Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Day in the Windy City

My travels have been a little closer to home these days, but thankfully I live near a pretty cool place. A few days ago, I went with my friend (and one of my favorite people) Elvera, along with her friend and cousin, to explore downtown Chicago.

Good thing I came along, because I was the only one willing to risk death to visit the top of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) with Elvera's friend and out-of-towner who wanted to see the views.

Like Elvera, I am also not a big fan of heights... but being inside a building doesn't really bother me- even one like this that's about 1500 ft high. Surprisingly, I don't even really mind the glass Skydeck. I wouldn't jump on it or lay down on it, but I can successfully tentatively stand on it without hyperventilating. 

However, you'll never see me step foot on a roller coaster. There's something about being enclosed by walls and able to control where I walk that makes something like this more manageable to me.

The next item on our agenda was eating some authentic Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Which, by the way, I have never done before. Turns out it's pretty good. We ate at Giordano's.

They put the toppings (in my case, just cheese) under the tomato sauce. It received the official coveted Marissa stamp of approval.

After being stuffed full with pizza we wandered over to Millennium Park. Of course, the best thing to do there is to take lots of interesting pictures in the Bean- officially called the Cloud Gate.

The other enjoyable thing to do here is to people watch when other people are doing weird things. It reminded me of the Tower of Pisa, where it turned out that watching other people make fools of themselves to get the picture they wanted was more fun than actually seeing the Tower of Pisa.



(see more of Pisa here)

That was our last stop of the day in Chicago. We then headed back to Milwaukee to go to a Buck's game. I hadn't been to one in years, and I can't remember ever going to one when it was this crowded. Apparently, Kobe Bryant is a big deal. And when he is playing against the Milwaukee Bucks for the last time since apparently he is retiring, a lot of people apparently care about this and will come watch the game. Clearly, I am an expert on the NBA.

Despite my lack of knowledge, it was fun to watch. I like how basketball is fast-paced and you never have a chance to get bored because of all the ways they entertain the crowd. Let's contrast that with soccer or baseball, where I start to die from lack of stimulation. My personal favorite entertainment was the senior citizen dance team that performed to the song "I'm sexy and I know it." Would other teams have that? I kind of doubt it.

It was a fun day catching up with my friend who in a few weeks is moving across the world!! I've been cooped up writing papers and it was good to get out. On that note, I should probably be writing a paper right now.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

When Marissa saved Shabbat

It's true. It happened. I once singlehandedly saved Shabbat AND stopped the dorms from burning down.

During my first semester in Haifa, one Friday night I was hanging out in the dorms common room talking to some girls I knew. All of a sudden, a rabbi came running around the corner.

He was wearing full ultra-Orthodox rabbi garb- the black coat, the big hat, and the sidecurls. I was sitting closest to the door, so he talked to me. 

In Hebrew, and looking frantic, he asked me if I was Jewish. When I said no, he said "Boi eeti!" (come with me), and before I could respond or ask for more explanation he ran back out the door and expected me to follow him.

I looked at the other girls, who just shrugged. They were also confused. I was intrigued, so I followed him down the hallway. When I caught up to him he was gesturing at a hot plate that was smoking and starting to melt the table.

It turns out that he just needed someone to unplug it for him. 

It would have been a violation of keeping the Sabbath for him to do it. They also don't believe in asking other Jews- even non-religious ones (and there are a lot of those in Israel) to break the Sabbath. So that explains why a rabbi looking straight out of Fiddler on the Roof asked me if I was Jewish and then expected me to run after him just to unplug something.

