Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The End

This will be my last post.

I know! You're saying to yourself, "But Matt, how will I fill my days if I don't have your blog to read over and over again." I'm sorry sir/mam, I just don't know.

That was weird. But, anyways, I leave in like two days. For everyone wishing to see the author of this blog in person, he will be having a blog signing in Chicago from Sept. 19-25, and after that will be in Acton (Massachusetts) for the coming months. Then I need to figure out what I am doing with my life. So, if you are in either of these places, and wish to hear more about my travels, see more pictures, give me advice on life, or smoke out of my new hookah, you can call me at 608-215-4031 and we will talk.

The last few days, I have been to a mish mash of places. The only one that really mattered was Haifa (Pronounced Chaifa (No, the 'ch' comes from the back of your throat)). Haifa is not that exciting. They have the Baha'i gardens (More on the Baha'i faith....if you were interested for some reason). And that's Haifa. I did take some pretty pictures though. Enjoy.

Now I will discuss whatever comes to mind about my trip to the middle east (In no particular order):
  • People don't jay walk here. They stand at the light for minutes while no cars are coming and wait for the walk signal
  • Birthright (Taglit in Hebrew) was effective. I have changed my answer to the question "Are you Jewish?" from "Only by birth" to "Yes". It got me thinking about how I want my kids raised, etc.
  • I have decided to stay in Israel and become a Rabbi (Is, is he serious?)
  • There's a dichotomy among Israelis, all are very warm, friendly and helpful, but a lot are also arrogant, opinionated and argumentative (Not that there's anything wrong with that)
  • It hasn't rained since I have been here (There hasn't even been a cloudy day)
  • People exaggerate how dangerous areas are
  • A good step for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be for both sides to accept the fact that the other side is here to stay
  • Israeli girls have a very tough shell, but if you keep talking to them, they eventually come around
  • Fast food is expensive here
  • Hummus is delicious
Alright, that's it. Thank you for reading, and have a very Jewish day.

The End

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Time is running out

I come back to the States in less than a week (I know you're all very excited to see me).

The last few days I have spent in Jerusalem. Most of my time was spent in the old city, which is this extremely confusing maze of alleyways that is completely walled in. Most of the alleys our filled with shops. I'd say there around two thousand little shops set up in this tiny area with only about ten different kinds of stores (Jewish souvenirs). It is quite an experience just walking around this area because once you get into the alleyways, every turn you take just leads to more alleyways, and unless you know your way around, it is extremely difficult to find your way out.

This area is also unique since it holds extremely holy spots for three major religions. Obviously, the Jews have the wailing wall here (which is only holy because it is close to where the old temple used to be), the Muslims have the Dome of the Rock (Which is actually a monument built where the old temple used to be (Yes, the holiest site in the world for Jews has a Muslim memorial on it)), and the Christians have the tomb of Christ here in one of the churches (I accidentally walked into the church and saw a big line for something so just stood behind it, so I got to see this).

A picture of me (pretending to be) praying on the wailing wall.

The last day I was in Jerusalem I went with some guy I met in the hostel to Bethlehem (Yes, 'The' Bethlehem) and Hebron (Yes, a Palestinian city in the west bank). Guess what everyone! I have seen the place where Jesus (Yes 'The' Jesus) was born, and you haven't. Does this make you feel inferior to me?

The other interesting thing about Bethlehem is that it is right next to the wall that the Israelis built around the west bank to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers. We tried to walk through the checkpoint here, but the guards were being mean to everyone and there was a huge line (I was like, "Excuse me! White person here, no security necessary), so we drove through instead, but still interesting.

Hebron wasn't really that exciting. I expected all kinds of Mayhem and violence to ensue, but it was just like all the other cities I have been to....only we were the only white people there. However, we did see a box of goat heads (Warning: graphic image....too late).

Every place I have gone, people have extremely overstated how bad/dangerous the area will be. So, as a social experiment I will go to Gaza (Just kidding).

Oh yeah, also in Hebron this little kid was selling band aids on the street. He kept coming up to me and offering me a band-aid for a shekel (I found this quite funny. Why would I need band-aids?). In the end I gave in him an 'A' for originality and gave him a shekel. He gave me a whole pack of like twenty band-aids (So, if anyone needs a band-aid I will be bring back twenty next week....but they are Palestinian band-aids).

