Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cafe Culture

So I met someone for coffee at 4:45pm at a cafe on Emek Refaim, and three hours later, I was still sitting there. If we hadn't asked for the bill, we could have been there for several more hours.

The street festival down the block was great. 6 blocks of musical acts, acrobats, dance troupes, food, jewelry and lots and lots of people. It was a pre-Shavuot festival. Today at lunch, we saw a kindergarten class walking down the street. They were all dressed in white and wearing wreaths around their heads and carring "offerings" (it looked like dried fruit to us), to celebrate Shavuot. At the festival, there were lots of kids still in their crowns and white clothes (but without the dried fruit).

As long as I've been reporting on the local bathroom scene, I might as well let everyone know that the restrooms at Tal Bagels are excellent.

They're gone!

I shouldn't sound too excited. There are still 20 buses left to go, but the first group is gone and we've got no one to be responsible for for the next almost week.

At some point I should just write a book about bathroom stories in Israel. Today's story: I was in a cafe (appropriately called Coffee Shop) on Emek Refaim - a trendy street filled with little boutiques and cafes. I go to the bathroom. You open the door, and there is a sink, and then two doors and an alcove. The doors each lead to a toilet, and the alcove a urinal. So that it's possible to walk out of the toilet and encounter someone using the urinal. This is also a country where men just stop on the side of the road and go. Not walking into the woods or even a few feet away from their cars. I'm mainly relieved that in all cases I've seen, they aren't facing the road.

I'm headed back to Emek tonight for a street festival in honor of Shavuot, which begins tomorrow night. Should be fun.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Freaks and Geeks

I got to spend some time on Nahalat Benyamin this afternoon in Tel Aviv. This is an artsy street fair that takes place every Tuesday and Friday. The best description I can give is that it was very Tel Aviv-y. Lots of interesting clothes, tattoos, piercings and musical instruments. I'm not sure what the attraction is to having a tattoos on one's forehead. It's just not a flattering look. And there was a woman on the corner playing from the classic Zionist songbook and a steel drum band on another corner. You could get a henna tattoo (but ironically, not on your forehead), buy organic soap (I'm not really sure what that means), and mainly, people watch, The good thing about the area is that you can sit in a cafe for a really long time and no one minds.

In that sitting for a long time, I had excellent humus with mushrooms, which I of course bungled in the ordering. I had the humus and the mushroom part set in Hebrew, but it was the word "and" that I said in English. Which in the end was ok, because I'm not sure if, in Hebrew, it would be humus and mushrooms, or humus with mushrooms. If anyone is reading who went with me on my first trip to Israel in 1982 and remembers the conversation on Air France about omelette du fromage or omelette au fromage, the experience was eerily similar. But I digress...

I also got to spend some time in Shuk HaCarmel. It's a little alley of a street with stores on both sides, and booths set up selling things in front of the stores, leaving a really narrow walk way for lots of foot traffic. The stores were selling fruits and vegetables, candy, cigarettes, t-shirts, toys, cheese, meat cosmetics, bread, eggs (it was at least 80 degrees out) and pork. Yes, there was one store that had a big sign in front in English that said "We Sell Pork". A lot of our participants were walking through the shuk when I was there. How did I know them? They were wearing their nametags. On the last day of their trip.

Then it was on to Independence Hall, my favorite place in Israel, bar none. I got there in time to hear the best part - the reading of the declaration, the shehehiyanu, and hatikvah.

Tomorrow morning, the last of the 15 May buses leave.....

Monday, May 29, 2006

Easy Decisions

I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that no one had called me yet, and it was already 3am. So I called one of our staff members (the one that called me at 2:17 am yesterday) to make sure everything was ok....


Lest you think that Israel is not a small enough country to begin with (it would fit twice inside of Lake Michigan), an enterprising company has created Mini-Israel. We are required to bring 50% of our buses to this site. Here's the thing - if it was shaped like Israel, only in miniature, I wouldn't like it any better, but I would understand what they were trying to do. Instead, it's shaped like a melted Star of David. If you use the link above, you'll see what I mean.

There were a few amusing things about the visit/site:
1. Students renting golf carts to speed around the country.
2. They have a lot of little people (figurines, not dwarfs!) at the various sites. Skiing on the Hermon, praying at the Kotel, etc. It was actually pretty funny.
3. The chose the strangest landmarks to show. There's a really weird house that overlooks the beach in Tel Aviv that looks like it's melting. It's called the "crazy house". Yeah, it's there in all of its 1:25 scale glory.

