Monday, September 28, 2015

Blackwater Distilling

When we were visiting the Eastern Shore of Maryland this past weekend, my boyfriend and I visited Blackwater Distilling, Maryland's oldest existing craft distillery (though they're only about four years old). We had a Groupon, which got us a tour of the distillery, a bottle of vodka, and two shot glasses.

Here you can see the still where the alcohol is made. In the blue jugs is the cane syrup they use to make rum. The syrup comes all the way from Brazil; I was hoping for a more local product! (although you can't grow sugarcane in Maryland...)
The tour started off on a "meh" note. The distiller giving the tour was obviously not a morning person. Although our tour started at noon, you would have thought he had just rolled out of bed (but seeing as he drinks liquor for a living, maybe he just had a crazy Saturday night beforehand...). He tried to make up for it with his pretty-boy looks (I don't know how many times he ran his hand through his hair), but his closed body language was less than friendly. He talked about how they make both rum and vodka at the facility (which, by the way, is in an industrial park and has no ambiance whatsoever), and while it sounds like a small operation, I do think they are growing.

This is where the bottles are filled with the liquor so they can be sold.

After the tour we got to taste the products! Their Sloop Betty vodka was rather harsh, but I'm sure it would have been fine in a mixed drink. For their Picaroon rum they had both a white and gold rum; the white was not very tasty, and the gold was only slightly better. Their honey vodka was noticeably sweeter, although I'm not sure I could have pin-pointed "honey" as the sweetener. I will admit that day drinking is not the norm for me, and I had a horrible headache for the rest of the day, even though we only drank the equivalent of two shots, max. I actually preferred trying some of the mixers they served; Blackwater doesn't actually make those. They were TRUE syrups: grenadine and tonic. The tonic was delicious, tasting like cinnamon and all-spice; the grenadine was made from pomegranates rather than cherries, and was pretty good, too.

For the ~$20 I paid for the Groupon, this visit was okay. But due to the lack of atmosphere at the distillery itself, the grumpy and over-rehearsed staff, plus the fact that I wasn't wowed by their products, I wouldn't bother going again.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Day 6

Herzl's picture in Independence Hall
After another yummy breakfast (with pudding of course), we started our next full day in Israel. We started the day at the Independence Museum in Tel Aviv. Independence Hall is where Israel became its own sovereign nation in 1948 (it used to be under Britain's rule). The museum itself actually was the first house built in Tel Aviv in the early 1900's, and that is where the mayor lived. He eventually made the house into an art museum in honor of his wife. Today there is still art on display, but the hall is the main attraction (with a picture of Herzl hanging front and center).

This marks the spot where Rabin was assassinated.
This was another very hot day (over 100° F), so our itinerary had to change a bit. We were going to visit Rabin Square, but instead we just drove past it. The square is a large area where people gather for rallies and things like that. In the 1990's, when Rabin was the prime minister of Israel, he gave a speech there about peace with Palestine. When he was exiting the stage, an ultra-orthodox Jewish man killed Rabin (the flags in the photo above represent where he was assassinated). We were supposed to go to an open-air market for lunch, but again, because of the heat, we were dropped off at another shopping mall. This time I took off on my own just to get some peace and quiet. I did buy myself some things, but I would have much preferred the marketplace!

Ramon Crater
At this point we were supposed to visit the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. But we ended up visiting Ramon Crater, which was very neat, especially since most Birthright groups don't get to go there! At the visitors center, we not only learned about the crater itself (which was not created by a meteor but by natural geologic processes over thousands of years), but we also learned about Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut (Note: The crater was not named after this astronaut. He changed his name for the crater!). At the crater we also heard about the different kinds of wildlife in the Negev desert. Most of them are more active at night due to the heat, and species included foxes, hydrax, porcupines, lizards, snakes, scorpions, etc.! This was a little scary to learn about since we would be sleeping in tents that night!

Some wildlife: an antelope with her babies!

The man wearing all white taught us about "Bedouin hospitality."
After driving through the Negev Desert, we finally arrived at the Bedouin tents where we would be spending the night. "Bedouin" means "desert dweller" in Arabic, and these people are historically Arab nomads who move around the desert a lot and historically do not have permanent homes. We met a Bedouin man who taught us about their way of life: raising goats and camels, sharing coffee with guests, inviting strangers to stay with them for several days, etc. But he did explain that he does have a house and does not live in these tents; it was pretty obvious that these tents were just for tourists and gave these men some of their income (There were at least six other Birthright groups there at the same time as us.). That night we ate dinner sitting on rugs in the tents and eating with our hands. The food was much like what we had eaten on the rest of the trip: pita bread, meat and rice, cucumber and tomato salad, tzaziki sauce, and pickles. And I didn't expect dessert, but they did have some store-bought cookies that I thought were pretty good (maybe they tasted so good just because I didn't think I'd get dessert to begin with!).

