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Sunday, February 18, 2007

I've got sunshine!

Shalom! שלום!
Currently, the room which I initially described as white, bare,
empty, and dirty, is being filled with beautiful sunlight, and I can
gladly call this small apartment my home. Yesterday I not only
walked to the beach (which I am blessed to do often), but I did so in
just a t-shirt and waded into the warm waters of the mediterranean
with some friends from school. Other days I have spent playing
rummikub on the beach and watching the sunset, drinking a cappuccino
in whatever coffee shop I stumble on to, or perusing the markets for
whatever my little heart desires :).
The markets here, "ha shuk caramel" and the flea market in Jaffa, are
those kinds of places which provide a complete sensation. There are
the pleasant smells of the fresh baking bread and the most vividly
colored red peppers and tomatoes. Strawberries are bulging and
placed next to the kiwis, pomleos, pomegranates, and bananas. The
street is endless and arranged in sections of fruits, vegetables,
meat, cheese, clothes, and scattered throughout are the remaining
shops which have everything else you could think of. If any of you
are like my family, a trip to costco is not just to buy lots and lots
of food, but it is also a joyous occasion for a family meal as we
walk up and down each aisle making sure not to miss one of those red-
checkered white-haired women slaving over their microwave friendly
delectables. This is a close corollary to life in the shuk as I have
no doubt taken advantage of my fair share of free samples, so each
visit is a wonderful experience. In fact, as I was innocently
strolling through the center of the market yesterday, a man grabbed
my hand and proceeded to spoon a large heap of rice and spices into
it. Now, those of you that live in the US know that your parents
told you never to eat an opened candy on halloween. Well, these
thoughts came to my mind as I am staring down this pile of greasy
rice resting in my hand that has been given to my by a complete
stranger! I'm sure you can relate to my response of just looking
dumbly confused as the man encouraged me to eat this treat. But,
once realizing my lack of options, I gave in to the divine smell and
devoured the rice with my hands much like the scene in "Beauty and
the Beast" where the beast slurps down his cream of wheat to Bell's
dismay. But, I HAVE NO SHAME, and am proud to say that this was some
of the most delicious rice I have ever tasted. So, because of the
free rice which was so good, I crumbled to the man's cheesy smile and
cheap salesman tricks and bought some spices from him to make tea
back at home. Call me a softie, but that rice was good! It is also
very enjoyable to hear the shop owners screaming out their "special
prices" for their "special friends." I've apparently been made best
friends with most shop owners due to my skin color, but the
experiences of making them laugh while bargaining for the best price
is priceless and a great skill for a good number of markets all
around the world! I even have my own juice lady! Each time I go to
the market, which is almost daily, I go to visit my juice lady who
fresh squeezes me her daily special so that I can try each delicious
blend of tropical delight. Needless to say, life is "70 degree
good" :).
I have began referring to myself as the eternal optimist. More and
more I find myself realizing the beauty we are blessed with each day,
enveloping us in warmth, color, and life.
My grandfather used to say "Be blessed and be a blessing." Well, I
sure hope that I am being a blessing because I am being blessed greatly.

Many of you have asked for details about my trip to Petra, well, it
has been postponed because we are sleeping outside and Jordan had
snow...so, we will be doing that trip later :). But I am planning on
a trip to hike Mt. Sinai on one of my weekends, and next weekend will
be going north to volunteer for an agricultural organization and
spending shabbat in a protected forest watching one of the largest
bird migrations in the world.
Speaking of trees, last Tuesday I went out of town with some people
from the Jewish National Fund to plant a few trees as more of a
tourist than an volunteer. It is custom to plant a tree on your
first visit to Israel. So, I chose to plant two trees:
My first tree I planted for Kay White a dear friend of my family
who is currently battling cancer (prayers and thoughts appreciated).
Secondly, I planted a tree in celebratory remembrance of my
grandfather Bernard Seaman, one of my great inspirations, and my
beautiful and incredible grandmother Gertrude who is brightening the
world each day with her life and love.
I have attached at the end the Jewish prayer that is said when trees
are planted in Israel, if anyone is interested :).

