post 4: Yoga in Tel Aviv

For those of you that know me, you know that yoga plays a very important role in my life. Before I came to Tel Aviv, I did some research and found a yoga studio close by that is English speaking and has a good reputation.

However, I was a bit apprehensive before starting yoga here. The culture is not very ‘zen.’ It is actually quite the opposite- the city is  busy and hot. The people are very aggressive and in-your-face. There is no personal space here, and people are very casual and laid-back when it comes to any type of organized group setting.  When it comes to yoga, everyone likes to chat in between poses, and these interruptions are more than welcome.

So, I thought writing this form of a screenplay was a good way  to give you a glimpse into typical Israeli culture, and what one of my very first yoga classes here was like:

INT. YOGA STUDIO – EVENING

GUY, gorgeous gay yoga instructor in his twenties, rolls out
his mat on the wooden floor of his studio. He welcomes
people into his class, as they roll out their mats as well.

GUY
(in thick Israeli accent)
Okay! Welcome everybody! Let’s
start in downward dog!

MEEKA, Guy’s tiny adorable cocker-spaniel, struggles to
unhook the plastic leash from the table it’s attached to.
The whole class is now in downward dog and Guy guides the
class with breathing “deep breath in and out, in and out.”

MEEKA
Bark! Bark! Arrrrr!

The yoga class moves into plank pose as Meeka barks.

GUY
Meeka, stop it! Okay, people, step
forward from plank, flat back, and
arms up!

Meeka unhooks herself and her collor wraps around her foot
as she frollocks towards me, the plastic leash drags behind
her.

Meeka licks my face multiple times as I am in a forward
fold. She runs to lick all of the other student’s faces.

Guy laughs as class continues.

GUY
Meeeeeeekaaaa. Nooo, come here my
precious. Goooood giiiirl.

I look around to make sure I am in the right pose, yet
everyone in the class is doing something different.

GUY
Isn’t Meeka adorable? Okay, people.
What are we doing? Common- downward
dog into yoga pushup! Put some
effort in this time!

MAYA, a young mother in tight spandex, carrying her newborn
BABY in a carseat, walks into the studio thirty minutes
late.

GUY
Shalom! Maya! It’s been forever,
how are you? Welcome to class!

Maya plops the carseat on the floor and rolls out her mat.
She walks up to Guy and they kiss on the cheek. Maya moves
herself into downward dog.

GUY
Oh, look at that baby! So cute!
Okay people are we warm yet? Let’s
go, warrior one into warrior two
pose!

The class clumsily makes it’s way into standing poses.

BABY
Waaaaaaah! Waaaaaaah!

GUY
Aw, baby, don’t cry!

The class is in Warrior Two. Guy bends down to pick up the
crying baby. Guy cradles the baby in his arms and the baby
quiets down. Meeka jumps on Guy’s leg.

GUY
Ugh, I want a baby soooo bad. Cute
cute cute! Everyone in warrior two,
spread those fingers and toes!
Strong backs and flex your stomach!

The baby coos up at Guy as he walks around the room
adjusting poses.

Meeka barks and yelps trying to get Guy’s attention.

GUY
Meeka quiet! Don’t be jealous of
the baby, I love you too, my princess. Alright, people,
move into Warrior three! Hold the
poses! Breath in and out.  Focus on the pose!

The class struggles to hold Warrior Three. Meeka runs in
fast circles around the studio, panting uncontrollably.

GUY   (still holding the baby)
People, these poses are awful!
Let’s do these again!

Guy puts the baby back into the carseat and ties Meeka back
up on the desk, and class goes on.

Ten minutes later in Shivasana (resting pose) the baby
cries again. Guy picks up the baby. Meeka starts to bark.

The whole class is resting. I begin to sit up, and others follow, as we make our way to the end of class.

We sit at the top of our mats, eyes closed, with hands to our hearts.

MAYA
(in Hebrew)
Guy, you know, you are going to be
such a good father someday.  You are so good with him.

GUY
Aw, thanks sweetie. You know, me and my partner, we are starting to talk about this. I think it is my destiny to have a baby.

Meeka begins to cry. She unhooks herself from the desk again.

GUY
Awww, come here Meeka! Oh, okay, people,  ehhm, that is all. Good class. Namaste.

CLASS
(all together)
Namaste.

post 3: Camping at the Dead Sea

To celebrate the Jewish new year, I went camping at the Dead Sea.

After spending last weekend in Jerusalem, and feeling like I could not connect to Israel, I was hoping that camping out at the beautiful sea with new friends would help me feel more comfortable in this foreign country.

