Friday, 8 June 2012

Back Home from the Adventure

Thinking how lucky I am” was the blog post I wrote on March 5 and is the one out of forty five which got the highest readership. Sitting at home now, about a week after coming back, I don’t think that it is a coincidence: I am so incredibly lucky to have had the chance to experience such an intense and interesting and validating experience, and so lucky to have Rafi be so incredibly supportive. I thank G-d every day for this, and more.

As I clean up my desktop of all the notes I was leaving myself with regards of the trip, I came across the doc where I was jotting down blog topic ideas, and realized how much I did not capture.

There were so many interesting people I met who had important things to say that I did not profile; so many big and little observations about the differences and similarities between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora as well as with people in general; so many restaurants I did not list (OK, not too many of those); so many newspaper articles I read and which helped me understand a little bit more of what was going on. Plus I only captured 1% of the exhilarating intensity of the can-do/let's-do business atmosphere there... So many things I experienced that I did not get a chance to blog about.

It was truly the experience of a lifetime.

I often think that non-Jews see Jews as a monolithic when we definitely are not, and now I realize that we do the same when we think of Israel.

In reality, I experienced how Israel is made up of so many internal rifts and fractures that it  remains a true miracle how the country comes together - especially in times of crisis. As several people I met put it: "We were always 12 Tribes."

But they do come together and are welcoming of new people. While I was there, I felt completely engaged with the zeitgeist and that is the gift I will always cherish.

One of the most important things I was told was that even after three months in Israel, trying to be as much as possible a 'local' and not a tourist, I remain "naive about Israel."

I have been thinking hard about this since then and I decided it is a compliment.

I love the idea of Israel and all it stands for; I love the reality of the complexity of the country; I love the people (including the staff and processes at the Post Office and at Arkia Airlines); I love the sunshine.  After three months, the little Stars of David in my eyes may have begun to fade a bit and take on a more realistic shape, but the experienced only helped me believe more and more intensely.

How lucky and grateful I am -- indeed!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Last post...? Nah.

Last night I had my last dinner out. I went with Emanuela to Container in Jaffo, a great restaurant on the port. We ate fish outdoors, overlooking the tugboats. The one right in front of us was named the “Mazal Tov” (and thank you for that, I thought).   Becoming friends with Emanuela has been terrific; she has so much energy and is so much fun to be with. She gave me a few Hamsas as goodbye gifts. I was really touched.

One more sleep and I fly home. I still have half my clothes out of the suitcase "just in case I want to wear them."

Sunset in Jaffo, Tugboat named the Mazal Tov
With Emanuela
Right now I have a quick catch up post to do.  Until Rafi arrived, I was blogging pretty much every night. When he got here, I had something better to do with my evenings so I missed blogging for a couple of weeks – and never really got caught up. I need to do this now, before I return home when I will cease my blogging-for-fun (my work blog will start -- but I doubt it will be as much fun).

While Rafi was here, one very interesting excursion we did was our trip north, to the Galilee. We left on a Friday morning, April 26, after renting a car - with GPS of course. The GPS wasn't charged and the cable was a bit loose so, without a map, I was afraid it would cut off mid-way and we’d end up in the wrong place. So I decided to also try out Waze. Waze is a free, community-based traffic & navigation app I had downloaded to my Blackberry. Everyone here is crazy about as it includes crowdsourcing to also offer traffic conditions in real time and modifies suggested routes accordingly. 

Because I did not rent a car here, I hadn't used Waze before so it took me a while to clue in that the second voice and set of directions  I was hearing was not coming from the car GPS but from my Blackberry. This would have been fine if both systems had been giving us precisely the same set of directions, which they were not. Let's just say that we took the slow and scenic route out of Tel Aviv.

Our first stop was Caesarea. Located mid-way between Tel Aviv and Haifa (45 km), on the Israeli coastal plain, Caesarea is the site of Roman, Byzantine and Crusader archeological ruins, turned into a national park. To me, the most interesting aspect of it is that they try to use the site for more than destination tourism, so they stage concerts and plays in the amphitheater as well. 

