Opposed ideas

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

If that’s the definition of intelligence, Jerusalem is a good place to hone it. Especially for children and other people whose minds and hearts are still wide open to the strange and contradictory things they see and hear here.

I’m having lots of complicated conversations with Hannah, introducing her to the idea that what seem like nice and logical principles may have hidden flaws or contextual complexities.

Sunday was Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the city’s re-unification after the Six-Day War. Depending on your perspective, this is either a celebration of a miracle and/or a moment of great irony and/or sadness and humiliation. We were walking through Mamilla Mall on Sunday, Jerusalem Day, when a hyped-up right-wing activist jumped out at us. “NO DIVIDING JERUSALEM!” he boomed, and pressed a clipboard in my face. “No, thanks,” I said and walked on, pulling Hannah quickly so she wouldn’t focus on the ensuing tirade (“No thanks? And you wonder why Hamas is gaining power…”). When she asked what the heck had just happened, I mumbled: “well, he wants me to sign a petition that I don’t agree with.” “You do want to divide Jerusalem?” “Well, it sounds like a good idea for people to all share the city. But I’m not sure it works that way. I want to make sure there are still places where Palestinians can live.” “Right, because otherwise Miriam and Mahmood wouldn’t have a place to live.” “Right! So today is a holiday for a lot of people, but I think it’s more complicated than that.” How do I explain the idea of honorable divorce to a six year old when I don’t understand it myself?

Speaking of beliefs, Hannah has recently decided she’s too old for Sunday School and elected instead to stay through the entire service. So now the liturgy is stuck in her brain and she wanders around muttering: “Take. Eat. This is my body that is given for you.” Or singing the Lutheran Easter anthem: “This is the f-e-e-e-e-ast of victory for our Lord.” Beautiful, but unnerving, especially when she belts it out in public in West Jerusalem. Time for another ‘opposed ideas’ conversation:”Hannah, please stop it. We believe in that stuff, but we don’t want other people to think we’re saying they should believe in it too.” “But why did Sunday school teach us about telling other people about Jesus?”

We’re right on the border between critical thinking and utter confusion. Mother and daughter both.

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Now or never

I just got an email from Orbitz, asking: “Are you ready for your trip on 6/16?”

We have four weeks to go in Jerusalem. It feels like yesterday I was marking four weeks here. It’s funny — people from home keep writing to me: “I can’t believe how fast it has gone!” It’s like, before they even had a chance to miss us, back we came!

At least at this millisecond, I’m feeling a sense of peace. Our race pace has worked well. I think we’ll leave just before we burn out, go broke, become jaded, max out our iPhoto storage, or (for the girls) completely outgrow all our clothes and shoes.

With four weeks left, the mantra of our year — now or never! — beats in our ears. I made my “bucket list” of people to see, new places to discover and favorites to re-visit, and I’ve been working through it steadily. This involves grabbing opportunities (free admission for International Museum Day? Go to all the Jerusalem museums we haven’t yet seen…) and double-stacking events (a great day today, Shabbat lunch with friends-of-friends, followed by a beach afternoon). Despite this flurry of activity, I’ve felt uncharacteristically calm and realized today, with some surprise: I might actually get to do everything I wanted here. We’ve packed our time full, but not overwhelmingly so. I love the balance.

Of course, it’s easy to do all kinds of fun and adventurous stuff, including simply relax, when you’re on sabbatical and not working. As I hope I’ve always said loud and clear, this year was a luxury. How do we incorporate these new perspectives once we get back to “real life” with deadlines to meet, papers to grade? How can we keep living like we’re running down our sabbatical clock? I remember great friends of ours coming back from sabbatical with a new family routine: every year, each person would identify one experience, one dream, and they worked through those lists together. I love that idea, a quality-of-life to do list. Back in our regular lives, Terence and I are reasonably good at capitalizing on obvious windows — vacations, summers, and so on — but we could get more creative, more proactive, about creating opportunities. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge the fact, life is always now or never.

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Poem of the day

In Jerusalem

by Mahmoud Darwish

Translated by Fady Joudah

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.
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It never gets old

There’s a picture on our refrigerator of the girls and me walking on our first trip to the Old City, last August 20. This is where we started: sun dazed and jet lagged, jostled by crowds, overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells. I had to carry Margaret the whole time and sometimes Hannah as well. I remember thinking: we’re going to explore this historical place, damn it. (But remind me, what’s good about it?).