Ten of us made the drive from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. The group was made up of me and my three American girl friends, three Israeli guys, three Israeli girls, and one Palestinian guy. The drive from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea reminded me of the drive from LA to Vegas: leaving a big city, traveling through the desert for a long time, and then finally stumbling into a new and weird destination. But instead of running into strip malls, flashing lights, and crazy looking tourists outside of the brightly lit Bellagio fountain, we instead drove along the wall of West Bank to our west, and Jordan was just minutes towards our east, and our new destination was a bright blue sea in the middle of the desert.

Instead of taking the direct route, somewhere in between Jerusalem and the West Bank, we had to pick up my friend’s friend who is a Palestinian.   He lives in Jericho, and if you are an Israeli, you are technically not allowed into that  territory because of the barriers, so we had to pick him up at a gas station ten minutes away from the Dead Sea…
…Can you imagine living in Boston but not being able to visit your friends and/or family who live just a drive away in Cambridge? It really hit home for me when we picked him up- This guy can barely travel outside of his home. And this is Israel’s way of defending itself- it makes sense in so many ways but it also makes no sense in so many ways.

Luckily, we met him at the rest stop with no problems, and ten minutes later we were at the beautiful Dead Sea! It was late afternoon when we pulled in, and the water was a soft light blue, fog was rising on top of the water, blending into the grey blue sky like a watercolor painting. There was also loud trance music (which, apparently, is very Israeli) blasting through the speakers located at the camping ground’s central kiosk. It was not very crowded there either, and we pitched our tents under huts made of dried palm tree leaves.

Being the true camping pro I have always considered myself, as soon as we got there I began to take photos of the beautiful landscapes and get some water while everyone else set up tents. Once everything was set up, we all headed down to the sea.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (about 1300 feet below sea level!), and it is also the saltiest body of water on earth, so there were white crystals of salt washed up on shore.  The mud is said to have many beneficial minerals that are very good for your skin. So we covered ourselves in mud, and plopped down in the warm salty water. It is such a weird sensation to be there, because you instantly float to the top of the sea from all of the salt. If you lean back, your feet float right up so you are actually sitting up in the water like you’re sitting in a chair. If you stand up where it’s deep, your feet will bounce right back up so you are standing and floating effortlessly at the same time. (Sidenote: it is not a good idea to shave before you go in the water.)

After the sea, we were told there was also a pool on the camp site where we could go cool off.

The pool would have been amazing if we were all three years old and still in diapers, but we somehow made the kiddie pool fun by sitting in the shallow water, drinking and telling jokes. By the way, the music in the background was still pounding very deep trance music, at one point there was definitely Boyz II Men “I’ll Make Love to You” remixed in… I don’t know. It was very, very strange place.

When the sun began to set, we decided it was time to eat dinner. We all dried off and sat around a big table together. Most of just had just met that day, and it was so fun to drink, talk, and play games all through the night. We did not prepare very well food wise, so the canned goods we picked up along the way went pretty fast, and hunger kicked in around midnight.

Being drunk in the desert with no water or food is not such a good idea. Luckily, our Palestinian friend had a friend that worked on the camp grounds. We asked him if he could take a quick break, drive the ten minutes to Jericho which was the closest city to us, and pick up some water, pita’s, and hummus for us.
He said no problem, so we gave him some money, and he left. However, because of checkpoints, it took over 2 hours for him to get back to us. It was 2:00 in the morning when he appeared holding two homemade containers of hummus and a huge plastic bag filled with warm fresh pita! The hummus was amazing- it had lemon juice in it, along with pieces of hard boiled egg and whole chickpeas. We all attacked it with our warm pitas and shoved the comfort food into our mouths so fast that in minutes we were scraping the bottom of the hummus containers.

After eating, I began to speak with my new Palestinan friend. How did he feel about everything going on? Was he sad that he couldn’t come back to Tel Aviv with us because of the restrictions? Without getting into too much detail or history, he basically made it clear that he was unhappy. When I heard his personal accounts of what is going on, I began to struggle more with my opinion of Israel, and it comes back to what I was struggling with in Jerusalem: How can I feel a connection to a land like this? The politics here are so overly complicated that I have found everyone has five different opinions on everything at once in terms of Palestinians and Israelis. It was fascinating to be talking with him just minutes away from where conflict arrises, and I couldn’t help but have an intense appreciation for where I come from in The States and how I was raised, where he is barely allowed to travel out of his city.

It became time to sleep shortly after that conversation, and I had a lot running through my head. As people dispersed into their tents, I ended up sitting up for a little while, finally falling asleep on a long white plastic lawn chair overlooking the sea. It took a while to fall asleep, but once I did I slept soundly under the bright stars that night, and the next morning I woke up at sunrise.

