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This Year in Jerusalem: The Pleasures of Passover in the “Promised Land”

Submitted by jwfe223 on Thu, 04/12/2012 - 01:46 pm

Passover has always been one of my favorite Jewish holidays. I remember going to my Bubbie’s (grandmother’s) house as a kid, and looking forward to eating the smorgasboard of sugary treats that she would have—my favorites were the red and yellow, candied half fruit slices.

Passover fruit slices

Photo credit

They were sort of like sour bears in the shape of fruit slices, before I even knew from such a thing as sourbears. As I grew older, the seder moved from Bubbie’s house to my parents’, and I have fond memories of my father leading us through the famed Maxwell House Haggadah,  and my mother making all the tasty seder treats: brisket with potatoes and carrots, matzah ball soup, gefilte fish with beet-red horseradish, meatballs in sweet and sour sauce, potato kugel, asparagus, and more kosher-for-passover cakes and treats than any one should consider indulging in a single evening: Streits’ macaroons, chocolate-covered-cherry-gels (they’re better than they sound I promise),  honey cake, cinnamon coffee cake, egg kichels, chocolate-covered matzah, chocolate-covered orange peels. Of course the meal would not be complete without the dozens of hard-boiled eggs my Bubbie would make and bring with her. Needless to say, for me Passover has always been about the food, or the lack of some foods (leavened bread and all its delicious derivatives—pizza, pasta, and at one point peanuts), and of course, the stories—the serious thinking about what it means to be enslaved or no longer enslaved and the responsibilities of being a “free people.”  As it was explained to me as a kid, the whole reason you don’t eat bread is because the Israelites were in a hurry to escape from Pharoah, and they didn’t have time to let the bread rise, and so we eat the matzah both to remind us of the pain we endured as enslaved Israelites in Egypt and of the rapidity of the Israelites’ exodus. As Jewish people make their way through the Haggadah, we retell the whole story in a ritualized fashion replete with a minimum of four cups of wine, and one of the last things we say before concluding the meal is “Next Year in Jerusalem.” This year I had a chance to fulfill that aspiration.

Passover is a fun(ny) time in Israel in general, and Jerusalem specifically. In the weeks leading up to it, you can see the city undergo a radical transformation. It begins slowly, first signaled by shifts in the shuk.  First, the crops of fresh garlic that begin to appear everywhere . At some seders, usually those of Iraqi or Persian Jews, participants literally “whip” each other with scallions, leaks, or garlic to remind themselves and others of the bitterness and hardship of slavery.

Fresh garlic at Machne Yehuda

[Photo taken by me at Machne Yehudah, the Jerusalem Shuk]

The seder plades, and matzah covers that are prominently displayed

Passover merchandise Machne Yehuda

[From right top to left, seder plates, and below matzah coverings, shop on Agrippas at Machne Yehudah, the sign in the middle says "sale of chametz"]

the wishes for a happy holiday, noted by the greeting “chag kasher v’sameach”, literally, may you have a kosher and happy holiday, a greeting which reminds you of the utter importance of observing special rules with respect to food and eating:

[Chag Pesach Kasher v'Sameach from the Jerusalem Tower Electronics shop, with a Na, Na, Nahman poster below]

and the evidence of Passover cleaning—

[Caption/Translation—“This store is Kosher for Passover, please do not bring in any chametz. Thanks, the Managment”]

What is chametz, you may wonder? Good question. And like most things in Judaism, the answer depends on who you ask.  Technically, chametz is anything that is not Kosher for Passover. Typically, and both Ashkenazim and Sephardim tend to agree on at least this point, it is defined as any of the five grains—wheat, rye, barley, oats, or spelt, which when combined with water, ferment and can be used to make bread. The word itself derives from Arabic and Aramaic words that mean sour and are associated with the tastes resulting from fermentation. Of course, what is forbidden based on the law (halacha) and what is forbidden based on tradition (minhag) is hotly debated, especially among Jews from different lands.  Ashkenazim or Jews from Central and Eastern Europe do not eat kitniot, literally “little seeds” or legumes, whereas Sephardim (Jews of Spanish/Portugese descent) and Mizrachim (Jews of Eastern descent) do. Most of the latter groupings simply do not observe the ban of kitniot.  Like the custom of whether or not to eat kitniot, the definition of kitniot itself invites rancorous debate. Usually things like corn, beans, rice, and legumes are considered kitniot, but each community has its own traditions.  Needless to say the hekshers (or signs denoting that a food item is kosher and according to whose ruling) differentiate between the two different types of Kosher for Passover— for those who do eat kitniot (l’ochlai kitniot) and those who do not, as indicated by this sign from a the Asian restaurant up the street from us

[Translation: Kosher for Passover for those who follow Mehadrin, for those who don't eat kitniot, and for those who don't eat  ]

and this sign for Ben’N’Jerrys, thankfully kasher and “without kitniot”

During Passover, or Pesach as it’s called in Hebrew, things can get a little nutty as observant Jews aim to rid their homes of all chametz, since you are not allowed to either eat, own, or benefit/derive pleasure from chametz during the 8 day holiday. As demonstrated by the signs above, the week(s) leading up to the festival involve a lot of cleaning and purging, of all chametz at the very least. The questions of what constitutes chametz and whose customs do you follow in a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi household litter the pages of religious newsletters and some newspapers, a veritable “dear abbey column”  of  people writing in to Rabbis asking for advice. One of the surprising things I learned from reading such columns was that some cleaning wipes are not kosher for Passover. Why? Because the cleaning solvent used in them may be derived from a distilling process involving alcohol made from chametz, and even though you’re not heaven-forbid eating the cleaning wipes, you are also forbidden from deriving pleasure from them (and the cleanliness they impart?).

