Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pursuing Peace

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-Rabbi Hillel, of the first century BCE

Pursuing peace means that I must incorporate self-criticism into my own identity, yet remain proud to defend who I am. Pursuing peace means that I expect the same from others. This semester, I have seen the Middle East change in ways that is has never before. I have seen the Palestinian Authority building itself up, and building towards the inspiring international recognition of a sovereign state in September. In spite of stunning Hamas-Fateh reconciliation, I have seen Hamas hold on to their deeply misguided hope that future generations of Palestinians could occupy all of Israel. I have seen the Israeli government yearning to defend its people in a dangerous and unstable region. I have seen the Israeli government become too nervous, and violate human rights at checkpoints and borders.

Pursuing peace means that I follow the advice of Rabbi Hillel. If I am for myself, I have to stand behind Israel's right to defend herself, in the face of terrorists who wish for us to disappear. If I am not for myself alone, I have to stand behind Salam Fayyad in his efforts to build a Palestinian state alongside our own. If not now, I fear that this hope drifts only farther away, squeezed to a pulp amidst polarizing societies.

The national memorial days have been a time for reflection and for hope. On the morning of Yom HaZikaron, I stood in silence in a frozen Jerusalem as the capital city remembered the state's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. On Yom Ha'Atzmaut, I celebrated Israel's 63 birthday on one of the youngest Kibbutzim in the country, reflecting on the idealism that built the state. And I asked myself: how can I pursue a peace for a middle east where Israelis are less often - if ever - asked to give their lives in defense of an enduring independence?

The past few weeks have been, as I know they are each year, an emotional roller coaster; Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut, and Nakba memorial day (remembering Palestinian refugees of 1948). I think that everyone else in the region has already turned these days into a defense of their own politics. Rather than explaining my own political platform for a practical peace, I am compelled to share the questions I am asking. I do have my own carefully thought-through, well supported and pragmatic thoughts on the particularities of peace. However, I seek to share where I start the process, not where I end:
How wrong have we been, and how can we make it right? How wrong have our neighbors been, and how can they make it right? How do we weave together our narratives?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Matzah and Falafel: Pesach in Jordan

Doing my best to commemorate the exodus from Egypt on Pesach last week, a group of friends and I chose to make an exodus from Israel during the holiday and visit Jordan. At first glimpse, perhaps it is ironic that I left the Holy Land after commemorating my ancestors’ departure towards it. On second thought, it is a remarkable expression of freedom and progress to safely visit friends in a land alongside our own. Travelling with an accordion-style group of 4-12 friends, I visited the families of two wonderful Jordanian friends and went hunting for the Holy Grail in the footsteps of Indiana Jones.

More than any other motivation, I wanted to accept invitations to visit my friends in their homes. After a three hour bus ride and a tremp to the border crossing, two hours waiting to cross, and a long care ride, we arrived at a friend’s home in Irbid around 10pm. His family welcomed us all (at this point ten of us) with an incredible feast! Gathered around in their living room, my backpacked Matzah made a nice addition to the falafel, hummus, salad, and rice in grape leaves. When we woke up the next morning, the family started our day with a breakfast even more delicious than dinner, fueling us up before a combination of six buses and taxis brought us to Amman.

In Amman, we visited a classmate’s office before dropping our bags off in her home. Relaxing with her family, I brought out the Matzah out again so that we could have an afternoon snack. Her mom fell in love with the stuff! Later that day we walked through Amman and bumped an alumni of our school who lives in Amman, and he treated us to dinner at the best falafel place in the city (where the king and his late father both have visited). Food and hospitality became the reliable highlights of our trip.

After two nights in our friends homes, four of us continued southward and rented cabins at a Bedouin campground for the night. Early the next morning we headed to Petra, where the third episode of Indiana Jones was filmed. There is enough incredible Petra history to write another blog-post twice the length of this one. The Nabateans carved most of the city out of the cliffs, starting over two millenia ago, and the entrance is a beautiful slot canyon 2 or 3 km long. The city was ultimately conquered by the Romans, and after the 1400s it fell into ruins. Petra was unkown to the west until its discovery in 1812. Now it's one of the new seven wonders of the world, and there are many expensive things for tourists to purchase.

Backpack o' Matzah! ...ready to cross the border.

Erev Shabbat (friday night) by our campground.

I completed my pilgrimage to Israel two months ago, in Jerusalem. When I left America, my roommate gave me this hat, which has been with me during all of my travels. On Saturday, it came home to the filming site of Indiana Jones 3, in Petra.

Monday, April 11, 2011

King Havdalah

Delayed update! I wrote this entry just about a week ago, and I still need to find time to post pictures to go with it. I'll do my best to post more regularly, as I'd promised. So please forgive this slowness and enjoy some thoughts from not too long ago:

"Hey Yara, do you want to join us for Havdalah?"
"Do I want to join you and Abdullah?"
"Yeah, we're going to Havdallah right now."
"You're going to meet King Abdullah?! What??"

