The Search for Truth

On a field trip to the City of David, my roommate, Eliana, and I had the following conversation with our professor of Biblical Archaeology, Joel:


Joel: That, over there? I don’t know what that is. But I also don’t even know much about the area to make something up.

Eliana: That’s okay, we’d believe anything you would say.

Me: I agree. Literally anything.

Eliana: It doesn’t even have to be truthful.

Me: What is truth, afterall?

Eliana: Oh, are you really going to take us there?


The tone of this conversation was humorous; Joel found it amusing that we would trust his knowledge of Israeli Biblical Archeology, and Eliana poked fun at the fact that I, a bit sarcastically, took a simple conversation in a very philosophically enriched direction. “No no no” I responded to her. But in reality, I actually did want to go there.

I spend a lot of my time learning about how other people see the world. Various lenses, experiences, and accounts teach and guide ME, and so I wonder: to what extent does a historical or personal narrative uphold a sense of truthfulness. Furthermore, how does that contribute to the ways these narratives are shared? More importantly, do questions like these matter?

For obvious reasons, scholars of human science often study this concept of ‘the historical narrative.’ The debates regarding an existence of a historical narrative really rest on the question of not “what is a narrative,” but rather, “what is the meaning within and absent from the narrative.” According to scholar Hayden White’s “The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation,” linguistic anthropologists (Genette, Todorov, and Barthes) regard the narrative as “a manner of speaking characterized [by] ‘a certain number of exclusions and restrive conditions’ that the more ‘open’ form of discourse does not impose on the speaker” (2). Essentially, they suggest that ‘truthfulness’ and ‘reality’ in the narrative form could potentially be deduced by an examination of specific grammatical structures. I could suggest then, that if truthfulness in the narrative — or rather, if the existence of ONE truth — is determined by grammatical structures, cultures with different speech patterns will presumably have different senses of reality in the narrative. I further want to argue that this does not make any of the narratives less “truthful;” it instead makes “truth” more applicable.

Follow my train of thought.

I think back to a conversation we often had in a Holocaust Literature class from college. “Is there one way of interpreting the account, historically and/or personally” (the AND/OR of course being very important here). Holocaust scholars study this aspect of the narrative very deeply. In the introduction of James Edward Young’s “Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Young states how “both events and their representations are ultimately beholden to the forms, language, and critical methodology through which they are grasped….instead of isolating events from their representations, this approach recognizes that literary and historical truths of the Holocaust may not be entirely separable” (1). Young further suggests how “the truths of the Holocaust…must now be seen to inhere in the ways we understand, interpret and write its history [and proposes] a search for the truth in the interpretation intrinsic to all versions of the Holocaust: both that the interpretation which the writer consciously effects and that which his narrative necessarily accomplishes for him” (2).

This last part is essential as it addresses several issues at once: not only is there a search for the TRUTH in the interpretation intrinsic to ALL VERSIONS of the Holocaust, but also the writer’s (or speaker’s) conscious interpretation is distinguished from the interpretation accomplished FOR HIM.

I am left speechless and incredibly curious. Such an argument takes the concept of truth and both generalizes and specifies it so that we are left to question if it can be maintained by history and culture in the first place.

We are in the process of questioning this in my Biblical Archaeology class. We pin biblical narrative against the archaeological one in a puzzle aiming to determine where the truth actually lies. Because different people wrote the Bible in different points of history– with different agendas and values and beliefs– the argument could be made by Archaeologists that the accounts are not entirely TRUTHFUL. And yet, a large population of people in Israel and abroad live their lives organized by the words of the Bible’s books. So much so, in fact, that ‘truth’ is the only way to explain why they do so.

It is an interesting debate, with even more of an interesting cultural account happening on the ground in Israel today. The “secular vs. religious” debate in Israel, I argue, stems from the question of truthfulness in the Israeli narrative. And, because the Israeli narrative combines both historical accounts with the biblical ones, “truth,” here too, becomes both generalized and specific. But, beautifully, it also accounts for why one could spend a Friday night Shabbat service in the heart of Israel’s religiosity, adhering to the strict law of Shabbat ritual, OR dressed in jeans on the beach of Tel Aviv with the sun setting over the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure I have an answer for what truth is; In fact, I am not sure anyone really does. What interests me more is the intersection of the various truths that exist in culture, in history, and in time. Look around… the world runs on truth!