Quick note about Arabic. They don't have a 'p' sound. It just doesn't exist for them. So, they pronounce all the English words with a 'b' sound instead. This can get quite comical....just imagine the possibilities. 'Pepsi' becomes 'Bebsi', 'Pop' becomes 'Bob'.

Monday, September 8, 2008

In memory of Tom Brady (Is that pessimistic?)

If you have any spare time, you should check out Jordan.

In Wadi Rum we went off road through the desert for an entire day. Our tour guide Ali (Everyone I have met in Arab countries have been name Muhammad, Achmed, or Ali) was hilarious, but pretty crazy behind the wheel. He was flying up and down sand dunes, weaving in and out of rock, and just generally going as fast as he could. We stopped for lunch in the afternoon and the dude made a fire and cooked us some chicken right there.

I did some extremely hard hikes up cliffs, sand dunes, etc. (Thank god I am in such amazing shape). By the way, hiking up a sand dune is quite difficult as sneakers and sand don't mix well.

I stayed the night in a Bedouin tent, but ended sleeping outside under the stars (How romantic). We went on a Petra by night tour which consisted of walking through the Petra canyon, then sitting there while some dude played some crazy music and told a story. I slept through the whole thing (Yes it was boring, but I had taken a midnight bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat in order to start my tour in Wadi Rum, so I was quite tired).

Next day, we went Petra by day. Petra is basically this giant natural canyon that leads into a town of some ancient civilization. As stated before, this is where some of the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed (They are sill obsessed with this here. The guide started playing the Indiana Jones music on his cell phone once we got there). It was quite kind of this ancient civilization (Like 2000 BC? Maybe I made that up) to make all this cool stuff for us to look at now. It really is some of the most impressive sites I have ever seen. Also, the area is very rich in minerals so the rocks come in many different colors.

In the afternoon (The hottest part of the day), I hiked up this hill (900 stairs) which took about 50 minutes. It sucked. I have never been so sweaty in my entire life.

I don't usually drink tea, but I drank it non-stop while I was there. Everyone offered it. That's it....random thought.

After I came back from Jordan I stayed in Eilat (The southern tip of Israel, and party central) for two nights. Very fun, very beautiful, very drunk. It is located at the tip of the red sea, and is bordered by Taba, Egypt and Aqaba, Jordan (Its pretty cool to look across the water and see Jordan on the other side). I met some couple in Eilat and ended up hanging out with them most of the time (Good thing cause they were in a nice hotel).

Hmmm I am getting fat.

The only problem with Eilat is that is probably the hottest place I have ever been. It averages around 40 degrees (that's Celsius, or 105 degrees Fahrenheit for all you Americans (Actually, probably everyone reading this is American)).

Today, I went to the beach in Tel Aviv with some of the friends I have made here. I have met tons of people now since I have been here that I go and hang out with somewhat regularly (Seriously, I think I have made more friends here, than I do in a year in the states (But, of course I'm really not that cool in the states (Maybe its because finally I found a place where they are willing to accept a blond hair, blue eyed Jew))).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

OK, so I'm really tired right now because I have been up past 5 AM the last few night partying in Eilat (Its the spring break spot of Israel). I want to talk about my trip to Jordan, but I need sleep. All I will say is that Petra is one of the cooler places I have ever been. And now I let the pictures do the talking.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Petra, Jordan (You may recognize from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

More to come...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ma = What? (Ma! The Meatlof!)

Shalom Shalom,

For the most part, when I walk around Israel, I really can't tell that it's not actually the U.S. (Except for the occasional Hasidic Jew walking around). However, every now and again I notice a subtle difference that reminds me I am not at home...
  • You can't turn right on red here
  • An apple martini is apple juice and vodka (Apple juice from a juice box no less...just kidding)
  • Their family restaurant (Similar to a Chilis) is called Moses (I'm thinking of opening one called Jesus). It has a dog/cat face as a logo.
  • Twenty-one year olds are just starting university
  • Fourteen year olds are out at three in the morning
  • Its sunny 360 days out of the year
Israel has its share of fast food places (McDonalds and a place called Burger Ranch being the main ones), but everywhere you go you can always find a falafel/shwarma stand. I don't know why this hasn't caught on in the U.S. It cheap, fast, and delicious and seems to be somewhat more healthy than a burger. In Egypt, however, fast food is rampant. Surprisingly, the most popular fast food restaurant I found there was Hardees (Weird), but McDonalds and KFC are all over the place as well. There was even a TGI Fridays and Chilis on a anchored boat restaurant on the Nile (Mmmmm Nile burgers).

