Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Social Justice Organizations in Israel

While I am back in the U.S., I do still have a few more posts I want to write about Israel and one about my trip to Silver City. Having just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, a traditional time for Jewish giving, I figured this post about Israeli social change organizations might be timely.

With constant media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and violence, it’s easy to reduce Israel to a single topic issue. Without “engaging with Israel in all its complexity,” to steal a frequently-used Yahel phrase, it’s easy to reduce your position on Israel to either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, pro-orthodox or pro-secular, without exploring a space to be pro-both, and pro-greater equality and justice for all. One of the great things about the learning component of Yahel was the emphasis on exposing us to the diverse populations and narratives of Israeli society. There’s not just one “Jewish” narrative and one “Palestinian” narrative.  There are as many perspectives as there are people, and Jews and Palestinians aren’t the only groups inhabiting the land of Israel. While I often found myself frustrated by inequality, racism, religious conflict, and what I considered unjust government actions, I also was often inspired by the incredible number of social justice advocates from all walks of life working hard toward a stronger, more just and equal Israeli society. I had the privilege to meet some of them this year.  

Through our weekly learning sessions and program seminars around the country, we met with leaders of diverse Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli, West Bank Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin, Sudanese and Eritrean refugee, and other communities. I learned about more incredible organizations doing powerful social justice and community development work than I could possibly write about here. This year I gained a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of Israeli society and the multitude of narratives held by diverse communities across Israel. I began to conceptualize my vision for a more just and equal future for Israel and Jewish society. Below are brief descriptions for a handful of organizations that most stood out to me. 

Feel free to read these descriptions purely on an informational basis.  However, if you want to make a gift to Israel, but find that the traditional donation streams don’t resonate with your vision for Israel or want to expand your scope of giving, I’d recommend you help create a more socially just Israeli society by contributing to one or more of the below organizations.

Yahel Israel Service Learning (
I volunteered in Israel through Yahel, as a member of the Yahel Social Change Program (YSCP) 2014-15.  One of the reasons I chose Yahel is their approach to partnering with local community organizations and community leaders in the communities in which they place volunteers.  They look to community members to identify the community needs and projects in which volunteers can be most helpful and they support the leadership of members of marginalized communities.  They also encourage leadership from members of the YSCP group, and provide broad learning opportunities about social justice, Israeli society, community, and Jewish identity. Among Israel service-learning programs for non-Israeli volunteers, I think they are very unique.

Ethiopian Community
Tebeka was my primary volunteer placement, in which I worked on grant writing and fundraising.  Tebeka is a legal aid organization specializing in cases of discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community.  In addition to handling nearly 1,000 legal aid cases annually, they advocate for national policy changes that promote equity and end discrimination.  Since the Ethiopian-led protests this spring, they have been actively working with the national Chief of Police, President, and Prime Minister to implement policy changes that prevent police violence and promote better integration of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society. They also offer leadership and professional development programs to Ethiopian-Israeli high school and university students and young Ethiopian-Israeli professionals.

Garin Ehud
            Garin Ehud is a community of ~15 Ethiopian families working to strengthen the Ethiopian community in Ramat Eliyahu, the neighborhood where I lived and worked this year. Their neighborhood patrol helps keeps kids away from alcohol and violence on weekend and summer evenings.  Their Homework at Home program, with which I volunteered, emphasizes the creation of a home learning environment and aims to engage Ethiopian parents, who are traditionally excluded from the Israeli education system, in their children’s learning. This was one of the best volunteer experiences I’ve ever had. Additionally they organize community education events and leadership development opportunities for Garin members. I worked with one of their leaders on basic budget building and resource development. They don’t have a mechanism for on-line giving, but if you’d like to make a contribution to this incredible community group, I’d be happy to help you arrange it.

Palestinian Community
I went on a tour of Israeli-occupied Hebron with Breaking the Silence.  It is an organization of Israeli Defense Forces veterans who served in the occupied territories.  They collect testimonies about the abuses against residents of the occupied territories, and also lead tours for both Israelis and foreigners to see firsthand the consequences of the occupation.  This was an incredibly eye-opening experience.

