Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Israel, Day 7: Jerusalem

2014-05-21 06.50.37_resizedBefore leaving Midreshet Ben Gurion, we took a quick look at the new home construction.  One hundred eighty building lots were snapped up in less than 10 days.  Prices have already doubled.

There are many eco-conscious residents who are scientists, educators, agronomists, and architects living in Midreshet Ben Gurion, and many have incorporated their desert-related research about energy efficiency and the desert environment when building their homes.  There are straw-bale homes, solar homes, and now, for the first time in this new neighborhood, a rammed-earth home in the initial stages of construction.

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To the rear right side, a “sealed room” shelter of reinforced cement has been added to the house, required by code for every new dwelling in Israel in the event of rocket attack or war.

 

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On our way from the Negev headed north to Jerusalem, we traveled over the “Green Line” into areas of “shared” jurisdiction by the Palestinian Authority.  Unlike most of the rest of Israel, where Israelis and Arabs shop and work and study together, there was a sinister undercurrent. (ed. note:  this post was written a few days before 3 Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by terrorists, in the very area I was writing about.)

In front of every Arab city, town and village was a huge orange sign in English, Hebrew and Arabic that warned,

THE ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI CITIZENS IS FORBIDDEN.”

And to think Israel has been accused of being an apartheid State!

I have never, ever seen such a sign in any Israeli city, town or village forbidding Arabs from entering, and wondered what the world at large would say if such signs did exist.  I know of no Israeli Jew who is welcome to study at Arab universities within “Palestinian territory”, nor receive medical aid at Arab hospitals; yet the reverse is certainly true:  Arabs receive degrees from all Israeli universities and are treated at Israeli hospitals throughout the country.  How poisonous is this blind hatred!

Before going to Jerusalem, we drove to the nearby city of Ma’aleh Adumim, where we visited with friends.  We knew we didn’t want to drive our rental car within Jerusalem’s city limits due to traffic, overcrowding, and too many one-way streets.  There are buses every 10 -15 minutes to Jerusalem from Ma’aleh Adumim, and so we happily boarded an outgoing bus, reaching Jeruslaem’s Central Bus Station within 15 minutes.  The new-ish train was also full of commuters.  At the bus station, which is filled with small shops, we made the only touristy purchase of our trip:  some new kippot (yarmulkas) for my husband and a couple of headscarves for myself — a total of 15 minutes.  Since we hadn’t come to shop for souvenirs nor Judaica, we were not planning to hit Geula, Mea Shearim, or Ben Yehuda to buy any touristy stuff.  I had only two places on my Jerusalem agenda:  shuk Machane Yehuda (the open-air market) and the Kotel (Western Wall.)

After buying Israeli chocolate bars for our grandchildren in the U.S., we left the shuk, grabbed a delicious and inexpensive shwarma at a roadside stand (where we ate alongside religious and secular Israelis, as well as Muslim and Christian Arabs all enjoying the delicious food), and made our way to the Kotel.  It was now dusk.

As we made our way towards the Kotel entrance, an amazing sight greeted us:  tens of thousands of people, with barely space to move!

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Unbeknownst to us, we had walked right into a special military ceremony, in which newly inducted members of the Golani brigade recite their oaths of allegiance to the State of Israel.

It was highly moving; hundreds of soldiers stood in their platoons in the plaza reciting the oath, as thousands of family members looked on from the sides with tears of bittersweet joy and pride.  To ensure that everyone could see, huge screens showing the soldiers up close were placed throughout the plaza.  These new soldiers consisted of sabras and immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia, France, the United States, Canada, and South America, religious and secular.  It was extremely moving to hear tens of thousands of voices – – soldiers, their families, and general visitors to the Kotel — sing Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, as one.

But the highlight, for me, was at the ceremony’s conclusion, when the soldiers were allowed to rejoin their families.  There was a mad rush as grandparents, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters found one another across the plaza, embracing with joy and pride and all stopping to take pictures of the occasion.

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Israel is a small country, and the degrees of separation are few.  Nearly every Israeli has a relative who was killed fighting one of Israel’s many wars.  Nearly every Israeli knows someone killed or gravely injured in a terrorist attack.  Imagine how difficult it is for parents and siblings and girlfriends to wish “mazal tov” to these sons and daughters of Israel, and yet they do so with pride, hope, fear, prayer, faith, appreciation, gratitude and joy.

Our unexpected encounter at the Kotel was one of the highlights of our trip.  And with deep feeling, I davened at the Wall, praying not only on behalf of sick friends, on behalf of the welfare of my family, and of Jews around the world.  I prayed for those hundreds of Golani soldiers, that HaShem should protect them; that they should survive, live and thrive in the Land of Israel for their families’ sake and for the sake of all Jews, everywhere.

