Category Archives: generosity

“It’s not good to be alone…”

I thought I was done with huge amounts of food for a few days, but apparently not.  Last night my roommate went to a family she met through her fieldwork for dinner.  She had told them about me, and my name must have come up soon after she arrived at their house, so shortly after that I received a phone call – “Karen, you have to come.  They’re saying it’s not good to be by yourself on Shabbat.”

So, having just finished my home-cooked dinner, I went over to this family’s house for another meal.  I arrived right in time for the Friday night Kiddush, after which the table started groaning under the weight of challah, chicken with potatoes, stuffed peppers, a variety of different salads, hummus, tchina, pieces of pargiot (grilled chicken pieces, literally meaning “young chicken” [or maybe “spring chicken”??], peas, cooked chickpeas, rice, pasta, corn, and couscous.

After dinner was over, out came wine, vodka (which everyone was drinking with a Red Bull-equivalent), various kinds of nuts, and two different kinds of home-made cookies.  A little later our host’s wife brought out various sliced fruits, as well.

Now keep in mind that I had already eaten a full serving of my rice and lentils at home when my roommate called telling me to come over.  So I tried to keep my food intake fairly light…but our host literally kept putting food on my plate.  Literally -I kid you not.  As in, he would take a bowl of something, and scoop some of whatever was in the bowl onto my plate.  “Why aren’t you eating more?” seemed to be the refrain of the evening.

Oof.  This morning consisted of a nice long run and and bowl of oatmeal to counter the effects of that much food in the last three days.

Our hosts were great people, and it was really interesting for me to meet this whole family (of Yemenite descent), talk to them, and learn a bit about their Friday night traditions, which differ quite a bit from the ones I’m familiar with.  But the most prominent characteristic of the whole family was their insistence on my presence last night (and their invitation to myself and my roommate to join them for this morning’s meal).

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase, “It’s not good to be alone.” I heard it last night from my hosts, and I’ve heard it several times in the past few weeks – for example, from a family friend who invited me to her home for Yom Kippur, so I “won’t be alone on the holiday.” When I said to her that I might stay here in Tel Aviv, the response was, “Well, if it’s worth it for you to be by yourself…”.

I am realizing (ore perhaps re-realizing) that one of the biggest differences between Israel and the USA is the extent to which collectivity is emphasized, in the form of regular family gatherings, extended family gatherings, invitations to extended meals, etc.  The notion of spending a weekend by oneself – which I am happy to do after a week of running around meeting people and conducting interviews – is almost unheard of.  I’ve been pushing myself to go with the flow and accept the invitations I receive – but I have to say it is absolutely exhausting.

So it’s really, really nice to be able to spend today – Saturday – in the quiet of my own apartment, with only the food I prepare for myself.  At least, that’s the case right now.  Who knows what the rest of the day may bring…


“…and on Wednesday I’m in Turkey…”

I’ve been trying for the past few days to think of a way to describe Israeli culture to you.  It’s been hard, in no small part because I have trouble “stepping out” of my life here – a life I’ve lived many times – and describing it from an outsider’s perspective.  But I’m going to try, in bullet point form.  Hopefully this will give you a taste of the life I’m living right now:

1.  The bluntness and kindness of strangers. My roommate and I have been talking over the interactions we have with strangers, primarily vendors working in the neighborhood market.  On the one hand, in true Israeli form, everyone is blunt.  “Oh, it’s your birthday? How old are you?” (A question you’d never hear in the USA).  “What are you doing here? Why?” The directness of people’s questions, and statements, never fails to surprise me.
On the other hand, it’s impossible not to notice how kind everyone is here.  I’ve mentioned Middle Eastern hospitality more than once on this blog – it is truly a recurring theme in my life here.  Every question I ask is met with an answer and often an invitation for coffee or tea, or more questions, or help…every person I know asks if I have someplace to go for the חגים, the Jewish High Holidays coming up in a few weeks.  When people discover my research topic, (assuming their politics align with mine), I receive names and numbers and emails of someone they know who works in this field and can help.  Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful to all the people I know, and the ones I’ve just met, who are instinctively so willing to do whatever they can to make my time here easier, productive, and interesting.