Sacred Space in Israeli Pilgrimages


On Thursday, my Biblical Archaeology class traveled from North Jerusalem to South Jerusalem in efforts to get better acquainted with the topography of the land, a topic we studied in lecture the day before. We stopped at several points along the way– namely a mosque/synagogue called Navi Solomon, a Kibbutz on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the Promenade (see previous blog post about Promenade). For the purposes of this blog post, I would like to focus my attentions on the first mentioned site, Navi Solomon, as it profoundly speaks to conversations regarding the cultural influence in creating sacred space.

As we walked through the site, it became important to me to note what we saw. Both structures left behind by Crusaders (presumably discovered by Archaeologists) and new Jerusalem settlements in the near distance contrasted ideologies of the “old” with those of the “new.” At the same time, the Orthodox attention both in prayer service as well as in a touristic sense signified this site as “holy.” With the knowledge that groups use the building both as a Synagogue and a Mosque, the question of “sacred space” as a concept seemed hard to understand by these observations alone.

To what extent does the creation of sacred spaces involve influences stemming from beyond just the mere physical structure of said sacred space?

“The Prophet Samuel was buried here,” says my professor Joel. Immediately following that statement, he explained how Samuel is actually not buried there. Confusing, no?

Apparently, Crusaders racing through an Arab village confused the name with a Biblical town in which Samuel lived. They then assumed the Arab villagers had the bones of Samuel, and violently demanded the Arab villagers to hand them over; fearing for their lives, the Arab villagers handed over a random set of bones and lied about them being Samuel’s. Hence, this site– known to be where the prophet Samuel is buried– is not actually embedded with real biblically significance.

Why, then, do tourists and visitors uphold the maintenance of an non-sacred site as sacred?

In efforts to maintain religiosity in geographical landmarks in the past few years, the Israeli government encourages pilgrimages to sites like Navi Solomon, even though there is no real holiness to the site beyond the fact that it is a Mosque and a Synagogue. The culture of Israel in today’s times encourages a modern contemporary movement that focuses on places and associates to them religious, spiritual, and holy meaning. Essentially, there is an active and profound development in the creation of space “as sacred.”

My professors keep discussing the relationship between Biblical Israel and Modern Israel, and how almost every aspect of Israeli culture today combines the past with the present. The Torah, the biblical land, and the ancient people work together to create a historical narrative that sets a foundation for the development of Israel today. This somewhat uncontrollable juxtaposition of past and present reminds me of anthropological ideologies of “embodied space,” which would explain the new trending need for naming sites in Israel as “sacred.” In “Anthropology of Space and Place: Looking Culture,” editors Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga suggest how embodied space “is the location where human experience and consciousness take on material and spatial form” (2). They continue on with a reference to Miles Richardson (1982, 1984) who “addresses how body experience and perception become material by considering how we transform experience to symbol and then remake experience into an object…. ‘being there’ becomes cultural [and] this ‘becoming’ takes place, literally and socially, in the construction of [multiple] realities” (5).

Many anthropologists offer similar analyses in the case of spacial studies, and I urge you to read some of these theories. It interests me to relate them back to Israeli culture, especially as I am determined to understand the Israel I see apart from the Israel in the Biblical narrative. Israeli culture appropriates or reproduces or transforms the society in time and in space and so here, one literally witnesses an entire culture exist in both modern times and in biblical times.  While I find that as much interesting as I do problematic and challenging, I do find it comforting to think about it in terms of spacial orientation, and the union between Israel’s people and rituals and land. Every person here interacts with each other and with the rituals and with the land of both the biblical past and the modern present, and they feed off of each other and rely on each other to determine the sacredness of this culture. The pilgrimages are just one ways in which this sacredness is exemplified.

Poetry on a day of Mourning

After Auschwitz by Anne Sexton

as black as a hook, 
overtakes me. 
Each day, 
each Nazi
took, at 8: 00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan. 

And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail. 

Man is evil, 
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt, 
I say aloud.
is a bird full of mud, 
I say aloud. 

And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus. 

Man with his small pink toes, 
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse, 
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes, 
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud. 

