Archive for June 1st, 2014

Israel, Days 1 – 4: Moreshet

The purpose of our two-week visit to Israel was not a vacation.  Rather, we are thinking of moving back to Israel upon my husband’s retirement (we lived there from 1983-1989).

The socialized medical system in Israel has its headaches (an example of this later), but the quality is excellent and Israel is on the forefront of innovative treatment and medical and scientific research, especially for cancer, diabetes, brain injury, etc.  The quality of life in general is excellent, and the wealth of gorgeous fruits and vegetables and quality food is astounding.  Spiritually speaking,  there is nothing like Israel, and religiously speaking there are many different options in schools, synagogues, and communities for all levels of religious observance. As long as one stays away from severely expensive cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv , Herzliya,  Ra’anana, and Netanya, it is possible to live frugally in Israel on an American Social Security Income post-retirement.

From the years we spent in Israel (and a year I spent in Haifa in 1972 as a high school exchange student), my Hebrew speaking ability is pretty good, and I mix well with Israelis.  I will always be American culturally speaking and I’m not fooling myself that I will integrate smoothly into Israeli culture and society – – it will be nice to have a few other native English speakers wherever I end up living in Israel – – but I’m not seeking an American enclave of ex-pats in Israel, either.

Of course, as a Jew, I feel  a deep connection to our biblical Land.  Although there is much heartbreak with its history of numerous wars and conflicts, Israel nevertheless feels like “home” and despite Jews from many different backgrounds, Israelis feel like one big, happy but aggravating family that you can’t always easily live with, but certainly cannot live without.

With its population growth, burgeoning technology, scientific, agronomic, and medical research, and high quality of life, one has a sense that Israel is where it is happening; Israel is the future in the deepest sense of the word; Israel has a pulse, a positive energy so significant and meaningful that it’s hard sometimes to imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

That said, it would mean moving away from our children and grandchildren, with little hope of seeing them on a regular basis.  (Only one of my children is currently interested in making their permanent home in Israel sometime in the future.)  So it’s not an easy decision no matter how wonderful the results of our Israel trip might be.

The most visible improvement in Israel today is its transportation system.  Although Israel has always had excellent and reliable bus service throughout the country, the recent construction and continuing extension of Kvish Shesh (Highway 6, a toll road), which is stretching from Israel’s extreme south to north, as well as Israel’s trains, has put literally the entire country practically at one’s doorstep.  Formerly arduous journeys have seen driving times cut in half, resulting in Israelis no longer needing to live in the city where they work.  It has opened up the country and at the same time made it smaller and more user-friendly.

The downside of this is twofold:  one, the amount of smog due to the increase of Israeli vehicle ownership and use is both sad and appalling – – the haze was so bad I didn’t even bother trying to take pictures of what should have been beautiful vistas; and the rate of road accidents is extremely high due to careless driving (in 14 days we passed the scenes of 3 different fatal road accidents).  In fact, you are much more likely to die or be disabled from a road accident in Israel  than a terrorist attack, missile barrage,  or a war.

After a too-short sleep at a kind friend’s house in Rehovot  our first night in Israel (we arrived at 2:30 a.m.), we drove our rented Toyota Corolla to the Lower Galilee to the yishuv (hamlet) of Moreshet.  I wrote about Moreshet a couple of years ago on our last visit to Israel.  Moreshet is beautifully located, overlooking the other side of Haifa Bay, high on a mountaintop.  The homes are well maintained and the surrounding environment is clean, with many little parks and green areas, a beautiful school and synagogue, and a small but utilitarian market with all food essentials.  Besides the dramatic views of Haifa University towers in the far distance and ships in the Mediterranean, on a clear day it’s also possible to see Mt. Hermon on the Syrian border to the north.  It’s 15 minutes south of the Galilean city of Karmiel, and 25 minutes from the Haifa suburbs where there are large shopping malls.  It’s only 15 minutes from the beach town of Nahariya, 15 minutes from the super secret and famous strategic weaponry developer Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd (where several Moreshet residents are employed) and 30 minutes from the beautiful grotto Rosh HaNikra on the edge of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

We liked Moreshet so much that we had been corresponding with several residents there over the past two years, inquiring about the possibility of making it our permanent home should we decide to move to Israel.  One Israeli couple in particular, Yair and Rivka Li’on, have become friends and in fact we hosted them for a few days when they came from Israel to visit us in Maine to see the glorious autumn colors.  The Li’ons were kind enough to host us in their lovely home for Shabbat, as well as the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.  On Shabbat they invited 2 other couples to join us for a meal, who had moved to Israel from the U.S. and Canada many years ago and had been living in Moreshet for the past 15 years.

