Saturday, May 28, 2011

Community giving in Israel

Just before Passover, I was walking past Rabin Square, where all major Tel Aviv city events have their epicenter.  This was the display - hundreds of empty shopping carts lined up on the square, under a billboard which encouraged Israeli's to donate food so that no family would go without meals during the eight day holiday. 

I have learned a little about local attitudes toward giving and fundraising engagement.  It exists.  But it doesn't sound like the runs/walks/drives are common here.  I'm not certain, but it doesn't sound like corporate fundraising teams exist here.  While a little can be fun and build a sense of community and shared purpose, it can also become so pervasive that people get sick of the "cause of the week" in the U.S. 

The non-profits I've met here struggle to find funding like everywhere else though, and the trend toward unchecked capitalism is invading non-profits just as it is in the U.S., so it will be interesting to see how the culture of giving progresses - will non-profits copy the U.S. model, or find their own path?

Friday, May 27, 2011

A visitor

May brought with it our first house guest from the U.S., which gave us our first significant motivation to get out and see the country of Israel.

After a day of adjusting to his 10 hour time difference, we took dad on a day trip up north.  We started with the Banias waterfall in the Galilee.  Although I managed to pack sandwiches, drinks, and bring the travel guides, I didn't think to look up the weather.  It was the first of May, so we're in the dry season, right?  As we got into the upper Galilee, it rained.  A lot.  And I didn't bring a raincoat.  We were in shorts.  And sneakers.  At the entrance to the waterfall trail, we saw the other tourists washing their shoes off.  We were in for a muddy trek!  Who would have expected thick, sticky mud on the trail in the middle east? 

Our second stop was the Nimrod Fortress. These relatively young ruins, from the Crusades during the 1200's, sat on a hilltop that was almost too cold to walk through!  We ventured on though, and were rewarded with very little company. This afforded us a particularly special opportunity to see some unusual wildlife.

At the far side of the castle, we first noticed these rodent-looking creatures similar to a racoon. But they had no contrasting colors, and no tails. There were dozens of them, and plenty of babies.

We finished the day with a late lunch / early dinner in a Druize village.  Humus with meat, falafel, tehina, grilled meats, pickles, pitas and lemonade with mint to wash it down.  We drove back south past the Sea of Galilee. 
Our second day trip was to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.  I am very proud of this day, as I drove to, and into, Jerusalem.  Driving in New York City is a cake walk compared to this.  I managed to get us to a view point of the old city.  Dad and I walked around the sites that I have visited when I was out there with tour guides.  The coolest part wasn't showing him the holy sites, but taking him to a little hole in the wall for lunch.  It was a place a guide had showed me, where she went for lunch (instead of the overpriced, under quality touristy spots).  We finished the day with a trip to Kalia Beach at the Dead Sea.  This was dad's favorite part of the day, and honestly, I can appreciate that.  Jerusalem, for all it's hype, feels like most other historical places that have been overrun by capitalism.  Everyone is hawking something, and it's all junk.  And there are just too many people, even on a slow day like this one.  While I can appreciate the religious importance that others attribute to the place, I'd much rather go underground and the ruins of where and how people lived.  Unfortunately there is very little of the city accessible in this way, and none of it for free. 

Our third day trip was south toward the Negev desert.  We intended to make it all the way to the crater, about a 2.5 hour drive each way, but were so absorbed in the caves at the Bet Guvrin National Park that we ran out time to get there.  We really went back in time here, to about 300 B.C.  These caves were the homes of the Hellenistic people.  They dug levels down into the ground.  They had large water cisterns, huge pigeon breading rooms, and living space.  The room in the picture to the right was an olive oil processing room.  They have been producing the same food products in this region for literally thousands of years.  In fact, they still are.  We purchased several bottles from the kibutz that still works the olive trees in this area.

We also walked through the Roman ampitheater ruins in this area (built much later than the caves), and drove further south to the Zin Valley where I was last fall for the Deserts Conference.  I was able to show Dan and my dad the amazing valley and canyon here, although we were rushed out by a Park guard who clearly wanted to get off work early.  Even though we only had about a half hour in the park, we got to see an interested interaction between two young bedoin goat herders and the Park Ranger.  He was clearly giving them a hard time for crossing through park territory. 

