Anna Fett: Post-Program Reflections

What insights have you brought back as a result of this experience? How has your summer language study abroad changed your worldview? What advice would you give to someone who was applying for an SLA Grant or preparing to start their own summer language study? Did you meet your goals for language learning? How will you maintain, grow and/or apply what you have learned?

Overview of the old city of Jerusalem


I was deeply impressed by the learning environment cultivated at Hebrew University. I had heard that the ulpan program was like a well-run ‘machine’ for mastering modern Hebrew. We spoke only Hebrew in the classroom for 5 hours a day and covered over half of the first year textbook in only about 5.5 weeks. I am not the first to say it, but there is truly no better way to learn a language than living in a society which speaks it. Through this experience, I accomplished my learning goals for this program and look forward to continuing with this language through personal study with tutors this year. By continuing to progress on my own, I plan to be ready for another ulpan next summer at the ‘bet’ level.

Interestingly, Hebrew came more easily to me than I had anticipated. I was worried that I might face the same challenges I have experienced in the past to learning Arabic–a language that I can easily admit is the hardest thing I have ever studied. However, it was because of my studies in Arabic that Hebrew came so easily to me this summer. They share many words such as day, “yowm”, and many similar roots, such as sun, “shems” in Arabic or “shemesh” in Hebrew. These similarities would seem to make it easier for Israelis and Palestinians to learn each other’s languages (both official languages of the state of Israel). However, the politics of the conflict have greatly hindered this possibility. Neither of my Hebrew teachers knew Arabic despite the growing number of Arabic-speaking students entering the university. However, one informed me that she is now ready to learn Arabic to help these students and explained that now she regrets not learning it when she had the chance in school.

While English can get you pretty far in both Israeli and Palestinian areas, after a summer of travel in this region, I am now more convinced than ever that learning both of these languages is crucial to understanding the complexity of this conflict by allowing the inhabitants of this land to express themselves in their own voice, in their own languages. Language acquisition is the first step for me to be able to research and write a truly transnational dissertation of the United States and Israel-Palestine–one in which I share a convincing portrait of two societies, not just an in depth study of the U.S. intervening unidirectionally into Israeli and Palestinian affairs but a study of interactions moving multidirectionally back and forth across the Atlantic.

During the last week of the program, I was out celebrating with my classmates. I ended up meeting and chatting with two young Israelis. Much to my surprise, I learned that I was in conversation with a male IDF soldier and a female police officer. While I had seen soldiers on and off duty all around all summer, I had never made an effort to speak to any of them. I did my best to listen to their stories, asking if they felt safe in their work. The young woman told me, “Hardly ever.” Suddenly, she leaned in and said, “Why do Americans hate us? I feel like we are so vilified, and no one wants to understand our side of the story.” I had many things I was thinking and feeling: Over the course of the summer, I had seen inequality and injustice at work through more and less visible systems of oppression. I could see that there were more than just ‘two sides’ to this conflict, but I could not deny a series of power imbalances between the Israeli and Palestinian ‘sides’. I was also struggling to account for American ‘power’ to influence this region; I had after all had the privilege to travel both in and out of Israeli and West Bank territories throughout the summer, more freely than either most Israelis and Palestinians, because of my U.S. passport. I also worried that I had allowed my critiques of certain aspects of Israeli policies to blindly bias me against IDF soldiers and police officer writ large…I am sure many of these thoughts flitted through my head at the time, but as I looked into the brown eyes imploring me to understand her side in all of this, all I could say in that moment was, “I promise to tale your story back with me and share it.”

For others who pursue the SLA Grant experience, I encourage you to prepare yourself for a dose of self-reflection. What does it mean to be an American in the place of the world where you study? What privileges as an American allow you to be live there and learn there? Given this degree of ‘power’ for just being a U.S. citizen, how will you harness your privilege while you are there and when you return home? For me, my goal is to share stories: stories that have been silenced or overlooked in American popular and academic assessments of the ‘Israel-Palestine conflict’, stories that add layers of humanity and complexity–as well as thoughtful critique and insight–to an otherwise ‘two-sided’ dominant narrative.