And last, but surely not least, I spent last weekend in Jerusalem, (Photos)
which proved to be one of the most spur of the moment trips of my
life. We spent the morning that we arrived meeting a UN friend who
is working on mental health programs for children traumatized by war
in the Gaza Strip. She just moved to live there full time last
weekend. We spent the day enjoying both the old and new cities, and
wanted to enter the old city via the Damascus gate in the Muslim
quarter. As we arrived, the gate was surrounded by around one-
hundred guards and there were arabs running out of the gate,
something which struck us as a little strange. They granted us
access to the city because the friend lives in the old city and has a
high level of Israeli security clearance. We then heard, (once we
were already in the city) that we should not go into the city because
there was rioting, tear gassing, rubber bullets, and some fighting in
the center. We all looked around with worried grins as we were
already in the place that we were being told not to go, fortunately
we were still in the peaceful Christian quarter and were able to
evacuate the city with little hassle. The following days had very
high security throughout the city, with random checkpoints and a
greatly increased number of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers at
every street corner.
That evening was an experience. We were invited by this UN friend to
have dinner with her and "some friends." Turns out we had pizza with
a group of british and swiss UN workers, most of whom had worked in
Gaza, and 3 who were kidnapped in Gaza. They related that the
kidnapping experience was actually quite enjoyable as they were
treated nicely and offered tea and snacks for the period while they
were waiting for a response from the government. As most of the
kidnappings there are only for some political reason or to get
someone out of jail, the entire process really only entailed (for
them at least) a 3ish hour commitment, fancy that! And I'm sure it's
always great to have a story that you got kidnapped in Gaza, no
sweat :). So after, I believe, 5 bottles of wine and 6 pizzas we all
piled into a caravan of UN vehicles and made our way to a UN building
for a evening party. Yes, it's true, I spent the evening having a
few drinks and dancing the night away with UN dignitaries from all
around the world. Not quite the experience I expected, and
definitely a fresh view on the reality of life for those in the UN.
How cool is that??!!
And just on a fun note, the entire day was spent answering the
question "where are you from?," with "America, Switzerland, Canada,
and Germany, we're a variety pack!" :).
The next day we crossed the Palestinian border and visited Bethlehem
and its various landmarks. We had a christian arab tour guide who
explained everything in decent detail. The coolest of the places
though was a less famous place called Herodion, a hidden castle which
Herod had built as a final stronghold in case of attack. It is a
manmade mountain, so coming up to it you have no idea, but when you
enter this small crevice in the rock, you are inside of a castle!
It's incredible! Once at the top you are surrounded by columns which
used to support grand halls and roman baths and finally, from the top
is the most gorgeous view of Bethlehem, the dead sea, the judean
desert, and surrounding countryside. Breathtaking.

Keep your eyes open for middle eastern news. A lot is going on these
days and with the building of the new bridge from the jewish quarter
to the temple mount (muslim quarter), there is a lot more unrest in
the muslim world. Israeli and Palestinian tensions are slightly
increased, and Egypt's political ties to Israel are in danger of
termination. Only time will tell what happens around here.

I am in my last week of intensive hebrew school and will begin
engineering classes next monday. I hope the excitement continues as
I continue exploring this wonderful place.
Hope all is well! And thanks for reading.

Prayer for Planting Trees in Israel:

Heavenly Father - אבינו שבשמים
Thou who buildest Zion and Jerusalem–בונה ציון
Take pleasure in Thy land–ומכוץ מלכות ישראל
And bestow upon it of Thy goodness–רצה הי ארצך
And Thy grace.–והשפע עליה מטוב חסדך.

Give dew for a blessing
And cause beneficient rains
To fall in their season,
To satiate the mountains of Israel
And her valleys,
And to water thereon
Every plant and tree,
And these saplings
Which we plant before thee this day.

Make deep their roots
And wide their crown,
That they may blossom forth in grace
Amongst all the trees in Israel,
For good and for beauty.

And strengthen the hands
Of all our brethren,
Who toil to revive the sacred soil
And make fruitful its wastes.
Bless, o Lord, their might,
And may the work of their hands
Find favour before Thee.

Look down from Thy holy habitation,
From heaven,
And bless this land
That it may flow again
With milk and honey.