A Palestinian-led organization based in the West Bank seeking peace, healing, empowerment, an end to oppression and inequality, and positive youth and community development.  They have a variety of programs, from rebuilding demolished homes to organizing nonviolent resistance campaigns against the separation wall and land confiscation, addressing intergenerational trauma, and youth music and summer programs. The values underlying all their programs include non-violence, equality, justice and respect.  As part of a Yahel seminar I had the opportunity to tour part of the West Bank with two of their talented activists.

Mahapach Taghir (
A grass-roots, Jewish-Arab feminist organization which operates in eight marginalized communities across Israel. Each Mahapach Taghir community is centered on a Learning Community, composed of local parents and residents as well as university students who tutor children in the community while learning about the community’s social needs.  They also focus on the empowerment and leadership development of women.  During a Yahel seminar to northern Israel, we met with a couple of the Palestinian-Israeli activities from the Yaffat el-Nassera Mahapach Taghir community who spoke about their local youth education activities as well as their women’s leadership initiatives.  The latter included a successful campaign to expand public transportation to their village and a social banking system that has enabled several of their members to begin small businesses making and selling traditional crafts.

Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality (
A Jewish-Arab joint organizations seeking full civil rights and equality for those living in the Negev, with a particular focus on the Bedouin community. The forum advocates for basic community services in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages, files legal petitions against discriminatory practices, and collects data to publish numerous reports on the status of services in and discrimination against Bedouin communities in Israel in order to shape public policy.

Pluralism, Gender Equality, and Coexistence
Israel Religious Action Center - IRAC (
A civil and human rights organization founded as the public and legal advocacy arm for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. They advocate for a more democratic and equal Israeli society and fight for equal recognition, funding, and status for Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel; oppose forced gender segregation in public spaces (such as buses), protect the rights of converts, oppose racism and religious extremism; and freedom of choice in marriage (by religion, sexual identity, etc) and equal rights in divorce. We met with the Executive Director, Anat Hoffman, an absolute firecracker who is also the Board Chair of Women of the Wall, another incredible organization.

While I can no longer remember everything we discussed with Rabbi Melchior, I remember leaving the room in awe of his approach to social change and coexistence work, believing that if we could all be more like him, peace and equality would be guaranteed. A former Knesset member, he is the founder and chair of several organizations (web links available through the webpage listed above) working to build peace across religions, through work with both religious leaders and coexistence efforts among individuals, and foster Jewish pluralistic education and communities.  He is both an orthodox and relatively socially progressive rabbi – yes, they do exist!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pros and Questions of International Service Learning

As the end of my time in the Yahel Social Change Program is starting to near (far more quickly than I would like to think about), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pros and “questions”  of international service learning for the community that hosts the volunteers. The benefits for a volunteer participating in a service-learning program are numerous: a chance to live abroad, a sense of adventure and learning about different cultures, organized learning on a range of issues, a feeling of giving and fulfilling the Jewish value of tikkun olam (healing the world), and for some, resume-building.  There are a good number of challenges for the volunteer as well, but I think it’s a personal choice to take these on, generally with the belief that the benefits outweigh the challenges. 

Some of the “pros” or benefits to the community that I see in our work in Ramat Eliyahu are:
·         Nine native English speakers are working with many children and adults through individual and group tutoring. This is a big resource for under-resourced schools and one-to-one tutoring can make the difference between being behind and at or ahead of grade-level for many children.  In Israel, proficiency in English has a long-term impact on educational tracking, army service placements, and future employment opportunities.  Teaching English meets a significant need in Ramat Eliyahu.
·         At this stage in my career, I probably would not have been willing to volunteer for a year in the U.S., but I was willing to work for free for a year in exchange for a relatively low-cost year living abroad.  Since I have a lot of professional experience in resource development, both Tebeka (non-profit legal aid organization for Ethiopian community) and Garin Ehud (Ethiopian neighborhood organization) are getting a level of resource development support, that they would not normally receive for free. Additionally, because I am a native English speaker and familiar with the American philanthropic sector, I am able to act as a bridge for these organizations.
·         Both for the volunteer and the community, our presence here is an interesting cultural exchange and opportunity for learning.  In a community that has often been segregated and stigmatized, it is often mentioned how our acceptance and commitment to working here can make people feel validated. Sometimes I can’t decide if this sounds patronizing or if it is the beauty of fostering multiculturalism, but it is mentioned by the staff and community leaders frequently.
·         One advantage of entering the community from outside the “system” is that we’re not so entrenched in a program model and therefore are open to making adjustments when needed.  Additionally, because we work with several different community programs and organizations, we’re also able to see what’s working in other settings and suggest improvements or make connections between complementary programs.  For example, after struggling for months with a group volunteer placement in a learning center that just wasn’t working all that well, we were able to work with the staff to switch to tutoring the children at home, modeled after the Homework at Home program in which many of us also volunteer.  Hopefully, the connection between these two independent programs will grow – I’ve heard some talk of them beginning a collaboration!

