From here to the moon and back

We’ve been from here to the moon and back.

Last weekend we visited Taybeh. One of the last Christian towns in Palestine. It is a lovely, quiet place. The most noticeable difference from all the other towns on the West Bank is not so much the religion. It is the absence of rubbish and trash on the streets that has now become almost iconical to our Middle Eastern experience. Taybeh is as clean as the inside of it’s churches.

It being a Christian town, alcohol is not on the black list. Even better: the town is well known for producing it’s own beer. We wanted to visit the brewery. Take the tour, show the kids how beer is made and give the local economy a boost in a pleasant way.

Our small car barely fits all of us, but we managed to squeeze in four boxes of, let’s say, support for both the occupied territories and us parents.

Our youngest daughter fell asleep in the car on the way back and we decided to keep on driving not to wake her up. And driving…

Until we arrived in Nablus.

The history of the ancient city of Nablus goes back at least 9000 years. It is called Schechem in the Bible. It nestled itself at the slopes of, and mainly in the valley beneath, Mount Gerizim.

To go where no European child has gone before. That is how the children must have felt. Our very blond middle daughter had gotten used to her movie star status in Jerusalem, but the people of Nablus took it to the next level. Ten minutes after we parked the car, she asked us to buy her a head scarf. Almost everyone who passed her in the overcrowded streets would touch her hair. People stared. Children would stand still right in front of us and gaze at us, mouths open wide.

Our youngest daughter quite enjoyed the show. Safely on her father’s arm she would happily wave at the crowds, throw hand kisses at whoever requested it and would kiss cheeks of complete strangers.

Some people would nod at us and say “welcome”. Some would ignore us and most people just looked at us. Not angrily, not afraid, not amused. The look in their eyes was more of an interested, almost fascinated nature.

We might have just mirrored their fascination.This was a town in another country. This was so far away from the Israel we have seen so far, we felt as if we had landed on the moon. Everything was different. The people, the buildings, the atmosphere.

We decided to go with the flow. We bought Kanafeh, which Nablusians pride themselves in being the best at preparing. We ate in a local restaurant. Bought the girls shoes with glitters and diamonds. The family was clearly warming up to the place.

Mount Gerizim was still on our list. Half of the remaining Samaritans  still alive had built their village there, on their Holy Mountain.

We paid a cab driver to lead the way. Which he did to the best of his knowledge. Bringing us past more proud green Hamas flags than I had ever seen before. Straight to the immense new mosque on the slopes of the mountain.

When we got out of the car to congratulate him on the mosque and ask him again for our intended destination, he had to make a few calls. Mister cab man drove us a little further and then waved out of his window: on, onwards, that way.

The way lead us to a closed fence. Probably the only side of the fence our Palestinian cab driver would ever be able to see. In our fortunate position as aliens, Westerners, tourists, we could go back and try to get to the other side of the fence through the checkpoint at the entrance of Nablus.

So back on our tracks we went. Past the magnificent palace of the Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri. We couldn’t help but ring the bell at his gate. Unfortunately we weren’t welcomed in to the house of the man who reportedly has as much money as a third of Palestine’s economy. Not this time.

By no means discouraged we did eventually end up in the Samaritan village on top of Mount Gerizim. Situated just behind the Jewish Settlement Har Brakha, meaning “mountain of blessing”.

Which is a funny name, when you realize that it is exactly the dispute about the holiness of the mountain that drove Samaritans and Jews apart. Jews believe history took place and shall be made on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Samaritans, true to the Torah and worshipping in a synagogue, believe Mount Gerizim is the place to be. Always has been.

Not only did God create the world, starting at Mount Gerizim. It was also the place Abraham was told to kill his son Isaac. The only dry part during the flood when Noah built his arc. And according to recent Dead Sea scroll work, Samaritans might be a little better in topography than Jews are.

Samaritans are on their way to become extinct. They tend not to marry with non-Samaritans and their gene-pool necessary for healthy offspring is quickly diminishing. If there ever was a blessing for us on that mountain, it was being able to be amidst these men and women in their distinct Shabbath attire. To see history being alive. To embrace the frailty and temporality of it all. Admire the stubbornness and dignity.

