This country is bugging me

19 06 2011


Mosquitoes are amazing creatures. No really, they fascinate me. Here is an insect that is perfectly adapted for what it does. Both male and female mosquitoes live on nectar, but in the case of the female, she needs the extra protein and nutrients in blood to produce eggs. Even this I find fascinating. No, I haven’t developed a soft spot for vampires. For that I wear a garlic necklace to bed each night. This keeps the vampires away — I know because I have yet to be bitten by one.

But, garlic doesn’t work against mosquitoes, and this country has its share of them. And, so did our house.

Mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide and octenol we and other animals produce. They also have a preference for victims, which explains the observation made by my well-bitten daughter that “they like me more than you!” Yes, sweetie, you are mosquito bait because you probably make more octenol than me or your mother. But, don’t feel too badly, we also are well-bitten. Each morning we would awaken with new itchy little red welts, and then suffer through the day.

Stop Tush

While scouring store shelves for a solution to keep the mosquitoes out of our sleeping chambers I came across this curious product. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, only in Israel would you find an anti-mosquito cream called: STOP TUSH.

I’m not making this up. The photo on the left is for real.

Some explaining. The Hebrew word for mosquito is yatush. With all due apologies to Hebraicists, here is my half-baked theory for this word’s origins. It is onomatopoeic, imitating the sound the ancient Israelites made when one of these bugs bit into their desert wandering derrieres. “Ya TUSH! Another one got me!”

I did not buy Stop Tush. With such a name, I just don’t see myself putting this stuff on my skin.

So, we sought and found another solution: chemical warfare. We got a plug-in device that heats up and emits some kind of repellant. This works very well, but I can only imagine what nasty chemical concoction we are breathing in. I don’t like this at all, but I like mosquito bites even less. So, we are still searching for a non-toxic way of keeping these yaTUSHim away. If anybody has some good ideas please drop them in the suggestion box (i.e. hit the “reply” button.)

Then there is the common housefly. Here at Hannaton they probabHouseflyly spend much of their time at our refet (cow shed) and then visit our house looking for all sorts of treats they can’t find among the cow pies. The Hebrew word is zvoov, which really is onomatopoeic. They come in three different sizes: small, medium and large, and they bite! Adopting a zero tolerance policy we found a device that will bring out the inner sadist even in the most dedicated pacifist. It looks like a tennis racket, but the Fly zappernetting is made of metal charged by two batteries. Even as I type this, there is a miserable, no good, demonic, useless, dirty, ugly, filthy, despicable, contemptible, wicked, evil, vile, loathsome, hideous, repulsive zvoov buzzing around my head.

Wait for it… wait for it. BzzZAAAP! I love this thing!

Mosquitoes, flies, and spiders are nothing compared to what I met one warm evening in May. It was already past sunset when I stepped out my front door. As I turned around to lock the house, out of the corner of my eye I saw something that made me want to scream. In fact, I did scream! Crawling down the wall was a 4 inch scorpion moving pretty fast toward my be-sandalled open-toed feet. Have you heard about the fight or flight reflex? Trust me, its true. In my case, flight.

“Whaa?!?!” I screeched jumping backwards. Then, slightly more composed, I found the 6 inch scorpion curiously interesting in a morbid kind of way. So, I whipped out my iPhone, snapped a pic of this 8 inch scorpion for posterity, and not wanting a 10 inch scorpion near my house, let alone in it, the fight instinct took over with one swift kick that dispatched the 12 inch scorpion to the next world with my aforementioned open-toed sandal. The mixture of “crunch” and “splat” still gives me the willies.

So, that’s the report from Hannaton today. I gotta go now, there’s another fly zvooving around me. Tennis anyone?


DANGER! Israelis parking here!

3 05 2011

here are many rumors, stereotypes and prejudices about Israeli drivers. I’m here to tell you they are all true. Today we shall explore the Israeli method of parking. Its an art, not an exact science, meaning those painted white lines evenly spaced in the parking lots here are considered by the driving public to be, well, “suggestions.” Creative parking is what I’ll generously call it, an art form so lacking in nuance but some how still transcendent (as in transcending any logic) that words cannot adequately describe the phenomenon. For that, visual evidence is required.

Last week we went shopping at a mall in Nazareth Ilit. Parking spaces were hard to find. The lot didn’t look full, but there weren’t any spaces available. What sort of violation of the laws of physics and nature was going on here? Doing some (very) elementary detective work, I took a bunch of photos, which I present to you for your personal examination:

Exhibit #1: Note the ever slight deviation across the line. They call it here "creating facts on the ground."

Exhibit #2: The one on the left is a driving instructor!

Exhibit #3: Note the astute angle, the subtle statement, the invitation to keying the paint job...

Exhibit #4: No comment.

Exhibit #5: Look at THIS jerk! No consideration whatsoever. What kind of arrogant, self-centered person would park like this? What a nut job.