Please pray for the safe return of teenagers Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devora, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah, who were abducted by terrorists on their way home from school.

 

 

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Israel, Days 6 – 7: Negev Desert

Anyone considering a move to Israel should put the South (Negev Desert) at the very top of their list.  Even Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa who wouldn’t dream of moving to the South to live in the desert are snapping up newly-built apartments as an investment.

The Negev desert makes up more than half of Israel’s land mass, but only 8% of the population currently lives there.

That is about to change.  More than any other place in Israel, in the next ten years, the Negev will be expanding at warp speed.

Later this year, over 10,000 troops will move from army bases in land-pricey greater Tel Aviv to a $650 million dollar training base now under construction 30 miles south of Be’er Sheva.  By the end of the decade, half of the bases in Israel’s center will move South.  Two- to three hundred career officers and their families will also be making the move, and require the housing to go with it.

But not only will the army be bringing their families to settle in the desert.

 

International hi-tech corporations such as EMC, IBM, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, RSA and Deutsche Telekom are opening R&D (research and development) labs in a new technology park in Be’er Sheva. (You can see photos of Be’er Sheva from my 2011 trip here.)

Be’er Sheva is host to a renowned university (Ben Gurion University) and hospital (Soroka); its own symphony and shopping malls; its concert hall and cultural center attracts internationally recognized artists.  Everywhere you look, giant cranes assist in the construction of luxurious hi-rise apartment buildings, along with villas-in-progress on the outskirts of town.

Even formerly backwater towns such as Dimona and Yerucham – – once upon a time crime-ridden places filled with unemployed men loitering on the streets with too much time on their hands – – are feeling the effects of this metamorphosis-in-progress.  In the old days, you practically couldn’t pay someone to live in these places.  Today, it’s not uncommon to see luxury apartments and private homes in the $450K – $600K range.

I am blessed to have a wonderful friend – – one of Israel’s top entomologists and scientific researchers – – who has lived in Midreshet Ben Gurion/Sde Boker in the Negev for the past decade.  She was kind enough to let us use her house as a base to explore the Negev.  I wrote extensively about Midreshet Ben Gurion on a previous trip to Israel, and you can read about that here (and don’t forget to look at the stunning photos of the Zin wilderness).  We drove 30 minutes south of our friend’s house until we reached the funky town of Mitzpe Ramon.

There we met with a pioneering couple around our age, the Rappeports, who are attempting, quite literally, to make the desert bloom.  They have 80 dunam (20 acres of sand and scrub) just outside of Mitzpe Ramon, where they are planting Argan trees.  Argan oil extracted from this tree is used in shampoos and other cosmetics.

 

Watering an experimental vegetable garden

Watering an experimental vegetable garden. In the background is a neighboring “farm,” in which someone is successfully growing grapes in a vineyard of sand and dust with drip irrigation. I don’t know how the grapes survive the searing temperatures and sandstorms and whipping wind, but they do.

Aragon tree seedlings await planting

Argan tree seedlings await planting

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day.  Ben Gurion believed it.  The Rappeports believe it.  And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people.  Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day. Ben Gurion believed it. The Rappeports believe it. And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people. Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.

 

Alas, it was not a good day for planting the 200 seedlings they had hoped to put into the ground!  We found ourselves in the middle of a raging sandstorm, with winds whipping the fine grains of sand into every pore of our being.  (I would taste grit for several hours afterwards.)  We took shelter inside a storage shed, hoping to wait out the storm, but there was no let-up.  Admitting defeat, the Rappeports instead invited us to their home for a cold drink (it’s hot in the desert!), where they told us a little about Mitzpe Ramon.

The town of Mitzpe Ramon sits along the edge of an unusual geological formation similar to a crater, known as Makhtesh Ramon.  It’s Israel’s wannabe Grand Canyon, with its steep desert cliffs changing color based on the time of day.  It is also home to many different zimmers, as well as a new-ish luxury hotel spa called Beresheet.  Mitzpe Ramon is surrounded by national parks, including an oasis with a stream bed and palm trees.  The hills are dotted with mountain goats called ibex.  It’s also a center of ecotourism and mountain biking, artists and musicians; a wannabe Burning Man festival, lots of dance and alternative music festivals (with plenty of hippies to make it feel more authentic).  There’s also a yeshiva there (men’s religious seminary).  Think of Mitzpe Ramon as a much smaller, indie version of Palm Springs, minus the golf courses.