There are broad range of service learning approaches and I chose Yahel specifically because of its approach to the community.  Yahel believes in developing community partners and respectfully supporting the existing projects of community organizations rather than creating their own and imposing them on community.  While we can always search for more ways to better engage the community, I think Yahel is on the right side of this spectrum. Nonetheless, I have questions about the impact of international service learning, which I think is normal for anyone trying to engage in community work conscientiously. My questions mostly boil down to the fact that by its very nature volunteers are in a community for a finite period of time.  What is the impact of this departure and turnover?
·         We’ve spent a year getting to know the community and I’m finally starting to really understand it.  We also engage in intensive learning multiple times per week about the many populations and issues, some of which are general social justice or Jewish learning topics, but many are specific to Israel, the Ethiopian Israeli community, and Ramat Eliyahu.  Then, after a year, most people leave.  Is this wasted knowledge from the community’s perspective? Imagine how powerful a group of people could be if they engaged in all of this learning and then stayed to work in those communities longer-term.  We’ve joked about Yahel+ or the Yahel Super-Stars team, but seriously…
·         The local organizations invest time and energy in our learning, but their return on investment is short-term.  Then they have to start again with a new group the next year. Some of the challenges along the way are smoothed out and are one-time issues, but for most of their contributions, they will be committing staff resources to every cohort. Is this a strain on resources?  Now is probably a good time to say thank you, thank you, thank you! to the wonderful community organizations who invest in us at the same time that we volunteer for them.
·         There are some limitations to the type of work we can do in the community due to the language barrier.  Would we be able to better serve in a community where this was not a limitation?
·         Is it sustainable?  How do you build sustainability when volunteers come and go each year?  What happens if the program closes or relocates to another community?
·         We build a lot of relationships, particularly with youth in the community.  Is the relationship long enough that the benefits of mentorship outweigh us leaving them? Do they feel abandoned?  I’ve developed a great relationship with a child I tutor and her family this year.  In addition to tutoring we have amazing conversations about song content and messages, her family’s aliya and experiences in Israel, and the Ethiopian community. I’m starting to understand her little sister’s great ideas for improving their community and her passion and want to connect her to people who can foster that. But now I’m getting ready to leave that and realistically it’s not a relationship that can easily be maintained with distance. Is it long enough to have an impact?  I tutor one child, in which after switching to an at-home one-to-one model, I finally understand her English level and learning style…after 6 months of working with her! Also, will these same children have the opportunity to form new connections with the next Yahel group or was this a one-time thing?  Some organizations will choose to connect the Yahelnikim with the same cohort of kids over several years while others will aim to maximize the number of kids receiving support from Yahelnikim.

Many of you have experience in service learning programs, either as participants, facilitators, or both.  What do you think?

(This was a long one without photos! My mind is still filled with songs from the beautiful Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service at the kotel this morning.  Maybe I'll write another post about that experience soon.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Thoughts on the Recent Protests Led by Ethiopian Israelis

I'm sure many of you have heard about the recent protests led by Ethiopian Israelis which were sparked by police discrimination and violence against an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier a few weeks ago. Earlier this week Masa, the main funder for Israel service-learning and education programs for young adults, asked Yahel staff and participants to write about our experiences working with the Ethiopian-Israeli community and our take on the protests.  Below is a piece that I wrote, which was also posted on the Yahel blog and an update sent out to Yahel supporters. You should also check out the two posts written by a few of my fellow Yahelnikim and Yahel staff on the Yahel blog. One thing I'd like to add is that I asked the 14-year old who I tutor yesterday what she thought about the protests.  She told me "Proud and supporting it every step."  I then asked her what she would like all Israelis and Jews to know about the Ethiopian Israeli community, a question I've been asking a lot of people this week.  She asked her younger sister for some help with this one.  12-year old B, who is full of fire, spirit, and ideas for improving Ramat Eliyahu, didn't miss a beat before replying "That we are strong and we are not afraid."