Ancient olive tree that has survived in Jerusalem for thousands of years

Anna Fett Blog 6: Tourist Sites Best Visited “בזוגות” (With a Partner)

I have been lucky to travel extensively within and beyond Jerusalem this summer. While most of my travels have been on school trips with my peers from my Hebrew class, for a time I was lucky to have my favorite travel partner by my side, my husband Ryan. While we are supposed to be avoiding English speakers as much as possible in order to stay immersed in our language of study, he is one ‘Anglophone’ worth making an exception for! Here are a few places Ryan and I visited, which I can now confirm are much more fun to experience “בזוגות”(bezugot)– Hebrew for ‘in pairs’ or ‘with a partner’. 

First an overview of places we toured on the south side…

  1. Hike up the ancient fortress of “מצדה”, Masada

Masada is a desert palace built by Herod the Great sometime around 37-31 BCE. It was one of many palaces he constructed for himself; this one was of course meant as a refuge if he was ever threatened. (He was a very paranoid man, even killing his own children for fear that they would take his crown.) Later, a group of radical Sicarii Jews fortified themselves in this place as a fortress against the Roman army. After a long siege, rather than be taken as prisoners and slaves of the Romans, it is said that these Jews chose to commit mass suicide instead. This story has been incorporated into modern Zionist national lore. As one Jewish young man on a birthright trip explained to his peers (and us) as we waited for the trolley to take us back down the mountain, this story symbolizes that Jews will always stand up for themselves and fight, even to the death, for the right to live here “freely”. Like all nationalist tales, it is not clear whether such stories can contribute to peace with minorities in the region.



2. Swim and ‘Mud’ in the Dead Sea

Our next adventure was to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, snuggly surrounded by the Negev Desert on one side and the mountains of Jordan on the other. It is best to visit the Dead Sea in the winter as opposed to the summer months; however, while the locals are smart enough to avoid the heat, this does not stop plenty of foreign tourists risking the sun and temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was so warm it felt like bathwater, and we only survived in it for about 30 minutes. However, the mud was still great–best free exfoliant a girl can get! And of course, there is nothing quite like floating effortlessly in the Dead Sea.


3. Hike and Cool Off in the Ein Gedi Springs

It seems impossible that anything could be green in the middle of the vast, endless Negev Desert. However, the Ein Gedi is an ancient spring that has kept the Bedouin tribes of this region able to dwell and survive here for hundreds of years. The Israeli state control of this spring for tourism has, of course, caused problems for these tribes. Keeping in mind these politics, we hiked a path cutting through the mountainsides, stopping to cool off by wading in waterfalls along the path. The water felt unbelievably refreshing in the summer heat!


We also took time to explore the northern region of the country…

4. A Boat Ride and Surprise Swim in the Sea of Galilee

One of my favorite experiences this summer was riding a boat designed to look like wooden vessels from the period when Jesus lived. Because the boat was electric, it was very quiet as we sailed across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on water. The boat driver said that storms can come and go quite suddenly on the water when the wind shifts, and thus it makes sense that the New Testament says that Jesus calmed these waters. Since it was another hot summer day here, the boat driver told us that we could sit over the edge of the boat to dip our feet in–or even jump in if we felt inclined! It was too hard to pass up such an experience, so in we went with our clothes on! Again, it takes the right kind of travel companion to jump overboard with you into the Sea of Galilee. I was glad to be traveling ‘with my partner’- bezugot!







5. The Mount of Beatitudes

As Christians, Ryan and I found visiting sites from the time of Jesus to be quite a special experience here. I was lucky to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born as well as the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth where it is said Mary lived. These two churches rest on spots with ruins from the the time of Jesus making them ‘probable’ for the actual locations of these events. There are also other modern churches dedicated to aspects of Jesus’s ministry that constitute only ‘possible’ locations for where events in Jesus’s life might have taken place. One such church is the Church of the Beatitudes built by the Roman Catholic Church between 1936-1938 in honor of Jesus’s teaching of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. While it is unclear whether this is the exact hill where Jesus would have delivered this sermon, it is said that Christians have paid homage to this area since at least the 4th century.Whether it is this hill or the next one over, the church and grounds are really beautiful. You cannot help but reflect on Jesus’s words as you look out onto the hills and the Sea of Galilee.

