Thursday, November 30, 2006

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

It starts at shul. I’m just standing, enjoying some snacks laid out on the table after davening, when I feel a pair of eyes on me. She’s late-middle aged, her hair is covered (she’s married,) wearing glasses, a masticated baby rattler from her children or grandchildren trailing from her pocket. Slowly, she weaves her way across the room, husband in tow.
“Hi my name’s Michael, and this is my wife…”
“… Sarah,” she finishes for him. “We haven’t seen you here before.”
His mission on this Earth now discharged, Michael submissively bows his head and tries to drift off.
“Well, I moved into town three months ago,” I respond.
Now she’s perked up. I’m potentially single guy, and I’m local. Blood in the water!
“Where are you from what do you do?”
“Walnut Creek, California. I’m an engineer.”
And now to work the conversation towards the real question. It’s a delicate question and must be asked with tact and subtlety. It can come in the form of, Are you living alone? Or, Did you arrive with family?
“So are you single?”
The direct approach. This one’s been in Israel for a while.
Her mind rushes into action. Single. Employed. Not a psychopath. Her eyes glaze over as she re-routes all available brain power to scanning her mental rolodex of single girls. At this point, I could say just about anything. I try to make conversation to fill the dead air.
“You know, the hills sure are steep here in Jerusalem. It’s tough to ride my bike.”
“Did I mention that I’m a world-class athelete? I took home gold in the water balloon toss in the 2003 Fall Olympics.”
“And in my spare time I’ve genetically modified the Holstein cow to excrete four different flavors of ice cream, one from each teat.”
“And I’ve…”
*BING* The glaze vanishes from her eyes. Her mental search has yielded a fruit. “I think I know someone you might be interested in.”
Next comes the glowing description, followed by a strong personal recommendation.
“My husband will call you Motzei Shabbat.” (Saturday night.)
Sometimes she forgets and I don’t have her name, so the opportunity is lost.
Sometimes, she calls me back with a negative answer.
“She said she’s not interested right now.”
“She’s out of town for the next month.”
“I didn’t realize she’s married with four kids already.”
But once in a while, I get a positive lead, and a phone number. Then comes the first phone call.
I’m praying she doesn’t pick up. Just let me leave a message. It’s sooooo much easier.
Ring… “Shalom?”
“Wait, who are you?”
Name! Think, now, what’s my name?
“Uh… Ephraim?”
“Oh yeah, my aunt/grandmother/dermatologist told me you’d be calling. Sure.”
Score! El-Smootheo strikes again!
Next comes the first date, stammering at each other at a coffee shop over a cup of orange juice (she’s just learned I’m caffeine intolerant.) We’ll get the ball rolling with a search for common acquaintances.
“Uh… do you know Motti, the guy at the door who checks your backpack for explosives at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry?”
“I was born here. I’ve never been to the Absorption Ministry.”
“Oh. Uh… do you know Shlomi, my barber in Pisgat Ze’ev?’
“No. And what are you doing living in Pisgat Ze’ev?”
“I had cousins there and they offered to take me in until I got settled.”
“You mean you’re still living off your family?”
“NO! It didn’t come out right.”
Hmmm… best to just take a breather and sip my orange juice for a bit. Veeeeeeery slooooooowly. Let’s see if she takes a turn.
“So what did you do in the Army?” she asks.
Uh-oh. This is the big Israeli thing that I have no experience with. And I don’t really care what she did in the Army. Actually, most religious girls go through national service, but it’s still conscription, something all Israelis go through.
“Well, so far they haven’t called.”
And that’s what it usually comes to. My dates hit a roadblock, or at least a severely congested checkpoint, because I don’t share any common experiences. I don’t know if the last four years in America have fossilized me as an outsider, if it’s personality or lack of experience, but the female Israeli mindset is very difficult to navigate.
Speaking with one of my Rabbis, I hear some sage advice, “The fact that you’re a guy and she’s a girl will give you enough work, don’t add to it the fact that you’re an American and she’s an Israeli.”
But where to find immigrants? It’s time to seek professional help. Enter the matchmakers, the shadchaniyot!
Ringing the doorbell, I’m welcomed in and shuttled off to an antechamber in the apartment.
“We’re finishing up with someone else, and we will be with you in fifteen minutes. Please, make yourself comfortable.”
The waiting room even has a magazine. Talk about professional! All that’s missing is the strip of butcher paper over the bed. I feel like I should be stripping down and changing into a gown.
The door opens, “We’re ready to see you.”
The shadchaniyot crouch poised over their forms, pens at the ready. I hand over my passport photographs and references. The questions come rapid fire:
“Date of birth?”
“Religious from birth/newly religious/convert?”
“Level of religious observance?”
“How would you describe yourself?”
Next, questions about the girl you’re looking for:
”Do you want a television in the house?”
“What age range do you prefer?”
”Do you want her to cover her hair?”
“What midot (personality traits) are you looking for?”
“Don’t be shy. If you don’t tell us exactly what you’re looking for, we won’t know.”
And now, with the questioning done, it’s time for the matchmaking minds to begin working. Most communication is done telepathically, although sometimes sentence fragments slip out.
“What to you think about…”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“But wasn’t she involved in…”
“Yes, but that was before, now it’s…”
“No, I don’t remember if that was a problem…”
“It wasn’t…”
”Now do you think he would work with Leah…”
“… no, too Israeli..”
”But she’s over… no she’s not yet.”
”Well, I think that Illana, would, you know,…”
“…yes, of course!”
Suddenly, both heads turn towards me.
“Okay, we have a list of names that we think you would go well with. We’ll call them, to make sure they’re available, and then we’ll call you.”
An hour after entering, I step back out into the cold winter night. Still single, but hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Note: Because I visited on Shabbat, I was unable to take photographs. most are lifted from the web.