I beg the Lord not to hear. 


Jews all over Israel (and in the diaspora) fasted today in honor of a holiday called Tisha B’Av, which literally translates to the ninth day in the month of Av (today’s date on Israel’s lunar calendar). As you can see if you read it’s wiki page, Tisha B’av embodies a national day of mourning by originally commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples, the Spanish inquisition, and Russian pogroms.

Anne Sexton’s poem above interests me, mostly because she captures the exact sentiment of Tisha B’av’s relationship to the Holocaust especially here in Israel. I find myself confused today because it is on Yom HaShoah that we commemorate the unbearable losses of the Holocaust; however, today is not that day, and yet mention of the Holocaust was apparent almost everywhere. I wonder why a holiday with so many ancient ties to destructions from the past draws upon the more recent atrocities instead. Could it be that there exists a longing for modern adaptation even in one of the most traditional rituals in Israel?

I suggest that very particular language to discuss today’s meaning actually reveals this holiday’s true ambiguity.

As part of our programming this afternoon, we met with Israeli poet Gilad Meiri. With him we studied Israeli poetry not about rituals or holidays or Tisha B’Av, but instead about Jerusalem. And why? Because, as he put it, “to be a Jewish poet or a poet in Israel, you have to deal with the prophets and the bible and the ancient texts. There’s no way around it.”

Except I couldn’t help but think about Sexton’s religious poetry and wonder how much validity rests in Meiri’s assumption. Sexton writes a poem about grief, and while the imagery is mostly that of the Holocaust, one can easily relate the poem to Tisha B’av from the lines “Man with his small pink toes/with his miraculous fingers/is not a temple.” I find this connection truly remarkable: realizing that I consider Sexton’s poetry more relatable than the Jerusalem poems we read today, I would suggest a change to Meiri’s original question. Instead of “What is the agenda of the poet,” should we be asking ourselves “what is the LANGUAGE of the poet?”

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal write about “Language Ideology” and “Linguistic Differentiation.” In an article they contributed to the book “Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Politics, and Identities,” they assert how “people conceive of links between linguistic forms and social phenomena…. [and that] as part of everyday behavior, the use of a linguistic form can become a pointer to the social identities and they typical activities of speakers” (2000: 37).

Their suggestion seems to uphold why, on a national day of mourning and remembrance, poems of all kinds are being read and shared. Simply put, it becomes a natural part of Israeli ritual on Tisha B’av. To what extent does this language push an agenda for observing Jews?

The poems we read together today are beautiful, there is no doubting that. But for me, Amichai and other Israeli poets seem to get lost in a Jerusalem of the past– like Tisha B’Av– without really accounting for ongoing losses and struggles and hardships of its inhabitants. Anne Sexton, on the other hand, uses her words to construct an argument on behalf of people in what I would consider a “timeless today.”

One can read Jerusalem-related poetry and, in her mind, connect the imagery of the stone to the forthcoming redemption of our people. That would be pushing an old, traditionalist point of view. The other choice is to read Sexton and relate her language, the way I do, to existing and future hardships and tumult not just for Jewish people but for humanity in general. And I am not here to write that either interpretation is problematic. What I choose to point out is that different agendas get pushed by different uses of language.

Perhaps language, then, works as a vehicle to partner the poet with the interpretation. Gal and Irvine discuss different languages in various social contexts: perhaps these “different languages” are really examples of these different partnerships existing in the same space.

Mats of Our Now: Authenticity in Practice


I used to joke that I considered writing an anthropological thesis on the commodification of yoga in America. Joking, of course, because the fieldwork would have given me an excuse to spend more time in the studio and on my mat, benefiting really only myself and not so much anyone else. And yet the more I think about the juxtaposition of living as a tourist in a foreign country, the more I think about questions that would arise in such a project. Can authentic representations of different cultures exist around the world?

Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) discusses how we as humans play a role on the stage of life. His argument suggests that we choose exactly how we interact with our surroundings and that this choice plays out in the props we use and the people with whom we interact. Applying this to tourism, Goffman suggests that each tourist structure has a “front space” as well as a “back space,” allowing the tourist only to see the front while banishing her from the back. This hypothesis questions whether or not natives ever represent their cultures authentically for non-native visitors.