What a site that morning- The horizon was filled with orange mist, that became brighter and more yellow each second. Once the blazing tip of the sun appeared over the sea, I closed my heavy eyes to shield the brightness and fell back to sleep. Only to wake up an hour later to a loud Russian family making a New Years toast with vodka shots before they ate breakfast. There were also over 20 flies in my face and in my ears, I was sweating profusely, my mouth and eyes have never been more dry in my entire life, and again, just two feet away from me there was a loud Russian family (and I mean family as in mother, father, aunts, uncles, teenagers, children, babies) all drinking.

I got up feeling a bit out of it, and a bit out of sorts. My conversation last night bothered me, I realized how out of place I felt in this setting, and so did the other girls I was with. We also ran out of food and water, and staying another night did not make much sense.

Everyone was tired and groggy, and once we began to feel the familiar and intense vibrations coming from the loud sound speakers in the center of the camp grounds, we decided it was a good idea to leave later that afternoon.
Although it might not have been the most comfortable experience, and I am pretty sure the deep techno beat is still pulsing through my head, I was still taken out of my element. I was able to speak about the conflicts in Israel with people who it directly affects, while being only minutes away from these so called war zones. My feeling of Israel and my comfort level here are being challenged nonstop and I think the only and best thing to do is to keep reaching out and doing different things with new people.

At the same time, being at the Dead Sea was one of the most natural and beautiful experiences (minus the flies). I felt the healing salt and mud on my skin, I ate delicious homemade Palestinian hummus and pita, I made new friends who come from completely different backgrounds than I do, and how often can you say you woke up to the sunrise over Jordan?

Happy New Year!

post 2: My First Weekend in Jerusalem

I spent Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Shabbat (for those who don’t know) is the Jewish day of rest. Starting on sunset Friday night and lasting until sunset Saturday night, we are traditionally supposed to just relax and take a break from our normal everyday life- some might have dinner with family, go to synagogue Saturday morning, maybe even give up facebook and e-mailing for the day.

For most people in Jerusalem, Shabbat is so much more than this, and Friday night into Saturday is holy- and treated as if it were a holiday.

I was visiting a friend who is currently studying Torah in a very religious seminary with a group of other 20-something women in Har Hof- a very religious area that is located high up among the winding hills of Jerusalem. Her campus  was surrounded by rosemary and jasmine trees, which gave off a refreshingly sweet and clean smell.   I wish I could post photos for you, however, on Shabbat we were not allowed to even touch our cell phones or cameras! It was so strange for me- we couldn’t drive anywhere, we couldn’t carry anything, they even ripped toilet paper the night before so no one had to tear paper because even that is considered a form of ‘work’.

We had Friday night dinner at a friend of a friend’s apartment. It was so nice, all white with floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the sun set over the old city. Our host was a 27 year old girl from Australia. There were about twelve other girls there from my friend’s seminary, some were from South Africa, another from England, one from Paris, all very religious. I wore a long skirt, long sleeved shirt and scarf as a form of modesty. None of the girls expose above their elbows or below their knees. (Yes, it was also 90 degrees out.)

We ate a huge homemade meal when it became dark, and the dim orange lights of old Jerusalem twisted around the distant hills as we feasted on different types of quiche, roasted eggplant and sweet potatoes, cucumber tomato salad, pita hummus and tehina… It was all so colorful and delicious (and kosher, of course).

After prayers and dinner, we had a discussion about a woman’s role in society according to religious Jewish law. I remember feeling confused and out of place while I was there, sitting among other women my age who have given up their secular life to live their life according to the Torah (or “how god has intended us to live”).

The girls told me that as observant Jewish women, they cannot become rabbis, cannot partake in or sit with their husbands during temple services. They are not allowed to have sex until marriage (oh, by the way, having sex on Shabbat is actually seen as good deed, or ‘mitzvah!’) and their most important role is to provide their husband with many children. The girls explained to me that they have the same views of a feminist, they just express it differently. They say this because women are already closer to god, and seen as more holy and powerful than men. So, in order for men to create a relationship with god, and to create a living to support their family, and to study Torah, they need to first get rid of the ‘distraction’ of the woman.