"I remember when they transferred control," Yitzchak tells waving at the motorized gate, "back in 1997. Arabs started coming out of Hebron and gathering outside the gate. Tens, later hundreds, standing outside the gate, weeping, begging to be let in. They were terrified of living under an terrorist government. They offered us anything, they offered to convert to Judaism. We had to send them away."

Since then, walking the mile or so from Kiryat Arba to Hebron by foot has been too dangerous, most trips being made by car. But not today. The army has deployed on major thoroughfares and street corners, making the trip safe for the thousands of visitors, and giving the city a much lighter feeling, at least for the Jews. Their uniforms may erase the distinction between secular and religious, political and apathetic, right and left, but it's written on their faces. Some tip their helmets and wish a "Shabbat Shalom" to every passing visitor, offering directions and advice. A few wear bitter expressions, a mixture of disgust at being here and incomprehension as to what would drive tens of thousands of people to come to a site like this. Most just focus on their jobs, keeping alert, watching the alleyways and rooftops, looking forward to getting home. The road we are walking on was cut straight through the rubble in the ruins of the old Jewish quarter, ducking under archways and slipping between jagged corners.
Yitzchak has left us to return to his wife and four children, so Sasha and I continue alone, through the ruins of the Jewish quarter, destroyed in the anti-Jewish pogrom of 1929.
"Here," Sasha says, pulling me over to what used to be a doorway, "you can still see the outline of a mezuzzah (Jewish doorpost scroll.)"
The rubble looks like something out of a post-World War II movie. Walls crumbling away, sprouting shrubbery. Some homes have been broken in half, revealing a diorama-like perspective inside.
"They left this area in ruins since 1929. The Arabs are afraid to move in here, afraid of the ghosts."
But it hasn't stopped them from plastering the area with the posters of suicide bombers and Hamas politicians.

Top two photos: the old Jewish Quarter, Pre-1929
Bottom Three: Ruins of the Jewish Quarter, Present

Turning the corner from the landscape of death, we are confronted with the Ma'arat Hamachpelah, the burial place of the biblical Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaaak and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, one of Judaism's holiest sites.