I am reminded of this question of authenticity in particular today because of my trip to a local yoga studio this morning. After waking up with painful knees (from running on the limestone sidewalks) and a very sore back (from walking up and down the hills with my backpack), I decided enough was enough. Two weeks since I’ve taken yoga and it’s been two weeks too long. So I walked the fifteen minutes to the closest yoga studio I could find– the one recommended to me by the daughter-in-law of the woman in charge of my program.

I ran past the studio last week and laughed about “how Israeli” it seems to be: stone and cement buildings with only one sign, and no explanation for how to get around the fences and gates to even find the room. When I arrived this morning, I saw a woman sitting on the steps and with broken hebrew (and the most pathetic looking puppy-dog eyes I could pull from within) I asked “do you know where the studio is?” “Here,” she replied, “just go under the gate.”

And so, Israeli yoga and I were off to sort of a rocky start.

After practicing seriously for the last two years, and not-so-seriously for four years before that, I got quite comfortable with what I know. So when classes started today, and three of us sat on our mats in what looks like an all-purpose room (with no signifiers of a yoga studio whatsoever) to begin stretching, I started to worry. After half an hour of stretching in sitting poses, I began to panic: “This isn’t going to be what I want it to be,” I said to myself. “I am not going to be practicing yoga in Israel.”

Then I wondered: Am I really practicing yoga anywhere?

I am fortunate that I have a wonderful studio in Boston, and an equally wonderful studio for when I find myself in New York. The teachers in both places remind me always that yoga is about what I can conjure up from within myself to remain centered and balanced both on my mat and off my mat. My space– the mat I practice on and the areas in which I walk through life– become as challenging for me as they do for my friends. But because I learn from people who share the belief that strength comes from the breath and security comes from the heart, the challenging moments more often than not eventually become merely pebbles in my walkway. So why wouldn’t I have the ability to find ounces of serenity in Israel?

It turns out that this yoga class was fantastic. The teachor, Limor, was gentle and her voice was sweet. We stretched a lot, had a few vinyasa flows, and spent more time on inversions than I have in a while. I was challenged, I made progress, and, most importantly, I was reminded of how important it is for me to physically move in the yoga ways and make contact with my breath. I don’t know what ‘authentic yoga’ is, but I know that I experienced some sort of it in today’s class.

Authenticity certainly exists in cultures, and indeed tourists do not always get to experience it firsthand. But perhaps the problem lies not with the natives but with the tourists themselves. I found a hole-in-the-wall yoga place that seems “authentically Israeli,” but it also seems like it could become my new spiritual safe place or the spot in which I shut my phone off for an hour and a half and concentrate on the presence of my physical body. All of us can have spaces like that if we look hard enough.

Perhaps I am suggesting authenticity comes not in our expectations, but in those moments when we have no expectations at all and allow for life to run its course. Drawing on the ideological and psychological notions of Radical Acceptance, I mean those moments when we tune into our environment wholeheartedly and objectively; when stop longing for something else or some place else for that moment, and instead long for more time on the “mats of our now.”

Food for thought as we head into this very happy weekend!

“Everybody Likes Watermelon” : Nationalism and Identity Construction in Jerusalem

“Human beings suffer. They torture one another, They get hurt and get hard…. History says don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge. Believe that further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracle and cures and healing wells. Call miracle self-healing: the utter, self-revealing double-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountain or lightning and storm, and a god speaks from the sky, that means someone is hearing the outcry and the birth-cry of new life at its term.”

Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” — his translation of Sophocles’ “The Philoctetes” — captures the struggle for a people ravished by violence to manage and stipulate their way to peace. The last several stanzas in particular articulate hopeful messages of life outside of warfare, fear, and captivity; and, this strength, as suggested by Heaney, comes from not just the individual’s power but from a power within humanity as well.

As I read his poem over and over again, I am hypnotized by the idea of hope in justice– essentially, hope in other people. In order to maintain a hope in mankind, one must have experiences in which she can recall instances where neighbors, friends, and communities reveal characteristics of support, protection and devotion. That kind of trust amongst people stems from building spaces– metaphorically and physically– in which people identify with each other deeply, relate to each other emotionally, and support each other physically and mentally. If nothing else, these places become arenas of commonality. This can seem so small as a workplace environment, or it can seem so large as nationalisms and personhoods. For the purposes of my experiences in Jerusalem, I wish to focus on the latter.

