Saturday, February 23, 2008

Episode 32: "The Afterword" (+) [SEASON EPILOGUE]

Everyone, thank you so much for reading this semester. All of your comments, your e-mails, your phone calls, your packages, your Facebook messages and your general goodwill have meant so much to me. I'm grateful that you all have been so wonderful about keeping in touch and showing such an amazing amount of love from across the Atlantic. Thanks again for reading. I'm touched that so many of you have put in the time to see how I'm doing.

I'm taking a small break from the blog to get acquainted with my new semester, but I'll be back in March with more entries--and I'll try to be more consistent this time around. Here's the link for "Season Two" of my time here:

And below is an extra word via video to all of you, from the beginning of my winter break.

Video Epilogue

I appreciate every form of outreach you've shown me, big or small. You guys are amazing, and I look forward to sharing the rest of my time here with you.

All the best.


Episode 31: "The Long Goodbye" (+) [SEASON FINALE]

The goodbyes began with Becca, who was leaving earlier than everyone else. She had a flight to catch before the semester was even over, so she asked that I come out with her to a bar on campus the night before she left. I don't like bars, and I don't like beer, but I do like me some Becca. So I chilled with her, Jeremy, and some other friends of Becca's for a couple of hours.

At the bar.

I'd learned quite a bit from Becca, and I was sad to see her go. But she's on the fast track to better things (she wants to be a nurse), so more power to her.

After I got through my exams, it was goodbyes left and right. I'm not really good with that kind of thing, especially when there's no certainty of seeing people again. For example, I went to say goodbye to Brett and Valker, two of my friends from Ulpan who I never hung out with enough. Both were heading to Europe, and I really wasn't sure what occasion there'd be to realistically have some kind of reunion. I was also able to semi-see my friend Stefanie off with a quick falafel dinner, but again, no promises of seeing her after she left Israel. Same feeling with my friend Paul.

Anyway, throughout the week I must have stood at the front gate of the Student Village at least six times, waving people off. Danny. Jimmy. Eric. Gaby. Gaby's goodbye was especially difficult, because of how clear it was that he wanted to stay. I went over to his room to chill out for a bit before he left, so at least there was that.

But it was pretty sad anyway.
Oren, Jimmy, me and Gaby.

And throughout that same week was the monumental task of saying goodbye to all four of my roommates. I'd been dreading that phase of my trip for a long time, and it didn't actually make saying goodbye any easier.

Roni was the first to leave. She'd arranged an early morning pickup by a Taxi driver, who came at least fifteen minutes early, rushing our goodbye a little. My house, Oren and Eric said goodbye to her. I hugged her, feeling sad but fine--but when she actually got in the car I couldn't help the water works.

And it wasn't the last time I shed a tear over that stuff. It was a rough week.

The next to leave was Corina, and I'm still a frustrated over how that one went down. Corina said that we didn't get up to see her off, since her minivan--or "sherut"--was coming at 5 a.m. But Brian, Aisling and I weren't having it, and she relented. Brian asked that I wake him up, though. Both of us were working on our final papers and wouldn't be getting much sleep as it was.

I went to bed around 4:15 a.m. after I finished mine, hoping to get at least a half hour of sleep by the time Corina had to leave. I should have just stayed up, because when I heard the knock on my door and Corina saying something, I was too groggy to respond quickly enough. I'd heard something about "thirty minutes."

When I forced myself up out of bed, undressed, Corina and Aisling weren't in the living room. I opened the front door, and the two of them were standing by the elevator. Corina had said "three minutes" when she knocked on my door. The sherut driver had called Corina a half hour earlier than his scheduled arrival, telling her that if she wasn't downstairs shortly, he was leaving. I dashed back into my apartment, knocked on Brian's door, got dressed, waited for him to catch up, hustled down the stairs, and raced out the door to catch Corina. But Aisling was already on her way back to us, saying that Corina had left. The disappointment kind of paralyzed me for a second where I stood.

I was back in bed when Corina called, maybe ten minutes later. I was so grateful to hear from her. She was crying on the other end and I was barely coherent, but at least we got some kind of farewell in.

The next day, Brian and I were able to have one good talk together before he left. I chilled in his room and we discussed the overall trip, the roommate situation, where our heads were at. When he left, I got the proper hug and farewell words in.

"Really," Brian said. "It's been a pleasure."

Well, back at you, Brian.