Maarat Hamachpelah, The Cave of the Couples
The term Machpelah is rooted in the Hebrew letters "Caf-Pay-Lamed", which means "Pair", in that four pairs of our anscestors are buried here, and also becuase there is an aboveground section where worshippers visit and a below-ground chamber where the holy ones area actually buried. I would be willing to bet that the letters "Caf-Pay-Lamed" could also be the distant, ancient root of the English word "couple." Likewise, the area is known as a Chibur, a connection point between this world and the next, which is why the city is called "Chevron" in Hebrew.

The building exhibits the column style of architecture which once typified Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago, now buried under rubble.

The building is one of several projects built by the Roman Proconsul Herod the Builder in the holy land. The massive stones reveal the same groove around their edges as the stones at the Kotel (western wall.)
Note the grooved edges of the massive stones.
Today is one of the few days of the year when the entire cave is open to Jews, who usually do not have the opportunity to visit our forefather Yitzchak (Isaac) because his tomb is located on the Muslim side.

Kever Yitzchak, the Tomb of Isaak

After Mincha, Sasha and I head towards the Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father) neighborhood, the section of the Jewish quarter which was rebuilt in the 1980's. We split up, he heads off to meet an artist who lives here, and I find the english tour. I know all the sights, but it's still exciting to see it all again.

There's the Avraham Avinu synagogue, demolished by the conquering Jordanian Legion in 1948 and used as an a garbage dump and animal pen until being rebuilt when Jews moved back into this area.

There's Beit Hadassah, a hospital built by Jewish philanthropists which served Arabs and Jews until 1929, now reclaimed.

Beit Hadassah

There's the ancient Jewish cemetary.

And there's Tel Rumeidah, where history runs deep underfoot. Underneath stand the ruins of the ancient biblical city of Hebron, where Reut and Yishai (Ruth and Jessee) are buried, where King David was crowned and ruled for ten years, Judaism's second holiest city.

Excavations under Tel Rumeidah

Tel Rumeida has the same semi-circle of Jewish trailers, but there's something new here; a four story building. When I was last here, four years ago, the building was still in the planning stages, with lawyers and activists doing everything in their power to prevent Jews from living here. But today, here it stands.

The new building in Tel Rumeidah

And so, progress is slow and painful, every brick bought with suffering, and even today a cloud hangs over the entire Jewish Quarter, it being on the short list of Jewish settlements to be demolished. But it's important to remember that despite the political and physical strife surrounding this place, this is still the same holy city it's always been. And it's all a part of the same land. The mountain range which runs through the hills of the Negev desert to the south, also runs through Hebron, as it does through Jerusalem, Shechem, Elon Moreh, and clear up through the Gallilee. To understand the connection to this place, one must take a step back and see it not through the lense of politics of war, but through history, memory, and dreams for the future.

New building in Kiryat Arba

Sasha and Me

My Host Yitzchak and Me

Getting out was just as much of a madhouse as getting in.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Pictures from Harsina

Coming soon... new housing.

Looking from Harsina towards the Arab neighborhoods of Hebron.

Housing, and future new housing.

Foreground: The greenhouses and vineyards of Hebron. The large, red-roofed building in the center is the regional city council.

The old city gate.


