Saturday, February 28, 2009


The rain was absolutely lashing on the car windows, the windshield wipers frantically attempting to keep the line of vision somewhat clear. It was the evening of February 27th, 2009 (My 21st birthday), and Gadi was driving me from my former dorms in Be'er Sheva to his house in Kiryat Gat. Gadi and I worked together in the same age group at camp this past summer, and I conisder him a good friend. So when he offered a couple of weeks ago to take me for a birthday, Shabbat dinner at his house, I immediately accepted. (The dinner at Gadi's house was incredible. His mother, Yael, cooked up an absolute feast and without a doubt it was one of the best meals so far in Israel.) Five minutes after he picked me up, the rain came. It had been raining in the north and in the central regions all day (in some places even snowing), but in Yerucham and Be'er Sheva it had only been a very ugly, windy, sandstormy sort of day. But, if you know anything about desert life, when it rains, it rains fast and it rains hard. Thus there is always the potential for a flashflood, a very dangerous place to be stuck. For us, it just made for a slow car ride with ample time to talk.

After initial greetings and normal catch up talk, we started getting into deeper conversation starting with issues with camp and then progressing into politics, university life, and war. Gadi commented that I was now the sole American he felt comfortable speaking freely with in Hebrew--everyone else his patient would run thin quickly and just revert to English, as he speaks a good English. This compliment was for sure in the top 3 presents I got for my bday. Anways, without going into complete detail of our conversation out of respect for Gadi's privacy, and with his permission, I would like to share a bit of what he said about his recent experience as an Israeli soldier in last month's Gaza fighting.

Gadi is a first year student of law at Tel Aviv University. He says it's basically the top law school and has a only a couple hundred students per class. Before being accepted to law school, he was an elite paratrooper in the Israeli army. It's a pretty intense unit, and if you're a normal paratrooper it's considered an honor, so kal v'chomer if you're סיירת (elite), you respect it. So, when the Gaza operation started in December, Gadi was immediately called up. One might think that since he was no longer an active soldier, he would not immediately have been called. I even asked, "But Gadi, I remember reading that it was only two weeks into the fighting that there was the massive reserves call-up," to which he told me that his unit, though reserve by title, goes in right away with the active combat soldiers because of their capabilities and competence. So, literally, one day he was in University, and the next day he was in Gaza, on the front line, fighting for his life. He said that in all of his previous three years of service, if you multiplied it by 10, you would have one day in Gaza. Gadi will tell you himself that he is not poltically on the Left. But the amount of sheer destruction he saw was terrifying. "Those people, literally, they have nothing. It's raining on this side of the border [where we're driving], and over there, they have nothing." I asked if he saw Hamas, how much close combat there was, and he said that he barely saw Hamas at all. They were cowards who fled, and when they weren't hiding, they were shooting rockets and guns down at the soldiers from civilian house tops. This is why the houses needed to be destroyed by Israeli airfire. I asked if he wanted to change the subject, if it was getting uncomfortable for him to talk about it. He told that that "in truth, for a couple of weeks after I came out, I was very reserved, very jumpy, very to myself. I didn't talk about it all at first, but eventually started to. But there are things there I saw that I have not told anyone, that I won't tell anyone. Now, though, I am more able to talk about it in general without problems." One of the hardest things for him, he told me, was the fact that "literally in one moment you are a normal citizen, a university student studying law with other normal people. You are living in a great apartment in Tel Aviv and going out to pubs. And then, in literally the next moment you are someone completely different. You are in Gaza. You are scared for your life at all times, you are in a place you do not want to be, all the time wishing it was over.

"For 31 days," he said, "I was in Gaza. And for 31 days, I dreamt of one moment. To be back in a classroom, learning and studying. My first day back in school, when the professor came into the room and started lecturing, Jonah, I broke down in tears."

