Friday, October 16, 2009

Another Crazy Week

***This post is from Saturday, October 3 through Saturday, October 10. There will be another post from Sunday, October 10 soon.

By now, I’ve pretty much settled in and gotten used to daily life here. But that does not mean things have gotten boring. There are stretches of time when I get a little bored, but every day this week, there has been something new and exciting. I’m not going to waste time with an intro, so I’ll get right into the good stuff.

About ten minutes after I published my last post, I went to a Seed-Sucking Festival. I had no idea what that meant, but people said it would be interesting. It was interesting to say the least. The location of this festival was Yair’s (יאיר) house, which is less than a minute’s walk from the caravans. Yair is a hippie/rasta kibbutznik who got out of the army about 7 years ago. He wanted to turn his small front yard into a garden using a concept called biodynamics. The idea is that if you love and care for your plants, the energy that you put in helps the plants grow larger and healthier. We went through these elaborate rituals, being “smudged” with incense, chanting “ohms,” sucking seeds, and sprinkling “diamond water” on the new seedlings.

We were up early the next morning for a tour of Elaine Solowey’s experimental orchard. Elaine is one of the professors at the Arava Institute. She teaches a class called Sustainable Agriculture in addition to maintaining a vast orchard. As we walked through her orchard, we learned about different species of plants and trees that Elaine has been growing, studying, and domesticating for the last 30 years. Her main objective is to find plants and trees that can survive and thrive in the Arava desert. Obviously, date palms are well-suited for the Arava, and dates are very lucrative. Elaine was here 30 years ago to plant and domesticate the first date palms on Kibbutz Ketura. Many people (including myself before this tour) don’t realize that fruit trees can’t just be planted, grown, and harvested. It often takes 4-5 generations of careful observation, fertilization, and pollination to grow trees that are ready for harvest. For many trees, a single generation is 5 years, so it is easy to see how long this project is. Elaine claims that if she can domesticate 5 species of plants that can survive in the Arava, that are marketable, and profitable, she will be satisfied with her work for the last 30 years. From what I can see, she is doing pretty well. Currently, there are two trees that seem to have a good future: the argania and the marula. For the argania, Elaine traveled to Morocco to find seeds that she could use for her orchard. After years of observation, research and pollination, the arganias are producing many kilos of nuts to be turned into a very profitable type of oil. In addition, they only require 12 cubic meters of water every year. Elaine found the marula tree in South Africa. By a similar process, Elaine is now harvesting a huge amount of delicious, tangy, yellow fruits. Recently, she struck a deal with Vaniglia to make marula ice cream. She has also figured out how to make rum with marulas. These are just two examples of species that Elaine is working with. She also grows medicinal and ornamental species. It took us over 4 hours to tour her orchard and we didn’t even get through all of it.

Later that night, I had a great chance to practice my Hebrew. The week of Sukot is celebratory, and the kibbutz hosts a different musical event every night. Sunday night was designated for kibbutz members to give presentations about their favorite musicians and bands. I went with Benjamin, whose Hebrew is pretty elementary, so I translated for him. After the presentation, we were in the mood to play some music, so we headed over to the music shack. We played for a long time, and the volunteers made a big bonfire outside.

Monday was our Eilat daytrip. I was pretty excited to see the only big city within a few hours from the kibbutz. In actuality, Eilat isn’t that big, but it feels good to be in a city after spending so much time on the kibbutz. We arrived in Eilat around 11, wandered around for an hour, had some lunch, and went snorkeling. Snorkeling was incredible! There were tons and tons of beautiful fish. There were some really big ones and schools of tiny ones. At one point, I swam with a school of thousands of small fish. Every time I swam left or right, the entire school would do the same thing! I want to get an underwater case for my camera to go snorkeling with.

After snorkeling, we did some shopping and eating. I got a big shawarma which was delicious after weeks of kibbutz food. I also bought some tennis balls, bandanas, and a hat. After dinner, a bunch of people went back to the kibbutz, but 4 of us went on a quest to find this beer festival that we heard about a few days before. It took us forever to find it, but finally we arrived. On the way, we bumped into Yuval, a post-army garin/kibbutznik. It was the opening night, and we were required to buy the 3-day pass for 45 NIS (about $12). Once inside, there was a band playing and an assortment of about 50 beers. With one of my beers, I got a free cigar. I wasn’t planning on smoking it, but I was convinced that it would be fun for the 4 of us to share it. We all got some funny pictures with the cigar, but it was nasty. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. We caught the 1 AM bus back to the kibbutz and went to bed around 2.