This all feels so long ago. Now all four of us love the Old City. My favorite time is Sunday morning when we walk to church at 8:45-ish a.m. Stalls and shopkeepers are just starting to open up. The streets are nearly empty save for a few nuns, priests or extra-motivated tourists. Hannah and Margaret can sprint down the stairs and cart ramps of David Street without too much risk of collision. If we’re running early, we can stop in at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for a few minutes. There Margaret likes to light candles (“I wished everyone in the world would have candy!”) and Hannah likes to prostrate herself on the Stone of Unction, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. It’s a funny sight, a little six year old body surrounded by weeping pilgrims, rubbing the rock with scarves which they will take home to others in Russia, or Uganda, or Korea. Early in the morning or late at night, the emotional scene in the Holy Sepulcher is always intense, overwrought, fascinating. Then we go next door, to a spare, stone Crusader chapel where, at nine o’clock, the bells explode in song.

The Old City is where we go to church, and also get haircuts, have meetings, eat cheap delicious falafel, shop for random sundry items like basketballs or kids’ sunglasses. I love feeling like a local, using the Old City for more than the “big three” sites of Holy Sepulcher, Western Wall and Dome of the Rock.

 Not that these are not spectacular. They, too, never get old. Last week we hosted our last Jerusalem visitors, who were exceptionally curious and energetic. Through their eyes, I noticed new things in familiar sites. The Gold Dome turns out to have flaps that open. I saw the big kids playing soccer and little kids in class at the Haram al-Sharif.

I saw a ceremony of Jewish first graders being handed their first Bibles at the Kotel, becoming ‘kids of the Torah’ complete with crowns. At St. Anne’s, a crowd of international pilgrims was testing out the best acoustics in the Old City by singing: dona nobis pacem. Next door in the ruins of a Muslim madrassa, a Byzantine church and a Roman temple, wild poppies bloomed.

Right near the entrance to the Ethiopian Monastery, I saw a sign for the Coptic Church and an ancient water cistern below it. When in doubt, go through the Old City door. Our intrepid visitors braved the steep staircase down, down, down into the darkness. We were alone in the huge space. It was pretty spooky and incredibly cool. All over the Old City, cool ancient remains must lie several layers deep, left by civilization upon civilization as they moved through, conquered, lost or left this place.

It may be a major cliche, but I could go to the Old City every day for the rest of my life and never get bored.

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Yom Ha’Atzmaut

My first-ever college class was a seminar on Nationalism. On the first day, the professor asked us to go around the table: “Nationalism: thumbs up, or thumbs down?” Back in 1994, I had read every word Jane Austen wrote but wasn’t sure what ‘nationalism’ meant. But several of my brilliant classmates looked at each other as if to say, “for this our parents are paying $35,000 a year?”

These friends have since gone on to become a professor of political theory and a lawyer working on international human rights. I’m living in Israel, still wondering what nationalism means.

Last week was Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Independence Day, the biggest barbeque day of the Israeli year (and that’s saying a lot). The day-before hoards of meat-and-pita shoppers at Rami Levy forced even an intrepid shopper like me to abandon mission. Fumes from the next door park filled our house all day. The place was packed and had an easy-going and festive air. Apparently in the biggest park downtown, people started pitching tents and staking claims the night before, but in San Simon the tone was very casually communal. I liked it so much better than the stereotypical American private backyard cookout. People seemed so happy. I was happy for them. Happy for the groups of friends casually parenting each other’s kids. For the rambunctious boys bonking people over the head with blow-up hammers. (Why?!) For the Russians, the French, the Americans and the Brits — now all also Israelis. For the folks from the home for the disabled, next door to us. For the old people who have probably seen some things they’d rather forget.

I came home and spent some time happily toodling around non-political coverage of Independence Day, like this list of “64 Things I Love About Israel.” (Though I also acknowledged that some of these things felt inaccessible to me. Those pesky language, national and religious barriers again!). To channel my professor, I felt like giving Israeli nationalism a big “thumbs up.”

And then, since this is Israel and I am I, I immediately started second guessing myself: what did it mean that I felt happy for this country, whose current politics have so troubled me? How frustrating that in this part of the world, everything seems zero sum. A day of celebration for the West side of town is a day of mourning for the East. I felt like I should walk to East Jerusalem just in the name of balance. Actually, Ilan Pappe was reading at the American Colony Hotel. No one better to provide balance for my Yom Ha’Atzmaut! Unfortunately, the schedule didn’t work.

The day before Independence Day is Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and there’s a two-minute siren similar to the one on Yom HaShoah. I was in the loud, crazy Machane Yehuda market and suddenly everything fell still and silent as people remembered the dead. At least two people in my eyeshot openly sobbed. The sense of collective memory was powerful. Terence was on an Egged bus surrounded by many Israelis and one observant Muslim woman. Unfortunately he got to his stop before the siren sounded, but he wondered what she would have done when the bus stopped and her fellow passengers stood to attention. Conversely, I met a liberal Jewish woman who told me about being near Damascus Gate when the siren sounded: “of course I stopped and stood. All around me, life went on. I tried to communicate ‘I understand why you’re not stopping, but I need to.'”

