These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 4: The Learning Curve

Posted on September 28, 2011 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted to my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim.)

Just after I posted last Friday, it all hit the fan. The entire day post-posting forced it to hit home in a big way for the first time that I really am in a foreign country now. It is also when I fell in love, twice over.

At noon last Friday I had to meet someone at the branch of the Aroma Espresso Bar, like the Israeli Panera Bread, nearest my apartment. The Aroma is right next to a supermarket, and in front of the supermarket was a table where a woman was giving out samples of wine. It sounds like a joke, but that’s when it really hit home that I’m not in Pennsylvania anymore. I would have stared at it in disbelief, but then I remembered that staring in Israel is most definitely not a good idea. I didn’t try any. At Aroma, I got the iced version of their signature drink, called an Aroma. It tasted like chocolate and vanilla and cinnamon and coffee and spices and might just have been one of the best things I’ve ever had. I almost can’t wait until it gets colder now so I can savor the hot version. One sip was all it took for me to fall in love.


Then I took the bus to the Shuk on a Friday afternoon. I feel lucky to have made it out alive, but like all things in life, it was a learning experience. Here are some of the valuable lessons I learned Erev Shabbat at the Shuk:

  • I am not in America anymore.
  • I am not on Birthright anymore.
  • Never go to the Shuk without someone who actually speaks Hebrew.
  • If you must go it all by your big spoiled American self, never attempt to buy clothes from someone who doesn’t speak English. Long story short, I wanted two pairs of jeans, didn’t have the cash, and somehow (the details are still scary and hazy in my mind) ended up with a pair of khakis I didn’t want, but at least I have new pants now, right?
  • Different kinds of fruits and vegetables go in different bags (“You’re buying a salad?”).
  • Marzipan is still the greatest bakery in the world. We went to the Shuk on Birthright, and it was completely different: a kitschy foreign marketplace where my friends and I bought shwarma and had a blast indulging in the sights, tastes, and smells, and taking pictures before getting back on our air-conditioned coach bus to tour the next fun attraction in our very own, cute little country. The only thing this time around that resembled that one was Marzipan. On Birthright, our madrikh, or group leader, Alex described it as “the crack cocaine of rugela” and he couldn’t have put it better. But it’s not just their rugela, everything they make, from potato borekas, to Danishes, to pastry puffs, to mini pizzas and everything in-between contains just the perfect amount of chewy and doughy, yet crispy and flaky and sweet and savory with just the right amount of grease to make it one of the more powerful religious experiences to be found in Jerusalem. After one bite I fell in love all over again. Rewarding myself with Marzipan fresh from the oven at the end of my Shuk experience, and getting some extra to bring to my Shabbat meals, made the whole hassle worth it.


Friday night, I experienced one of the most beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat services of my life at Shira Hadasha, down the street from me. I knew I was going to like this place before I even stepped through the door: There is a long covered sidewalk leading from the street to the shul, and as I walked down it with my roommate, he told me that every Friday there is a farmer’s market here. This farmer’s market plus the Marzipan branch on the way I never noticed before mean I will never have to go the Shuk again for a long time. That was the beginning of my good Shabbat mood, and the services themselves soon completed it—the singing at Shira Hadasha was so spirited and beautiful, going there felt more like being part of a professional choir than going to shul. The only thing that stopped it from being just the perfectly reinvigorating spiritual bubble bath at the end of a long day and busy week was my slight anxiety that they would kick me out for ruining their angelic chorus of praise once they noticed my nasal whining. But thankfully they let me stay.


Later in the week, I put some of the stuff I bought at the Shuk to good use by cooking my first ever real meal for myself. I fried some eggplant in olive oil, then put it, parmesan cheese, tomato, and fresh basil on whole wheat bread then stuck it on our sandwich grill to create a grilled eggplant parmesan sandwich. It was good, and I’m convinced that after some tweaking it will be even better.


The other highlight of the week was yesterday’s tour of the archaeology exhibit at the Israel Museum lead by Pardes teacher Rabbi Michael Hattin. That it cost us only 10 shekels felt like stealing. We saw, through the eyes of an expert tour guide, not only the history of Israel but the history of all humanity unfolding with each footstep. There before our eyes were actual artifacts attesting to invention of tools, the creation of written language, the evolution of religion and culture, and the emergence of the Israelite people. In my last semester at Pitt, I took Israel in the Biblical Age, which made seeing certain artifacts, including the actual Tel Dan Stele, the first known extra-Biblical reference to the Davidic Dynasty, and the Priestly Benediction amulets from 600 BCE especially powerful for me almost like seeing a celebrity except that these actually deserve their fame.


The museum is right across from the Knesset, and before we went in, Rabbi Hattin told us to keep this location in mind as we toured the museum. All the earliest references to Israel outside the Bible tell of its destruction, and seeing the Knesset, capped by its mammoth Israeli flag, outside the museum tells the whole world reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated. But I think there’s something even deeper here: If I remember correctly from Birthright, the Knesset is also near the Har Herzl Military Cemetery and Yad Vashem. If this is so, then the whole layout to explain the Knesset and the State it governs to the world—The Israel Museum tells why we’re in this land, Yad Vashem tells why we can’t be anywhere else, and Har Herzl tells the price we are willing to pay to stay here (though that’s easy for me, the big spoiled American Jew to say).


On this note I’ll mention that I haven’t “forgotten” to mention anything happening in Israel recently. I have too many benefactors for this trip on both sides of the political fence to risk offending anyone with my true views on the subject. Besides, I’m in such a bubble here, I really haven’t been following it as closely as I should be anyway.


Now I have to start getting ready for tonight.


Hebrew word of the week: שנה טובה (“Shana Tova”) – Good Year, as in “May you have a”