Nothing too eventful happened during the day on Tuesday, but after dinner everyone had “home hospitality night” with a staff from the Arava Institute. Adi and I were assigned to Rabbi Michael and Allison (his wife who also works at the institute). We had a good discussion and some great brownies. After a while, I asked Rabbi Michael if he knew my rabbi, Steve Segar. I have mentioned previously that I enjoy the conversations I have had with Rabbi Michael, and that he reminds me of Rabbi Steve. Well, there is a connection. They went to Rabbinical School together, and have been good friends since.

After leaving Rabbi Michael and Allison’s home, I made a mistake by going back to the beer fest. There were a few more people who wanted to go, and I agreed to go because I had a 3-day pass. Raphi and I tried to hitchhike to Eilat, but with no success. We ended up taking a bus. The beer fest itself was a lot of fun again. My mistake was that I stayed too late, so there were no more buses going north until the next morning. Raphi and I met up with about 5 volunteers at the festival, so we split up into groups to hitchhike back. Unfortunately, my group of three never got picked up, so we slept on the sidewalk at a bus stop until 7 AM. We got back to the kibbutz a little after 8 and I went straight to sleep.

Because I technically don’t have a schedule for ulpan, I had the flexibility to sleep pretty much the entire day on Wednesday. I ended up sleeping through breakfast and lunch, but got to dinner. After dinner, we had a night-hike/camping trip planned with a group of volunteers from Kibbutz Lotan (about 5 minutes away from Ketura). Feeling well-rested and ready for some activity, I was eager to get going, but they left without me! I was told to meet outside at 7:30, but I went outside at 7:30 and everyone had been gone for 10 minutes. I was lucky that Adi adheres to the schedule too, and that he has hiked the trail before. We set out together to find the rest of the group, but we lost the trail pretty quickly in the dark. Instead of hiking on a trail, we were climbing up a rocky mountain. After a lot of perseverance and a couple of cuts, we found the group at the top of the mountain. The view was astonishing—we could see all of the surrounding kibbutzim and all the way to Eilat. From the peak, we hiked some more to our camping site. A few guys got a nice bonfire going, and we all sat around singing and talking. I had another restless night because the blanket I brought was a tad too small for me, and the desert gets pretty cold at night.

Thursday was a day of work. We hiked back pretty early in the morning, so I took a nap until around 10. By this point, I was pretty far behind on my Hebrew studies, so I did some catching up. In the afternoon, I worked straight from around 2 until 7. I started off helping a few kibbutz kids move a heavy cart; then I helped Dane carry some fruits and vegetables up to the caravans; then I mudbuilt for a few hours; then I helped set up for a concert in the Mercaz; then I did some more mudbuilding. Most of that is pretty self-explanatory, but I will explain mudbuilding. Basically, there are not too many building materials available here in the desert, so mudbuilding uses the available resources and takes advantage of very dry heat. Structures and walls are typically built using a combination of sand, dirt, clay, hay, rocks, and water. Mixing some of this stuff together, it gets to be a thick, putty substance. However, the water evaporates very quickly, so the mud/sand/clay hardens into something like concrete. A kibbutznik named Adam designed the project. He wanted to make the camel area into a garden area. His plans are pretty elaborate, and the project still isn’t finished, so I’ll update you on the progress of that.

Friday and Saturday were focused on Simchat Torah. Friday morning, Rabbi Michael led another lesson on the meaning of Simchat Torah and the visual importance of the Torah itself. As usual, it was a very enlightening session. Services Friday night were a lot of fun. The service itself was brief, and the celebration was extensive. Everyone on the kibbutz comes for Simchat Torah to drink, dance, and sing. Dinner was surprisingly good after services. There was a little more partying on Saturday, but for the most part it was calm.