Our fourth trip was to Caesarea, which I visited back in 2006.  This was a half day trip, the day after the crazy Independence Day party.  Dad and I walked through the park, which I remembered as being slightly more impressive than it seemed to me this time.  I don't know if it is the fact that I have seen ancient Roman ruins in many more countries now, or if tourism has diminished a bit of the mystery and sense of exploration in this place.

We finished the day with a stop at the ancient Roman aqueduct on the sea, having a snack while sitting on top of it, then walking along the beach next to it for 20 minutes or so.  Again, a pontentially moving place, but too many people to fully appreciate it.  These were locals however, not tourists like in the National Park.  It gave new meaning to "under the boardwalk," as in this case it was "under the ancient Roman aqueduct."  You can't experience that in America.
My final trip with dad was to Masada.  Dad was the one who noticed this one in the guidebooks.  I am really glad he did.  It was a hike - a little over a two hour drive each way, but worth it.  It is a 2,000+ year old fortress built on the top of a mountain in the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.  We sprung for the cable car ride both ways, and were very glad we did.  We got our walking in on the top.  And there isn't much shade, so this is not a good spot to tour in the summer.  Plenty of people start before sunrise and hike up from below, which takes about an hour, they say.  I promise, if you come to visit, we'll take the cable car again.  :)

Like other national parks with ancient ruins, they have worked to rebuild parts to give a better sense of the layout.  Here they did something really helpful though, they drew a line along the walls showing what was found in place, and what was archaeologically rebuilt.  I appreciate this, as it can often be hard to tell what has survived and what has been re-created.  Although the the climate was quite different, it reminded me of my visit to Machu Pichu with my dad in 2000.  Here we were on another continent, on top of another mountain, looking at the ruins of an ancient culture.  I can't help wondering what the ruins of modern culture will look like in 500 years, or 2,000?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gardening in the middle east

Spring has nearly come and gone.  

The fruit trees took a real beating over the winter.  The olive, as you can see, florished.  The bay leaf, lime, and finally the guava have put out lots of new foliage.  I'm still waiting to see whether my pomello is going to make a comeback, but I'm pretty sure I've lost the chezec (I got to eat this for the first time this spring - they look and taste a little like apricots, but have a group of large seeds inside instead of a pit).

Most of my herbs returned.  The basil died, so I put in a few new ones.  Lost one of those to over-watering, but the other is thriving.  My flowers are blooming like maniacs, and I have little green tomatoes all over the place. 
The humming birds are crazy.  They don't seek the feeder anymore, with all the flowers in bloom.  But they're here plenty, and always interested in a conversation. 
My biggest challenge right now is getting the right amount of water on each pot, because I've used up my little pots to add tomatoes, nastertiums and sweet peas.  The drip watering system that we pieced together (see the white plastic pipe at the base of the fence) sends the same amount of water out of each tube, so I would either need a lot more tubes for the big pots so I can scale back the amount of time it turns on each night, or I have to keep moving the little pots so they aren't over-watered.  I keep experimenting. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hit and Run

I was heading north to a conference last Tuesday, on a two lane road.  Just after I cleared straight through an intersection, I heard a horn and then "crunch."  I looked in my rear view to see a gold colored Isuzu truck pushing the back left of my little Mojito (Ford Fiesta).  But the guy driving didn't look surprised.  He didn't stop.  He only backed off enough to come up directly behind me, then zip around my right side and cut me off.  By this point, I had slowed below the speed limit to make sure other vehicles passed me and separated me from this maniac.  I was obviously a bit shook up. 

What was with this guy?  I was just heading down the road.  Now, I have learned here that there seem to be unusual expectations about right-of-ways.  For instance, often when there's a two lane road, some jerk will park in one of the lanes for his own convenience, never mind the hundreds of vehicles he's slowed down while they merge to get around him.  When this happens, there is a lot of last minute zipping across lanes, so you really have to pay attention because even if you're in the clear lane, you may have to stop suddenly to avoid someone in the blocked lane who has cut you off. 

But this Isuzu was clearly behind me.  Even if I made a cultural driving mistake, it was quite clear he hit me on purpose, not because I didn't follow some rule of the road.  The only thing I could have done to try to avoid him if I had seen him before he hit me was speed up beyond the speed limit, as there was a car in the lane to my right. 