There seems to be a broad consensus that the protests over the last few weeks are not only about police violence, but rather that police violence against an Ethiopian Israeli soldier was simply the catalyst for protests against broader discrimination against and disparities experienced by the Ethiopian community.  Indeed, during my time in Israel and the Yahel Social Change program I have often become angry when learning about these disparities. While volunteering at Tebeka, a legal aid organization serving the Ethiopian community, I’ve been appalled by both individual and systemic forms of discrimination experienced by the community.  I’ve been frustrated by the ways in which Israel’s absorption of the Ethiopian community failed to respect a strong Ethiopian Jewish culture, with strong leaders and community social systems.  I’ve wanted to shake some sense in to the people who have claimed the primarily Ethiopian neighborhood in which I live and have been warmly embraced is “dangerous.” I believe the anger and frustration that is fueling the protests is well justified.  Both the news media and a few of my Yahel peers have written about these social disparities and discrimination, and about the challenges in the Ethiopian aliyah to Israel, so I’d like to offer a complementary perspective.

In a way, I believe that this fight against discrimination and injustice is also a fight for recognition of the assets and contributions of this incredible community.  I think in a truly just and equal society each community and individual must understand each other’s strengths, and work with these to complement their own.  Throughout my time in Israel in the Yahel Social Change Program, I’ve also learned about the incredible strengths of Ethiopian culture and community members.  I’ve been touched by the number of Ethiopian families who welcome me into their homes, week after week, by the mothers who always send me on my way with a belly full of delicious injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread).  I’ve been inspired by the Garin Ehud, a group of Ethiopian community members and activists living in Ramat Eliyahu who tirelessly organize programs and projects to support the neighborhood, all while working full-time and raising their families. I’ve been empowered by the incredible group of lawyers and staff of Tebeka who are fighting for a more just and equal Israeli society for all.

Israel’s initial absorption of the Ethiopian community did a poor job of capitalizing on the assets of the Ethiopian community.  I’d like to recognize just a few of the many strengths now.
  • Ethiopian Judaism is pre-rabbinic.  Kesim are the highly learned traditional spiritual leaders who are trained and mentored not only in Judaism and torah, but also to mediate community and familial conflict and serve as community leaders.  Unfortunately they face an on-going struggle to be fully recognized and legitimized by the State of Israel in the way rabbis are recognized and financially supported. I believe Israel should be embracing these natural leaders and utilizing this traditional role of kesim to best analyze and support the needs of the community.
  • Ethiopian Jews are deeply devoted to Israel and Judaism.  Most Israelis have probably never heard their aliyah stories, and the veracity of their Judaism has been questioned by some authorities repeatedly since their aliyah.  However, they are a people who have maintained their Judaism through centuries of oppression and isolation from the global Jewish community.  A people whose yearning for the land of Israel was so strong that they risked their lives crossing Ethiopia and Sudan, thousands dying during the journey. While various social factors may have catalyzed their decision, every individual who has told me their aliyah story has emphasized an intense and pervasive community belief that they were always meant to return to Israel and participate in a Jewish society. A people so committed to the state of Israel should be given more opportunities to participate in its growth and improvement.  Like all Israelis, they are working towards a better Israel for their children. Their journey should be celebrated by Israel and recognized as a source of national strength and pride.
  • Traditional Ethiopian culture, and especially Ethiopian food culture is very communal. Traditionally food is eaten off communal platters and cultural practices such as eating at the pace of your neighbors ensure everyone gets their share.  A young neighbor recently described how before her wedding the entire community was called upon to make the injera and other Ethiopian dishes, with everyone doing their part to ensure a successful wedding meal.  Traditional communal culture and support systems should be incorporated into programs and initiatives to address socio-economic disparities.