If you walk through the more religious neighborhoods (Mea Shearim or Nachlaot for example), you can see the ashen remains of burnt chametz in the streets, as people “liberate” their homes from the faintest trace of the forbidden foods.  Some have even been known to get down on all fours, and take a blow torch to the remaining remnants just to be on the safe side.  Once the house is clean and ready, they don’t bring any new chametz into the house for fear it might mix and contaminate the Passover food. To be sure that no food comes in contact with unseen, nano-chametz particles, many people will also cover their countertops with plastic table cloths, or tin-foil.   We were no exception.

Although the photo is a bit out of focus,you get the idea...


You are permitted to keep some chametz in the house or in your store, as long as it is not “yours” and as long as it is covered up, out of site, and completely separate from anything that is kosher for Passover. Consequently, many Jewish people  “sell” chametz to a non-Jewish person (presumably to be bought back after the holiday).  Young boys wandered the market with signs saying they were either selling or buying chametz (see the sign nuzzled in between seder plates in the photo above).

As the week preceding the holiday wore on, the city began to transform. The shops slowly entered a zombie-like state, with the chametz getting covered up with butcher paper, and thus put out of sight, or with the shelves emptied of chametz altogether.  We noticed lights turning off and on in apartments which had appeared vacant just days before, as tourists poured in from around the world. The city, like the spring itself, seemed to be bursting with a kind of fullness, and frenetic energy as everyone prepared for the climax of the seder, the ritual dinner which begins the holiday and recounts the story of the Jewish people being freed from Egyptian slavery.   

[These were the crowds in Mamila the other day]

Part of the requirements for the seder, are that you open your home to guests, you recline while you eat, and that you retell the story of slavery and the freedom from it following 15 prescribed steps. The word seder literally means "order" in Hebrew, and with 15 steps which are sung in order before each step is completed, it's hard to get off track. There are several customs which suggest you should extend the seder as long as possible, and in Jerusalem people often greet each other the day after with "How long did yours go?" and "What time did you eat?" We were fortunate enough to be invited to a friend’s parents house for seder, and were treated not only to a wonderful feast, but also to an engaging and insightful recounting which lasted from 7:30pm to nearly 2 am, with the meal finally taking place some time around 10:30 pm.  Since Passover coincided with Shabbat this year it was even more festive. Luckily we arrived before sundown, and I was able to snap this shot before the holiday restrictions set in.

Seder table set

[Seder table. Notice each chair has a pillow, the better to recline with, and the seder plate with all the requisite parts was featured prominently in the table's center, to its right you can see the mountain of charoset --symbolic mortar for the bricks the slaves used to build the pyramids--shaped into a pyramid itself.]

One of the fabulous things about Passover in Israel is how much it is part of the fabric of daily life. Rather than being the exception, here it is the rule. Schools and shops close down, and the whole populace is on vacation.  Observing the holiday itself is a bit complicated, as the first 2 and last two days are “chag” much like Shabbat when no work or cooking is done, stores close early, and a peaceful tranquility descends upon the cities. The part in the middle is called “chol ha-moed”, and the cities come alive with events for children, festivals, live music. It’s like the whole country (or at least the Jewish parts) are celebrating the symbolic freedom from slavery by picnicing, barbequeing, hiking, going to the parks and beaches.

Part of what I find so delightful is that it is taken for granted.  For example, the week before, we attended a fantastic beer-tasting (something that deserves a post in itself, given that micorbrew culture has only begun to catch on in Israel within the last few years).

A bunch of micro-brewers had gotten together to sell off what was left of their product before the holiday. It was a lovely event, held in a two-level building that houses many artist studios, sandwiched between the shuk and the art school Bezalel. There were a number of different vendors, some were more familiar like the Jerusalem-based Shapiro beer, and others which were much smaller and independent. But the whole premise behind the scheduling was that they were going to get rid of the beer before Passover.

Beer Bar above and Village Beer below, the brewer for Village Beer also made amazingly tasty and hand-crafted kosher chorizo sausages, two things I never thought I'd see go together!

The newspapers included special sections with holiday recipes, and articles on the newest haggadahs. One which garnered a lot of attention was Jonathan Safran-Foer and Nathan Englander’s New American Haggadah, which was featured prominently in Haaretz's weekend insert last week. We actually got to see it in person as two copies made their way to our Seder here in Jerusalem.


Secret matzah bakeries popped out of the blue...

We stumbled upon this one on the way to shuk. Of course, since they hand roll each matzah every 18 minutes, you can imagine how long the line was.

In Israel, we can assume that whatever is on the shelves in the stores during the holiday is kosher for Passover (at least for someone), and we can even eat out at restaurants during the holiday itself. For me this is the biggest source of pleasure of “this year in Jerusalem,” for it is the thing I tend to miss most while celebrating in the States.

In the U.S., Passover is a time when I feel my separateness as an observant Jew most definitively because I “keep Passover,” which means I don’t go out to eat, I bring matzah sandwiches to school, and for the 8 days of the holiday I am, very noticeably different. As a university professor, I generally mingle with a variety of people both at work and socially, and so to be so noticeably separated by the choices I’m making about what I eat is to recognize three times a day that I’m different.  While it’s true, I also keep kosher year-roudn and there is a certain degree of separateness  that comes with eating because of it, there is something unique to the separateness of Passover. There’s something about literally “breaking bread” with folks, that makes you realize all of a sudden and very viscerally –you’re not one of “the” folks because you’re not eating the bread. And of course, my colleagues always seem to be eating things that are way more tantalizing and tasty than the matzah and avocado sandwiches I tend to bring.

