Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Coffee With the Pope

The Pope is scheduled to visit Israel between, I think, 8-15 May this year.

For those of you who haven't been subjected to my countdown, every year I get mighty excited for my birthday on 9 May and, well, today it's only 18 days away. I thought: how cool would it be to spend part of my birthday with His Holiness? So, I sent off the following email to him:

"Dear Pope Benedict XVI,

I am a Canadian graduate student, affiliated with York University in Toronto but currently studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a Visiting Graduate. My Master's Thesis focuses on Judges 4 and 5, and learning in the land where the biblical narrative occurred is what brings me to Israel for a year. It is with great excitement that I am sending you this email: your visit to Israel in the second week in May coincides with my birthday. I am aware that you will have a detailed, busy schedule during your time in the Holy Land, but would love to have coffee with you. Obviously, this would be a great honour for me, but I ask for this privilege not only as something special for myself (since turning 40 only happens once in a lifetime) but moreso for my Italian Catholic grandmother and the Roman Catholic members of my family and friends. Although not a Catholic myself, my ancestry as an Irish Canadian includes great-grandparents who were Catholic and this would also honour their memory.

I completely understand if you are unable to accept my invitation, but still wanted to extend it and do hope you consider it. I wish you a safe journey and thank you for your time and consideration in granting a humble birthday wish."

Obviously, I stretched things a bit...ok, a lot. I might be irreverent, but I am not insensitive. This is the reply that I received today:

"This is the mail system at host lists.vatican.va.

I'm sorry to have to inform you that your message could not be delivered to one or more recipients. For further assistance, please send mail to postmaster. If you do so, please include this problem report. You can delete your own text from the attached returned message.

The mail system

: host[] said: 452 4.2.1
mailbox temporarily disabled: benedictxvi@vatican.va (in reply to RCPT TO command)"

"Temporarily disabled"? Does this mean that if I send a message later that it'll get through? Or, is this the Vatican's passive-aggressive way of saying: "Nice try, kid"? I sure am glad I didn't have any pressing, grandiose theological problem, or an exorcism I desperately needed help with. Although, from what I understand, Jewish tradition relies on legal contracts drawn up by a rabbi and served to a demon, like a subpoena. Anyway, I guess I'll try again, otherwise I'll have to see the Pope in the streets, like everyone else.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Back in February, I had submitted a poem to a contest. The winner of this contest would win an all-expenses paid trip to the Summer Literary Seminar of their choice. When I submitted, the choices were: Italy in May, Lithuania in July, or Kenya in December. Almost 900 submissions by around 800 writers were sent to this unified fiction/poetry contest. The winners were announced on 1 April. I wasn't one of them. I thought, "Oh, well. At least I finally started sending my work out."

Then, on 9 April, I was checking my email at Adrienne's:

"Thank you for participating in the annual Summer Literary Seminars-2009 Unified Fiction and Poetry Contest. As indicated previously, we are offering some merit-based fellowships for our contestants whose work placed beyond the mean of contest submissions. Our judges were strongly impressed with your writing -- Exilic is a beautiful, haunting poem -- and we are pleased to offer you an SLS fellowship. This offer is being extended to the thirty contest finalists in each category.

SLS programs are renowned for the exceptionally high quality of their workshops, taught by some of the most innovative, interesting and talented of international writers and poets -- and in order to maintain that level of excellence, we need participants of high caliber of talent and dedication -- which is why we'd be happy if you could join us in Vilnius, Litnuania, this summer. We hope you will seriously consider this offer."

So, yeah, I've been short-listed. Holy shit. Excuse me while I mildly gush, but this is the first time I've ever been short-listed. As great as Lithuania looks - I did some research, and there was an article on Vilnius in a travel magazine in the Riga airport - realistically, I can't do it. I seriously considered their offer, but the timing of the workshop is not cool: I will have been back in Toronto for only two weeks, funds are tight, and I will have some serious catching up and re-bonding to do with family and friends after this year away.

I can, however, apply the fellowship to their workshops being held in Kenya in December. By that time, I will have saved for the flight, the workshops/seminars, etc, and for the safaris (!). More importantly, I will have a larger body of work available to workshop, specifically work that will be directly related to my thesis, on which I can receive a greater amount of feedback. Plus, it's KENYA!

I'm going to watch "Out of Africa" when I get home, with a big box of Shreddies to snack on.

