I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

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Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.

Bookman’s Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. 😀

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.