In Israel, there is almost the opposite problem.  There are so many options!

Cakes galore!!! Not the red lettering in the sign indicating they are,  you got it, Kosher for Passover.

Fear not if you prefer cookies....

Usually there is a bit of dread which accompanies the onslaught of Passover sweets, because they all end up tasting more or less the same by the end of the week, but here in Israel, there are a plethora of options, more so if you continue to eat kitniot. 

As I walked through Mamila, the new urban shopping center which borders the old city,

I gently elbowed my way through the swarms of tourists to the bakery Roladin, which is known to produce some of the best Passover treats.

They did not disasppoint, as I ate a piece of kosher-for-passover Pizza that was as good, and arguably better than most of the pizza I’ve had in Israel thus far.

The crust was both soft and crispy, not like the matzah pizza (which inevitably got soggy), that I remember from my youth.  In fact this pizza was so good, I felt a little guilty eating it, as part of my strongest memories of the holiday, are of feeling a little bit deprived so you remember the “taste” of slavery.  Clearly, I’m not alone in this sentiment, as Gabriella Gershensen’s take on Passover treats in the States also underscores this feeling.

Of course that guilt did not keep me from buying the more traditional macaroons, though these were dipped in merengue. They were so light and delicious I felt I was eating sweet little clouds of air. 


And how could I resist some KP tiramisu.

Clearly, Jim and I were so anxious to try the latter, that we couldn’t hold back long enough to take a picture before digging in.

As I walked through the midrichov, (pedestrian mall) downtown, I was delightfully surprised to see Max Brenner's chocolate shop selling kosher for Passover crepes. Crepes!! Surely that was cheating, or at least it felt that way.  There seemed to be something mischievous in eating all the regular things made KP through some magical alchemy of substituting kosher for Passover ingredients for the chametz. Last night, I even went to a pasta restaurant where all the dishes were made with special pasta made from matzah meal, so even those who don’t eat kitniot could eat there.

Of course, here I was delighting in what it feels like to be part of the majority, while some of the friends we’ve gotten to know through the Fulbright program were having the opposite experience. To read an insightful piece on what it’s like to be part of the Christian minority in Jerusalem during Pesach, read Hilary Mead’s eloquent post. And to see some wonderful photos of Easter in Jerusalem, see Terence Gilhenny’s post.

Ah Jerusalem, so full of wonder, beauty, and contradictions.  Of course, I wouldn’t have done my duty in talking about Passover if I hadn’t in some way retold the story, so I’ll end this post, with a lovely interpretative Salsa dance that reenacts the whole Passover Haggadah in a Salsa-dancing-flash-mob form in the middle of Paris! Thanks to David El Shatran and the JewSalsa studio in Paris for sharing this. Can you imagine what the local the Parisians must have thought? This night is sure different from all other nights...or at least this moment!


It’s Not a State Emergency, It’s the Jerusalem Marathon

Submitted by jwfe223 on Mon, 03/19/2012 - 04:35 pm

It's a bird, it's a plane,'s a marathon....

In Israel, there are usually two times when traffic comes to a standstill and the roads are eerily quiet. One is Yom Kippur (or Day of Atonement) the Jewish holiday that brings an end to the “Days of Awe” at the beginning of the Jewish New Year.  Yom Kippur is a serious holiday, with most observant Jews spending the day in synagogue, fasting and praying that God will hear their prayers of atonement and inscribe them in the Book of Life for the coming year. Everything shuts down in W. Jerusalem, not a shop is open, nor a car to be found on the street. It’s quite something to experience; the only point of comparison that comes to mind is the quiet that descends upon American cities on Christmas day when pretty much everything, except some ethnic restaurants and movie theatres, closes. Of course it’s not quite the right comparison because Yom Kippur is a solemn time for reflection, and Christmas is a grand celebration (consumer and otherwise), but it’s the best I can muster.  Yet another difference, while observant Jews fast and pray, secular Jews bike in the streets.


 The other time is on Yom Hazikaron, or the Day of Remembrance, when Israelis commemorate all of the service men and women who have fallen in Israeli wars.  It takes place the day before Yom Haatzma-ut (The Day of Independence, which varies year to year because Israel follows a lunar calendar, but is typically celebrated outside of Israel on May 15), when BBQ becomes a national act as Jewish Israelis celebrate the victory of the 1948 war and Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (literally “the day of the destruction”)  and refrain from BBQ.

Last Friday we awoke to an amazingly quiet city. All of Jerusalem’s major roads were closed to traffic, and the pedestrians were out in droves. Why, you might ask? Because Jerusalem held its second International Marathon.  More than 900 runners came from all over the world to take part, and traffic came to a standstill as a result.

It was a beautiful sight to behold. All the main roads in the downtown were bursting with runners.   

According to Arutz 7, more than 15,000 took part in marathon and marathon-related running activities.

It was really quite inspiring to see so many people coming together to run. Of course for anyone trying to get out of town, it was a nightmare. Public transport shut down until 2pm, which is when things begin winding down anyway on a Fri, in preparation for the Sabbath.  As one local paper put it, if you’re not running the marathon, stay home.  I for one am glad we didn’t. In a week where most of the news focused on rockets and Iran, it was nice to end it by cheering on a sea of runners.