There is bus service every 30 minutes – 1 hour to Be’er Sheva and there are also buses that go from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat.  And because it is considered “high desert” (elevation 2,800 feet), the night, after a hellish-hot day, can get downright chilly.  On a clear day, dramatic views of the desert and its many colors and contours, mysteries and wonders delight.

But: it’s hot.  True, it’s not humid like Tel Aviv, Ra’anana or Rehovot.

But it’s still hot.

Hellish hot.

It’s the hot flash that never goes away, for about 10 months out of 12.

And those pesky, several-times-a-year sandstorms!   The thought of constant sweeping and dusting (one woman told me she has the air filter on her car changed at twice the normal interval, due to all the sand) made me re-think any fantasies of pioneering in the Negev.

 

Israel, Days 4 – 6: Amirim

 

Beautiful views of the Galilee

Beautiful views of the Galilee (click to enlarge)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From Moreshet we traveled only 30 minutes away to Amirim, located in the central Lower Galilee.  Like Moreshet, Amirim is sited high on a hilltop, 2100+ feet above sea level, with expansive views of forests, agricultural fields, and Arab villages in the distance. There are two things that make Amirim unique.

Amirim is Israel’s first designated  “tourist village.”  Amirim was the first place in Israel to inaugurate the European concept of the “zimmer” (pronounced “tzimmer” in Hebrew), way back in the 1960s.  Zimmer means “room” in German; its equivalent in English is bed & breakfast or guesthouse, although unlike a b&b, a zimmer does not automatically include breakfast.

In Europe a zimmer is often just an extra room in someone’s house that is rented to the occasional traveler passing by for a price much cheaper than one might pay to stay in a hotel.  In Israel, however, the zimmer has become a whole new industry, often as small ells or even cabins built on private lands within villages known as moshavim.  Moshavim are collective settlements similar to kibbutzim, but people live independently (ie there is no common dining hall, and personal income is not communally managed or restricted); yet certain public areas and services are controlled and budgeted by the equivalent of an “association” similar to those regulating gated communities and condominiums in the US.  Unlike city dwellers, moshav residents have more land allotted to them  – – originally intended for agricultural use – – but today many Israelis are finding the hospitality industry more lucrative than agriculture, so they are building lovely wood cabins, dachas and outbuildings on their plots.  (And we noticed ads for zimmers in Druz and Arab villages as well.)

At least 25% of Amirim residents operate zimmers.  They range not only in price and size but also in architectural style and accoutrements.  All have kitchenettes, an eating area, and a bedroom and bathroom alongside a lovely, landscaped garden with outdoor seating.

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman in Amirim

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman in Amirim

The private garden outside our zimmer

The private garden outside our zimmer

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman

our zimmer's kitchenette

our zimmer’s kitchenette

our zimmer's bedroom

our zimmer’s bedroom

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

Some offer multiple bedrooms and ensuite jacuzzis, expansive porches, and spa services including various types of massage and alternative healing, yoga, reiki, etc.

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne'eman

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne’eman

But what makes Amirim truly unique is that it is a completely vegetarian village.  All zimmer guests must agree to abide by vegetarian eating habits while they reside in the village; even bbq grills are banned.  Many but not all of the permanent residents within the village don’t simply abstain from meat; they are vegans and eat no fish, dairy or egg products.  Some of the strictest adherents also abstain from honey and “live” plants, and refrain from using anything made of silk (to learn more about the philosophy behind this more extreme form of veganism, click here). There are several restaurants within the village, many of them organic, although currently none are certified kosher.

This was not a problem for us personally, since I prepared simple meals in our kitchenette of fresh pita and hummus with salad and fruit that I had purchased from a supermarket on our way to Amirim, and it was more than adequate.  (In case you are wondering why a strictly vegan restaurant needs kosher certification:  it is unlikely that any products used are not kosher; however, there are certain Biblical mitzvot (commandments) that are observed only within Israel, including the tithing of all produce grown in Israel, and if these vegan restaurants use produce that has not been tithed, it is forbidden for religious Jews to eat it.  Kosher supervision in Israel not only checks that meat and milk are not mixed and that the products used are indeed kosher, but it also ensures that Israeli produce has been properly tithed.)

Within the village are many artists and musicians.  Free concerts are given Friday afternoons until the onset of Shabbat.  There are many galleries filled with paintings, ceramics, jewelry and fiber art created by Amirim artisans for sale.  The village also has a small food market, and community swimming pool which also offers both mixed- and separate-gender swimming hours.  A small synagogue is open for Shabbat services, although there is no daily minyan.