Many anthropologists write about the creation of nations. Classic citations would of course include Ernest Renan, who, in “What is a Nation,” discusses how “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle….[based on] the desire to live together [and] the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form” (19). But while Renan focuses on the projection of communal memories into said community’s future, Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community…imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Imagined Communities: 6). By this, Anderson means undoubtedly free communities with finite boundaries. I reference these two scholars in particular because of their theoretical postulation of nation-building as it relates to identity construction, but lately I wonder if their views really need to stand in opposition from one another. Perhaps nation-states today construct nationalism between these two definitions, instead of in accordance to one alone.

What does this have to do with me, you ask?

Yesterday I went to Jerusalem’s Tayelet (also known as Haas Promenade), situated in the neighborhood Talpiot. Known for it’s remarkable view, this park attracts not only most Birthright groups passing through Jerusalem, but most major tourist organizations as well as local Israelis.


After walking an hour from my school’s campus to the park (a leisurely walk, mind you), we met with HUC’s professor of the Israel seminar (seen in picture). Before walking along the promenade’s wooded path, we stopped at the edge and stood face to face with an indescribable image: the contrast of the old city against Jerusalem’s high rise apartment buildings; the Dome of the Rock amidst roads filled with moving cars and trucks; and areas of dry and barren land between clumps of neighborhoods.

At this moment, my professor began to offer a socio-cultural context: we were standing in East Jerusalem, which is the Palestinian “part” of Jerusalem. The bus stop in the neighborhood serves both an Arab bus line and a Jewish bus line (some parts of Israel maintain segregated bus lines) and, subsequently, there is no communication between the two communities. “The Palestinians use the same bank and supermarket and post office but the customers never talk to each other,” says Jeremy. And, above it all, the UN headquarters sits behind a fence of electric wire (which I have my own opinions about, and can discuss at a different time).


I did however take a picture of our location on google maps:

The little dotted line that circles the blue dot (my location) is the Armistice line. Jeremy says that this creates a “no man’s land” in which we were located. I asked him to explain more, and he informed me that Israel occupied this land in the 1960s but no one today would recognize this control, and therefore googlemaps adheres to several political borders. I bring this up only to explain how contentious the physical land becomes, and to question whether or not nations can ever really coexist peacefully with such a visceral reaction to the actual occupied space.

Jeremy suggested that implied meaning is worth everything in Jerusalem. He then proposed a question that would carry me through today’s events as well: “Is nation-building and identity formation constructed or natural?” Immediately I turned to anthropology theory, and now I turn back to the binary constructed by pitting Renanian theory against Andersonian theory. Does Jerusalem fall in the middle? Can Jerusalem fall in the middle? Or can it be aligned, nationalistically, elsewhere?

We were given another opportunity to explore this question back in our neck of the woods. As part of orientation today, we split into ten groups of four. Then Jeremy gave us a quarter of Jerusalem to which we would venture. There, we were supposed to ask people about their experiences in that area.

This assignment was an effort to get us to understand Israel better. Jeremy says that archaeology is so important here because “beyond intellectual curiosity, there is an assumption that discovering something from the ground is proof of a connection to the land, and that we are not looking for a ‘them’ in the ground but rather for an ‘us.’”

But I would argue that beyond the significance of the territorial arrangement of Jerusalem, there is a need to speak to the people who inhabit this land. The obligation of understanding what is going on here can only be fulfilled by understanding what happens between people on the ground, and so I was very excited to be assigned, quite literally, anthropological fieldwork.

My colleagues and I started walking along the lightrail towards our destination.


This train in itself explains a lot of Jerusalem’s changing culture. The last time I lived in Israel this street was congested with cars in unbearable traffic, and the train was only first being built. Now, completely blocked off to vehicles, it transports people along a very remote path of the city. In itself it is very political– some Israelis fear it because of the very real possibility of suicide bomber attacks, while others appreciate it’s modernity and ability to transform Jerusalem into a city of the future.