Overlooking the bay in Cesarea
For example, early in May (and I only found out about it afterwards, by reading the papers) there was a Shlomo Artzi (a famous local singer) concert in Caesarea which Gilad Shalit attended. Shalit was invited to sing Artzi's song “Melech Ha’olam” (King of the world), which was the singer's signature song for the release of the Israeli soldier during his five years in Hamas captivity. I cannot imagine there was a dry eye for miles around. Here is a link to the Concert for Gilad Shalit, and here is a link to a home-made video of the actual event. Very moving, if you know about Gilad Shalit's 5-year ordeal.

The (empty) amphitheater
The town was built by Herod the Great about 25-13 BCE. We stopped there just long enough to have coffee and take in the gorgeous seaside archeological sites. Principal ruins include a theatre dating back from Herod's time, a roman racehorse track and the amphitheater which is where they stage plays and concerts.  

Leaving the amphitheater
"We are all Tourists" but at least I did not have to wear a funny red hat
While it is a beautiful setting and the ruins are very well preserved, it is a very touristy place, so by the time we left the tour buses were arriving and it was getting crowded.

From Cesarea we drove to Akko. I had been there before, for a short couple of hours, and now wanted to enjoy the place with Rafi and at a more leisurely pace. So what did we do? We immediately went to their highly acclaimed restaurant Uri Buri. 

The restaurant is set in an old Turkish house facing the open sea, with small, informal rooms decorated with Arabic touches. We were told repeatedly by locals, including Emanuela who knows everyone (and asked that we send regards to Uri) that its owner/chef Uri Yirmias is the secret sauce behind this place.  The waitress encouraged us to order half-portions so we could sample the menu. What? Half portions!? Rafi went for the major tasting menu where one can order additional half-portions of what you liked best.  It was all delicious and “well worth the detour,” to paraphrase the Michelin Guide.

At Uri Buri
Sampling the multi-course menu at Uri Buri
Groupie-shot: Rafi with Uri
Outside the restaurant, facing the sea
After such a lunch, we had to walk around Akko's old town. The most interesting part was, of course, the Shuk.

Bread-making in real time (for sure not the 'no-knead' recipe)
Fresh fish anyone?
From Akko we drove farther north to Nahariya, a resort town of around 30,000, founded by German Jews in 1934.  In the 1940s, Nahariya was a landing spot for illegal immigrant ships, smuggling refugees from Europe to Palestine behind the British' backs.
Due to its geographic location, down the coast from Israel's border with Lebanon, Nahariya has been a frequent target of cross-border terrorist attacks by today's Palestinians, especially mortar attacks and Katyusha rocket fire during the 1970s. 
The incident that is imprinted in everyone’s mind of course, is the 1979 Nahariya attack, where four Palestine Liberation Front terrorists used a small, 55 horsepower boat to travel from Tyre, Lebanon to Israel, resulting in the cruel and horrible deaths of Israelis: Upon landing on the beach, the terrorists found two separate police officers and killed them. The group then entered an apartment building, broke into the apartment of the Haran family, took 31 year-old Danny Haran hostage along with his four year-old daughter. The mother, Smadar, was able to hide in a crawl space with her two year-old daughter, and a neighbor. Tragically, Smadar accidentally suffocated her daughter to death while attempting to quiet her whimpering, which would have revealed their hiding place. The group’s leader, Kuntar, took Danny and his daughter down to the beach where he shot Danny at close range in the back, in front of his daughter, then proceeded to kill the girl by smashing her skull against the rocks with the butt of his rifle.

Kuntar and another member of the group were captured -- and were later set free in prisoner swap deals between Israel and Lebanese militant organizations.  In an interview in 2008, Kuntar stated that: "There is a disease in this region called 'the state of Israel,' which we refer to as 'the plundering entity.' If we do not put an end to this disease, it will follow us, even if we flee to the end of the world. So it's better to get rid of it." In a subsequent interview, Kuntar stated that "and God willing, I will get the chance to kill more Israelis."

Something to think about next time we read about Palestinian prisoner swaps.