Nighttime, looking towards Kiryat Arba

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Yitzchak, my host for Shabbat, shakes my hand.
“Gaveritye Paruski?”
“No,” Alex interjects in Hebrew, “he doesn’t speak Russian, he’s American.”
Yitzchak, shooting me a bemused look, switches to Hebrew, “You live in Israel and don’t speak Russian? How do you get by?”
“He’s only been here three months,” Sasha explains, “Give him time.”
Sasha and Alex are part of the massive wave of aliyah from Russia in the 1990s, when four million Israeli Jews assimilated one million Russian Jews in one decade. To experience the same level of strain on national resources, the United States would have to assimilate 60 million immigrants in one decade. Any other country this small would have cracked. One would especially expect a country as at running the day to day operations of government as Israel to utterly collapse. The Knesset, or parliament, is still bickering over drafting a constitution 58 years after independence, but handling overwhelming crises against impossible odds is Israel’s specialty. The country granted the newcomers immediate citizenship and mobilized to build new housing in most major cities, and in the settlements. One area which took in an infusion of new, Russian blood was the “Hebron block,” consisting of the towns of Kiryat Arba, Harsina, Givat Ha’avot, Ehsmoret Yitzchak, and the Jewish neighborhood in the center of Hebron.
Unlike Elon Moreh, perched on a mountaintop overlooking Shechem but several miles outside of the city itself, the Hebron community lives face to face with its Arab neighbors. In sum total, there are about 7,000 residents between all of the towns, but today, for the pilgrimage on Parshat Chayyei Sarah, the population swells to at least 35,000. Busses continue cruising through the gate in the fence separating us from Hebron’s 120,000 Arab residents. Other visitors pry backpacks and sleeping bags which have been crammed into the trunks of their cars. Some pitch tents in public parks.
Out-Of-Town Visitors. Background: Kiryat Arba
The Streets of Harsina

Walking to shul, the dull red light of the sunset splashes over the Jerusalem stone houses. Friday’s last gasp. The homes, shuls, schools, and yeshivas are huddled together on the hilltop, looking across a valley of vineyards to Kiryat Arba, clinging to the next hilltop a mile or two distant.
“When was this place built?”
“Ten years ago,” Yitzchak tells me. “We started in trailers.”
“You remember the outpost I showed you in Elon Moreh?” Sasha asks. “This is what happens when we stick with it.”
Beneath the last line of houses sit two rows of new trailers. Signs of things to come?
“We wanted to build between Harsina and Kiryat Arba,” Yitzchak tells me, “but the Army won’t allow us. So they set up a base in between our two hilltops, and now nobody can build there.”

Looking from Harsina out to Kiryat Arba

The road connecting our hilltop to theirs lined on either side by a barbed wire fence, making this a cross between a trailer park and a gated community. But the fence feels like window dressing, including none of the fancy electronics, motion sensors, cameras, or trip wires that I’ve seen elsewhere. Scanning the perimeter, I detect several gaps. There are always one or two cars on the road. The flashing blue lights signal army patrols, but other vehicles, civilian, also rumble along. On Shabbat.

Foreground: Harsina trailers

Midground, left: Connecting road

Midground center: Army camp

Background: Kiryat Arba

“Yes,” Yitzchak responds to the unasked question, “We’re a mixed settlement.” Mixed religious-secular. I would later learn that you can even buy pork in Kiryat Arba, something of a rarity out here.
The crowd in shul is a warm relief from the nippy weather, visitors and locals soaking up the excitement of the evening. The rabbi begins his lesson, and I try to focus on the Hebrew. I can understand at first, but soon I miss a word. Then there’s a sentence I can’t understand, and pretty soon my logic train has derailed and my mind starts to wander, my eyes drifting around the room. To the pistol butt protruding from under the rabbi’s belt line. The rabbi’s packing heat. To several oriental faces peeking out from behind their prayer books.
“Benei Menashe,” Yitzchak explains.
After the northern ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel were defeated by the Assyrians and dragged into exile in 721 BCE, most historians assume they were lost to assimilation. But every now and then a group pops up with peculiarly Jewish customs. In northeast India, explorers discovered a group which observes circumcision, prays wrapped in a shawl, practices levirate marriage, and offers sacrifices on biblical-style altars (the latter two practices no longer existing in contemporary halachic Judaism.) They also have a tradition of being from an ancestor named “Manmaseh,” which sounds suspiciously like the exiled tribe of Menasheh, and are familiar with several biblical stories. Due to the lack of proof surrounding their lineage, many of the Benei Menashe went through conversion according to Halachah (Jewish law,) after which they made aliyah, one of them ending up sitting in the chair next to mine.
“Actually, we have lots of converts,” Yitzchak explains to me on the way home, “I know some from Italy, one from Germany, people from all over. Right here in Harsina.”