Beautiful vistas from Moreshet.  On the mountain furthest in distance are the towers of University of Haifa.

Beautiful vistas from Moreshet. On the mountain furthest in distance are the towers of University of Haifa. (click to enlarge)

Vista from Moreshet

Vista from Moreshet (click to enlarge)

A view of the most recently completed building phase of private duplex homes  in Moreshet.  The left side of the left-most gold house is only 2 bedrooms and was up for resale for the unrealistic price of 1.7 million shekels - about  $500,000!

A view of the most recently completed building phase of private duplex homes in Moreshet. The left side of the left-most gold house is only 2 bedrooms and was up for resale for the unrealistic price of 1.7 million shekels – about $500,000! (click to enlarge)

Lag B’Omer is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated 33 days after Passover.  It commemorates the end of a horrific plague that killed 24,000 scholars and students of Rabbi Akiva in Talmudic times.  It also celebrates the triumph over Roman persecution during that time.  Traditionally large bonfires are lit to the accompaniment of music, dancing, and eating (without the latter it wouldn’t be Jewish!).  In Moreshet, the children had been gathering scrap wood for weeks at a field.  From third to eigth grade, each class had their own bonfire and planned activities to celebrate the holiday.  The older kids would stay up the whole night next to their bonfires, supervised by their youth group leaders (there was no school the next day).  The sparkling lights of Haifa Bay across from and below us on such a clear and lovely night made for a spectacular view.

The many bonfires of Moreshet on Lag B'Omer

The many bonfires of Moreshet on Lag B’Omer

Moreshet bonfires

Moreshet bonfires:  the lights of Haifa Bay twinkle in the background

 

School children and their families enjoying the bonfires.

School children and their families enjoying the bonfires.

Moreshet Bonfires

Moreshet Bonfires

But this wasn’t only a holiday for children.  In Moreshet, the “seniors” (ages 50 – 70) have their own group (called Moreshet “Gold”) and they had planned a lovely evening, to which we were graciously invited.  Everyone brought pot-luck dishes and barbeque for a great dinner, followed by an evening of singing Israeli songs from the ’50s to the ’70s that was accompanied by an accomplished accordionist.  The songs’ lyrics were projected onto the wall of the living room where the party was held, enabling us “Amerikaners” to sing along with the best of ’em.  It was a wholesome, enjoyable evening and it gave us an opportunity to meet and interact with Moreshet residents within our age group.

The words to the songs were flashed on the wall

The words to the songs were flashed on the wall

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Everyone sang along, re-living the good old days

On our last day, Ya’ir Li’on drove us around much of the Lower Galilee, showing us hidden spots known only to locals.  We visited an olive oil factory, where I learned that 90% of Israel’s olive oil is produced in the Lower Galilee. The views were magnificent.  Click on the photos below to enlarge – – it’s well worth it!

Views of the Galilee from the olive oil factory

Views of the Galilee from the olive oil factory

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Since the majority of an olive is made up of a pit and flesh, it takes many, many olives to extract a large quantity of oil.

This is where the oil is extracted from the olives.   Operations take place between October - December.

This is where the oil is extracted from the olives. Operations take place between October – December.

The retail store at the olive oil factory sells many products made from olive oil.

The retail store at the olive oil factory sells many products made from olive oil.

I was fascinated to learn that the refuse of crushed pits and flesh are not thrown away, but rather they are dried and formed into bricks called “gefet” in Hebrew, and sold as an alternative fuel source for wood stoves.  It costs only $5 for a 2 -3 day supply of fuel, which is encouraging in a country where the cost of water, gas, propane and electricity is outrageous.  (At almost $9/gallon, it cost us $100 every time we filled up the rented Toyota Corolla with gas!)

"Gefet," the discarded flesh and pits of the olives after they've been compressed for their oil, will be turned into bricks of fuel.

“Gefet,” the discarded flesh and pits of the olives after they’ve been compressed for their oil, will be turned into bricks of fuel.

This wood stove will burn "gefet," the refuse of olives.

This wood stove will burn “gefet,” the refuse of olives.

Ya’ir also took us to “Johncolad,” a one-man chocolate confectionary located in the small Galilean village of Manof.