We were on a road with plenty of traffic and lights, so he only got a few vehicles ahead of me before the next light.  At that point, I wrote down his plate, make and model.  With the local vehicle distributor's help, we reported the guy.  The damage wasn't as bad as it sounded and felt.  But how would I know, I've never been hit before. 

Israel = home of many first experiences.  And plenty of them I could do without.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sirens, take two.

Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 2, was my first experience with a nation-wide moment of silence (sure, we have these in the U.S, but they are not nationally observed with 100% participation).

During the week between that day (more on that experience in a previous post) and the following week, it was business as usual here, except symbols of nationalism were being erected everywhere.  And we started getting formation fly-by rehearsals for the following two holidays.

On May 9th, Israeli Memorial Day was observed.  Days are confusing here, because they are observed from sundown to sundown, so when there is a holiday, it is observed over two days.  Therefore, on the evening of Sunday, May 8th, at 8pm, another siren rang out and the whole country stopped for a minute.  Just before 9pm, we walked to Rabin Square, about 15 minutes from our apartment, where the Tel Aviv city memorial ceremony was held.  There were speakers, singers, and many stories of lives lost, recorded and told by surviving family members.  It was sad.  Really sad.  There are very few Israeli's who do not have a personal connection to a life lost here - family or friends, as they have nearly all served in the military, and it is, afterall, a very small country, collectivist culture.

The next day, morning began with another siren.  People were noticably in mourning still.  But as the sun went down, schizophrenia set in.  It became Independence Day.  We took dad to a friend's home for a BBQ, a Memorial Day tradition that is shared between Israel and the U.S.  It couldn't start until 8pm however, after sundown, when the day of mourning was over. 

We arrived back home just before midnight.  As we pulled into the driveway, I said to Dan and my dad, "boy, that's loud.  I'm glad it's not in our building."  What a dummy.  As we came up the elevator, it got louder......and LOUDER.  Stepping into the hall, I could no longer hear Dan as we tried to discuss who should get their keys out. 

Although dad had the best room in the apartment, farthest wall away, surrounded by concrete, and only one small window, he still had to put on his noise canceling headphones and throw a pillow over his head to try to sleep through it.  Dan and I weren't so lucky.  We have sliding glass doors from our bedroom next to the neighbors apartment.  So, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? 

We had been invited, "hey guys, we're having a party tomorrow, so you'll either want to leave town, or come over."  They had a DJ with speaker system, trays of sushi, and a bar staffed by two scantilly dressed young women.  A few drinks, rooftop fireworks display, and three hours later, I was ready to call it quits.  I laid out my camping mattresses, grabbed my pillows and blankets, and shut myself into our bunker to see if I could get a little shut eye.  Unfortunately, there is a window there too.  It was marginally successful, but I still woke. 

At 4am I decided it was time to try the cops, just to quiet it down a wee bit for us old folks who wanted to fall asleep before the sun came up (I was hoping to take my dad to Caesarea that same day and wanted to feel semi human for it).  After transferring me to an English speaker, they told me it's the one night of the year Israeli's can party all they want.  They don't enforce the noise ordinance until after 6am!  I crawled back in my cave, and hoped my exhaustion would overcome my ears.  Luckily, when I woke again just before 5am, I heard silence.  The DJ had gone home.  Hooray!  Back to a real bed for me.  Did I mention this was a Monday night? 

There is one more day worth mentioning in this May series of holidays here.  It's Nakba Day, May 15th, and represents the Palestinian view of Israeli independence - "the day of catastrophe."  Palestinians organized protests all over the country, and in neighboring countries.  There was a young Arab who drove his truck into a bus and pedestrians just a few miles south of where we live, in Jaffa, the Arab part of Tel Aviv.  He sent dozens to the hospital, and at least one person died.  Also, a crowd of hundreds of Syrians charged the border into Israel, breaking through.

In the U.S., most of us are fairly removed from the significance of Memorial and Independence Day.  These holidays are very personal for the vast majority of Israeli's.  The middle east is a complicated place.  I don't feel unsafe.  But I do feel more aware.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fresh Paint

The first weekend of April, Tel Aviv hosted an annual art exhibition that draws professionals from the Guggenheim and other internationally recognized places of fine art.  It's called Fresh Paint.  Dan and I walked around it for about an hour and a half after dinner Thursday night.  Entrance was about $8pp.  It was well worth it.

