Posts Tagged ‘Essay’
Thanks to the generosity of Taglit-Birthright which pays for young American Jews to travel to Israel for the first time, I spent 10 days in the Motherland, with stops in Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, the desert, and the Dead Sea. While an organized tour was a change from the weeks of independent travel in China and New York, it did give me a chance to bond with young Israelis I might not have otherwise met. So rather than describing the trip from a tourist perspective –for that, try your Jewish friends’ online photo albums— I’m going to let Maya, Kobi, and Yoav take the reins.
Maya Joshua is finishing up her military service. Her dad is Israeli but mom is American. She primarily grew up in Israel but moved to the States in high school. Since then, she’s been going back and forth until she decided to enlist. “I’ve always been really torn about my identity,” Maya explains. “Israeli’s are like ‘you’re not completely Israeli because you speak English so well and you fit into that culture so well and you didn’t grow up in an Israeli household’ but I’m definitely not completely American because I miss so many of the references in both cultures. So I was like ‘where do I belong?’ So I had this urge to come here and serve in the army and find out what it was all about.” Maya’s learned that the army hasn’t been for her, but she doesn’t regret the experience. “The army is an intriguing system in Israel because it’s such a big part of our society. It’s not just that everyone has the experience, there’s a language, you know? Like, there are all these acronyms people use and all these stories, it floods over, it spills into civilian life.”
As military service is (with few exceptions) compulsory in Israel, it’s a topic that almost invites itself into conversation. Kobi Cnaany has finished his service and is a biomedical engineering student at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. We talked about what it means to live in a country surrounded by potential threats. “I don’t feel any threatened by living in this country,” Kobi assures me. “I know there is a constant threat upon us but daily life at the moment, I’m two years after my military service, I’m living as a student up north which is next to Lebanon and Syria which people would say is a “hot” area, I should be afraid and stuff like that, but I just feel secure.” For Kobi, it adds to the mark of the Israeli character. “That’s why we’re living here. Even though we know that there is a threat somewhere I just think that this country is more, like, chilled and that makes Israelis to be very cynical. We laugh about everything.”
Yoav Hermoni was the guide of our ten day tour, a man with infinite patience, and a slightly left-of-center sense of humor. At 36 and with a wife and kids of his own and playing tour guide in countries around the Middle East and South America, he offers a unique perspective. “Israeli’s are getting tired now of the politics. A lot of the people now, these recent years, have no confidence anymore of the politicians. It’s not the way it was when I was a child that people were motivated in their ideology, they felt they were part of something, they felt loyal to the party, you know, now people do not believe anything…Which is very dangerous, which is not good, but this is how it is.” On top of that, Israel is a very expensive country to live in. “This generation is working hard and is feeling that, everybody is working very hard and doesn’t get the same as our parents, or as the same as people that were in our position twenty years ago.” Maya echoes that idea. “You run into all these bureaucratic like issues and it’s just like you feel sometimes like you’re running really, really fast and you’re standing in one place.” For Yoav, it’s gotten to the point where action needs to be taken. “And that’s the reason last year, there was a big wave of social protests here in Israel and I also joined this protest. I went to the demonstrations because I felt that it’s a justified cause to protest against the government that is taking care of the ultra-Orthodox community and we have a lot of people that are not working in Israel and we have to subsidize them.”
“In terms of the future,” Yoav says, “Israelis are very skeptical. That is also a dangerous thing. We have a hope for a better Middle East during the 90s and now this hope is gone, really gone. Like, there is no one that talks about it anymore. We see what’s happening around us. We don’t have a lot of optimism, let’s say, in the Middle East. But still, we are optimistic about ourselves.” He reiterates that Israeli’s are cynical, can be stubborn and impolite. Likewise, “Israelis have a lot of initiative. And I can see that everywhere. I can see that when I’m traveling. If something doesn’t work as it should have worked, so we find a way that it will be okay and others can’t. This is something that is very, very strong in our mentality.”
While it’s always great discovering the minute details of cultures from around the world, there are (spoiler alert) things that tie everyone together. “All the people that I’ve met so far [Israeli’s or Palestinians],” Maya says, “are normal people who want to wake up in the morning and see their kids wake up in the morning and go to work and know that their kids are safe at school and come back home and put food on the table and do homework with their kids, and occasionally go out with their husband or wife and live to have grandkids.” Kobi reverberates this sentiment: “Some people just mark us as a military country that fucks up with the whole world…I just think we want to live.”