When we get lost in translation here, some moments are funnier than others. Last week I invited my friend Yara, who's from Amman, Jordan, to join us for the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and beginning of the new week. She thought I was asking if she wanted to come with me to meet King Abdullah, the Jordanian monarch. Unfortunately, I'm not that good at networking!

As the immediate region became increasingly fragile, with saddenning cycles of violence on the Gazan border, we redoubled our dedication to learning together, and to working together. As Shabbat closed with coming of evening, I hoped that this week would bring more peace than the last. I am hopeful that the ceasefire established yesterday will last, and my friends and we will share together more moments of joy and togetherness that mirror calmness in the region.
Last week we all boarded a bus for our first group trip, for a three-day adventure engaging issues of water management; the bus was full constant drumming, singing, and group games, between planned stops that kept changing due to rain. On our first day we learned about sinkholes near the Dead Sea, and had a picnic lunch by a public beach. As soon as the tables were set, the skies let loose torrential bucketloads. By that afternoon, our schedule had already reached plan D, which turned out to be the beautiful nature reserve at Ein Feshka. Even with cancelled hikes and soggy sandwiches, our group was generally as upbeat as our bus was musty!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Adamah v'Adam Corps: Bridging Communities, Building Justice

I am now deep into my semester in southern Israel, studying environmental peace-building. Here, diverse students come together around a common commitment to environment and justice: Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and internationals. The core of the program is a required Peace-building and Evironmental Leadership Seminar, meeting an average of 5-6 hours/week. As I finish my first month at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, I am excited to formalize plans that will turn my education abroad into action at home.

As I was getting ready to leave Oberlin this past December, I did not realize that I was going to be packing the seed of entrepreneurial aspirations in my bag as well. When I return to America in June, I will begin to build the Adamah v’Adam Corps (Hebrew for Earth and Humanity Corps). The A.A.C. is a new Jewish and interfaith service corps that will organize volunteer opportunities for youth to serve in Appalachia. On my last day at college this past winter, my mentor and adoptive “Oberlin-mom,” Beth, handed me a grant application to turn in before I left America. With help from her and others, I have secured generous seed-funding from the Davis Projects for Peace, and look forward to putting my entrepreneurial yearnings to good use.

The Appalachia region has a rich cultural heritage, sustained amidst political and ecological challenges. The long coal mining history has inspired its own music, novels, poetry, films and more. Recently, a shift toward mechanization and mountaintop removal mining (MTR) has decreased the number of jobs available while increasing the local ecological impact of mining operations. Coal is a powerful industry which offers some employment, but the region remains one of the most impoverished in America. Furthermore, coal poses problems of environmental justice at each stage of its lifecycle: from the communities where it is mined, to the plants where it is burned, to the carbon emissions that it contributes to the greenhouse effect. These dueling economic and environmental forces divide communities of the region, calling for a renewed dedication to peace-making and direct aid.

The complexity of the challenges facing Appalachia became clear to me when I facilitated an alternative break program there this past October. Our group was the first delegation of Oberlin volunteers to work with Heritage Ministries of Lynch, Kentucky; we distributed food, weatherized homes, painted a house, installed siding, and helped to build a roof. Students and community members found deep satisfaction in working across cultural differences, energizing everyone’s dedication to the work at hand. Students also gained a deeper understanding of the connections amongst environmental and economic conditions that divide the community, coming to see direct material aid as a promotion of peace and fellowship.

The A.A.C. has a three-part mission that aims to create deep impacts for both participants and the communities they visit: offering material assistance, fostering pluralism, and teaching ecological awareness. This mission is a response to the challenges identified by Heritage Ministries, including aging infrastructure, few jobs, inadequate health care, and an absence of government assistance. While these difficulties demand long term, system-level solutions, the director of Heritage Ministries explains that direct service is absolutely necessary to immediately relieve stress.

With seed-funding this summer, I will continue to build the foundation for future volunteer service trips, bringing more participants to the Appalachia region. Immediately after landing in Boston in late June, I will make a four-day trip to Appalachia for preliminary planning. Through mid-July, I will meet with leaders and teachers of Jewish and interfaith communities in the northeast, building connections with potential participant organizers (e.g. high school principals, Rabbis, ministers, etc.) and hiring experts for assistance in writing a curriculum for later service trips. When I return to Appalachia for four weeks, I will volunteer with at least four organizations (identified with assistance from Heritage Ministries and other partners in Kentucky and West Virginia), in order to establish lasting partnerships.

I will be one of one hundred students/teams executing Projects for Peace across the planet, and am designing the A.A.C. as a local response to the world-wide challenges of our time. In an era of global climate change, geographical and temporal distance masks the impact of energy use and consumer decisions on not only the environment, but also the human beings who occupy it. Bridging the physical distance between host and participant communities fosters compassion, helping individuals to navigate a complex world where daily choices have deep ethical implications. As climate change and rising seas threaten global stability, the A.A.C. seeks to train civic leaders who engage with diverse communities to help bring about a more compassionate world. Economic conditions in Appalachia call for a humanitarian response, and the region’s ecology teaches global environmental lessons.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Circuits, Jogs, Yoga, Soccer, Volleyball: Energy

I am a proud member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies Sports Committee, an overly-beaurocratic name for one of the most powerful sources of my energy here. In between classes and common meals, a group of avid outdoorsie athletes has developed a strong community. Last Thursday afternoon, we transformed the small quad into a gym, with Palestinians, Isralis, and Americans lifting stones and doing dips on benches. Then, before dinner, we practiced an hour of Yoga as the sun went down.