Today, the city is a popular place for UN peacekeeping troops from Lebanon to go for R&R. Since Emanuela grew up there, I had heard lots of stories from her of how down-market it had gone (all true).  Rafi and I walked down the beach promenade and had a coke. The landscape is beautiful and it has wide, sandy beaches, but I did not feel like taking pictures.

Nahariya Beach at sunset (picture stolen from the web)
Form Nahariya we drove to one of the the highlights of the trip experience, Rakefet, where Ruth, one of the nicest people I have met here, had invited us to join her family for Friday night dinner and to spend the night before driving to Tiberias the next day.

If you have not heard of Rakefet, not to worry, neither had I.  Rakefet is a very small community in the Galil, part of the Misgav Regional Council.

This next part is a bit confusing, but very interesting and quite different than the way we organize ourselves at home:

This region is noted for the way that Jewish and non-Jewish communities live side-by-side. The Misgav Regional Council, home to 22,000 people, comprises 35 small towns. These are mostly “community settlements” but also several Kibbutzim and Moshavim. The population of 29 of these 35 is primarily Jewish, and 6 are Bedouin. In addition, the region has a number of Arab towns (not part of the regional council) that are considered separate local councils.  Neither is the city of Karmiel, which lies in the heart of the Misgav region but does not belong to the regional council. (The population of Karmiel alone is more than twice that of the entire Misgav Regional Council.)

Rakefet, where Ruth and her family live, is a community settlement. This is a type of town in Israel. While in an ordinary town anyone may buy property, in a community settlement the town's residents, who are organized in a cooperative, can veto a sale of a house or a business to an undesirable buyer.  This way, residents of a community settlement who may have a particular shared ideology, religious perspective, or desired lifestyle they wish to perpetuate can do so by accepting only like-minded individuals. (For example, a religiously-oriented community settlement that wishes its members do not use cars inside the community on Shabbat. Residents can drive on Shabbat, but they must leave their cars outside the community gate.)

In a North American context, it sounds a lot like a gated community, but with a cooperative philosophy which is very prevalent in Israel's history, and is making a come back after last summer's protests.

Beautiful view of the Galil - while lost in Rakefet
Ruth had given us excellent, very detailed instructions on how to reach her home in Rakefet (Exhibit A: After about 200 meters turn right. Count road bumps – after the third road bump turn right at the first opportunity, and right again at the “T). 

Rakefet, home to about 800 people in beautiful single-detached homes with lovely and well-kept gardens, has only recently applied to get streets names. With her instructions -- and the GPS -- we did fine until we actually reached Rakefet. After a few attempts at finding her house, we had to surrender and phone her to come get us from the main gate.

Rafi with Ruth and her husband Yaakov outside their home
I do not want to reveal any private conversations or family details, but I can only say that staying in Ruth and Yaakov's home felt precisely like what I had expected staying in an Israeli family's home would be like. None of the Tel Aviv or Jerusalem types of nonsense that sometimes feels to me to be so non-Israeli and shallow and at odds with what the State of Israel is/should be all about.

We got to meet a few of Ruth and Yaakov's grown children, all of them very good looking, interesting, self-assured and willing to give of themselves so generously for the betterment of the country. Their family is wonderful and I am so grateful that we got to spend time with them, talk to them, and see for ourselves what keeps the country together.  (And besides, the food was fabulous too!)

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast we drove to Tiberias, with first a stop in Nazareth.

Rafi in front of Makam al-Nabi Sain Mosque of Nazareth
Nazareth is the largest city in the North District of Israel. Nazareth is known as "the Arab capital of Israel" and its population is made up predominantly of Arab citizens of Israel, the majority of whom are Muslim.  In the New Testament, the city is described as the childhood home of Jesus, and as such is a center of Christian pilgrimage, with many shrines commemorating biblical events.
The Basilica of Annunciation (stolen from the web)
As we were on our way to Tiberias, we drove around and only made a few stops.  We arrived in Tiberias just in time for lunch.

