Thursday, September 26, 2013

Simchat Torah - Dancing with the Torah!

Tonight marks another victory for experiencing Israel at the expense of homework. I got a good chunk of it done, anyway :P Ever since we arrived in Israel three weeks ago, there has always been some holiday either going on, or coming right around the corner.

  • On our second day, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, right as we arrived. 
  • Then for the next ten days, the Jews will make an effort to fix relationships with each other, so that they can be ready for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. This is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. On this day, after restoring their relationships with each other, we got to watch hundreds of Jews will gather to the Western Wall (inaccurately known as the Wailing Wall) and pray for forgiveness from God. Sounds familiar at all? We shouldn't approach the temple with unkind feelings toward each other. "If ye shall come unto me... and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee... first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you." (3 Nephi 13:24) Funny how similar we are to the Jews...
  • Just a few days after Yom Kippur, the Feast of Tabernacles (sukkot) began. This is the week-long festival when the Jews build booths in the street and on their porches to commemorate the booths the children of Israel lived in during their wandering in the wilderness. Everyone eats their meals outside in these booths, and some even sleep in them. I'll add a picture later, but bandwidth is being a bum tonight.
  • So then there's today. Sukkot just ended, so people celebrated Simchat Torah... the uh... day of celebrating the Torah. To show their close relationship with the Lord, the Jews get together to dance with the scrolls of the Torah. Yesterday night was when they did it in a spirit of religious reverence, but today is when they throw together a live band and dance like a real Israeli! And let me tell you, I am quite envious of the way Israeli people dance. It's just like you see in the movies! A simple, catchy tune with the one word lyric "lie" to which everyone claps and holds hands and goes around in circles. We JC students watched from a distance, but the high energy and expanding circles eventually enveloped us until the whole room was dancing together to celebrate the word of God! It's way better than Mormon stake dances. But here's the surprising part: boys and girls are separated during this whole thing. So while the girls were dancing in circles in one room of the building, we were dancing with all the boys in another. But no one had any quams about grasping hands with their brother and joyously dancing in the middle of a circle, almost like a country dance. It was one of the most remarkable, worthwhile experiences I've had here yet!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jericho and Photospheres!

Today there's lots to tell about, and I probably won't be able to do it all before I need to go to Arabic class. So there's three main things I want to touch on. Here we go!

1 - Jericho Field Trip
Monday is our regular field trip day so far. We only had a half a day, so we really rocketed through the sites we saw. This week we went one of only 3 times to the West Bank. Paranoid people, don't you worry. We had security and are always aware when we go. Here are some of the sites we saw:
  • Tell Jericho: Home of The oldest city in the world... that we know of - Just in case you don't know, a Tell is a mound of earth, covering layer after layer of civilization. They are everywhere in Israel. I kind of didn't believe they existed at first, because my American upbringing just can't see the reason why someone would build new stuff on top of a bunch of old rubble. There are a few reasons why they did this throughout history, but let's just say the easiest one to understand is fortification. It elevates the city above everything around it, giving it a defensible position. That being said, below a photosphere (more on that later) on top of Tell Jericho. It doesn't even begin to explore what's there, but it's a start. We got to walk around this tell, look at the oldest standing structure known to mankind, the Neolithic tower, and even take a look at a trench dug in the tell, which let us see all of the different layers of earth. One particularly interesting layer is a black one, when the city was burned down and left in ashes. We could also see remains of a wall along the outside! Lots of cool stuff.
Tell Jericho (Photosphere)
The Neolithic Tower: The world's oldest known standing structure. 
It goes deeper down on the inside
  • Herod's Winter Palace - This is the Herod that was king of the Jews during Christ's time. You know.. the one that killed all the babies... and his wife... and his kids. He was a megalomaniacal, paranoid man. Lots of dead people around him. But he was also a brilliant builder. He built like, dozens of palaces, I swear. Some of the tallest mountains in the area are man-made. He would build up ridiculous amounts of earth and put a palace on top. The Herodian was the biggest, grandest one of these, and it's where he was buried. Some archaeologists just discovered his tomb about five years ago, and it's on display in a special exhibit in the Israel Museum right now. I've seen it. It's pretty cool.
  • Judaean Wilderness - (Matthew 4) This is the area where Jesus went to fast for 40 days to be with God. Notice the almost absolute barrenness of the landscape. Not much to eat other than rocks. On the way there, I had an experience I'll never forget. Those of you who have been on a road trip with me know that I don't get sick for anything while traveling. I can read a book while looking backwards in a car for 8 hours with no motion sickness. But as we were driving to this overlook at around 11:30 AM, I started feeling a bit queasy.  Lucky for me, Sister Woods had a little bit of bread for our bus when we got off. It only took 5 hours after breakfast and I started feeling sick as soon as I entered the Judaean Wilderness, but the Savior had no bread and no water out there for 40 days in the hot sun! I can attest from personal experience that it would have taken immense self-control to do what He did.
Judaean Wilderness Overlook (Photosphere)
It is so useful in my gospel study to be able to see the places that I read about in the scripture! It's fun to stand at the top of a little hill and your teacher point a few feet away, saying, "When Joshua came to conquer Jericho, his spies went to check the place out. Rahab the Harlot helped them do this. She lived right along the wall, so it would have been in this kind of a spot along the wall."  It's amazing!