The lightrail exemplifies a theme discovered by almost every group during today’s assignment: that each neighborhood has people with both commonalities and differences in the ways they consider Jerusalem. With a conscious performance of personhood and nationalism, their identities as a members of the city separate from the issue of homogeneity almost naturally.

I turn back to the question of where Jerusalem falls between Renan and Anderson theory.

People of Jerusalem share in a common past and a common future, as Renan would expect, but they also often disagree about how to act in accordance with one another. Their borders are defined, as Anderson would suggest, but because of their hostility, their borders and sovereignty are limited. So perhaps it’s not that they align with both Renan and Anderson, or in the middle; perhaps, nationalistic identities are constructed here separate from Renanian and Andersonian theories altogether. And in fact, maybe nationalism in Jerusalem relies on both a nationalism that is natural and a nationalism that is constructed.

During times when Jerusalem experiences serious terrorism, it would be helpful to think that the ways in which other people in the city construct their nationalistic identities depend on so much more than what is comfortable and easy. The combination of inherency and performance in nationalism formation might be exactly what Heaney (in the poem above) would suggest as the source of hope between and within disputing nations.

I leave you tonight with two more pictures. Today I walked passed a group of people building a watermelon stand. The stand is situated in a neighborhood that is located next to where the green line (line separating Israeli and Palestinian lands) used to be. The city has a large Arab population, as it was one of the first main cities in which Arabs moved after the borders were changed. Located directly above and below this neighborhood are Hasidic communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The goal of the watermelon stand, which will also house musical performances, dance parties, farmer markets, and movie night throughout the summer, is to bring people together on the same land. Because, as one of the builders informed me, “everyone likes watermelon.”


Flowers of Pluralism: Women of the Wall Protests in Jerusalem

At an event held in Hebrew Union College – Institute of Religion on Saturday, our provost told us that many Israelis call the University’s Israeli Pluralism Program with the following question: “Is this the center for floralism studies?”

Though this received an eruption of laughter, it also happens to be remarkably interesting. You see, in the Hebrew language the letter to match the English letters of F and P is the same one. So when reading Hebrew, one must assume the word is Pluralism, otherwise it very easily spells Floralism. With an abundance of jokes regarding the floral industry in Israel and our campus’s place in it, we all quickly realized that this touches on something much more serious than flower arrangements: Israeli society still seems strikingly unaware of the concept of Pluralistic Judaism. Because of the impossibility in separating Israel’s daily life from any sense of religion, and it’s political law from Talmudic law, this ignorance extends beyond religiosity and into a larger question of human rights.

Women of the Wall in Israel is an organization whose mission “is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” For over twenty years this organization has been fighting against Orthodox control of the Western Wall, a control forbidding women to pray as equal to men in one of the holiest Judaic sites. Unfortunately, in the last several years alone women have been arrested for wearing prayer shawls, and disagreements between Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and WOW have escalated into serious violence. According to this Ha’aretz article (Israeli national newspaper), just two months ago “the plaza area became a scene of violence [when] ultra-Orthodox young men began hurling chairs and water bottles at members of the women’s activist group, and later, rocks at the bus that delivered them from the scene.” But with a Jerusalem District Court ruling that maintained WOW’s actions as “part of local customs,” WOW held onto their rights to practice as much as ever before. Though these protests do not make international news in mainstream media, they appear all over the place in the Israeli national circuit. Quite clearly, WOW now resembles the women’s suffrage movement in Israeli history.

With that background, I would like to tell you about this morning’s protest.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, translating to mean “the beginning of [the Hebrew month] Av.” In general, Rosh Chodesh became an occasion for women to gather together for learning and ritual; however, this particular Rosh Chodesh stands apart from the other Rosh Chodesh services, as this month in the Hebrew calendar pays special respect to women. You can imagine, then, that Israeli police expressed enormous concern leading up to the expected protests at today’s Western Wall WOW services.

Of course we couldn’t miss it.

At 5:30 AM my alarm went off, and I met my roommate Eliana in the kitchen. We both decided to dress modestly, as per the custom at the Western Wall, but also progressively– or rather, how we would normally dress for any ‘casual’ service. Pants, we thought, were the way to go.