After the trip, I keep asking myself: have I changed? Beyond the idea that everything changes everything, you can’t step in the same river twice, etc. Have I changed as an American Jew? At this point in my life I’m a staunch atheist, not so much polemical, but I just worry myself with other things in life. While I didn’t leave a note at the Western Wall, there was an intense and profound energy of all the religious Jews around me during Shabbat that most rock bands I write about strive for but fail to conjure. While it was a great experience to witness, there was a great disconnect for me also. My existential side tells me that “l’existence précède l’essence,” so as I never participate in Judaism consciously, can I consider myself a Jew? Simultaneously, as I know there is Jewish blood in my veins, I can’t separate myself entirely. It may just be my Jewish guilt kicking in, that I need to get something deep out of a free trip across the world. If nothing else, I am thinking more critically about my connection to and place in history, to the land of my far back ancestry. I’m looking more inward than I’ve been already, but I don’t rely on any scripture for answers. It may just be hard for me to grasp the fact that I was just a tourist, that I’m feeling that famous Jewish guilt over not finding out anything deep about my Jewish connection over a free trip.
Overall, the three Israelis agreed about importance of connectivity, less so technological connectivity, but between the past, between family, and between the world. While Maya’s family was thankfully never personally affected by the Holocaust the way many Israeli citizens have been, she still remains poignant on the topic. “To live in a country,” she says, “where the Holocaust is part of the shadow that follows us everywhere, and to see that and to hear about that and to be a part of the people that went through that means that we get the right, that now that we have a state, no one is taking it away from us.” “We are very connected to our families here,” says Yoav. “This is a very familial society, very much. For us, the fact that we live in Israel is part of who we are.” While the state itself is important, it’s an international attribute for Kobi: “My Judaism, I’m Jewish as part of a nation, the nation of Israel, and also the nation of the Jews which is something worldwide.” That is something I’ve definitely come to agree with. For the significance that Judaism has played around the world, Jews make up approximately 0.2% of the world’s population, less than 14 million people. Not that its an exclusive club that people are flocking to join, but for those of us already here, it shapes our identities probably more than we realize. While we were given a window into a culture and place that still seems very foreign to me, it was only a glimpse, standing on my tip-toes at the sill. What I can conclude is this: the people I met were good people first, Jewish second. L’Chaim.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His previous essays in this series discussed bikes, beer, and baozi, Beijing nightlife, and New York (before and after Hurricane Sandy). He wants to reiterate his thanks to the many friends he met in Israel, especially Yoav, Maya, and Kobi, for giving him insight into how and why people live, and an extra congratulation to Maya, who finishes her military duty on November 15th. The final essay in this series will appear next week.
[The third is a series of essays from China, New York, and Israel]
Hurricane Sandy hit and shut down New York before we had a chance to publish the following article about my trip to the city in mid-October. Since then, I’ve been witness to a barrage of coverage about the devastation, from photos to death totals, and it seems insensitive to run a piece about my trip without comment on the storm and its aftermath. The majority of what I’ve seen has been social media updates from friends, family, and strangers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Everyone I know is all right save for power outages, but the comparisons to an apocalyptic Hollywood movie scene don’t seem unwarranted. My original piece was intended to be humorous, as one can’t exist in New York without a sense of humor. The city isn’t perfect, but it is fantastic; both its faults and strengths are as worth exploring as they are in my hometown, Chicago. One of the city’s strengths is most certainly the sense that despite its diversity, it is in fact a unified city, an idea I was skeptical about originally. The music scene has come together with benefit shows, my twitter feed is full of locals, celebs, and companies tweeting simple ways to help hurricane victims, and places offering their wifi and space for people to do their work. The amount of people affected by this disaster in such a small area is overwhelming; the amount of these same people coming together to help is phenomenal.
While it was raining when my plane landed in Beijing, it was in the 70s and sunny most of the next two weeks. I was staying on the 24th floor of an apartment building and could see the surrounding mountains nearly every day. The haze that the city has become known for wasn’t completely absent, but was generally never an issue. But with good weather combined with the National Day and Golden Week that followed, areas of the city grew to even more phenomenally crowded than what is normal. I had initially contemplated trying to travel outside of Beijing, but after hearing horror stories from travelers about overbooked trains, no hostel availability, and sleeping in a karaoke room for the night — I decided to stay put.
The Airport Express elevated train flies past the stagnant Tuesday evening traffic and I’m welcomed to the city by the corporate offices of Mercedes, Caterpillar, and Microsoft. Through the haze and rain shine the bright yellow lights of an Ikea. Did I take the wrong plane? Nope. I’m in Beijing, back in China for the first time since I studied for a semester in Shanghai over three years ago.
Dave likes to point out how clueless I am about living in the city. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been generally unscathed since I moved from California nearly a decade ago; that I’ve braved countless middle-of-the-night walks home alone to our apartment. To prove his point, he’ll steal from my bag when we’re swinging on subway handrails during the evening commute. When I’m left fumbling for my keys or wallet, he laughs, produces the stolen item from his pocket, and offers a stern lecture on how I should pay better attention to my surroundings.