Amen – אמן

Shalom! -Aaron שלום–אהרון!!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

2 weeks

I officially have two weeks of Israel under my belt and I must say that it is spectacular. I'm settled in now, I have my favorite grocery store, I can ride the busses around the city, and am familiar enough to get around where I need to go. I've finished my first week of Ulpan (Hebrew School) and am already picking out approximately 5% of the words in a given conversation, but that's better than zero! Already I am able to write in Hebrew script and read. I just need to know more words! If anyone wants to teach me some Hebrew words please send a quick reply!
I have written a lot about the sunshine which regularly floods my windows, but the last few days I have been awed in other ways. I took a walk in the thunderstorm last night and have never heard such massive booming in the skies, and have never been so shocked by the flashes of lightning surrounding my head. Talk about incredible! I'm sure this is not native to Israel, but I was having a moment, okay?! Likewise, sitting on the rocks on the Mediterranean yesterday as the uneasy seas crashed up in front of my face, slowly transferring my clothes from dry and comfortable, to soggy and quite the opposite :). None the less, the walk home from the beach was enjoyable. But, before we left the harbor I had the most interesting dining experience of my life, of which I feel led to tell you all of now :). Story Time!!
We were looking for a place that we could get a drink, perhaps a small snack, so we bypassed all of the ocean-front restaurants and found one that looked like a shack overlooking the harbor knowing that it would be cheap, fun, and young. Waitresses and waiters clad in black t-shirts scurried about, and many families sitting around big tables enjoying their "catch of the day" laughed and enjoyed themselves. Once we had really gotten inside, we found that our rolled up jeans, sandy shoes, and bulging backpacks were not quite the standard for this restaurant, but we were set on getting our afternoon snack! We were quickly shuffled to a small table (4 of us) and rather than brining us the expected menu's and perhaps glasses of water, the waitress brought out 6 triangular shaped dishes filled with very colorful sauces and vegetables. She smiled at our confused faces as I was sure that she had not delivered to the appropriate table. About 25 seconds later, following 25 seconds of confused conversation the waitress appears with 6 more triangular dishes, at which point she smiles again and told me not to worry, as I apparently was the most obviously concerned with my pocketbook. I knew thought from the prior 25 second experience what that smile meant. Once again, she appeared (after having set 12 dishes already) with a large salad bowl, a spicy fish, a stuffed eggplant, a bowl of rolls, a pitcher of water, and yet another friendly assurance that everything would be okay. As you can imagine, we were all somewhat stunned and began chuckling and looking at each other all simultaneously thinking: this is going to be expensive, but no turning back now! So, with that, we began dipping our rolls, filling our plates, and enjoying these divine blessings. If you remember from the beginning of this story, we were sat at a small table for four. Now this is not an Applebees table at which they seat 4 yet could probably seat 6 grown adults, a high-chair, and one of those massive pumpkins you see at the fair, it was a small 4 person table. As most of you know, I am not the smallest of people, so If you let yourself imagine for a moment, Aaron, some sort of juicy fish on his right, 12 dishes in front and a stuffed eggplant on his left, there was no more room for me to function than my small plate measuring six inches in diameter. If you have ever sat next to Emily (my sister) who is a left handed eater during a meal, you know what kind of compact conditions this can create. I dove into this beautiful array of brightly colored dishes knowing that, if I was paying for this, I was going to enjoy it! Soon the waitress again came out and asked us what we wanted to eat. I daintily wiped my face, making sure not to knock any dishes off the table by actually putting my arm up to reach the face but instead with a more awkward, stiff armed gesture. Again, we were all confused, not having seen a menu, or being offered any choices, it seemed like some sort of game to play with the stupid Americans :). After lots of explaining, a second waiter, and many non-understood sentences, they had taken our order, an order whose contents were unknown to us. We continued enjoying our treats and soon our meal had arrived. First the girls, of course, whose cuts of white fish looked divine and smothered in lemon-butter sauce. But then, my plate came, and it wasn't the nice piece of white fish I expected to receive as well, it was a fish...a full fish that had been cut in half, and cooked. Bones, tail, fins, eyes, let your imagination go wild. I once again decided to take life by the horns and began devouring this poor little fishy whom I decided to name Herbert. Twenty minutes later, Herbert was no more, we received a surprisingly decently priced bill, and headed back home, stomachs full, and faces aglow. This is the story of the 20-dish table.
In other news, I am leaving early Friday morning with a group of 5 other students and a private guide to Petra and its surrounding Jordanian landscape. I have heard, and believe that Petra may be on the list of the worlds most spectacular places to visit. Fortunately as well, having a small group and private guide, we will not hop off of a bus and take quick pictures of the facade, instead we will be spending 2 days hiking around the mountains of Petra and seeing even more history of the people who once inhabited the area. Also, we will be spending the evenings in a bedouin camp, sleeping around the fire, and eating what is claimed to be some of the best meat in the world. I will surely update you all once arriving back home.

It has been great hearing from all of you in your replies. Thank you for reading. I hope all is well with each and every one of you.