We then walked the fifteen minutes to the meeting spot. Because of fear of danger, WOW organized a group of buses to transport everyone together into the Old City. After meeting our classmates in the parking lot, we looked around and realized that there were hundreds of us– Americans and Israelis; Men and Women; English speakers and Hebrew speakers– ready to go throw ourselves into the crowd of Haredi protesters. With police security, we were quickly escorted and on our way.



Once we got there, it became clear that we would not be allowed to enter into the women’s side of the Western Wall. At the time of our being there, we were unsure as to why that was, though there was speculation it had to do with the protests. We later found out that several days ago there was an orthodox call for women to come and blockade our entrance, and come they did! En masse, actually. Their 5,000-7,000 women were enough to cause Police to prevent our 150 women to go down by the wall, and so we were forced to remain in the back by the protesters. So, our men stayed by our sides as we were led by WOW leaders in Rosh Chodesh services in the back of the plaza, and because of this, our group was equal in size to the Haredi protesters standing opposite of us. Through the service we sang, cheered, and even celebrated a young Israel’s Bat Mitzvah (becoming a woman), despite verbal attacks and bottles/eggs being thrown into our circle.


In the end no women were arrested for wearing prayer shawls, and two Haredim were detained: one for throwing an egg at a pregnant Reform Rabbi from America, and another for attempting to blockade our entrance into the entire Wall Plaza.

For more details on today’s protest you can check out this article and this one and this one, too.

Anthropologically, there are many things that can be discussed here. For one thing, what I saw was separate from what I heard. Certainly I saw hatred, disgust, and humiliation between both sides. I saw people so desperate for their values and opinions to be heard, and so confident in their ways of life, that they felt nothing but a call to extreme action. In other words, I saw men and women reduce to ideas of supremacy and ignore any sense of community, let alone cultural relativism.

What I heard was more complicated.

We sang.


(My new professor at the protest leading us in song!)

I will admit that there were Haredi efforts to drown us out in whistles and negative slurs. But they were also singing– their own sense of prayer, but prayer nonetheless. And I couldn’t help thinking: isn’t this pluralism? I am not defending the violence and I will certainly be there for the next protest, but I am also encouraging Haredi attendance as long as it is peaceful. There is something beautiful in hearing each group’s voices under the backdrop of the Mosque’s loud and clear call for prayer. We are in the heart of Jerusalem and, in those moments of speech alone, everyone stands as examples of what it means to live side by side as neighbors, brothers, sisters, etc. No?

That is my impression of what WOW encourages, as well. Humility and pride, in purest sense of the words. Standing among a group of men and women who believe in equality as strongly as I do was inspiring, but standing in opposition and realizing that we can all be stronger than this was overwhelmingly powerful. With that in mind, I plan to use this as a lesson for handling myself during my time living in a foreign country.

We all must ask ourselves “who am I affecting” and “is it worth it?” And if the answer to the latter is “yes,” as I am sure it is on BOTH sides in these protests, we must remember that the energy it takes to inflict harm on another person for being who they are– naturally, or by choice– could be used to double or triple its results if it is used for doing good work instead. And I mean really good work.

And, of course, it is important to recognize that any social movements experience tension much like the tension experienced here, today (metaphorically and literally). In the same way I look forward to the future of the civil rights progression in America, I look forward to watching and supporting WOW in my year here as they break new barriers in Israeli civil rights.

“Kol hakavod!” (“way to go”) to all my little Pluralistic flowers!

Travels to the West Bank

The last time I lived in Israel I had a blog that I hardly used. While I had a wonderful experience living in Be’er Sheva, I did not feel motivated to keep up with posting about my adventures. For this time around I didn’t really think much about it, but with my friend Dawn’s encouragement I decided to go ahead and create a new one for while I am in Jerusalem. So, here it goes…

I landed two days ago. And right now, while I sit down to write this, I realize that it is my first time resting in the 48 hours (not counting the 5 hours of sleep each night). I will summarize everything from before today by saying just this: I love being back in Israel and have been busy getting to know Jerusalem and it’s charm.

Today, however, was an experience unlike anything I have ever had.

A big group of people from my program decided to go on a tour with J Street, an organization that does a ton of on-the-ground in support of a two-state solution. This field trip took us out of Jerusalem– out of Israel, for that matter– and into Bethlehem, Palestine.