This year I have only just begun to learn from the beautiful individuals and institutions of this strong, warm community of Ethiopian Israelis.  I hope that as Israel continues to examine the social and economic factors leading to the recent protests, that Israelis and Jews across the world will also recognize all that we have to learn and gain from this community. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

In Pursuit of Injera: Cooking and Community Development

Here's a re-post of my blog post that appeared on the Yahel blog last week:

After my last Yahel blog post, I started telling a few families in the neighborhood about my “assignment” to write about learning to make injera for the Yahel website.  I got a lot of promises, but nothing really materialized.  Then, magic happened!  I’ve been wanting to get to know a woman named Bat El who is one of the leaders of the neighborhood Garin Ehud for a while, and we finally made a plan for buna (Ethiopian coffee) after Shabbat. Garin Ehud is a group of Ethiopian families who are committed to remaining in Ramat Eliyahu and working together in order to develop activities and resources to support the wellbeing of the community.  We talked for hours about our respective community work and passions, the Garin model, and the neighborhood.  I mentioned my desire to learn to make injera and she offered to teach me. Something about the way she offered made it clear that she was serious, so we made an appointment for the following week.

Mixing teff and water to make the initial buho

Making injera requires a small initial input of hard work, practice, a certain comfort with delayed gratification, and perhaps a leap of faith.  During my first lesson, I eagerly dug in to a basin of teff flour and water with both hands, mixing and kneading for a long while and trying to memorize the texture.  There are no measurements, as the amount of water needed varies with each batch of the grain. My notes probably read strangely to the outside observer, as I used the terms “quicksand,” “chocolate pudding,” and “coconut milk” to describe the buho at various stages of preparation.  It will take a lot of practice for these to become intuitive. After making the buho, we let it sit for several days until it had fermented sufficiently to rinse, thin, and cook. Days later as Bat El and I added baking powder to the thinned buho (batter) in preparation for cooking the injera, she told me “this is the step you start to pray to have a good injera.”  As we laughed about this she went on to tell me that “When you get married and cook something for the first time with your mother-in-law you pray a lot!”  Luckily, as we cooked the first injera and the “eyes” (small holes) began to appear, she declared it an excellent injera.  While I mostly credit the teacher, she insisted that success began with the persistent attention I gave to mixing and kneading the teff and water in the initial buho-making process.  A good injera, like a strong community, requires attention to build a strong foundation.
"Eyes" appearing on the first injera we cooked
As we shared a piece of injera spread with berbere and jo while we continued to cook, Bat El commented how nice it is to share food from a single plate.  We talked about this common practice in Ethiopia and how much less common it is among Ethiopian families in Israel.  Bat El told me about how when she was nine and her family came from Ethiopia, the family was instructed on the “proper” way to eat with silverware instead of their hands and from individual plates.  They lived in a hotel for a month or two before they were given an apartment in an absorption center, and did not have a way to make injera during that time.  The family dropped the practice of eating from a communal platter almost immediately upon making aliyah.  Bat El told me what a shame she feels this is – that they were immediately sent the message that there was somehow something wrong with a practice that was so integral to their culture, a practice that emphasized attention to the needs of the whole group. The Garin’s activities in Ramat Eliyahu embrace Ethiopian culture, recognizing connection to culture as a community asset that brings people together.
Bat El and I with a batch of cooked injera

During my cooking lessons with Bat El, I’m learning to make traditional Ethiopian food, but I believe for both of us the experience is far more.  We share stories, culture, ideas, and most importantly are developing a friendship.  It’s through these lessons that I’ve also been given an opportunity to contribute to the community in the way I had been hoping all along.  During my first lesson, Bat El brought up a previous conversation we had about my non-profit resource development experience and asked if I could help her bring in some funding for the activities of  Garin Ehud.  Bat El and I are now working together to build a proposed budget and descriptions of their programs for funders. I’m looking forward to using my non-profit experience to support the capacity development of this local garin, a contribution which I hope will have a sustained impact on the community through the ongoing work of these committed community leaders. At the same time, I’m thrilled to learn about the model and ideology of Garin Ehud, and how to support the needs of this type of organization.  And it all began with a simple request for an injera lesson!
A feast of injera topped with shiro, gomen, and cabbage & carrot stew I cooked for the yahelnikim

Yahelnikim digging in to the feast

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Purim Sameach!

