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Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Few More Musings about Israel: extra thoughts which didn't fit into the blog.

One thing I must mention -- when I told people I was going to Israel they just immediately assumed it had something to do with my crazy lust for adventure, high-risk activity and danger.  Only one work colleague said something about a "religious pilgrimage?" but I'm sure that knowing me,  he was being sarcastic.

But, I have to say,  having spent 3 weeks there,  I did not for one moment ever feel unsafe.  Some of this has to do with the luck of coming during relative peacetime, and not during any suicide bombings that I know of.  Perhaps it was the protective effect of the ash cloud over Europe? ;-)  But seriously, in a country where crazy shit is known to happen, I've never seen so many hitchhikers!  Certainly much more common than in the US.  And your typical street crimes, muggings, violence, etc., are very very rare.  We never worried.  Of course the current systems that exist to try to keep the peace and protect public safety grew out of what happened during the Intifadas, and most families know someone who was affected by the random bombings.  Kind of like New Yorkers with 9/11.  Similarly, they just try to go on with life and not let it rule their day to day activities...

I also saw some evidence of Jews and Arabs coexisting peacefully ... Israel's legal population is about 20% Arab.  The best examples of this were in the markets, in food-related enterprises (in keeping with my theories of how cuisine must be involved in achieving world peace and understanding), and at Hadassah Hospital.

Some people may have wondered just how religious Israel is.  These are clearly people who haven't visited the country.  The obvious answer is, "it's as religious as you want it to be".  In general, a majority of the population happens to be nominally Jewish but is nonreligious.  They view the ultrareligious population as a bit of a threat -- as they follow the "be fruitful and multiply" commandment, their percentage of the population grows and the amount of political pandering the different parties must do to the religious population in order to achieve a coalition government with their "swing vote" just gets very very complicated ... For this reason the nonreligious folks are grateful for the huge wave of Russian immigrants which came in 1991 or thereabouts, as they tend to not be religious (in fact not even all of them are Jewish, some are just married to Jewish people and got in that way) and therefore "balance out" the religious community.

The nonreligious population also, in my experience, has some resentment toward the religious population because their young people keep getting one religious deferment after another to avoid being in the military, which is a rite of passage that all other Israelis have to go through, male and female both.  In a way I feel like it's a bummer that this separates those populations at early adulthood and diminishes the respect they might have for one another.  My mother (who likes to make her opinions known ;-) felt strongly that the religious people should serve in the military too, if everyone else has to ...

And of course a quite healthy percentage of tourism to Israel is fueled by Christian church groups who are eager to "walk the path of Jesus" -- literally, in pilgrimages of various sorts.  I came across large church groups of people visiting from Mexico, Germany, and Holland.   None of these people seemed to be fighting off the constant spectre of terrorism interfering with their journeys, at least not right now.

I'd also like to comment on the Israeli economy -- really quite impressive.  Everywhere we went we saw massive construction projects, with seemingly no expense spared.  Leaves the currently shitty American economy/recession/?depression in the dust.  Their secret seems to be a large percentage of personpower being brainy/well-educated/tech-oriented with exciting projects afoot.  Sadly, by necessity, some of this tech enterprise includes security and military defense type systems.  But there's lots of IT and biotech too.  Something for everyone, apparently :)

What were my favorite things?   Hmmmm.  In no particular order:

In Kfar Saba: the grooviness of the mall, and Achlah :)
Nachlat Binyamin crafts market in Tel Aviv on Fridays
The tayelet (promenade) along the Mediterranean in Netanya and the cool sculptures there
Machtesh Ramon
Timna Valley Park
Our amazing tour of Kibbutz Ketura
Snorkelling at the Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Eilat, and the observatory there
All the date palms and the amazing stuff they have done to carve agriculture out of the desert
Jerusalem, which would have been even more beautiful with a healthy dose of sunshine
Hummus Lina in the Old City
Hadassah Hospital and the incredible things they do there
Yad VaShem -- not fun, but really powerful
The beauty of the Galilee, Kibbutz Sasa, Highway 899, and the Hula Valley Nature Reserve
Guy Restaurant in Tiberias
The Baha'i Gardens in Haifa
The old city of Akko
and of course our wonderful hosts!

Actually, that's a lot of favorites for 20 days :)
Definitely a country worth seeing and worth visiting!

An Unexpected Detour to Binyamina ... and the last bit of our time in Tel Aviv!

When last I wrote, Dyanne was going to arrange a trip for us to Caesarea and an Arab village.  Unfortunately, the husband of someone she knew died, and she had to do other things that Friday.  So she was going to put us on the train to Tel Aviv.  She checked ahead and apparently Israel Railways was doing some work on the line, so she could not take us to the station closest to the kibbutz.  Instead she said she'd take us to Haifa.