And then there were two.

Aisling and I had a couple of days to spend together before she took off. It was a fantastic opportunity to get to bond with her some more before she left. Even before the goodbye week, I felt I'd really gotten to know Aisling better than ever. She and I'd had a couple of talks that gave me new insight into a few misunderstandings there'd been around the house. I got a chance to study with her for a final exam we both had, which was a lot of fun. I even saw her dance a little bit after the dance party, something that had never happened before. She was opening up in a lot of ways, and I was glad to see it happening.

With the last couple of days together, we wrapped up some of her loose ends in Israel. She needed to do some shopping at Ben Yehuda Street for souveneirs, so I accompanied her there.

Ben Yehuda.
Believe it or not, it's actually
a big party spot at night.

That night, we watched an obscene amount of television. Goofy stuff like The Office and Aliens in America. And she showed me how to assemble a makeshift mop and properly clean the floors, like she and Roni had been doing all year. I was officially the new house caretaker, at least for a little while.

The next day, she and I went to the Old City, where I showed her the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and where she was able to buy her final souveneirs.

When her sherut came in the evening, I walked her out like I had everyone else. We hugged, and she said "I love you," which took me by surprise. I'd made a couple of mistakes that had hurt her feelings during the semester, I think, but I guess she'd forgiven them.

"I love you, too," I said.

Aisling, on our day in the Old City.

I came back to an empty apartment.

I guess the next couple of days were bearable. I could play my music as loud as I wanted and clean what I thought was gross around the house. My friend Laco invited me over to his place for dinner one night, and I went with him to a New Year's party held by a dance club. But to tell you the truth, there really was a void where most of my friends had been. It didn't feel very good.

I guess that's the thing about goodbyes, right? If they hurt, your relationships actually meant something.



On New Year's Day, I said my goodbyes to what remaining friendswere on campus and packed to head to Kibbutz Samar. A kibbutz is a commune of sorts first where people work and live together. I was going to a kibbutz because I'd heard great things about peoples' experiences at those places in Israel, and I had more than enough time during my winter break to see what it was like. I chose Kibbutz Samar in particular because a friend I'd met during Ulpan, Steve, had said it was a very special place to visit. Steve gave me the e-mail address of a guy there named Joe, whom I kept in contact with for about a month. In his last e-mail, Joe told me to give him a call before I came down to Samar, so I called him about an hour or so before I got on my bus. No answer. I called him on the bus a couple of times, and still no pickup.

After about five hours of driving south, I was dropped off, in the dead of night, on the road in the middle of the desert. Absolutely no one around. Only vague lights ahead. There was a sign pointing down the road that said "Samar," but being that alone in the dark, and with no Joe to confirm my arrival, was pretty scary. I dragged my bag forward, walking down the long length of a road that was only sparsely lit. The stars were brighter than I'd ever seen in Israel, and seeing them so clearly only seemed to augment how hollow and remote this place was. The path was so dark and so lonely that--despite all of my frustrations with my faith this past semester--I prayed out of fear. Eventually I passed a gate and came to a fork in the road. There were some lights to the left, but brighter lights to the right.

I turned right and hoped for the best.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Episode 30: "The Meaning" (+)

On Christmas Eve Night, a group of Christians gathered in my apartment. A few of us shared words on some of our fondest Christmas memories. We sang Christmas carols. We prayed in candlelight.

During prayer, I touched on what the meaning of Christmas might be. Maybe Joseph, holding his newborn in his arms, realized that he had the new responsibility of being the very best of himself. In order to father a child--and in order father a messiah--he would have to draw on every virtue he had within him. Maybe that's what Christmas is really about; just as Joseph had to better himself in order to properly welcome Jesus into the world, we have to better ourselves to welcome Jesus into our lives.

When we were done in my apartment, we took taxis to the Old City. Near Zion Gate, we found the Dormition Abbey, where a traditional German mass would take place at midnight and a pilgrimage to Bethlehem would begin afterward.

My group waited for about two hours, singing Christmas carols together as the line to the abbey began to bulk. Jeremy and I beat-boxed to some of the Christmas songs. We had a lot of fun waiting for the abbey gates to open.

Aisling, Jeremy, Zuzana, Aubry.

Charis, Val, Corina and I.

By the gate to Dormition Abbey.