You've Been Missed, Leavened Bread

Pesach ended yesterday. During the past week, it has been against the law to sell leavened bread products. That's right: against the law. No cakes, cookies, pita, Cheerios, nothing with a leavening product. (By the way, the first thing I'm going to buy when I get home is a big box of Shreddies and eat the whole thing. I can't find Shreddies here and they are my cereal of choice. I will have gone a year without the diamond of breakfast foods. I know: wah.) From what I was reading (scroll down to "Twenty Ways You Know Passover Is Coming In Israel"), though, this law was overturned but good luck anyway buying any of these products in Jerusalem. So, today was very exciting at our local grocery store, Mr. (Lo) Zol's: all of the thick plastic sheets covering any products with leavening agents have been removed, and cereal is back in its regular aisle where matzo everything had replaced it on the shelves during the days leading up to Pesach. Being in Copenhagen for most of Pesach, I missed most of the bread-withdrawal that I've heard others had to deal with, so really my sob story is a minor one.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Pesach Vacation, So Far

The high point of coming to Israel, especially to Jerusalem and obviously especially for Jews, is being here for Pesach (Passover) to celebrate the Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt and their journey to the promised land as told in Exodus. For Christians, the high point this time of year is Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We students get two weeks off for these holy days. Since I don't belong to either a Jewish or a Christian community, these holy days for me - both in Israel and at home - are special times to be with family and friends. And, since I couldn't make it home to be with my family for Easter or Tammy's family for Pesach, and I really needed a vacation, I decided to head north to Denmark to be with Adrienne and her family for a week.

I arrived on 6 April, and from what I was told, my timing was perfect, seasonally speaking. The heavy gray clouds and fog and rain of a Danish winter had lifted and we had sunny days punctuated with fluffy white clouds in a blue sky. The temperature there had warmed to about 15degrees celcius, so very much like Ontario (although I heard it snowed at the beginning of April back home) but chillier than the 25-30degrees that are again the norm in Jerusalem. This was my first time flying with a stopover, which was in Riga, Latvia, and the logistics of it all were easy to deal with but my ears would strongly disagree. I was in a lot of pain on the way there during both take-off and landing. Argh, stupid ears. But, it was worth the discomfort:

Copenhagen is a lovely city, quiet but not sleepy. Being me, I was most impressed by how well-shod everyone is! The buildings aren't taller than 5 stories, so there is a cozy, old-world feeling in the architecture. There are more modern (often ugly as compared with the older) buildings but not highrises, so to speak. What struck me most upon my arrival was how quiet the streets are. Other than normal traffic noise from the cars themselves, the only sounds were the occasional bicycle bells signaling that a faster rider was coming up to a slower one and could they please move aside. This might not seem like a big deal, but Jerusalem's drivers are pretty funny and pretty vocal in several ways: they honk when the wind changes direction or if someone is too slow to accelerate when the light turns green or if they want to get someone's attention. Many of them blast their music. Plus, they drive really fast, so often you'll hear tires screeching along the road especially just outside the kfar. Copenhagen, in comparison, has much calmer drivers, it seems, and it is a bicycle culture. Everyone rides their bikes everywhere. Plus, the public transit/metro system is excellent and is set up like London's Underground using a zone plan where one pays for one's ticket depending on how many zones one is travelling through. And, like London's, Copenhagen's transit is expensive. Plus, it was really odd not hearing the Muslim call to prayer five times a day.

I met Adrienne at her office on campus, the building of which was originally an insane asylum. I stayed at her place in Hvidovre, a suburb just outside the city's limits. She has a comfortable, cozy house with a huge yard. Our morning coffees lasted the entire morning. Her kids, Emile and Ella were great fun to hang out with and talk with. One afternoon we went used-clothing shopping, another to the mall to grocery shop, and a huge highlight was driving up the coast to Elsinore and visiting Hamlet's Castle. On the way back, we stopped in Elsinore for fishcakes and chips and a beer and Adrienne pointed out Isak Dineson's house. Saturday we attended her nephew's 20th birthday brunch, and Sunday her father-in-law's 85th birthday celebration. The second party was back in Elsinore, about a half hour drive from Adrienne's, and I met most of the family: Adrienne's husband, Johs, (who is currently in Seattle for "The Marriage of Figaro") is the youngest of 8 or 9 kids so it was a pretty monumental undertaking to remember everyone's names, even for me who is really good at remembering names. Everyone was warm, welcoming and thankfully fluent in English. I now know maybe four words in Danish, three of which escape me right now. Adrienne's friends, Stefan (who is Danish) and Luli (who is Israeli) and their two kids came for Shabbat dinner. They live in Jerusalem but were visiting family in Denmark, so I now have new friends at home in Israel.

Wednesday night we attended the Pesach Seder with Adrienne's progressive congregation. There were around 50 people there, and it was so much fun. And funny. The meal was catered, and the ladies doing the catering didn't realize that matza-ball soup is supposed to be served hot and the gefilte fish is supposed to be served cold. Yup, we had chilled soup and warmed fish...horseradish was included with more bites than in just the haroseth sandwiches. Rachel, the woman who conducted the Seder, is British but now lives in Stockholm where she's a cell biologist looking into cures for cancer. She asked me if I would like to read a portion of the Haggadah and I was very tempted to read the Hebrew, which I can do now, but most people there knew only English and Danish so I thought I'd stick with English.