As I have studied this region and the different aspects of the conflict here, I have done a lot of self-reflection on what my role as an outsider (white middle-class American Protestant women) can and should be here. Because of my American passport, I have had the privilege to travel in and out of both Israel and the West Bank (something that both Israelis and Palestinians are limited in, to different extents), and to listen to many stories of the diverse experiences of people who live here. As I think about the power I have to ‘access’ these places, I wonder how I can best use my power and privilege for good (and what the ‘good’ here even means). A few words have encouraged me along the way this summer: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”. 

Anna Fett Blog 5: Volunteering Un/Intentionally

Hiking up a hill side of ‘farm land’ 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem

I want to share two volunteer experiences that I have had in my time here in Jerusalem this summer. The first was one which I had sought out; the second was rather unintentional (but I’ll get to that below). The Notre Dame Summer Language Abroad office encouraged us before we left to seek out safe and appropriate volunteering opportunities. We were not supposed to just waltz into a community and start ‘helping’ but instead we were to consult with locals concerning ways that we could be of service according to the local’s needs and desires.

I was unsure how to go about finding such opportunities, so with the encouragement of my mother, I contacted the Lutheran World Federation office to inquire about volunteering opportunities. The office welcomed my offer and offered me three jobs- picking up trash, painting the front gate, or removing rocks from the office’s olive tree groves. Given the summer heat, my husband encouraged me to practically choose the one which I could best accomplish–trash picking. So one morning at about 7 AM, I headed over to the offices, received my gloves and trash bags, and began a two hour scouring of the office parking lot and grounds.

Trash waste is a huge problem throughout most of Israel and the Palestinian territories. On the one hand, it is an issue of cultural attitudes: properly disposing of trash–let alone recycling items–is not something which is socially prioritized and embedded into the majority of the populace. On the other hand, it is an issue of infrastructure: trash services–let alone recycling services–do not function as effectively as in the United States. It is a matter of adequate funding and resources, especially in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As I picked up broken bottles and wrappers, while trying to avoid the sharp bramble weeds, it was not difficult for me to ascertain that the LWF grounds would inevitably get trashed again by drivers casually disposing of waste on their rides to and from work, even by the end of the week.

It was not a glamorous job and it was not a job that offered me much opportunity to interact and connect with locals, as I had hoped volunteering would. However, when I turned in my full bag and gloves, the hearty thanks I received from the janitor staffed at the offices was well worth my efforts. He criticized local cultural attitudes for the mindless disposal of waste anywhere and everywhere. He explained that he had picked up 9 bags of trash just in the last week (a comment that made me feel sheepish for having filled only one bag), and that he thought it was a matter of respect for one’s peers and physical spaces that was still lacking in society. He then went on to talk about his children, including his son and his son’s new wife who have moved to the United States. As an Arab Christian, he was glad that they were able to get out and find better socioeconomic opportunities than he feels are available to Arabs in Israeli society today. It was only a short talk, but it gave me a small insight into the life experiences, working conditions, and dreams of one local man.

From the top of a hillside looking back down the slopes. Every few feet the land has been worked to plateau as flat as possible. This is an ancient farming practice that has been used for centuries in order to make rain water and water coming from the spring at the top of the hill to stay on each level of land as long as possible before slipping down to the next one.

My second ‘unexpected’ volunteering experience came later in the summer when I signed up for a class trip on Israeli farming which I assumed would include visiting a farm and learning about farming techniques. I was surprised then when we arrived in a valley, about 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem, surrounded by hills and mountain ranges. Where were the fields of wheat or soy beans? Or the cows grazing in pastures? (Or the farm houses for that matter?) This was not just my MidWestern bias; I had in fact seen some ‘traditional’ farm fields up in the Galilee region earlier in the summer. What exactly, in these rocky hills, were the crop?

The crop was olive trees, some hundreds of years old and some only decades old. These hillsides belonged to the Jewish National Fund, which was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement, starting under the Ottoman control of the region of Palestine and then under the British Mandate of Palestine after the First World War. By 2007, it now owns roughly 13% of the land in Israel. We were not visiting a private farmer but one of twelve farm land areas now protected by the Israeli Zionist organization, Hashomer Hachadash, an organization which tries to support Israeli farmers and thousands of acres of farm land from abandonment as fewer and fewer Israelis have the means to continue farming, both because it has lost popularity since there are other more lucrative industries to work in and also because of the difficulty of protecting the land amidst the conflict.