Switching gears. Over the past couple of days I have gone to some interesting touristy sites around the area.

First, I went to the Ayalon Institute, located at a kibbutz in Rehovot. Underneath the laundry facility here is a room the size of a tennis court where Jews secretly manufactured ammunition during the British occupation pre-1948. When the British left and the War of Independence started, this was the only ammunition the Jewish soldiers were able to obtain and so allowed them to win the war and establish a Jewish state, etc. Thirty hard core machines were run day and night for three years in secret while workers came and went through hidden entrances in the laundry room (Hooray history).

Next we went to the "Stalactite Cave". It was full of stalactites (Looks like some alien shit). That's all I have to say about that.

Finally we went to the armored corps museum/memorial. On display, they have Israeli tanks throughout the years as well as tanks captured during numerous wars (There's nothing like a big tank to get the testosterone goin).

The memorial here is setup similar to the Vietnam memorial in D.C.

Today we went shopping and made a trip out to Jaffa. This was completely different than anywhere else I have been in Israel. It was run down and dirty (It reminded me of Cairo). Everywhere you looked there was a shop of useless crap. Thankfully though, I found the used refrigerator stand and all was well.

I'm pretty sure I am going to Jordan tomorrow, which I am incredibly psyched about. I'll tell you all about it when I get back (Come on, I know you're excited!).

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sababa = Cool + Awesome

Some more memories of Egypt:

No one would come up to me and start talking to me in Arabic. Everyone always had the same line, "Welcome to Egypt my friend. Where are you from?". I was telling people I was from Canada because I don't think they like the US very much there (I also wasn't telling anyone I was Jewish...go figure). Every time they would reply with "Canada Dry. Never Die". All they know about this nation of thirty million people, is that they make Ginger Ale.

My tour guide had a pretty good routine of taking me to different stores where they would convince me to buy stuff I didn't need (I assume he got kick backs on Jewish of him....too soon? OK I'm done with that joke). One of the places he took me was to a rug making school. Although this was called a "school", it seemed more like a sweatshop to me. They had kids starting at the age of ten come and "learn" the art of making rugs by hand. I felt quite bourgeoisie (Big word) walking around surveying the children's work, contemplating whether to buy something or not. In the end I did end up buying a rug (But only for the sake of the children...I swear).

The whole experience there really made me realize how lucky I am to be born in America. It is virtually impossible for their entire lower class (Just about everyone), to have a life where they aren't consistently on the verge of bankruptcy. My tour guide was thinking of trying to go to America with his wife and two kids, and wanted advice from me on what kinds of jobs were easy to get, how much they pay, how much rent was, etc. What could I tell him? He just didn't seem to have a chance.

...End of Egypt memories (For now)

I am now staying at my cousin Ayelet's house in Rehovot, about twenty minutes outside Tel Aviv. Last night I put together a mish mash of people I have met so far while travelling and went out for a bit. There were people from my birthright trip, Israeli soldiers from my birthright trip, and people I met in Egypt. It is soo interesting and fun to meet people while travelling. You meet people from all over the world and everyone is so outgoing since they are in the same situation that you are. For anyone who hasn't gone on a trip for an extended period of time, DO IT!

Friday, August 29, 2008

When Matt Levin was in Egypt land.....let my people go!

And I'm Israel.

I made it through 4 days of Egypt without getting kidnapped or shot at....I was prayed at a fair amount though. They have the call to prayer blasted over the city's loud speakers 5 times a day, the first one at 5AM (Yeah, I get it, its always time to pray).

Once again, I never, for a second, felt unsafe. In fact, I would definitely feel more comfortable walking around Cairo at 4AM than I would Chicago. There are literally two police officers at every single corner in the main area of the city all night long. Plus, the city really seems to never sleep. Most people don't go out until at least midnight and stay out until 6AM. So, at all hours of the night, there are plenty of people and cars in the downtown area.

One suggestion I do have for those visiting Cairo is to bring pants. I didn't bring any pants. I left my main suitcase at my cousins and only brought shorts with me. The problem with this is the fact that most of the nightlife revolves around the 5-star hotels in the city. Surprisingly, these 5-star hotels are not very fond of shorts and I couldn't do much of anything. Eventually, I became so frustrated that I went out looking for pants at 12:30 AM one night. Apparently, they are ready for this situation because I found the late night pants selling district quite easily. After trying on a few pairs of the "latest fashion", I found one that the street vendor assured me I was getting a great deal on.