Apparently, it's been a while.  Oops!  I promise an update on Ethiopian cooking later this week, but in the meantime, below are some photos from Purim in Israel, which occurred a few weeks ago.  Purim is another holiday in which we celebrate the fact that someone tried to kill us, he failed, and the Jews survived, largely thanks to the courage of Queen Esther who risked her own life to speak up on behalf of her people.  Unlike other Jewish holidays of a similar theme - this one involves costumes and lots of merriment! In fact, the whole month of Adar is supposed to be joyful. If you want a more in-depth explanation of Purim, here are the Cliff Notes. I experienced many purim festivities including a secret friend (secret santa) gift exchange at Tebeka, the legal aid non-profit where I volunteer a couple days a week, a neighborhood purim festival, and the boarding school adliyada parade in Sde Boker (which was preceded by an amazing night camping in the desert)!  It is also typical to exchange gift baskets filled with sweets on Purim.  My favorite was one I received from a woman to whom I teach English. Instead of sweets she included a few rounds of injera and some misr wot.  She knows me well!

Hanging out with a friend's daughter at the neighborhood purim party.

Molly and I playing at the neighborhood purim party.

Trying to piece together the clues (in Hebrew) to figure out who my "secret
friend" was at the Tebeka purim party. 
And now some photos of the amazing purim parade at Sde Boker environmental boarding school.  Each grade level competes against the other.  They each pick a theme, make enormous structures from recycled materials, papier mache and other items to go along with their theme, and then dress in costumes and choreograph dances that they perform in the parade.  I'm pretty sure this is what everyone wants their teenage children to stay up all night doing. The themes were: monsters, the farm, Dr. Seuss, and forest/mystical creatures.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Language Adventures: Part 1

As I started thinking about writing a post about learning Hebrew/living in a country in which I speak little of the dominant language, I came across a nearly completed post that I wrote while in Spain but somehow forgot about and never finished.  It seems like a great pre-cursor to a post about learning Hebrew, so I’m posting it now.  So while you’ll have to wait a little while longer for my post about learning and living in Hebrew, here’s a flashback to my summer travels:

I learned a handful of random words in Dutch during my brief stay in the Netherlands, but it turns out that “ladies” and “gentleman” were not included in my lessons.  At the castle we visited during our Oosterbeek walk I went to use the restroom and I encountered a confused child around 4 years old looking back and forth at the doors.  He was too young to read and the typical man and woman figures were missing from the entrances. He saw me, an adult who logically should know the answer, and I assume asked me which way he should go.  I shrugged both because I was almost as lost without the figures and because I couldn’t actually understand a word he said.  He shrugged back and our mutual confusion continued to grow for a few moments until I finally used my limited knowledge of other languages to correctly deduce which way to send us both.  I still find this funny because it highlights the most basic challenges of being immersed in a completely foreign language (similar to being a small illiterate child in a literate world) and because that four year old’s face so beautifully mirrored my own feelings of momentary bewilderment.