When I asked how the JNF had acquired the land we were walking through, the tour leader admitted that these lands had belonged to Arab families who “were forced to leave them” during the 1948 war.  The phrase made me pause: “were forced” was a phrase in the passive tense. It masked who or what was responsible for “forcing” these Arabs to “leave”. The tour leader then pulled out rakes, hoes, and cutting sheers and announced that we would be cleaning up the grounds around a patch of olive trees.

Sitting on the edge of an ancient spring which has been the key to farming here for thousands of years. This water flows from the top of the mountain into this ancient cistern before flowing down the hillsides providing sustenance for olive trees.

In order to harvest olives, it is first necessary to clear all of the shrubs and weeds around the tree, which compete with the tree for scarce water. It is also important to remove the lowest branches of the olive tree so that the tree devotes all of its energy toward the upper branches for growing olives. When the olives are ready to be harvested, tarps are laid down around the tree so the olives can be dropped onto the tarps. Thus you also need to remove large stones so that the tarp can lay as smoothly as possible. The olives are then pickled or pressed into olive oil. This work is all done voluntarily, so if some trees do not get cleaned up, it is difficult or impossible to pick the olives from that tree for the current season. The tour guide explained that all of the proceeds go to diverse local charities.

With a pair of sheers in my gloved hands, I set to work trimming lower branches and weeds surrounding a nearby tree. After about two hours, our small group had cleared three trees. When we finished the guide said, “Now that you have contributed your sweat and efforts, this land belongs to you too. We want this land to belong to everyone.” As I had worked, I had wondered who had planted this tree and what their hopes were for it. The tree I trimmed was not too old–only 100-125 years more or less. This meant that it had most likely been planted by the Arab families who lived here and worked this land at that time who have since 1948 not been able to return here. ‘Belonging’ is a highly contested notion here amidst the conflict. I am unsure what the circumstances were which forced those families to leave, but it is clear that, at this point in time, this piece of land I visited does not “belong to everyone”.

Anna Fett Blog 4: A Religious Minority Impression of the Holy Land

On Friday, I jumped at the chance to travel to Haifa, a port city in northern Israel, to learn more about the Baha’i, a religious minority group often overlooked in discussions concerning the religious landscape of this region. With all of the hype about the Holy Land as a place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it can be easy to miss the larger more complicated mosaic of religious and ethnic diversity at work here.

I was allowed to enter and tour the Baha’i gardens which cut straight down through the middle of the downtown of Haifa from the top of the Mount Carmel to the Mediterranean Sea. The Baha’i religion originated in the mid-19th century in Iran with the message and thinking of the Bab. Persecuted and killed for his views, his body was eventually brought to Haifa and interred in a mausoleum in the gardens. One of his followers, Baha’u’llah, became the prophet and founder of the tradition, escaping persecution in Iran only to be imprisoned in Acre (Acco), a port city facing Haifa. From his prison cell, Baha’u’llah could look through his window across the sea towards a beautiful hillside in Haifa. This hill–having no religious significance to any other monotheistic tradition with a presence in the region- was easily purchased at a cheap price. This hill became the site of the Baha’i gardens where Bab was buried–the second holiest site for the Baha’i after the tomb of Baha’u’llah in Acre.

The Baha’i gardens from the top of Mount Carmel descending towards the Mediterranean Sea

The Baha’i are monotheistic and believe that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worship the same God. However, Baha’u’llah believed that the reason for infighting amongst all these monotheists stemmed from each of their holy books, whether the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Qur’an. Monotheists needed to leave behind these texts and focus on worshiping one common God instead.