2. Relative sizes and distance. I spent this weekend with family friends – good friends of my mom, their children, and their grandchildren (10 of them! 8 under the age of 6!).  These friends and their children all happen to live on the same moshav,  a small settlement about 50km (30 miles) from Tel Aviv.  At some point during the weekend something was said about a cousin who lived in Tel Aviv, rather than on this moshav, and how far away he was.  I guess it’s all relative. Now that we’re back in New York (well, when we get back to the USA), Neil and I will live about 20 miles from my parents – and we feel like it is very close! (In a good way, of course).

On a similar note, I was speaking with one member of the family and she was telling me her work schedule for the week – Sunday and Monday off (Sunday is a work day here), Tuesday meetings, and Wednesday in Turkey for a meeting.  As in, the country.  For a single meeting.   I keep forgetting that most of Europe is about a 3 hour flight from here – Turkey for a single meeting really isn’t that unusual.  Anyway, in case it wasn’t obvious, that comment was the source for the title of this post.

3.  Produce and street food.  And fast food.  I’ve been basking in the deliciousness of Israeli produce, cheeses, and food in general.  There is a vegetable market about 5 minutes from my apartment where I can get several tomatoes, a few cucumbers, carrots, a head of broccoli, and maybe some plums and/or peaches for under 10 shekels (Israeli currency) – about $2.50.  It really puts produce in the USA – even organic, locally grown produce, which I try to find where I can – to shame.  Almost everything is grown here, in Israel, the whole of which is only about 1000km (~600 miles) from its northern to its southern tip.  OK, so maybe the produce travels a bit more than it does to the Bloomington farmer’s market – but local Indiana produce can’t hold a finger to this stuff in terms of taste and color – and price!

Israeli street food is a whole other matter.  I mentioned burekas in a previous post (and I’ve eaten some by this point), and you all probably are aware of falafel and shwarma…but the possibilities here are endless! Jews from all over the world brought their cuisine to this country and it shows up on street corners – everything from Central Asian to Iraqi to Persian and Moroccan cuisine.  Not to mention the more recent addition of pizza shops, ice cream shops, and of course the ubiquitous coffee shops in this country…

Much of the street food is what I consider “fast food” – something to eat when I don’t have time for or interest in cooking, cheap, filling, and relatively unhealthy (although healthier for sure than most of what constitutes fast food in the United States).  Places like McDonald’s, on the other hand, are reserved the status of “a place to go hang out” by teenagers and families alike.  For example, the same woman who told me she was heading to Turkey for a single meeting was talking about taking her grandchildren to McDonald’s as an activity.  It is an interesting phenomenon and one I don’t quite understand – I mean, the food here is so good and varied, why McDonald’s? (By the way, for those of you who are interested, Starbucks tried to open a few stores here, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and totally failed – there are too many local chains, way, way too many local chains, for Starbucks to have succeeded).

And…that’s it for now on cultural observations – more to come in the coming months.  I can also say at this point that my research is starting to get off the ground.  For example, today I received a list of over 600 (!) people to contact as potential interviewees.  Unfortunately I won’t be able to share much of my research here because of confidentiality issues (I don’t think trees receive the same ethical protection as people!), but I will post bits and pieces as I can.  Mostly I am glad that things are starting to move forward, even if it is clear already that they will not proceed as I planned way back in the day when I was sitting in Indiana only thinking about Israel! The best laid plans and all that…

back to middle eastern hospitality…

i wrote last year about the hospitality and warmth i felt when i tried to speak Arabic with people i met in east Jerusalem.  and i will write about it again now – since the trait clearly spans religious and ethnic divides in this part of the world.

my roommate and i spent much of today wandering the neighborhood, looking for the basic things that must be purchased when moving into a new apartment (drying racks, towel racks, waste baskets, and the like).  G, my roommate, has already been in Tel Aviv for a week, and managed to make a few friends wandering the area prior to my arrival.  one of these, a lovely, older shopkeeper at a spice shop, invited her for tea – and myself as well, once he met me.  so, other than our wanderings, much of today (i would estimate close to 2 hours) was spent sitting in his shop, sipping on tea infused with his spices, nibbling on dates and walnuts, and chatting with him about our life and his, the neighborhood, and life in general.

about an hour into our conversation, he invited us to come to his mother’s house for Persian food.  twenty minutes later, he himself offered to cook us specialty Persian dishes.  and i just met him this morning!