Now this is a carpet picnic!
Although we were in the desert and "roughing it," there was running water and real toilets (although I don't think any of us bothered to use the showers because of the dirt and dust everywhere), and we had plenty of electric light at night time. So that meant we could still play games! (Yay!...It's difficult to express sarcasm through text alone.) Each Israeli in our group made up a game: charades, labeling places on an Israeli map, singing the Israeli national anthem, etc. While the games were kind of fun, it was still late at night and I would have rather been sleeping. And the night was still not over! We then took a moonlit walk in the dark in the desert. We were told to be quiet so we could just take in the moment (but of course a handful of the annoying people would NOT shut up). But it didn't really matter that people were talking: we were close to an airforce base, so there were airplanes flying overhead the whole time, so I couldn't really enjoy the experience of "being one with nature." We also had to keep ducking from cars that were driving in the area; I'm surprised none of us got run over. This was supposed to be a time of self-reflection, but I do that a lot on my own anyway (through yoga, meditation, and prayer), so I didn't really get much out of this activity. And I was sleepy (i.e. cranky).

Yep, about 50 of us all slept in this one big tent.
FINALLY it was time for us to go to bed. We were all in one tent, which really surprised me, because I thought for sure we would be at least divided into girls' and guys' tents. All of our mattresses were so close together that there was barely any room to move around without stepping on someone or someone's mattress. Most of us made an effort to step around people and their things, but some absent-minded (or rude) folks simply stepped right on the middle of your mattress with their filthy shoes, as if you weren't about to LAY YOUR BODY AND HEAD RIGHT THERE. Anyway, I slept surprisingly well and slept through the entire night. Supposedly the other groups were being loud throughout the night, singing and playing music, but I didn't hear any of that. Thank goodness!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Movie Review: Focus [SPOILERS]

Image found here.
Redbox had a $1 off movie deal the other night, so I took advantage of it and rented Focus. I wasn't really sure what the movie was about, but I figured and were going to get it on, and that's hot.

Here's the story. Smith is a con-man (with a gambling problem), and Robbie wants to learn the trade. He teaches her, and they fall for each other. But he abruptly leaves her. Fast-forward three years. Smith is running a con for a race car driver (or race car owner/designer...?), and discovers that Robbie is dating that guy (i.e. sexy Karl in Love Actually). Seeing her again throws him off his game; Smith decides to con the man who paid him FOR the con out of jealousy. Smith begs Robbie to run away with him. As they're trying to get away, they are caught in the con and think they will be killed. We learn that Robbie was coning the race-car guy, too, and that Smith was conning her (sort of). He gets shot by his dad (pretending to be the race-car guy's bodyguard; I know, confusing), but he doesn't die, and the movie ends with Robbie walking Smith to the hospital.

Besides the incredibly hot cast, this movie is pretty boring. At first the whole part about her learning the art of the con is interesting. But you never really connect with the characters, there's very little action, and the movie just sort of ends without the film even telling a full story. The film feels like it's missing something (maybe focus?...See what I did there?), and the audience is left unfulfilled. A movie should transport you out of reality, but the whole time I was thinking "Why am I watching this movie? When is it going to be over?" I never got into the film and just felt "meh" about it. Two stars.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Other Woman [SPOILERS]

Image found here.
I had a Netflix night at home, and stumbled across The Other Woman. The only reason I was even interested in watching it was because Natalie Portman is in it. The entire movie is based on the dysfunction of this family; I can't stand dysfunction in real life or otherwise (read my blog post about the movie Remember Me). The plot goes like this:

Portman is a home wrecker and has an affair with a man she works with. His ex-wife (played by ) is insanely bitter and tries to turn her son again his step-mother. The son himself (played by ) is incredibly annoying and rude, using his mother's word to hurt Portman's feelings. The main issue that plagues everyone is that Portman's character lost her baby just days after the baby was born. Kudrow uses this to show that Portman is not a good mother; Tahan suggests selling the baby's things since she's dead and she wasn't even a real person (according to Jewish law). The death of her child haunts Portman, and at one point she even claims that she killed the baby! Her husband (i.e. the guy who married her because he got her knocked up) can't take all of the angst anymore, and Portman leaves. The movie tries to end somewhat happily when Kudrow and Portman have a moment of understanding, but it's not enough to save this sad story.

None of the relationships shown in this movie are happy (including that of Portman's parents: they got divorced because her father cheated), and quite frankly there is nothing redeeming about the film. Not even the costumes or the music or the cinematography are note-worthy. If you want to feel depressed and miserable, watch this movie. But otherwise, skip it. Portman has starred in many other films that are much better. I give this movie 1 star.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Movie Review: They Came Together

Image found here.

