Tuesday, November 20, 2012

.דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט (Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht.)

    I had a plan. I had a plan to come to Israel, to work at the Jerusalem Zoo. To learn Hebrew. To get back in touch with my Jewish roots. To meet new people. To have a life changing experience. I had a plan, but the title of this post is a yiddish proverb: Man plans, and God laughs.

    I had also planned to do two posts in the past week, one focusing on my latest project at the Jerusalem Zoo, and another focusing on a recent trip to the Negev. These will be shortly forthcoming, but instead I decided to start with a post about the current tumult in this country...

    You wouldn't know it from watching the news in most of the countries on this planet, but from January 1, 2012 until November 13, 2012 close to 800 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza. Since November 14, 2012 until today, over 660 rockets were aimed at the Jewish state. I do not wish to use this blog as a platform for my political opinions, I aim instead to present facts and raise important questions.

    Do you think Israel has the right to defend it's citizens after hundreds of rockets were fired into their borders? Do you think America or any other country would show restraint after such violence aimed at it's civilians, and even entertain the idea of peace with such a government, let alone attempt to reach a ceasefire agreement? Do you think it is right that the media has portrayed the course of events as though Israel has attacked Gaza unprovoked?

    Last Friday I found myself in Jerusalem, in a city I (and all the people of Israel) thought was safe from this violence, when the first air-rade siren rang in over 40 years. I ran to my housemates' bedroom which doubles as a bomb shelter, closed the reinforced window and lead door, and waited. My hands shook, and my mind raced. Safe in the shelter, I was less worried about my own safety, and more worried for the friends and family at home, watching or hearing who knows what news. Lo and behold, my father called me in a right state, hearing that there were rockets falling "all around Jerusalem." This was not the case, as only one rocket came our way, and fell short. I feel safe, but for two days following this experience I found myself preoccupied with thoughts of where I would run if I heard a siren, nightmares with explosions, and flinching every time I heard a loud tonal sound, in fear it might be another siren.

    I have received lots of pressure from friends and family to do the easy thing, the safe thing, and come back to America. I have instead decided to stay. The animals in the Zoo, the people I have grown close to, they need support now more than ever. What's more, I have made plans to come to Israel, to do great things, knowing well of the upheaval here. Until I feel as though my life is in jeopardy, I see no reason to leave. As much as the media has favored Gaza in it's coverage, it has also made things look much worse here than it actually is.

    There have only been 3 casualties in Israel, to Gaza's 100, but this is not due to increased Israeli violence in relation to that on the side of Gaza, it is instead due to the fact that Gaza fires their rockets and stages their headquarters in hospitals and family homes, hiding behind their own citizens, whereas Israel, their Iron Dome, and the IDF are constantly vigilant to destroy safety threats before they become a fatal reality.

    I do not tell this story to scare those of you at home - again, I feel safe. However I do not want to sugar-coat what life is like here. I have been fortunate enough to spend the first half of my stay here in security, but everyone who really lives here is constantly aware of a threat of violence - unprovoked violence. If I were currently living in Be'er Sheva, I would hear a siren at least once a day. I would hear boom after boom and wonder from my shelter, was that my house? Was that my school? I have come to realize that nearly every Israeli citizen has some form of PTSD and are conditioned from an early age to respond to sirens and be constantly aware of their own mortality. Is this right? Whether or not you think Israel has to right to exist as a Jewish state, it does, and there are close to 8 million people who call this land home. I believe that all people have the right to live a peaceful, terror-free life. Unfortunately Israelis have not yet had that chance. But we can all hope, and depending on your religious persuasion, pray.

    I want to leave you with two images from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv - one of the cities which is currently under a large amount of rocket fire, and also one of the cities that we thought would never be reached by violence from Gaza:

    Please look for #wearehereIsrael on Twitter or through any other social media, or follow me @blairsmenagerie. Hopefully this will all be over soon and all nations involved will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. שלומ (shalom) is used here for hello and goodbye, but literally means peace. So more than ever, I mean it when I say Shalom.