Snow, Glorious Snow!

Submitted by jwfe223 on Fri, 03/02/2012 - 11:07 am

This morning we woke up to a white Jerusalem.

Snowman at Basta Pasta

Suffering with the cold has been rewarded with the ephemeral beauty of a (temporarily) snow-blanketed city.

Old City in Snow March 2, 2012

(Photo Credit Israel_Shield via Twitter)

Snowy Al-Aqsa

(Photo Credit: @Majdool via Twitter)


Haaertz reported it as “heavy” snow measuring in at a whole 3 cm. My up state-NY colleagues would laugh at this description. How does 3 cm count as heavy when compared to the regular dumpings of 3ft+ they often get, but the snow put a chill on my snarky cyncism. For in its its rarity, it ushers in a different kind of delight here. It's nice to see images of play, and people throwing snowballs. In fact, many people drive the hour from Tel Aviv to hear just to take their children to see the snow!

As I made my way to Machne Yehuda for the Yom Shishi (Friday) shopping spree before the Sabbath, I walked through the snowflakes, as giddy Jerusalemites stopped to extend their tongues and get a taste of winter’s white prize.  I too couldn’t help but be taken over by enthusiasm, afterall, it was the first time I’ve ever seen snow here in Jerusalem.  By the time we were up and about, much of the snow had already melted away. This was the only accumulation I could capture on film.

Snow covered construction materials


Or on this windshield...

But that didn’t stop everyone from trying to build and keep the snowpeople in view. Jim and I headed to Pasta Basta, a wonderful little nook in the shuk, where the wonderous piles of homemade noodles are sure to fill your belly and warm your cold your body.  The tomato soup is to die for,

Tomato soup

as is the Lambrouska (bubbly rose-colored wine)

and the hot wine.  I’ve already made the mistake of trying to shuk-shop while hungry,  so now I always try to grab a good nosh before bustling about.


We had some fantastic pesto on whole-wheat pasta,

and in previous visits we had this wonderful beet sauce on fettuccini.






By the time we made it back to our hood, the little snowpeople were already melting away, and along with them, memory’s of the morning’s “big snow.”



Rumor has it there will be more of the white stuff tonight.  You can bet we’ll be huddled around the spaceheater!






Jerusalem Cold and the Dirty Laundry Blues

Submitted by jwfe223 on Fri, 02/24/2012 - 02:45 am

Though the title of this post might make a good name for a band, it accurately reflects the sentiment of the last week.The Kotel/Al Aqsa in Snow 2008

(Photo credit Ynet, by means of snow in Jerusalem 2008 blog post)

This time last week, everyone was all abuzz because a huge storm was coming, and there were strong rumors that there might be snow in Jerusalem over the weekend. People were hoping for a scene like that above in 2008. In fact, at the grocery store last Friday when we picked up a few last minute things before the Sabbath came in, the shopowner wished us a wonderful snow “sheleg nifla’a”, instead of the typical "Shabbat Shalom." Now, Jerusalem is not really accustomed to snow, so this was as they say here a  “big deal!”   Last time I was in Israel proper in the Winter was in 2006-7. If I recall correctly, it actually did snow, though I was not in Jerusalem at the time, so I missed seeing in with my very own eyes. Needless to say, even though the cold was unpleasant, I was more than half hoping for snow.  Sadly, we were disappointed, as all it did was rain through most of the weekend and the early part of last week. And there are few things more bitter cold than rainy Jerusalem in the 30s.

I don’t want to appear to whine too much, but let me take a few moments to pause and express my gratitude for some things we tend to take for granted in the U.S., for example central heat that you control yourself and the wonder of a  washer and dryer. When we moved to Kentucky and into our home, I was happy that, for the first time in my adult life, I had a washer and dryer in my house and didn’t have to either hang-dry or visit the Laundromat on a regular basis. After many years of living in cold, upstate New York, and sneaking out between snowstorms to do laundry around the corner, it was, a true luxury for which I was very grateful. Over the past week, I was reminded just how grateful I am.

Here in Jerusalem, we are renting an older-style apartment that was probably built more than 40 years ago.  While the kitchen has been renovated, and there are lots of nifty features such as beautiful track lighting, it is, like many apartments in Jerusalem, designed to stay cool in the hot summer days of the desert climate, not to keep heat in during the winter months.  In fact, many buildings are made of concrete, with windows a plenty, and no A/C. This is great in the summer months---with with the windows open and a good cross-breeze, it’s possible to stay very cool despite the climbing mercury outdoors. In the winter, however, this is a freeze-wish. The windows have only pull-down blinds (trisim) to protect you from the blustering winds, and they are indeed quite drafty. 

While the building does have a radiator heat system, it is operated by the Vaad Bayit (literally, the Building/Home Committee), . Unfortunately, the Vaad in our building only operates the heat from 5:00-9:00pm daily, regardless of how cold it may be outside. For the rest of the time, you’re left to fend for yourself, which for most people, means plugging in the space heater, closing the door, and huddling around in blankets and warm clothes, which is of course what we did for a good chunk of the time!

But the cold weather combined with rain presents another key problem, especially for travelers with few clothing options, LAUNDRY. As it is, laundry works differently. First of all the machines are often quite old and very small, see ours below.

