Saturday, November 22, 2014

How IS Jerusalem?

Way back in November of 2010, when TJ and I had just arrived at our very first overseas job assignment, I posted a blog entry entitled "How IS Guadalajara?" in which I did a brief tour around the neighborhood, discussed potential security concerns, and generally just tried to put family and friends at ease over any concerns they may have had about our making such a huge transition out of our previous lives.  I reread that posting in preparation for this one, and it brought a smile to my face.  Mexico was such a wonderful time in our lives, and it warmed my heart to relive those early days with the perspective brought on by four full years of additional life experience.

I had meant to do the same for Jerusalem shortly after our arrival, but for some reason it never happened.  I never really wrote anything about Jerusalem.

It started out innocently enough:  I was in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem.  This was going to be epic.  My first entry was going to have to be something truly special.  A full-on review of the Old City.  Only...I hadn't spent enough time in the Old City to write that "wow" story before we took an extended weekend trip to Tel Aviv.  I couldn't write about Tel Aviv first, now, could I?  Of course not!  That would feel cheap.

Excuse followed excuse, until so much time had passed that I basically lost interest in writing anything at all.  Finally, two months into living here, I forced myself to start writing.  I ignored pretty much everything that had gone down in those first two months and just chugged a snail's pace.  Today we find ourselves one year and two months into a two year assignment.  We've seen and done so much, yet I've not even managed to write an average of one entry per week.  As of this writing, I'm  approximately four months behind on subject matter.  Still, that's an improvement; it used to be six months.

I'm making decent progress now.  I want to get caught up so I can start chronicling our adventures in real time.  I think if I can just force this entry out, the dam will burst and the stories will flow with ease.

So.  How IS Jerusalem?

Well.  To start with....

Jerusalem was Hope

TJ and I both converted to Reform Judaism in October 2010.  It is not common for both people in a relationship to change religions at once, as one partner usually acts as a magnet for the other.  The rabbis thought it was odd.  Our families thought it was odd.  Our friends thought it was odd.  I thought it was odd.  What can I say?  We're odd.

We did so simultaneously and for similar yet strikingly different reasons.  Our reasons are personal and won't be shared here.  Suffice it to say, our thoughts on religion weren't especially changed as a result.  It was more of a sociocultural than spiritual decision.  Beyond Christmas and Easter, religion had never been a big part of my life pre-Judaism.  Post-Judaism, the same held true for Chanukah, Passover, and Purim.

We tried to connect to the community in Mexico, with mixed results.  The people were all wonderfully polite, but we just didn't feel as if we clicked.  Language barriers were the decided upon culprit.  When we began bidding on our second tour, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv made the top of the list.  We were elated when we were assigned to Jerusalem.  We saw it as an opportunity to learn some Hebrew, to connect with a broader Jewish community, and to learn more about this choice we had made.

When we returned to DC for post-Mexico, pre-Jerusalem training, we made an honest effort to check out a few synagogues near our home in Falls Church, VA.  None of them clicked.  Temple Micah, where we had undergone our conversion, was and remains our favorite, but due to work schedules and commute times, we were unable to attend Friday night Shabbat services there.  Of course, we could have gotten up for Saturday services, but....yeah.  That didn't happen, either.  Having seemingly struck out in Guadalajara and DC alike, we saw Jerusalem as our opportunity to finally form a solid connection.

As of this writing, we have yet to attend a service.  Perhaps we never will.  It's possible that the idea of Judaism was, for us, more appealing than the practice itself.  And that's okay.

Jerusalem is Closed

One of the hardest things to get used to is the fact that, from mid-afternoon on Friday to one hour after sunset on Saturday, just about everything is closed in observance of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.  Most local business maintain a Sunday-Thurday work week.  We, however, follow the American practice of holding office hours Monday-Friday.  This means that if we want to eat during the weekend, we best get our shopping done by Thursday evening.

There are exceptions, however.  Not every restaurant closes during Shabbat.  There are a number of Arab-owned eateries and convenience stores that are open at all hours of the day and night.  These have been my saving grace and I love them to pieces.

Despite the need for workarounds, there is generally something peaceful about knowing what your Friday night plans are going to be.  I mean, who could possibly complain about having to spend an evening at home with loved ones?

Jerusalem is Kosher.  It is also Halal

Religious practices and levels of observance dictate a number of things, including what types of foods are permissible.  In the absolute simplest of terms, Jews that keep kosher do not eat meat and dairy in unison.  They also refrain from pork and shellfish in all their forms.  Muslims that keep halal do not eat pork or drink alcohol.  For those that keep neither practice, you have just have to plan your shopping and dining excursions more strategically.  This could mean driving into the  West Bank to obtain pork in Bethlehem, or taking a day trip that will include a delectable seafood spread in Akko.  Jerusalem also has locations that can cater to your needs; you'll just need to do your research.    

Jerusalem is Convenient

Literally everywhere that I go within the city on any sort of regular basis is walkable.  It takes me 5 minutes to get to my favorite pizza joint.  10 minutes to get to the grocery store or one of those heaven-sent Arab markets.  12 minutes to get to work.  45 minutes to get to the mall and the Old City.  I don't drive unless I have to.  Which is good, because...

Jerusalem is Aggressive

Horn honking, road rage, and cutting off the guy beside you is par for the course.  And I usually witness all of that before I even turn out of the parking garage and onto the side street in front of my apartment.  A cab driver was behind me once.  He thought I was driving too slowly.  Instead of just passing me, he passed me, stopped his car in the road in front of me, and got out of his car to come yell at me.  No, really.

There is no line culture.  You have to watch out for that little old lady behind you at the grocery store.  Blink and she's suddenly in front of you, like a ninja.