    Friday, October 26, 2012

    אני עבדת בגן חיות!

    (I work at the Zoo!)

    Well, I know it's been a while since you've heard from me, but it has been a very busy month! 

    October started with the festival of Sukkot, which is essentially the Jewish harvest festival. Nearly every family builds a "sukkah," something like a tent or fort on their porch or in their backyard. Every meal is supposed to take place there, and the roof is purposefully wholey, so that you can gaze up and see the stars. It is quite an experience. We at Real Life Israel assembled our own sukkah -on the porch next door!

    After the festival, before we started our internships, we went on a "tiyul," or trip, to the Golan Heights in the north of Israel. We toured a kibbutz, swam in a water hole there, and then stopped by a shop that teaches children how to make cake-toppers out of fondant. Below you can see my attempt at a sheep (and naturally, a hippo with my leftovers, on the side).

    The next day we went on a breathtaking hike in the heights:

    Around every corner was an amazing view. One of the reasons I love Israel is that in a country slightly smaller than New Jersey, you have highlands, valleys, desert, coastal areas, and snow-peaked mountains. Here is just another astonishing hillside behind myself and my amazing roommate, Zahava.

    About half-way through our gorgeous hike, we took a dip in this water hole, complete with waterfall. Wow:

    After a month of Hebrew learning, two weeks of holidays, and an amazing trip, it was time to get to work. As much as I loved the first six weeks of our trip I think it was the longest I have ever gone without working a day, let along setting foot in a Zoological Park! I began in the bird department, and got thrown into the mix at full-tilt! Here you can see the penguin exhibit, which appears to quite lovely, as all their exhibits are. However, they are planning some renovation, which I have been lucky enough to help with. In fact, I have assisted in the planning, designing, and assembling of the new islands. I am so happy that I will leave a "footprint" in this zoo for many years to come!

    I was also able to observe the elephant trainings. Their approach to animal care is far different from in the states, but I would not say one is necessarily better than the other. The keepers develop a strong personal relationship with their animals and are very much in favor of hands-on training, enrichment, and husbandry on the part of the keepers. Below you can see the elephant keepers riding their respective animals. This is not for the sake of circus tricks or to please the crowd, but instead they use this training so they can take the elephants out for "walks" around the zoo and sometimes the surrounding neighborhoods. This allows them to keep the elephants from developing health problems that often arise when kept in captivity.

    I have also assisted in some work with the more dangerous animals at the zoo - we recently received a 20 ft crocodile that someone was keeping in his backyard from the time he was a baby. When cleaning the pool, I received my first souvenir - yes, that's a real crocodile tooth!

    I'm happy to say I am also finding time for my hobbies. I have been crocheting up a storm, and my roommate has been knitting. Last weekend, we swapped information - she taught me to knit and I taught her to crochet; now we are proficient in both skills! I have also begun sketching again - here are just a few of my most recent doodles:

    (Happy Birthday)

    "Oswald the Dragon"

    My Roommate - as a Leopard

    A lot of my time at the zoo has been spent with this little guy - he is a red-crested turaco chick (google it!) who has yet to learn how to feed himself. Don't worry, I haven't been pre-chewing his food! Last week I was asked to start teaching him to eat on his own, and I am proud to say I have him eating out of tongs almost exclusively, no force-feeding necessary!

    I found this little guy in our bird kitchen - Dr. Girman and Dr. Geist at SSU would be proud - I've put my lizard catching skills to use! I'd like to see someone find one of these in SF...

    I find it very hard to be idle around all of these fascinating animals. During breaks I often spend time holding this little girl, a black and white tegu from Argentina. She's only about 10 inches long now, but she will grow to be over 3 ft!