Tiberias is located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (AKA, Lake Kinneret).  It has been venerated in Judaism since the middle of the 2nd century CE, and since the 16th century it has been considered one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities (along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed). In the 2nd-10th centuries, Tiberias was the largest Jewish city in the Galilee and the political and religious hub of the Jews of Palestine. According to Christian tradition of course, Jesus performed several miracles in the Tiberias district, making it an important pilgrimage site for Christians.  And if that wasn’t enough, for a few thousand years Tiberias has been known for its hot springs, believed to cure skin and other ailments. 

Tiberias attracts a lot of tourists, both international and local; Christian, Jewish and Muslim. In the evenings, it is interesting to see the throngs of people promenading by the lake, a veritable melting pot.

To me, the geographic area reminds me an awful lot of the Okanagan Valley in BC, with the lake (it really isn't a "sea"...), the surrounding mountain range, the arid landscape and the local wineries. (I can certify there are great wineries in the Galil!)

Scott's Hotel, Tiberias

In Tiberias we stayed at the famous Scott’s Hotel, on the lake. It has beautiful buildings which were originally Tiberias’ only hospital established in 1885 by a Scottish Protestant doctor. It is still owned by the Church of Scotland which holds services at nearby St Andrew's.

View of the pool and Lake Kinnereth from one of the hotel buildings
The pool boy
Tiberias is pretty tourist-y so we spent a lot of time at the hotel pool (unfortunately, they are very 'Scottish' and close the pool at 5 pm, while it is still quite hot. Oh well). In the evening, we walked around the town and had drinks by the lake.

Yes, very romantic...
The next day we drove to the ancient city of Safed (also spelled Zefat, Tsfat, Zfat, Safad, Safes, Safet, Tzfat, etc.; take your pick). On our last trip, we only got there late in the evening one day and really did not have much of a chance to explore, so we made up for it this time.  What a fascinating town!  

Safed is a rather small town (small population of about 27,000), 900 meters above sea level in the mountains of the Upper Galilee. It commands magnificent views east to the Golan, north to the Hermon and Lebanon, west to Mt. Meron and the Amud Valley, and south to Tiberias and the Kinneret.

For a long time Safed has been a well-kept secret, even to most Israelis. According to the great mystics of the past, Safed is to play an important role in the final redemption. It is believed that the Messiah will come from Safed on his way to Jerusalem. We were paying attention.

Exploring the old town
What can I say...
According to legend, Safed is where Shem and Ever, son and grandson of Noah, established their yeshiva where Jacob studied. (OK, other sources say the town was founded in 70AD). The city flourished in the 16th century, when many famous Jewish religious scholars and mystics moved to Safed following the Spanish Expulsion, fleeing from the horrors of the Inquisition. Safed then became the spiritual center of the Jewish world, where Kabbalah (but not Madonna’s version of Jewish mysticism) reached the peak of its influence. Kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of Lecha Dodi) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) just to name a few, made the city famous. It was here that the first printing press in the Middle East was set up, publishing in 1578 the first Hebrew book to be printed in Israel. At that time the town was also a thriving trade center. However, Safed has also suffered terribly due to earthquakes, plagues, and Arab attacks. In modern times, the liberation of Safed was one of the most dramatic episodes in the 1948 War of Independence.

We focused of course on the old part of town which consists of narrow cobblestone alleys revealing artists' galleries, medieval synagogues, private homes and small guest houses.

Researching the sites
What can I say...

Rafi and I climbed up the Citadel (Metsuda) at the top of the city with ruins dating back to the time of the Crusaders and the Mamluks. We also visited a lot of art galleries.

Citadel - and the view from there

Lots of art galleries
Much of life in the Jewish areas of Safed revolved around the synagogue and there are many synagogues, both ancient and modern.  One of the most impressive places we visited was the  Abuhav Synagogue, with not one but three Holy Arks.

This way in.
School children at the Abuhav synagogue
For lunch, there were a number of interesting choices. Rafi went with the "Yemenite pizza" guy who, when asked what he calls the dish, said: "You call it pizza; I call it yummy."  

Here is the sequence of events, in coming to the decision of where to eat:

Am Yisrael Chai!