During the month I spent in Germany, I learned a handful of German words and phrases, mostly focused on food vocabulary due to my many dietary restrictions.  As a result, I could usually tell vendors at the open air market what I’d like to buy in German.  However, if I bought more than one item I usually couldn’t understand the amount they asked for payment without looking at it written down or added up on the scale.  Once on a bus in Wismar, I shocked myself by handing the correct amount to the driver after he told me the cost of a ticket.  There are plenty of Germans who speak English, but it also turns out there are also plenty who don’t.  I broke out into a nervous sweat trying to buy a SIM card, as I couldn’t understand the terms and conditions nor the differences between my options.  And no one at MediaMarkt spoke enough English to adequately explain them. On a bus in Werder I got so flustered when I couldn’t correctly tell the driver where I was going that I almost gave up and got off the bus so I could look it up on my phone while waiting for the next one. In the local shop and garden I discovered on the walk from Werder to Petzow I tried to ask the shopkeeper if the Sanddorn berries I was buying were grown on the property, just to make small talk.  She didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t find the correct words for the German translation, but because I tried so hard to find a translation, she then thought it must be a very important question, so we couldn’t seem to just let it drop. Fortunately, in most cases there were nice people to step in and help. A woman on the bus in Werder helped me figure out the stop I needed to tell the driver and an English-speaking local walked into the Sanddorn shop and translated the question and response.  And I will be forever grateful to the woman in MediaMarkt who approached me and I think said something along the lines of “you look like you really need some help” in German.  And despite her limited English she smiled, laughed, and did her very best to help me and so I left the store with a working SIM card in my phone. This was after a week-long phone unlocking/SIM card confusion saga, so her extra efforts to help me really made my day.  So, in the end, all interactions actually ended well and I learned to just ignore the many signs and overhead conversations that I couldn’t understand.  Plus, there were plenty of days in which language wasn’t an issue at all.

Still, after over a month of these little confusions, how good it felt to understand and be understood again.  I flew Iberia airlines from Zurich to Spain and in the Zurich airport, I offered to communicate in Spanish at check-in as the woman working the counter said her English wasn’t great. By the time I reached the Madrid airport, I was on cloud nine. I bought my SIM card in a store in the airport, easy as could be, and I understood all the conditions and my options for adding additional credit if I needed.   I just relished in speaking Spanish.  In Germany, one of Nikki’s uncles visited.  He spoke Spanish better than English, having lived in Chile for a few years in his twenties, so we communicated in Spanish.  And he talked about dreaming of Chile in Spanish and the emotional attachment one forms to a language after living immersed in it.  How true! My love of Spanish has been shaped by the wonderful experiences I’ve had living in Spain and working in the U.S. with Spanish speakers.  And sometimes just speaking Spanish makes me happy.  And oh how I love making small talk, which Spaniards are equally open to! 

You miss the little things when you don’t understand the conversations around you.  At the weekly market in Segovia, as I waited to buy vegetables from a vendor, a few older gentlemen were bantering with the woman selling produce.  They apparently didn’t realize that she was still helping a woman obscured by the side of the truck and that there were a couple other people standing around waiting and started to give her a hard time about coming over to sell them tomatoes.  She told them something along the lines of “Ok, I’m running to serve you immediately” as she stayed where she was and continued to help the other customer.  I found this sarcasm rather entertaining, but would have missed it entirely if I didn’t speak Spanish.

Even in Spanish, during in-depth conversations on many specialized topics, I still struggle to express myself fully.  And after arriving in Malaga, I was quickly reminded of how much harder the Malagueño accent is for me to understand than that of the Madrileños.  Even so, I still smile when I hear the Malagueño accent, as it brings a certain nostalgia for my Spanish “home.”  And when in Malaga, I quickly reverted to dropping the “s” in “gracias” and the “ta” in “hasta luego.” As I traveled around different regions in Spain, my proficiency was enough that I quickly learned to adjust for regional accents and terms, referring to the main food market as the Mercado Central in southern cities and the Plaza de Abastos when in the north. For a month I was in language heaven.  Then I landed in Israel and it started all over again – and this time it involves a different alphabet!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In Pursuit of Injera: Part 1

Hi All!  We are in the midst of the first (and maybe only) big winter storm in Israel and from the way the country's been preparing, you'd think the world might be coming to an end, especially in Jerusalem where it is going to (gasp!) snow.  The wind/rain/hail/lightening has been pretty incredible though.  I asked in Ulpan (Hebrew class) today if there is a Hebrew equivalent to the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs."  Apparently the phrase invokes the term mah-bool, which is used to describe the floods that wiped out the whole earth except for Noah and his ark full of creatures.  So, even winter storms are biblical in the holy land!

This week I had the opportunity to write a post for the Yahel blog.  Yahel is the organization that runs the year-long program in which I'm participating. I wrote about my pursuit of Ethiopian cooking lessons and pose some questions about Ethiopian food culture, impact of immigration to Israel on social support networks, and sources of community resiliency. Check it out here:  While you're there check out the brand new Yahel website, launched this week, and find out more about the organization.