Jerusalem Laundry Machine

(Photo credit: Jim Ridolfo)

Most people do small loads frequently, and hang it out to dry. It is not uncommon to get to know your neighbors rather intimately, or at least to see their underwear on a daily basis.  Of course, this works great when it is warm and dry, but when it rains, it spells trouble.  Like many Israeli apartments, the one we’re renting has no dryer, so the cold, rainy days forced us to adopt some rather creative measures. Laundry looked a little bit like this:

Step one, load old, tiny machine, which as Jim noted, bears strong resemblance to a Sputnik Capsule, see photo above.

Step two,  hang laundry indoors on the rack.

Indoor Laundry Rack

(Photo credit: Jim Ridolfo)

Step three, decorate the radiators between the hours of 5-9, to resemble laundry trees to take advantage of the few hours of Vaad-provided heat.

(Photo credit: Jim Ridolfo)

Wash, rinse, repeat.

After many hours of work (but far fewer than washing in the stream!), we finally had some clean laundry.


The Power of Music

Submitted by jwfe223 on Tue, 02/14/2012 - 12:21 pm

Sunday morning I awoke to the news that Whitney Houston had passed away.Whitney Houston in Dimona with the Hebrew Israelites in 2003

(Photo credit: Size Doesn’t Matter Blog)

I admit, it wasn’t the newspaper that told me so, but rather the Facebook Status updates of friends who admire her. Updates such as “So Whitney died… sigh” and links to her performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Cece Williams led me to wonder what had happened.  As I read on to learn that she had died at the very young of 48, I was deeply saddened. Her music was the music of my youth, and many a night, I stayed up well past bedtime to listen to her albums on cassette tapes, (yes, cassette tapes!). They were some of the first cassettes I ever owned.  Some news accounts used juxtaposition to suggest her death came from a drug overdose, like many of the ill-fated stars before her (think Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, as noted by this article from the India times).

But a different juxtaposition came to mind for me. In 2003, I had come back to Israel to continue my research on Black Jewish identity, and as part of that trip, I spent some time with the Black Hebrew Israelites in Dimona. My visit had been preceded by Whitney’s. Her visit became a point of reference and point of pride for the community, and in fact, all of Israel.  It was reported then in Haaretz, and it was remembered now, not just by me.

You can hear Houston and the Israelites singing the African American spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” late in this video (listen to the end, it happens at around minute 2:00 after she and Bobby Brown are immersed in water) to get a sense of the enthusiasm she brought to the so-called “Promised Land” and the stir she caused when she arrived.

In Judaism, the desert represents the wilderness, a place where biblical protagonists encounter hardship and undergo significant, spiritual transformations (think Moses, the Israelites—a good 40 years of wandering. . . .).  As the media reported it, Whitney Houston was no stranger to this narrative, as she too went to the desert to find a kind of spiritual connection.  

Oddly enough, later on Sunday, Jim and I would hear this same spiritual performed again, this time live, by  U.S. soprano Nicole Taylor, who sang along with the  Magnificat Institute’s young girls (and two boys!) choir  in the auditorium of St. Saviour’s Monastery Auditorium, just inside New Gate of the Old City.  Thanks to the U.S. Consulate General’s cultural center America House and the Magnificat Institute, this event took place to honor African American history month.

Nicole Taylor and Daniel Ernst

(Photo credit: Africlassical Blog. More photos of the event including the children's choir on Demotix)

It was breathtaking to be sitting inside the auditorium, with a window looking out on the walls of the Old City to our left, the room packed with E. Jerusalemites, Americans, proud parents of the children performing, diplomats from the consulate, and others who had heard about the event. There we were listening to young boys and girls, who were about the age I was when I first discovered Whitney Houston, only they were singing beautiful love songs in Arabic. [Listen here for a short sound clip—unfortunately, it took me a minute to figure out how to use the video function on the pocket-camera, so it’s cut off and does not include an absolutely amazing solo by one of the young women. Here’s hoping someone else posts videos, which I can link to later).

Not a cell phone dared to vibrate, much less ring. It was one of the few times since we have been in this part of the world, that the beauty of the present moment was undisturbed by such interruptive intrusions. Ms. Taylor gave some words of explanation before she began her performance of African American spirituals.  First she sang on her own, then with the children, and then she invited the audience to participate in call and response fashion.  She opened with “This Little Light of Mine,” accompanied by pianist and U.S. diplomat, Daniel Ernst. Along with the children and the audience, she sang “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”

The sound on my camera doesn’t do justice to her voice or those of the children, nor can it capture the feeling of an entire room of people bringing their voices together to make beautiful sounds, in a place where just outside the New Gate you can see Israeli soldiers checking for identity cards, and a few blocks away the recently operative light rail whirs up and down old Jaffa Street. But for the hour and half that we were in the auditorium, the music transcended all that, whisking us away to a place of sheer beauty and awe.  Ms. Taylor spoke about the African American spirituals’ universal messages of the human spirit’s resiliency, and her voice reminded me of the power of song.  In a place where the Separation Barrier is visible and Jericho itself is a mere 43.4 km or 17 miles away in the West Bank, the lyrics, “and the walls come tumbling down” from "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" take on a different, but equally powerful set of meanings.

I began this post with a discussion of juxtaposition and loss, and I’m closing with a repetition of my claim for music’s power to overwhelm and transcend, even if only momentarily. Whitney Houston, whose songs “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” and “I Wanna Dance with Someone” are etched into the hearts of many, will be deeply missed. I hope my testament to the power of song in a place that doesn’t lack for beauty, but sure could use a little more harmony (bad pun intended) will stand as an appropriate memorial for the beloved pop Diva.