    So far this trip, especially my time at the zoo, has far exceeded my expectations. I am so happy I took the massive (and perhaps a bit crazy) leap that I did when I decided to come to Israel. Sure, homesickness comes to me from time to time, but I thank my lucky stars every day that I am here. I am doing my very best to soak up as much as I possibly can from my time here. This is truly the experience of a lifetime.

    Saturday, September 22, 2012

    !שנה טובה (Happy New Year)

    Shana Tova everyone, or "Happy New Year" if you prefer english! The past two weeks have flown by, with my first visit to the Jerusalem Zoo, New Year's celebrations, Ulpan (hebrew school), and finishing up settling in to my new home.

    The highlight of my trip so far was definitely my inaugural tour of the Biblical Zoo. The facility is absolutely breathtaking, and I haven't even seen the whole grounds yet. I was welcomed by my advisor, Shmulik, and brought in through the main gate. Right inside the gate is a truly awesome view: a giant lake with Siamang Gibbons on an island in the middle:

    We didn't linger there though, I was rushed to the other end of the zoo so I could watch some of the team tranquilize and pack up two Arabian Oryx to be shipped to a breeding facility and their later release. I later learned that the Jerusalem Zoo is extremely active in their role as a conservation institution, both on the education side of things, and in breeding and release of endangered or functionally extinct species. Here I am posing with some of the Oryx herd pre-knock-down from the boardwalk above their habitat:

    On the other side of the boardwalk was the most impressive Savannah exhibit I have ever seen. White Rhinos, Ostriches, Masai Giraffes, Maribou Storks, and a subspecies of Kudu all in one exhibit. Oh, and did I mention - a Hippo! Her name is Zelda and she is very old, but remains more than content to wallow in the large pool while the other creatures roam around on land.

    I was almost equally excited to see their Collared Peccaries - with piglets! These even-toed ungulates are closest related to the pig family, though they themselves are not considered suids - but check out that little one - sooooooo cute!

    Later on, when looking at the Kangaroo exhibit, I was informed that the rocks the Kangaroos live on are actually ruins of an ancient barn over 5,000 years old!

    Last before the zoo closed, I poked my head into the reptile house. This little crocodile had a huge exhibit with a pool, but decided to wedge himself into this little corner. Typical...

    On the Thursday before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, my group volunteered for an organization that puts together boxes of food for families in financial need. The New Year is an important holiday here, and is a cherished time to feast with your family. I really enjoyed helping Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor) prepare these mini-feasts for families in need; I was happy to do my part for those who could use a hand during the holidays.

    Later in the evening, we went to a concert at a club called "Yellow Submarine." Those of you who know me well might have an idea of how excited I was walking through a lobby painted yellow with portholes - you guessed it - very.

    The band was eclectic, but rockin', and despite how tired I was I danced the night away!

    Ulpan (my hebrew lessons) have been moving along well. I would not expect to be fluent after three weeks in Israel, and I am not, but I do feel as though I am making great strides. On the day before the start of the High Holy Days our teacher, or "morah," took us on a bit of a field trip. She told us we were going to Yamin Moshe, and taught us how to ask for directions. She then told us to ask and find it. "Slicha, ata yodea ech olechim la Yamin Moshe?" The people in Israel are very nice and are usually more than happy to help someone find their way, so it didn't take too long. We even happened upon a playground en route!

    When we finally arrived, there was a stunning view of the "old city," otherwise known as what was for many years "Jerusalem." This is where the temple mount and the western wall are located.

    The neighborhood itself was also gorgeous. Below you can see a fountain and courtyard in between some of the houses - how would you like this view out of your living room window?

    Our field trip wasn't complete until we all did the hokey pokey in hebrew in a local park - I'm sure we were quite a sight to the locals...

    I can't wait to start work at the zoo - I know it will be the experience of a lifetime! I miss interacting with animals so dearly. October 9th can't come fast enough - in the meantime I have a feeling I'll be visiting at least once more so I can see the rest - stay tuned for more pictures!