In two weeks, we are all piling on to a Public "Egged" Bus, and heading North to Jerusalem for the city's first Marathon. None of us are actually running the whole thing; we are training for the 10k (and couple of folks for the 21k) gives us excuses to run together in the evenings. When we hit the streets, we'll be jogging through the Jaffa Gate, past the Kinesset, and finishing next to the supreme court.

Life at AIES is full of energy and connections that feed a harmony of the mind, body, and soul. We study regional water management during the daytime and play barefoot soccer at night.

The annual regional soccer tournament began last night, which is a BIG deal around here. It had been hyped for weeks - even before I arrived on campus. Our team, with professors from Israel and Turkey, students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the U.S. played even harder than their cheering section hollared. The game went into tie-breaker penalty shots, and I could taste the tension. We lost the match in sudden death over-time, and marched back to campus to sing and play drums. Everyone wanted to win, but losing certainly wasn't going to be getting in the way of celebration!

And yes, we do work too. Until this week, homework was just less exciting than building community with my wonderful classmates. Now that I have settled in, exciting academic and activist projects are underway, which I'll highlight soon!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Settling Down in the Desert

When I left America, I kept saying that I didn't want to have the life-changing experience that everyone said I should expect. I wanted to have a life-affirming experience, and to return unchanged to an unchanged home. Even so, my expectations were exceedingly high - I spent five weeks travelling before arriving in Israel, much of which I spent meditating on how much I couldn't wait to get here. Life in the Jewish State has been full of pleasant surprises, deep conversations, and a promising future: a not-too-life-changing life-changing experience.

I spent my first Shabbat in the old city, followed by a visit with my cousin Sol who I had never had the chance to get to know before. On my long walks through the city, I remembered how much I had fallen in love with it last year. Sitting by the Kotel on my last night, I thought of the words of A.J. Heschel:
Streams of endless craving, clinging, dreaming, flowing day and night, midnights, years, decades, centuries, millenia, streams of tears, pledging, waiting from all over the world, from all corners of the Earth carried us of this generation to the wall.

I was sad to leave Jerusalem last Tuesday afternoon, but instantly felt at home when I arrived at Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Meeting classmates from Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and North America, I became electrified to begin the semester. A heritage of yearning brought me to the wall; my generation's striving for a better world has brought us - Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others - together from around the region and the world. I am at home here. On our last night of orientation, we threw a birthday party for one of our classmates, learned Jordanian dances, and played circus games for hours - celebrating our group, excited for the beginning of classes focused solely on coming together around environmental action.

My friend Ibrahim relaxes outside our dormitory, next to the bike that another classmate, Bilal, is fixing up. The mountains behind our dorms are amazing hiking grounds, with cliff walks and incredible views. Looking out the other side of our quad, I can see across the valley to the mountains of Jordan.

Last week, we visited Neot Semadar, a neighboring Kibbutz. This is their arts and crafts building, complete with a passive cooling tower: magical eco-castle in the desert? I tried to find Mickey Mouse inside, but he must have been hiding with the Oompa Loompas.

Our class hiked up to nearby sand dune after leaving Neot Semadar; the softest sands in the wa orld, perfect for tumbling and playing! I didn't take my camera out when we got there, because the sand in the air could have gummed it up.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rome, and Onwards!

Please note: the story of my time in northern Italy is on the way! I hope to complete final edits this weekend. For now, Rome -

Over the past few days,I have bid farewell to Rome and settled down in Israel. I have bid farewell to one pilgrimage center, and arrived in another. During my last morning in Italy, I attended a Papal audience with Catholics from around the world. He greeted the crowd in six languages.

Following a speech on the importance of family (in Italian - I didn't pick up much) he acknowledged the Church/school groups who had travelled to Rome from across the world. With each name, a group would stand up and most would sing a short choir peace. Sometimes the audience would clap to the rythm, and this always devolved into an applause which drowned out the singing and made way for the next group.

In Rome, I also had a chance to see all of the major monuments and holy sites. My feet left the city sore from walking, my mind satisfied with a full helping of first-hand history. Tonight I am sleeping over at a friend's house in Tel Aviv, and tomorrow I depart to reacquaint myself with Jerusalem and visit relatives and friends there.

