume, try as we might. When I arrived home I found the fridge and pantry overflowing with good things to eat. Apparently Mom’s definition of “no food” that night was no lettuce, for which she was in the mood.

Funny how so many familiar objects were new again. It’s quite a visual shock to move from no trinkets to countertops overflowing with picture frames and candles and statues galore. I have so much stuff! I couldn’t believe it. All this STUFF for just one person. Who gave me the right to hoard all this STUFF? The next day my brother called and asked me if I wanted to go to the mall. I said, ‘Are you crazy? I have the mall in my closet! Who could possibly want to buy more stuff?’ I was disgusted with myself. I went from 2 pair of pants, a skirt and 6 T-shirts for 4 months to the Mall of America in my closet. I emptied out my drawers onto my bed and I tried on ever article of clothing. I must be crazy to need all this. I tried it on, and looked in the mirror and thought about when I’d wear it, how often, if it were worthy of occupying space in my dresser. I wanted to throw it all out. But after I tried it all on, and threw it about my room, I folded it all back up and put it back into its well-known places. My society required the owning of STUFF. To always have something appropriate to wear, to be chic, stylish, trendy.

To free myself from STUFF, I walk my dog around the block I stare up at the massive brick constructions with solid doors forever closed to strangers. What would happen if I just walked up, ringed the doorbell and said hi and did that everyday until I knew the entire neighborhood? Those Big Doors are foreboding in comparison to open courtyards filled with laughter.