Jerusalem is Healthy (Well, Healthier)

Guadalajara was chock-full of American brands.  Jerusalem has McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Dominos.  Bethlehem has a KFC.  That's pretty much it.  This is a blessing and a curse.  Fast food is in short supply, so it generally makes for healthier, tastier dining experiences.  We've managed to lose a little bit of weight, which is inspiring and very much welcome.  But...sometimes you REALLY just want to pig out and be a fat gross sloth of a human, am I right?  Bare minimum, I'd like someone to hand me food through my car window from time to time.

Jerusalem is Delicious

I've attended two cooking classes in my time here.  One of these days I would like to prepare the foods, photograph them, and share the recipes with you.  Until then, you will just have to trust me.

Jerusalem is Expensive

With an 18% VAT (value-added tax), you really have to reevaluate your spending power. has become my best friend.  

Jerusalem is Heartbreaking

Ah.  And here we are.  This is the part I've been dreading.  This is the touchy part.  The controversial part.  The part that, should we be honest with each other (and we should), prevented me from writing about Jerusalem and stinted my writing for so long.  Hell, I started this particular post over a week ago and had to stop because, suddenly, Jerusalem became even more heartbreaking.

Conflict has been a fact of life in this region since time immemorial.  That certainly did not change when the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948 following devastating losses to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  Israel was quickly attacked by her neighbors.  Despite being a newborn nation, Israel won that particular fight.  New boundaries were drawn.  The unrest continues to this day.  

Jerusalem is central to the ongoing struggle.  The Israelis have proclaimed Jerusalem as their capital, while the Palestinians who inhabited these lands up to the May 14, 1948 termination of the British Mandate for Palestine also lay claim to the city.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Who knows?  History has a tendency of favoring, or at least being written by, the victor.  As of yet, there is no victor.

For its part, the US government does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital for either party.  It is desired that an international regime be established for the city, as outlined in the 1947 partition plan that preceded the State of Israel.

The newsfeed was filled with stories about altercations between Israeli soldiers and Arab terrorists the moment we stepped off the plane.  Keep in mind that terror covers a wide swath ranging from stone throwing to kidnapping and murder, so thorough reading of any article is necessary to understand just what is going on at any particular moment.

Despite all of this, Secretary of State John Kerry was making frequent visits to the region and, for a time, it looked like we might actually be present for the historical creation of a two-state solution between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Then, on June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank.  Their bodies were found on June 30.

Hamas, the terrorist government regime in control of Gaza, took credit for the crime.

A retaliatory terror attack saw the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers.  He went missing on July 2.  His remains were found the following day.  He was stabbed and burned alive in the woods near Jerusalem.

These murders set off a chain reaction of violence that neither side has yet to recover from.

In the first week of July, 250 missiles were fired into Israel from Gaza.  Israel began a counter-terrorist operation on July 7.  It would ultimately involve air strikes that devastated entire cities and a land invasion to destroy tunnels that had been dug to infiltrate Israel.

On July 13, TJ and I joined a contingent of our colleagues in assisting in the departure of 150 American citizens who had found themselves trapped in Gaza over the course of the previous few months  (Entry/exit requirements are strict and the US government is unable to intervene unless during times of crises).

We could hear rockets exploding in the distance, and once we were even required to seek shelter in a safe haven.

We met the Americans as they exited Gaza, registered their travel and provided them with evacation loans, and escorted them to Jordan.

Our involvement in the operation lasted over eight hours.  In total, the day's work lasted for over sixteen hours.

On July 20, despite my express wishes to the contrary, TJ went back to assist in a second evacuation.  He's just that kind of guy.  He wanted to help.  I was in Texas visiting my family and had little to no contact with him during the operation.  He was terrified.  Rockets were exploding much closer than they had the previous weekend, and they had to seek shelter more frequently.  He was shaken for days  afterward.

By the end of the conflict in late August, the Palestinian death toll had soared to over 2,000.  The Israelis lost 68 people, 64 of which were soldiers.

Thanks to its Iron Dome missile-defense system, which calculates missile trajectory and launches a counter-missle should a populated area be at risk, Israel escaped the conflict with far less damage than it would have otherwise.  That, of course, comes as no consolation to those that were affected.

Negotiations for a continued ceasefire are still underway, though they appear to have stalled.

Recently, tensions began to rise once more.
  • A Palestinian teenager was shot three times in the chest and killed by Israeli police during a public demonstration on October 17.
  • A baby was killed and seven others Israelis were injured when a Palestinian driver hit passengers at a train station on October 22.  The driver later died of gunshot wounds.   
  • Another Palestinian teenager was shot in the head and killed during an altercation with Israeli police on October 24.
  • A rabbi was shot by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem on October 29.  His assailant was killed during the arrest attempt.  The victim was gravely injured and is still recovering. 
  • Israeli settlers set fire to a mosque in the West Bank on November 12.
  • Five Israelis were killed and several others were seriously injured while praying at a synagogue on November 18.  The responsible parties were killed on the scene.  
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but you get the gist.  When talks cease to be sufficient, acts of violence are carried out tit for tat.   

News analysts are falling all over themselves trying to decide if and when another Intifada (uprising) will begin...or if it already has and we just don't realize it. 

Such is life in Jerusalem.  We are blessed in that we are not (yet) the intended targets of any of these attacks, yet heartbroken in having so many wonderful, loyal, kind local friends on both sides of the conflict that will have to live here and endure long after we have moved on to our next assignment.

Jerusalem is Hope

I have no answers to provide, no solutions to offer.

All I can do is look at everyone that I've met in this beautiful land and pray that one day they will be able to open their eyes knowing they have woken up to a day of peace and mutual understanding.

That is my wish.  That is my hope.

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