    Tuesday, September 11, 2012

    Week one in the land of Milk and Honey

    Wow. I can't believe it's already been ten days. I wasn't homesick in the slightest, until today when I started looking at pictures of the beloved animals I left behind - big mistake... Naturally, my heart aches the most for my beloved Sunny, who I rescued nine years ago.

     Also, as you could guess, I will miss Brian Wilson, the hippopotamus. However, there are hippos at the Jerusalem Zoo that might need a new companion!

    Then of course there is Gauhati, the Asian rhino. I felt as though we bonded in particular over the past six months... Does anyone know how to teach a rhino to skype?!

    I left my beloved San Francisco on Saturday, September 1st, at 11 pm. A six hour flight to New Jersey, five hour layover, and ten hour flight to Tel Aviv later, I found myself surrounded by Hebrew both spoken and written at 7 am on September 3rd, 2012. I recovered my enormous bags, made it through customs, and camped out at the coffee shop for the next four hours.

    Just as I felt I had reached my personal limit of sitting in airports in a 36 hour period, the group organizers from Real Life Israel arrived. I have never had such a warm welcome - it was as if I was met at the airport by some extended family I had yet to meet.

    As the other participants began to arrive, it became very clear to me that this was an amazingly dynamic, genuine, unique set of people. I received my israeli cell phone and, naturally, called my parents right away - it had been almost 18 hours since I got on the plane in New Jersey. We piled on the bus with our massive assortment of luggage and I sat next to a young woman with a british accent. We clicked right away and I found myself thinking "If I could pick my roommate I'm pretty sure this Zahava would be my choice." I was therefore amazed to find out when we arrived at our new homes that she was, in fact, my assigned roomie! I also met my other "flatmates," three young men from the US, and with every new member of the group I met I was equally impressed. So far it seems as though I could not have asked for better housemates and friends in this endeavor.

    Our first whole day together was quite the adventure! We got on a chartered bus and drove out to the Judean desert, where we drove ATV's!

    Half way through the desert adventure we stopped at what appeared to be a cave, but was once actually a cistern for collecting water. The Judean desert is the result of the Rain Shadow effect (if you're not a science nerd, look it up!) and therefore nomads needed a water source when traveling through the area. They built trenches that collected rain water from the mountain range and stored it in the cistern so there would always be clean water for weary travelers. Below is a picture of our ATV guide drawing a map of Israel in the sand at the bottom of aforementioned cistern.

    That would have been enough for the day, but we continued with an amazing hike through the desert down to a canyon floor and eventually to a swimming hole - the hike was gorgeous and awe-inspiring, but HOTTT.

    Especially for those of us from cooler climates (such as *cough* San Francisco) the heat presented a bit of a challenge, but I am sure I will remember that hike forever. The day ended with a barbecue at the home of the Director of Real Life Israel. Aryeh was so kind to open up his house and make us feel like a giant family - I could not envision a better start to this five-month adventure!

    The next few days have been a bit of a blur. I started Ulpan (my hebrew classes) and it has presented itself as quite the challenge!  I am studying a lot and trying my very best to learn the language but I have come to believe that it is difficult for fully developed minds to create new language skills. Not impossible, but difficult... I have been writing my letters and trying my best to read every day, but I think these things take time. I can't help but wish that one day a switch will go off in my brain and things will suddenly make sense... Here's hoping! At least if nothing else my doodling skills are getting a workout.

    I have been spending the rest of my time settling in, exploring my neighborhood, and navigating the social scene in the evenings. My apartment is less than a block from Mahenah Yehudah, the outdoor market, also known as "the shuk." I have spent a lot of time learning where all the best produce and deals are.

    In fact, just today I made a huge pot of minestrone soup 100% from scratch with produce I purchased there - It's simmering now and I think it smells delicious, if I do say so myself!

    I have an interview/meeting with my advisor at the Jerusalem Zoo tomorrow. I'm very excited to hear more about exactly what they intend to do with me - One thing's for sure though, a hippo or two better be involved!!!