This idea behind this movie is a good one. Just how Scary Movie makes fun of horror films, They Came Together is meant to make fun of romantic comedies. But the main difference? Scary Movie is actually funny. I love romantic comedies, and a spoof is a brilliant idea! But this movie just doesn't pull it off. References to classics like When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, and Clueless simply re-do the old jokes/scenarios, but don't make them funnier or better. And the original jokes in this movie are horrible. The conversations saturated with sexual innuendos and comments about divorce between Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper are distasteful, and the childish humor of Christopher Meloni's character shitting his pants is just disgusting. There were too many uncomfortable moments and not enough legitimately funny bits to make up for them. AND there is absolutely no chemistry between Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd; their love for one another is not convincing! I'm just not buying it (plus, he's way cuter than she is).

Don't waste your time with this movie. And a side note: The Netflix show Wet Hot American Summer has a lot of the same cast members and is written by the same guys ( and ). Needless to say, the show is just as terrible as this movie. Don't both with either of them!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Day 5

The Yad Vashem building and grounds. Image found here.
After a lovely breakfast at the Orchid Hotel, it was time to head out. We started the day visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. "Yad" means "place" or "memorial," while "vashem" means "name;" this is a place for the names (or lack thereof) that were lost in the Holocaust. This Bible verse is on the museum's website:

"And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a "yad vashem")... that shall not be cut off."  -Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5

First I should talk about the architecture of the museum. You start off at the back of the museum (near the upper-right in the photo above); you're high up and it's well-lit. But as you travel through the museum, it becomes darker, and you're traveling downward, representing how things got worse over time. You zig-zig through the museum, back and forth across the main hallway, which mimics the confusion and chaos of the time during World War II. But as you get to the end of the museum, you are coming up and into the light again, and at the very end, the museum opens up to face the city of Jerusalem in Israel, a land created specifically for the Jewish people.

We were led on a guided tour, and any guide certainly affects your experience. Our guide was very focused on the history: the timeline of when things happened, where things happened on a map, the statistics and numbers of facts, etc. So we got a very analytical tour, rather than an emotional one. I thought for sure I would cry my way through the whole museum, but I didn't. I think I was overwhelmed for one (there was just so much to see, read, and learn that I didn't have a moment to just think about one thing), but we also skipped things that probably would have made me more upset; we skipped the videos in which Holocaust survivors tell their stories; those are the things that would have impacted me the most. So unfortunately we did not get to see everything in the museum, and the tour left something to be desired (well, if you wanted to cry...).

Hall of Remembrance. Image found here.
The last room in the museum is the Hall of Remembrance (or Hall of Names), which features photographs and facts about people who were killed during the Holocaust. It is amazing to see all of the pictures, especially when some of them resemble people you know. Underneath the dome of photos are shelves where documents containing information about these people are kept. You can see the binders on the left side of the picture above; the museum has facts about four million people who were lost in the Holocaust. But notice the empty shelves on the right: those represent the two million people whom we know nothing about, and probably never will.

The Children's Memorial. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
There is a separate memorial for the roughly 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. The room is very dark, and we had to hold onto a railing along the side of the room to get our bearings. The only sound you could hear was a voice reading off the names and ages of some of the children who were killed. In the center of the room, there are just a few candles that are lit. However, because of the many mirrors that are all around the interior of the room, the candle light is reflected, giving the impression of hundreds, even thousands, of candles. The real candles represent the children who died in the Holocaust; all of the reflected candles represent the generations that would have been were those original children not to have died in the first place.

Although I was not emotionally affected like I thought I would be, this was still a very somber experience, and we took some time after our visit to break into smaller groups and talk about our feelings, past experiences, etc. For example, I talked about how sometimes people say I'm not "really Jewish" because my mother isn't Jewish; I'm not particularly religious or closely connected to Judaism, but I do feel like a part of my identity is denied when people say that. One of our American guides said, "You would have been Jewish enough for Hitler." I think I'm going to use that response the next time someone tells me I'm not Jewish...

Afterward we went to another shopping mall for lunch. This was disappointing because I can visit a shopping mall in America whenever I want; I didn't travel halfway across the world to do that! But again, because of the heat, we needed a place that was indoors and air conditioned, so that's what we got.
Surfing in the Mediterranean. Picture by Taylor Arion.
After the serious morning, we got to have some fun surfing in the Mediterranean! It was nice to go to the beach in Tel Aviv and just enjoy the afternoon. After surfing, we went to our new hotel, the Metropolitan. It was quite fancy, and it was embarrassing to show up sandy and sweaty from the beach; we immediately had to go to dinner because we weren't given time to shower first. But the buffet was amazing (especially the stuffed grape leaves and the chocolate mousse!), and we all stuffed ourselves before going up to our rooms to clean up before our night out on the town.

Israeli beer called "Gold Star" (quite an awkward name...). Picture by Jocelyn Rubin.
Tel Aviv has the reputation of being a big party town, but since we were only out for a couple of hours (and were back at the hotel before midnight), we did not see the rowdy, crazy side of the city. I was actually looking forward to potentially visiting a disco-tech, but because we had to head in so early, that did not happen. So we simply broke up into smaller groups and went to a few bars. I drank a Coke in a glass bottle (yum!), and I did enjoy the company of the few people in our group. Again, this gave us the chance to get to know each other better, which was really nice. We ended the night with tequila shots (I felt no buzz whatsoever), and I almost thought I had lost my wallet, but it simply was hiding in another pocket of my purse (whew!).

We were delayed in getting back to the hotel because one of the girls from our group was missing. We spent at least 20 minutes on the street counting off and trying to figure out where everyone was. Later we learned that this girl had gone back to the hotel to hook up with a local Israeli she had met while surfing. So she delayed all of us from getting to bed because she was selfish and self-centered. Lovely.

But otherwise, an interesting, good day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Play Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Image found here:
I love Oscar Wilde, and while I couldn't really remember much about this story (I know I saw the movie before, but it was so long ago!), I did remember that I thought it was funny and cute. This version of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Atlas Performing Arts Center did not disappoint!

Algie and Jack. Image found here.
The set was quite pretty, with white terraces, wicker furniture, a tea table, and a lovely swing with vines climbing up the ropes. The set made you feel like you were in a garden or a sun room, which was very pleasant. The play started with the two butlers, Lane and Merriman, standing at the front of a stage (which was a bit awkward, since they stood there for some time just staring at us). Then we met Algie (played by Danielle Davy) and Jack (played by Nanna Ingvarsson); immediately we realized that women are playing the male roles! So that in itself is funny. We learn that Jack, who lives in the country, goes by the name of Ernest when he's in town (so he does not ruin his reputation when he is gallivanting about; he tells the people in the country that he goes to the city to visit his brother, Ernest!). The two men are talking when we meet Lady Bracknell (played by Brian Hemmingsen), who is Algie's aunt; we also meet her daughter, Gwendolyn (played by Graham Pilato). Seeing the men playing women is even funnier! So this is the story: Jack loves Gwendolyn, but Lady Bracknell will not hear of them marrying. But the two swoon over each other, and Gwendolyn confesses that she's always wanted to be with a man named Ernest. Jack then realizes that if he wants to be with Gwendolyn, he needs to change his name to Ernest and get rid of the fake brother he has invented.
Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. Image found here.
A parallel story continues. Algie visits Jack's home in the country under the name of Ernest (so that the household just thinks Jack's brother, whom they've never met, is in town). Here we meet Jack's ward, Cecily (played by Robert Sheire), her governess, Miss Prism (played by David Bryan Jackson), and Dr. Chasuble (played by Amie Cazel). Algie and Cecily immediately fall for each other (Algie's a scoundrel and Cecily loves the idea of a bad-boy). Jack comes home to tell the family that his brother Ernest is dead, just to find Algie is playing Ernest right there! To add to the funny mess, Gwendolyn comes to the country house, and when she meets Cecily, they find out that they are both engaged to Ernest! They realize they are not talking about the same person, and once the whole cast is back on stage, the truth comes out about their real names, who they really are, etc. But all ends well and both couples get to be together. The end!

Gwendolyn and Cecily. Image found here.
The actors were very good, and I laughed the whole way through. The characters of Gwendolyn and Cecily were a bit over-the-top, but I think that's what made them so hysterical! Combine the great acting, the funny situations, and the incredibly clever writing of Oscar Wilde, and you've got an amazing show! 5 stars!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Restaurant Review: H Street Country Club

Image found here.
I went to see a play at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (blog post about that to come), and I wanted to eat somewhere nearby before the show. I chose the H Street Country Club. Here are my thoughts.


-I was going with a friend who is vegetarian, so I wanted to pick a place that had several options for her. This restaurant offers a lot of vegetarian dishes, since all the tacos/enchiladas/burritos can be made with vegetables instead of meat. So that was great!

-Although the menu isn't very large, I did think the restaurant offered a good variety of Mexican food. I think there is something for everyone on the menu!

-Our waitress was really nice. She was friendly, very helpful, and she was honest (for example, I asked for sour cream, but she let me know that the restaurant charges for that).

-While my friend and I did not play the 9-hole miniature golf course upstairs, I do think the idea is cute (and very appropriate for the name!).


-While our waitress did a good job, the rest of the staff was pretty worthless. The bouncer who was carding customers was on his smoke break and had to rush over to card me before I walked into the restaurant. I was not greeted by a hostess or bartender when I walked in; I wasn't even offered a drink at the bar. There were between 5-10 staff members in the area when I arrived, and not a single one paid attention to me unless I asked them a question. What kind of customer service is that?

-We were eating during happy hour, so I figured I'd get one of their $5 margaritas. Well, there's a reason the drinks are only $5. I don't know if it's the tequila or the margarita mix, but the drink did NOT taste good; I just finished it because I had paid for it.

-This is one of those Mexican restaurants that doesn't offer you chips and salsa right off the bat when you sit down. You have to pay for those! And the guacamole was $9, and although it was homemade and tasted quite good, it did not measure up to other guac I've had before (Rosa Mexicano's is amazing and definitely worth the money).

-The tacos were okay (you can mix-and-match), but after having the mini-tacos at A.G. Kitchen, these paled in comparison. I didn't finish them and didn't bother taking leftovers home.

-The cuisine and the name of the restaurant do not go together. When I think of a country club, nothing about Mexico comes to mind. I think of plaid pants, sweater vests, old scotch and English-inspired nibbles. The juxtaposition just doesn't work for me.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Day 4 (The Sabbath, Thank God)

Because it was the Sabbath, we got to sleep in! I couldn't believe it, but I actually slept until 9AM! Then I rushed to breakfast because it ended at 10AM, and I knew I'd be grouchy if I didn't get breakfast. I enjoyed mostly pastries and fruit, and then headed to our group's yoga session (I was so glad we just happened to have a yoga instructor in our group!). I had never done yoga outside before, and I really enjoyed feeling the lush grass and practicing under the shade of a tree (but we were on a slope, which was not ideal). I was very relaxed afterward, especially since we had never had the time to stretch before or after our hikes/long walks during the previous days. I was also quite pleased when others complimented me on my yoga skills (I do practice it once or twice a week!).

Then we all met up, and the group was divided into many smaller groups. Each of our groups discussed the daily Torah portion (Yes, that's a thing. I didn't know that!). My group talked about how your attitude or perspective can affect the outcome of your life. We talked about being an optimist versus a pessimist (we found that the Israelis have a more negative outlook on things), and also discussed living in the moment and enjoying the company of those around you (I was actually one of the few people on the trip who didn't bring a cell phone with me.). Then it was already time for lunch, and we got to enjoy some of the same desserts from the night before (cakes, pies, tortes, oh my!).

Next we had more discussions. We talked about "Jewish Identity" and what that means (This again was a small group activity, but I think it should have been something we did individually, since identity is as much an individuality thing as it is a group mentality.). Of course you can think of "Jewish Identity" as a whole (i.e. for all Jews), but that can differ from what it means on a personal level. For me, my Jewish identity is solidified in my family and the celebration of holidays like Passover and Hanukkah. But for others it means keeping a kosher home, observing the Sabbath, marrying another Jewish person, etc. Our second discussion was to prepare us for our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. We did a shoe exercise where everyone took off one shoe and then others in the group had to describe the person who would wear that shoe (male, female, stylish, rich, etc.); this was to represent the fact that some of the only things left of the people who died in the Holocaust were items like their shoes. We also looked at images from the Holocaust, like the tattoos that survivors have on their arms or the emaciated bodies of the victims. The entire time we were talking, I kept thinking about the book Rena's Promise and how much I learned about the Holocaust through her story as a survivor.

Afterward we had some time to relax. Of course I like my "relaxing" time to be productive, but it wasn't. I couldn't fall asleep for a nap, and when I tried to read outside, one of the guys in my group insisted on having an awkward discussion about feminism (For example, he claims that birth rates amongst educated women are down because they claim they want to marry smart men but really they don't. Um, what?).

For dinner we got to go out on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and could choose where we wanted to eat. Many of us went to an Italian place called Focaccia. The food was amazing: goat cheese pizza, sweet potato ravioli and lasagna, and of course focaccia bread. Since we were in smaller groups, the dinner allowed us to get to know one another better, which was really nice. Then we had time to go shopping (many of the stores gave discounts for people visiting on Birthright trips). I found a beautiful menorah as well as gifts for family members. Then it was time to head back to our luxurious hotel for the night.

What a relaxing day! It was awesome!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Day 3

This is the view from Haas Promenade. The gold dome is the Dome of the Rock on top of Temple Mount. This is where Muhammad came down from heaven on a winged horse and where Abraham almost killed his son, Isaac.
I am happy to say that after Day 2, the trip really couldn't get any worse, so things could only get better from there. This next day we traveled to Jerusalem. We went to Haas Promenade first, where we could look over the city. There we learned about some of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, including the "security wall" (in Palestine it is seen more as an "apartheid wall"). The wall is meant to keep both groups safe, and in most places it's not actually a wall, but just a fence. We also discussed the old city of Jerusalem. It is divided into four sections: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian (we could only see the Jewish section on the Birthright trip).

Here is a view of the security/safety wall.
This is the Western Wall. Notice how much larger the men's side is on the left than the women's side.
Then we walked over to the Western Wall. Contrary to belief, this is not the western wall of the ancient temple. It is actually the western wall of the platform that was built around Temple Mount, and the temple was built on top of that platform. This space is used as a synagogue, and people go there to pray. Many people write down wishes or prayers on little pieces of paper, fold them up, and then find a crack in the wall to stick the notes in (the notes are eventually ceremoniously burned, though I am not sure how often that happens). People are crying and praying at the wall, and it can be overwhelming.

I will admit that visiting the Western Wall probably would not have meant much to me. However, our male American tour guide, Max, told a very touching story to us before we went. His dad got sick and passed away before his son had the chance to say goodbye. This haunted Max for a long time with "what ifs." He was on a trip to Israel after his father passed, and he visited the Western Wall. He had been before, and he never really thought much of it. But this one time, Max walked up to the wall to pray, and he felt this breeze and a moment of peace wash over him, and he knew his father was with him. (At this point, most of us in the group were crying.) Even though telling this story is about the only good thing this guy did on our entire trip, I am glad he shared it with us, because it made me respect my trip to the Wailing Wall and made it more meaningful.

The Orchid Hotel
At the end of the day, we headed to the Orchid Hotel. This hotel is on a resort kibbutz, and it was quite fancy (we weren't originally going to stay here, but our itinerary changed). There was a beautiful courtyard, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gym, a HUGE dining room...It was amazing! The food was very good, and such variety! AND they actually had desserts! They had small dessert plates, but I always took a dinner plate: I wanted to try everything! I think we were all very pleased with our accommodations.

Because it was Friday, we did Shabbat-related activities that night. We sang Hebrew songs (I knew none of them, but I was glad my sister and I weren't the only ones not singing.), and some participants shared their own stories about how they celebrate Shabbat (I've actually never observed the Sabbath before.). We also played some games, like charades and a sing-along (which weren't so bad).

This was a very good day, and I was looking forward to the next day because it was Saturday, the holy day for Jews. So I knew we'd get to relax and just hang out without running around like crazy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Day 2 (the longest day of my life)

This day almost killed me. We did SO much and were SO busy and I got SO frustrated that I kept thinking to myself, "Oh my God, I can't believe I have eight more days of this." So here we go...

Part 1: Hike down Mt. Arbel

Overlooking the Sea of Galilee from Mt. Arbel
This was a very rocky climb right next to the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful hike, but was more difficult than the one the day before; some people were lagging even 15-20 minutes behind because they couldn't keep up with the rest of the group. There were definitely some steep parts! Here are some more photos:

See the tiny person to the right. We started up at the top!
My sister and I are standing in a cave in the mountain; Jews came there to hide a long time ago.
So far, so good. Moving on...

Part 2: Visiting Tzfat (or Safed)

We then drove to the city of Tzfat. It is the highest city in Israel and is one of Israel's four Holy Cities (Tzfat is the home of Kabbalah). Tzfat is best known for its artisans, from painters and sculptors to jewelry makers and candle makers. Unfortunately, we had very little time here (maybe 30 minutes to go shopping). We had falafel for lunch (still not my favorite), and after shopping it was already time to leave. This town was so cool: I wish we had had more time to visit!

Here is a synagogue we visited; ladies had to cover their shoulders and legs. Notice the blue fences and windows: blue is a holy color in Judaism (hence the blue on the Israeli flag).
This is a holy arch in the synagogue from the 16th century.
This is some of the candle art we saw: Noah's ark with cartoon characters!
Then the day took an ugly turn...

Part 3: "Kayaking" on the Jordan River

For starters, I enjoy kayaking. I kayak for work and I like doing it in my free time. So I was looking forward to this activity. However, this was NOT kayaking. It was rafting with six people per boat with only two oars. This is like saying, "We're going to fly a kite," but really it's wind-surfing. These are two completely different things!

Does this look like kayaking to you? I don't think so.
I made sure to get in a boat with people who didn't want to get wet (some people were looking forward to flipping over, and I was NOT into that). Had it not been for other rafters, the ride would have been very pleasant; it's like a lazy river, and you could just float along. However, because of all the other people, it was like water bumper cars out there! Other rafts are bumping into you, pushing you into the sides of the river (it was quite narrow, actually), where you could get scratched and hit by branches and thorns. There was also A LOT of splashing, some by people we didn't even know! I did NOT want to get wet, and yet these strangers (and some of our fellow [juvenile] Israelis on the trip) kept splashing us to no end! Even yelling and cursing did not deter them; even the parents of small children did not reprimand them for splashing us! AND to top it all off, some stranger actually swam out from his raft to try to tip us over! I was mortified. We were yelling at him, and I swear, if he had held on to our boat for one extra second, I would have hit him square in the eye with the end of my paddle. After that, I was ready to be DONE. I paddled as hard and as fast as I could (my legs and arms were actually quivering from the exertion), and we were the first boat out of the water. Needless to say, I was SO glad the experience was over. At this point, the Israeli people themselves had not done a good job of winning me over, and at that moment I really couldn't wait for the trip to be over.

