Archive for September 2011

Running like a leper

Published September 27th, 2011

The morning before Erev Rosh Hashana, I set my alarm for 7 a.m., hoping to get a morning run through the desert in before the entire country went on break for the holiday. It doesn’t take a genius, or even a high school dropout, to tell you, however, that staying up until 2:30 a.m. the night prior catching up on “Breaking Bad” episodes doesn’t bode well for a successful athletic experience the next morning.

And yet, I forced myself out of bed, assisted by a wake up call from Tali (knowing that she’s up at 6 a.m. to go teach Israeli children English all day consistently makes me feel like a lazy ass) and strapped on my running shoes, my laughably thigh-high running shorts and little else, and set out for the desert.

Now going running without a shirt, in any situation, is at least moderately asshole-esque behavior. There’s little reason that any sane person would want to jog through town covered in sweat wearing little more than shorts that would fit a toddler. It’s embarrassing for the runner, and uncomfortable for the town folk, especially here, as many of Arad’s town folk are either Ultra-Orthodox Jews or No-Skin Bearing Muslims. So this is not an activity I engage in often. I save the shirtless run for those treks when I know I’ll be alone. Like, say, a run through the desert at 7 in the morning.

But what a fool I was, you see, because by near 8, the entirety of the child population of Arad is walking to school, and school is one block from my apartment. So out of my building I hustled, my headphones tightly strapped around my apparently thoughtless head, running into a steady stream of kids and their parents, from whom I received reactions that ran the gamut from walking to the other side of the street to stopping, staring, crunching one’s eyebrows together and shooting a laser-sharp glare of disapproval. I felt like a leper galloping away from the colony and onto a beach of vacationers. Continue reading

Zach Condon, the songwriter and mastermind behind Beirut, may be just as famous for his music as for the cultures that have influenced it. Beirut’s debut, 2006′s “Gulag Orkestar,” played like an old-world village party in the Balkans. Follow-up “The Flying Cup Club” found Condon obsessed with French chanson; 2009 EP “March of the Zapotec” took cues from Mexican funeral brass bands.

So when Condon explains Beirut’s latest LP, “The Rip Tide,” out Aug. 30 on his own Pompeii Records, he knows what fans may be thinking.

“The cliché is, ‘What country is he going to do next?’” Condon deadpans. “But before I even started this album, I wanted to dig into the Beirut sound as far as I could go. I was trying to write a pop album.”

To cut to the core of his sound, Condon, a Santa Fe, N.M. native, needed isolation. In the fall of 2010, he packed up a broken-down Saab, rented a woods-enclosed farmhouse in upstate Bethel, N.Y., and brought a neighbor’s beagle for company. “Writing in the city provides too many distractions,” says Condon, who immersed himself in his work, waking early to chop wood for the stove and taking breaks to “whack golf balls into the trees.” In the process, he sharpened a sound that was all his own. After all, Condon says, becoming a musical atlas of influences was never the idea. Continue reading

Be’er Sheva to Ketura, by bus: A misadventure

Published September 20th, 2011

As the sun begins to stretch over the crest of a row of craggy Negev mountains, I’m already back on the bus to Be’er Sheva, where a car will pick me up and drive back to Arad — my weeks here jet by, partially because I’m constantly on the move. To Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or a list of desert destinations on the weekends, to Kibbutz Keturah near Eilat Mondays and back to Arad Tuesdays. That’s a four hour trip by bus,or  just over two by car, and I make it twice weekly, usually at the crack of dawn. Of course, I’ve no complaints. How could I? I’m being paid to travel all over the country to hang out with, and give some semblance of guidance and leadership to a pack of 18-year-olds. So, already showered and on a bus at 6:45, I’m pretty content. Plus, there’s just no way this trip north can be as odd as my trek south yesterday.

I caught the 9:30 out of Arad and headed towards Be’er Sheva, boarding a bus that, like every bus out of Arad, had less than 12 people aboard. One of the perks of living in a town the size of a stack of pancakes: no crowds. I’d only 10 minutes to transfer in Be’er Sheva, so I pushed through some dawdling Arad-ians and made my way through the bus station. The Be’er Sheva station is like most in Israel — packed, full of soldiers and Ethiopians and old Russian women and, most times, some old toothless religious guys selling lighters and asking for change, all weaving in and out of the station’s mix of shawarma stands, sunglass shops and bakeries. Yesterday was no exception. And as the army has been calling just about every reserve soldier in for training exercises to prepare for what the country fears could be all-out war following the Palestinians’ statehood appeal at the UN this week, it was extra packed. So the mood was tense.