Benei Menashe (Taken from their website)

It’s difficult explaining to someone who has never been out there why normal people who live with the same worries about families and businesses as any suburban American would choose to live out here in the territories, armed, locked behind barbed wire in a Jewish ghetto. Often, those who live here are divided into the “Quality of Life,” versus the, “Ideological” types. “Quality of Life” settlers, so it goes, moved to these places for inexpensive housing, the fresh air, and the scenic vistas, whereas “Ideological” settlers are those who came here out of conviction and belief, what some consider “fanaticism.” But to differentiate misses the point, that the quality of life is in many ways dependant on the idealism of the community. Unlike life in the rest of Israel, in the settlements, drug use is extremely rare, and burglary isn’t an issue. Prostitution, extortion, organized crime, and teen pregnancy are unheard of. Per capita income is lower but test scores are higher, and the settlements have the highest birth rate of any group in Israel. A reasonable comparison could be made between the Harsina townspeople and the American military. Many of those who serve in the American military do so to earn money for college, advance their careers, and see the world, while others come for action or to fulfill a patriotic duty. But to say that “Quality of Life” soldiers are not ideological as well is simply untrue. Dedication to a noble cause breeds excellence of character. As for the communities here in Hebron, one can pick instances of fanaticism or instability from the last 40 years of headlines, but it doesn’t characterize anyone I’ve ever met, and it’s certainly not unique to this particular segment of Israeli society.

To be continued…

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving in Israel

I received an invite from Rick, another yeshivah student, to his Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving! In Israel!

Back in the states, thanksgiving is one of those holidays Jews can celebrate, for the most part. The big one, Christmas, is out, as are Easter and Valentine’s day, due to their Christian origins. And for most observant Jews, 4th of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, while respected, are a pale second to the Jewish holidays. While some rabinnic authorities oppose the celebration of thanksgiving as “imitating the ways of the Goyim (natons,)” most believe the holiday to be perfectly acceptable.

I’ve always loved Thanksgiving, the idea of gratitude being basic to Judaism. The very word Jew is based on the Hebrew “Yehudi,” which comes from the name of the Jewish tribe from which most of us descend, the tribe of Yehuda, a name which is rooted in the verb “Lehodot,” “To Thank,” meaning that a Jew is one constantly thanking God .

The pilgrims themselves saw themselves as analogous to the children of Israel, fleeing from the religious repression of Pharaoh (in their case, the Church of England,) and viewed their trans-Atlantic voyage as the crossing of the Red Sea, taking them to the promised land.

Thanksgiving is, in fact, based on the “Festival of Booths,” or “Feast of the Tabernacles,” which Jews call Sukkot. Likewise, while European Christianity busied itself persecuting and killing innocent Jews, America was positively philo-Semitic. Many of the earliest required working knowledge of biblical Hebrew, and one could even write their thesis in Hebrew.

I know of Jews who escaped the Holocaust to Israel, only to find they couldn’t adjust and returned to Germany after the war ended. Just imagine the schitzoid self-hatred they must experience. One thing to be thankful for is that I come from a country which, unlike Europe and the Arab world, is not blood-stained by mellinia of anti-Semitism. Living in a homeland that isn’t my birthland, as sort of American-Jewish pilgrim, I’m reminded on a daily basis of my status as an outsider, and there’s always a longing for the familiar tastes of home. Thank God for Turkey.

I took a few pictures on the way to Ricks house, posted below.

Sunset in Pisgat Ze'ev Transferring busses at Bar Illan intersection, a major crossroads and Haredi (ultra-orthodox) neighborhood.
Looking back at the city from Ramot, where my friend Rick lives.