The Price of Peace Education

Submitted by jwfe223 on Mon, 02/13/2012 - 06:01 pm

A week ago I spent the morning meeting with an Israeli cultural anthropologist and education scholar well-known for his work on Peace education, Prof. Zvi Beckerman. As soon as I entered his office, I immediately felt at home, as the books from some of my favorite rhetoricians-- Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman, and others-- were sitting right there on his shelf, piled up and in plain view.

Rhetoric books

I first met Zvi more than 12 years ago, when I was volunteering for the Center for Bi-Lingual Education (Merkaz La’Hinuch Du Lashoni). Founded in 1997 by American Lee Gordon,  the non-profit, also known by the moniker Hand-in-Hand (or the Hebrew Yad B’Yad), aims to build bilingual schools to provide a rare opportunity for Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis to come together around the shared cause of education.  The idea, at least in its inception, was that the classes would be conducted 50% in Hebrew and 50% in Arabic. When I was volunteering in 2000-2001, there were only three schools—one in Jerusalem, one in the North, and the beginning of a Gan (kindergarten) in Tel Aviv. When I met with Prof. Beckerman last week, I learned that there are now 5 schools and more poignantly, for me at least, that the students I met in their first year in 2000 had become the first graduating class in 2011. 

Of course, as a non-paid volunteer, I spent most of my time in 2000-2001 trying to do much-needed grant research and less time interacting with the young pupils. When I did visit the Jerusalem and Northern classrooms, I was awed and amazed by the instructors’ patience and even more convinced that I was best equipped to teach at the college and not the elementary level.  As a young graduate student with little experience in grant-writing, I’m not sure how much my efforts benefitted them, if at all. But volunteering for them certainly had a significant impact on me, and helped me to better understand how rare the opportunities for significant interaction between Jewish and Arab (Palestinian) Israelis are, and just how difficult the idea of integrated schools is to pull off in a country whose education system is divided up along so many different lines.  Secular Jewish Israelis go to one set of schools, ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis have their own schools, and Arab (Palestinian)-Israelis have their own schools as well.   Given how segregated the education system is, the idea of a bilingual school is quite remarkable and unusual.

Sadly, just a few days after I met with Zvi,  the following headline was on the second page of Haaretz: “Racist graffiti scrawled on Jerusalem monastery, Jewish-Arab school.”

As part of the price-tag campaign, the Bilingual school in Jerusalem and a Greek monastery not too far from our apartment had been targeted.  “Death to the Arabs” and “Kahane Was Right” were spray-painted on the school's playground. Thankfully, classes had been cancelled so the young students didn't have to see it on their way to school. I teared up when I read it, and I tear up as I write about it.


Eat, Eat, Eat

Submitted by jwfe223 on Thu, 02/09/2012 - 05:47 pm

After settling into our new digs, we walked over to Shlomi’s for a simple but satisfying meal of vegetable bean soup, borekas (delicious filled pastries, pictured below, photo credit: Jim Ridolfo), and pita on, oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln Street.  

Plate of borekas and Arabic language cellphone ad for Orange.

[Photo: Bulgarian-cheese filled borekas above, Arabic language ad for Orange cell phone company below, photo taken by Jim Ridolfo]

And eat, eat, eat is what we’ve continued to do. The weekend begins here on Thurs. evening and lasts through Friday until Saturday night at sundown, when the Jewish Sabbath comes to a close. Like the people living here, the city also pauses to rest a bit, as public transportation and most shops and restaurants shut down from Friday night sundown until three stars appear in the sky on Saturday night. Consequently, Friday morning is the time when people catch up with friends, and the city hums with life, as everyone bustles about to buy groceries and make preparations for the Sabbath.


We began our morning with a the local paper and some wonderful coffee and croissants at the shop down the street from our flat,

Haaretz, Black Coffee, Crossaint, Cafe Hafuch Soya

[Photo: Ha'artez, The Israeli equivalent of The New York Times, Cafe Shahur --black coffee Arabic/Turkish style, usually served with cardamon, croissant, Cafe Hafuch Soya--soy cappuccino]

Then, we wandered over to the YMCA to join the gym,

Entrance to Jerusalem YMCA

[Entrance to the Jerusalem YMCA]

YMCA building

[YMCA Tower, Jerusalem]

and from there to Mahane Yehuda, the Shuk (open air market). 

Before we began our shopping, however, we took a break to enjoy a wondrous meal at Azura (in the Iraqi shuk adjacent to the big market.  Azura is one of the many small restaurants that serve amazing, slow-cooked comfort food.  They are most famous for their hummus and kubbeh soup. Kubbeh’s deliciousness is hard to explain to someone who’s never had it, but in simple terms it’s a kind of semolina dumpling (which can be either boiled or fried, in soups, they become soft), usually stuffed with a spiced ground meat/pine nut mixture, and served in a soup which can be red (tomato-based) or yellow (lemony, spicy goodness). The mix of sour and savory flavors is out of this world. Kubbeh soup came to Israel by means of Kurdish and Iraqi Jews, and in fact, I once made Kubbeh soup under the careful instruction of a friend of a friend who was 3rd generation Kurdish Jewish. It took us an entire day, but was divine. Azura’s kubbeh was no less other-wordly. When I ordered it, the owner looked at me with incredulity. He noted my light Ashkenazi skin and warned, “Ze harif!” ( It’s spicy).  Yes, I know, I nodded excitedly in response.