The days have been packed, and I wish I had more time to offer valuable insights about Rome. However, I've spent most of my writing time on the story from before, and it will be a good read when it does go up.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wrong Prescription

Introduction: This is the story of my experience at Agr. Coop. Mogliazze in Northern Italy, where I was to spend two weeks as an agricultural volunteer. I arranged to work there through World Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF), a very reputable and truly wonderful organization that connects willing workers with farms that host them. After leaving Mogliazze, I enthusiastically referred two other travelers to WWOOF Italy. This is the worst complaint WWOOF has ever received, so I do not intend it to defame the organization in any way. They recognize the danger of the situation, and have opened an investigation. I hope that potential WWOOFers will have wonderful experiences, as the overwhelming majority of people do!

Late at night, during a phone call that I place without the knowledge of my hosts, my brother asks me if there was a moment when I realized that I had to leave Mogliazze as quickly as possible. Was there a moment when everything around me fell into the surreal clarity that I was not safe?

My arrival at the Piacenza train station coincides with the arrival of a foot of snow. Martino, the older of two children in my host family, picks me up for the normally short trip to his family’s organic farm – Agr. Coop. Mogliazze. He points out the growing presence of industrial agriculture as we drive towards the Alpinines, emphasizing the importance of helping small farms to survive. I completely agree with him. Each turn brings us higher into the mountains. Leaving the last small village behind, we arrive after nearly an hour of carefully climbing to our destination at 800 meters – the road ends, and we park the car. It is the most beautiful place where I have ever set foot.

Mogliazze is a collection of about a half-dozen large stone buildings with slate roofs; leaning against a mossy wall, I can watch the occasional cloud drift through valley below. I have planned to stay on as a volunteer for two weeks, and my initial impressions have me sold that that this is a fantastic idea. I’ll help to produce good food from healthy soil, learn new kinds of work, and enjoy the quiet of the mountains – I am ready to settle in.

My roommate, Sebastiano, eagerly shows me around Mogliazze and we strike up a friendship as soon as we meet. After a couple of hours working and chatting, we come back to our room and hang out as I unpack. The first thing I notice on Seba’s desk is a worn copy of Primo Levi’s "Survival in Auschwitz," in the original Italian (originally titled “If This Be A Man" –“Se Questo E Un Uomo”). When I ask him about it, he explains that he has many Jewish and Israeli friends, and this book deeply impacted him. He has read it several times. Seba asks if I knew that Auschwitz Liberation Day was the previous Thursday. I do – I visited Sauchsenhausen concentration camp that day. Our conversations are honest, laid-back, and consistently interesting.

After dinner, Seba explains that Pierro is a doctor famous throughout northern Italy for his “Blood-Group Theory”. As Seba talks, I begin to understand the completeness of the doctor’s philosophy: Pierro believes that he can prevent and cure any disease through creating individualized dietary plans, based almost entirely on a patient’s blood group. That first evening, I had seen him writing out paper after paper at the kitchen table, and Seba says that he was creating these dietary prescriptions. The cookbook next to hearth, authored by his daughter Esther, is a compilation of his recipes for different blood groups. Esther’s older brother, Martino, is in school for bio-medicine, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps. Velia, the wife, runs the farm while Pierro is seeing patients three days per week. Not sold on the idea, but interested in learning more and ready to help regardless, I go to sleep.

We do not talk too much as we work, and I come to deeply enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. I wake up at 7:30 (almost) every day, and work 6-10 hours. With each task, I can immediately see the fruits of my labor: bags of dried apples, large piles of freshly cut firewood, and stacks of neatly labeled herbal medicines (of dubious effectiveness, but “work is work” I say to myself). I read my philosophy books and practice Hebrew in the evenings, hang out with Seba, and go to bed by midnight each day. I learn that another volunteer had been there for a year and a half, and one for several months. I start to feel a bit uneasy because everyone else seems to believe fully in Pierro’s medicine, but I am happy. I come to enjoy the relaxed pace of life, the wonderful food, and especially my friendship with Seba. For my first lunch, Esther had cooked a wild-mushroom risotto that I will remember for the rest of my life – far and beyond the best Italian food I have ever tasted.

Four days in, I call my family for the first time since arriving, and return to the room just past midnight. I start changing in to my pajamas, and am about to turn out the light. Seba wakes with a start. He pulls on his clothes, grabs an orange folder, straps on his boots, and briskly disappears out the door, grimacing – all within 45 seconds. I barely have a chance to ask if he is OK. I can’t sleep, so I write in my journal. The next morning, I wake up with a small infection at the back of my lower gum. Seba says he has been to the hospital with Pierro and Velia, spending the night throwing up and heeled over. He returned to the room at 6am. He says that he is OK, and looks genuinely content. I assume that everything is alright and I am glad that he plans on resting throughout the day.

I check in on Seba throughout the day, and continue with my routine through the first week. The highlights of life at Mogliazze far outweigh my queasy lack of confidence in the medical effectiveness of everything that I am helping to produce. Pierro even teaches me how to herd sheep! I will always remember that afternoon very fondly; relaxing in the pasture, watching over Pierro’s flock, I gladly soak in the breathtaking mountain vistas. I don’t want my friends, family, or teachers to know that I am having second thoughts about my farm choice, so I write a blog-post highlighting my most enjoyable memories and the stunning natural beauty.