Truth be told, it wasn't a great use of time, but it wasn't as horrible as we were all expecting. Plus, they had parasols for people to use. When was the last time you used a parasol?

Yad Vashem

This morning, I joined one of our buses on their visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's Shoah memorial. A new museum opened a year ago, and even though we've had 90 (!) buses here since then, this was my first time to the new museum. We spent about 2 hours on a guided tour and it would have been very easy to spend another few hours going through again to see all of the things that our guide couldn't or didn't cover.

There was one picture, that from all that I saw, was probably the most disturbing. It was 4 or 5 German soldiers (police, SS?) laughing as they cut off the beard of an old Jewish man. I just can't imagine what posesses people to enjoy themselves as they intentionally strip the dignity of another person. There were obviously all sorts of other, very disturbing images, but this one was especially unnerving.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


I got a non-emergency call from a staff person at 2:17am. Why? I'm not really sure. I really do appreciate that they want to keep us up-to-date on their groups, but unless someone is bleeding (or running naked, loud and drunk through the kibbutz), I would just as soon know about it in the morning.

And yes, it's now 7am and I'm ready to head out the door for the day :)

My new favorite juice

It's not so easy to find juice without added sugar here unless its' fresh oj, which I don't like. But then I found Kiwi-Pear juice. It tastes like a cross between juice and a smoothie. I first tried the small bottle, then went to the one-liter bottle, and tonight I went to the grocery store and bought the two-liter bottle. I also noticed cactus-apple juice. It was only sold it one-liter bottles, so I decided not to be quite that adventurous. Mainly, until I'm convinced that they've taken out the cactus spikes, I think I should hold off on that experience.

Two more buses leave tomorrow night, and then we'll have only four left until the next round. I know I shouldn't say anything until they leave, but so far, so good. Once they four leave later this week, we'll have 15 buses done, and 20 to go.

Nothing but sand....

Well, the desert isn't just sand, but the landscape is really amazing. Driving down from Jerusalem (yes, there's a story there. My drive could never be that simple...) you can see the country go from green, to less green, to brownish trees, to bushes, to nothing. And then all of the sudden, just past Be'er Sheva, you're in the desert. I noticed a lot of Camel Crossing signs, and some that said "Beware of camels on the road side" none of which I thought I'd be able to appropriate (yes, there was thought put into the possibility). There weren't so many camels though. I think that may have to do with the signs interspersed with the camel signs that announced the presence of firing ranges.

I passed many, many Bedouin encampments. I think the word "shanty" is the best way to describe their housing. Not quite a tent, but definitely not a stable-looking structure. I would love to know how they live out there.

I saw a lot of bugs over the weekend, and was bitten by a select few. There were lots of lizards of various ilk, and we saw a huge spider about the size of the palm of my hand that was upside down on the path on the way to the pool. I thought about poking it with a stick to see if it was alive, but then decided that if it was alive, I really didn't want to know what it looked like right-side up. There were also strange looking beetles, and other cricket/praying mantis like things that were just really big. Like maybe some of the radiation from Dimona got to them or something.

The heat wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. We all went up to the pool on Saturday afternoon. It was on a hill, and when you looked around, all you saw was desert. And in the shade, it was actually pretty cool.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mimi to the Rescue

Have I mentioned that not only have I not yet seen last week's Lost, or this week's finale? It's killing me! But Mimi (my colleague at Hillel) has figured out that her brother will download the episodes onto DVD for me and someone will bring them to me with the next set of busses at the beginning of June. I could check out the scene by scene descriptions on Television without Pity, but I just don't think it will be the same. (Good suggestion Rachel, I just can't bring myself to do it.)

ABD in the desert

This weekend is "ABD Shabbat" for our two buses in the Negev. Aryeh Ben David will be doing his spirituality "thing" with us, and everyone is pretty excited. We've got three sessions with him, and optional time for Q & A during Saturday afternoon. If I return a little loopy (loopier?) than usual, you'll know why. Between ABD and the air in Tsfat, it's a definite possibility....

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Crunchy but clean

Well, my clothes are clean, but a bit crunchy since I let them air-dry instead of throwing them in the dryer. Most importantly, the sap that had possibly stained my shorts in a strange virus-shaped pattern in Tsfat, is gone. And it all smells good.

The fine line between clean and dirty

Those of you that know me well, know that I don't do laundry. I am capable of it, but Ronnie is more capable and has been for the last 14 years. When I've traveled in the past, I've done hand laundry, which gets me through a three week trip pretty easily. But two months? The apartment I'm in has a washer and dryer. The lanuage on all the controls is in German. The manual is in Turkish. I did find a manual in Hebrew, and thankfully I have a dictionary. That said, I didn't want to screw anything up (with their machine, not my laundry), so I also found a manual on-line for a similar model. I hope it's similar enough....