Rochelle, Rick's wife, carves the turkey.

The lit building is the Belzer World Center. Built by the Belzer Chassidim, it is designed to look like the Beit Hamikdash (the holy temple in Jerusalem.) Some day soon, we'll have the real thing up and running.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shabbat Chayyei Sarah in Hebron

In last weeks parashah (Torah reading,) called Chayyei Sarah, Avraham Avinu (Abraham) comes to the city of Hebron and purchases the cave of the Machpelah as a burial ground. It is said that Avraham smelled the scent of Gan Eden (the garden of eden) eminating from the cave. Indeed, the very word Hebron is rooted in Chet-Bet-Resh, Chibur, or connection, as Hebron is seen as the connection between this world and the next.

Parashat Chayyei Sarah has become a day of pilgrimage to Hebron and the surrounding settlements. The community of 7,000 Jews swells to at least 25,000 as religious pilgrims flood in from every corner of Israel and the world.

As for me, I received a phonecall from Sasha, my friend from Elon Moreh, letting me know that he had a spot for us at a friend's house in Harsina, one of the settlements surrounding Hebron. After spending my Friday morning picking fruit with Project Leket, I asked the bus driver to dump me near the central bus station, and was off to meet Sasha.

I'd never seen the central bus station so crowded. Throngs of people tried to cram themselves through the metal detectors, with the usual yelling and bickering. Eventually, I got through and followed the stream of travellers heading for the third floor, departures.

After some walkee-talkee cel phone action, I finally met Sasha, and we loaded onto the bus to Hebron. Egged, the bus company, had the situation relatively under control. High-capacity local busses quickly loaded and dragged passengers off to a transfer point in Gilo, a southern suburb of Jerusalem.

Sasha on the bus to Gilo

At Gilo, we disembarked and found ourselves on the sidewalk. Across the street, a row of the larger, inter-city busses lined up to scoop up visitors and haul them out to Hebron.

Disembarking from the local bus, heading for the inter-city busses.

The sign for route 60, through the Judean hills to Hebron.

Travellers disembarking from the local busses streamed across the road, causing a traffic nightmare.

Once we had crammed ourselves onto the bus, we were on our way down route 60. The drive would take us past Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), the Gush Etzion settlement block, to the Jewish suburbs of Hebron.

Route shown in purple.

Driving down route 60, we passed by the outskirts of Beit Lechem, once majority Christian, but today almost entirely Muslim. The Tomb of Rachel, the only one of the biblical Jewish forefathers and foremothers not buried in the cave of the Machpelah, once sat in a field outside Beit Lechem. Today, the tomb has been encircled in the city's outskirts. The government built the wall with a narrow penetrating inside the city to encirclce the tomb to allow safe access for Jews.

The wall around Beit Lechem. Note the loop in the center, where the wall surrounds the tomb of Rachel.

The Wall around Beit Lechem

Continuing south, we passed around Beit Lechem, through the tunnel, and out to the Gush Etzion settlement block. The settlements were rebuilt on the ruins of Jewish communities destroyed by the Jordanian legion in their 1948 invasion of Israel. Today, the population in the rebuilt towns and villages is booming, in what used to be an agricultural area but is today fast becoming a major suburb of Jerusalem.

The blue on the map above is Gush Etzion

More Efrat

After passing through "The Gush," as it's called, the landscape becomes more open for a time. As fall settles in, the colors of the vinyards and orchards have been turning to autumn red and gold.



Fallow fields and farmland.

Gradually, the landscape again becomes crowded, as we approach Hebron. The bus turns west, passes through the security gate, and we have arrived. Our host family lives in Harsina, a Jewish suburb of Hebron.

The bus stop in Harsina

Signs welcoming visitors

We arrive just in time. Our Host, Yitzchak, comes out to welcome us in Russian-accented Hebrew. We hurry up the hill to make preparations for Shabbat as bus after bus roars by, bringing in pilgrims by the thousand.

Stay tuned for more!