Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Existential Crises and Gravitational Pulls

A good friend of mine (henceforth known as L) is partially failing out of the sort of prestigious, snobby, Ivy-league university that would never have accepted me after I royally screwed up the SATs. This kid had direction and a plan and one hell of a future, not to mention a perfect SAT score. That was then. Now I’m standing on the sidelines, watching in horror as everything she worked for comes to a screeching halt.

She marvels at how easy it is so very easy to mess up your life. One flick of the wrist to a card at the bottom of the pyramid and the entire structure comes a-flyin’ down. Although she consciously realizes that what’s happening is her own doing, she continues to sabotage her future because of that cheerful and marvelous touch of logic: I’m going to fail anyways! Why bother studying?

What are you doing?! I text back. Self-fulfilling prophecies everywhere rear their ugly heads. When did this downward spiral start?

As is the custom of many yeshiva students, L spent a year studying abroad in Israel after high school. For many people, the year in Israel is one of exponential growth in maturity and Jewish pride. It is when some of us find the path they will follow for life. But others, like L, become overwhelmed by its power of spirit. This was L’s first time in the Holy Land and it ultimately caused her to reevaluate her life and priorities, in both positive and negative ways. With a new, burning desire to make aliyah, L decided she wants to move to Israel right after college.

No, she absolutely needs to move to Israel.

This revelation has caused L to call her entire existence and ultimate reason for living into question. With past goals left by the wayside and a foggy future, there is now a psychological boulder of sorts in L’s way, rendering her incapable of moving forward. She can’t seem to push the boulder out of her path.

The lack of a solid goal has left her floundering. Studying for exams is impossible for L because it would mean accepting that tomorrow will indeed arrive; studying would be the preparation for that future. L cannot see where she is going (and doesn’t have any explicit desire to get there), so she has no motivation to deal with where she is now.

This is just one example of how powerful Israel can be. The gravitational pull of the land to the soul can herald a reason for being and working, or cause a once solid human being to have an existential crisis. I can only hope that L pulls herself together so she can face tomorrow, hazy as it may be, with confidence and preparation. Even though the details are indistinct and muddled, I hope that Israel itself as a general goal will be enough for L to focus on for the present.

This is by no means a criticism of Israel, or of the year spent there after high school. Like I said, it is where many find who they are and gain the confidence to pursue their goals. The problem comes where young students mistake their year in Israel for life in the Holy Land in general. They don’t realize that during this year, they’re in school, with a schedule prepared for them. Their parents are paying for their meals and living expenses. A safe, established institution is taking them on trips to some of the most amazing places in the country, if not the world. But the future, no matter where you live, is not like that. Life on your own is hard, whether you’re in the US or in Israel. The spiritual awesomeness and feeling of being where you belong is incredible and mentally sustaining, but it will not pay your bills. I can only hope that L remembers this fact sooner than later.

As for me, it is entire possible that I will be privileged to spend a solid month in the Holy Land come winter. Because no matter the choices that some of us do (or don’t) make, the country really is that fabulous. Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


My last post was about Jews and cheeseburgers. This one is about Jews and tattoos. If it seems like Jews doing things they're not really supposed to do is a new theme of mine... well, sort of, but not really. At all.

Why? Because cheeseburgers don't prove anything, except a disregard for kashrut or maybe waist size or, far worse, a lack of the culinary creativity needed to make them taste good without any udder ingredients. Stigadish.*

This is entirely different from Jews who wear a חי where people can see it - not on a necklace, but on their skin. That magen David necklace can come off when you're wandering a hostile eastern European country. My kippah can make appearances only if and when I want it to.

It takes guts to give up the option of religious anonymity. Sure, you can keep your sleeves rolled down, but you're marked, voluntarily, for life. I'm not talking about the rebels who get yeshiva logos tattooed on their arms to spite the establishment, or the generation of Israeli girls with butterflies on their shoulder blades. I'm talking about the Jews who are confident enough in their identity not to hide it -- the 'tough' Jews we admire, maybe with a tinge of jealousy, even while we're not so sure we approve of the way they show it.

