Shalom from Nazareth Illit!
The past few days have been a blur of orientation activities, apartment appliance trial runs, getting to know my housemates, exploring the area, and attempting to function despite the fact that I know maybe ten words of Hebrew and one word of Arabic. I’ve been able to use my housemates as a crutch so far to get around with some level of success. Matt, one of my three housemates, speaks a bit of Hebrew, and on our first night he was able to order “shloshim falafelim” for our group of three. Good thing I had my hands up to sign “three,” because “shloshim” actually means “thirty.”
In all seriousness, the falafel restaurant across the street from our apartment is a total godsend. For 7 shekels (about $1.86), we can get a falafel pita with toppings and a delicious spicy sauce. Enough said.
A bit about my living sitch this year:
I’m living in Nazareth Illit (“Upper Nazareth”), which is considered a separate town from Nazareth but basically cradles Nazareth in a bear hug. Despite their proximity, the two cities are like night and day. Nazareth is congested, with very narrow, old streets, and constant bumper-to-bumper traffic in the downtown/touristy area. Nazareth Illit feels much more suburban, with wider multi-lane roads, some large complexes (shopping centers, a stadium, a college, etc.), and small parks and playgrounds. Nazareth is also known as the Arab capital of Israel — Arabic is commonly spoken there, while Nazareth Illit is predominantly Jewish and Hebrew-speaking.
Nazareth Illit was originally planned to be a neighboring Jewish town overlooking the large Arab city of Nazareth and the Jezreel Valley. The town was developed in the late 1950s as part of the Israeli government’s “Judaization of the Galilee” policy, which meant to increase the number of Jews all over the northern region of Israel. In effect, the policy intended to reduce the number and scope of Arab majority areas to mitigate the rise of Arab nationalism/organizing. To create Nazareth Illit, the Israeli government expropriated 1200 hectares of land (about half of them in the Arab city of Nazareth), relying on a law that allowed for expropriations should the land be used for a public purpose. In fact, the vast majority of that land became residential…
So there we go. Nazareth Illit has had one of the greatest city growth rates in Israel, and now has over 40,000 residents, including many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and South America. Given the level of congestion in Nazareth, some Arabs are moving from Nazareth to Nazareth Illit, and (in response?) many Jews are peacing out.
Before we made it to Nazareth, the fellows met up in Tel Aviv. The morning after I landed, and I took a walk with two of the guys to the beach (about 8 minutes from our hostel). I was surprised to see that the water was full of surfers. In the distance we could see the old city of Jaffa, the southernmost part of Tel Aviv.
We met back up with the group afterwards, and our madricha (“educator/guide”), Inna, schlepped us to the BINA campus in Tel Aviv. My program is called Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, but smaller organizations run the program on the ground in different cities across Israel. I applied to the Nazareth site for many reasons, but one of them is because the site organizer, BINA — which means “wisdom” in Hebrew — is a secular organization that emphasizes service, social justice, and pluralism. At the BINA campus, we learned about the mission and work of BINA, and also about their “secular yeshiva” — a yeshiva is a Jewish institution for the study of religious texts. We’ve had multiple conversations about why/how secular Jews can benefit through the study of these texts, but I’m still unconvinced — I feel that Jews share common ground beside these texts (i.e. a shared history, values, music, and traditions), so I don’t understand why the texts should be emphasized as the uniting feature of Jewish identity. I personally enjoy reading and discussing the texts from an academic standpoint, but I don’t see why it’s important that secular Jews engage with the texts if they’re not interested.
From the orientation with BINA, we drove to Migdal Ha’emek to drop off the fellows working there, and then about 20 minutes further to Nazareth Illit where I’m living with three other fellows: Hannah, Josh, and Matt. The apartment has two bedrooms, so I’m sharing with Hanna and the guys are rooming together.
On our first night at the apartment, I went on a walk with Matt and Hanna around the neighborhood — Josh hadn’t arrived yet. We stopped at a park a couple blocks away from our apartment, which looks out over both Nazareth Illit and Nazareth.
The next day, we went to the bus station with Dan (another BINA staff member) who helped us get unlimited bus passes. We can only use them in our region (so Nazareth, Nazareth Illit, Migdal Ha’emek, and maybe Afula) but it’s nice to have the freedom to explore the area by bus without worrying.
Then we met up with the Migdal Ha’emek group at the offices of the Jewish Federation in Nazareth Illit. Apparently, the Jewish Federation of Detroit has some sort of partnership with the Migdal Ha’emek site for Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, and they planned a day of activities for the Migdal Ha’emek crew and us in Nazareth.
They took us first to Mt. Precipice, which is where Jesus “leaped” after being chased by an angry mob of synagogue congregants. The view from the top was incredible, as we could see the Jezreel Valley and Mt. Tabor on one side, and the cities of Nazareth, Nazareth Illit, and Migdal Ha’emek on the other.
