Archive for March 8th, 2011

The Cat Lady

A Cat Lady in Be'er Sheva (click to enlarge)

According to local lore, cats were brought to Israel during the Mandate by the British to control the rat population.  Today feral cats are a fixture of every Israeli neighborhood, town and city, rural or urban.  Feral cats in Israel are not cuddly creatures; they are engaged in an ongoing battle for Survival of the Fittest and that includes tough tomcats missing various body parts or oozing infection, and females who have litters twice or more a year and who often commit kittencide on defective or weak kittens.  Despite frequent self grooming they live in garbage bins, so they’re always dirty.  When their overpopulation gets to be a problem, the municipality steps in and poisons them.  It’s not a pretty picture.

That said, every neighborhood seems to have a Cat Lady, someone who feels genuine pity for their plight and feeds them regularly.  One of my friends is a Cat Lady and lives in Ramat HaSharon in a villa; her backyard has been taken over by the permanent residence of 16 cats who live in cardboard boxes all over her patio.  She called the SPCA to come and get them to have them neutered; they are now back at her house and presumably infertile.  She also called the SPCA when she noticed a cat with an eye infection; they captured it, removed its eye (the infection was too advanced to save it), treated it and brought it back to its rightful place on the patio.

In Be’er Sheva the Cat Lady on Ayala Street comes every day around 5 p.m.  and brings food, which she scatters in measured clumps at 2-foot intervals along a stone retaining wall, and she refills a large plastic container of clean drinking water which she places along the ground, out of the way of passersby.  She gets no financial assistance for this; she feeds about 20 cats a day.

While admittedly I’m a “dog” person and Israel’s feral cats are slow to evoke my sympathy, it must be noted that Rabbi Aryeh Levin (The Tzaddik of Jerusalem who was famous during the 1940s – 1960s) used to feed cats bowls of milk on a regular basis.  He always showed love, hope and encouragement for creatures big and small, animal as well as human.  There are those who say some cats are a gilgul – a reincarnation of a human soul who did not fulfill his purpose while on earth.  All’s I know is the middle-of-the-night catfights and the smell of sprayed cat urine are not pleasant.  But at least they do keep rodents to a minimum.

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To Your Health!

There is a very strong “Green Movement” in Israel today.  In practical terms this means that Israelis are much more health-conscious, and now daintily balance forkfuls of locally raised organic food with one hand at outdoor cafes, while holding their fortieth cigarette of the day with the other.

There is a new upscale health food store chain in Israel that puts Whole Foods to shame.  Not only is “Eden Teva” at least twice the size of the largest Whole Foods in the US, it offers fresher foods, more appealing displays, a greater variety of products . . . the majority of which are  kosher!

A great thing about Eden Teva is that it’s okay – actually, you’re encouraged – to take tastes of any and all of the exotic food, spices, and mixes.  (Too bad they don’t have hand sanitizer by any of the displays. But I tried not to think about that.)

Taking pictures of Eden Teva was quite challenging. The store is so big, with so many departments, I didn’t begin to cover everything.  I missed the cheese bar (incredible variety, lots of goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses), the packaged foods, the organic meats, the halva bar, cookware displays,  and the wine boutique, to name a few.  The other reason that Your Intrepid Reporter didn’t photograph everything is that I was ejected from the store!  It turns out they weren’t too happy about my picture-taking.  Whether they thought I was a spy from a competing venture, or a wannabe terrorist getting a feel for the layout, I’ll never know, but I was asked, in no uncertain terms, to leave the store along with my camera.  That said, I’m posting the photos I did manage to take, so you can get a feel for the incredible bounty that defines Israel today. (click on photos to enlarge)

Eden Teva in Be'er Sheva

an entire freezer aisle for gluten-free products

A refrigerated section for delicious Israeli yogurts, puddings, milk and other dairy products

an aisle for dried fruits and nuts

more dried fruits and nuts of every possible variety

a savory display of different rice mixes

partial view of the huge produce section

to the right is a sit-down humus bar. To the left are displays that have at least 40 types of olives, and a hundred cheeses.

dried fruit delicacies

the olive oil aisle

Purim Prep

I had to laugh when I passed by this shop window in Be’er Sheva, 2 months (!) before Purim.  Besides the fact that these costumes couldn’t get much uglier, look at the expressions on the mannequins’ faces, especially the little girl!  So much for Purim being a time of rejoicing!