Because in the end, I think these tattooed Jews represent the pride that we so desperately need to have in our own culture, our own people. They want you to know who they are, and they couldn't care less whether you like it or not. It's active, in-your-face Judaism in a much more permanent and public way than going to synagogue or keeping kosher.

Personally, I already have one permanent mark identifying me as a Jew, and I'm content to stick with it. But I can finally answer the question my grandmother asks when people do to their bodies anything she wouldn't do to hers: Why would they do that?!

I still can't explain pierced tongues to her. But permanent, inked-in Judaism? I get that. And I like it.

* "Stigadish" is Hebrew for exactly what it sounds like.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bridge Out Ahead

I’ve noticed that the introductions to my posts tend to get a little long. Sometimes, a new post writes itself out of an intro and I need to wait another whole month before I can post on what I was originally going to write about. This is not a bad thing though; it helps me get in my writing zone, our readers enjoy it, and it helps set the stage for whatever I plan on posting about. However, with this post it would be a while before the topic I happen to be riffing on this month becomes apparent. Therefore, let’s get that bit out of the way right now.

Today is an angry day. Today I am mad. Today I will rip the Yeshiva grade school system apart.

There you go, that’s what it’s gonna be. Now let’s discuss why this particular issue is drawing my ire on this particular day.

As many of you know, I am in the midst of a period in college life that is known by many names but I choose to call “Finals Insanity.” It’s around this time that we collegians crawl into our holes and don’t come out until we’re free for the semester. It’s around this time that all other things of import fall to the wayside. It is around this time that we begin to wonder WHY IN THE BLUE HELL AM I TAKING CHEMISTRY?!?!?!?!

Chemistry: my most hated school subject. Wasn’t good at it in high school and I’m still not good at in college. So I wonder, as my chem final approaches, WHY IN THE BLUE HELL AM I TAKING CHEMISTRY?!?!?!?! Oh, because I need two lab sciences to satisfy my natural sciences requirement. Bio? That was science number one. Physics? Yeah right. Earth Science? See physics. So I’m left with chemistry. However, it occurs to me that, as a psychology major, I’m never going to look at chemistry again in my life after Monday’s final. And so I still ask:


It really doesn’t make any sense to me that I should suffer through a class that I’m terrible at and wreck my GPA to fulfill some bogus requirement. Now, I understand the idea of taking classes that have nothing to do with your intended field of study; college should be an opportunity to expand your horizons and study things you normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to study, not just a means to an end. I truly believe that. However, I have no interest in chemistry at all and wouldn’t sit through a semester of it if you paid me. In the meantime, I’m sitting here going brain dead over my textbook and BLOODY PAYING for it. Stupid. But, I’m not here to rant about college core requirements or chemistry, although that is my current plight. What my chemistry dilemma has triggered in my brain is something that I’ve dealt with all my life and only recently got myself out of.

I dislike when something fun is turned into an obligation. You all know that, I wrote about it in my second post. Fun is fun and obligation is obligation, and never the two shall meet. Okay sometimes they can meet but I’m not getting into it here, just read the darn post. This particular arbitribe (I swear this will make it into the vernacular one day) is about how that concept fails to translate into Jewish schooling. Fair warning though, I have no solutions to this problem. I’m not here to provide the answers to life, the universe, and everything (42), just to provoke thought and emotion and write about what I know.

If you’ve been through the Yeshiva school system then you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you’re not a total robot then you understand exactly where I’m coming from and might even feel the same way. As adults we are told that Judaism can be looked at in one of two ways, paraphrased here for your convenience: a) HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY YAY GOD, or b) GODAMNIT I HATE ALL THESE RULES. We are also told that the latter totalitarian view is the lesser of the two, but when channeled properly, can be transformed into the spiritual bliss flavor.