When we got to the train station there, I overheard a woman muttering something in Hebrew about a "sreifah" (or fire).  I told Dyanne, and she went in to check with the staff, and they assured her there was no problem whatsoever.  So -- we bought our tickets and boarded the train.  She told me to let her know if we had any problems ... About a third of the way to Tel Aviv (the journey was supposed to take something like an hour and 13 minutes), there was an announcement that all passengers must get off at Binyamina, as there was a brush fire on the tracks.  Once we got off there were more announcements: a) that the train was going to turn around and go back to Haifa and we could return to Haifa if we wanted -- not our goal really, and b) they had ordered busses to bring us the rest of the way to Tel Aviv.  All announcements were made only in Hebrew and there was no one to ask questions of.  I started looking for Binyamina in my guide book, and didn't find it.  Why?  Because it was approximately the middle of nowhere.

Because I didn't want to go back in the wrong direction, against my better judgment my mom and I got out of the train station with all our stuff and were standing in the street, in the burning sun (about 35 C or 95 F that day), waiting for said busses with another few hundred increasingly angry Israelis.  Israelis do not just "suck it up" when they get pissed off -- there was lots of shouting, some accusations, a shrug of the shoulders and not a word out of the mouth of the guy who was supposedly in charge, and I heard that someone called the TV news.  Time went by, the busses did not come, taxi drivers started to take advantage of the situation and make deals with people going less far away ...

My mom, when faced with idle time, generally makes friends with people.  She befriended two young women who were recently out of the army.   We waited a little longer.  Then Dyanne called me to make sure everything had gone ok.  I told her the truth.  She said she wasn't sure what she could do but would think about it and call me back.  Had I been able to browse Wikipedia, I would have seen a tiny entry ( and pondered the wine and honey industry of the region while still being stuck with a bunch of luggage in the hot sun...

And then Dyanne called me back and said she'd just remembered she had a friend who lived in Binyamina!  The lovely Jane, originally from England, arrived in about 5 minutes, the two Israeli girl-soldiers loaded our luggage into her car, and she took one look at us and decided we needed to go to her air-conditioned house for some nice cool water and a home-cooked lunch!!  Jane unfortunately had an appointment that afternoon so could not help us further, but Yael, a young woman who was collaborating with her on some translation work at her place, told us that she was planning to drive to Herzliya in an hour and would we like a ride there?

The only kicker was that Yael's car had no trunk, and our luggage was large and ridiculous.  But she had a luggage rack on top of her roof!  We then enlisted Nimrod, Jane's next-door-neighbor and landlord, who loaned us some ropes and helped climb up and get the luggage on top of the roof and lash it tightly.  Next thing we knew, we were off to Herzliya.  In the middle of these machinations, Esther, the sister of a friend of my mother's called trying to figure out when we could get together, and when she heard of our predicament, she arranged with Yael to rendezvous in Herzliya and then drive us to our host in Tel Aviv!

So it started out as an utterly shitty day, but due to the kindness of several previously unknown guardian angels, our misfortune was turned into fortune :)  Thanks to all who helped out, and we arrived in Tel Aviv only 4 or 5 hours late, no thanks to Israel Railways!

There wasn't much time or energy left to do anything that day, so we went out for dinner with our host, Judy.  The next day we had to pack in a lot of different stuff -- NOT enough time for Tel Aviv and there were so many things to do and people I wanted to meet that I didn't get the chance to that I'll put it on the list for "next time"!

But we did grab in the Eretz Yisrael Museum (, which was full of cool archeology, old stamps and coins, glass, and ethnological artifacts, stuff about the Rothschilds, an exhibit on women who joined the armed forces in the early days before Israel was a state, and a lovely cafĂ© ( at which we had yummy shakshuka and french toast before starting in on the museum. 

From there we went to Bet haTfuzot, otherwise known as the Diaspora Museum

( which is on the beautiful Tel Aviv University campus

and features all the different far-flung Jewish communities.  Well worth a wander.  For those of you who feared we would somehow run out of museums, rest assured: Israel is full of them and we didn't even begin to touch the surface.  For a listing with links, check out  Next time I will check out the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, definitely.

After that it was getting toward the end of the day.  So we took a bus that went all the way through TA to Old Yaffo, the town just south of TA which everyone had said we must check out. 

Of course we were kind of late for the big market which was just closing, but did sample some nice zaatar pizza -- not anything like a New York pizza but better than any other Israeli approximation thereof.  And then we went to Barbunya and ate fish.  It was kind of sad thinking this was our last night in Israel.  It went by soooooo quickly and it felt like there were so many more things I'd have liked to do, even though my mother reminds me we actually did do quite a lot and saw most of the country ;-)

The next morning we got up at a crazy early hour and packed quietly in order not to wake the other people sleeping in the house (so early and such that I managed to forget my eyeglasses at Judy's house!) and Judy was kind enough to give us a lift to Ben Gurion Airport.  We were told we had to be there a minimum of 3 hours before the flights, but got there more than 4.5 hrs early.  Big yawn.  We were exhausted and cranky.  At least there was free wifi at the airport which killed a little bit of time ....  and then we were off to London!  We were NOT looking forward to taking El Al after that last experience, but I must say the flight to London was ... normal!  Like a regular airline.  Seating was nowhere near as cramped, and there were no penguins.  My mom was still not impressed with their security measures which supposedly are the tightest in the world -- as I managed to get through a 1.5L bottle of water which I'd forgotten about in my backpack ;-)