I made my way to the Eilat bus, which I happily found to be overflowing with people, and yet still boarding. I decided to pass — there was another 30 minutes later, and I’d rather not spend two and a half hours wedged between busgoers who too often smell distinctly like body odor and the chosen food of their nationality. Continue reading

Thirty minutes at the Dead Sea: No girls allowed

Published September 15th, 2011

While living in Arad for the next few months, I’ll head down once a week to Kibbutz Keturah, a gorgeous, small kibbutz tucked quite literally at the base of a row of desert mountains scraping up towards an endlessly blue sky. Twelve of our chanichim/students/kids/whatever we call them will spend this semester working on kibbutz, and I’m the madrich lucky enough to trek down and say hi once a week, basically making sure they’re showing up to work on time and haven’t drank themselves to death.

Without a car, it’s bus or bust, so I head out of Arad to one of two connection stops: either the major city and religious relic Beer Sheva, or the hotel zone of the Dead Sea. They’ve both got their perks — 40 minutes between buses in a big city, or a half hour on the beach. This week, I chose the latter, and on my way back from Ketura I found myself with 30 minutes to kill on a day so hot I was sure my skin would begin to melt off. It didn’t, thankfully.

After a two hour ride from Ketura, I woke up just in time to see my favorite road sign in Israel: an arrow pointing down towards the Dead Sea, emblazoned with only a question mark, as in, “Something is down there, but we’re, well… we’re not sure what it is.” No text, just a question mark. Let’s move on. I stepped off the bus and into the thick, salty air of Ein Bokek, the strip of luxury hotels along the southern half of the sea. I walked towards the beach, but some construction (of… large umbrellas, I’d guess?) kept me off the salty sand.

Finally, an opening. I’d found what looked like the entrance to a private section of the beach. Wearing the same sweaty, grossly dirty t-shirt I had on the night prior, I halted just for a moment. What if this was the 100 yards or so of the beach where Israel’s richest come to sunbathe, and here I am dirty as hell and sweating through my already-twice-sweat-through shirt? Then a pair of Israeli guys walked by and made a joke about washing their balls in the sea and I immediately remembered this isn’t exactly a formal country. I walked through the stained wood entry way and onto the beach.

It took exactly 2 seconds to realize where I was: not a private beach, but a religious beach. A long, tall wooden wall jutted down the sand and 10 yards into the water — a mechizah to separate the men’s side from the women’s side. The sand was giving me third degree foot burns, so I broke into an awkward jog down the beach to reach a spot of shade under an umbrella, took my shirt off and looked into the water.

I guess Monday wasn’t peak season for the Hasidic crowd; it was me, a man of at least 85 standing near the water and one other man with a beard and payes (curled sidelocks) floating on his back and waving to me to come talk. His name was Shmuley, he was from Jerusalem and he was on vacation, staying in Arad but floating in the Dead Sea for the day. That’s about as far as my Sunday school Hebrew could take me. Which was made slightly less apparent when our stilted conversation was cut short by — gasp! — women, poking their heads around the mechizah and singing along to the Mizrahi pop music blaring from the speakers overhead. Shmuley sprung into action, quickly exiting the warm water and speaking with the nearest lifeguard, who promptly announced through a loudspeaker that said nashim, or women, must remain on their side of the barrier for the sake of modesty. And return to their side they did, quietly.

Shmuley and I didn’t have too much more to say to each other and I had a bus to catch. But my interest was piqued, as it tends to be when I have run in encounters with Israel’s very religious residents. Religion doesn’t govern life here the way it does in, say, Saudi Arabia, but it does permeate into every corner of how we live, what we do and where we do it. If you’re lost at this point, religious law in Judaism preaches separation of the sexes in prayer, many social events and, yep, the beach, so as to (so goes the explanation of a religious co-worker of mine) protect the sanctity of marriage in that real connection between the sexes is elevated if relegated to only a married couple. The jury is out on my thoughts on that one, but the sense of atmospheric religion has touched me a bit. I’ve been keeping totally kosher since I got here, and I’m a man who likes my burgers topped with beautifully melted cheddar. I didn’t expect religion at the beach, but that was silly ignorance. Of course it was there, because, of course, religious people were there. Now this isn’t to say religious law is the final say everywhere — take a walk through Tel Aviv on Friday night and the streets won’t whisper ‘peaceful Shabbat.’