Next, one of the Jewish Federation ladies took us to her kibbutz (collective living community) close by. She talked to us about life on a kibbutz, and the impacts of privatization and liberal ideologies on the traditional kibbutz lifestyle. She also showed us the playground area for children, which was full of — not American-style toys — but dirty old tools, used house supplies, and old machinery. What would be considered a junkyard in the US — an area too dangerous and dirty for kids — is in this community used to foster creativity and a familiarity with useful tools and dirt. The Jewish Fed rep said that kids who come from kibbutzim are generally less likely to get sick and have allergies, because on kibbutzim kids grow up in a less sterile environment and develop stronger immune system.
From the kibbutz, we went to a hummus restaurant in Migdal Ha’emek for a late lunch with some Israelis around our age who for whatever reason have a relationship with the Jewish Federation. The hummus and pita were amazing.
Later in the afternoon, we took the bus to “A Wonderful Market,” a huge complex in Nazareth Illit with a supermarket, home furnishings section, and food court. Josh and I grabbed schwarma at a neighboring restaurant. It’ll be one of my only schwarmas in Israel, I think — hoping to go 99.9% veggie this year. Saving that .1% for the cheeseburger I’ll be craving in a few months.
That night, we stopped off to buy some beer before going home. We bought “Goldstar,” which is Israel’s top-selling beer. It was delicious, especially compared to Beerlao…
I headed to Nazareth early the next morning but arrived too early for my meeting, so I stopped for coffee in the downtown area. I saw Mary’s Well on the way, the site where (according to the Greek Orthodox tradition) the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God.
The Arab Association for Human Rights was just up the block, so I walked up and (after being assisted by a butcher and hotel attendant) found the office I was looking for. The Director introduced me to the staff in the office, and we discussed logistics and some potential projects that I might work on.
Afterwards, I took the bus up to Jubran Khalil Jubran Elementary School, a public school named after an early 20th century Lebanese-American writer and artist. When I arrived, it seemed that most of the students were playing outside and some of them very enthusiastically came to greet me when I entered the school. The school is new — only five years old — and colorful, and feels relatively isolated on the opposite, quieter side of Nazareth’s ridge.
At the school, I met first with a couple teachers I’ll be working with this year. One of the teachers offered to show me around the school during her free block, which ultimately meant bringing me into every classroom so that I could introduce myself and answer questions from the students. The school has 290 students and about twenty students in every class, so the introductory tour took a lil while, but was a really nice way to meet the students and teachers, and learn a little bit about the class set-ups and the students’ interests. I asked the students about their interests and hobbies, and it sounds like some popular ones are Xbox, soccer, basketball, and swimming. Sounds good to me!
The next morning, my Uncle Fred picked up me, Josh, and Matt to go on a hike in Givat HaMoreh, a park in the Afula. At the mountain summit, Uncle Fred asked the guard in the watch tower if we could come up. The guard said no initially, but when we started walking away, he yelled down to us that we could come up for little while. 30 minutes later, we were still up there learning about the surrounding areas from Uncle Fred (and the guard was pitching in too).
After our hike, my Uncle Fred took us out for lunch in Afula. We went to a cute French bakery and cafe, and I had my first shakshuka of the year. Shakshuka is popular in many North African and Middle Eastern countries, and it’s definitely my favorite food in Israel. Ta’im meod!! Delicious!!
After lunch, Uncle Fred dropped us back off at the apartment. Toda raba! Thank you!
My housemates and I decided to walk down to the stadium (Green Soccer Stadium — you can find it on the map at the top) in Nazareth Illit to see if we could toss a frisbee there. After entering the complex through what was probably the players’ entrance, we were quickly confronted by the grounds manager, who told that we wouldn’t be able to play on the field. But he made it up to us by offering us free tickets to F.C. Nazareth Illit’s game later in the afternoon. Well, that’s partially true, because I didn’t need a ticket — women get in free. Soccer game or frat party?
Regardless, we showed up at 4pm for the game, and the home team stands were already full of people. Nazareth Illit lost by 2, but it was just great to be at the game.
Highlights from the game were somewhat unrelated to the actual game. One of the guys we met at the hummus restaurant happened to be there, so it was nice to see him and hang out a bit. And close to the end of the game, one fed up Nazareth Illit fan decided to take matters into his own hands and jump the fence to give the ref a talking to. He was a bigger fellow, so he tried and failed to hop the fence a couple times before he was grabbed by security. In the States, he definitely would have been thrown out immediately, but the security guys just spoke to him briefly before sending him back into the stands.
That night, we invited the fellows from Migdal Ha’emek to come over for our first Shabbat (taco) dinner. We had a really nice time having dinner and playing games.
So far, so good! My housemates are great, and we’ve had some really interesting conversations so far about “nature v. nurture,” the Israeli/Palestinian Arab conflict, Israeli history, and our roles here in the Arab schools in Nazareth. Things have been pretty busy so far — I had forgotten how seriously “ programmed” these American Jewish youth programs are. Things are only going to get more busy, though. Really looking forward to next Monday, my first real work day at the elementary school and at the Arab HRA.
Feeling incredibly lucky to be here. Sending love and hugs.