Once the gate was opened, we were able to get decent seats. The Abbey was absolutely beautiful. Tiled mosaics were among the ceilings and walls, and dim lights brought the right ambiance to the occasion. Although a Christmas tree was blocking the altar rituals from where I was sitting, I was still able to see the German monks whenever they spoke or sang in the pulpit. Most of the songs were in German, but there was occasional English spoken, such when one of the monks read the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke.


After the service concluded, there was a short break for coffee and cake. Soon after, a handful of us followed the monks out of the church and onto the main streets, starting our pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The walk was about two hours, which gave Val and I plenty of time to talk.

The road to Bethlehem.

I unloaded more to him about my problems concerning archaeology and the Bible. Through talking it out with him, I did come to acknowledge--or maybe even rediscover--that I had no problems with Jesus himself. Jesus' words still resonated with me somehow, in a way that I felt was still profound. Hearing myself say that, and having Val listen to and support me, was a brief breath of fresh air from the faithless void I had found myself in recently. But if I didn't believe the earliest events of the Bible were historically accurate, then could I really glean the divinity of Jesus from that context? Val stiffened when I brought that up, and our conversation was interrupted by a stop for prayer. I never finished talking to him about it that night.

When we arrived at Manger Square, the area just outside of the Church of the Nativity, we stopped to sing again.

The Muslim call to prayer sounded at
the same time though, which was pretty funny.

Afterward, we went into the Church of the Nativity, pausing in the underground room designated for the manger. People expressed their religious gestures there, then we moved on to another room underground. The monks led the last German Christmas songs, finally bringing our pilgrimage to a close.

After the last songs.
Aisling (left) clearly didn't make it out alive.

We got home around 8 a.m. Christmas morning. In the evening, Corina and I held Christmas dinner at our flat. It was simple, silly, good times with friends.

After I couldn't get a bottle of wine open.

Settling down to eat.

As we finished our meal.

What a great time. The entire occasion felt special and so much richer with the real meaning of the holiday than ever before. And as much as I've joked that "Santa got served" by Jewish culture here, it's really the Jesus Factor that put Santa in his place this time around.

And that, my friends, is the best kind of Christmas.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Episode 29: "The Dance Party" (+)




The dance party was ready to roll. It was the first party I had ever thrown, and the "Eric" nuances were obvious. Zero alcohol provided. Hip hop from the laptop. Consent from the neighbors. All that was left were the actual people.

I had worried about that last part the night before. A friend of mine was having her birthday party on the same night--meaning that even if enough people showed to make my party a success, I'd be taking people away from hers. I was close to giving myself the usual guilt trip when my friend Becca came to the rescue:

"Eric," Becca said. "She doesn't have a monopoly on the entire night."

There's nothing like a friend saying exactly what you need to hear.

The trickle of people at the beginning really turned into a boom about ninety minutes in. The crowd was so packed that the speakers weren't loud enough to hear anymore. Enter this man:

Jeremy, the man with the bigger speakers.
This hero done saved my party.

And so the show went on. There was one point when my flat-mate Corina turned off the music and got everyone's attention, though. With Roni, another flat-mate, standing among the crowd, Corina announced it was "Roni Time" and turned on a song with lyrics Roni absolutely hates. Everyone cheered and Roni tried to split, but a friend kept her prisoner. Embarrassed as she was, Roni started dancing and really made the most of it. Big props, and only one of the several silly moments of the night:

Nati wasn't ready for this jelly.

The Macarena, back from the dead.

I don't even know.

The party was a success. Pretty much all of my good friends showed up, the music was kickin' (due to the combined efforts of Jeremy and myself), and I saw smiles on everyone's faces. It's really one of my fondest memories of this trip so far.

No cab fare, no cover charge, no bouncers and no bad techno. Just good friends and great music. Brotha can't ask for much else.


Episode 28: "The Community Center" (+)

One of the madrichim over at the Office of Student Activities is named Liav, this hilarious young guy who apparently has a heart for helping people. As the semester drew to a close, he set up a visit to a Jerusalem community center for the purpose of painting its gym. A handful of us went, getting briefly introduced to some staff members and then getting to work.

We started things off by doing some massive sanding along the walls. After that, we got to painting, which was a lot of fun. We had a great group of people, so we were laughing the whole way through.

Oren, Aaron, Liav and I.
Goofing around with all the paint-dust in the air.

I had to work on the scaffold with an Israeli guy.
One of the few times I tried to make conversation to a stranger in Hebrew.