Nationalism and identity could not possibly be more complicated here. It makes me miss freshmen seminars.

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Telling stories

No, not this one…

When Margaret had her “3.5th birthday” party in preschool, we played a game that made me sweat. I was blindfolded and asked to determine, by touch alone, which child was Margaret. Luckily, luckily I was able to find my kid. Or I would have been so embarrassed.

But really: how well do we really know our children? Sometimes I am stumped when asked to describe Hannah or Margaret; this may seem weird to my interlocutor but to me it feels honest. In a way I know them, and in a way I don’t. I marvel at them, puzzle over them. I’m expecting surprises as they grow into themselves. Both girls love to make predictions about their own futures — spouses, babies, jobs — but these vary wildly depending on mood and sibling rivalry. And usually they mix in wild combinations: “I want to be a mommy and a lifeguard and a princess!”

Up until now, I haven’t identified really strongly with my girls. They are they; I am I. In general, I think this is healthiest for all of us. (What am I advocating, de-tachment parenting? Perhaps.) I like the idea of giving them space to become themselves, unburdened by my past or my expectations.

But all these philosophies are flying out the window as Hannah reaches an age for which I have strong memories of my own, and in particular as she starts to “tell stories.” My daughter is developing a rich imaginary world, much more detailed and private than her early forays. This habit is proving very, very handy because Hannah can only “tell stories” when she’s in motion. So now we walk long distances (9 km yesterday, to and from the Old City) with nary a complaint from Child #1. She walks a few long paces behind me, muttering to herself, with a spacey, slightly stoned and happy expression. She doesn’t like to be interrupted or overheard. Jerusalem is full of people praying, swaying and saying deep things to themselves; Hannah fits right in.

And even though this is Hannah’s habit, her “thing”, her gift, I can’t watch without remembering myself as a six year old. My grandmother said I was the easiest-to-entertain child of all time: “we just put you outside and you talked to yourself for hours.” I had a full cast of characters in my head, my “pretend friends.” My stories also unraveled best through repetitive motion, so I wandered circles in the back yard and, especially, bounced a tennis ball against the side of the house. I woke up our downstairs tenants early every weekend morning. I can still remember the shame when one of them asked me to cut it out. I’m sure if anyone had talked about a “spectrum” in the early 1980s, people would have thought I was on it.

And now I’m watching this long-buried quirk resurface in my daughter’s behavior. I feel moved, amazed, connected. Yet I’m concerned because I don’t want to compromise her uniqueness by over-identifying. Her pretend friends have different names and faces than mine.

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Beginning of the End

Suddenly we’re in the home stretch. My Facebook feed is full of “countdown to summer” messages by teachers and students. Yesterday Terence turned in his research project, the culmination of his Fulbright grant. This past weekend we said goodbye to close friends who have finished up their Jerusalem sabbatical. It is hot again. It’s time to register for summer camp, make plans to see friends at home, put down deposits on 1st grade.

We have six and a half weeks to go. I can’t tell how I feel. My brain is bouncing.

We’re all making Bucket Lists. So far Hannah and Margaret’s are modest: they want to show Terence the Botanical Gardens and re-visit the fun new kids’ exhibit at the Israel Museum. Ours are a lot less achievable. There’s a lot of Israel I haven’t seen yet. We’ll be taking the girls to the desert next weekend, then squeezing in one more international trip each (Terence and Anne to Cairo, me to Beirut). We’re also coming to terms with the idea that we won’t do t all, at least not this year.

I know, I know, travel gurus like Rick Steves and Julie Gilheany always say you should tell yourself: we’ll be back! But I don’t know if we will be back. My guess is that we’ll use our limited travel time and dollars to go new places, not revisit Jerusalem. But Hannah was very upset when I said that out loud: “Mom! That’s not fair. You go back to London all the time. I want to come back here.” So maybe we will.

I also still feel like a beginner here; I’m still having firsts. So it’s weird to think about winding down. Our sense of belonging, of mastery over this experience, is still so fragile. Shift the frame a little and it can crumble. On Saturday afternoon, we decided to go explore a new playground which is just a few blocks away, but it felt entirely foreign. The park was packed for Shabbat and we were the only secular family there. Everyone else seemed to know each other. Bigger kids jumped in front of Hannah and Margaret in line for the seesaw. Both girls shrank and clung to me with awkward self consciousness. We bailed and went home after ten minutes. It felt like August again, only back then I probably would have pushed the girls harder, done more to facilitate a social interaction for them. This weekend, I was tired.

I’d like to promise that I’ll go hard until the end, that I won’t let this once-in-a-lifetime experience be shadowed by pre-emptive regrets of Things Not Done, Experiences Not Had. But I honestly don’t know how this will play out.

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Nabi Musa

Nabi Musa is way, way out in the Judean desert. The giant mosque rises up improbably in the middle of nowhere. Muslim tradition holds that Moses is buried here, though it seems pretty far from Mount Nebo, where he supposedly died.