During Shabbat, Pierro and Velia are happy to grant me a full day of rest. I start working again on Sunday. My gum has swollen from the infection that began on Thursday morning, and the aching has spread farther back and down to my limphnode. I had tried to fix the problem with more careful brushing and saltwater washes, but realize that it is time to call my dentist at home for advice. I had the same problem about three years ago, and Dr. Finkelstein immediately prescribed prescription-strength mouthwash and penicillin. I resolve to call him as soon as business opens in America after the weekend. Over that weekend, I had not mentioned anything about my gum to Pierro, and worry that I will cause disrespect by calling a different doctor.

I go to work as normal that Monday morning, anxiously waiting until 3pm when Dr. Finkelstein’s office opens at home. He says that salt water rinses will be OK for immediate treatment, but that I should see a doctor as soon as possible in order to obtain antibiotics. They sell a proper mouthwash over the counter here, so I can easily get that in a Pharmacy. If it spreads farther, then it could become very serious. A gum infection might sound rather unimportant, but like any serious infection it is painful and has the potential to grow rapidly.

I call my mother to tell her that I have a small infection, but that everything is under control (a white lie). Truthfully, I am deeply concerned about how Pierro will react. I have noticed that no one here questions Pierro’s medical practice, not even in polite curiosity. I asked him about once, and he laughed off my question, explaining that some cars run on diesel, others on gasoline. It is dangerous to put the wrong fuel into your body.

I politely approach Velia, Pierro’s wife. She is more comfortable with English, and more outgoing in general, so we have a closer relationship than Pierro and I. I explain as clearly as I can, eventually with the help of Seba, that I need to see a doctor at their earliest convenience - preferably that night, but the next day would be OK. She eventually agrees that Seba can give me a ride to the nearest hospital (only 8km, but 400+ meters of descent), and he will help to translate my needs into Italian when we arrive. For all of our differences, I really like Seba. He believes in Pierro’s medicine, and does not consider himself to be scientifically minded, but he is a very warm, compassionate, intelligent guy. I can see concern enter his eyes; I had helped him while he was sick, and he is ready to help me.

As Seba translates my request to Velia, her apparent disinterest slightly troubles me. I had been living with them for eight days, working, eating, and relaxing together. Velia had always laughed and smiled as we tried to understand each other, between her broken English and my choppy Spanish-informed Italian. Rather than appearing worried by my infection, as I had expected, she looks frustrated. I assume that this odd reaction has to do with car-related logistics. So I go to brush my teeth and collect my medical papers. As I am gathering my things, I hear a heated altercation below my window.

Seba walks sheepishly over as I emerge with my bag. Doctor Mozzi (Pierro) had said that I only need one doctor, and he will take responsibility for my medical care whilst I am in his home. If I want to go to the hospital, I can walk there (a very bad idea, as the sun is already low in the late-afternoon). He has taken me under his medical custody; suddenly, my gum infection is only part of the problem.

I walk with Seba to the Kitchen, and he translates my explanation that I signed up to be Pierro’s agricultural volunteer, not to be his patient. I carefully and politely explain that I fully respect his medical capabilities, but that I would rather follow my trusted doctor at home. I am grateful for his hospitality, but I am a man capable of making medical decisions for myself. The conversation turns into a debate, ending with him yelling at me, three times in a row: “You are a vegan, and now you need drugs!” He does not mean pharmaceuticals.

Returning to the phone, I confer with the friendly hygienist at Doctor Finkelstein’s office. I ask what she thinks the timeline is for treatment: It should be alright to wait a day or two, but I should definitely increase saltwater rinses. I should get on penicillin as quickly as I can, and if the infection is not fully abated then I should seek further treatment when I arrive in Israel. She can tell that I find my situation painfully amusing. I give only cursory details.

When I come back into the kitchen after the phone call, Pierro eagerly tells me that I caused the inflammation mostly on Saturday. I had eaten couscous and tomatoes that day. He gives me a list of what foods to eat, and what foods not to eat. I politely tell him that I will try his advice for 24 hours, and if it does not work then I will see another doctor – he nods reluctantly. So I will eat potatoes and white beans for a day, I say to myself, then I can go to a real doctor.

As Pierro prescribes my diet, he notices that my hands are cold. I just came inside, and I am also rather nervous – so this is hardly surprising. He asks: “Do you want to have hot hands?” Confused, not sure what to say, I nod slowly. He tells me to eat a plum and then suck on the pit for ten minutes, until my hands warm up. Being inside, my hands do warm up – next to the fireplace. Pierro quietly comes over to me, and gingerly examines my hands, turning them over in his own. He smiles widely from behind his long white beard, and motions others over. He shows them my hands. Look! The treatment has worked!

Pierro gives a short speech. He explains to everyone in the kitchen that he has warmed up my hands. His medicine works. Marvelous as this may seem, it is but a small feat for the potent plum. This humble fruit can also cure Parkinson’s in a space of 15 minutes! Pierro animatedly pretends that he has Parkinsons, and then his shaking arms stabilized – he is cured!