What irks me so greatly is that we pay approximately a gazillion dollars to go to religious private schools simply because they are Jewish schools and yet we are virtually never exposed to what is supposed to be the higher outlook of Judaism. We’re all so busy being concerned about the inhale/exhale spit-back split-second memorizations so we can raise our Chumash grade that we don’t process at all the content of what it is we’re reading. The system is set up in such a way that we are required to focus only on the oppressive nature of schooling, and by extension, Judaism, in order to pass our Judaic classes. There’s rarely any emphasis of the joy and wonder and spiritual qualities of Judaism, if at all. This tends to have catastrophic results.

Allow me to elaborate on a more personal level. I graduated high school without a care or a clue. Over the course of the next two years, I self-destructed. Not really going into the particulars, but let’s just say I was having a more than mild identity crisis. In the end, I decided it all boiled down to my religious observance and faith, or lack thereof. You see, I came out of high school and kind of did whatever I wanted, and my level of Jewish observance slipped greatly. When I recognized that this issue was at the root of my personal disorder, I decided I needed to go back to Israel over the summer and learn about what Judaism really is. My last ditch effort at Judaism.

Long, long, looooong story short, it was amazing, I found a Yeshiva run by the same organization as the summer program, signed on, and spent a grand total of 15 months in blissed out spirituality and happiness. Judaism finally meant something to me; I had discovered the other side of the coin. After two years of wandering around aimlessly, I had found something in my Jewish lifestyle that I could connect to. So life’s great now, but I wonder why I had to wreck two years of my life when the opportunity to tap into the other side of Judaism should have been available to me during 12 years of Yeshiva grade school and two at YU.

As I said before, I have no answers, but I feel it is important to raise the issue. We are so focused on the unimportant things like grades that we fail to see the truth in what we’re doing and how little we’re accomplishing by proceeding as we are. No religious base is set, and when we realize it, we spiral into our own religious identity crises. I liken it to the old Roadrunner cartoons. We watch and laugh as Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner off a cliff, keeps running in the air, and only plummets to the ground after stopping and looking down, realizing that he’s standing on nothing. We laugh, but that’s the story of our lives. We race along the road, not stopping to think about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Eventually we get to a cliff and the bridge is out, but we keep on going. All of a sudden, we wake up, look down, and realize there’s no foundation and nothing is supporting us. Reality sets in, and all of a sudden we’re dropping like flies, making person-shaped craters in the ground below us.

So how do we fix the problem? Some would say the solution is simply to never look down, but I say differently:

Just fix the damn bridge.

Soundtrack to my Finals Insanity – The entire Alive or Just Breathing album by Killswitch Engage

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Broken Boots and Other Hazards of Hitchhiking

This week’s post is brought to you in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut and all things Israel. To celebrate our unique country and its birthday, Arbitribe presents a true story that would never happen anywhere but in Eretz Yisrael.

During my year in Israel, when my hair was still slightly purple, the future was a distant speck, and unicorns and rainbows abounded in the wonderfulness that was spring, my friends (who for the sake of this story shall be referred to as S and L) and I got invited to a family in Moshav Beit Meir* for Shabbat. Essentially, we were to travel from Jerusalem to a beautiful little spot in the middle of nowhere. So we packed our bags, picked up a lovely bouquet for our hosts, and got on one of those thirteen-person sherut cabs Israel has in abundance. We piled into the back row, where the only other person present was a vaguely creepy spiky-haired guy.

As the sherut bounded along down the highway, we girls chatted it up in the back row, until we became vaguely aware of the slightly creepy spiky-haired guy...

Who was staring at us...

Very intently staring at us...

Okay, leering...

Um... yeah.

So we sat as far away from the guy as we could, which wasn’t really that far, considering the vehicle's size. He then proceeded to start the most typical of Israeli hit-ons, which went something along these lines:

Spiky Hair: You girls buy flowers for me, nu?

Freaked-out L: No. No. Lo Lecha!

Spiky: Come ooooonnnnnn. You buy for me, no?

L: No! LO!

