Tag Archives: Israel

Free Hugs

A few days ago, I was walking through Union Square and saw a cluster of people (two men, two women, multiple races, 20s or 30s) holding signs that said “FREE HUGS” in large, colorful letters.

Before even actively thinking about it, I knew I was heading straight for the people with the signs.

I walked towards a man with a bushy brown beard who asked, “Need a hug?”

I made a sound that was somewhere between an embarrassed chuckle and a nervous giggle and replied, “Yeah.” (Truth be told, I can really always use a hug.)

We hugged, I thanked him and wished him a great day, and he sent me on my way with a sticker.

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Pretty good advice! Though not so secret if now printed on stickers.
Of course, I thought, noting the URL in tiny letters. Does anything simply come from the goodness of the heart? But then I looked up LightSourceTemple.org. If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll notice what I noticed – the domain has expired. LightSourceTemple.org doesn’t exist.

So why give out free hugs? For a laugh? For fun? A dare? A cult initiation? Or because the world can be really hard and sometimes people just need hugs?

While I can’t answer what those four people in Union Square were aiming for, I can explain why I not only accepted the free hug, but also wanted it.

I believe very strongly that there is a lack of physical human connection in our society.

I’ve thought about this a lot but it struck me anew when I was recently in Israel with our eighth graders. After just a day away from school, in a completely different environment, open affection was acceptable and the norm. Even more illuminating, much of this behavior came from the Israeli staff who we met on the first day of our trip. It was perfectly fine to drape an arm over a colleague’s shoulder for no apparent reason. It was fine to say good morning with a kiss on the cheek. A touch to someone’s back was simply a way of saying hello.

We don’t do enough of that in the US.

While in Israel, I read Dacher Keltner’s Born to Be Good, which contains chapters on smile, laughter, touch, and love, among other things. He writes about oxytocin and its effects on our behavior, attitudes, and relationships. Humans need positive physical contact in order to bond, trust others, and feel happy. In more than one place in his book, Keltner blames the Puritans for the lack of lack of physical touch in American culture.

I mentioned the book during a conversation just before walking through Union Square and seeing the free hugs signs. A friend was talking about his frustration with the repressive nature of American society and how we don’t really permit deviating from the prescribed course of action (school, more school, job) to allow for authentic personal growth or exploration. Thinking of Keltner, I suggested use of the word “Puritanical” to describe typical American attitudes towards uncharted paths and lack of conformity to the few molds we have deemed acceptable.

All of this was on my mind when I walked through Union Square a couple days ago. Though the free hugs people don’t know it, they appeared with their signs at just the right time for me to say yes to their hug.

As a rule, I try to be as open with and responsive to others as I can. Accepting and being truly delighted by the free hug was just another way of trying to form a connection, however brief, with someone who was willing to be open, responsive, and vulnerable to those around him. Back in February, I sat down to talk to three men on a bench in Central Park for the same reason. When a college student who started a conversation with me at a nail salon last week asked if she could interview me for a school project, I gave her my phone number with true pleasure. I’m trying to make the world better, one positive interaction at a time.

We are all humans. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. If we can’t reach out and touch one another, what’s the point in living at all?

Travel Guide: Tel Aviv

A lot gets packed into our eighth grade trip to Israel. After four nights in Jerusalem, two nights in the Negev, and three nights on the Kinneret, the trip staff were exhausted. Built into the trip was a weekend with host families, usually students’ relatives or family friends. For staff, this meant two nights to choose anywhere in Israel to stay and just relax. One of my carpool friends was also a trip chaperone and we chose to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv; it was nothing less than glorious.

With the kids, we stopped in Tel Aviv twice over the course of the trip: Once to eat falafel and hang out in a park before visiting the Olympic Museum, which was entertaining for the kids and a lovely display of Zionism, and once to go to the beach. Suffice it to say that Tel Aviv (and perhaps anything) with kids is completely different than with adults.

After traveling by bus with a group of students also staying in and around Tel Aviv, we were free! We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight to Nachlat Binyamin, the artists’ market where, back in 2007, my parents bought a fruit plate that still sits on their kitchen counter and I bought a pair of purple earrings that I wore every single day until they turned green. (Those earrings are the reason that I chose purple studs when I pierced the second hole in my right ear.) I didn’t buy anything this time, but it was still fun to look around.

From there, hungry, in the mood for shakshuka, and still in need of gifts, we wandered Shuk HaCarmel, the most famous of Tel Aviv’s markets. As readers of this blog know, I adore markets. I love food and smells and flavors. I love the dedication of the vendors, the passionate bargaining of customers, and the speed of each transaction. I love the crowds and how markets are universally loud, frenetic, and a true delight for all the senses.

This particular market area of Tel Aviv is also a great spot for really neat street art. Shout out to my weekend partner-in-crime for her patience every time I said, “Wait, need a picture.”

Truth be told, however, we spent most of our weekend just sitting on the beach. I’m generally really bad at sitting but that’s all my body wanted to do. Sometimes we sat with food or drinks and sometimes we just sat and watched the water. We met up with a friend and some friends of friends and had ourselves a lovely time.