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John Alford, an immigrant from New Zealand, imports the chocolate from Belgium and makes many flavors of candies and truffles that are sold primarily to wholesalers, hotels and caterers, but also to individuals who stop by the small factory for a quick tour.

 

John Alford describes his chocolate-making operation.

John Alford describes his chocolate-making operation.

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The machinery is pretty ancient looking.

The machinery is pretty ancient looking.

This machine forms the chocolate into balls.

This machine forms the chocolate into balls.

Yum.

Yum.

The confections are made from chocolate imported from Belgium.

The confections are made from chocolate imported from Belgium.

In fact, factory tours are alive and well throughout Israel and a great side trip, especially if you are vacationing with children.  I regretted that I didn’t have time to  tour the Tnuva factory in the Galil, which is home to my favorite “choco” (chocolate milk sold in single-serving-size plastic bags; you break open a corner of the bag with your teeth and suck out the chocolate milk) and “Milky” (single serving size of chocolate or vanilla pudding topped with whipped cream) or the Elite Chocoate factory, as well as the Osem factory that makes my favorite Israeli junk food, Bamba (the same look and texture as a Cheetos cheese puff, but with a peanut butter flavor).

"Choco" - single serving sized chocolate milk packaged in a small plastic bag - it reason enough to live in Israel!

Delicious “choco” – single serving sized chocolate milk packaged in a small plastic bag – is reason enough to live in Israel!

Israeli Choco:  Definitely not for kids only!

Israeli Choco: Definitely not for kids only!

Meanwhile, our hostess was suffering from a very sore foot and she feared she might have a stress fracture on her heel.  She had plans that day to go to the doctor to receive a prescription for a cortisone injection.  There is a medical clinic in Moreshet but her specialist doctor was located about 30 minutes away by car.  From the doctor’s office  she would go to the pharmacy to fill the prescription for the cortisone injection.  Next she would need to schedule a new appointment with her doctor, so she could bring the cortisone fluid to the appointment and get the required injection.  I was frankly appalled that doctors in Israel don’t automatically have a supply of injectable cortisone in their offices, necessitating 2 visits by the patient and a treatment delay of several days.  But our hostess took it for granted that this was the way the sytem worked and knew of nothing else, so the incredible inconvenience didn’t seem aggravating or strange to her in any way.

On the last night of our stay, we had an appointment to meet with the Absorption Committee of Moreshet.  In a small village such as Moreshet, it is important that everyone more or less gets along and fits in philosophically and ideologically with their neighbors, so applicants are vetted accordingly.  Quite honestly, the committee members were less than thrilled to accept us due to our age.

Age discrimination is rampant in Israel, which is a youth-oriented culture in the extreme.  No matter what one’s level of expertise, it is difficult for anyone past their thirties to find new employment, or get accepted into a small village or kibbutz.  Israel is concerned with building its future, and the unfortunate result of this is an obsession with youth being seen as the only productive part of society, at least for new hires.

Retirement is mandatory for adults in their sixties, although pension plans are extremely generous.  So generous, in fact, that it simply cannot logically continue in its current form without bankrupting the government, universities, and private companies.  Originally pensions in the newly formed State of Israel were based on a socialist system controlled by power-hungry party members, who competed in favor-garnering.  The payouts are overly generous, and completely unsustainable.  Israel is facing a total rehab of their pension system in the coming years.  The only people for whom this is good news is actuaries, who will be kept incredibly busy working out new algorithms  to ensure pensions will be more realistically formulated.  (And yes, this is a not-so-subtle hint to my 30-something Son-in-Law The Actuary, who currently has no plans or desire to move to Israel, that he will be eminently employable there.)

But I digress. The Absorption Committee wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about accepting us as new members.  The next building phase would have 45 lots available, and ten were already taken by people who were on a waiting list from the previous phase.  The committee naturally preferred to accept young couples with children, since that would guarantee continuity of the village and its school and other institutions.  There were 35 lots that were unspoken for but already there were 80 couples clamoring to buy them.

The committee told us they would not object to our buying a home that was already built by someone who might  be leaving the village, but at the current time the likelihood of our getting one of the new building lots was practically zilch.  There were three houses currently for sale, but they were either overpriced and too large for our needs, or they were impractically laid out (i.e. 16 steep steps from the street to get to down to the front door — fine now but not 20 years from now).  Additionally, we would be required — as are all applicants to the yishuv – – to take the notorious Israeli psychometric exam at a testing center found in any major Israeli city throughout the country.  (More about this test in a future post.)