Okay, so if you don't know about photospheres, you obviously haven't been around me much in the last year or so. I love photospheres! They are like a 3D picture that puts you in the center and lets you look all around you. One of my specific responsibilities on the memories committee is to take photospheres in some of the great locations worth capturing. This album is now public, and I update it weekly as we journey to new sites. So far it includes locations such as the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock), the entrance to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Beer-Sheva overlook in the Negev Desert, Jericho, Judaean Wilderness, and maybe 1 or 2 more I can't think of right now. Check it out!

There's always more to say, but never enough time to say it all. Until next time!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Soccer with the locals!

Today I played soccer with some of the kids that live just down the hill! I had originally planned just to do homework with all of my free time today, but when the chance came up I knew I needed to go and be with the people here. And I'm so glad I did! There was about 10 of us from the center there, and about 20 kids. Some of us played soccer in our small, trash-covered dirt field, while others sang songs and played party games with the little kids along the sidelines. Their parents and older siblings would contentedly watch all of us from their balconies. They have obviously had lots of exposure to our students before. Suddenly I understand so much more why the little kids always like to wave at us and shout hello when we walk by their homes!

There was one little boy, Yasan, who decided he really liked me for some reason. I couldn't possibly say why! I wasn't even that great of a player. But he chose me anyway. There were a couple of times when I tried to swap out the goalie so they could go out and play, but as soon as he'd see me in the goal area, he would animatedly tell me to get my hide back onto the field! What a fun little group. I'm sure I'll be seeing more of them while I'm here :)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Free day in Tel Aviv

Oh, what a great day of release! And what a strange schedule we have here. Weekends don't really exist for us out here. Instead, we have more of a... weekbegin. While all of you are having fun on Friday night, we are in church. But then by the time you get out of church in Sunday, like you are probably doing now, we're coming to the close of our free day. Today we went to the sea side city of Tel Aviv, which contains the ancient Port Jaffa (yes, think of the oranges).

According to Greek mythology, the king of Jaffa tired his daughter Andromeda to the rocks (left side of my picture) to sacrifice her to the sea god, Poseidon, in order to appease his wrath. Then along came some Greek hero whose name I forget..He skew the sea monster sent by Poseidon and married Andromeda! Story telling hasn't really changed in the last several thousand years, has it?

Like I said earlier, today was a free day, so we got to do whatever we wanted! I stuck with a group that went to a few small museums, toured the bazaar (which looks like a giant garage sale full of random, mostly useless trinkets), and finally ended on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea. It was REALLY salty, and actually quite warm. That was my first time swimming at my leisure in the open sea. I had snorkeled before, but that's a little different.. turns out it's really entertaining to just keep jumping into the endless waves that come to shore. Maybe I'll get the chance to try surfing another day if I end up going back.