This religion was truly progressive for its time. Baha’u’llah called for an end to all forms of religious discrimination and full equality between the sexes along with the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth. While the religion has not incorporated equality measures for gays, lesbians, and transgender persons, this tradition was already more inclusive at the turn of the century (and still is) than many Christian traditions that I am familiar with, such as Catholicism and many Protestant sects. After the death of the two founders, there have been no religious leaders comparable to priests or imams, etc. for fear that such leaders might try to “limit the word of God.” You cannot be born into the Baha’i tradition; at the age of 15, you decide which religious tradition to join and there is support even if you decide not to become Baha’i or do not marry a fellow Baha’i.

The Shrine of Bab, the second holiest Baha’i site

Currently there are between 700-1,000 Baha’i volunteering in Israel (on limited duration visas since they cannot apply for citizenship). They come to volunteer in the garden or at the other holy sites. The cost for the upkeep of these impressive gardens is fully funded by Baha’i members. They take no outside donations. When one decides to become a Baha’i, the member must start paying a percentage of their salary as well as committing to volunteer work–at these holy sites and in philanthropy efforts worldwide.

The Baha’i volunteer I spoke with who was working at the entrance of the shrine said she enjoys prayer and meditation both within the shrine and throughout the gardens. She explained that Baha’i hold group gatherings of worship every 19 days but not within the shrine itself, again so no one leading worship would risk “limiting the word of God” through their interpretation. There are also no holy objects within the shrine itself since it is just a place for personal prayer and meditation. There are beautiful statues of peacocks and hawks as well as star patterns throughout the gardens but these have no religious significance. The Baha’i emphasize beauty through symmetry as a means of preparing oneself for prayer. They do pray in the direction of Acre, where the prophet Baha’u’llah is buried.


There are 8 million Baha’i world wide, most living in India, as well as in over 200 other countries–except for Israel! Despite the fact that the two holiest religious sites for the Baha’i are in Haifa and the nearby port city of Acre, Baha’u’llah did not want Baha’i followers to settle in the Holy Land, a dictate which has continued to this day. When I asked the Baha’i young women the reason behind this decision, she explained that the while the Baha’i see this as the common Holy Land for all monotheistic religions, the Baha’i do not want to “occupy the land or get in the way”–a refreshing perspective on how to view this land which remains special and sacred to so many religious persons around the world. The Baha’i hope is for “all to live in peace and harmony”.


Anna Fett Blog 3: “Trump Make Israel Great”?

American-backed lobbyist organization’s sign hung around the streets of Jerusalem for President Trump’s visit in May 2017

“Trump Make Israel Great”–This Trump-style slogan has made its way across the ocean to street signs paying homage to the new American president’s first visit to Jerusalem–albeit in slightly altered form from the U.S. version:”Make America Great Again”. Although Trump’s visit was in May, I still find the signs (paid for by a right-wing American-established evangelical organization) taped to lamp posts around the city; some signs now don ‘colorful’ graffiti altering the sign in more or less humorous or grotesque manners.

The hullabaloo surrounding whether the U.S. embassy would be moved to Jerusalem has subsided from general conversation since Trump signed a waiver in early June to delay any decision on moving it from Tel Aviv. However, there is still much speculation on whether the Trump administration is ‘pro-Israeli’ or not (and what that even means) and whether this administration has the potential to forge progress towards a two-state solution–despite Trump’s ambiguous comment back in February in a joint press briefing in Washington D.C.  with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would be “looking at two-state and one-state and [he likes] the one that both parties like.”

I have made an effort here to gauge both Israeli and Palestinian attitudes towards the Trump administration in comparison with past American administrations. I had the opportunity to attend a lecture last week in which both the ‘mainstream’ Israeli and Palestinian narratives were presented, respectively, by an Israeli rabbi and settler who works for the Israel Political Advocacy lobbyist group (which, according to him, seeks to target the U.S. Congress and White House) and a top translator, from Arabic into Hebrew, for the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (Of course, two speakers cannot encapsulate the Israeli and Palestinian ‘sides’ of the story; understanding what Israelis and Palestinians ‘think’ requires listening to as many perspectives as possible, and there are many more than two mainstream opinions varying by age, gender, socioeconomic status, religious and ethnic background, and rural or urban environment, etc.)

In the Q&A, both speakers were asked to reflect on the role of international actors, especially the United States, in potentially resolving the conflict. Both agreed that international efforts must be serious and impartial, but they disagreed over the impact of past American administrations.

The Palestinian debater argued that too much onus has been put on Palestinians to acquiesce to unfair concessions in an effort to “prove” that they are committed to the peace process. Whereas, he argued, there has been no serious pressure on Israel with the exception of the George H.W. Bush administration, pointing to Secretary of State James Baker who, according to the Palestinian speaker, did put “real pressure” on Israel during the Gulf War. The Palestinian debater was willing, and believes the Palestinian Authority, the main Palestinian governmental body of the West Bank, is willing to work with the Trump administration towards a two-state peace solution.

In comparison, a Palestinian Christian friend of mine  from Jerusalem dissected the 2016 American election results in the following way: Hillary Clinton would have been “terrible” for the Palestinians because she was willing to agree to “anything” to get the support of the American Israeli lobby. On the other hand, Trump is also “greedy” and wants to accumulate personal wealth including “troubling dealings with Saudi Arabia”; however, according to my friend, Trump is less predictable than Clinton and thus could, potentially, bring refreshing change to re-jumpstart the peace process. In general, the Palestinians I have had contact with seem disillusioned with former President Obama–who “cared a lot but could not accomplish a lot”–and are now, to greater and lesser extents, hopeful that Trump can get the peace process going again.

A visual map of the complexity of achieving a two state-solution, just in and around Jerusalem. While Israel controls all of Jerusalem today, Palestinians argue that East Jerusalem should be part of the Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders. This map shows West and East Jerusalem. The different colored areas in East Jerusalem show Areas A, B, and C representing different levels of Palestinian and Israeli civilian and military control in different portions of the West Bank around the city. This map was hanging in one of my hotel rooms. [2011 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]
This point about Obama is interesting given the ‘mainstream’ Israeli interpretation of the impact of Obama’s administration. The Israeli settler, during the debate, argued that the Obama administration has put the most pressure on Israel to date than any president before him, including, the Israeli argued, some pressure on Israel by the George W. Bush administration. The Israel noted that Obama forced Israel into a 10 month settlement building moratorium and that, for the first time in December 2016, the U.S. abstained in a vote, thereby not blocking a United Nations Resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal. While he did not reflect at length on the new Trump administration, it was clear that he was glad for the Obama administration at least to be over.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives in the debate were disappointed with the Obama administration for different reasons and interested to see what the Trump administration can bring to the mediating ‘table’ for different reasons. What is clear is that just as the American Trump slogan does not translate seamlessly onto posters here in the streets of Jerusalem, nor do American politics with our divisions between Democrats and Republicans translate easily onto Israeli and Palestinian interpretations of American presidents and their foreign policies in this region.

Anna Fett Blog 2: Hummus for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Many Americans are familiar with Israeli ‘Sabra’ hummus–a brand almost ubiquitous with hummus as we know it in the states. Hummus is one of the staples of the Israeli diet, but of course, it has been consumed for generations throughout the Middle East. It is hard to capture how much better the hummus here is than what is available back home. The major difference is that hummus in Israel and the Palestinian territories is made fresh, daily and is preservative-free. Thus, it must be eaten on the first serving, and it does not store well for more than a few hours (explaining why I am ‘forced’ to lick my plate clean at each meal).

Traditional plate of hummus and falafel served with local mint lemonade in the Old City of Jerusalem

Hummus can be prepared a variety of different ways from country to country and even from town to neighborhood. Hummus is made from cooked, mashed chickpeas and blended with some combination of lemon juice, salt, garlic, olive oil, and tahini (a condiment made from sesame seeds). The ratio of ingredients differs slightly (or dramatically) from place to place as does how thickly the hummus is blended. For me, the thicker the better. My favorite traditional hummus, which I have tasted so far, I have found in Nablus, a city in the West Bank which Israelis refer to as the land of Samaria. This Palestinian hummus is very thick and served with a generous amount of locally made olive oil–so good that I had to purchase a bottle to go!

22 salads (the largest one is hummus) served with pita bread, falafel, and fried cauliflower in the port city of Jaffa

Just as the taste and texture of hummus changes from place to place so does the pita bread served with it. In the Mediterranean port city of Jaffa, thin small round slices of pita are served with hummus, along side 21 other side ‘salads’. All are served on small plates. They include plates of tahini sauce, pickled vegetables, yogurts both spicy and sweet, and many others. In a Druze neighborhood (a unique religious and ethnic minority) of the Golan Heights, I have eaten traditional hummus with ginormous pieces of thick doughy pita large enough for one to feed multiple people.

For breakfast each morning, I am served a traditional breakfast of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, pita bread, Greek yogurt and hummus (it’s a bit soupier than I prefer but hey-it’s still fresh hummus!) For many a lunch and dinner, I order some combination of hummus and falafel with a lamb kebab or chicken schwarma (meat placed on a spit and grilled all day long). I also order my hummus with falafel whenever I can find it. Falafel is a deep-fried ball of ground chickpeas and/or fava beans and usually drizzled with tahini sauce or lemon juice. All of these tastes compliment each other of course. Falafel can be served as small doughnut balls or as large patties.

A modern twist on falafel and hummus including: cheese and fried onion falafel and a pink sweet pomegranate hummus!

It is easy to find simple traditional versions of hummus and falafel across this country and the greater region. Yet there are those in modern cities willing to experiment with a few twists as well. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, I was lucky enough to try a sweet pink pomegranate hummus with three kinds of falafel including one stuffed with cheese and another with fried onions, all served with a light crispy version of pita.

This diversity of ways to prepare hummus delectably demonstrates the diversity of cultures of this region and the importance of both maintaining traditional cuisines while also honoring them through experimentation that exists across Israel and Palestine.

Anna Fett Blog 1: Ahlan wa Sahlan and Shalom!

My first day at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem
A view from my campus to the Arab neighborhood where I live (near the tower in the distance)–about a 15 minute walk

Ahlan wa Sahlan and Shalom! Here are two of the many ways to say ‘hello’ in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The first is Arabic–a language I have been trying to master for a few years now; the latter is modern Hebrew–a language which I am starting to learn this week in a summer ‘ulpan’ course at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both languages are important in this beautifully diverse yet conflict-ridden country and territories. Every street sign name is written in both languages (and sometimes English). The two languages parallel the two dominant cultural strains, Arab and Jewish, which are as intricately intermixed throughout this small region (the size of New Jersey) as the diversity of landscapes here–from deserts and Mediterranean beach fronts to swamp lands and arid mountain sides sprinkled with olive trees.

While the diverse peoples of this region can cross paths on an almost daily basis, I am quickly acclimating to the reality of a plethora of delicate and muted, almost invisible, divisions that exist around me. The average American tourist, like myself on my first visit here a few years ago, might miss these subtleties.

For instance, my campus is on Mount Scopus but I am living on the next hill over. The first is a Jewish area while the second is Arab. On a shopping trip, when I tried to take a Jewish cab from the first area to the second, the driver, in his Hebrew-lettered cab, refused to take me. He promised that this was not because he has something against Arabs–he shared that he has many Muslim and Christian Arab friends–but because it was not safe for him. It is just not done. Instead, he was willing to take me to the edge of the Arab neighborhood (on the edge of my university campus) and I had to walk the rest of the way.

Again, I wanted to buy a bus pass for the summer. However, the buses which run from my campus to the main center of Jerusalem are Hebrew-lettered while the buses which run from my neighborhood where I live to the main center are Arabic-lettered: two totally different bus lines running to the same place. This means that I will have to buy two bus passes, written in two different languages, and remember to pull out the correct one depending on where I am and where I am going.

I greet the Christian Arab staff of the guesthouse I live in every morning saying “Sabeh el-kheir” and I do the same to the university worker from whom I buy my morning coffee (instant but it’s growing on me) with “Boker Tov”. Of course, many in and around Jerusalem know both languages (or only one and English or some combination of both with a little English, etc.). Yet there are subtle signs of when one language will be more appropriate than the other. As an American, I have the ability to travel–relatively freely–from one area of the city to another, and to switch from one language into another. These delicate divisions demonstrate to me, even early in my time here, the importance of learning both languages and immersing myself in the many different cultures (there are, of course, many more than two) and trying to understand those who call this place home–whether in Arabic or Hebrew–in the language which best expresses their native perspectives.