One last note: there were clouds for the first time since I’ve been here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New cell phone number and homework policy

1) I have a new, functioning cell phone number in the US: 216-539-4522. If you are in the US, you can call this number and it will be transfered to my Israeli cell phone. You are not charged for an international call, so please don't hesitate. Actually you should hesitate and consider the time difference--Israel is 7 hours ahead of EST. Don't wake me up in the middle of the night.
2) My friend Adi showed me this new cool tool called Google Analytics. Basically, I can track how many people look at my blog, where they are from, how often they visit, and how long they are on the webpage. What this means for you: do your homework by reading my blog. I also accept skype videocalls, phonecalls, emails, or facebook messages. Don't slack. I'll be watching...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Week in the Life...

OK I know I haven’t written in a while. A lot has happened but I’m not going to be able to get through all of it. Important aspects of this week include Yom Kippur, Hebrew classes, pub nights, sports, music, and Sukot.

Unlike in the US, Sundays here are part of the workweek. However this Sunday was not typical because Yom Kippur started in the afternoon. We woke up around 7:30 to go on a morning hike with Rabbi Michael. After walking a while, we stopped and discussed the rituals of Yom Kippur and their significance. We talked mostly about fasting and t’shuva. Fasting is important because we demonstrate to ourselves that we have enough self-control not to eat. The purpose of this demonstration is that we exercise that same self-control when we make decisions in the coming year. Most of our sins are committed out of choice, and simply knowing that we have the resolve not to eat or drink for an entire day helps us make hard decisions in the future. Fasting is also significant because it cleanses our bodies and brings us closer to death. When we break the fast, it is as if we are giving ourselves new life for the new year. T’shuva is similar in that we cleanse ourselves by forgiving others and letting go of our own sins. Traditionally, we throw pieces of bread (representing our sins) into a river and watch them float away. However, since there are no rivers near Kibbutz Ketura, we did a slightly different exercise. Instead, Rabbi Michael asked us to write about a sin we have committed in the last year. Afterwards, we took our scraps of paper, put them in a pile, and burned them.

After our hike, everyone prepared for the fast. The main preparation is to eat a lot. The last meal was at 3 and the fast started at 5. A little after 5 was the Kol Nidre service, which I attended and enjoyed more than the Shabbat service, but still less than services back home. The rest of the evening was focused on preserving energy, the most important fasting strategy. Another one of my strategies is sleeping as much as possible because I'm not hungry while I sleep. Accordingly, I went to sleep early and slept in late. Services ran continuously on Monday from 9 until 6:30, except for one 30 minute break. I knew I didn’t have the endurance to be in temple the entire time, so I chose certain hours. As I said, I slept in to shorten the fast, so I didn’t get to services until 10:30. I left around 12:30 and returned at 4:30. In total, I spent about 6 hours not really understanding what was going on. But finally, at 6:30, the fast was over! Even the kibbutz food tasted good that night.

Tuesday was the first day of Hebrew classes aka the first day of boredom. Eight of the eleven Masa students have never spoken Hebrew before and there is only one Hebrew class, so the teacher is starting from the very very beginning. Like I learned this stuff in second grade. I was really looking forward to the Hebrew classes because I’m quite rusty, but these particular classes were useless. During one of the breaks, I took my computer to a wifi hotspot to download some computer games, which kept me somewhat occupied for the remainder of the class. Fortunately, I spoke with Moishe, the program director, who agreed that Adi and I could study independently. (Yoni, the other Masa student who knows some Hebrew decided he wanted to stay in the class.) After class on Wednesday (the second day of boredom), Moishe, Adi, and I worked out the details of our independent study. On Thursday, Adi and I read 2 newspaper articles and answered a few questions in Hebrew. Adi is pretty fluent in Hebrew, so he didn’t have too much trouble with the newspaper articles, but I struggled. We are also supposed to discuss the articles in Hebrew, but we ran out of time. There was no class on Friday, but I’ll give it another chance next week. Hopefully, it will get better.