It was time to head home. Through the Tapuah junction where deadly or near deadly incidents between Jews and Arabs happen on an almost weekly basis. Past numerous settlements and Arab towns. Back to Jerusalem.

When all the kids had finally drifted off to sleep and we were about to call it a night ourselves, someone knocked on our door. Gently, kindly.

When we opened the door, there was Veigy, one of Sarah’s younger sisters.

From Sarah! She said, stretching out her hands, holding two plastic plates. Each plate held two beautifully crafted, homemade birds’ nest pastries, filled with ice cream.

With our hearts and minds still filled with moon dust. Veigy helped us land back here again.

 

 

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Let’s talk about sex, baby

One of the things I learned about Judaism is its orientation towards sex. Frankly full swing fascinating.

Again, no better place to witness the Jewish take on sex than here in my own ultra orthodox neighborhood.

Forget about the urban legend of the hole in the sheet (it is said some ultra orthodox Jews are so concerned about modesty, they have intercourse through a hole in a sheet). In Judaism, sex is everywhere.

Sex within the marital context, is the woman’s right. Actually, deprivation of it is a reason for divorce.

Women are on top, so to speak, within the Jewish religion. And to stick to the metaphor, men are at the very bottom.

That is also why women, being the stronger and holier sex, have to stay out of the men’s sight in synagogue. Were the men to see them, they would be unable to concentrate on their religious duties.

Some say a married couple should always sleep together completely naked and that foreplay is a full day activity. However, when a woman is Nida, within most orthodox communities her husband should not touch her at all. Not even directly pass her the butter at the breakfast table . A woman is considered Nida at least twelve days a month during her fertile years. For a newly wed couple, that’s an awful lot of foreplay.

No wonder that the custom is also not to look someone of the other sex directly in the eye. I am still struggling with this. It feels so incredibly rude not to look my friend’s husbands in the eye. I am getting better at it. Often though I awkwardly still don’t know what to do when I greet my friend. Should I  just ignore the character in black by her side? Or acknowledge his existence by nodding in his direction? Is it over the top to tell my friend to tell her husband bye? Or is talking about him also wrong?

Names are not just names. Names are given with seduction in mind. Most of my Haredim friends are called either Sara(h), Odele or Racheli. And so are their daughters. When they have more children, they will throw a Miira, a Maryam and a Veigy in the mix. Calling out to my friend Sarah in the playground is a tricky thing because almost all the girls wil look up.

One of the Odele’s explained to me why most girls share the same names. This, too has everything to do with sex. Odele said that when all the women have the same name, it will prevent the men from cheating.

I am not sure if I know how that works, but I guess cheating on your wife Racheli with another Racheli will just not feel as sweet as cheating on Racheli with a, let’s say, Samantha.

How vastly different, yet strikingly similar my night of clubbing was with two old friends who came to visit. We stayed up late and enjoyed the local LGBT scene. Starting in the friendly Evita Bar. Not only Tel Aviv’s oldest gay bar, but also Tel Avivs bar with the oldest gays.

We ended up in Shpagat. Across the street a pretty boy had his shirt off. His pants were hanging so low, we almost got to meet his member. As straight as he could still walk, he ended up between my own two pretty boys. Introduced himself with an Arab first name and a German sounding last name. After that, he got a little repetitive.

Pointing at my friends, poking their chests with his finger or slapping them in inappropriate places, he kept asking the same thing. Bringing me from Tel Aviv, right back to my friends in Jerusalem.

Because while Pretty Boy was desperately looking for love, he longingly repeated what by now must have been an almost existential question for him:

Top or bottom?

Are you top or bottom?

 

People are… human: Dinner in the Sukkah

Here is it was. The moment we all had been waiting for. Dinner in the Sukkah.

Frankly, I had been dreading it. We were invited to have dinner in the Sukkah of our neighbors, built on our balcony.

The kids loved the whole ceremony. Building it, looking at it, playing in it. They Could Not Wait to have dinner there.

But I didn’t like the idea one little bit. Maybe I am too shy at heart for a gathering like this. Maybe I felt bad that I couldn’t help cooking because my kitchen isn’t kosher. Maybe the perfectionist in me didn’t like not knowing what would happen and how I would fit in.