Our friend the shopkeeper was by far the most generous of the friends i met/made today, but everyone around, in the most genuine way, offers his/her help (and advice, but i guess the two can’t really be separated around here).  it’s wonderful (though i imagine the advice part will start to grate on me soon).

i feel like i’m really back ‘home’.  i guess the fact that i defrosted the freezer in my apartment today helps with that, too 🙂

the deepness of Mongolian generosity

i kid not, the title doesn’t do justice to the depth of Mongolian generosity.

i have long known how generous Mongolians are. i’ve known it now for more than a decade. but, what happened yesterday still brings tears to my eyes.

on my first trip to Mongolia, i studied up on Mongolian culture via Lonely Planet. they said how if you showed up at a ger [also known by the Russian moniker, yurt] and the family fed you or let you spend the night and you tried to pay them, it was considered rude. this was really hard to take on the first trip. ‘mericans, in general, like to give as well and really like to give money as a gift. so, when you show up at someone’s home and they put on a big spread, and you can tell they obviously have little monetary assets [and you often see a couple of children running around], you really want to give back some how; to at least show your appreciation. it is hard not to do that.

it is hard not to do that when you show up at someone’s house and they drop what they are doing, no matter what, pour you a nice bowl of piping hot Mongolian tea [1/2 milk, black tea, perhaps some butter and salt in the west (little to no salt in the east)]. this offering is quickly followed up by a big bowl of hard candy and, often, a bowl of dried yogurt and cheese. if you stay for nearly an hr and it is August, airag [fermented mare’s milk] will be pulled out and a small drinking ceremony begins. airag is roughly 1.5%, so it isn’t overwhelming, alcohol-wise. if you stay longer, let’s say for 2-3 hrs, they will cook you a meal.

and here is the tricky thing: the longer you stay, the more they give. you don’t want to leave quickly for seeming rude. and, back in the 1990s when westerners were rare, they enjoyed the company and were very curious of us. more so, they wanted to share what they could share with their American guests. having an American in your home was seemingly a great thing – almost a thing of pride. we’d talk, ask questions back and forth, joke…etc.

in reflection, their generosity is an amazing thing, especially during the slightly ‘hunger years’ of the post-communism 1990s.

what we would often do during the 1990s was pull out the Polaroid and take pictures of the family with us and give them to them. these pictures immediately went up on the bureau that was full of family pictures from the past 30-50 years. we could often study family trees via this display. there were the parents of the grandparents in this home. there are the pix of the grandparents newly married or entering the military. there are the parents and their siblings and then some pictures of children.

and then there was our picture with them. right up there with the family pictures. it was an amazing thing to me.

ahh, but that was 11 yrs ago in rural, western Mongolia where few people lived and fewer westerners visited. what about today?

today, i can tell you, that among my colleagues, their families and friends, the generosity culture has not worn thin with rapid cultural change & westernization. our host sleeps very little when we are in town. he does EVERYTHING for us – everything to make our visit successful, enjoyable and comfortable. and, he is the head of his department in the #1 university in Mongolia. his students work just as hard.

so, what happened yesterday, however, just blew all of this experience and knowledge away.

i hosted a Mongolian student for about 3 months in the spring. on this trip she said many times that she wanted me to meet her parents. as time was short before i left, i suggested that next yr would be better. she didn’t give up [and heard through the grapevine she shed some tears when her supervisor suggested the same thing – it was that important]. so, as the August crew was headed through her parent’s town to conduct one more field trip, we decided to follow them out for lunch at the parent’s house.