I have to backtrack a bit to cover Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and Thursday’s afternoon/evening events. Tuesday was absolutely ridiculous. I must have had a lot of energy stored up from not doing anything on Yom Kippur and being bored out of my mind at Hebrew class that morning. Here was my Tuesday afternoon and evening itinerary:

- Pool (swimming, volleyball, frisbee)

- Dinner

- American football

- Soccer against the Australian volunteers

- Ultimate frisbee

- My legs stopped functioning

- Music

I’ll elaborate. It didn’t really start getting intense until we played soccer with the Australians. I don’t know whose stupid idea it was to challenge the Australians to soccer, but they’re damn good and we (the American students) were pretty bad. We decided to play to 10 goals, and team USA managed to drag it out for like 2 hours. The final score was 10-2 (I scored our first goal when we were losing 6-0!) Anyway, everyone was pretty drained, but then there were a few people who hadn’t gotten to play soccer, so they brought a frisbee. My legs were already starting to cramp, but I decided to play frisbee anyway. It actually wasn’t too bad until I ran and dove to catch the disc. It was an epic catch—I was sprinting my fastest and then lunged to catch it when it was about 2 inches off the ground. The problem was that I had no more gas in the tank, and that last burst sent both of my legs into a coma. For a few seconds, I just laid there, completely sprawled out, wincing, but with the disc in my hand. I got rid of the disc, but I was down for the count. It took me a while to get to my feet and waddle to the sideline. It would have been a good idea to call it a night right then, but when I heard that there was about to be a jam session, I couldn’t miss it. I grabbed my saxophone and we met in this old blue trailer. Benjamin played drums, Yoni played guitar, Ben played harmonica, and I played saxophone. It was so awesome! There were a ton of Israeli high school kids visiting the kibbutz for a few days, and about 10 of them piled into the trailer to listen to us play. They started videotaping us, asked us what the name of our band was and how long we had been playing together, and we just shrugged and told them that we had never played together before. It was a great way to finally end the night.

Wednesday afternoon, I was still pretty energized by the previous night, but there wasn’t much to do, so I went to the Mercaz (kibbutz center), where there is a piano. I composed this song that we might try to perform for the kibbutz later this week. It still needs words, but the chords sound pretty good. I also played some tennis and basketball, which helped my legs loosen up from the night before. Before going to bed, I hung out with the volunteers and smoked hookah.

There were 2 highlights to Thursday: schnitzel and pub night. Schnitzel is a rarity at the kibbutz (about once a month) but it is the best food I have had in a long time, so I stocked up on it. I brought this huge plastic container and filled it with about 20 pieces of schnitzel, which is now in the freezer. I will resort to it when we have a sucky meal, which is essentially 3 times a day. Pub night has gotten better each time. Braeden and I split a bottle of vodka and a 6-pack of beers at the Aspaka so that we wouldn’t have to pay for stuff at the bar which is more expensive. Basically, pub nights have gotten better because of more drinking, more dancing, and more friends. Tonight is pub night too.

Friday morning, we woke up early to go on another hike with Rabbi Michael. This is our third religious conversation with Rabbi Michael, and I enjoy them a lot. I have decided that services are pretty useless to me, but Rabbi Michael makes up for them. This conversation was about Sukot. To begin with, we assembled the lulav with leaves from a date palm and a myrtle branch (there are no willow trees on the kibbutz for the last third of the lulav). We also picked an etrog, a lemon-like fruit. Together, the lulav and etrog are shook in each direction in temple. After walking around a bit we sat down in the date orchard. A lot of our discussion focused on the importance of Israel to Judaism, which turned into a more political discussion once we returned to the caravans.

For dinner, we sat in a huge sukah which was built outside the dining room. When I walked into the sukah, I heard some people calling my name. I turned around and saw Dor and his family! They came down to the kibbutz for the first night of Sukot. It was great to see them here after they hosted me in Tel Aviv. Dor’s father, Nadav, is a guest lecturer of eco-health at the Arava Institute, so he has many friends on the kibbutz. After dinner, I showed Dor around the kibbutz before meeting up with his family in Sharon’s sukah. Sharon is a friend of Nadav’s who works at the Arava Institute and is a member of Kibbutz Ketura. This was my first time being invited into the home of one of the members, so I was pretty excited. The conversation wasn’t particularly interesting, but it was still a good time.

FYI there’s another public Picasa album to which all of the Arava students post pictures. Here’s the link:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Photo Album

I started a new post a couple of days ago, but haven't gotten around to finishing it yet. In the meantime, I created a photo album through Picasa. I'll keep it up-to-date with all of my pics. Here is the web address: