Journal Part 1
It’s my second day in Israel and I’m up in the middle of the night, still wrestling with time-zones. Several people have encouraged me to write about my experience, and having just read a nice account of a day-trip that a friend wrote I’m now sufficiently inspired to write about my experiences.
It’s just in the nick of time, too. I’m in Israel to attend the wedding of a childhood friend. The wedding is tomorrow, and I’m confident that it will drown the more minor experiences I’ve had thus far.
It’s hard for me to know what to write about. I feel like everything that I could say about Israel has already been spoken by people more knowledgeable and eloquent than me. I keep thinking about Sarah Glidden’s fantastic How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less but I’m sure there are many such excellent resources from many different perspectives.
Thus, I suppose, I won’t even try to write about Israel, but instead just write about myself and hope that it’s not so mind-numbingly narcissistic as the tiny inner-critic homunculus warns. ;)
The place is weirdly… as I expected. I guess I was expecting to be surprised by things, but so far the only thing that’s really weirded me out is the insane frequency of cats. They’re seriously everywhere. Run. RUN!
I guess I was also surprised at the lengths that are gone through here to keep the buildings looking old. I was told that the Israeli government prohibits building structures that don’t match the sandstone facades of the other buildings. It’s pleasing in some sense, and certainly gives this sense of living in the past. I worry about that, though. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with me will know that I think the past was a pretty crappy spacetime, and I wonder if dressing the cities (not just Jerusalem!) this way might exacerbate old thinking, conflicts, and ideas. Sometimes tradition is poison.
I pre-committed not to talk politics with anyone here while on my trip. I’m here to celebrate, not to incite. It’s been easier than expected, actually. I haven’t been asked about it, perhaps because my friends are doing the same thing or perhaps because there’s such a homogeneous culture in the in-group that my unilateral support is assumed. It has been strange to not bring it up, though, as it pervades everything. The elephant in the room, so to speak. I blundered into it momentarily the other day by using the word “Palestine” to talk about the West Bank. Oops.
My friend, who is getting married is a soldier. The guy who is letting me crash on his couch is a soldier. Military service is mandatory for all young men and women who aren’t religious enough (or whatever) to slip out of it. My childhood friend isn’t just serving because of the conscription, though. He just signed up for another term. Doing R&D for the Navy. He’s not supposed to talk about it. I’ve seen more people carrying assault rifles down the street than… well actually I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone just open-carrying an assault rifle. One of the guys I met says that he feels like Israel is the safest place on Earth. I could only deflect by saying “I guess it depends on what you mean by safe” and change the subject. (Factoid: It’s certainly not the most dangerous. The homicide rate in Detroit is about 48.2 (per 100,000 people per year) whereas in Israel it’s only 2.4.)
I feel out of place here, but apparently I only look like a weird guy, not necessarily a tourist. I’ve already been asked directions in Hebrew, so perhaps that’s right. In Jerusalem (where I’m staying) the streets are winding and built for feet, not for cars. I like that. The people are pushy and there’s a general sense of impose-don’t-ask. I don’t like that. I know it’s just a different culture and has advantages and disadvantages, but it’s annoying. My friend says the people here are like cactus: spiky on the outside, but soft on the inside. A different friend later said “in Israel there’s a sense of family, and while family can be welcoming, they’re often blunt”.
I ate dinner at McDonald’s earlier. Totally different menu. I lol’d. I ordered a “Big American” (1/2lb Angus (was yummy)) and thought about stereotypes. (Amusingly, I am a very big American, just in a different axis than stereotyped.) On my way there I passed an Asian restaurant that (just like everything) had a sign in Hebrew. I knew it was Asian because of the squinty-eyed face on the logo.
I’ve been warned on the order of a dozen times to watch out for Arabs or told about how they’re a problem. There is very little integration. One person (if I remember right) made an offhanded remark about how something needed to be done. I agree with the words but not the sentiment. I’m reminded of Hotel Rwanda. (Interestingly I’m not reminded of Schindler’s List, despite the two films being basically identical.)
The weird thing is that in so many ways Israel is more of a multicultural place than anywhere I’ve ever been (even counting cities with Chinatowns and other ethnic neighborhoods). I spent last night at the house of a guy who grew up in Argentina. I’ve met folks from England and Venezuela and of course all over the states. Jerusalem is a melting pot of cultures and countries, and as people immigrate and to some degree give up their old labels and teams and in-groups they trade it in for the only one that seems to matter here.
I’m reading through Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and getting yet another explanation of what a meme is (to be fair, the book was published in 1990). I stand in temple near the wash-basin, explicitly not taking part, and watch men in black coats and brimmed hats shake with passion as they etch the memes ever deeper. The spectre of sunk costs and wishful thinking make me wonder if some people could be enlightened even by a perfect environment (spoilers: they could; my imagination simply can’t appreciate it). (Sidenote: If you’re reading this and you’re Jewish, pretend I’m in a mosque.)
Air conditioning is a luxury. I’m lucky it’s September. I dread wearing my suit out to the Cave of the Patriarchs tomorrow for the ceremony. Apparently it’s not customary for guests to a Jewish wedding to wear suits. Oh well, they’ll just have to deal with me looking fab.
With an N=1 I can say that bachelor parties are not as crazy as they’re made out to be in media. I’m looking forward to many things. Exploring is so much fun.
Journal Part 2
Yudkowsky once said, as an allegory about death, that if people got hit on the head by a baseball bat every week, pretty soon they would invent reasons why getting hit on the head was a good thing.
Yesterday I (finally!) got into a good intellectual debate. My discussion partner (who is also the very kind and generous dude who is letting me crash on his couch) was a proponent of breaking windows in order to stimulate economic growth. Or to be more concrete, he thought that regular war and property damage was good for the economy as a whole (with some caveats). After all, if a building is destroyed, that gives the chance to rebuild with something better!
The wedding was last night, too. It was my first Jewish wedding, and lots of fun. There was eating. There was praying. There was (gender-segregated) dancing. There was a very nice legal document that got signed. I had a blast.
The ceremony (not the reception/dinner) was held in Hebron at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Given that I was distracted by the wedding I didn’t get to tour inside, but it was a beautiful place, and one that I hope is maintained for a long time despite the violence in the area.
We travelled into Hebron by armored bus (just to be safe), and I was assured ahead of time that the Israeli soldiers stationed there would keep us safe. My companions kept pointing out things like “this is where those people got kidnapped” and “this is where that Arab kid got killed”.
I swear that all this is brought up independently of my asking for it. Explaining things to an outsider is one thing, but I get the feeling that there is a pervasive desire to discuss and process the turmoil that, for the people here, becomes normal but is never forgotten.
I’m learning to read Hebrew. It’s just too infuriating being illiterate, even if only for a few days, and even if I won’t understand 99.9% of the words, at least I’ll be able to sound them out. Being unable to read and being forced to wander around struggling is a good exercise in humility for those of us who maybe sometimes feel particularly smart. (This morning I tried to pay 8 shekels (about $2) for a pastry that only cost 3. The sign said 7.90! I don’t even know why it was cheaper.
Was it by weight?? ¯\_(@_@)_/¯)
Not much else to say, especially given that it’s only been one day since I wrote my last log. It’s really annoying not doing quantified-self here, but I made the decision to not life-log (outside of my camera and these journals) and I’m sticking to it. It’s certainly much easier when the server (who doesn’t speak English) hands me a plate of food!
Journal Part 3
I’m back at last. Home sweet home. My soylent and wizard-has-turned-you-into-a-whale shirt are on my desk. Now I’m going through the process of catching up with email and getting back into the swing of things in general. I was curious if I’d notice more about being in Israel after I returned and got to see America again, but so far not really. If anything I’m reminded of just how much more SPACE there is in America compared to out there. But mostly a place is just a place.
Since the wedding day I did several things:
* I took a day trip up to my friend’s new house in Ofra where we sat around and waited for the moving guy to deliver furniture.
* On a tour of the old city I bumped into some of his family; we took the bus together to Beit Shemesh where we stayed for Shabbat.
* I got sick with a standard cold and spent a full day in bed.
* I managed to pull myself out of bed and go to the Israel Museum, seeing artefacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient masks and all sorts of good stuff.
* I flew back home, watching a full three movies on one airplane (Tel Aviv to Toronto). Each seat had its own computer with a selection. Yay, technology!
It’s really bothering me that I wasn’t life-logging my time and stuff while I was out there, because now I have a full bout of illness which isn’t recorded on my logs. I don’t want to go in and add it, though, as that would just corrupt the process more. Doing science is hard when there’s actual life-stuff getting in the way!
Here’s my attempt at a half-assed estimate of the time since my last summary:
Health score: 0
Productivity score: 1
Social score: 14
Did no exercise. Didn’t get the best sleep, but was okay. Have no idea if I ate right, but I didn’t gain or lose weight. Had a tachycardia episode and caught a cold.
Didn’t really do any work, but I did some studying/reading. (Consciousness Explained & Superintelligence.)
Saw lots and lots of new people and old friends, but still spent several days mostly by myself.
Cracked, Casablanca, Hello Internet, Anchorman 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Godzilla 2014
My trip to Israel was enriching and fun. Worth every penny. Not going back any time soon.