gap year in israel

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Day 1

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain…or so they say. At least for us we had great weather today in Barcelona.

But let’s start at the beginning. We all arrived to the airport and I greeted them with chocolate chip cookies to wish them a sweet journey. Almost none of the students slept before leaving for the airport at 2am. But they did manage to sleep on the plane. We flew to Rome and then quickly connected for Barcelona with one major goal…not to check any luggage (so none could be lost). We succeeded in this task but not without me complaining about discrimination since they wanted to give women a carry on plus a “purse” and they only wanted to let me have one total carry on. I won the battle.

Our hotel is not gorgeous but it is clean and the location is fantastic. We ate lunch in the area everyone in a different place grabbing fast food. Then we checked into our rooms to freshen up and left for our first adventure. We walked through the streets of Barcelona slowly taking in all the sites. We arrived to Pablo Espanyol and loved walking around seeing the great architecture, watching various artisans at work, and shopping a bit. Then we went to our Flamenco show and dinner theatre. The food and performance were excellent. We had a 4 course meal with wine, sangria, and water. The performance was singing songs with men and women Flamenco dancing. The sounds were so mournful and the movements quite spectacular. The energy level of the troupe was quite high and the audience was appreciative.

We finished the performance and walked back slowly to the hotel getting lost along the way but didn’t mind. On the way we saw a spectacular water fountain.

Alina, being a Spanish speaker, has been a great help and she feels so at home which is great for her since she spends Aardvark living in a Hebrew culture wrapped in an English bubble. Zack today ate almost a complete chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ben helped us navigate. Drew particularly liked the dancing. Sophie wore the most unappropriate high heel shoes and was having a few issues on the walk home. Ketzia told me great stories of how her monther disciplined her when she was little (note to Ketzia’s mother….you rock!). And finally Sophie gives a lot of positive energy to the group and helps calm everyone.

The students are free now and can go explore our area a bit if they want. I warned them about pick pocketing but besides that there is no reason they can’t wander around. Plus I drilled into their head that the hotel’s name is Barbara (Streisand) situated on Barbara (Streisand) street. And they took a card with the hotel’s information on it.

I said there is no curfew as long as they are up at 7:30, eating at 8, and leaving the hotel by 8:30.

Day 2

First a disclaimer for historical accuracy. Sophie in fact was not wearing high heel shoes last not, nor does she ever wear them (so her mother does not have to think she lied). Truth be told it was Leah who was walking-challenged (and her mother in fact guessed that it was her).
Now moving on. I am tired. We saw a lot of things today and even hiked a mountain.

Barcelona has this great Hop on Hop Off bus system where on two circular routes you can be taken to all the major sites. We have a two day pass and will see a lot of things but it is impossible to see it all. The weather was beautiful today so that helped with our trip. We started the day seeing a church…this is Europe you know. We had a little issue since there was a modest dress code and Ketzia’s shorts were just too short. But Zack had a scarf which quickly doubled as a wrap around skirt so crisis averted. It was an eerie gothic style church and very different from the kind of Churches we may have visited in the USA. Then we went to the Forum building which is an amazing architectural structure which we were finding it hard to believe why it didn’t just fall down. In the building we saw an Natural History Museum which was rather well done. Although I was a little insulted in the taxidermy part with their stuffed anteater instead of an aardvark.

We stopped to see the outside of the Sagrada Familia which Goudi designed and where he was accidentally killed outside before he could finish it. This was definitely one of the weirdest decorated churches we have ever seen. From there we continued to Park Guell. It is pretty big and we went in different directions to explore. Some of us found a great Spanish music group and I left Alina hanging out with the band members.

Then was our challenging part. We walked up a mountain to the Tibidabo. The last part we didn’t walk but took a Fundicular (a very steep train). The view of Barcelona was spectacular. Luckily walking down is much easier…thank you gravity.

Our final destinations we two Gaudi houses/mansions: Casa Mila and Casa Batllo. No doubt that Gaudi was a fantastic architect and designer. But I don’t believe for a second that guy wasn’t using drugs when he came up with this stuff (it wasn’t illegal back then).

Now we are back in our hotel to shower and get ready for dinner. We are meeting with Jewish college students. Dinner for them starts at10pm. When I set up the dinner I had no idea that they meant at 10. So we are having an authentic cultural experience. I am hoping the dinner goes well and some our students will want to go out with them afterwards (I will go to sleep).