This 20 year old "fixer upper" was for sale for 1.3 million shekels, approximately $380,000!

This 20 year old “fixer upper” was for sale for 1.3 million shekels, approximately $380,000!

The biggest problem besides the price was how the house was sited.  The street and parking was at the top of the stairs.  It would not be terribly fun to negotiate these steps while carrying bags of groceries, especially as I get older!

The biggest problem besides the price was how the house was sited. The street and parking was at the top of the stairs. It would not be terribly fun to negotiate these steps while carrying bags of groceries, especially as I get older!

I gave an impassioned speech in Hebrew about why we liked Moreshet and saw it as our future home, which raised quite a few eyebrows (in a positive way).  The committee seemed to soften, and suggested we make an appointment to take the psychometric test before our return to the U.S.  The only available appointment was in Tel Aviv,  2 days before the end of our stay in Israel, but we were committed to doing whatever it took to find a permanent home in Israel, so we agreed.  Meanwhile, we realized that we couldn’t depend on Moreshet accepting us, and while we were in Israel we had to utilize our remaining time to explore every possible option.  With fond goodbyes, we left our pleasant Israeli hosts, the Li’ons, and continued our mission of traversing Israel “yama, kedma, tzafona unegba”  — west from the sea to the east; from the north to the desert south.

By the end of the  2-week trip, we would put 2100 kilometers (over 1300 miles) on our rental car, an impressive feat in so short a time in a country so small.

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Travel Plans

Way back in October 2013, we bought tickets for a 2-week trip to Israel.  We decided to fly in May 2014, quite frankly to avoid the worst of bug season in Maine, also knowing that we’d miss the hottest part of summer in Israel at that time.  After comparing prices, we found the cheapest tickets – – $800 r/t – – were on Turkish Air.  To be honest, I had serious doubts about whether we should fly on this airline, especially since diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey were faltering (and the week before we were set to fly, the Israeli government issued a travel warning for Israelis flying to Egypt and Turkey).  I was also concerned that since our mode of dress identifies us as Orthodox Jews, we would feel somewhat vulnerable in a Muslim-majority country.  Fortunately our fears were unfounded.  Turkish Air turned out to be a very nice airline not only because of their more reasonable price, but also in terms of service and comfort.  The kosher airline food had been made by a kosher caterer in Istanbul, La Casa de Barinyurt, which was under a Turkish hechsher as well as O-K Laboratories.  All meals were fresh, not frozen; they were dairy and were chalav yisrael/bishul yisrael/yoshon (prepared according to the highest standards of kashrut) .  Besides some interesting Turkish salads, I especially enjoyed the light and flavorful orange-farina pudding for dessert.  I later found this recipe online at epicurious.com.  I would add some orange zest or replace 1/4 c. of the milk with orange juice to best replicate the airplane dessert:

yield
Serves 2

ingredients
For pudding

  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons uncooked farina
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For fruit

  • 1 kiwi
  • 1/2 mango
  • 6 large strawberries
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

preparation

Make pudding:
In a small saucepan over moderate heat simmer milk, farina, honey,and a pinch salt, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. In a bowl beat egg lightly and stir in about one fourth farina mixture. Stir egg mixture into farina mixture and cook, stirring, until pudding just begins to boil.

Put pan in a bowl of ice and water and stir pudding until cool, about 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla and divide between 2 small dessert bowls. Cover surface of pudding with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming and chill 20 minutes, or until ready to serve.

Prepare fruit while pudding is chilling:
Peel and dice kiwi and mango. Hull and dice strawberries. In a small bowl stir together fruit, lime juice, and sugar and chill until ready to serve. Spoon fruit over pudding.

That is not to say that we didn’t have some interesting cultural experiences, however.  At the Istanbul airport, next to the gate that was boarding the flight to Israel, there was a gate with a plane going to Saudi Arabia.  It was possible to see polygamous families dressed head to toe in white.  Next to them was another gate, with people boarding a plane to Iraq; in this line the Muslims wore all black.  One gate further along were many Muslims boarding a plane to Turkmenistan.   The women were dressed in beautiful, loose-fitting embroidered dresses, a brooch pulling the v-neck opening closed; their heads were covered with extremely colorful, pointed headscarves that were worn in a style that was very different from the veils and scarves worn by the travelers to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  It was then that we noticed a strange phenomenon:  every Turkmeni man and woman in the line carried a roll of packing tape.