We saw this from the road and expected a quick, quiet, contemplative visit (at least as far as possible, with a three and six year old in tow). Instead we found a parking lot jam-packed with cars, serveeces, camels and food carts. Completely and totally by accident, we happened upon the Nabi Musa Festival, held every year around Orthodox Easter (although it is a Muslim festival. This event used to span a week, attract tens of thousands from all over Palestine, and begin with a large pilgrimage from Jerusalem). The joint was hopping; the mood was light. Scouts marched; bands played; people picnicked in the ancient caravanseries. I didn’t see any other tourists, but everyone was extremely welcoming.

Then suddenly the party was over. In the time it took Margaret to take a potty break, the parking lot emptied. The band packed up and boarded its bus. The sun was low in the sky and these ancient graves were again in peace.

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Yom HaShoah

In Israel, a two-minute siren sounds at 10 a.m. on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Cars immediately stop, even on highways, and drivers get out and stand at attention. Terence and I walked down to Herzog Boulevard, a major thoroughfare and the same place we played in the intersections on Yom Kippur. As on that day, I found myself so moved.

I’ve been thinking about the social contract that says: stop your car, get out, remember, honor. It is safe. It is important. (I also acknowledge that this code is not pervasive. We saw a couple of moving cars; elsewhere in Israel, a couple of drivers were hit as they stood outside their cars; and Israeli drivers on settlement roads in the West Bank do not observe the siren in this way, probably for safety reasons).

I’ve also been thinking about how we talk about great tragedy with young children. In Israel, there is no postponing discussion of the Holocaust until children are “ready for it.” Last week, we went to story time in a local gan and this was the bulletin board, framed in preschool concepts of kindness. Hitler made the Yehudim very sad.

Since the siren rings throughout the country, our kids also observed Yom HaShoah. This is how Hannah’s teacher framed it:

In the morning I had a discussion with the class and told them what was
going to happen….I asked the children if they could remember other holidays or special days that we had learned about where people were not respected or were made to feel bad because they were different. We reminded ourselves about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Thanksgiving and revisited what we had learned. I explained that there were and
are places and times where people were not as lucky as we are in our class. We all come from different countries, celebrate different holidays, speak different languages, and look different and yet we are all friends who get to celebrate our differences. I explained that during the siren we were remembering all the people in the world that weren’t as lucky as we are. 

Of course, Hannah’s curiosity has led her to ask many more questions about the Holocaust, so she’s familiar with some of the difficult details. But I thought her teacher’s approach was so lovely, thoughtful, and reflective of the classroom environment Hannah is lucky enough to have this year.

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Tunnel of darkness

Back in the fall of 2005, Terence picked up the phone and heard some old friends jubilantly declare: “it’s official! We have exited the Tunnel of Darkness!” Their children were both in school, sleeping through the night, able to entertain themselves and each other for more than five minutes at a time. After many years of exhausting baby-toddler-preschooler-little kid labor, this family saw the light and promptly began planning all the adventures they would undertake together with their newfound freedom. (And they did).

At the time, we were perhaps the tiniest bit resentful, since I was in my third trimester of my first pregnancy –in other words, just entering the Tunnel of Darkness. But now I am starting to understand how they felt.

Oh, we are not totally in the clear. Daily life and especially any kind of trip still requires attention to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, although to be fair this is for all of us not just the girls. We still travel with a “bag of tricks” — snacks, iPad, water bottles, the best use of $11 ever — but instead of diapers we now bring chapter books. Little by little, our kids are becoming more able to just deal with the unexpected, strange, new and this makes travel infinitely more fun.

This is the kind of incremental change a parent doesn’t always notice, but when I stop and reflect, I notice all kinds of little milestones. Last weekend, for instance, during our Galilee/West Bank road trip, the girls:

– ate yet another falafel sandwich for dinner without complaining

– adjusted to a totally different experience from the one we anticipated

– successfully used their first Eastern-style bathrooms

– slept through the night in a big dorm room (despite fireworks being set off right outside the window)

– smiled at curious locals in the Nablus souk


For every accomplishment, there are still hassles: car sickness, sibling rivalry, boredom (HERE?!!). Yet I need to keep remembering to notice and praise the kids for these little portents of maturity and flexibility. After all, I want them to grow up into intrepid world travelers who will invite me along on their adventures!

One more funny sign of their maturation: Terence and I forgot to do the Easter Bunny routine on April 8. We were just back from our trip, and distracted by doing “Easter in Jerusalem” to the max. “Maybe the Easter Bunny has jet lag,” contemplated Margaret. “Maybe he’s coming for Orthodox Easter,” countered Hannah. And sure enough, he showed up in our hostel in Nazareth on April 15!

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