The whole car ride, the whole time spent at Gadi's family's apartment--there were many hilarious and awesome stories that came out from those few hours. However, I chose to write about this particular conversation because I think it is of utmost importance to remember the pain they experience even when they don't tell us they're experiencing it. Whether they are your cousins in Kirkuk, Iraq or your family and friends in Israel. To remember that war is not good for anybody, and even if one returns from war physically unscathed, the things witnessed there are sometimes unspeakable. To remember that war is traumatic, and even though one returns to 'normal,' civilian life, there are things that will remain in a soldier's memory forever. And thus, most importantly, to support them. To listen to what they have to say, to talk things out, and simply to be there. I never seriously considered the post 9/11 popular American bumper stickers, "Support Our Troops," until now. Because even if one does not agree with all his or her government's foreign policies or military actions, the soldiers, the troops, are very much people just like you and me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hebrew Poem: At the End of the Night

I wrote this a bit over a year ago (and read it aloud once last semester at a Columbia Avanim Jewish Poetry reading). Apologies for the kind of messed up formatting of the Hebrew, but otherwise, enjoy!
בסוף הלילה
יונה ליבן
15 פברואר, 2008

אני שונא שאני מחכה פה
ואפילו לא מבין למה אני מחכה.
אפילו אם היית באה עכשיו, מה היית תגידי לי?
שאת מצטערת, או גרוע יותר, שאת לא יודעת למה אני מתכוון?
אני מתוסכל, מאוכזב
מבולבל, ומכואב.
קוותי לראות אותך הערב
אבל בסוף הלילה, פשוט, הייתי מת למלה ממך.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Columbia Education meets 60's Drug Culture

I started reading Tom Wolfe's classic, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, this afternoon in between classes. What d'you know, just 13 pages into the book, Wolfe describes the school bus of the Merry Pranksters as "glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, every fluorescent pastel imaginable in thousands of designs, both large and small, like a cross between Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of Day-Glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go do it."

Yes, a breakthrough in Columbia's famed Core Curriculum! I learned about Bosch in my Art Humanities class last spring. Hurrah. I always fancied his work pretty trippy, and this passage, for me, confirmed just this notion.

In other news, tonight the village BBQ'ed for a couple of hours by a mini bonfire, apparently something that happens fourish nights a week. It was delish.
Tali and I also buzzed Josh's hair tonight. I am no longer a hair cutting virgin, mazal tov!


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Iran is in Space!

"Trivializing Iran's first space launch as "largely symbolic" demonstrates a lack of appreciation of what it really symbolizes: That Iran is now poised to project power globally. If alarm bells aren't yet ringing for the Obama administration, they should be." Taken from Uzi Rubin's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal.

Full Article

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Yeroham-->Yerucham-->New Home!!

Ladies and Gentlemen,
An announcement: Yesterday I moved from my dorm in Be'er Sheva to a student village in the outskirts of Yerucham! An explanation is of course in order. It's not that I wasn't having fun in Be'er Sheva, in fact, I was having a lot of fun and definitely getting used to dorm life there. But then this lil opportunity just fell right into my lap. Check it. A few days ago, my program hopped on a bus for an afternoon trip to Yerucham, a development town set up in the early 50's in the middle of nowhere (Negev desert, 35 minutes from Be'er Sheva) that never really quite developed. Organizations for years have been sending youngsters to Yerucham to liven it up. For example, I think Daniel spent a summer there in high school volunteering, the gap year program many of my friends attended, called Nativ, also sends people there every year for five months to volunteer.

Anyways, the purpose of this trip was to see what this Israeli student organization called Ayelim (which means Deer) was up to in the said town. Ayelim is a group that aims to settle areas of Israel that are not in the majorly populated (and de facto most developed) triangle of land in between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. They feel that the future of the State of Israel lies in developing regions in the North and in the South, i.e. areas where there just is not a lot going on i.e. peripheries. Thus, they encourage students to go to underdeveloped areas in commuting range to their universities in comfortable, highly subsidized housing, and live there throughout their university careers. The idea is that the students living in these villages will work to build up their living areas, volunteer in their respective nearby towns, and develop an attachment to their new homes and regions. After university, Ayelim helps them find jobs with their freshly minted degrees in the areas, and encourages the students to move there permanently, which thereby helps the towns develop further and bring in new job opportunities and even just new blood and energy to otherwise stagnant areas.

So we get a tour of this village. It was built last year, and houses 24 Israeli uni students all at Ben Gurion (conmigo) as well as 8 post high school teens who are doing a year of volunteer service before their compulsory military conscription. These people are right up my alley. We're talking chillmaster, idealistic, modern day Zionist dudes and ladies. Again, where I'm trying to be. We're walking around, and a girl named Tali who just got to Israel and is on our program starts unloading her bags and moving them into one of the 12 dope caravans. Tali has worked it out with the OSP program director ahead of time, and she'll be living here for the semester! Many of us kind of did a double take--there was sort of a jealous thing going on, sort of like a lil 'well how the hell did she hear about this place but we didn't?' Which is exactly why I went to my director's office the next morning and met with him. I called him out: "You know, I bet you if you had made this opportunity clear on the website or on the application or SOMETHING, a lot of people would probably have chosen to live there." So he was like, 'Well, are you interested?' Ummm. Was he being serious with me? "Yeah, very." And two days later I packed my bags and moved in!