Our sparkling clean but simple family-friendly zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman, designed to sleep 4, cost $100 a night, truly a bargain in light of its beautiful surroundings, ensuite jacuzzi,  kitchenette, comfortable beds, and private garden.  Also included in the price was a daily doorstop visit  by best friends Lobo the German Shepherd and Geula the cat.  How can one not like a cat named Geula?  (The name means “final redemption” in Hebrew.)

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

 You don't really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?


You don’t really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?

Gentle giant

Gentle giant

It didn’t hurt that our particular zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman (they have 5 different zimmers to choose from at this particular establishment) included a lovely bottle of merlot along with a bar of dark chocolate (both Israeli made). There are larger and more luxurious zimmers, of course — some cost as much as $500 a night – – but we were completely satisfied with our little gem.  The tremendous privacy it afforded makes it ideal for either honeymooners or families, or just people looking for a little quiet (no wonder so many Israelis rent zimmers in Amirim!)

Although Amirim is not a consideration for us as a permanent place to live, it s a great place just to relax, regenerate, and recoup from the stresses of jet lag and intense travel.  It is also a wonderful location from which to venture out on day trips around the Galil.  The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is 12 miles from Amirim and the ancient holy city of Tzfat is only 10 miles away.  In order to maximize your sightseeing time in the Galil, renting a car is highly recommended, although a few eco-conscious zimmers give room discounts for guests who arrive by bus or bicycle.

One village we were interested in checking out was Bar Yochai.  Within walking distance of the small town of Meron (the main site of Lag B’Omer celebrations in Israel, Meron attracts as many as 500,000 people from all walks of Israeli life on that particular day, who celebrate the holiday near the tomb of kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

At Bar Yochai we met with a lovely couple from Detroit who were in the process of making Bar Yochai their permanent home.  He is a professor of math at a US university, but his schedule allowed both vacation and research time in Israel.  Originally they rented zimmers in different villages throughout the Galilee for a month at a time until they found a place they might consider “home.”  Now they were renting a house in Bar Yochai for several months, and were nearing a decision to settle there permanently.

Although the village did not appeal to me personally, it just proved the mantra, “different strokes for different folks” – – if you look hard enough, there truly is a place for everyone who wishes to call Israel home.

Since we were so close to Tzfat, we decided to take a quick detour into the town.  Tzfat is known for its beautiful ancient synagogues; its cemetery where many holy Jewish kabbalists are buried; and its artists’ quarter, which though charming, is very touristy.

The next day we continued to explore the Galilee.  At my husband’s former hi-tech workplace in the US, he worked with an Israeli ex-pat living in the Boston area.  Now they are both working at different jobs, but have maintained contact over the years.  The co-worker has since moved back to Israel,  and now lives in the upper Galilee in a magnificent town called Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), close to the Lebanese border, and just down the road from the small Israeli city of Ma’alot – – and Ma’alot was one city we wished to investigate.

Kfar Vradim is full of secular Israelis who have made it big in the hi-tech industry.  Most of the single-family homes looked as if they were plucked from Beverly Hills (or Calabasas, for my California-savvy friends).  My husband’s friend, who graciously invited us for coffee, had just built an infinity pool in the backyard, along with a jacuzzi and lovely landscaping with many newly planted fruit trees.  The views were magnificent, too.

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend's garden, in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend’s garden, in Kfar Vradim

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim.  Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim. Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

That said, Kfar Vradim is on the cusp of some very big changes.

In order to encourage Israeli citizens to live in less central areas of the country, the government gives incentives such as reduced income and property taxes for outlying areas and development towns.  And outlying it is – – Kfar Vradim is located only 8.7 miles from the Lebanese border.

Because of these incentives, people built enormous homes dripping with affluence. Unfortunately, it appears that Kfar Vradim is now a victim of its own success.  The government has announced that it will end incentives and tax discounts as of 2015.  People who built McMansions will suddenly be burdened with increased tax bills they hadn’t expected to pay.

This has resulted in a panic sell-out.  The problem is that so many homes are now up for sale, that it’s caused real estate prices in Kfar Vradim to nose-dive – – probably one of the few nice areas in all of Israel where the prices are actually going down rather than rising.

Perhaps the most surprising result of this fallout is the interest Kfar Vradim has garnered by haredim, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Until now the town has been completely secular.  But haredim with large families are eyeing the huge, luxurious homes, which can better accommodate their ever-growing families (typically haredim have between 6 – 12 children) for a price that would be unattainable anywhere else in Israel.