My 4 year old son had embraced the neighbor’s teenage girls as his best friends, being the few people in the area that speak sufficient English to play with. But my most intense encounter with our neighbor hadn’t been my finest moment in Israel so far.

I prepared the best way I could. I took two tylenols to kill my upcoming headache that tells me I stress out too much over little things. We bought flowers and kosher fruit juice in factory closed bottles. Like observant Jews on Shabbat, we bathed and put on our nicest clothes to prepare for dinner.

And then we waited. Waited for the knock on the door that would invite us to our own balcony. To have dinner with the couple and their daughters that were so obviously very observant. The man with his side curls and his beard. The woman with the head scarf and the daughters with their pretty smiles and long skirts.

The knock came, we settled on the plastic chairs and the beautifully set table. We watched, observed and learned. Our neighbors told us to ask them anything we wanted to know and so we did.

Time passed and a miracle happened. It was not just that it started raining and we had to move inside. The rain in itself was a miracle, it hadn’t rained for months. Their house was a blessing because it was just as messy as ours. But the real miracle was something else.

Our neighbors, that I had thought older than myself, are much younger than I thought. The way they observed their religion, much less stringent than I had expected because of their attire. The way the kids played, much nicer than I could have ever hoped for.

The neighbor guy explained the secret of Sukkot to us: that it was more than anything else a matter of faith. That by living in a hut for a week, one proves that one believes one’s life is in God’s hands. That he will take care of you, no matter what. But that it is up to you to believe that.

That sounded like the very observant Christian friends we once had. This sounded all too familiar. Nicely familiar.

But it was our common background. Our being human, that proved our common ancestry.

Their faces appeared behind his beard, her scarf. Their fears and hopes, their dreams their experiences, it was all so similar to ours. I could feel the pain of her, see his worries and I knew their emotions as if they were my own.

And it was then that I knew: no matter who your enemy is, no matter what your faith is, we are all the same.

We are all so…

human.

Of tents and old men staring at branches

What Christmas is to many people in the world, Sukkot is to some12 million Jews living scattered around the world. Even the non-religious Jews set up their “Christmas tree”, er, Sukkah.

A Sukkah is a temporary building. The roof has to allow starlight to shine through. Jews should “live” in the hut for eight days during Sukkot. But as with many Jewish laws and mitvot, they found a work around. So eating in the Sukkah will suffice.

Our neighbors asked us permission to build their sukkah on our balcony, for they did not have space to set one up themselves. It is customary to not start building your sukkah before Yom Kippur is over, but boy oh boy was the wait long for many neighbors. As for the kids.

Many huts already arose long before Yom Kippur. As Sara explained to me, this was to claim a lot. And thus allowed. Our kids, having been invited to help set up the neighbor’s sukkah, were dragging wood and lumber, palm leaves and basically anything they could find home. You never now what one might need to build a sukkah.

The day came and the sukkah was build, three days before Sukkot. When we couldn’t find a kid, it was sure to be found in the newly built extra room on our balcony. The whole neighborhood turned into a refugee camp, or so it seemed.

Cars had to park elsewhere because all the parking lots were taken. By Sukkah tents and huts. The outside of the Sukkah mostly made of wooden panels and sometimes of white tent fiber. Inside is where people went all out: guirlands and stars, fake fruits and plastic vines. Beautifully set tables with, of course, the always present single use plastic table ware.

The best part was when we visited Mea Shearim to buy some flowers for our Sukkah. All throughout the neighborhood, old men in their orthodox attire were closely inspecting the four species.

Imagine your great grandfather trying to decipher the instructions on his medication, without his glasses on. I have never seen people inspect a branch so closely, or observe a lemon with such care. Nor have I seen people drag fresh dates on a piece of palm through the streets for that matter.

And above it all, there were all the balconies above our heads, every single one turned in to a Sukkah. It made me think of an ad in the Parisian subway for storage room: Une pièce en plus (an extra room).

We fell oddly misplaced and wonderfully part of it. My scarfless hair, Kippahless boys and yet our many children. Our modest but yet far too colorful clothes. It is my favorite state of mind: being part of something yet being a bystander.