During the days, I did the typical Cairo touristy things. I went to the pyramids, and saw the Sphinx. These things took 20 years to build, with 100,000 people working on them, just so some king could feel powerful (That's some self-confidence issues). Inside the pyramid, was not as impressive. After walking through a tiny crawl space for a good deal of time, all that you get to, is a tiny room where the tomb is kept. There is no ventilation inside and there is about 200% humidity.

The Nile was another highlight of Cairo. It runs right through the center of the city, and is the only reason life exists in the whole region in general. Every night there are thousands of people walking up and down its banks, just hanging out.

The last night I was in Cairo, I went on a Nile Cruise, complete with buffet dinner and a belly dancing show. The first dancer to come out was a little strange. I never did ask what was going on with this.

But then the belly dancer came on and everything was OK.

Overall, I am very glad I went to Cairo, but I don't have a need to go back. Everything seems very conservative, from the all out Muslim outfits, to the attitude towards non married couples
showing any affection (they are against it). It is certainly not a city to party in, but who needs to party, they just sit around and smoke sheesha.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tov = Good

Americans are fat!

It's clear to see when traveling abroad, that there is a higher percentage of overweight Americans than there should be. Here in Israel, obese people are few and far, far between. Why is that? They have plenty of fast food. They have plenty of soda. My guess is because they have outdoor playground gyms for adults. Yes, playground gyms. They have all your favorite exercise machines from the elliptical machine to the seated chest machine in playground format. Last night, having not much to do, my cousin, her friends and I, took our turn on the workout jungle jim.

Now, I am at my other cousin, Ayellet's, house (I thank my uncle for having so many children that I can stay with). All day today I saw a lot of family.

And now I head to Egypt.....

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shalom = Hello


I was in Israel back when I was 10 years old (Hmm that's like 15 years ago. I feel old). The image I remember is looking out from my Aunt's house over a valley containing a Palestinian settlement. This is exactly the image I came back to on my current trip. It seems that everywhere in Israel is either a hill or a valley (It does have the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea). Check out the view from my cousins house.

Its pretty much like this everywhere. We went to Haifa the other day and saw the Baha'i Gardens. You've got to give it to those Baha'ians, they sure know they're gardening.

We took Agami (The 3 year old) to the park down the street today and there was a petting zoo in the park (weird). Apparently this is quite common in Israel. I saw all kinds of new and exciting species (Goats, Chickens, Ducks).

I look pretty American in my Red Sox hat and Wisconsin t-shirt (But don't tell the horse, he's Arab.....too soon?).

Tomorrow I go to my Aunts house in Ariel. A map of Israel for your convenience. Can you find Ariel? Can you find Akko, where I am now? Please let me know if you do, cause I have no idea where I am.
Later this weekend I am going to Egypt, despite travel warnings about the country (cause I'm a bad ass). Hope I live to write again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Another Day

I have been picking up ridiculous amounts of Hebrew since I have been here. I know at least 15 words now! My cousin's daughter (I guess that makes her my second cousin) Agami just turned 3. She understands when I speak to her in English, but will only answer me in Hebrew...damn kids.

Awwww! Matt does have a sensitive side.

When I told all my friends (3 of them), that I was coming to Israel, the first thing everyone said was "Don't die!", or something to that extent. The assumption that Americans make, that Israel is an unsafe place is completely unfounded. I have never for one second felt the least bit unsafe.....until today. Today was a big day in my life; I encountered my first scorpion. The scorpion and I fought it out for a while, but in the end, size appeared to matter as it succumbed to the Levin smash (Actually it was dead when we found it, but shhhhh). A minute later I found some sort of giant centipede thing as well. I am now terrified of this place and wish to come back to America.

Just as lots of Americans have misconceptions about Israel, Israelis seem to have misconceptions about America, or one American in particular. A lot of people here seems to think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. There seems to be a fair amount of Republican propaganda circling the country. It's no surprise that the one America news channel I found was Fox News. This is probably due to the fact that Israel hasn't had the best relationship with Arab nations (See 6 day war, Yom Kippur War, Lebanon War 1 and 2, etc.) and in their eyes, Republicans are taking a "harder" stance against the Arab world. I have talked to a number of people here who want to pre-emptively strike Iran.