On our way back, the bus driver turned in some techno music. The two girls sitting in the back started rocking out to it after a while, and so he turned the music up a little more. Then they danced harder, and I joined in. The driver giggled to himself and bumped up the Vikings another notch. After a few minutes, he turned the lights down low and we had an all-out dance party going on in our bus! My ears hurt by the end, but it was so much fun!!

What a relaxing day on the sea side. And now I'm back in Jerusalem, winding down and preparing for another crazy week. Classes begin tomorrow, starting with a field trip to the south to see Negev, which as brother Woods says, "it's so hot the lizards wear canteens for water!" Yay for being sweaty...

Would I rather be anywhere else in the entire world right now? Not a chance.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Has it only been a week?

Hi, folks!

Forgive me in advance for not including as many details about being out in the Holy Land yet. This week was primarily two things: Class hitting us in the FACE, and jet lag.

Well, we've been here ten days. It's pretty much a consensus that the same time warp you experience on the mission is what we're going through here. We all feel like we've lived here forever! And yet we've hardly been here at all.

Can I just say how amazing this center is? I pictured it being more old looking in my mind's eye, but as it turns out, this facility is very modern, new and vibrant! It's newer than I imagined it would be! It really adds to the excitement of being here. Also, random fact of the day: There are lots of feral cats out here. They wander all around the outdoor section of our cafeteria, waiting for us to drop food. And we see them wandering the streets of Jerusalem, too! I love it.

The stress load out here is immense. But I'm learning so much! The class list here is the same for everyone:

  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Palestine/Islam Culture & History
  • Israeli/Jewish Culture & History
  • Ancient Near East
  • Field Trips
  • Hebrew / Arabic language
I talked to one of the administrators here, and they gave me permission to go to both the Hebrew and Arabic class! They don't really give any homework, so it's just play time for me. Ah, I forgot how much I love learning languages. After all, I am a linguist by trade! I just speak computer...

Each of these classes dishes out a hefty reading assignment every single class, to the point where I could easily spend literally all of my outside-of-class time reading. This is partially due to the fact that jet lag really hit me hard, and I'm already genetically inclined to sleep on my feet. So I've dealt with some major frustrations when it comes to staying awake. It's a thorn in my side, but at the same time I've come to terms with the blessings that come from it. Think of it! It's a built-in system to force me to prioritize the most important things in my life first! Because if I put them last, I simply can't stay awake to do it. So while it's incredibly frustrating, I'm looking at my permanent fatigue as a blessing.

I now know all of the 80 students's faces here, and there's only 2 or 3 names that don't come right to mind when I see them. What a great group of people we have here! Everyone is just great. It's a really different experience having your entire life encapsulated in one building. We all live under one roof where we eat, sleep, study, and go to church. My Old Testament teacher, Fred Woods, is also my branch president. The other Old Testament teacher, David Belnap, is our Elder's Quorum president. And for those of you who knew Mark Sleight back in our old South Jordan home, he's the Israel District President! The world gets ever smaller.

Despite my efforts to circumvent this fact, the universe is determined to bar me entirely from checking in on my Facebook, though everything else on the internet seems to work just fine. So, uh... sorry about that. And if you're wondering how this blog gets posted to my Facebook (hopefully that's working) it's because I set up a trigger to automatically post them on Facebook when I post to my blog.

Anyway, we've been on 2 field trips so far. The first was a little tour through the Old City to get us oriented to Jerusalem. The second was a Jerusalem overlook field trip, where we went more along the outskirts of the city to survey the land and the geography. It actually really helps to understand the places that go with the stories.

The Israeli people have Sabbath attire down. No neck ties. Best thing ever. Unfortunately, we still wear them for church. But when we dress up go out to certain holy places, it's no neck tie. And thank heavens, because we'd probably sweat out every drop of body fluid if we did. Luckily, we're all sweaty together, so it makes being sweaty slightly less gross, and certainly more tolerable.

