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By Jacqueline Mai

I’ve spent nearly 3 weeks in Israel, and each Shabbat experience has been different. After the first week, my roommate invited us to a Shabbat dinner on the lawn of a Hebrew University dorm, and I spent that Saturday walking around Jerusalem’s Old City and praying at the Western Wall. The following week, a few classmates and I embarked on a weekend excursion in which we explored Nazareth, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, Tzfat, Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. We ushered in Shabbat in Tzfat, making shakshuka in our small Airbnb kitchen. The next morning, we raced down the country to make it to Ein Gedi—a nature reserve—and Masada before both parks closed.

Though both weekends were memorable—in that they allowed for the fostering of friendships and exploration—they lacked the restfulness that is commonly associated with Shabbat. I realized that I craved time and aloneness for introspection, so I decided to spend my last Shabbat in a way that would make those things possible. Though I had only spent a very short amount of time in Tzfat—enough to walk around the Old City—I realized how much I liked it, and vowed to return. There was still so much to see. I also understood Tzfat to be a very spiritual city, home to respected Jewish mystics from centuries ago. As a person in the process of converting to Judaism, I felt that it would only be right that I spend the holiest of holidays in the one of the holiest of cities.

I arrived in Tzfat a little after noon on Friday, and checked into my hotel. My partner had suggested that I find a nice place for myself in order to feel some semblance of a vacation, so I opted for the Rosenthalis Hotel, which lies on the edge of Tzfat’s Artist Gallery. My room—which was atop a series of cobblestone steps, allowing me to see the rolling hills of the Galilee—contained curated paintings by Moshe Rosenthalis, an 20th century Lithuanian-Israeli abstract artist.

...continue reading "One last Shabbat in Tzfat"

By Jacqueline Mai

The most difficult yet captivating exhibit installed in the Israel Museum is Christian Boltanski’s Lifetime. Sprawled across a series of large rooms, Lifetime’s motifs consist of massive, sheer curtains printed with close-up portraits of anonymous individuals (some lost in the Holocaust), black coats hung on makeshift mannequins, the ringing of windchimes, and tangled strings of lights. The eerie silence of the exhibit is only intermittently interrupted by the soundtrack of a subway conductor announcing imaginary stops. In addition, there is an enormous stopwatch attached to the wall, counting down.

Boltanski seemed to explore his own views of mortality—and by extension, memory—through his motifs. There are times throughout the exhibit in which the strings of lights connecting the victims’ portraits (symbolizing yahrzeit or memorial candles) were not lit—perhaps to signify how easy it is for the memory of a individual to evaporate, or not exist at all. Inversely, the close-up portraits of the victims’ eyes—printed on sheer white curtains—could also signify how easy it is to lose sight of the core components of the individual upon scrutiny. In his work, Boltanski asks how we can best uphold the memories of those who are no longer with us, and how we ourselves wish to be remembered.

(Lifetime is open at the Israel Museum until October 31, 2018).

...continue reading "Reflecting on Christian Boltanski’s Lifetime exhibit"

By Jacqueline Mai

I intentionally arrived in Israel a day and a half earlier than the start date of my program in order to get a little exploring done. My flight touched down around midnight, and after a sleep-deprived taxi ride from Ben Gurion airport to my airbnb in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hatayasim neighborhood—during which I was too tired to argue my way out of an overpriced ride—I  managed to get my first real night of sleep in almost 36 hours. There was no AC, but half a year in Vietnam during my youth had taught me to put up with a tiny fan and open windows.

I hadn’t made any real plans for what I’d do with my spare day in Tel Aviv, but I knew immediately when I woke that I wanted to go to the beach. My hosts were gracious enough to let me keep my bags in their home even though I had only paid for the previous night—and even allowed me to stay until 9pm—so I grabbed my camera, a water bottle, and a hat, and made my way to the bus stop right outside their apartment, which was on a major boulevard.

I had heard Israel had a relatively reliable and well-subsidized public transportation system, but I was extremely unprepared for just how excellent it was. Perhaps it was my few years of commuting daily on DC’s broken metro and bus system that caused me to be unfazed by—and even OK with—the occasionally tardiness of an Israeli ‘Dan’ bus. From what I experienced and read on maps, a lot of stops had buses arriving at around 10 to 15 minute intervals, and there are very few parts of Tel Aviv that are without easy access to public transportation. Many people without cars are also fond of electric bicycles and scooters; I had only seen the former in the US a handful of times, and the latter had only made its way stateside as a legitimate (albeit, laughable) form of transportation this past spring. Bike sharing systems in Tel Aviv are wildly affordable as well.

...continue reading "First Day in Israel: public transport, coffee, and flea markets"