I remain polite, but it is a struggle. I force down a chuckle. At Mogliazze, you do not disagree with Pierro. You certainly don’t laugh about Pierro's plums!

I return to my room immediately after dinner that night, too frustrated to remain a silent patsy in Pierro’s kitchen. I cannot remember a time when I felt more uncomfortable, more frustrated. Each interaction with Pierro has pulled the knot in my stomach tighter. I write down the vast majority of these details that night, crystallizing them in writing, so that my memory will not rearrange them.

Seba returns to the room after two hours – much longer than normal. He appears frustrated, but calm. As he takes off his shoes, I stop typing and we fall into conversation. He asks how I feel – “Frustrated”. He explains that Pierro and Velia are very angry with me. They are extremely upset that I contacted my doctor at home. As we speak, Velia is probably on the phone with Esther, who arranges the WWOOF volunteers, livid that she allowed another f***ing American to visit. We always bring them trouble. The knot in my stomach might squeeze dinner back up.

Me giving them trouble? This idea is simultaneously nauseating and hilarious! I’ve had it.

I tell Seba I am going to see a doctor the next day, no matter what Pierro thinks. Seba sighs heavily – they told him to tell me that tickets to the hospital only go one way. I slam my computer shut. Can I at least get a ride?! Seba silently shakes his head: if anyone wants to see the doctor (save for a broken bone or clear emergency) then they are packing their bags and walking. Mogliazze policy. When you are here, Pierro is your Doctor. I make sure to ask Seba, very explicitly, if I understand him correctly. I do.

Then, Seba tells me his story. We are sitting in our cozy, rustic room, relaxing by the fire, and he wants me to stay at Mogliazze. He tells me what happened the previous week, when he was sick, throwing up in the night. He had wanted to visit the hospital too. He asked for a ride, and Pierro refused. He started walking. It was 1am. There had been a large blizzard, just days earlier, and the road down the mountain was covered in snow and ice: 8km, and 400m of descent. Pierro followed him as he walked:
Pierro told me, ‘think about this carefully: you could slip and fall off of the road, and no one would know where you are. Do you want to take that risk, or do you want to stay here and trust me?
He tells me this story, entirely relaxed, smiling, explaining how Pierro cured him:
We walked back up the mountain, and Pierro fed me hot water all night. I kept throwing up, and then I was all better. I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I didn’t. David: you should believe in Pierro. He can help you.
This is the moment that my brother would ask about over the phone the next evening. Seba’s delight with his situation deeply frightens me: he had been given the choice of lying frozen at the side of the road on a dark mountainside, or allowing Pierro to treat to him. Pierro wants me to accept the simple beauty of the mountains, the simple satisfaction of my work, the simplicity of his diet, the authority of his command. Consciously or not, he uses the remoteness of the location and the treacherous road to enforce his will. Seba’s story is not unique. He tells me other stories just like his own; everyone comes back up the mountain, he says, everyone realizes Pierro is right.

I am going to pack my bags. I need to get OUT of here. I am not safe at Mogliazze – nobody is. I signed up to plant vegetables - I never signed up to accept vegetables as the only legitimate medicine!

I can’t let them know that I am leaving (four days early). At best, it would mean a very ugly departure. At worst, it would mean I am staying. At the least, I need a strong mouthwash. So I follow Pierro’s diet for 36 hours. I let him think that I believe in him. Then, at first light on a Wednesday morning, Seba and I drive down the mountain. He believes in my right to leave, and fully understands why I don’t want Pierro to know. We get breakfast twice, and spend three hours talking about what has happened before he sees me off on the bus to Piaccenza. He does believe in Pierro’s medicine, but he also says that my departure inspired him to think for himself; Pierro’s dictatorial behavior disappoints him.

My brother has booked me a last-minute hostel in Rome, and I get an express train that would take me there as fast as possible. I had told my family just enough information for them to know I needed their help, but not enough to scare them. I call my mom as soon as I have cell phone reception, and we use up all of my minutes.

I arrive in Rome, and call a handful of close friends and my family with an internet phone, and tell them everything. I am safe, I am in a hostel in Rome, but they need to hear this story. Then I call my Professor, Cindy Frantz, a social psychologist at Oberlin College who I has been my teacher for the past two semesters. Stunned, she agrees with analysis that I defected from a low-level, but very real cult. Mogliazze met almost all the criterion:
--Charismatic authoritarian leader
--Likeable, warm members
--Brainwashing techniques/indoctrination: believe in the plum, believe in Pierro
--Required sacrifice: restricted access to the outside world, e.g. medical care
--Isolated, remote location: allows the cult to define reality, creates homogenous society, limits outside influence (a tool for controlling movement as well)
--Deception: when you sign up, there is no mention that you will need to denounce western medicine if you fall ill – I signed up to plant carrots!!
(source: Social Psychology Lecture,"Obedience and Influence," Professor Cindy Frantz, Oberlin College. Spring, 2010.)

