Quit Thinking American: Sink or Swim and my first weeks in Tel Aviv

Screenshot of me selling הולצות (shirts)

The Florentin neighborhood is a canvas for the artists who live there… no blank wall stays untagged for long. It’s also the neighborhood where I am living for the next five months in an apartment with five of my other friends. It’s been a while since I’ve done an entry- a sin to which I have no excuse- so I will try to get to what I can. Many of the new people on the program this semester are from South Africa, Australia and Britain, which has been awesome to hang out with people from different places. Us loud Americans are driving especially the arrogant british nuts already and I have, to my happiness, been branded ‘the not annoying American.’ I am working for a company called Koolulam, a social- musical initiative that holds group singing events aiming to strengthen the fabric of society. With 600, 2,000 or even 12,000 people singing in harmony together, the feeling is really powerful. In a meeting, the CEO expressed to me that the Koolulam office is a ‘place for creators.’ If you know me, this is exactly up my alley.

On my very first day, I was thrown in with the production team to help run an event in Jerusalem with 700 participants. Running late, we quickly set up our rig, merchandise, and ticketing apparatus. I was put on scanning tickets. Imagine 700 people pushing in a line, speaking at you in Chinese all with specific questions about a performance which means you need to know specific words that you’ve never heard before like ‘tickets’ and ‘to scan.’ I felt pretty out of place as I tried to help Hebrew speaking Israelis with specific questions; I abandoned any hope of maintaining my high standard of service and impressing my team members. I just had to survive. Flustered, the best I could choke out was “Slicha, ani medber raq kitsat evreit, Anglit?” – “Sorry I speak only a little hebrew, English?” One customer replied characteristically; “llama” “Why?”

Afterwards, I felt terrible like I had failed myself and my team. However, they told me genuinely ‘Kol Hakavod’, ‘good job.’ My feelings, I realized, are guided by my American mindset that I should be a master of my job when I go in the field. However, the mindset of my Israeli bosses is the opposite; jump in the water and sink or swim. If you swim, you are learning.

Last night I was on the production team for a second event, this time in Haifa. Beforehand, I centered myself and tried to maintain confidence in my language skills throughout the night. Whether I was selling shirts or helping to seat people, I communicated in Hebrew in nearly every encounter and I kept calm and problem solved when I couldn’t understand. I felt really proud of myself. I was swimming.

In addition to jumping on the production team, the bulk of my work is in the various groups in the office where I have already worked to edit copy, write scripts, and record voice overs for commercials. 

I’m reminded again and again that I have to adapt my American mindset to Israel. My neighborhood filled with graffiti and grime would be ‘sketchy’ in America. Here, it’s a place where the inhabitants express their views not only in lively conversations in corner bars and cafes but with spray cans on public walls. On the first day of Koolulam when I wasn’t able to do my job well, I the American, felt that I had failed the first test. To pass however, all my team expected me to do was tread water. Then I could learn how to swim.

My Week Back Home: While They Told Stories about Keggers, I Explained the Complexity of Geopolitics in the Middle East

I spent my short break at home in Philadelphia, where I was successful in seeing who I needed to see including my freinds, family and cheesetray. Although there were times where, for fear of animosity, I would’ve rather shoved Israel under the rug, people who I knew were interested and supportive of what I did for the last four months, though many- understandably so- knew too little to ask questions.

While explaining my time at StandWithUs, a friend interrupted me to ask the ‘big question’; “Are you on the Israeli or Palestinian side??” I couldn’t help but give a resigned smile- knowing that most people see this impossibly complex issue as binary. I try to approach subjects to which I am ignorant in a way that anticipates grey area. I replied that I wish it was so simple but that my understanding is a little more complex than some partisan explanation.

A guy friend explained to me that a few weeks ago he had seen a video of Israeli rockets blowing other rockets out of the sky and said that it was pretty damn cool. I explained to him- that first it’s awesome as hell- and then I explained that what he saw was the Iron dome missile defense system which uses laser guided missiles to intercept non- guided rockets before they hit civilian areas.

I went out to eat Cheesestakes with Jackson and Jaspar like the good Philly kid I am. After a while explaining my experiences in Israel, a man came to our booth, said he had overheard us and that he had a question to ask. He was a heavy set black man wearing an outsize Star of David; from his appearance and the question he asked I believe he was a Black Hebrew Israelite, a group which believes that they are the real lost tribe of Judah and that the Jews of today are not descendants of the Israelites. Although there are black Jews, Black Hebrew Israelites are an American movement appropriating elements of Judaism and Christianity. While the organization has a spectrum of belief, they are classified a hate group on the fringe.

He asked a question that was meant to challenge me along the lines of; “Are the Jews who live in Israel right now actually descendants of the Jews who lived there in antiquity? It seems to me that Post- Holocaust (1945), white Jews came to the area of biblical Israel, subjugated the native population and created a state where they weren’t indigenous. Unfortunately for him, he had picked the wrong guy to challenge and I spent over ten minutes unpacking Jewish indigineity to the Middle East, Diaspora, the Jewish return (which began way before the holocaust), and the complications of land ownership that sparked the Arab Israeli conflict. By the time I had finished my monologue he had nothing to say and told me thank you and left.

At a get together, a Christian friend expressed that she was so happy to be around Jewish people again while spending break at home, remarking that the although she was never raised Jewish, the Christian school she goes to feels far from home. She said that her school had invited a Palestinian Christian speaker who in her opinion spoke negatively and unfairly of Israel without another perspective of an Israeli speaker. She remarked that for right or wrong that wouldn’t fly where we grew up.

I was able to make the dress rehearsal for the HTC Winter Show which was arguably my high point of break- the company continues to thrive with fresh creative voices. At one point one of the my friend Patrick starring in an irreverent show about Trotsky’s death had a line listing a bunch of historical events that would arrive after his untimely death in 1940 and he had changed his last line from something else to say dumbfoundedly “the creation of the state of Israel?!” A show truly tailored to its audience member.

I heard a range of views on Trumps executive order allowing Jews a protected class on race and national origin ranging from support, to eye rolling, to fears of another holocaust and a future of having to put ‘Jew’ on our passports.

I was told that Israel is not always a ‘kind neighbor’ and that what I was doing at StandWithUs was ‘great for the world.’

And while I very much enjoyed watching the news every morning, the middle east didn’t stay far away. Trumps decision to execute a target killing of Qassem Solemanei eerily echoed back to Israels targeted killing of Baha- Abu Al Ata. A fight picked, retaliation, and the hope of diplomacy in the end.

Jono and I impressed everyone with our Hebrew- even if at times we deliberately stringed together random phrases to make it ‘seem’ like we were having an endless conversation. I just arrived in Tel Aviv where I will be living in the Florentine neighborhood and my last few days have been a blast. Stay tuned!