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? (click to enlarge)

In Israel, Purim is not a one-day holiday like it is in the US.  Halachically (according to religious law) it might be only one day, but somehow Israelis stretch out the holiday for days and days, with all kinds of parties and celebrations for both children and adults.  More than a month before Purim begins, storefronts display all sorts of Purim merchandise:  costumes for all ages, makeup and disguises, all kinds of candies and treats, a huge assortment of gift baskets, pranks, caps and cap-guns, and in the Judaica stores, megillos, and megilla covers made of sterling silver, wood or even plastic or cardboard.

I was amazed to find out that in Be’er Sheva, even Bedouin children drag their veil-covered mothers to the stores to buy Purim costumes! It turns out that Bedouins attending Israeli (Jewish) public schools want to be part of the schools’ celebrations and costume contests like any other (Israeli) kid.  The thing is, costumes in Israel cost a fortune.  Even junky, poorly-made costumes were between 80 – 180 shekels (that’s $20 – $50 for a costume that would cost less than $10 in the US).  But most costumes I saw in stores were $75 – $100!  There was literally every possible cartoon character; political, historical, or sports figure; religious- or secular-themed costume that one could imagine.

Luckily for me, I bought a bunch of Purim costumes the day after Halloween for my grandchildren that live in the U.S., for only $2 per costume on clearance from an outlet center in New Hampshire.  Army uniforms, cheerleader and princess costumes, and pirate outfits were all bargain-priced.  Now I know:  next year post-Halloween I’ll buy even more and bring them to Israel for my daughter to sell at bargain rates. I’m sure weary, beleaguered, bargain-seeking Israeli mothers will be delighted!

Be’er Sheva

Be’er Sheva isn’t really a destination for most tourists traveling in Israel.  I confess, even when I lived in Israel  for 5 1/2 years, I never saw any reason to pass through.  But now that my youngest daughter lives there, it became my home base on my recent trip.

My son-in-law is attending medical school in Ben Gurion University of the Negev.  It’s an American program called the Medical School for International Health and it’s under the auspices of Columbia University.  Students come literally from all over the world to attend.  Many of its graduates will work as medical missionaries, for the World Health Organization, and Doctors Without Borders, as well as in Third World countries with minimal hi-tech resources.  It is a program geared towards (but not limited to) idealists who are interested in global health and is very hands-on.  The students are exposed to many different cultures and languages, as well as many unusual cases.  Students have the option in their fourth year of doing clinical placements in undeveloped or underserved areas in countries such as Ethiopia, Thailand, India, Kenya, Peru and Haiti.  Graduates have gone on to prestigious residencies at top US hospitals.  Soroka Hospital is not only a huge hospital that serves the entire Negev, including a large population of Bedouin, it oversees the largest number of baby deliveries in all of Israel.  It’s not uncommon to see a Bedouin man visiting his three wives who’ve all given birth at the same time!  The Bedouin women love coming to the hospital to give birth  – – for them it’s a two-day vacation from their usual role as beast of burden and domestic slave.

I’ve posted a few photos of the med school and university, with its spacious grounds and views of the city of Be’er Sheva (click to enlarge):

BGU campus

On BGU campus

students lounging on campus

pleasant walkways on BGU campus

near the campus entrance

partial view, new medical school buildings

partial view of the brand-new medical school buildings

the brand new, updated labor, delivery & maternity ward at Soroka Hospital

partial view of Soroka Hospital

taken from the 6th floor med school window, a partial view of BGU campus

another view, BGU campus

muslims pray to the left of a campus building (click to enlarge)

Medical School building, BGU

bgu campus

a view from the 6th floor of the medical school

campus courtyard

A common sight on campus: service dogs-in-training are "adopted" for a year by able-bodied students. The dogs live with the students, who take the dogs everywhere the students go.

Much of the 2 weeks I spent in Be’er Sheva the weather was not cooperative. No, we didn’t get the ice or snow of Maine, but we did get sudden, long-lasting and dusty sandstorms in the entire Negev all the way to Jerusalem, pretty much eliminating any possibility of the beautiful landscape photographs I had hoped to take.