For those of you that know me well, I had to bite my tongue when they were describing all of the restrictions women have in this so called ‘man’s world’ and this new perspective of ‘feminism’ was hard to wrap my head around. (I mean, my final college essay was about the positive influence of female power and sexuality in film…) Soooo, when they asked me if I wanted to go to a party where men sing, dance, and drink in a circle while the women watch from the outside of the circle, I had to kindly decline… (plus, what’s a party if you can’t grind up to Lil’ Wayne?) And to make it clear, I am not saying by any means that this is the wrong way to live, I think it is an extremely beautiful and respectable way of life, but it is not for me.

I asked my friend if she would instead like to take a late night trip to the Kotel (the Kotel is another name for the Western Wall). According to history, the wall is what remains from the destruction of the 2nd temple, the oldest and holiest of holy places for people to go and pray.

I have always thought of god and spirituality to be extremely personal, and figured this could be an interesting experience for my own personal beliefs and definitely a change of spiritual scenery. (Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at Back Bay Yoga any more!)

My friend thought it was a really good idea to go to the Kotel, and so did a few of the other girls. But they told me that the only way to get there was a 2 hour walk, and then another 2 hours back. (Remember, no driving = no cabs.) So, like a good observant Jewish girl, I changed into sneakers, and 2 hours later I found myself face to face with the Wall at 2:30 in the morning. There were five other women sitting there (which is extremely rare, the Kotel is usually packed with people) and I felt very lucky to have so much of this precious and holy space to myself. However, I also felt like I was on a movie set- flood lights surrounded us, making the Dome of the Rock look like plastic gold. Everything was so bright, looking so fake, and the prayer book my friend gave to me felt like a useless heavy brick in my lap. Oh, and I was sitting in a white plastic lawn chair.

I leaned forward, closed my eyes, and pressed my forehead against the Wall.

“Hello God? It’s me, Allison.”

“Hello, Allison.”

“How are you, God?”

-Awkward silence

“So, um, God… Do you want me to pray to you or something?”

-No answer

So I decided to open my prayer book. ‘Praying at the Kotel on Shabbat: For Beginners!’

Page one: “Hello reader, this book will guide you with easy instructions on how to pray at the Wall, including English translation of what your prayers actually mean. Welcome to the holiest place on earth!”

Wait a minute, was I actually on a movie set? Or in a movie? I was feeling really confused as to how I was supposed to be feeling. I was sitting at one of the most fascinating places in the world, where some believe that physical and mental spirituality are combined as one, yet I feel frustrated and completely disconnected.

I closed my eyes again and tried really hard to meditate. Didn’t work. I opened my eyes and felt like crying, so I stopped trying altogether.

I stopped trying to feel, stopped trying to pray, stopped trying to think, and that’s when things started to get good. Being so overwhelmed with my experience in Jerusalem thus far, I guess I needed to think about nothing in order to feel something. I do not remember how long I sat in my generic little lawn chair for, but I do remember how much of a release it was. To really think about nothing for a long time left me with a positive and meditative experience. I left the wall feeling very present, and in control.

My friend and I walked home through the old city and up the winding hills, and 2 and a half hours later, I was in bed, with blisters on my feet, sweat down my back, and a powerful spiritual experience still lingering in my mind.

I took a bus home the next night when we could drive again. As soon as I got back home in Tel Aviv, I was elated to be back in the big city, overjoyed to wear my bikini at the beach the next day, and thankful to be a woman who can dance with other men. But I was also extremely grateful for the weekend that I had in one of the most sacred places in the world.

Next post: Camping at the Dead Sea!

post 1: Shalom Tel Aviv!

My first blog post will be a general layout of everything that I’ve noticed upon arrival.

To start off, the vibe in Tel Aviv is fast paced, modern, and eclectic.

The streets are definitely grungy and dirty, but at the same time so vibrant and unique! On the outside, buildings look old and dirty. But on the inside, everything and everyone is contemporary and trendy. In terms of the buildings, they say that Tel Aviv is the Bauhaus architecture capital of the world. If you want info about the architecture in Tel Aviv click here.

The Israeli people are beautiful: I’ve noticed that the average woman here is very tan and full of attitude. She walks the streets comfortably and confidently. The average man seems to be aggressive yet kind. Also dark and handsome, with strong features.

Unlike the typical city noises back at home (like the clicking of high heels on pavement, and the engines of big trucks and SUV’s in the streets), the city noises in Tel Aviv are instead made up of the clicking of sandy flip-flops against people’s heels, and a more subdued “vroom” coming from scooters and vespa’s.

The beach is huge, and so close to everything! People are very laid back. Free WiFi in all cafes. And everything stays open all night. It is HOT and humid out right now, and will continue to be for the next month or so. And most importantly: The food. Is. Amazing.

More stories and pictures on all of that to come! I hope this gives you a basic understanding of how Tel Aviv looks and feels.