Apparently, Turkmenis often shop abroad for items that are either overpriced or unattainable in Turkmenistan.  They then re-sell the items at a huge profit on the black market in Turkmenistan.  The problem is that the number of packages they acquire far exceeds the number of bags they can check in and carry on the plane.  The men were busy using the packing tape to tape 3, 4 and even 5 packages together so they could be counted as one carry-on.  An even more amazing scene awaited an American tourist who happened to wander into the ladies’ bathroom near the departure gate.  There, Turkmeni women lifted their loose dresses, and were frantically duct-taping all sorts of packages to their inner thighs and bellies, bodily attaching the result of their shopping sprees so they would not exceed the weight or item limits, then smoothing out their robe-like caftans over their hidden treasures.   There was an entire contingent of Turkmeni women boarding the plane who looked obese and 9 months pregnant, when in reality their bulging abdomens and zaftig figures were the fruits of their smuggling  goods into Turkmenistan via Turkish Air!

I found an image of Turkmeni women on the Internet.  These women are dressed similarly to the women I saw at the airport (minus the packing tape!)

 

On the way home from Israel we had another unusual experience in Istanbul.  As we boarded our plane to Boston, I looked out the window and noticed the plane was surrounded by Turk police cars with flashing blue lights, along with some journalists with extremely long telephoto lenses who were taking pictures of the plane from the tarmac.  Shortly thereafter, about 10 “Men in Black” – sinister-looking security personnel and bodyguards wearing earphones, padded vests, and crew-cuts – –  boarded the plane and sat down in our section of the plane, along with a couple of photojournalists.  I found out when the flight arrived uneventfully in Boston that our celebrity traveler was the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, who was flying to Boston to attend his son’s Harvard graduation.  (And according to a Harvard Turkish Student Union’s Facebook page, Abdullah Gul would be met on Graduation Day by protesters objecting to human rights violations in Turkey.)

Must-Haves

Although I don’t usually plug specific consumer products on my blog, I recently came across two items that are must-haves.  I decided to share information about them here.

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While shopping at Target I noticed a water bottle made by Brita that contained a filter good for 300 uses.  The filter does not purify bad water, it simply makes drinkable water more palatable. It’s not something I’d need in Maine – – our well water is truly fantastic – – but  I thought the Brita bottle could be very useful in my hometown, where the water coming out of the faucet is downright gross.  It stinks of chlorine and goodness knows what else; it’s often murky with white matter floating in the glass right after you pour it from the faucet.     The tap water in my hometown is so bad  that even  my dog won’t  drink it, and this Brita water bottle was not only re-usable, the water really did taste better.  I knew it would be a great choice also for travel.  Since you can’t bring in any quantity of liquid over 3 oz. past security, I could  bring the bottle empty and then refill it at a drinking fountain inside the airport.  If you’ve ever been in LAX or Newark, you know how bad the water is from the drinking fountain, and the Brita filter promised to rectify that issue.  Plus, the water sold in airports and other tourist venues is grossly overpriced at $3 – 4 per disposable bottle. Besides the expense, I hate the idea of buying one-time plastic water bottles due to the tremendous waste they create. The price for the Brita was $16, but since the replaceable filter can be reused up to 300 times, I thought it was a bargain, especially with my upcoming trip to Israel.  In Israel the tap water is safe to drink but is often murky, very hard,  and the taste leaves much to be desired.

 

 

A couple of weeks later I was shopping in my favorite store:  Costco.  I noticed a two-pack of these towels, which promised to keep me cool.  I had tried similarly made towels before, but found the material to be rubbery and clammy.  The mini towels sold at Costco were instead soft and velvety.

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To derive maximum benefit, the towels are taken out of their air-tight plastic containers, soaked in cold water, and then all excess moisture is wrung out.  When the towel  is folded and draped around your neck, it retains cool moisture without feeling clammy or getting your clothes wet.   This special towel has many obvious uses (great for keeping cool when hiking, going to the gym, or playing sports) but it’s also terrific for women experiencing hot flashes.  To keep it moist when not in use, you store it in the included airtight plastic container.  If you let the towel dry out, you simply need to re-moisten it with fresh water and wring it out.  It is machine washable, too.  The price at Costco is $14 for the 2-pack, and is well worth it.