Day 3

We had a very successful dinner with Jewish Barcelona students last night. 7 of them came who all work as madrichim in Netzer (NFTY). They ranged in age from 17-21 and half of them had also been on Israeli gap year programs. It was fascinating to hear about their lives and see how in many ways they were similar to us (Westernized) and in other ways difficult for them to live as such a small minority in Spain. I asked some of them about Independence for Catalonia and was surprised that at least one wanted an independent country. The leader of the group is Ariel who did his gap year two years ago and was part of the time on Kibbutz Lotan which is across the street from Kibbutz Ketura the seminar we had a couple of weeks ago. And by a big coincidence Ariel’s mother is best friends with Gisela’s mother. I know that Alina really enjoyed the evening since she got to speak Spanish. And I was happy that after the dinner a some of our students and some of the Spanish students went out together.

I let the students have a later wake up and then we were back to our Hop On Hop Off tour. We first went to the Miro Museum. Miro was a major and influential painter who was from Barcelona.The museum is of contemporary art and his later work is often described as abstract. We can’t say we loved the art but it definitely was different and made you think. In the basement was a huge wall just painted a very vibrant red. And along a different wall was a series of paintings that at first looked just black but at closer inspection each one was completely different.

Then we continued onto the Barcelona Soccer Stadium. Full disclosure…I hate sports. I think the only thing worse than playing soccer is having to watch a game. I really don’t understand the culture of being a sports fan. I was trying to think of ways of just having the students go while I read a book and waited. But nevertheless I am the fearless leader so I become a sports fan for 1 ½ hours. Truth be told I was a little excited. I am applying (for the second time) to get onto the Israel version of the Amazing Race. Barcelona in their last season was one of the tasks and I staged a picture of me doing the exact task the contestants did. I also have pictures from the summer of me in Paris also doing some of the exact tasks of the contestants….I hope they will be impressed.

Anyway Sophie loved it the most. Zach and I decided that the “locker room” they showed us was either a fake or something is really wrong. I mean the jacuzzi in my sister’s master bedroom in Florida is bigger than what we saw. Ketzia was bitching with me when we were entering the place. But the stadium is actually a large complex of sports clubs and she found some ice hockey team practicing so she was happy.

We then had to make our way Gisela’s mother’s home. Also there was Ariel’s mother. I sent Gisela a text with pictures while we wee there in her home. Gisela’s mother served us a “snack” which was like a small meal. She took out a map and showed us where her family grew up and talked about the history of the Jews in Spain. All this was done in Spanish with Alina translating although Drew and Ben used their Spanish skills and were able to keep up with parts. We also learned about the “marranos” – the secret Jews, of which Gisela’s mother was a part of she discovered. I asked how and she said the first clue was the family name. The Crypo Jews often had special names so they knew who they were. Her name was Alkalay. There were other clues as well. For example in her family there was a concept of ‘SaturdayCleaning’ which they used as an expression of things there were special or had to get done. All in all this is the kind of experience that you don’t get as a regular tourist and what makes the Aardvark trips not only about fun but also about education.

We are back that the hotel now to freshen up. We will go out to dinner and then to a comedy show. More on that tomorrow.

Day 4

Can anyone truly get lost in today’s modern society? Perhaps a sense of being lost in the big global community or in a world of endless choices not being able to stick to a direction? But those are philosophical discussions. What I am talking about here is being physically lost. So last night we went to dinner in a fantastic restaurant called Gut. To get there we used the Metro which was a fun experience. In the restaurant we were happy with our food and the service. Then we had to walk and find the theatre. Now sometimes walking with the students it is like a scene from The Walking Dead (and the students are not playing the human characters). Then they turn into Dori from Finding Nemo and just go off chasing the next new shiny thing. The bottom line…I lost three of them. In the end due to Drew’s ingenuity and the internet spanning three continents, they made it to the club.