The Greatest Invention of the 21st Century

Crystal Light to go. On a day like today where drinking as much water as possible is critical (dehydration is not pretty), anything that makes well-water go down a little easier is a good thing. In general, the water isn't bad, it just tastes different, like there are rocks in it somewhere down the line.

Speaking of taste, I have been negligent in reminding staff that students should taste the dirt on Masada. Mindy Hirsch (who also bequeathed me the rest of her Crystal Light) asked me why I hadn't reminded her.... Here's the deal. We tell participants that Israel should be experienced with all of their senses, and that Masada is a great place to do that. They can see the desert (and Jordan) for miles in any direction, they can smell the clear air, they can hear their voices echo off in the canyons, and they definitely feel the climb. But there's nothing there to taste, unless we ask them to taste the dirt. Believe me, when it happens, they never forget the experience! It's actually pretty funny. And even folks with food allergies can taste dirt....

Drunk, loud and naked

Yes, these are our participants. Not all of them, but enough of them. Even though I wasn't on site up North with them last night, I got the full run down at 1am and again at 2am. It would be one thing if our participants were the only people staying at the hotels. But they aren't. And needless to say the other guests are not so enthusiastic about their behavior.

Two quick steps, and a slow one....

Really, there are not words that could adequately describe the heat here. And it's still May. And I'm headed to the desert tomorrow. It's so hot it's hard to breathe. I learned that you walk quickly between the places with shade, and take your time through the shady patches. If there isn't already an expression that says it's 20 degrees cooler in the shade, there should be.

I had plans to meet Avi Rubel for breakfast this morning and decided to walk downtown rather than drive. It's a good way to get to know my way around, and harder to get lost. Afterwards, we went to the Old City and visited a water cistern in the Orthodox Coptic Church (I may have that wrong) next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was pretty cool for a dark, murky hole filled with water.

Then we stopped by Avi's friend Mazzen's shop. Mazzen sells all sorts of rugs - from Turkeman, Pakistan, Afganistan, and some beautiful ones made by the Bedouin. We had some tea with mint and got a lesson in Islam. Mazzen is fairly religious, but the conversation was purely about Islam as religion and not about politics. The whole thing was fascinating and definitely not something I would have been able to do on my own.

And then I walked back to the apartment. It's probably only two miles, but in the heat, it felt like forever. I could have jumped into a cab, but somehow that would have felt like cheating. So I found myself dashing between the shady spots. (who knew that I could be counted on to dash?!)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What goes up....

My time up North was excellent. This time, I stayed at HaGoshrim. It's similar to Kfar Giladi (where I was last week) and just about 10 minutes away. It's right up the road from Tel Hai. My room had a sliding door with a screen that opened onto a running stream. Across the stream were some of the kibbutz homes. There was a sort of plank bridge across the stream, and a sign that said "no crossing". So I didn't. (Why didn't Andrea cross the road?...)

When I got to my room last night I noticed a small spider by the light switch. An hour later he hadn't moved. I was not relieved to wake up in the morning and find that he had disappeared. I found him again wandering around the bathroom.

And here's what I don't get about Israeli hotel bathrooms (I promise to try and not make this a running theme) - I had a beautiful room, and it had a large bathroom with a jacuzzi tub. But, as I have frequently found in hotels here (in any kind of room), they give you the thinnest, barest, scratchiest towels. And while there was a shower set up in the bathtub, there was another one on the wall between the bathtub and toilet. There was a drain in the floor, but still, that made no sense to me at all.

Yesterday morning, I was with a bus that had an excellent tour educator. First we hiked on nearby Mt. Meron, where many of the rabbis who dabbled (understatement) in mysticism and kabbalah are buried. I got lost up there a few years ago on a hike, and true to form, our entire group got just a little lost on this trip. There are a lot of intersecting trails, and if you take the wrong one, you wind up on the wrong side of the mountain and/or at the military base down at the bottom. Like I said, I've had some experience with this.

After the tour of historic Tsfat,I had a chance to visit with Morris Dahan, a local artist, who caught me up on his family (his son and daughter will be celebrating their bar/bat mitvahs in September) and I got to see some of his new ideas that aren't yet sale-ready.