I have to go to develop the photos I took with my 35mm, but have already added the digital camera's photos to the blog. "Sing-along" fun has two little videos, one from Pesach and the other from our picnic in the King's Garden with a group of Asian Christians singing in a circle and our running commentary on it. I like Israel very much, but love Europe even more. Being in Copenhagen and with Adrienne was wonderful, relaxing, and is a place to which I anticipate returning. Aside from the architecture, the urban ambiance, the homey atmosphere, the yummy food, the best part of the trip was spending time with my new friend, whom I feel I've known forever, and being irreverent and serious and laughing and being one of the locals, sort of. I can't wait to introduce her to my 'old' friends. I've always had this thing (that's the technical term, of course!): if I can go into any situation and walk away from the experience with one great friend, I've done well.

I've done well.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Apartment Hoopoe

This is a Eurasian Hoopoe.

For millenia, Israel's location as a crossroads for three continents has meant that human activity in the form of armies, cultures, religions (mono- and polytheistic), and merchants have traversed its small square mileage. Because of this same geography, Israel plays host to bird migrations. The Eurasian Hoopoe is one of those migratory birds. I've always heard 'hoopoe' pronounced 'hoo-pee' but according to wikipedia, it's actually 'hu-pu.' Tomato/tomato, I say. (Digression: that reminds me of Tshirt I saw that said something like, "Tomato/Tomato. It's not the same in print.") The Eurasian Hoopoe, as you can see from the photos, is a beautiful bird. Why am I suddenly so taken with the hoopoe when I should be writing my paper on depictions of Deborah in kabbalistic literature? Is it because the hoopoe was declared Israel's national bird last May in celebration of this country's 60th anniversary? Is it because there's a character in Michener's "The Source" who was given this as a nickname, a character who was one of my favourites in the novel because his awkward physical appearance hid his cistern/well-building-engineering genius? No, I'm introducing you to the Eurasian Hoopoe because last night one of them came and hung out in our apartment for a few hours. I'm assuming he got tired and needed a rest from travelling between his winter home in Africa and his summer European digs.

I was taking a break from translating Exodus 15 (The Song of the Sea) and went to the kitchen to make my 50th cup of mint tisane. There was a bird in the living area, freaking out flying around and this freaked me out. I walked back to my room, put down my mug and went back to the kitchen. As it turns out, our latest flatmate, Anna, was also home and she joined me. We stood there watching this poor bird fly into the ceiling, then attempt to fly out the open window but aim too high and bounce off the wall above the open window, between it and the ceiling. He also kept aiming for the light so when he had finally settled on the kitchen counter, Anna ducked down and raced across the room to turn off the light. Our hope was that he would go toward the lights outside the apartment and make his way out. I went to my room to find my flashlight to point out the window, but it was broken. Back in the living area, Anna and I hung out in the dark for a while. No flapping-wing-bird-movement; we figured he was gone. We turned on the lights, looked around and no sign of our beautiful, tragic, mystery bird. I made my cup of tea and we returned to our rooms.

I went online and did some googlesupersleuthing and discovered our bird is the Eurasian Hoopoe. Lily and Kyle came home and we told them of the evening's excitement and the mystery. We all agreed that it was better Kyle wasn't here for the festivities: she has a bird phobia. While making my 51st cup of tea (btw, it's herbal decaf), out of the corner of my eye I saw the hoopoe.

As it turns out, he hadn't left the apartment as we had thought but had wedged himself into a tiny spot on the kitchen counter, hidden behind an empty plastic milk-bag jug and a huge egg carton on top of which were some prime organic dates. He would have gone completely unnoticed. Barely breathing and terrified, his neck was arched backward so that his chin was flush with the wall and his longlong beak in the corner along the tiles pointed at the ceiling. I told the girls: Kyle and Lily promptly started screaming like an axe murderer had just walked in the room, and Anna sauntered out of her room, "No way, really?" The next 20 minutes entailed Tanya speaking in (hopefully) calming tones to diffuse the potential hysteria, getting everyone to stay focussed ("No, Lily, the bird's not dead." "No, I'm not going to get the neighbours - just because they have a penis doesn't mean they can help." "Yes, I'm sure there's a number we can call but I still have homework to do and don't want to wait." "No, I don't think pipe cleaners will be effective in this situation. But thank you for the suggestion.") and trying to devise a plan. Eventually, we (Anna and I) took an empty box of Kyle's, slid it under and around the bird, used a towel to cover the top, then walked over to the window and released him. Thankfully, he was so scared and shocked he was docile and the trap-and-release was easy. Anna and I, however, were shaking. Kyle kindly overcame her fear of birds long enough to stop screaming and video-document the whole thing.