Now was the comedy show funny? Half of us liked it. The other half not so much and struggled to stay awake late at night with the lights off. Personally I am not so sure they all understood the level of the jokes (yes I know you guys are reading this as well but I will tell you to your face as well). What was fascinating was one of jokes from the comedienne who was British. He was making fun of how much pork is consumed in Spain, particularly in Madrid. He used it as a reference that they finally succeeded in making their city “Jew proof”. He could feel the audience tense up in their reaction. He played on that and said “ok. That is not all right to say. OK. So you made it ‘Moslem Proof’…is that better?” I am not sure if the audience was reacting to guilt about their missing Jews, or reacting to the fact that many suspect they have Jewish ancestry. Or just that the young crowd can’t laugh at a racist joke. It is something to think about.

This morning we got up early to catch our tour bus to Girona. It was a former Roman town that was prominent later in the Middle Ages as a major trade center and had a sizable Jewish community until the Inquisition. Unfortunately I don’t think the tour guide was so good. We liked seeing the town but it could have been better. One interesting thing was the non Jewish guide talking about how the Jews survived the Black Plague and how the Christians didn’t so the Jews were blamed. She talked about the Jewish ritual practices that led to more germ control like washing hands before meals, kashering meat, not mixing milk and meat.

I attached some pictures of students kissing the tush of a lion. It is not a weird fettish but an old practice that newcomers who came to Girona had to kiss the symbol of the city to be welcomed. Over the years it developed into a practice if you want to one day return to Girona you kiss the statues tush (with stairs provided now so that even Alina can reach). Just food for thought about cultures…in Rome you just need to throw some coins into a fountain to ensure you will return one day. I am just saying that is a nicer tradition.

Now back to getting lost. This time…Zack. The guide had joked beforehand that the town is small surrounded by walls and a river so there is really no where to get lost. The rest of us sat and had a really nice lunch in an outdoor plaza while Zack emailed three continents to find us (note to the geographically challenged Israel is in Asia, we are currently in Europe, and the USA is in North America).

Then it was off to Figueres and the Dali Museum. That museum is reason enough to come to this part of the world. It is spectacular and we could have spent more hours there enjoying Dali’s brilliance and madness. Plus the town is really cute. You should google Dali and look up Dali and Israel. In the museum we saw a fascinating series of art her developed in 1968 called Aliyah where he has some very powerful works regarding the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.

Now we are back in the hotel and we will go out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the water.

More details tomorrow.

Day 5

I still am not sure what went wrong with the ipad (well nothing was wrong with the ipad it was just me using technology though we can all agree it worked the first three days…).

I last left off that we were going out to a restaurant for dinner on Sunday night. It was a really nice place called Agua right on the water and we sat outside on the terrace. The food was great and afterwards half the students decided to walk back to the hotel along the beach.

The next day we had our tour of the Jewish Quarter of Barcelona. Our guide was Israeli and he was excellent! He really brought to life for us the history of the Jews in Barcelona who at one time made up 15% of the population. We saw how in buildings after the Explusion from Spain the Spanish destroyed the Jewish cemetery and used the stones to build new buildings. Attached is a picture of one of the stones where they left the Hebrew inscription and was used as just another brick in the wall to build a home. You should know that the decree lifting the Expulsion was only changed by Spain in 1968 and that there is still no monument acknowledging Spain’s role in the destruction of the Jewish community. On the other hand the guide explained to us that today anyone who can prove that he was a Marrano can gained Spanish citizenship. This just came about in the last few years and it is believed that the reasoning is sort-of anti-semitism. The Spanish want the Jews back because they know how to make money and Spain is in a severe financial crisis.

We had a short memorial ceremony right by the building where the Inquisition took place. Leah lit a candle and Ketzia said the Kaddish. We had also seen the exact spot where the Jews were burned at the stake….no memorial, just a bunch of school children playing sports. We saw signs of Jewish existence everywhere like homes with places carved out on the door frames to put themezzuzot (pictured).

On a lighter note I asked the guide if the Jewish quarter now was an expensive place to live now. He said no and said there was a reason. He asked, “what is the most important thing every home needs?” To which Ketzia automatically responded with everyone else agreeing “wi-fi” (I am telling you they are obsessed). The answer by the way was parking and due to the narrow streets there is no parking.

