NEWS

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March 7, 2007

Greetings and thoughts from Netanya, Israel

My travels are going quite well. I spent a phenomenal week in Paris and I am now in Israel. Pasted below is the letter I sent to my friends and family today updating them on my trip. I've been sending out these emails for many years but this is perhaps the one that has meant the most to me and I would like to share it with you.Dear Friends and Family,I write you now from the outskirts of the city of Netanya on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. After a red-eye flight from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport that touched at around 6:30 a.m. local time (+7 from EST, +8 from CST), four buses—it probably could have been three; I may have made one mistake—took me to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, then to Netanya’s Central Bus Station, and finally to the Ulpan Akiva campus on the southern outskirts of the city.Flying to Israel is always a surreal experience for me—this is my third trip—and this excursion was/will be perhaps the most out of the ordinary yet: I departed from soil and from an airport already foreign to me, I was and am looking ahead to what will be by far my longest international experience to date, and I will be apart from my friends, family, and brilliant lady friend for a little while. The “Israeli experience” starts neither when you touch down at Ben Gurion nor on an El Al jet, but rather when you get within about 50 feet of the El Al–only check-in area at your airport of departure. Standard Israeli security includes uniformed and un-uniformed guards who patrol the area and ask to see your passport and tickets if you give off a single vibe of hesitation. Before actually checking in, you undergo an interview with a trained profiler who asks all sorts of wild questions taken seemingly out of nowhere. The answers, of course, are irrelevant. They are looking for how you answer—lies, hesitation, and the like. This time around I was asked where I was from, why I wasn’t coming directing from home, what the name was of my friend in Paris, where in Paris his apartment was, and why he was in Paris. In the past I have been asked why I don’t speak Hebrew and why I don’t have a Jewish last name. You see, El Al doesn’t look for bombs; they look for terrorists.Luckily, the flight was incredibly empty and after a slight delay I was able to spread out on an entire row and grab a few hours of sleep before landing outside of Tel Aviv early the following morning. Taking the buses up to Netanya was a bit of an adventure. I’m coming to Israel to learn Hebrew, remember, implying that my Hebrew is not too strong at present. Figuring out how to ask where and when buses departed and buying tickets really pressed my current knowledge. I suppose, however, that’s the whole point. I rode north up Israel’s coastline accompanied by numerous young soldiers—all Israelis serve, usually after high school for 3 years. It’s quite something to see a 20 year old girl, off-duty and dressed in street clothes, carrying an M-16 assault rifle draped over her shoulder.Netanya is a beach town with heavy French and Russian influences. As of yet, I have explored the city just twice; once briefly when waiting for my local bus and again yesterday after my first day of classes. The main thoroughfare is Hertzl Street which runs from Ha’atzmaut Square on the beach east past the Central Bus Station and on to the eastern outskirts of the city. It is dotted with shops to the east and bars and cafes the closer you get to the beach. On its western terminus, the street opens into Ha’atzmaut Square (Independence Square) which is home to an outdoor amphitheater which I am told is filled with free concerts later in the spring. A long staircase leads down to the beach itself which is everything a Mediterranean shore could be.The ulpan (language school) itself is one of Israel’s oldest and most well known, although I didn’t quite know the extent of it until I arrived. It instructs a couple hundred students in any given session, the majority of whom live off campus. The campus itself is very much like a vacation spot but the work is already piling on so visits to the pool and tennis courts will have be squeezed in here and there. Instruction consists of oral and written classes 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and various afternoon and evening activities all with homework assigned nightly. I am in a class of 15 and it has been phenomenal instruction so far. Some classmates I have spoken to and become friendly with include a 12-year-old boy from North Carolina whose father is stationed here as a diplomat, a non-Jewish graduate student from the Czech Republic writing her dissertation on Czech-Jewish history, and a Palestinian doctor who is learning Hebrew in order to work in hospitals in Israel as well as the Palestinian Territories (the ulpan usually hosts 2-3 such doctors each session).My obsession with Israel is nothing new and as a result I have acquired a certain base of knowledge about the state’s history and present culture. That said, because of the situation I am in now, unique in my lifetime exposure to Israel, I believe I am experiencing the country in a way I have never done so before. Well over half of the students here are new Jewish immigrants (olim hadishim) to Israel many coming from France and former Soviet Union states—Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, etc.—but also from America, Argentina, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Peru and others. These people are not refugees, unlike the massive waves of immigrants during the last century, but have rather elected to pick up everything and leave their home countries to start a new life here. Their lives were not under imminent threat, they simply believe for various reasons that their native countries, “simply no longer feel like home” as my classmate Janet told me; last month she left Paris after 35 years. Many come with their families, but others like Janet leave literally everything behind to start completely anew. Some speak Hebrew, but most do not, arriving here at the ulpan as their first stop intending to learn the language and then figure out what to do next. I haven’t met a single immigrant who has been here longer than two months.Some immigrants are religious but the majority are not and have still decided the pressures of living even as a secular Jew in their native countries are simply to much to remain there. As Janet explained to me, even if she wanted to wear a Star of David around her neck to show her (secular) heritage, she wouldn’t have done it in France. There are no fascist or communist regimes exterminating and persecuting Jews today and yet these immigrants still flow in. It is not a rush but a constant flow. Walking around Netanya and seeing Jews from obviously Yemenite, Ethiopian, Indian, and South American origin has reminded me this is a very real and widespread phenomenon here.What all of this has very emotionally instilled in me is the belief that despite the Jewish people surviving direct imminent threats against their populations—most recently from the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th Century—much of the world is still an uncomfortable place for Jews to live. Lives may not be at stake, but the incentive to pick up everything and leave is powerful enough that many are indeed doing it. Based solely on the diversity of background at the ulpan and in Netanya, the Jewish Diaspora—the worldwide scatter of Jews that has taken place since the beginning of the faith—is far more widespread than I had ever imagined. Skin colors range from the pasty-white of European Askenazi Jews (yours truly) to the tan of the North African and South American Sephardi to the deep black of the Ethiopians. Facial features illustrate the same immense spectrum.It is because of all of this that I am more deeply Zionist today than I have ever been in my life. The size of the Jewish Diaspora and the challenges they still face living in every corner of the earth screams out unequivocally as proof of the necessity of the Jewish State, even today in the 21st Century.For those worrying—Mom, Judy, Grandma—I am no closer and perhaps even further from doing anything like making Aliyah (becoming an Israeli citizen) or joining the Israeli Army. It is ironic that being more convinced than ever that a Jewish State must exist has actually reinforced my American patriotism. A long time ago in Chicago I sat in on a talk at which the opinion was expressed that there are now only two Jewish centers in the world at present day: Israel and the United States. The point of course was that Europe is no longer on the list. What is more relevant to me today is the thanks I owe to the American experiment—relatively young in world history—for many things but specifically for what it has done for the Jewish people, despite obvious anti-Semitic–ridden stumbles along the way. I have considered moving to Israel or spending a long period of time here on many occasions, as recently as applying to medical school here but ultimately choosing to remain in the United States. What I know today is that Israel will always be an option for me. I know that I would be happy here and that it will always have a home ready for me. But it would take an immense corruption of the American Constitution and national spirit to drive me to that step. I am an American Jew and a Jewish American and proud of it.