In addition to a great beach atmosphere, Tel Aviv also has a great restaurant and bar scene. On recommendation from one of our trip guides who lives in Tel Aviv, we went to Four One Six, a vegan restaurant that exceeded all expectations. After a few minutes of talking to the owner, we made a New York connection – he and his twin brother, the head chef, are from Brooklyn and opened the restaurant together a few months ago. He had previously worked at Candle 79, a phenomenal vegan restaurant that was blocks away from my Upper East Side apartment for the month that I lived there. The owner was really friendly and told us that he and his brother are working to challenge the food scene in Tel Aviv by introducing delicious vegan food that highlights what vegan can eat rather than what they can’t. Sounds a little like Candle 79! (And Vedge in Philadelphia, which I also highly recommend.) The owner dropped off a plate of chocolates and stopped back to ask if we’d figured out the flavors. Delicious isn’t a flavor but that’s what they were.

Other food highlights from the weekend include shakshuka, which we didn’t find at Shuk HaCarmel but ate outside at a sidewalk bakery/café, and burekas, which we also enjoyed while sitting outside. I could eat nothing but Israeli food every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Every meal, including breakfast, is full of various types of fresh salads and I just love it.

After dinner, we met up with our guide, his girlfriend, and a few other friends at Dizzy Frishdon, a great bar with outdoor seating, several indoor bar areas, a table with swings instead of chairs, and a few rooms of normal tables and chairs. It was a really lovely evening to sit outside (are you noticing a theme?) and enjoy just being in Tel Aviv and watching the nightlife all around us. Our guide’s friend is a part owner of the bar and that came with food and drinks perks, which was a lot of fun.

Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend and exactly what we needed to prepare for the final two nights of the trip back in Jerusalem. It actually ended up being two and a half nights after a seven-hour flight delay, so it’s a good thing that we were relaxed and rejuvenated. Beautiful beaches, beautiful food, and beautiful people have a way of doing that.

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View from our hotel room

Travel Guide: The Kinneret

After four nights in Jerusalem and two nights in the Negev on our eighth grade Israel trip, we headed north to the Kinneret, the region of Israel around the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret in Hebrew). We stayed at a kibbutz where I’ve been before and had the best food of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we also had an insect infestation to go along with the stomach bug, fever, and colds freely passing from student to student. This meant changing the kids’ rooms every night to quarantine the sick and avoid the rooms with unliveable colonies of insects. No exaggeration. I slept in a different room each night and spent one night on the couch of a room two colleagues were sharing. Our sleepover was honestly a lot of fun!

As much as I love the desert, I do agree that the Kinneret is beautiful.

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Sunrise

The Kinneret is home to the Banias, which our trip guides consider Israel’s most beautiful hike. The site centers on a waterfall and a cave with shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. It was a gorgeous day, warm with spring flowers blooming. After our time in the Negev, it was nice to see the world returning to life after the winter.

After our hike, we drove to Har (Mountain) Bental in the Golan Heights, Israel’s most strategic defense point and one that it has so far refused to give up. From Har Bental, you can see the border between Israel and Lebanon, as well as the remains of an army bunker.

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We spent the afternoon in the Golan and visited De Karina Chocolate Factory to learn how chocolates are made and try out making our own. My favorite part of De Karina was the hot chocolate I bought at the café after the tour. It was simply melted chocolate, whole milk (which I never drink), and real whipped cream (which I never have) topped with chocolate shavings and served with a house-made praline. It brought a huge smile to my face.

The next day, we participated in the first of two service projects for the trip (the second was Latet in Jerusalem, which happened three days after this one even though I wrote about it first). This was my favorite activity so far and, I think, my favorite activity from the entire two weeks. We volunteered with Leket, an organization that collects surplus food products from a variety of venues to distribute to people in need, harvests farm produce that will otherwise go unharvested, and also runs its own farm with all products going to the hungry. Our task was to harvest a field of kohlrabi. If we could accomplish that quickly, the Leket staff told us, there was a field of beets that also needed harvesting.

Our eighth graders didn’t need telling twice. It was a bright, sunny day and energy was high. Excited about playing in the dirt, the kids filled buckets and buckets of kohlrabi and emptied them into packing crates. I heard more than a few races and competitions and tried to point out that the goal was the same, no matter who filled the most buckets. However, I ultimately found myself in a flow state much like what Levin describes in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when he mows hay with his peasants.

Time slipped away and I didn’t notice the dirt under my nails, the stiffness in my knees, or the sunburn on the back of my neck until we were done with both fields about an hour later. All I knew was that you use both hands to pull up the kohlrabi, break off the leaves, and throw it in the bucket. The beets were easier to pull out of the ground but the technique was the same. If I could make a living just doing service work with students, I think I would.

That night, two drummers came to the kibbutz to lead us in a drum circle. I was pleasantly surprised at how many Jewish and Israeli folk songs the kids knew – and how many I knew! Songs I hadn’t heard in years and some of the dances that came with them just soared. It was such a great experience to have as a community, especially following an afternoon working together to help others directly from the land that we were singing about.

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One of the drummers playing a shofar as an instrument!

Energy was obviously running high and it took us a while to get the kids calmed down with suitcases packed and into bed. We needed to leave the next morning for host family destinations for the weekend. For my colleagues and me, that meant a free weekend to relax and refresh. More on that soon!