When Professor Frantz compares Pierro’s plum speech to the eerily similar tactics of Jim Jones, the infamous leader of Jonestown, I feel simultaneously much better and much, much worse. I am not a vengeful person, but Pierro must be stopped. Somebody could become hurt. Pierro never acts with violence himself, but he cleverly uses the forces of nature and his remote location in violent ways. Whether or not he is doing so on purpose, the fact remains the same: Mogliazze policy. Rationally speaking, it is shocking that no one has become very hurt before – as far as I know.

Two days later, I have settled into enjoying Rome. Seba was supposed to have emailed me an update about what had happened after my departure from Mogliazze. He had agreed to translate the letter I left for Pierro and Velia, a letter that pulled no punches. I haven’t heard from him, so I call Mogliazze to make sure he is OK. Pierro picks up the phone, and he figures out who it is. The only word I understand is “Bastardo.” They let Seba talk to me for a few minutes – he is OK right now.

When I tell this story to friends and family, it is reassuring to hear everyone respond with shocked disbelief. When everybody around me was irrational, it was hard to know if I might not be the one who had lost his mind. I became paranoid against myself. I would look out the window at the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen, and I would want to accept that everything around me was OK. Pierro would smile as he showed me what foods I should eat, and I didn’t want to make him angry by politely disagreeing. I wanted to believe that I wasn’t paranoid. But paranoia was healthy. It was the only way to react. I had to leave.

...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps The religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.
-- Leo Pfeffer

Please note: I am sharing this story as a factual account that offers valuable lessons. As I explain in the story, I wrote these details down as they unfolded, recording them in my journal with meticulous accuracy. Over the past two weeks, I have woven together previously disconnected writing, and attempted to create an honest thread of my emotions throughout the experience. I would never have unwittingly entered into such a situation given the choice, but I have come to appreciate experience. I hope that you will learn as much as I have from this story; consider the moral importance of an independant and critical mind.

Of course, please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions or comments about what happenned.

I lived in the room up the stars, with the door on the balcony.

Bags packed, ready to go.

Seba and I spent the morning of my departure walking around Bobbio, until I left on the bus. Everything interesting was closed, but we enjoyed a long walk and two good breakfasts.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Herding Sheep

I have now settled in at Mogliazze, an organic farm high in the mountains of northern Italy where the mood is a laid-back learning by doing – in the liberating extreme where responsibility comes fast. For example, the sheep taught me how to herd them today. Doctor Pietro, whose family runs the farm, smiled warmly as he offered simple instructions in broken English: “You open the gate. You go around with them. You take them back in.”
Sheep are not very smart, but they run fast. I enjoyed about 3 minutes of relaxing as they munched the grass immediately outside the gate. The next thing I knew, they were hopping and jumping down the mountain, jostling along a narrow path under thick shoulder-high branches, and muddily splashing across streams. Equipped with a thin stick, and my trusty cross trainers, I followed in hot pursuit. We immerged in a wide open field, where I caught my breath and realized that herding them was more about partnership than leadership. As they turned to head back about 15 minutes later, I kept the sidetracked ones heading in the right direction with light taps on the rear.
As we ventured uphill towards the gate, I scooped up a little one who had fallen out breath. I carried him back to the barn, as my friend emerged from the woods to help close the gate. “Where were you?!” he asked, having woken from a hillside nap. With three short phrases of instruction, I had been trusted to take care of the entire herd (about 25) and guide them safely home. Hopefully we’ll go for another pasture-run tomorrow, and next time I’ll bring my cowboy hat.

I decided that it would be best to post an entertaining entry today, after last week’s reflection on Sauchsenhausen, and look forward to sharing deeper thoughts from the farm next week.

The East Side Gallery is longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. Approximately one hundred artists have reclaimed it as a celebration of unification.

The first morning at Mogliazze.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Today is my fourth on the continent, and I travelled into the darkest hours of history, visiting Sauchsenhausen Concentration camp just outside of Berlin. It was exactly what I expected, which means it was entirely different than I expected. Everything was normal. So everything was disconcerting. It was more saddening and disturbing than I could have ever imagined, just like everyone said it would be. A seemingly normal cobblestone – how many political prisoners, Jews, Roma, gays, passed over this stone, cried silently over it? A seemingly normal field, half brown in the winter – how many thousands stood here freezing, during 5:15am roll calls?

Everything is as it is supposed to be, according to the documentaries, the pictures, the testimony. But then there are the souls. You can’t capture souls on film or in words. They shudder in cramped wooden bunks. Their stomachs turn inward at roll call in the cold morning, after a breakfast of crumbs and water. They writhe on whipping blocks in the camp center, after failing to complete the afternoon work detail. They silently disappear, slowly snaking skyward. The camp is barren. Its victims have been erased from the book of life.