Marak Kubbeh Hamousta--Azura, Jerusalem

[Marak Kubbeh Hamousta (note big Kubbeh in the center, with soup and chickpeas), in the background--onion/pickles, fresh pita, hummus, at Azura]

Go ahead, drool. We sure did.

And to get a sense of how they make it, follow this Israeli following them at 5 am…He was an hour late for his 4am how-to make Kubbeh lesson! To get a sense of how crowded Azura's was on a Friday at lunchtime, watch this video

In fact, the shuk was so crowded, neither of us dared to break out the camera to steal a photo, so for now, this photo from Skectches of Sifnos's blog will have to do:

Mahane Yehuda Shuk

We waded through the sea of people, and bought the ingredients for a simple meal of red lentil soup, Challah and rugelach from our favorite bakery, Marzipan, and wine and beer to combat the jetlag and summon the Sabbath queen’s joy. Then we headed across town, back to the flat, up the four flights of stairs.  We had accomplished our goals for the day—join the gym, power up the cell phones with Israeli sim cards, and buy food for the Sabbath. Modest goals, for sure, but it felt good to accomplish them, and in Hebrew, no less.  I found myself feeling very thankful for the simplicity of our lives, and the amount of physical activity involved in getting from point A to point B. We probably walked between 4-5 miles over the course of the day; it felt good to get home and start cooking. We even had the honor of a surprise Shabbos guest, Elijah the gecko who appeared unexpectedly (wandering in from the porch to get out of the cold, perhaps?) and fit in the palm of my hand.

Elijah the Shabbos Gecko

[Photo credit: Jim Ridolfo. Elijah the Gecko in our Jerusalem apartment]

We made and enjoyed our modest, but hard-earned meal, and as it came to an end, so did our day. After all the walking, we were tired, and off to sleep we went, resting up for another day and coming week of adventures.

Settling in...

Submitted by jwfe223 on Tue, 02/07/2012 - 06:32 am

Jim and I arrived in Israel last Thursday afternoon around 2pm, and we had the good fortune to be picked up at the airport by our dear friend Shlomi (who will get a separate blog post dedicated only to him in a few days—keep an eye out!).  Of course, since many Israelis drive cars that are smaller than American ones, Jim had a concern that our luggage might not fit in Shlomi’s car. In the end, I confess, there actually were five pieces: 1 big packpack and one garment bag for Jim, 1 big suitcase, 1 small duffel carry-on (whose straps broke from the weight of my Arabic language-learning books and which I had to replace with a rolling carry-on in the BWI airport!), and one backpack full of electronic devices for me.  But it all fit.

Red duffel bag and purple suitcase packed.

I began this blog hoping to keep more of a travel log, and to shy away from the prickly politics of the region. In thinking about how to write today’s post,  however, I have realized it will be impossible to talk solely about the delicious food we eat and the wonderful people we meet (more on both in coming posts). It will be impossible to avoid the seemingly unavoidable—the conflict(s) lurking around the corners: between religious and secular, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, native born Israelis and recent immigrants, Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, and….the list will continue to grow, I assure you. 

We’ve been in Jerusalem for a good five days, and even the most mundane, everyday interactions involve encounters with all kinds of others and all manner of othering.    However, one thing that embracing the role of traveler allows, is the ability to look critically at these others and methods of othering, and this blog allows me to call attention to these observations.

Take the simple act of driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the commuter highway 443, for example.  Unlike in the States, where highways are simply highways, and everyone can drive on them, regardless of who you are or what your license plate says, in Israel, the PA, and the areas in between, there are two worlds on the road. In fact, roads are some of the most contested spaces, because they provide access to resources, families, work, and because they have been the vehicle for violence, boundary maintenance, and separation. One of the big differences is in the license plates: Israeli license plates are long and yellow with black numbers and letters,

Israeli License plate on VW bus
Israeli license plate  Israeli license plate

whereas Palestinian license plates are white with green lettering  or green with white lettering. The following photo was culled from Jennifer's blog.

We are not driving along the 443 for long before Shlomi points out that the road had been closed to Palestinians from 2002-2010. It only reopened, we learned, because Israel's High Court of Justice [their version of the U.S. Supreme Ct.]  “accepted the Association for Civil Rights in Israel's petition against an IDF order barring Palestinians from driving on Highway 443” on December 29, 2009 (Wikipedia).  The ruling didn’t go into effect, however, until May 28, 2010, which was the first time Palestinians were allowed to use the road since 2002, “when it was closed following Palestinian attacks on Israeli motorists during the Second Intifada” (Wikipedia).

As we drive by, Shlomi points out the small section of the road that is now open to Palestinians, and the Separation Barrier  that lines either side, blocking the Palestinian villages it obstructs from the casual driver’s or passenger’s view. 

443 Separation barrier on the left.

443 Separation barrier on the right.

The Separation Barrier was, as this name implies, built by the Israelis to separate Israel from the West Bank.   As we drive, the sun begins to set, and we catch up. As we talk about our families, our projects, our day’s experiences,  I’m reminded that Shlomi and I met 12 years ago on the day the Camp David talks failed.  We had been corresponding about apartments before I arrived in 2000, and even though I opted not to live on Givat Tzarfatit (French Hill, the neighborhood surrounding Hebrew University) as his roommate, we decided to meet in person anyway, and have been good friends ever since. It’s funny to me how our close friendship is framed by these very “BIG” political events, and how even an American like me  can have such personal connections with very public history. In any case,  it’s good to be met by a good friend after a long flight, and it’s even better to share a warm meal, on a chilly Jerusalem night. 