Spiky: Heyyyyyyy, yafah, sababa?**

Us: (attempting to ignore)

Spiky: (apparently insulted at our lack of decorum) Amarti, SABABA??????

Eventually, the driver called out the stop for Beit Meir. We were ecstatic to get off the sherut and away from creep-man; that was until we saw that apparently his definition of "Beit Meir" was “the middle lane of a highway”.

Us: Are you sure this is the place?

Driver: Go that way.

Us: Where? Down that tunnel? How?

Driver: What you think? Tremp!!

For those of you who don’t know, to Tremp is to hitchhike. Hitching a ride is pretty popular in Israel, although the safety of tremping varies depending on where you are and in what part of the country. Being American, we weren't sure which part we were in. All we knew was we were in the middle of the highway, and cars were going at 70 mph.

So, after L called our host to make sure we were actually somewhere in the vicinity of Beit Meir (“Tremp!” our host advised), we decided to do the un-American thing and walk.

We walked down into the tunnel and out along the highway, onto a mountain road with a gorgeous view, talking about what a funny story this would make when suddenly…

There we stood with my sock sinking into the mud, wondering whether we should brave playing chicken on a road in a country where no one looks ahead while they drive, or whether we might be safer rappelling down the cliffside. And then, salvation!

L: Ein Kesef!!!!!

Driver: Bo’i! I’m late!


Driver: Shum Bea’aya. I going there anyway!


We clambered aboard, loving G-d for loving us. The driver was an older, typical Israeli, loud and smiling. When he saw my muddy sock, he got excited.

Driver: What happened l’na’alech?

Me: It ripped.

Driver: I have shoe for you. (Digging under seat while driving, produces a plastic bag) Some girl leave her shoes here. You need them?

Me: Um… Todah, lo.

Driver: You sure? She leave them m’lifnei harbei z’man! I don’t think she want them anymore.

After I assured him that I didn’t need the stranger's shoes he’d been storing under his seat for several months, the driver turned to the question that every Jew over forty loves more than a box of kittens and free food combined.

We assured him that while we were, in fact, single, we weren’t looking for him to set us up.

Driver: You sure? I going to pick up Bachurim at the Yeshiva right now. Lots of booooooooyyyyyys.

Us: No, thank you.

Eventually, the sign for Beit Meir came into view, and we rejoiced at the prospect that we would arrive at our destination in one piece.

The driver had a coy smile on his face that told us maybe we’d better take our chances jumping out the window. But then his intentions became clear as he pulled up to the Yeshiva he’d been telling us about, where at least twenty-five black-hatted guys stood impatiently waiting for their ride…

I'm fairly certain that just about did it for L.

S and I caught up with her and squelched our way up the muddy dirt road to our host’s house by the Moshav entrance. There, we had a good laugh.

Well, yeah. You knew that had to happen.

We made it to our host’s house. Shabbat was wonderful. I borrowed L’s purple crocs. Our hosts were super friendly. We slept in a trailer in their backyard, where S particularly enjoyed our rural setting.

And after Shabbat, we were advised to tremp our way back to Jerusalem, a more economical and (since our starting point was a town where everyone knew each other) safer option than trying to flag down a cab on the side of the highway.

We stood by the Moshav entrance, where a lone backpacker was also waiting. Several cars flew on by, ignoring us, when the backpacker got sick of it and did what any sensible person would do.

Perhaps the waiting had made him suicidal. Maybe he thought the road was as good a place as any for a nap. Maybe he was just sick of that backpack. Either way, it worked. The car stopped and offered him a ride, which is as big a miracle as any, since I'm fairly certain most people would have much rather called the strange man in the road a cop car before they let him in theirs.

Welcome to Israel. Nowhere else can you be ditched by the side of the road and picked up by another cab for free “cause he’s going that way anyway”, plus get offered a pair of strange shoes AND 25 blind dates, all in under an hour. I love our little country.

* A Moshav is a tiny town in a rural area

**Sababa is Israeli slang. It basically means "alright" or "cool"

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