When I make my 30 minute stop at Ein Bokek next week, I’m not sure I’ll seek out those dark wooden entry gates. I think instead I’ll sit in the air conditioned lobby of the Leonardo Plaza hotel. The Dead Sea has its charms, sure, but after a visit or two, so does a cold Coke.

Hot, dry and just getting started

Published September 12th, 2011

I’m sitting inside an autobus barreling through the Negev desert, straight south to Kibbutz Ketura, deeper and deeper through endless hills and mountains of raw and arid earth. The region is unlike anything I’ve seen; from some vantage points, the dunes seem to stretch on forever — looking more and more like an old woman’s wrinkled cheeks as they shrink into the horizon. There are trees here, but they don’t thrive so much as survive, each a small, determined spot of life in a hot, blinding landscape. The air here is crisp and clean (many asthmatics come to Arad, where I now live, simply because it helps them breathe); it’s light and tastes sweet in the mornings.

I moved to Arad two weeks ago, the first location of three in the gap year program I’m staffing for the next nine months. The first week was my orientation — how to get around, where to find the best pita, which 10 or 15 minutes a day my bank is open, and mostly what to expect when seventy-five 18-year-olds showed up; the second week was theirs — the Young Judaea Year Course staff and I picked them up, all wide-eyed and blinking after a 9- or 11- or 12-hour flight, split them up into three sections, one headed to Bat Yam, one to Jerusalem and one with me, to the desert, boarded buses and began the year. Continue reading

Ha’am Doresh Tzedek Hevrati

Published September 6th, 2011

The cost of living in Israel has, in recent months, become a central issue here, taking a back seat only recently to the bus bombing in Eilat that killed 8 Israelis and the upcoming Palestinian appeal to the UN for statehood. It’s an interesting state of affairs when, across the Middle East, we’ve seen protests and popular uprisings against corrupt governments choking the resources and capital of their countries; in Israel, the protest isn’t that we’re being oppressed ideologically or politically, but financially.

It is expensive to live here. Even in Arad, a tiny desert town in the Negev just south of the West Bank where I now live (I’ll get to the move later), a box of cereal might cost 6 or 7 dollars, and your average beer at a bar is 6.50 — and that’s for a Goldstar. How I will survive that latter figure, I honestly don’t know.

The question is, though, did Israel ask for this? The nation’s been pushing to keep up with the West, and has largely succeeded, for decades. Israel is no longer the scrappy underdog nation it was from its inception up through the late 1970′s and into the 80′s. Rather, it is an industrialized country specializing in the high tech industry and filled with, at least in its metropolitan central region and up north in Haifa, well-educated professionals — the realization of a dream to be rightfully judged alongside European nations; the gem of the Middle East, a bastion of flashy modernity.

And in capitalist, thoroughly modern nations, things cost a lot of money. Life ain’t cheap. So a small part of me had to ask, when I plunged myself into the midst of a 300,000 person-strong protest in the middle of Tel Aviv last on September 3, “Isn’t this just a wee bit contradictory?” Continue reading

The time I saw Boy George in Tel Aviv

Published September 1st, 2011

Concerts in Tel Aviv are a lot like concerts in any other city in the world, except they are way sexier than concerts in any other city in the world. Now I’ve only been to a handful of the thousands of cities in the world, and arguably, most of them were not very sexy, so I’m no expert here.

But… Philadelphia? Sexy? Only if you find homeless people attractive.

Pittsburgh? That Primanti’s sandwich stain on your shirt means no.

Indianapolis? Probably the least sexy city in the least sexy region of the entire US of A, thanks largely to the mullet.

Atlanta? Very sexy, and yet, not Tel Aviv sexy.

So when I attended a sold-out, tour-closing Mark Ronson show in northern Tel Aviv last week, I expected sexy. What I got was a sweaty, writhing, wildly well-dressed mass of 5,000 people dancing and singing along to a superstar DJ and his superstar backing band (when the singer from Phantom Planet is merely your guitarist, you know you’ve made something of yourself) and smoking about three packs of cigarettes each (sexily, of course). I’ve no doubt that a Mark Ronson show anywhere in the world would be a great time. But add the Tel Aviv heat and that thick, steaming air, and the show became a goddamn spectacle. Continue reading