The night ended just like the others: dinner and then games. I ate quickly so I could shower and get that river water off of my skin and out of my hair. Later we played a name game, which I would have KILLED (I am one of those few people who's actually good with faces and names), but I wasn't going to compete for attention with the clowns in my group, so I let them have their fun. Then we did some improv comedy (which is very difficult, so I'm not sure why we did it), similar to "Who's Line Is It, Anyway?" Most of it wasn't funny (again, since most people aren't good at improv, including myself, who didn't even participate), and the only part I really liked was when one of the girls played a "Valley Girl" cow: "Like, moo!"

Ugh. End scene.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Movie Review: If I Stay [SPOILERS]

Image found here:
After I met up with a friend for dinner the other day, I decided to treat myself to a Netflix movie night (now that I have internet again. Yay!). I decided to watch If I Stay. I thought this was going to be a typical teenage romance story (I was imagining something like any of the movies based off of Nicholas Sparks' novels.).

But it was actually rather serious! At the beginning of the movie, the audience is just starting to get to know the female protagonist (played by Chloƫ Grace Moretz) when BAM! She and her family get in a horrible car crash. Now we are watching her spirit/ghost looking over the scene of the accident, screaming but no one can hear or see her. We take a trip to the hospital and eventually learn that both of her parents died in the crash. Then the movie goes back and forth between the present (her ghost along with her almost dead body) and flashbacks of the past. It's through the flashbacks that we learn about this girl's love for playing the cello, her interest in attending Julliard, and of course her relationship with her boyfriend (played by Jamie Blackley). It's young love between this naive high-school student and her older, rock-and-roll boyfriend. This part of the movie is fine (as long as you keep in mind that this is a movie and love between teenagers isn't really like that). We later learn that her younger brother died in the hospital, so it's just her now. Her ghost has to decide whether she wants to fight to live, or if she is ready to die since her family has been taken from her. The most touching part of the movie was when others come to visit her in the hospital. Her friend says, "We're your family," and her grandfather tells her that although he wants her to live, he understands if she has to go. At the end her boyfriend visits and plays her a song he wrote for her, and tells her she got into Julliard. At that moment, her eyes open, and you figure she's going to survive and they're going to live happily-ever-after. I knew they had to let her survive, otherwise this would be one depressing movie!

A few problems I had with some scenes:

1. At one point she gets stung by a bee on her hand. Her boyfriend suggests he sucks the stinger out WITH HIS MOUTH. First of all, that's snake venom you do that with, not bee stings. Also, the make-up for the bee sting looks more like a serious spider bite! So this scene was completely incorrect.

2. In one of the scenes, they are at a bar where her boyfriend's band is performing. They take shots at the bar. Keep in mind, she's STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL. Don't you think she would have been carded? And I'm not even sure his character is supposed to be 21 yet, either! Bars don't just go handing shots out to minors. Hmpf.

Three out of five stars. Not my favorite, but not bad.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Birthright Trip to Israel: Days 1-3

Photo by Taylor Arion
I just got back from a Birthright trip to Israel, and I promised some blog posts about it, so here is the first one! I am clumping the first three days together because the first two days were mainly travel (and since we were traveling forward in time, it was like we missed a day).

Our group met at Dulles and instantly started mingling and sizing each other up (though ice breaker games were mandatory, sadly. Luckily Starbursts were involved.). We flew from Dulles near DC to Brussels, and then we went on to Tel Aviv. In total, this takes about 14-15 hours. The seats were not very comfortable on Brussels Airlines, but each seat had its own monitor where you could watch movies or TV shows, or even play games, so that part was fun (although the audio on my monitor didn't work, so watching movies/TV was out for me). You also get several meals (I think on our flight across the Atlantic we got dinner and two breakfasts!). Although airplane food isn't awesome, I do like free food (and since Southwest Airlines never offers meals, this was a nice change). We had BBQ chicken and rice for dinner (with still-frozen veggies on the side; we also got pita bread and marinara sauce, as if we were supposed to pretend the pita was actually mozzarella sticks); breakfast was all carbs: a bagel, croissant, and TWO muffins (and still-frozen orange juice). When we landed in Brussels, we had a short layover (Note: the bathrooms in the airport almost mimic the bathrooms from an airplane. Ew!). For our connecting flight, our plane was not at the gate, so we had to take a shuttle to the airplane. I felt so nauseous that I took a Dramamine, and then I was knocked out for the whole second flight. I was so tired that I couldn't even eat my meal; the flight attendants kept trying to take it away from me, but I insisted on taking it with me. I didn't know when our next meal was going to be, so I wanted to save what I could!