After our tour and lunch we went to our boat tour. The weather was perfect for us and we were on a private yacht. There were some sleeping cabins downstairs (yes I took a nap), bathroom, kitchen area, etc. Up top places to sit and experience the sea. We went pretty far away from the coast and then Leah, Alina, Sophie, Ketzia, and Ben all decided to jump in and enjoy the water (Leah was the brave one who went first). It was a beautiful and relaxing ride and we went back to land to finish our trip in Barcelona.

And then the drama began….

I call this The Great Escape.

The trip had gone so well. Everyone had a great experience. On the dock I thanked all of them for sharing the trip with me. I especially thanked Alina since her Spanish skills helped us so much.

We divided into two taxis to go back to the hotel. The first had Alina, Sophie, Drew, and Leah. They left. The second had me, Ben, Zack, and Ketzia.

The goal was to take the taxi to the hotel. Then gather our bags that we stored there. Then walk with our bags to the main square (15 minutes) and take the shuttle bus back to the airport. It was 4:00pm and our flight was at8:30pm….plenty of time.

From the back seat Ben, who always must know what we are doing every step ahead, was like “don’t we need to be at the airport already?” I was like Ben, don’t worry, look out the window and enjoy the last moments in Spain. But he was not relaxed and wouldn’t let it go until I took out the schedule. And then I panicked. Oh god, the plane leaves at 6:45pm. Yikes.

New plan as I try to communicate with the older taxi driver who spoke no English and had no GPS to find our hotel and whipped out some old fashioned street book to find it. I wanted him to stop at our hotel, wait for us to get our bags, and take us right at that moment to the hotel. He said yes. Now I am also feeling bad because I know some the students want to change before the flight or go to the bathroom, etc. but there is literally no time. We get to the hotel and jump out. The other taxi is not there. We grab the bags out of storage and bring them outside expecting the other taxi at any moment. The hotel has a narrow street. The taxi driver tries to pull over to let people pass. We are trying to get bags into his car and waiting for the other taxi to arrive. The driver has no idea why we need to wait. Ben speaks some Spanish and tried to communicate. Finally some truck comes and is insisting that he can’t get by (I live in Israel…he had plenty of space to get by) but he was stubborn. Finally after stress and confusion the taxi driver motions that he will go around the block and he leaves…with our luggage.

Meanwhile we are still waiting for the first taxi. Finally no taxi but I see the students walking from the other direction. They got off on the main street, did some wi-fi, got a drink, and came to the hotel. They didn’t know we had no time. I gathered everyone. I told them we are now all on the Amazing Race and if they don’t get to the airport in time they are off the show. Reality TV challenges these students understand!! I hailed another taxi and four students get in and head for the airport.

Ketzia, Ben, Zack, and I are left standing there with only the passports. The taxi is not back. How long could it take to go around the block? Then it was said out loud…..”did he just steal our luggage?” I try to live my life believing in the goodness in people. I know that the vast majority of people on this planet choose to do good and this old man taxi driver was a good guy. As the minutes pass I am starting to doubt. Ketzia is trying to hold it together. I hugged her and told her she can’t cry…yet. We need to be optimistic and positive until we can no longer be and have to face hard realities.

Then mister taxi driver finally shows up. We jump in the taxi and I use my extensive Spanish: “Rapido!!!!!”. And fast he was. We make it to the airport in great time. The other students are there waiting outside. Alina figured out where we had to go before that and we go into the airport. Now let’s get the visual down. A group of 8 very much looking tourists, some of which literally were just swimming in the ocean, are running with luggage and other bags to the empty ticket counter looking worried. The nice Alitalia man was very calming. He said we would get on the plane. Hurrah! I gave him my passport, he gave me my boarding passes, and then the students had to go. And then again a set back. “Why don’t you have a visa for Israel?” What? What is he talking about? I do this all the time with students. Now what? I assured him it was ok and said he needs to get someone higher up to check it out. Meanwhile all I can think about is Tom Hanks and how we will be living in the airport. Luckily someone knew the law and we got the boarding passes and made our plane. Hallelujah!

While it had a happy ending, my Yekke part of me is not happy. Sorry everyone for the stress in the end. Even though we still had fun through all the craziness.

In conclusion, thanks for sending your children with me. It was a pleasure for me to be their “madrich” for a few days and give me a chance to personally get to know them and to also help them think about their lives and what kind a people they want to be. For those who will be doing International the second semester I personally will be guiding the group to Italy (my speciality area) and to Holland.