There are currently a group of 20 haredi families slated to buy in Kfar Vradim, and surely more will follow.  This will cause seismic cultural and religious changes in the previously all-secular town.  It will be certainly be interesting to see how this plays out!

Next we drove to the small city of Ma’alot (population 20,000).  Like many towns and cities in Israel today, Ma’alot has its own immigrant absorption office and works closely with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the immigrant organization responsible for bringing so many Jews from English-speaking countries to Israel on aliyah.  We spoke with a caseworker named Julia, a young Russian immigrant who has lived in Ma’alot for many years.  She offered to escort us on a brief tour of the city and get an overview of the many different neighborhoods there.

We were most impressed with Ma’alot:  it has every possible city amenity from an educational, religious, cultural, recreational and commercial perspective; the city was extremely clean and well landscaped; the views were magnificent (it sits 2000′ above sea level), and many of the neighborhoods are truly lovely, with parks and bricked walkways and courtyards between buildings that encouraged neighbors to stroll and socialize yet maintain a sense of privacy.

Our favorite was the new Savyonim neighborhood, which is also conveniently close to major shopping.

The population of Ma’alot is extremely diverse culturally, and included immigrants of all ages from all over the world.  The concert hall regularly featured world-class international performers (dance, music, symphonies); Ma’alot also sponsors an international chess tournament as well as an international documentary film festival and jazz festival.

Truthfully, there would be little reason to leave Ma’alot once one put down roots there; but the perception that Ma’alot is at the end of the world means that friends from other places may think it an inconvenient place to visit regularly if at all (in fact, it’s 30 miles from Haifa and 7 miles from Karmiel).  It could get lonely.  But we thought that if our attempts at acceptance to one of Israel’s vetted villages didn’t work out, then Ma’alot would be a beautiful place to consider more seriously, provided we could find a social niche there.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks.  It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks. It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

So-called "development towns" are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image.  In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they'd pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

So-called “development towns” are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image. In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they’d pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

These Israeli websites are great for finding accommodations throughout Israel, although the translated English text is a bit rough around the edges.  Type “amirim” into the search option.

http://www.zimmeril.com

These sites are specific to Amirim:

http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-us.html?aid=336408;label=amirim-Jbk3yIGCCFpoo7uGlJnJPAS35468182556%3Apl%3Ata%3Ap115%3Ap2%3Aac%3Aap1o1%3Aneg;sid=88b78d9bfb9d86a953a72972fc60e132;dcid=1;city=-779193;hyb_red=1;redirected_from_city=1;src=city

http://www.havilot-nofesh.co.il/eng/ZimmerList.asp?MenuID=337

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.

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.

Conclusions

I learned many things from my visit to Israel.  Here are the most significant of my observations, in a nutshell:

1.  We belong in Israel – all of us.  I know, life intervenes (i.e. caring for an elderly parent, a chronic illness in the family, special educational needs, employment and language issues, the desire to remain in close proximity to relatives, shalom bayis etc).  But ultimately, truly, our place is there.

2.  There is a “right” place/community for everyone in Israel, but it takes a boatload of time and patience to find that place.

3.  Israel is the most progressive country in the world, in terms of positive energy, growth, focus, drive, ambition, success, standard of living, research and dedication, and quality of life.  (Don’t miss this book, which says it better than I ever can:  Start-Up Nation:  The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.)

4.  Israel is – –  and continues to be – –  a living, breathing miracle.  Its successes are so completely illogical and against nature, that all of the accomplishments listed in #3 could not have come about without Divine Intervention.  HaShem has truly blessed us, and uniquely so! (Really, this should be #1 on my list)

5.  The biggest catalyst that has changed Israel the most in the last ten years is the country-wide expansion of train service, and the construction of Kvish Shesh (Route 6), which is a major highway that stretches from northern Israel down to its south.  The combination of the excellent train and highway has had a huge impact, because suddenly more “out-of-the-way” areas of Israel are truly  accessible and no longer impractical.  Due to the railway and Kvish 6, Israel has at once  figuratively “shrunk” in size geographically speaking, while expanding its options and opportunities in endless ways, socially and economically.  This means that people are not “stuck” in densely populated urban areas where the jobs are.  They can now seek employment just about anywhere in the country and be within easy commuting distance.  (For example, Be’er Sheva to the Galil took only 2 hours!)  In the past, the only people living in rural areas were the kibbutznikim and moshavnikim.  For the first time, there now exists the concept of the “bedroom suburb” – beautiful areas of settlement throughout the country with an extremely high quality of life, close to shopping and city amenities, but without the noise, dirt, expense and stresses of city life.  This is a huge positive sociological change whose impact has only begun to be felt.