The next day we did spent most of the day at the pool and in the afternoon (after they closed the pool early) we went to Rosh Pina for dinner.  Rosh-Pina, with 2,400 inhabitants, is a leafy town whose main source of income is upscale tourism: a place of trendy caf├ęs, restaurants and guesthouses they call" Zimmers" (Tel Avivians love to escape here).

Since we did not have a tour guide, I did the only logical thing to do: I texted Emanuela in Tel Aviv, asking for a recommendation on where to eat. Of course she knew. She gave us the name of a great place (and asked to send regards to the chef) and, with the GPS, we enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner in this ideal location. Sorry, cannot recall the name of the place.

At this Rosh Pina restaurant, they give you puzzles to solve while you wait. Hard puzzles to solve (or not)

Another nice place in Rosh Pina
Nap time
And so we ended the get-away to the Galil, heading back to Tel Aviv via the beutiful  Jezreel Valley, considered the "bread basket" of Israel.

It is a large fertile plain and inland valley south of the Lower Galilee region in Israel and West Bank in Palestinian Territories.  The Samarian highlands and Mount Gilboa border the valley from the south and the northern outskirts of the West Bank cities of Jenin and Tulkarm have spread into the southern part of the valley. To the west is the Mount Carmel range, and to the east is the Jordan Valley.  About two million years ago, the valley perhaps once acted as the channel by which the Dead Sea connected to the Mediterranean.

It was a great trip... and since I am writing this post about 4 weeks after the fact, I realize how much I have forgotten, and how sweet are the memories of what I remember. 

As I wrap my three month stay in this incredible country, I realize I will come back to this blog to relive the memories very, very often.

Sunday, 27 May 2012


Continuing to "make the best of it" I had dinner two nights ago with Rafi's cousin Avi, Roy, Hamutal and Simon. Danielle was quite awake this time and I realized how much she had grown in these past three months since I first met her. 

Oops, I forgot to take photos at dinner, so here is an older one with Danielle (she does look bigger now)
Same Oops, with Jenn, without Avi
We went to a restaurant that serves Asian food, Giraffe, where pretty much the whole continent is reflected on the menu, which I guess is a way to ease me back into life at home (I look forward to the world's best curry chicken and the world's best sushi). Simon was on a break from his annual  3 week Miluim service where he is an officer, and I kept asking him questions not so much about what he does there (I gave up trying to dig, imagining that he isn't supposed to tell me and not that I was boring him with my dumb questions) but about the impact miluim has on his job and his family. The answers to the latter are obvious.

Not sure if this is the Israeli thing or if it is them as people, but as we sat into the evening, talking and telling stories, I realized how much like family they feel. I will miss them.

On Saturday earlier in the morning I went to the beach with Emanuela. She usually likes to go to a small beach close to the Carlton hotel but I prefer a bigger beach, where they bring you chairs and umbrellas and side tables and diet cokes and... (how do you spell "princess" again?). She agreed, as long as we sat on the front row, close to the water, so we would not see the hordes of people that would arrive in the next couple of hours. 

While the waves were lapping at our feet, it turned out to be a good idea. This is the Shavuot weekend, so it is a holiday both Saturday and Sunday, and Hilton beach (and I am sure all others) got to be packed. Emanuela is a lot of fun and high-energy, and she told me at least 100 stories, none to be repeated. I am usually the chatty one but with her it is fun just to sit back (on a sun chair, at the beach) and listen to the rapid-fire. This was probably my last beach day on this trip, and it was the best.

Leaving Hilton beach...

We left the beach at around 3 pm as Emanuela had invited me for a late lunch to her place (ever the unanswered question, "When do people here eat?"). We walked over to her apartment and she served a wonderful Israeli lunch with salads and home-made tehina and home-made bourekas and... Later, sitting by the window in her apartment, feeling the cool breeze and looking at the palm trees outside, I thought the two glasses of Gewurtztraminer I had had fit perfectly. 

At her place I got to meet her teenage daughter as well as her older son and one of his friends, both in in their mid-twenties.  One thing I have noticed here is that kids don't seem to run away from conversations with adults as fast as they do back home. The young people at Emanuela's stayed at the table long past we were done eating. Our conversation was pretty intense and open. While there is no need to repeat what we talked about, I cannot imagine such a personal conversation would easily happen at home, especially not with strangers who are a lot younger. I enjoyed that.