This morning was the drive back south to Jerusalem. True to form, I got a little lost when I arrived in Jerusalem. But I have a map and once I figured out where I was on it, made it back to the apartment pretty easily. First task - watering the orange tree on the balcony that has finally been resurrected (I'm in a holy city, I can use that language).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Can you dig that?

This afternoon I went to Har HaZatim (Mt. of Olives) with one of our buses. They were supposed to be helping clean up some of the graves that are still in disrepair after having been destroyed by the Jordanians during their time in the area. We didn't get to do any work in the end but while we were learning about the area, an Arab man on a white donkey rode by. Jewish legend tells us that the Messiah will arrive on a white donkey and ride through Har HaZatim to begin the resurrection. I'm pretty sure it wasn't him, but....

Tonight I went to Beit Guvrin with the groups. It's a series of underground caves that is also an active archeological dig. I did not dig. I also did not crawl through the caves. The groups always find something - minimally, shards of pottery. Sometimes our groups find cool things like vases and statues. Tonight - just shards. (Why is this night different from all others?)

Tomorrow I'm headed back up North for 2 more nights. I'm not sure yet where I'm staying (I have a reservation, I just don't know where). I'm always excited to be up North. The weather's been good, it's beautiful, and the driving is easy. just fyi - this means no updates here :(

I'll also probably be in Tsfat for the first of hopefully many times this round. I love Tsfat, but I'm not really sure why. It's not for the bazillion steps. And it's not for the food. I think I like that they enjoy a liberal use of bright blue paint. On doors, on balcony railings, on window frames. It was because of Tsfat that I wanted the front door of our house painted blue. For those of you who haven't been there, Tsfat is like the Sedona of Israel.

I did decide not to buy any more prints from my favorite artist (Morris Dahan) while I'm there. With all of the money we've spent on framing, we could have brought him in to paint a mural on our wall instead. But it was exciting last week when I was up there that one of our staff people found his studio and bought one of the same seriographs we have. All this said, I'm sure I'll stop by and say hello and try not to look too closely to his new runs....

In case you were wondering...

Cappuccino flavored gum is not all it's cracked up to be. I think I'm going to donate the rest of my box to the Coffee Museum (conveniently located at 800 Eighth Street, NW in DC. Go to the 6th floor and ask for Dennis, the curator and coffee savant, and tell him I sent you.)

I know everyone wants funny student (or staff) stories, and I do have them, trust me. I'm just not sure how to relate them without giving away too much identifying information (to protect the not-so-innocent). On Friday nights, we usually do a staff oneg after the student programming is over. This past week, we asked everyone to introduce themselves and let us know what their nicknames were. Some of the nicknames were: Rambo, Boreka, Shaniqua, Bones, Corky, Tel Aviva, Gorgeous, and Sparkie. Their parentally given names are (not in the same order): Mindy, Aviva, Ruthie, Jay, Kim, Rebecca, Ur and Sherrie. If you can correctly match the their given names to the nicknames, I'll send you a box of Capuccino flavored gum.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Random Shabbat observations

The hotel was nice. There were 6 busses of birthright folks there (4 of ours, 2 from another organizer), a bus of Koreans, and some nuns. It's also in a fairly observant neighborhood, so there was also a good mix of religious Jews. Needless to say, the pool area was occupied only by the 6 birthright groups.

The food was pretty good, but they evidently over ordered pears and corn. There was a pear salad, and pears in the salad. There were pears used in many deserts, and chocolate covered whole pears. And there were two different corn salads in addition to the corn schnitzel that was available for the vegetarians on Friday night. The first corn salad was corn, with a lot of dill and no apparent dressing, but maybe there was some olive oil? The second corn salad was corn, with a lot of dill, and mayonaise. And for breakfast, there was a corn kugel/quiche. I'm not sure I can really give a description that would do it justice. Suffice it to say there was egg, corn, and of course, some dill. Israelis also eat corn on their pizza, and mixed into tuna salad, so it could just be me that thinks there was a lot of corn (and not a cob in sight)

I realize this might seem strange, but I have to talk about the bathroom in my room. First, in addition to the bathtub/shower and toilet, there was also a bidet. Just not something you see so often, or else I'm hanging out in the wrong places.

The other thing that I think is cool here, is that on the radio Friday afternoon, before Shabbat, the announcers say Shabbat Shalom, and then tonight, they say Shavua Tov (have a good week). Even in the secular community here, the time is marked in Jewish ways.