Me, Jimmy and Maya. Cream of the crop people, right there.

The folks at the community center were wonderful enough to treat us to sandwiches for our break. I believe one of the people responsible was Shelly, who also gave us free tickets to a dance club the next time we came. A-plus on generosity, Shelly.

When we did return a couple weeks later, it was about two weeks into December, and with a bit of a twist on the itinerary. Since we were done white-washing the gym, Liav wanted us to paint a mural on one corner. And he'd also scheduled a soccer game between us and the kids at the community center. The night was cold, but we spray-painted white T-shirts for jerseys and wore them onto the court to play ball. I'm pretty terrible at soccer, but I tried my best. Plus, most of the people we were playing against were little kids, so they were easy to knock down.


They weren't easy to knock down at all.

But at least I had help.
Jimmy, Jamie, Roni, Eric, Me, Oren and Val.

Afterward we went inside and painted our mural, trying not to make a mess of the floor (the community center was kinda pissed that we'd done that before). I ended up going with my default artistic expression, a Superman symbol. Jewed it up by making it the center of a Star of David. Once we were done, there was a lot more color to at least that one corner of the gym.

Posing with our masterpiece.
Eric, Ashley, Liav, Me, Dani, Brian
Roni, Orin, Val, Jimmy and Maya.

Afterward, we came back home to the Student Village, done and pretty proud, I think.

No use repeating all these names. Elyse is the only one
I haven't mentioned--the girl in the center.

Liav thanked us, and we split. Yet another activity with consistently great people. The folks I've met here are really something.

After we took that final photo, I went to my building. I'd been planning a dance party for weeks, and the night had finally come. With only so much time before people arrived at my apartment, I got to work.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Episode 27: "The Lights" (+)

The week of Hannukah was such a special time here in Jerusalem. Along with the celebration of a hard-won victory of the Maccabees at the Temple Mount, there was also a warm and lighthearted atmosphere to the goings-on. Everywhere you turned there were free jelly-filled donuts being given out. And every night that my flat-mates could gather, Roni and Brian would sing a Hannukah prayer song while lighting the menorah. It really was a joyous occasion.

On the last day of Hannukah, I went out on a field trip with my Religious Foundations of Judaism class. We explored a lot of Old City Jerusalem as my favorite teacher, Raphael Jospe, informed us of each site's historical significance. We visited the Kotel and the underground tunnels alongside it, other archaeological sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and more. Looking back, it was a perfectly timed trip. I was spending the eighth day of Hannukah learning about ancient Jewish history up close. Jospe is the man, so the whole lesson was a lot of fun. He even got us a bunch of free donuts to eat.

Inside the Temple-side tunnels.

Waterways of antiquity.

Professor Jospe, being the man.

After the trip, I went back to the Kotel with Roni, Brian, Eric and Becca to be there for the final lighting. There was a public menorah lit once a day each day of Hannukah, and this was the grand finale. As always, seeing so many dedicated people at a religious event was beautiful. The ambiance was reverent and spirits were high. I am so fortunate to have been part of that ceremony.

The menorah at the Kotel.

The crowd.

One hardcore menorah.

The celebration.

This place is so incredibly special.


Episode 26: "The Summer City" (+)

The next big thing was the Hannukah trip, sponsored by the usual Office of Student Activities guys. We rode buses down to Eilat, the southernmost city in Israel before you're in Egypt territory. The city is known for its Red Sea beach property and hotels on the waterfront, so it kind of has an "endless summer" quality to it. The plan was to dabble in the desert, spend some time in our hotel, and do a Red Sea cruise on the whole. In between, all kinds of activities were planned. It was looking to be a pretty fantastic holiday celebration and a sweet finale to all the organized trips of the semester.

We kicked off the trip by doing a short hike in the desert by the city. Extremely rocky stuff, very cool though. After a while we got a great view of Eilat by the Red Sea, as well as Jordan a long way off.

After dinner, a group of us went out to check out a small thrill ride we glimpsed on the beach front. From what we could tell, it was a red ball you could sit inside while bungee chords shot you into the air. Y'all know I'm a sucker for adrenaline, so I went to check it out with my friends Val, Mikhail, Alyssa, Mara and Jeremy.

The Sling Shot.
Camera's on the freaked-out customers inside the ball.