To sum, Josh will also move in on Sunday so Tali, Josh, and I will fill the last available caravan and live there for the rest of the semester. I spent one night there (I am writing to you now in Jerusalem at my brother's), and I already love it. The people I met are awesome. I have a nice room, the shower is legit, wireless internet (strong enough to have a legit skype convo with both JMH via chat and Jody with video last night) is solid, and the crew seems to be awesome. The free buses offered from the village directly to Ben Gurion's campus back in Be'er Sheva are at 8am and 10am. The free buses back are at 6:15pm and 8:15pm. Otherwise there are buses from the central bus station throughout the day till 11pm. And if I wanna go out drinking in Be'er Sheva, a couple of friends are making me copies of their dorm keys and a real good friend of mine from camp, Dvir, who is at med school at BGU, also has opened the doors to his apartment.

Ok, this has been a long post.
Last thing. My parents, sisters, bro in-law, Grandma Honi, and ma's friend are all here visiting. Grandma Honi lives in Jersey, and my other Grandma, Tziporah, lives in Jerusalem. It's just really cool to be rolling with both Gma's in Israel at the same time.

Ok, Shabbat Shalom
Love, Jonah

Monday, February 16, 2009

My First Ever Newspaper Article... now also online. I wrote this for an abroad spread for my school's daily paper, the Columbia Spectator. Check it out!
- Jonah

The old link did not work, here is a new one. Enjoy!

Coexistence in Israel

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hammerstein Dos

"Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes..."

Dude knew what was up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Portly Peretz

I spent this past weekend (in Israel, weekend = Friday and Saturday as Sunday is a normal work day) at my cousin's Moshav, Kfar Rut, which is located right next to Modi'in (twenty minutes from Jerusalem, twenty five to Tel Aviv). We spent it in a wonderfully relaxed manner, watching movies and cooking delicious food. Definitely took some solid cooking tips from them. Saturday night, Ofer drove me to a bus stop on the highway in Latrun where I would catch the Intercity #470 from Jerusalem to Be'er Sheva. We arrived with seconds to spare as the bus pulled up right behind us. Hastily saying good bye, I hopped on the bus. Much to my chagrin, the bus was completely full (Saturday night means end of weekend means end of weekend army leave means buses are filled with soldiers aged 18-23 returning to their bases). So, with the seats taken and the isles also filled, I sat at the very front of the bus, literally on the entrance steps next to the commander at the helm, the bus driver.

Peretz, or so I named him in my head, was a portly fellow of about 40 years. Immediately after handing him my 30 shekel fare, I noticed his far-off, dreamy gaze at the road ahead. I knew right then that I haaad to talk to him. After all, on my many bus rides over the years in this country, I had often contemplated what it would be like to be a bus driver. The thought always appealed to the Beatnik in me--the want to just say "Fuck it," drop everything, and road trip across the country. I always figured that being a bus driver (or, I confess, I also daydream about hauling weight on an 18-wheeler) would enable me to see the country and get paid! The best of both worlds. So, in my continually improving Hebrew, I struck up a conversation with Peretz. "Sir, if you don't mind my asking, do you prefer night driving or day?" Without even glancing at me, but smiling ever so slightly, he answered "I don't like either. But they both have their pros and cons." I was surprised, "But during the day, you can look out the window and admire this country's beauty, no?" This time, he did look at me, grin growing, and shrugged. "Maybe. It's a job, you know?" Unconvinced, I prodded further. "But surely you must have a favorite route, or do you travel the same line every day?" His dreamy look returned to his eyes, just for a moment, though. He hesitated, and answered, "Jerusalem." Finally, something to work with. "Alright, I love the Jerusalem buses, too. Always a diverse population from all over the world on those lines. And the streets, narrow and magnificent. Is that why you prefer the Jerusalem buses?" He shook his head, "No, that's not it."
"Well, then, why?" I asked.
"ככה, just because," he responded, eyes once more belying his concise answers. And then, with his biggest smile yet, he added in jest, "Jerusalem, the Holy City, no?"