I think if he hadn't happened to find a nice Gentile like me to help him out, it would have been okay for him to just do it himself in an emergency. But thankfully, I wasn't too far away :)

I actually learned something new from this experience. I knew turning on electronics wasn't allowed, but I didn't know that turning OFF electronics also wasn't allowed. In case you're curious, here's some other things I (courtesy of the Chabad website) that Orthodox Jews don't do on Shabbat:

-writing, erasing, or tearing
-business transactions
-riding in or driving cars
-using phones
-turning on or off anything that uses electricity
-cooking, baking, or starting a fire

Pretty interesting. But it gets more interesting. They can get around doing some things by setting timers so their lights will turn on at certain times and using various ways to keep food warm (gotta be careful with those hot plates though haha). 

My personal favorite rule that I've ever heard is that some people unscrew or turn off the lights in their fridge, to avoid turning the light on automatically when the fridge door is opened. Another fun thing is that you're not allowed to carry anything from outside your home to inside (ANYTHING). There are also rules about moving certain objects even inside your house.

Shabbat is especially visible in Jerusalem, where there are so many religious people. For example, in every hotel I've stayed at they have a special 'Shabbat elevator' that automatically stops at every floor so you don't need to press any buttons.

It's pretty much impossible to find any food after sunset on Fridays in Jerusalem. When David came to visit me last year, we didn't plan ahead and spent forever wandering around before I finally gave up on a meal and just bought some snacks at the one store that was open. It was hard sometimes to live somewhere where everything was closed for two days out of the week. 

Doesn't all of this make the "Mormon rules" about keeping the Sabbath seem really easy? All we have to do is pretty much just not buy anything, and devote some time to being with family and go to church. Well, some people in Utah make it a lot more complicated than that... but the other "rules" people come with are more personal decisions than rules.

The other interesting thing about Jews and the Sabbath (besides all of the rules), is that they LOVE the Sabbath. It seems like it would be so hard to follow all of the rules, but they still celebrate it and look forward to it every week. They enjoy resting, not working, and spending time with their families. 

I don't exaggerate when I say they celebrate the Sabbath. If you ever go to Jerusalem, it's a must-see to go to the Western Wall on Friday night. It's a joyous, party atmosphere. Families come together wearing their nicest clothes. They pray, sing, and dance. I especially enjoy watching the dancing.

Walking to the Western Wall:

Shabbat shalom, everyone! 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Church in a country without church

Okay, the title is a little misleading. There are a ton of tourist churches that commemorate various Bible events all over the country. But there are NOT a lot of churches that have congregations and communities that attend all the time. Obviously, Israel is not a Christian country. There are a small minority of Arab Christians, as well as some Christian expats, and monks and nuns who live here to take care of the holy sites.

As far as the LDS church goes, there are small branches (congregations) in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, and Bethlehem. On a very good day at the Galilee (Tiberias) branch that I attended, there would be 20 people. A lot of times there were only around 10.

I was kind of freaked out by the branch when I first got there. Last year, most of the members were significantly older than my parents. Things got better over time, but it was hard at first to not have anyone remotely close to my age to talk to. Actually, there weren’t even a whole lot of people there who even spoke English. Randomly, there are a lot of Spanish speakers.

I’ve learned a little bit about the demographics of the church in Israel. The reason that there aren’t any ‘native’ Israeli young people is because basically every single one of them either went inactive or left the country. You can imagine how hard it would be to not only be the only Mormon, but the only Christian among people you know. There are also practical challenges involving language barriers and transportation. It’s a church policy to not have manuals and other things written in Hebrew (complicated politics involved there- the Israeli government is very paranoid about proselyting), so young people that grow up in Israel can’t learn about the church in their native language. Because church is held on Saturdays due to work/school schedules, there isn’t any public transportation. There are very few people in the branch who have cars, and the branch covers a big geographic area.

When I first got to Israel, the policy was that the branch paid for taxis to bring members to church. Since Tiberias is about an hour away from Haifa, that would be too expensive for individuals to pay for every week. A few months into my time there, higher-ups made the decision that the church couldn’t pay for that anymore. I’m sure it was pretty expensive, but that was the only way 80% of branch members could get there. Instead, afterwards, the husband of the missionary service couple that lived at the branch house in Tiberias started making the trek to Haifa every week to pick up as many people as could fit in the car.