The Long and Winding Road

I spent Shabbat at the Shalom Hotel located in Bayit Vegan, a neighborhood in Jerusalem where we had 4 busses of participants staying. The students are going to a club tonight, and I'll meet them there later, but first I thought I should come back to the apartment, unpack, check email etc. The catch - I'm fairly inept at driving in Jerusalem. I have a decent map, and I possess a pretty good sense of direction, and yet, I excel at getting lost here. But tonight, I made it from the hotel to the apartment - completely across town - without getting lost once. It didn't hurt that it's really one really, really, long road to take until I hit familiar territory, but still, this is a major cultural accomplishment for me.

More later on the oddities of my Shabbat....

Friday, May 19, 2006

Lost in Translation

Well, in case you were wondering, it turns out that if you can't watch Lost on streaming video unless you're accessing the internet from the US. I can't decide what bothers me more. Not being able to see the season finale, or that they (you know, the ubiqitous "they") know from whence I surf.

What I can watch on television here though includes programs in Hebrew (duh), Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, English, French and Hindi (I'm not so up on the other Indian languages, but it sounds like Hindi to me). What is very clear, is that very few of the people on any of the channels are ready for HDTV.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

If it's Thursday, I must be in...

I arrived Tuesday, went up North Wednesday, and now I'm back in J-lem. For such a small country though, it's pretty big. Oh, and between the Kfar Giladi and J-lem, we took a very slight detour for lunch on the beach. It was 70 degrees, waves crashing, and it didn't matter what we were eating, it was a good afternoon. And it was not as far out of the way as you might think.

We learned a great new icebreaker from one of our staff. Going around the circle, everyone has to answer - do you crumple your toilet paper or fold it? We did find a few "folders". [Another great one - tell us about one of your scars. And the last - what is the food that you hate that you wished that you liked.] I'm pleading the fifth on all of them (just to be on the safe side).

We got the internet working here, which is key to allowing me to work while I'm here. The volume of emails is staggering, and this is during a time when people theoretically know I'm out of the office. The task tonight is going to be trying to see if I can watch lost from the website.

Tomorrow I've got two Shehechiyanu ceremonies. Sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. In J-lem, anything is possible :)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jetlag for Dummies

It's 3am and I thought I was doing well on the jet lag front. I probably was, but the loud and drunk students woke me up and getting back to sleep makes it a jet lag problem and not a loud, drunk student problem. The good news is that they are now all asleep and ready for their 6am wake up call. I remembered to unplug my phone....

Oh, I arrived safely, rented a great car, and am already up North on the Lebanese border. It's all good...

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Morning of....

It's 5:30am and I wish I could say that I'm excited about the 18 hours of traveling that lies ahead. And really, the traveling will be fine. It's the 8am arrival in Israel that will be the end of me. I'm not someone who is able to often enjoy the gift of sleep while flying, and the stress of that alone keeps me awake.

In the end, I packed in just my rolling duffel bag. I either forgot something that I'll remember as soon as I get on the train, or I'm just that good. The duffel bag weighs 48 pounds and my backpack checks in at "really heavy". Putting it on the scale would be bad for morale.

I'm not sure how long it will take to get the internet access set up in Israel, but until then....

Sunday, May 14, 2006

T minues 28 and counting

I made a list of all the stuff I should pack. It's not really a very long list. I tend to pack light in the first place, but I'm not sure if packing for 2 months is the same as packing for 3 weeks. I'm not sure how or why it would be different, but I just know I'm going to get there and remember that I didn't bring whatever it is that I only use once every 5 weeks....

On a good note, I did, for the first time since I don't know when, remember to order a vegetarian meal for the flight. I'm positive that I'm more excited by the fact that I remembered than I'm going to be by the meal itself. And I've got my homeopathic jetlag remedy. They really do work if you remember to take them.

I spoke with Esther this morning (my co-conspirator/partner in Israel) who reminded me that while I can let everyone in on my observations, I can't write anything that's going to get me (or anyone associated with the reason for my being in Israel) in trouble or embarrass anyone. I'm pretty sure I can avoid embarrassing anyone and I'm going to really try and stay out of trouble....

Saturday, May 13, 2006

42 hours and counting

I'm leaving for Israel for two months in 42 hours. Well, that's when the flight leaves. Before that, I have to get downtown to the train, and then take a 3 hour train ride to Newark to arrive 4 hours before my flight. You gotta love international travel.

And I thought that maybe I would blog my way through the experience. And the folks at lunch today thought it was a good idea. And really, I'm going to be gone for a long time, and the short conversations I'll invariably have will let you know I'm having a good time, but probably give you no other real details of my trip.

Those of you that know me well will also know that at least some of what you will read will be embellished by small details that will seem confabulated, and they may be. But you're used to that, right?