If we allow the crimes of the Nazi regime to depress us, to permanently sadden our limited time on earth, we are handing Hitler a posthumous victory – confining another soul within the walls of barbed wire that his SS erected at camps and Ghettos across Europe. The Holocaust commands us to celebrate diversity, to fill our lives with joy, and to make sure that all of humanity is privileged enough to experience life as rich as life can be. Liberation was not a single moment in 1945.

NB: I may post Sauchsenhausen pictures when I have a chance. As I've said, no words or pictures can capture the camp. Your life has to pass through the gate in order to experience the power of the site. Below, please find a wonderful and non-sequitorial shot of my unconventional arrival in northern Germany late Sunday night.

As we got closer to port, the fog became denser and denser. By the end of the day on Sunday, as we approached Bremerhaven (our destination port in Germany), we were sailing through a thick cloud turned deep orange in the midnight flood lights. 14 story cranes towered above our massive vessel, and 4-story container trucks were barely visible as they busily hummed through the misty stacks of cargo that would be coming on board.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Greetings From a Mid-Atlantic Closet!

Current Coordinates:
W 31 degrees and 08.5 minutes
N 46 degrees and 27.0 minutes

I am writing as the wind whistles overhead in a small closet on the Bridge Deck, labeled "Crew´s Post Office". The other passengers ("spare officers")and I are getting used to the boat´s regular 5-10 degree rolling as we put on our sea legs. In this little email station, where this is only a wooden desk and one computer, I am enjoying the challenge of staying balanced in the unwisely-chosen revolving chair. I can estimate how far we are rolling based on the swinging of an oversized russian calender that hangs over the desk. We can only send outgoing messages (via satellite), so I am thankful to my parents for pasting this text onto the blog site.

Today marks our farthest distance from land, and I just returned half-soaked from my daily walk around the main deck (I always go with a friend, employing the trusted "buddy system"). When I first walked outside this afternoon, the waves on our port side were sendind up a dense mist that created four rainbows in less than a minute! We have four meter seas today, which gently rock our creaking giant as she plows eastward at a steady pace of 20 knots. The ocean is simultaneously chaotic yet inspiring, heaving and unpredictable yet beautiful and relaxing. At home, our understanding of rising sea levels is often detached from the chaos and magnitude of the oceans themselves. The same oceans however, inspire awe and respect.

We will land in Germany this Sunday morning, and I hope to put up pictures and offer more thoughts when I am back on terra firma.

Sunset in Port Elizabeth, NJ. I call it "Star Wars Meets Van Gough" - it was a very surreal scene, taking in the sea of red and yellow containers stretching towards a bright red and yellow sunset! The scale of the equipment, like the 13 story crane at the right, which dwarfs the roaming 4-story truck in front of it, is something I would expect to find in the imagination of George Lucas.

The view inside the lifeboat was very reassuring as we headed out to sea. It is torpedo-shaped and orange, capable of holding all 25 people on board.

This picture requires no caption. Incredible.

A view between the stacks of containers.

Sunday was our first full day at sea. For dinner, Captain HJ Muthwill organized a smoked fish party and cheerily invited the passengers to join in. The chief engineer is the fellow in front, who was in charge of the "oven" (which was a converted barrel, in the back).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Environmental Pilgrimage: The Slow Trek To Israel

Early next week, I will board the MSC Tanzania in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, for a transatlantic passage aboard the 300 meter freight ship. At first, I viewed the distance to Israel as obstacle to overcome. Now, I see it as an opportunity to learn. My trip will reduce carbon in the atmosphere – through planting and carbon credits – rather than pollute. I will volunteer in Europe, rather than contribute to worsening humanitarian crises that will result from climate change. I will visit sites relevant to Jewish history and my family’s roots, rather than flying over them. I look forward to spending half of a week in Berlin, followed by two weeks volunteering on an organic farm in northern Italy. I will arrive in Israel in mid-February, for a semester studying environmental science and peace-building.

My project-trip will address the reality of distance in a down-to-earth way. Long distance travel (especially by air) produces greenhouse gas emissions which ultimately contribute to rising sea levels and the displacement of future generations. Rising seas could create a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, potentially displacing 2-4 million Egyptians living on the Nile Delta among other potential humanitarian crises in a geopolitically fragile region. Rising seas could also flood Israel’s coastal plain: Netanyahu and Abbas could draw the borders of a peaceful two state solution today, but climate change could rewrite their coastlines tomorrow. I did not want to return to Israel in a way that damaged my people’s homeland and displaced future generataions from their own.

I am not hoping to offer simple answers, but rather to share the questions that I am asking myself: what are the consequences of my actions? How are my choices and my life related with others across the world and across generations?

I look forward to writing blog posts approximately once per week, sharing the most powerful experiences and my reactions to them. When I arrive in Israel, I will be studying at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the southernmost desert region, with a student body of 1/3 Israeli Jewish, 1/3 Arab/Palestinian, and 1/3 international students.

Many thanks to the Doris Baron Environmental Studies Student Research Fund and to the Winter Term Grant Committee at Oberlin College. This trip is only possible because of their generious support!