I left Emanuela's beautiful apartment at around 5:30 pm and walked home, where I showered and got ready for... dinner!

Last night was Erev Shavuot and Rafi's mother's lifelong friends Louis and Klara (I have blogged about them before here and here), invited me to celebrate at their daughter's home. It was also a day before Louis' 90th birthday.

Louis & Klara, his 90th birthday
First, a detour: Shavuot is "the Festival of Weeks," the second of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, so it is also known as Hag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits). Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, so it is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah). For a funnier explanation of the names of this major festival, click here.

Billboard promoting dairy products
The traditional foods for Shavuot (there are *always* traditional foods) are dairy foods. Why is that? Let's see. Some derive the practice directly from scripture, saying we eat dairy to symbolize the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8) promised to the Israelites, or that "milk and honey are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11).   Regardless, to the question of "Why dairy on Shavuot?" Google returned 181,000 results.

I cabbed to Louis and Klara's home in lovely Ramat Gan, about 15 minutes east of Tel Aviv, where they have lived for the last 50 years. The cabbie wasn't sure about the precise street so he asked me for the phone number of the people where I was going. I asked him if he didn't have a GPS (I could see it on the dashboard) and he said he did, but "calling was better." So Louis provided the cabbie with turn-by-turn directions to his house for the last few km's. Louis thought this was a "real chutzpah" -- I thought it was very "authentic."

Their son Roni drove us to the home of their daughter Orli and her husband Uri. Orli, a biochemist, and her husband Uri, a cinematographer and multiple Emmy Awards winner for the show "The Amazing Race," live in a beautiful and spacious house in Shohan 

Shohan is a pretty new town located close to the airport, so midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Its population is around 20,000 people. At 7:30 in the evening, on the Erev of a Chag, the roads were pretty empty and we were there in about 20 minutes.  
Orli and Uri and "friends" (Two Emmys for Outstanding Cinematography; I insisted he go find them so I could take this photo
In writing this post, I also learned that in the 2009-2010 school year, Shoham ranked top in the country in percentage of high school students passing the Bagrut matriculation exams.  Which leads me to their two smart and good looking kids, Gilli and Nir (Hey! No pressure!).   

Orli and Uri's kids are teens and, again, I was struck by how engaging they are and how much they actively participated in the conversation.  For example, at one point we were all talking about the iPads, as Orli is unconvinced about getting one but her whole family thinks she must get one (ulterior motives? I wonder...) so I pulled out mine and showed her a few apps and proceeded, as it is my tendency, to oversell something I like (no, I have not changed in three months). 

While I was doing this, Nir noticed I have OMGPOP and I am trilled to say he took my iPad, signed himself up to be my Facebook friend and is now a real challenger in the game.  I love it and cannot imagine a 15 year old back home would be so confident to do this -- or as interested. (Note to self: must buy a few bombs to stay ahead here)

Dairy dinner round the table
Since it was Shavuot, we had a great traditional dairy dinner. The table was set beautifully and we also celebrated Louis's 90th birthday with a great chocolate roll cake and a trifle (more dairy foods).

With Uri, Orli, Klara, and Louis
We did not leave until close to midnight. It was a great evening, and I could so sense how much they love each other as a family and how welcoming they are of visitors and friends - and why Inge has been close to them all these years.

Orli, Gilli and Louis
Klara and Orli
 This morning I went to the synagogue a block away from my place. Since it does not cater to English speakers I kept getting lost in the Siddur as, unlike bi-lingual prayer books, it was only in Hebrew. No one around me offered to help. I am thinking it would have been different in Jerusalem.

Well, what I am really thinking is that my last three months would have been completely different had I chosen to spend them in Jerusalem. And so would have been my complete perception of this country. 

But I digress.

One more cup of coffee...with Natania

Post Script: Natania came from Jerusalem to meet me and say good bye. Sweet. I was able to rationalize delaying starting to pack for another few hours.