In a way, this must be how my ultra orthodox friends feel every day when they step outside their bubble. So much part of this country, and yet, always the odd bystanders, too. Living without smartphones and internet, without television and technology. Dressed differently and yet so alike.

At least all Jews like to build their Sukkah. Observant or not. And frankly: we would love to have the same tradition.

Shopping as a statement

Sure, when you buy a T-shirt with a print on it, it can be a statement. When you chose to buy organic, or from farmer’s markets, it can be perceived as a statement. This is true wherever you live.

Here, shopping is a somewhat different experience for the ones that would like to be environmentally savvy or politically correct. Here, every purchase feels as a vote. A vote pro or contra. A vote for one or the other.

It gets even more complicated being nice to the people and the planet.

Let’s pretend one wants to eat mostly organic. But one is also opposed to settlements. Or to teenagers working long days for 10 dollars a day. Let’s pretend one can not read Hebrew. Life will get very complicated…

We spent a couple of evenings with the map of Israel on the table and a long list of producers next to it. The CSA we wanted to get a weekly vegetable box from had several partners we were considering buying goods from. But we wanted to make sure that the honey, goat cheese and fruits came from Green Line Israel, and not from settlements.

When it comes to daily shopping, things are not so easy. The water I buy at the Arab side of town will not be accepted by my Haredi friends in the park. And even though the fruits and vegetables I buy at that side of town have stickers in Hebrew on them, my friends will not share in the fun. They only eat food I buy on the Israeli side.

Oh, the irony! I want to buy from the Arab guy across the street to help him make a living. He sells Israeli goods coming from a settlement. Where Palestinian teenagers are employed long days without a contract, insurance and severely underpaid. But if I buy there, my food will not be trusted by my friends. Even when the exact same brand is sold in the Israeli shop down the road!

When we need a new equipment or appliance, I hesitate to buy it here when I can postpone the purchase until back in Europe. Taxes paid here will support the local government policies concerning housing newcomers in the occupied territories. Something I do not want to chip in for.

Alright, alright, I lost you: when even shopping become political it does get kind of boring. I agree. It’s not as if I would buy everything fair trade in the Netherlands, either.

Sometimes living here is just one big Catch 22. But it is also an eye opener. It is educational beyond words. Next time when I decide to buy the cheapo cherry tomatoes in the Netherlands, coming from “Israel”, I will think twice. I now know I am actually supporting child labour. Or settlements. Or both.

That’s more in a tomato than anyone could bargain for.

Yom Kippur

IMGP3233 Possibly our best day in Jerusalem so far. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The day all Jews must stand before God and apologize, sincerely, for all their wrong doings over the past year.

No, let me correct that: not all their wrong doings. Anything they might have possibly done wrong towards another person is something between people. Something Jews do have to correct by saying sorry for. But not to God. This day, Yom Kippur, is something between God and the person.

The past week was fun. We got unexpected phone calls from neighbors we hadn’t seen for a while. Wanting to apologise for things we couldn’t even remember. When we didn’t pick up the phone, they would not try again. I guess trying once proves your intentions well enough.

The day itself, Yom Kippur, is spent fasting. Not for us, of course, even though we avoided lovely cooking smells drifting from our kitchen, tickling the nostrils of those living around us. Not for most children either, who we saw happily munching away from their now almost iconic bags of snacks. As always.

The best part of Yom Kippur though? All the roads are shut down. You are not allowed to drive. In the minds of many an ultra orthodox Jew even ambulances and fire trucks are supposed to stay in the garage. Roads are blocked and traffic lights are flashing orange.

The kids make the most of it by playing in the streets. Massively. Our youngest turned two on Yom Kippur and tried out her new doll stroller in the middle of the highway. Our oldest raced his remote control race car over the streets. Our fourth risked his life going downhill on a trike as fast as he could. Indeed, the only traffic accidents in Israel yesterday were among children.

The city was quiet, but for the singing coming from the many synagogues. We could hear birds sing, the wind blowing through the trees. It was lovely.

It was, for the first time in months and months, the first day that felt Peaceful.