This photo is from my personal favorite -
Project Initiator and Curator - Keren Bar-Gil

It was a really simple concept.  A chiffon square of white fabric, hung at the four corners by strong on pulleys.  It would lift, then fall, in an infinite number of new forms.  Never the same. 

Next to it was my other favorite, which I can not properly show you here.  It was a shelf of old books on their sides.  But if you paid attention, you'd notice that they were breathing.  Cleverly wired from the inside, the cover and pages would lift slowly, then drop again.  A wisper of a soundtrack made me feel like I was in a Harry Potter movie watching living, breathing books. 

The exhibit also had a wall of postcard surprises, where you had to buy the postcard to find out who the artist was.  It could be a well-known, established artist, or a newcomer.  But you had to commit to what you liked before you could find out.  Quite clever, but the $50/card price was a bit steep, so we didn't get to "discover" anyone. 

We're looking forward to attending next year's exhibit though!

Monday, May 9, 2011

So this is where you came from, Great Grandma...

Catching up a bit on observations that I drafted but did not complete. 

Stop two on our holiday during Passover was Finland.  I have been there once before, but only for a few hours, and north of the arctic circle.  In 2007 my mom and I visited relatives on the Swedish side in the north, in a tiny town of 600.  This visit is in Helsinki, the largest and southern most city.

We used the evening of our arrival to gain our bearings walking around town.  We passed through the Central Train Station, the Nordic Macy's (Stockman's), the Senate Square, along the harbor, and up a beautiful double-lane boulevard park.  The Finn's are clearly itching from cabin fever, as they were out in force, covering every park bench and seated at outdoor cafes, despite the need for heaters and snowman coats.  There are, afterall, remnants of the snowplow piles in every parking lot.  On our walk back to our hotel, Dan said, "What is everyone looking at?"  Across the street, on the top floor ledge of a six story building were three large birds.  My first instinct was that they were some kind of hawk, but after watching a moment, it became clear these were owls.  But they were more than twice the size of any owl I've seen.  They were light brown in color.  Two sat at the ledge and one slightly behind, possibly a spring baby, as it appeared to be smaller.  We watched them for at least ten minutes, and we were joined by nearly every passerby, so this didn't appear to be a common occurance.

The next day we took a 10 minute ferry to Suomenlinna Island and spent several hours wandering around this old fortress of five smaller islands connected by bridges.  It is actually this fortress, built to protect trade routes from Russia to the west, that caused Helsinki to develop into a major city. 

The architecture all throughout town has a very European feel.  Many of the large old stone buildings remind me of Paris, or Prague.  Although prices have dramatically increased in Prague, and Paris was never particularly cheap, Helsinki and all of Scandinavia are especially expensive.  Our basic fish lunch without drinks cost nearly $50 USD.  Here, as in Estonia, everyone speaks perfect English (albeit with a Nordic accent).  People are friendly enough. 

We used our other full day to escape the city with a rental car, driving along the southern coast.  We made it as far as Hanko, a southwest town on a Peninsula, which in addition to having been a trade port, a military outpost, and a summer holiday spot, was the port of departure for Finn's who emigrated to the U.S. around 100 years ago.  It is quite possible that my great grandmother left from here, before coming through Canada to Colorado, and then on to southern Washington State.  It is hard to imagine what she must have felt, leaving then, forever.  I don't think she ever had the opportunity or means to return.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


My first day back to Ulpan after the Passover holiday was Monday, May 2nd.  At 10am everyone stopped for 2 minutes. I was told that even people in cars would stop on the freeway, get out, and observe these 2 minutes. In Ulpan, the break times were adjusted to bring all classes together in their gathering hall for a ceremony. The room was packed, more than during previous holiday observances. A siren started, and we all stood up (it could not have lasted for more than a minute, and afterwards I could hear the sirens outside for a moment). There was a candle lighting ceremony by students representing various countries. This was followed by the resident singer guitar player and half an hour of songs.

Then we went back to class. Dad (he's visiting right now) told me he went out on our balcony when the sirens sounded and saw everyone get out of their vehicles on the roads below. He also noticed walkers stop and others inside buildings come to their windows.  This however, also lasted for under a minute.

Next week a similar event will occur at 11am on Memorial Day for soldiers. After these two somber days will come Independence Day which I am told is a big celebration here.

Stay tuned for more...