Bethlehem being what it is– one of the holiest Christian sites in the world– is not the most dangerous of Palestinian territories. However, it is located in the West Bank and therefore in what I consider to be a contested zone. So while I wasn’t extremely nervous, I wasn’t going into this feeling entirely secured either. And the waiver we signed did not help: “… person may face unexpected dangers as a result of terrorism… can lead to violence, kidnapping, and death.” That was only the first line. Upon reading this I decided not to read the rest of the waiver and signed my life away, thinking that this year has to be about taking chances and saying yes to opportunities from which I could easily shy away.

Passport in hand, I hopped on the bus with my classmates and drove the fifteen minutes to Bethlehem, through the checkpoint, and into Palestine. We had no issues at checkpoint: no soldier, no need to show passport, and no stopping. However, even just experiencing the act of passing through checkpoint for the first time was something I will never forget. For those of you reading this who may be unfamiliar with this process, checkpoint is situated so that there is a solider from IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) limiting Palestinian access into Jerusalem and Israeli access into Palestine.

First I will discuss the series of events, and then I will talk about the impact of each one:

Once in Palestine we immediately split into two groups (so as to condense in size). My group met with members from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Middle East). Their job, essentially, is to provide relief for Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1948 war, and now to their decedents on the patrilineal line. Sitting in an elementary school in the Aida camp of the West Bank, we heard from four men who discussed the efforts of UNRWA in areas such as this. After sipping on some coffee brought to us by the wife of one of the representatives, we walked to the rooftop:

AIDA 1   Image

Above you will notice two things. First, because the camp is limited in space, it must resort to building up instead of expanding outwardly. This leaves little room for any sort of comfortable growth. Secondly, you will see the guard tower just next to the graffiti wall (also interesting); here, a few years ago, a Palestinian boy was shot and killed by an Israeli guard. To this day there is still quite a lot of conflict between guards and Palestinian children, though due to hot weather and summer vacation we did not see anything.

After leaving the UNRWA reps we moved to another area of Bethlehem and discussed with more UN representatives the negotiation of the Jerusalem border expansion. With new border discussions comes a whole new crop of problems. This is where we met this man:

MAN   tunnel

(Pictured with interpreter)

Because of the new border between Jerusalem and the West Bank, this man’s house now falls in Israeli territory. With Israeli threat and bribery, he has been encouraged to leave his home with his wife and three children. Refusing to “make the same mistake the refugees made in 1948,” he will not leave his home. Instead, he negotiated with the Israeli Army: Three out of four sides of his home are blocked from any form of exit, leaving only a tunnel with a gate for which he will have a key. No one but his wife and three kids can come into that home without permission, no additions can be made to the actual structure of the house, and travel to and from the village must be limited. Essentially, he says, he is living in a prison. He was however extremely grateful to share his story with us.

After we left him we went into the heart of Bethlehem, to a place called Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans.


There, we met with a woman named Suzanne, a Palestinian Christian who works to use craftsmanship as a form of peace. She discussed at great length the changes that have taken place in Palestine since she was younger. Now 50 years old, she offered us stories of hardship and pleas for there to be peace from both sides.

Last step was to a place called Tents of Peace. There, we met with a wonderful man who discussed his efforts of using the environment and the actual land to build a two-state solution. Though we were all exhausted at this point, it was a wonderful experience from start to finish. Not to mention it was there that we saw the most beautiful views of the day.


So, what does this all mean?

With an anthropological training, I found it very difficult to separate myself from the situation. On the one hand, we were meeting real people on the ground with very serious stresses and problems; people who live literally in life or death situations. And yet, we were drinking bottles of water with Arabic labels that read “part of the Coca-Cola company,” taking pictures on our iphones, and going home to Jerusalem to rest before Shabbat– Jerusalem, a place that so many of these people admire only from afar without permission to access.

Do I feel privileged? Absolutely.

Yehuda Amichai wrote the following:

“Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. ‘You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.’ ‘But he’s moving, he’s moving!’ I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”

Well, I came and saw the man. But what do I do with that?

I don’t think there is an answer, especially not in the first three days of living in the Middle East again. If you have suggestions, feel free to pass them my way. Until then, I will look forward to having more adventures and sharing my thoughts from afar!