I was lucky to always have a ride even though it was always crowded. Real picture of how we sat last week. There were also 5 other people in the car. It was so ridiculous that we laughed a lot the whole way home.

Unfortunately, that missionary couple (they weren’t typical proselyting missionaries, that’s not allowed there...they were technically part of the BYU Jerusalem program), were released last week and no one is coming to replace them. So now I don’t even know if the branch will continue, at least not in the capacity it has been. I’m not sure how anyone besides to 2-3 families that have cars will make it out there... I guess we’ll see!

It was a very interesting experience to attend church there. I mean, it’s so weird that I got used to having the freaking Sea of Galilee as the backdrop for sacrament meeting.. Most weeks I would get picked up around 8:30 and get home around 3. That’s a lot of time to devote to church! But I probably won’t get blessings for it since I complained several times haha ;) I usually helped out in the Primary. The Primary consisted of 2 cute and hyper American girls whose family came to Israel for their dad’s job. 

When I first arrived, they asked me teach Relief Society (the women's class). Thankfully I think they either forgot about it or gave up on me, because I only ended up having to do it once. It was my first time teaching a lesson at church besides Primary, and it was an epic disaster. I was already nervous, but then several things went wrong. There were maybe 6 people in Relief Society that day, and 3 of them only spoke Spanish and a little Hebrew. The lady that usually translated from English to Spanish wasn’t there that day. I did my best to translate some things to Hebrew, but I really don’t know any church vocabulary in Hebrew (hmmm I wonder why). The Spanish speakers started getting really frustrated and saying angry things at me in Spanish. One of them threw her manual down and left the room, and the other ones just kept laughing at me. The Relief Society president at the time, who is very old and recovering from a recent stroke, started sobbing uncontrollably (unrelated to my lesson) and telling us about her sister that died 30 years ago. I really didn’t know how to handle that...

Anyways, they never asked me to teach again, and I made no effort to volunteer or remind them. I was traveling a lot in the months after that, so that helped. It’s slightly funny now, but I’m still a little traumatized by that event. At least I guess the next time I end up having to teach at church it can only improve from there.

Here’s some other things that would only happen at the Galilee branch:

-Being told at church all. the. time. NOT to do missionary work 
-Hearing the sacrament prayers, and sometimes talks and lessons in Hebrew.
-Huge tour groups of mostly old people from Utah Valley visiting every month. Actual quote from said people: “Why are you here? You don’t look like a native.”). Every month their incredulousness that a young unmarried girl would choose to and be “allowed” (they really said that several times) to live in Israel was hilarious.
-Only 15 people present, but sometimes up to 6 different native languages represented (English, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Arabic, Tagalog). Here's the program:

-Giving a talk every month and at least one prayer every week.
-Potluck dinners every single month (which might I add, you have no choice whether you want to attend because your ride is attending haha).
-Sleeping over at the branch house (after our Thanksgiving dinner activity on a Friday, some of us slept over to avoid road tripping on Saturday morning).

-The branch president is an Arab from Nazareth. His family can’t come to church because Arab schools don’t have off on Saturdays.
-Having stake conference in Jerusalem :)

-YSA activity held here:

-Just interacting with a very random group of people that are in Israel for all sorts of odd reasons and have interesting life stories

All in all, I’m really thankful I had a way to get to church every week. It was kind of a crazy experience that I didn’t really enjoy at first (I learned that it’s hard to be lonely at church!), but by the end of my time in Israel my attitude was much improved. I will always miss this view. I realize that I’m lucky to have had this experience attending church in the area where Jesus lived. #nbd

I hope this blog continues, because I've really enjoyed writing it for the last 3 years. It's so nice to have this now to be able to look back on all of my adventures in Israel and Europe. 

I don't know if my life will still seem exciting to read about now that I'm home, but I still have a few ideas of things I want to write about. We'll see...