FINALLY we arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv (another bathroom note: they're not into toilet paper at this airport; luckily a stranger was nicely handing out tissues for us to use). Our American group leaders from Shorashim left a bunch of us behind to find our own way through the airport, but we figured it out (thank goodness!). We could not get our passports stamped because many other countries will not let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport; instead we got little pieces of paper. We quickly got our bags, and then were greeted with singing and dancing from our Israeli comrades (with Shorashim, you get to experience the trip with young Israelis for the entire ten days); one of them was dressed like a camel, FYI. We exchanged our money (essentially four shekels equals one dollar), and got on our bus. Then we were on this bus for several hours before reaching our hostel in the northern part of the country. By the time we arrived it was late at night, and we still had to eat dinner and then play ice breaker games before we were able to go to bed. Keep in mind that most of us had not showered, washed up, brushed our teeth, etc. for more than 24 hours! Ugh...

This was our home-away-from-home on this trip. We traveled everywhere in it! All 50 of us!
This very tall man in Slava, our bus driver. How he made it through some of those little streets in a charter bus is beyond me!
Welcome to our first hostel!
Our hostel in Peki'in was very nice. I had never stayed at a hostel before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Three people were assigned to each room (though the rooms are meant to fit five), and each room had its own bathroom (divided into three "mini" rooms for sinks, the shower, and the toilet, which made it very easy for three people to share). There was also a patio where people could relax, and some of the rooms even had their own balconies! And of course there was a large dining room; there we enjoyed our buffets breakfasts and dinners.

View from our hostel.
Speaking of food: It was not all that. Breakfast was so-so. On the poor side: mediocre scrambled eggs; weird cheese; bland French toast; hard boiled eggs (for breakfast?); bread (no toaster for toast). On the good side: cereal; whole milk; pudding! (instead of yogurt. A much better choice, I think). Dinner was pretty much the same: some sort of meat (fish, schnitzel, no pork obviously); tomato and cucumber salad; hummus. And NO dessert after dinner. Hmpf!

This is what much of the Israel country side looks like.
Anyway...Onto the first full day of our trip. After filling my belly with pudding, we started off the day with a hike on the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve. Since it was quite hot (it was after all August in the Middle East), we were told to wear hats and sunscreen, and to drink lots of water; this became a daily routine for us. The landscape is very arid, so we saw lots of plants that you won't see on the eastern United States (everything there looks sort of like southern California, actually). The hike wasn't too difficult, just hot, and there was a spring where we could go swimming to cool off.

Hiking in an Israeli national park
Swimming hole
After the hike, we went to a shopping center for lunch (this was not unusual for this trip). My sister and I had salads, since it had seemed like ages since we had eaten some healthy food; we also got chocolate milk shakes to balance the meal (and then one of our fellow Israeli trip-mates drank some of my shake without asking. Rude!). Once we were done eating, it was time to head to Har Bental, the top of the Golan Heights. Here we could see the border of Syria, and we talked about the conflict over the Golan Heights (it's high in elevation, so strategically good to have for war). We could even hear bombs going off (though they were far away; we weren't in danger).

Syria is in the distance.
We were standing on an old bunker. We were actually on the edge of the mouth of an ancient volcano.
Next we went onto see Mitzpe Gadot, a war memorial for the soldiers of the Yom Kippur War and the first war with Lebanon (1982). It sits on top of what used to be a Syrian fortress. Here we learned about the history of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who worked as the Chief Adviser to the Minister of Defense in Syria and was key in helping Israel win the Golan Heights.

It is a Jewish tradition to leave rocks on a memorial or tombstone. It represents that someone has visited, and rocks last longer than flowers.
Then we got back on the bus to go back to the hostel. This is when I learned how annoying the Israelis in our group were: they would sing 90's pop songs, take pictures of you, and touch you, all while you were trying to sleep! I couldn't believe how rude and immature they were. Ugh, don't get me started...

Once we were back at the hostel, I wrote a blog post about our day for the group. Each of us HAD to join a "committee" to do different things (write blog posts, help design the group T-shirt, remind us to drink water...); I'm under the impression that the purpose of these committees was to have the participants (i.e. us) do the work that our American group leaders were too lazy to do themselves. But at least I already blog in my free time, so this task was easy. Then I got my first real shower (it felt so good to be clean!) before we had to do more group activities. The games included "2 Truths and a Lie" (not so bad) and then creating a dance for an Israeli song of our choice (HORRIBLE). This was the moment I realized that this trip is less of an educational, cultural experience and more of an adult summer camp...NOT my idea of a good time.

 And then we were finally able to go to sleep. And this was just the beginning.

Some facts about Israel:
-Israel was founded as an independent country in 1948.
-It's about the size of New Jersey.
-There are 8 million people who live there (about the same number of people in New York City!).
-Roughly 6.5 million of those people are Jewish; the rest are Muslim, Christian, or part of other religious minorities.