Dave’s lessons haven’t been unwarranted. I have had my wallet stolen on the subway, and not by him. But since that singular theft, I succeeded in keeping my purse and all its myriad belongings tucked under my arm, maintaining a vigilant self-awareness as I entered a subway car/room/street/park. Yet after only two years of living in Pauoa Valley, O‘ahu in a neighborhood filled with elderly couples, I decided I was being paranoid. The wallet snatching was a fluke; people didn’t want to steal my things. In Honolulu, I let my bag sag on my shoulder as dared to nap on the bus.
I found Manhattan a strange beast when I returned this summer. But I was determined to maintain my faith in people. I averted my eyes if someone’s look lingered on the new leather purse my sister Maya had given me for my birthday. I carried my computer brazenly on my arm as I headed to a coffee shop during regular work hours. I plucked out my flashy new iPhone—a graduation present from my dad—to listen to music or check my email or, in the instance that set off this next episode, take a picture.
It was one o’clock on a gorgeous, sun-dappled Friday in July when, after loading two weeks’ worth of laundry into the dryer at the Laundromat, I paused on the canopied block of West 139th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards. I was taking a picture of a snapdragon, marbled purple and red, growing from a crack in the sidewalk. My oldest sister, Joya, loved snapdragons and always stopped to pinch the flower’s tiny jaws and “rawr” to make her kids laugh. I was missing her and my family, whom I’d left weeks before in California after my graduation from the University of Hawai‘i.
I turned up the volume on Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings,” hummed along unselfconsciously, and started to send the file, rich with color, when two hands seized the phone. I laughed, wrestled with Dave, whom I’d assumed was the owner of those hands. What a nice guy, I thought, coming home to help me with the laundry. Only, those were not Dave’s hands, but those of a scrawny teenager who snatched the phone and booked down the street. I took a moment to recognize what had happened, the headphones dangling from my neck like a flimsy toy stethoscope, but I finally ran after him, yelling repeatedly, “He stole my phone! He stole my phone! Please help me!” Before I could get anywhere near him, the kid’s white shirt, black hat, and jeans disappeared around the corner.
Clumps of pedestrians mobilized, albeit too late to have tripped the kid. Even though this had all happened in seconds, I was sure that there was nothing anyone could do. One of the guys on the street came over to me and said I should call the cops.
“How?” I sputtered between spastic sobs. “He stole my phone.”
The guy loaned me his phone. I reported the incident, confirmed that I wasn’t hurt or in need of an ambulance. When an impossibly thin old man on a ten-speed turned the block in hot pursuit of the thief, the situation seemed out of control. I considered using the anti-theft alarm that I’d downloaded on the phone, but what was the point? I lived a block away and, like other yuppies riding the swell of gentrification, hadn’t folded into the neighborhood. Was this how I wanted to connect with my neighbors?
As the small crowd waited for the cops, I kept crying and apologizing for crying, trying to look tough as I wiped my nose on my arm. It was just a phone, I repeated between sobs.
Two white people from Parks and Recreation regaled me with stories of when “kids like these” had done “similar things” to them. It wasn’t my fault, the woman said as she hugged me. At the sign of this, the man who had called the police edged away. Before I could do the same, two cops arrived in an unmarked SUV. The female cop approached my still-sobbing face and made as if she wanted to hug me. Instead, she asked me what I wanted to do.
“Go get him!” The guy with the phone called from the curb.
I slumped in the SUV, though the cops assured me that no one could see through the tinted windows. We set off just as the old man rolled up on his bike. Panting, he jabbed his finger toward St. Nicholas Park and said the kid was heading to City College. We thanked him and peeled out.
The cops reported on the radio that they had “the victim” in the car; at that, to my horror, I let out an involuntary whimper. Sharking through the streets, the cops slowed here and there, pointing at one guy or another, and asking me if that was the guy.
I said no again and again, recognizing how silly and scary this was. It was a summer day. Everyone was wearing a white shirt and a hat and there were 15 skinny teenagers on the last block we passed. Anybody could get blamed.
The cop’s radio crackled, and the female cop muttered to her partner that somebody’s purse had just been snatched and that she bet it was the same kid. The radio said again that a “perp” was being held at St. Nicholas Park, shirtless and looking “suspicious.”
I sank further into my seat then leaned forward to ask if they could forget the whole thing just as the force of the SUV’s bounding down an alley threw me back in my seat and shut my mouth. We raced up St. Nicholas Avenue to 135th Street.
The block was lit with the flashing lights of a carnival. As the cops told me, I lived on the border of two precincts; one was responding to my case and the other, the purse snatching. As a result, a half-dozen cop cars from both precincts—and an ambulance—had surrounded one skinny kid who was handcuffed and moping, his head hanging low. Not unlike a nauseating amusement-park ride, the car idled to a stop, its nose a few inches from the kid. The cops standing around the suspect parted as if on cue to give us a better view.