Well shoot. I'd blog a little more about yesterday's trip to the Western Wall (improperly called the Wailing Wall), but the CES fireside is starting in just a minute. Until next time!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The dust has settled. Mostly.

Hi everyone!

So it's Friday night here (which is our weekend), and things are finally calmed down a little bit. I figure it's time to send a quick update to let you know how things are going.

I'm still feeling the jet lag. Only today have I felt at some point in the day like I was functional again. But I still bottom out around 1 or 2 every day. I imagine I will tomorrow, as well.

Our class schedule is bizarre! In fact, the whole schedule is bizarre. Hardly anything is regular. One day we ate breakfast at 6:30. The next was at 7. Then another was 8. Some classes will be an hour long. Other sessions will be two. It's pretty much all over the place.

There are 80 people here - about 28 guys and 52 girls. Yeah, not a surprising ratio in the church. And now that my roots have a place to plant themselves again, my social life has found it's feng shui! I'm so glad to have a place to call home again!

Homework is pretty darn intense. Like, lots and lots of reading. But the teachers are both brilliant and enjoyable! Apparently my Ancient Near East professor is one of the world's top authorities on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Pretty cool beans. It's also interesting that my teachers live a floor above me.

Speaking of the center, this place is magnificent! Just about anywhere you go, you have a beautiful view of the Old City. What I mean by the Old City is original Jerusalem, which still has a wall built around it. But since Jerusalem has grown beyond those walls, the city simply continues on after the walls for a long, long while. Anyway, we are so close to the Old City that we could walk there from the center in about 5-10 minutes. If it wasn't for that tree in the way, I could look out my bedroom window and look at the dome of the rock.

So the center is located on Mount Scopus, which is in east Jerusalem, a primarily Palestinian neighborhood. We get along very well with our neighbors, and the church aggressively broadcasts a neutral stance here. We make friends with all people of the Holy Land; we don't take sides, and even our staff is integrated. A small section of our center is a little art gallery, which contains paintings from both Palestinian and Israeli artists. It's quite a remarkable thing to be able to foster the spirit of peace and cooperation here. I really like our staff.

Many of the students agree, myself included, that one of our favorite things here is listening to the Islamic call-to-prayer songs, which broadcast on a loudspeaker from the Mosques five times a day. I don't know how to describe the music, because it's not really like anything we listen to at home. But to hear it reverberating throughout the city hills while we eat our meals is an entrancing experience.

Our cafeteria is called the Oasis. Can I just say, they serve such great food! I get real yogurt every day for breakfast if I want. And tonight we had chicken Shawarma for dinner. Think of the cafe at the end of Avengers - that's Shawarma. The only problem is, with our bodies wired to think we've been up at midnight and all of the great food we have here, my stomach is accustomed to more food, which means I'm more hungry all the time. That will make my Fast Saturday tomorrow easier... :S

I know, right?? Fast Saturday! That's two fast days in a month. But I'm okay with that. I always have wonderful experiences on fast days.

Well! We've finally stumbled our way through most of the orientations and initial setup. And most of jet lag. That means that the real fun begins next week. On our second weekday, which will be Monday, we'll do a tour of some significant sites around Jerusalem. As the semester progresses, our travels will reach further and further, going as far as Istanbul, Turkey!

This is going to be an experience like nothing I've ever had before. I'm so excited!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

We made it!

I'm here! We flew from SLC to New York, and then flew 10 hours from New York to Tel Aviv. Then we took a short-ish bus ride to the center, and now I'm all unpacked, took the tour, and I'm ready to go to sleep.

So my google homepage (and therefore this blog) is forcing itself to be in Hebrew, despite my efforts to the contrary. Clearly my technical abilities are hampered tonight. Hopefully I pushed the "Okay" button instead of the "Cancel" button when I uploaded a picture on the view from the bus. Mount Scopus, where our center is located, is on the left side of the picture. As you (hopefully) can see, we have a great view of the old city! In fact, the whole center seems to be designed around that point. It's great