I joined his laughter, and that was the end of it. I knew he was hiding something from me, that he hadn't shared with me all the secrets of bus driver lifers. I suppose that is reserved for the cadre of initiates. I shall meet Peretz again, I'm sure of it, and I will discover his wealth of knowledge. Until then, though, my daydreams will just have to hold me over.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

This is what's up

Op-Ed from Sunday Times columnist Thomas Friedman:

Sunday Times Op-Ed

See, the problem with the P.A. right now is its notoriety for state corruption and ineptitude. Nation building does in fact need to occur from the bottom up, and a nation's constituency must believe that its government is competent and just. Security forces trained in things like riot control and human rights is a good start. What Friedman says specifically about the funding, that it soon runs out--if this were to happen it really would be a shame as this Dayton fellow seems to be doing quite important work, quite literally helping moderate Palestinians gain a powerful and protected voice.

Gedera Lemons

Gedera Lemons

The young man profusely sweating momentarily ceases his backbreaking work
Removes his large skullcap
And wipes his brow with a dank kerchief.
Two more hours, he thinks,
Then Shabbat--clean clothes and rest.
No matter, It is good to work God's land.

The other man--older, potbellied, wiser perhaps,
Also decides to break briefly.
He drops to his knees, and, admiring his groves, slips into meditation.
Engulfed by the sweet, tangy, fresh-citrus frankincense
He evokes the memory of the first time his tree bore fruit.
A thin smile escapes his pursed lips.
Indeed, It is good to work Israel's land.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Israeli-Chinese Folk Dance!

My high school classmate, Rachel Levy, sent this link to my high school list serve. I simply HAD to post this. It is amazing. Long live Israeli Folk Dance (even if my long time summer camp is working hard to destroy it--no, I'm not at all bitter about that).

Check it out:

Israeli-Chinese Dance!

And yes, Salsa was awesome.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Seeing Stars

Israel, as many already know, is a small country. Unlike in the States, where for the most part famous people try their best to hide out in their McMansions and avoid paparazzi, Israeli stars are seen every day in normal life. It is quite possible that you might see your favorite actor on the street in Tel-Aviv doing supermarket shopping by day and on national, live t.v. by night. A couple years ago, I was in Rishon LeTzion with a good friend, Pini, and we were discussing our night plans. Rishon is known for its great beaches, but also has a pretty solid bar scene spanning a few streets. All of a sudden, Pini got a call from his friend who works at one such bar, and Pini's eyes lit up. "Jonah," he proclaimed, "We're going to this pub tonight. It's all set. 30 Shekel (4+ dollars) entrance fee and we'll see Mosh Ben Ari play an acoustic set." Now, Mosh Ben Ari is an f'in rockstar in Israel, he has dreads down to his butt, and he has a real chill vibe to him. So to get the opportunity to see him at a small bar in front of 50 people was quite the appealing one. This is how close I stood to him at that show:, and I did indeed meet him after the show. It was pretty cool. When I saw him a few weeks later playing in front of 10 or so thousand, it was even cooler because I had caught a glimpse up close.

Situations like this happened to me not that infrequently two years ago (where I also saw and consequently met other favorite artists in intimate settings), so it was not so surprising when I saw a posting on campus yesterday that Eric Berman would be coming to the Student Center today at noon for a free, anyone can join, sit down lunch-time interview and mini-set. Eric Berman's first album came out and skyrocketed two years ago while I was in Haifa, with four of the songs becoming significant radio hits. So yes, I was pretty psyched. I got out of my intensive Hebrew lesson at 11:15, darted back to my dorm, grabbed my camera, made a quick turkey/hummus sandwich, and hustled back to the Student Center. Perfect timing. Just as I grabbed a chair from the dining hall next door and sat down, Berman showed up on the makeshift stage. He sat and talked for about an hour, discussing his old songs, modestly reminding us that his new one came out yesterday (which was news to me--I will buy it asap), and playing a song here and there. Probably pretty similar to a Mix 98.5 "Mix Lounge" sort of thing.

בקיצור, in short, it was awesome. An afternoon delight of sorts. And of course I met him after the show and chitchatted for a solid minute.
Tonight (and every Tuesday night) there is Salsa on campus, so I'm gonna check it out in hopes of minglin with the locals yeh.

Also, election fever is high in Israel, as election day quickly approaches. More on that another time.

Love, Jonah