Jennifer's photo of Palestinian license plate from


6 Months, 4 Suitcases, 2 Professors, and 1 Big Adventure in Israel/Palestinian Authority

Submitted by jwfe223 on Tue, 01/31/2012 - 09:11 pm

How does one pack for six months of living in one of the most famous and fought about regions of the world?  This is the question that I’ve been thinking about for the past few days, as I waded through jeans, shoes, books, dresses, and other sundry items trying to figure out what was important enough to warrant space in my one suitcase. It’s not until you have to put your wordly belongings in a suitcase that you begin to realize just how many of them there are, how many you’ve come to take for granted, and how many you so easily can (and probably will) live without, perhaps temporarily, perhaps more enjoyably.  As I sat on the phone with Human Resources switching health plans, AT&T suspending U.S. cell phone service, and assorted credit card companies and  banks putting many of life’s mundane details in order, I started to focus on the daily hum-drum slowly shifting out of its realm and into the liminal space that travel thrusts upon us—the space of wonder, delight, and amazement of that which otherwise we’d fail to take notice of, the simple yet infinite details that make up lived experience in this oh-so-human life.

Why might I be taking stock of such things? I and my life partner Jim Ridolfo  (Assistant Professor of Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Cincinnati) are preparing to embark on a six-month adventure in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Jim has received a Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Fulbright to continue his work  with the Samaritan Community, and I will be accompanying him and using this time overseas to further my research on several projects and to develop some international connections for the University of Kentucky. I aim to build relationships and forge collaborations that will help to bring this part of the world just a bit closer to Lexington through scholarly exchange, shared curricula, or co-taught classes.

Mt. Gerizim street sign

We have the great fortune to travel as few have the opportunity to—not as tourists who make a brief trip and quickly return home, but rather as temporary inhabitants who become part of life’s daily rhythms for an extended time in another land.  Living the mundane through the lens of other cultures, through what the rhetorician Kenneth Burke would call someone else’s terministic screen,  offers perspective, and if you’re open to it—can usher in a certain kind of humility. Seeing how others approach similar tasks, value different ideas and behaviors, or interpret similar behaviors differently changes how you think about things.  It’s part of the reason why so many folks want to travel: to “see the world” and to perhaps develop a better sense for how the world sees differently, and of course, to puzzle over why.

It is not the first time that I’ve been lucky enough to sojourn in this part of the world. In 2000-2001, I lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a Dorot Fellow  becoming fluent in Hebrew, studying Jewish religious texts, and volunteering for the Center for Bilingual Education.  A lot has changed since then, personally, technologically, historically.  Then, I was taking a break from graduate school, and my experiences abroad influenced not only my decision to return, but also the scholarly discipline I focused on (I made the switch from English to Rhetoric) and the topic of my eventual dissertation (Black Jewish identity). Then, there were no post-911 TSA travel restrictions.  Then,  I went with not one but two suitcases, and no lap-top or cell phone. I did not get a cellphone until six months into my stay—it was the first I ever owned.  I wrote emails home in smoky cyber-cafes. There was no broadband wifi, Skype, Facebook, or social media of any kind. It was a very different world. In terms of history, I arrived in June shortly before the now-famous (and failed) Camp David Talks between Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. At the end of September, the Second Intifada erupted.  When I left the following summer, the violence was increasing at an exponential rate—in Israel, buses, restaurants, and discotheques were bursting into flames, in the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli military tightened its grip, making it difficult for Palestinians to move freely and resulting in the death of many.  

Now I am returning again, nearly 12 years later, to represent the University of Kentucky as an Assistant Professor, to continue my research on identity and rhetoric, and to hopefully build some lasting collaborations between institutions of higher education in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the University of Kentucky. As a junior scholar on the tenure track, I am firmly rooted in my discipline, though still excited by and engaged in a number of interdisciplinary projects. I just sent the book based on my revised dissertation, Arguing Black Jewish Identity: Hatzaad Harishon and Interruptive Invention, out for review with University of Alabama Press.  Now, I am mostly fluent in Hebrew (I speak better than I read, write, or type), and I am working on learning Arabic. Now, I will pack one suitcase, 1 lap top, 1 ipad2 and wireless keyboard, 3 cellphones (my US iphone and 2 cheap unlocked, unsmart International phones awaiting Israeli SIM cards—only one works and we can’t remember which is which!), an ipod---no physical CD/DVDs aside from the instructional Arabic language immersion discs or the ones to which I saved thousands of archival documents for my research on Chaim and Fela Perelman, no cookbooks, and very few physical photos. The apartment we are renting has broadband Internet, and we are realizing we need it and little else. Historically and politically, a lot has changed since I left in 2001. The events are too many to list here, but those who would like to learn more might find these timelines useful: from Wikipedia (watch it closely for editing wars), from BBC News, from Mideast Web for Co-existence.   This past year witnessed some significant events—in September the Palestinians made a bid for full membership in the U. N.,  and  in October Gilad Shalit who had been captured in the summer of 2006, was finally released back to Israel in exchange for the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners.   It promises to be a very interesting time in the Promised Land, but then again, it always is.   I look forward to sharing snapshots of our six-month adventure on this blog.  Once we arrive, expect to hear more about hummus, rusty language skills, beer, salsa dancing, and how much we miss our scaly friends Electra and Salsa, the lovely lizards we left in Lexington to anxiously await our return.

Bearded dragon Electra with arm on Bearded dragon Salsa