Taken from the bus window in Be'er Sheva, even the sun was blocked by the sand and dust (click to enlarge)

On the way from Jerusalem to Be’er Sheva, I took these two shots of Ambassador Forest, located 10 minutes north of Be’er Sheva on the main highway.  The JNF took a vast tract of sandy wasteland and planted thousands of trees there.  Come back in 10 or 15 years – it should be lovely woods.  Even this is not without controversy (it seems like everything in Israel has to be steeped in controversy).  For one thing, some people claim that the land for the forest “belonged” to the Bedouin, and camps were displaced to make way for planting.  Other Be’er Sheva residents complain that with the increasing population of Be’er Sheva and the greening of the city, the once-dry desert air is becoming more humid, making the impossibly hot summers even more miserable.

taken during a sandstorm: the future Ambassador Forest, seen from the bus window. I've circled a typical seedling from the latest planting (click to enlarge)

from the bus window, you can see some of the 1000s of trees planted in what will be Ambassador Forest, just outside of Be'er Sheva (taken during a sandstorm)

(And then there is the JNF itself.  We baby boomers who grew up in “Hebrew Schools” and “Sunday Schools” all remember our weekly contributions to the JNF pushka, and raising money to buy trees for Israel.  In fact, when my father passed away, my mother contributed $25,000 (a princely sum in 1972) to the JNF so a grove of 10,000 trees could be planted in my father’s memory in the John F. Kennedy forest along the edge of Jerusalem.  That said, I no longer give money to the JNF, despite their many ambitious projects, because they do not recognize Israel’s legitimacy beyond the 1967 borders.  That’s right – if you wish to donate money for trees to be planted in a city, town or settlement over the Green Line, the JNF will not accept your donation nor will they plant trees there!)

The newer parts of Be’er Sheva have magnificent buildings, both commercial and residential. The cost of living in Be’er Sheva is considerably less (cheaper food, rent, housing, public transportation) than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, yet it offers many of the same advantages: it has a magnificent symphony hall with its own orchestra, and is the site of numerous plays and performances by world-renowned international and local artists, the university and hospital, and several state-of-the-art malls with American and European high-end shops.  A huge health food store (larger than any Whole Foods I’ve ever seen) recently opened up (I will feature pictures of this store in a separate blog entry in the future.)  The largest mall in the entire Middle East is scheduled to be built there, as well as a brand-new central bus station; Israel’s largest army base currently located in the center of the country will be moving to Be’er Sheva; and several American-style suburbs with large single-family housing in “planned communities” have already begun construction.  A new train makes commuting to Tel Aviv a breeze and will significantly increase Be’er Sheva’s desirability as a bedroom community – although it truly is a city in its own right.

A newer section of town with upscale high-rise apartment buildings, as seen in the distance. This picture is taken from the top floor window of the medical school. To the left of the high rises in the distance is the symphony and concert hall. (click to enlarge)

Some government offices and shops

At the upscale 7th Avenue Mall, this high-end European shop (I'd describe it as Banana Republic meets Anne Taylor) is one of many fashionable and exclusive stores

According to my Israeli friends who live in Be'er Sheva, this very upscale senior housing/assisted living/nursing home has a 10-year waiting list. It looks out onto a magnificent park with a state-of-the-art children's playground. Sign me up!

The older parts of the city are divided up into alphabetized neighborhoods (my daughter lives in the “hey” – number 5 – neighborhood).  Many of the older attached homes are built on “lanes” resembling alleyways, which are alongside apartment complexes in a hodge-podge sort of fashion.

It's the egg man! This burly Russian Jew comes to the neighborhood in his van in the late afternoon several times a week. He rings a giant hand bell and yells, "Eggs! Eggs!"up and down the street so you won't miss him.

The apartment my daughter rents is in this building

A man walks down one of Be'er Sheva's many residential "lanes"

cute Israeli nursery school children

Admittedly, some parts of Be’er Sheva are pretty run-down, especially the oldest part of the city built in the 50s.

Be’er Sheva hosts a very large immigrant population of Russians and Ethiopians, a small academic community of Americans, plus many Jews from South America, and more recently France and Yemen.  There is a huge mix of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and a growing Bedouin population.  There are both religious and non-religious Jews living in the same neighborhoods without any apparent strife.  In my daughter’s neighborhood there are Sephardi and Ashkenazi minyanim, but there are also minyanim where both traditions meld and people daven together.