lunch – HA!

it was Thanksgiving. out came the Mongolian tea [unfortunately for me, no salt – i like salty, Mongolian tea]. then the candy [hershey’s kisses, tootsie rolls & hard candy, no less]. then, khushuu [fried meat dumplings about 2.5″ wide X 4-5″ long X 0.5″ thick]. then, pickles. then, “Russian” salad [pickled carrots, peppers and some other veggies – kinda sweet, very nice]. then, orange juice. then fresh airag – the best airag i’ve had yet in my five visits. her father wasn’t eating much. when i asked why, he said he was waiting for the real food….i instinctively stopped eating. this was the warm up. out came nicely cooked mutton on a large platter. again, the best mutton i’ve had in Mongolia. the platter about about 18″ in diameter. the food was piled up about one foot. it also had carrots and potatoes. it was very fine. after a few minutes, the drinking ceremony started for real. first airag. then, suddenly, unexpectedly, out came Elijah Craig bourbon. she knew this was my favorite bourbon and somehow got it all the way to eastern Mongolia from Kentucky. all carry on….well, this really hit the spot. so, i partook more than usual to show appreciation.

though we cannot pay, we can show our appreciation by knowing the rituals and eating & drinking deeply. even if you are painfully shy and do not eat much, you can make this all up by draining a bowl of beverage in one slug. thus, i did this.

after about 30 minutes, a blue scarf came out. these blue scarves are sacred. you can find them on sacred trees and oovas. they wrapped the scarf around a copper drinking bowl filled with what i thought was airag, but turned out to be milk [whew! i knew i had to drink deeply again]. they gave the first one to our Mongolian host and then a second one to me.

well, i was touched and drank very deeply. i drank all of it.

but, the bowl, scarf and honor was not the real gift. as i was finishing, they informed me that my student’s parents bought each of us a horse. really. seriously. a horse. there is a horse in the country side that i ‘own’. seriously.

[her Mongolian teacher, our host, actualy has his choice between a cow or a horse]

“my” horse is only a young horse right now, apparently. when the student sees it, she will take a picture. i was/am stunned. it took about 10 minutes to understand what happened. the copper bowl, scarf and honor was enough. it was so hard to accept it. i made a crude joke to try to ease my feelings. i said that next yr i would eat it [horse really tastes good]. they said no, that it would live out its natural life on the Mongolian Steppe. so, i was then shamed again.

“of course i wouldn’t eat it!”, i clarified. they joked i could race in Nadaam next yr. while i am still young-looking for my age, i think they will notice that a) i am not Mongolian [that might be a close one. i might be able to sneak through] and b) i am a bit older than the other riders, who are typically 6-10 yrs old.

but, think about it. i hosted and trained their daughter. i taught her some field and lab methods. she created three chronologies for me and assisted my students. i only taught her a little bit. i’m actually kinda embarrassed at the host i was during her visit compared to how i am treated in Mongolia. it is embarrassing.

but really, think about it. what they essentially gave me was a car. the horse in Mongolia is the equivalent of a car in the U.S. they gave me a car for doing my job, a job i wish i had performed better before the horse.

i was stunned for the next three hrs [i still am when i think about it]. i cried, internally, for hrs.




last night over dinner my host said that when you are fed in Mongolia, you are supposed to feed those feeding you more than what you were fed next time you have the chance.

what do i do? any ideas?



yesterday was really an emotional day for me. the horse is obvious. after we parted from the August crew, however, my host and i headed back to Ulaanbaatar, we first stopped at the Kherlen Gol [gol = river]. i went to wash my face, hands and neck in Kherlen water. this is a river i had never seen before, but i am deeply connected to. see, this river was the main subject of my first, true scientific paper. it is a paper with a long personal history. it was initially & harshly rejected by reviewers on the DAY i was accepted into my phd program. it was a day when i wondered if the path i was now moving along was the right one for me.

eight years later i have to say yes. washing in the Kherlen brought full circle the real beginning of my scientific career and my initial ventures in Mongolia