Since there was an odd number of us actually intending to ride, someone had to get on without a partner. I volunteered and got in line ahead of my friends, all the while listening to this exciting, charged-up "MC" do his thing with a mic to get people excited. He was all smiles, playing to the crowd and whoever was in the Sling Shot. Soon it was my turn to get inside, with this kid half my age. While the MC asked me questions on the mic, Mara and the rest of my friends cheered me on.

Just before takeoff.

We were launched into the air, and the adrenaline was priceless. It only lasted a couple of seconds, but shooting up into the night sky was an incredible feeling. Live for this stuff.

After landing.

The MC ended up giving me two more free rides, as well as a free DVD recording of my reaction on camera. I don't know if the MC realized it, but giving me all of that extra stuff made me feel pretty special. Brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

Later that night, I went out to a club around the same area, which was a great time. It was called the Unplugged Bar, this kind of box of a place nearby the beach. The music was happenin', and the energy was great among my friends. For some reason I started picking up a little attention from this tall, silent guy--and my friend Nati cut him off to dance with me, coming to the rescue. That girl is legit.

Some of the weirdness continued, though. While I was dancing with a girl I'd just met there, the same guy that tried to dance with me--let's call him Darth Maul--swooped in and took my dance partner away. Confused and frustrated, I continued dancing for a while with my friends. I guess a macho part of me eventually surfaced and I returned to get my lady back, throwing off Darth Maul's groove. He tried to whisk her away again, but she wasn't having it, and he peaced out. Someone tell that brotha the Dark Side of the Force never pays.

The next day, we did a "tour" of Eilat, really just coming down to one historical site and hearing how Israel and Jordan didn't get along in this city. The site was a building with a statue in front of it, kind of an Israeli-style "Flags of Our Fathers" depiction of erecting the Israeli flag on formerly Jordanian soil. The statue's in the picture below, if you care to squint.

An unbeatable cast of characters:
Sophia, her lover-boy Laco, Corina, me, Mikhail, and Jeremy.

Later that day, my man Oded put together a discussion about martyrdom. My small group talked about what the term means to Christianity. Toward the end of our discussion I had an almost-clash with Nicky, the MVP from Tzfat earlier in the semester (and one of my most beloved friends since). We didn't see eye-to-eye on violence/self-defense, and what I managed to say to him sadly wasn't the whole and articulated truth about how I felt. The discussion was great food for thought, as always... with everything here.

We did Karaoke right after dinner, which was one of the best highlights of the trip. I went up and did Faith by George Michael, which was just so much fun. Again, Mara was cheering me on with a bunch of other friends while I was in the spotlight. I'm not the strongest singer, but I got pretty into it and the audience seemed to respond. I got compliments from people afterward, and I was happy with how silly and exciting the whole thing had been. I was a backup dancer for "Raining Men," too, which was its own ridiculousness.


"Raining Men"

Afterward I went out with a group to an 3-D IMAX movie, which was pretty cool. Those big goofy glasses were obnoxious to wear. Post-movie I chilled with friends at a place called the Underground Bar, where my friend Kayla hit me with a whopper in front of everybody: "You're the most well-liked person I know here." Or something like that. Girl had me walking on air with her kind words. Way to make a man feel loved, Kayla.

Good times at the Underground.

Some of us cruised to a second club, where I had a really good time on the dance floor. This one dance partner was giving me a lot more than I was ready for, but it was a lot of fun. It was a great outing. Tearing it up with friends in a club is one of those small treasures I've stumbled upon on this year.

The last morning, we did a Jeep tour through the desert with a hilarious group of people. We laughed throughout pretty much the entire bumpy ride.

Left to right in the Jeep:
Laco, Sophia, Kayla, Mikhail, Val and I.

My Dream Girls:
Nati on the left, my savior at the club.
Kayla, the lady with the bullseye compliment at the bar.

This is us trying to get our bearings
during the bumpiest jeep ride in recorded history.

The last activity was a cruise on the Red Sea, but Nati gets boat sick easily, So Val and I stayed with her and just chilled out. The three of us had such a good time; really, with Nati, the laughter never stops. We all went to a KFC, Val and I cried over the fact that this Israeli one didn't have biscuits, and then we made our way to the beach to relax.

Had a chat with the Big G 'round these parts.

Nati and Val, knocked out.

That was pretty much the end of our trip, and the beginning of Hannukah. What an amazing start to the holiday. And such great friends to share it with.