Saturday marked the end of the 26th year of my life – or, rather, my 26th birthday – as well as the conclusion of my fourth month as an Israeli citizen.
While there have certainly been many inconveniences and difficulties, looking back at my past four months I have to say that I am lucky to have been having an overwhelmingly positive experience here. A lot of credit goes to the wonderful friends and boyfriend whom I have here, my surprising ability to continue as a journalist in this country and of course, the huge support of my amazing friends and family back home. And nothing can top off a 26th birthday like a dinner at Sushi Rehavia on Azza Street, even if your New York sushi pals are sadly missing.
Perhaps the biggest birthday present I received this year was a visit from my mom. We had a wonderful week together here in Jerusalem, doing some exciting touristy things but mostly just sharing in my daily routine and making trips to the grocery store or to Ace Hardware to finally purchase a heater for my icy room.
My mom enjoyed a trademark Old City tour from Jewlicious, including a trip to the Temple Mount and a hummus restaurant in the Arab quarter where the waitresses were clad in full-on burkas. Her favorite line while standing in front of the Dome of the Rock was Jewlicious’s keynote phrase that he was visiting the area to "measure for drapery" — you know, "for when the lease expires," he told her, and the group of Kansas Jews that were tagging along with them.
My mom and I also visited Ein Gedi, where I hadn’t been since my Birthright trip in June 2007, and en route we got our first tour of the West Bank – the territories make up nearly the entire drive, unlike the entirely indirect route to Ein Gedi that Birthright sends its buses through in order to avoid such places.
The signs you pass by along the highway, predominantly Road #90, do not point to Israeli towns but rather to places like Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Glancing out the window, the land for the most part was strikingly undeveloped and barren, with a few Palestinian villages – conglomerations of shacks, sometimes with satellite dishes – close to where the cars drove by. Along the nearby hill peaks trotted the occasional camel or donkey.
Not to get too political, but seeing these dilapidated villages and entirely undeveloped desert land over this side of the fence made me think how little the Palestinian Authority government is doing for its own people. They want complete independence from Israel, but in doing so, shouldn’t they be providing adequate shelter for their citizens? Sure, perhaps some Bedouin groups do prefer to live like this as is in their culture, but it’s hard to believe that all these roadside campers truly feel the same way.
But Ein Gedi was beautiful as always, a home to Israeli, Arab and foreign tourists alike, all of whom have come to enjoy the natural respite that the sites climbing trails and waterfalls provide. And what a week of motherly-daughterly bonding my mom and I shared here in Israel.
Just over a week later, on my actual birthday itself, I once again embarked into nature and took a beautiful five-hour bike ride with Ravid and his father – through the muddy pathways of the Jerusalem Forest and then a bit along the bike track that eventually leads from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. As it had rained the night before and was drizzling throughout the duration of our ride, our tires got stuck in layers of mud more than a few times, but that just made the experience all the more enjoyable. What a feeling it must be to actually complete that entire ride. Ravid’s dad said that the entire length takes experienced riders at least a whole day and night.
Stopping at one of the springs along the path and after we saw a military checkpoint on the highway far below, he pointed across the hills to a village centered around a minaret, which he informed us was actually quite hostile territory to Israel. Considering that I was reading a book at the time about a fictional terror plot, I briefly shivered at the thought of this, as I listened to the noon-time prayer calls being broadcast across the way.
But on this side of the mountain, I felt oddly safe, even though there was hardly a fence between us. We kept peddling, falling once or twice (OK, that was just me) and enjoying the fresh smell that rain brings to Jerusalem air.