Friday, September 7, 2012
Day Five: Arrival Of The Soldiers
August 19, 2012
Program began again at 8 with the introduction of the eight Israeli soldiers who would be joining us for the remainder of the trip. They've been granted a privilege that few soldiers get to experience, taking a vacation of sorts from their military responsibilities usually a few months before completing their service. There are four women and four men all coming from different parts of the military doing jobs ranging from social work to base security. Depending on the activity, they alternate between civilian clothes and military uniforms.
After we got acquainted a bit, we all headed off to the modern wall at the eastern edge of the city where there is a checkpoint to the West Bank (above). Speaking to some of the soldiers, they seemed a little nervous to be so close to the area that has been a source for many suicide bombers. At the moment, the wall seems like a necessary evil to deter such attacks, and safety has become much less of a concern in Jerusalem since its construction. Unfortunately, it has many detractors, such as: it's demeaning to the Palestinians, it slows and/or blocks passage of all people including Jews who travel between sides for home and work, it strips the olive orchard land at the border from the Palestinians' whose property it was, it puts great matters of security in the hands of teenage soldiers at the checkpoint often dealing with tough judgement calls, it looks hideous, and it's ecologically questionable. However, for security's sake, it seems like the best solution for the problem at the moment. Our guide told us that walking Ben Yehuda street, as we had the night before, was a dangerous proposition ten years earlier that is no longer an issue in large part thanks to the wall.
Next we returned to the market on the edge of the neighborhood we'd walked the day before, this time in groups of eight with one soldier per group. We were assigned the task of finding out about different ethnic Jews who are represented in the market through a series of six questions that were different for each group. My group looked into Yemeni Jews, who immigrated en masse from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to Israel after the inception of the state. We were fortunate to be accompanied by our soldier, Nadav, who spoke fluent English as well as Hebrew and knew the answer to a few of the questions before we started in addition to knowing how to figure out the rest.
The market itself was not nearly as appealing as some of the others I've seen in Europe, although Nadav said it didn't compare well to the one he attends in Tel Aviv either. I heard another soldier describe it later as a peasant's market compared to Tel Aviv's. We did however get terrific sandwiches from one shop. Mine consisted of roasted eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, and parsley on a really good baguette. Then, in the final ten minutes, we went about completing the six tasks of the scavenger hunt related to Yemeni Jews. We got a joke: "How do you get 100 Yemenites into a truck? Throw a shekel inside." We got a picture with two Yemeni people, and we bought some juice with the traditional Yemeni herb "khat." Apparently it is chewed by many like tobacco, and it is said to give you a slight high, greater wisdom, and help with erectile dysfunction. (Note: Khat is illegal in the United States and Israel began cracking down on the sale of highly concentrated khat juice during the time we were in Israel.)
Each group presented their findings, particularly highlighting the food, at a park not too far away from the market. The other groups included Ashkenazi, Georgian, Indian, Turkish, and Sephardic. While the competition was supposed to be judged, it seemed like everybody had thrown together their presentation rather last minute, and no results or prizes were eventually given out by the chaperones and tour guide.
We were then supposed to have a speaker on another subject, but she had to cancel last minute for personal reasons, and our trip organizer found us an alternate activity to fill the next hour: attending a historical movie on the history of Jerusalem. This was no ordinary movie though. It was not in 3D—although there are showings in 3D at this historical museum-theater. We were arranged into several little sections of roughly ten people, each sitting on its own separate moving platform. As we progressed through "The Time Elevator," narrated on camera by Chaim Topol, we were shaken up and down and occasionally sprayed with water because "the machine still had some malfunctions." Despite the fact that the theater looked like it was opened in the early 90's, Nadav told me it was only about ten years old, and he remembered riding it when it opened thinking it was a bit dopey back then too. I think the biggest problem for most of us was we were just exhausted, and sitting in a dark movie theater, despite the fact that it was rocking us back and forth, just induced more sleepiness and a lack of concentration.
Fortunately, we were given a break right after the movie, and people divided their time between napping and swimming. I was hanging out in the hall during some of the time, writing on my computer, when a few of my friends came up and started chatting. They had asked to hear my music before, so I took the opportunity to play a tune or two. As I played, more of our peers came walking by and stopped to listen. Everybody seemed to really like it, so I kept playing, and word started getting around, so as some left, others arrived asking to hear more. It was a real pleasure for me to share some of my music to such an appreciative audience that assured me they enjoyed it firstly as music and secondly because it was mine.
After dinner at the hotel, we got to screen two short films with an Israeli filmmaker, both made by people near us in age so we could see what our Israeli peers were interested in portraying on camera. The first, made by our host, Yishai Goldflam, when he was in school, followed a group of orthodox Jews on a Shabbat camping trip. The leading male of the group had become involved in a serious relationship with a secular Jewish Israeli who was not at all interested in following the traditions. While the orthodox Jews look down upon the secular woman, the relationship reaches a point where both characters realize something has to change, and compromise is necessary. The particular issue comes to a head when the male protagonist cannot cross the string eruv set up around the campsite as a boundary within which they can hold objects without it being considered work in Jewish tradition. At this point she leaves, and he finally takes one step outside the eruv, but she decides to take off anyway. This led to a great discussion where different members of our group supported both characters' beliefs and were infuriated that the other was too self-centered to compromise. I think the fact that we were able to get such a split discussion is a tribute to the filmmaker taking his personal beliefs out of the narrative and allowing the audience to form their own opinions of the situation when given the same facts.
The second film included lighting design by our host and followed an Israeli soldier as he becomes distracted by a pretty Palestinian woman in the scope of his weapon on patrol, losing focus of the intended terrorist target. As he receives the call from a senior officer to shoot the terrorist, the woman with whom he has become infatuated is being beat by a Palestinian man, a short distance away, and he decides to shoot the civilian instead of his terrorist target. This too brought out a very split debate about what was the moral thing to do: shoot the commanded target that may lead to greater death later or take out the man who is visibly doing harm to a woman at the moment. While the Israeli soldiers were adamant about taking out the target, and most agreed that was the more procedurally right thing to do, there was certainly a sentiment in the room that it made sense to take care of the woman more visibly in harm.
Both were fascinating films, and got us thinking and talking about some more modern Israeli conflict that was not specifically about the safety of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Both the films and the filmmaker were engaging and made current Israeli life more relatable. We were then dismissed for the evening, with the advisement that we should get to bed early before a particularly long and difficult day to follow.