Enough politickin. One last photo that summed up Jerusalem for me.....crazy Jews (Can you tell which one I think is the crazy Jew).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Arrive (10 days later)

I am currently sitting in a bunker at an Israeli outpost on the Syrian border. There has been a constant barrage of rockets being fired at us throughout the night.....

No, I'm really at my cousin Shimie's house in Yuvalim, Israel. Never heard of it? Me neither. The closest city is Akko. Never heard of it? Me neither. Its somewhere up in northern Israel in the Galilee.

I have been on my trip now for over 10 days, but haven't really had consistent access to a computer. So, today I start this blog. We'll see how much I actually keep up with it.

First, a summary of what I have been doing:

Aug 6: I went to the airport and met the 40 other people I would be going to Israel with for my birthright trip. Played "fun" ice breaking games, blah, blah blah. Leave USA.

Somewhere between Aug 6 and Aug 7: Arrive in Madrid. Two hour lay over...boring.

Aug 7: Arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. Meet our tour guide, Yariv (Cool dude). Meet this guy Momo who runs Oranim (the birthright group I am with). He's crazy!

Aug 8: Go on some nature hike. Go to Zfat (Some city with some kind of religious significance. Go read the Bible to find out). Go to Tiberius (More religious significance. Jesus was baptized here? Read the Bible). Do some Jewish stuff. Get hammered since we don't have to wake up early.

Aug 9: Since it is Saturday, we are not allowed to use the bus (Jews have this thing on Saturday call Shabbat where no work is supposed to be done, and apparently driving is work). Instead we walk to the Beach on the Sea of Galilee or the Kinnereth for all you Israelis. It is hot. My white skin burns.

Aug 10: Go to the Golan Heights at the Syrian/Lebanon border (watch out for land mines). Visit an Israeli outpost where this dude shows us some sweet machine guns, etc. We slowly Kayak down the Jordan River, which is really more like a stream.

Aug 11: Meet up with 8 Israeli Soldiers who will spend the rest of the time with us. Go to Tel Aviv. Blah blah blah. Go out to the desert somewhere to some Bedouin tents. Ride a camel (watch out, they spit). Don't sleep.

Aug 12: Get up at 3AM to hike up Massada and watch the sunrise. Cool, but I'm too tired to care. Go float in the dead sea. Yes, you really float. I recommend checking it out. Go to Eilat, which is like the spring break spot of Israel. It is sooooooo hot. It is the southern tip of Israel. Go to some incredibly overpriced night club and get jiggy wit it.

Aug 13: Chillin in the hot Eilat sun. Long drive to Jerusalem

Aug 14: Check out the old city of Jerusalem and hit up the Western Wall (its just a I going to hell now?).
Aug 15: Go to Yad Vashem (Holocaust museum)....depressing. Go to the Western Wall for Shabbat. There are thousands of people all dressed up in their Jewish clothing praying and dancing and singing. It is Jew heaven. Leave the holiest Jewish site on earth and go straight to a bar. Praying ensues.
Aug 16: Another Saturday so we can't do much. Go to Tel Aviv for closing session with crazy Momo guy. I extended my trip so I need to find a place to sleep in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately it is the crazy busy season and it happens to be the Hebrew Valentines day. I walk hotel to hotel, hostel to hostel until I find a hotel with a room for the night. Its 500 Shekels (~$140) but I can only stay from 1:30 - 10:00 because they also rent to the rooms by the hour....sketchy. There are mirrors on the ceiling. Say good bye to all the peoples on my trip (very sad).

Aug 17: Split my day between getting lost in Tel Aviv, taking naps, and talking to random tourists at the bar. Go to some club at night and meet a nice Israeli girl who's name I can't pronounce. I think there is potential for a Jewish marriage.....nah. Sleep at a low end hostel, but it still an upgrade from the night before.

Aug 18: Take a train to Akko where my cousin picks me up. Go to dinner in Haifa with my other cousin Aviva.

Aug 19: Go to Akko and check out Templar ruins from 1000 years ago. Go and see Mummy 3 (I can't believe I just admitted that). For those wondering, dragons appear in the movie for approximately 45 seconds. Unfortunately, Brendan Frasier appears for 90+ minutes.

That's up to date now. I can't believe you just read that whole thing. More details to come tomorrow.