“Is that him?” the female cop asked. “Take a look and be sure.”
“I can’t be sure,” I said, sobered by the sight of the kid. “I only saw his clothes, and this guy doesn’t have the shirt or the hat.” I imagined that this kid had been jogging up the stairs in the park for exercise or to catch up with his buddies. The cold clink of the handcuffs probably circled his wrists before he knew what was happening. If the kid didn’t have the phone or the purse, why had the cops restrained him? I felt a knot in my stomach.
“He probably ditched his clothes,” the male cop suggested.
“I really can’t tell,” I insisted. “It happened too fast and I never saw the guy’s face.”
The female cop radioed that I’d said it wasn’t him. The male cop said there was a “witness” who could be the thief. They pulled the car beside the taxi where the alleged witness was sitting so I could see him. The cops assured me, again, that no one could see into the car.
We were idling so close I was sure the cab’s yellow paint would rub off on the SUV when the cops asked me again if this was the guy. I looked at the man, who no doubt thought he was doing the right thing, being a witness, with no idea that one pointed finger could decide his fate. Despite the tinted windows, the witness and I made eye contact through the glass. I snapped my eyes to the back of the cops’ headrests.
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. That guy is heavier than the kid who took my phone.”
The cops sighed, seemingly annoyed. The male cop said he’d take me for one last look at the skinny, handcuffed kid. I sank deeper into my seat.
Sun reflected off the chains hanging from the kid’s neck, and I was about to say that I didn’t remember the thief having necklaces when a powerful-looking man approached the car and rapped on the window.
“Hey, Sarge,” the male cop said, dipping his head in respect.
The man wore a fitted black shirt and jeans; his badge hung on a silver chain around his neck—the perfect TV cop costume. He furrowed his eyebrows over his glasses and nosed his way into the car to ask me what I had lost.
“My—my phone,” I stammered, then lowered my voice. “My iPhone.”
“This kid has one of those,” the sarge said, jerking his thumb at the teen now in the cop car.
“It has a password,” I said. “I can check if it’s mine.”
With that, he tossed the mute rectangular device into the backseat. I punched in my code. Like an answer from a Magic 8 ball, there surfaced the picture of the snapdragon, which I’d been trying to send some 20 minutes before.
While I waited to give my statement, the male cop chided me, not unlike Dave, to be more aware of my surroundings. I sputtered that I’d lived in New York for the better part of a decade, that I’d just spent two years away in a relatively safe area and was just adjusting to being back in the city.
All façade of the cop’s toughness dropped when I said I’d been living in Hawai‘i. He told me what most everyone who has visited those islands says—that he’d been, that it was beautiful, that he’d never wanted to leave.
“Why’d you leave?” he asked.
“Love,” I said, shrugging. “My boyfriend is here. I know, it’s gross.”
After I gave my statement, I went home, changed the shirt that I’d sweat through, and called Dave, which brought back those pathetic whimpering-heaving tears. I made it back to the Laundromat right as the swirl of our clothes slowed to a stop. Dave, who had left work early, got home just after me. It was three o’clock.
“I told you I was okay,” I said. “You didn’t need to come home.”
He pulled me up from the bed, where I’d collapsed amid some sloppy piles of folded shirts, and hugged me. “I’m not here for you,” he said. “I’m here for me.”
He laughed a bit at that, and I showed him the slip of paper the cops had given me about the court date. I wondered if there needed to be one at all. I hoped that the kid had gotten shaken up as much as I had; neither of us needed more than what had already happened.
I took in the cluttered space of our one-room, albeit-renovated apartment, then considered the sharp contrast of the doorman building, just around the corner, whose sculpted plants created a visual barrier from the condemned building where a handful of homeless people lived. I considered the McDonald’s that squatted beside my building, only an avenue between it and the canopied block where my phone had been snatched. I felt guilty—for having what I did, for waving around what I had, for reacting so pathetically at losing something so unnecessary. Yet the neighbors who’d huddled around me didn’t seem to judge me for my near hysterics after this petty crime.
Dave got out the sandwiches he’d picked up on the way home and we ate in silence, his I-told-you-so hovering above us like a caption. I edged away from him, waiting for him to say it and getting a little angry ahead of time. Instead, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, hugged me, kissed me hard on my temple, and didn’t say a word.
Anjoli Roy is a recipient of the Myrle Clark Award for Creative Writing. Her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Big Stupid Review, Brownstone Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, ExPatLit.com: A Literary Review for Writers Abroad, Hawai‘i Review, Hawaii Women’s Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine, and The West Fourth Street Review. She lives in New York.