Okay, so this last photo needs some s’plaining. Yes, that’s, ah, my car, and yes, I did, er, come over the line a little bit and boy! was I surprised when I got back from the store. There is only one possible rational explanation (or better to call it an “explanatory rationalization”?) and here it is:

While I was inside shopping, the ground under my car shifted to the left.

The end.

Bubbles, Trouble, Oil and Rubble

1 05 2011

e all live in bubbles, often of our own making.  But other bubbles are imposed on us.  Some random observations.

Almost four months in Israel and I see some of these bubbles.  One is my Jewish bubble.  Hanaton is a small community of about 120 families, all Jewish.  Only a few miles from our house, and clearly visible (and audible) across the valley, is the Israeli Arab village of Kafar Manda.  A Muslim bubble.  At night the green lights from its five mosques shine brightly; and from those five mosques five times a day we hear five different muezzins’ calling the faithful to prayer in the adhan:  “Allah hu akbar!” God is great!  Sometimes our neighbors’ prayer calls mingle with our prayers during our own services.  “Shma’ Yisra’el… Allah hu akbar!” enters the worshiper’s mind in a fusion of liturgy and Semitic linguistics: “Hear, O Israel… God is great!”

Their bubble, our bubble: a momentary merging.

Thinking about it a little further, adhan (pronounced “azan” or “ezan”) is the linguistic cognate of the Hebrew ozen meaning “ear.”  Jews and Muslims “giving ear” to the oneness of God.  Two bubbles, one God.

A mosque in Kafar Manda as seen from our front yard. (Taken with a telephoto lens.)

Sometimes at night, I look across the valley at those green lights.  How permeable are our mutual bubbles?  What are the obstacles?  A few immediate, and perhaps challenging, answers: language, religion, history.  Trying to overcome some of these obstacles we already made some friends in Kafar Manda, Anat having taken a Galilean Arabic cooking class from a woman named Razala whose husband, Ali, is an organic farmer.  We now buy most of our produce from Ali.  We’ve been to each others’ homes.  They are a faithful Muslim family, and as in traditional Arab culture, their grown children live quite nearby: upstairs in a third floor built specifically for his “son the doctor,” or next door for his other son and daughter.

We sometimes shop in Kafar Manda for various household items and I often gas up my car there.  Also, leaving Hanaton northward requires going through Kafar Manda, and by dozens more Arab villages, each with its own character.  My daughter’s school bus goes through the relatively prosperous Bedouin village of Zarzir to get to her school in Giva’at Elah.  A dozen or so Bedouin children from Zarzir attend her school.

(Indulge me a moment for a political aside: Some of our worst critics call Israel an “apartheid state.”  I humbly invite them to my daughter’s school to witness this “apartheid,” but I know facts won’t stand in the way of an entrenched narrative.  This is not to say there are no inequalities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, there are many.  But “apartheid”?  The state of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is complex, multi-layered and does not resemble the one-dimensional picture some are trying to paint of Israel.  In future blogs I will explore this topic in-depth.)

nother bubble: I live in what often seems like an Anglo ghetto.  There are quite a few Americans (they all seem to come from New Jersey!) plus an assortment of Brits and South Africans.  If you so choose, you can go through an entire day without speaking a word of Hebrew.  Speaking Hebrew is bloody hard!   But, if I’m going to make it here then this is one bubble I must break through.  So, getting off to ulpan (intensive Hebrew course) in Haifa everyday is what I do.  I hitch a ride with an Israeli Hanatonian who works in Haifa, and take the bus home.  When I’m “out there” beyond my Anglo bubble there is no escaping the need to speak Hebrew.

The other day, I went to a hardware store and even managed to ask about, and buy, wall anchors, a step-down electrical converter, and batteries — all in Hebrew!  Woo-hoo!  (Or, perhaps I should say “Walla!”)

ere’s yet another bubble, this one quite serious: some fifty miles from here, about the distance between San Francisco and San Jose, is the town of Dara’a.  It is closer to us than Tel Aviv.   The catch?  Tel Aviv is in Israel, Dara’a is in Syria and has been the center of the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad.   The Syrian army is killing its own people in the streets of Dara’a (as well as Homs, Baniyas and other Syrian cities).  Assad’s army has already killed over 100 of its citizens in Dara’a, and hundreds more elsewhere in the country.

Just down the road a bit... a revolution.

Israel is its own bubble.  It is the only democracy (to date) in the Middle East, a place where its citizens take for granted all the freedoms enjoyed in the West.  The rebellions in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain — and the protests in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria — may (repeat may) bring democracy to the Arab world.  Ironically, Israeli Arab citizens enjoy more civil and human rights than in any Arab country.

ll is quiet here in Hanaton, and Israel.  But, we also know this is a bubble.  Life is going on here quite normally, but there is talk in the international media about a looming civil war in Syria, similar to what is happening in Libya.  My daughter Nittany, the IDF medic, lives in Kibbutz Shamir, right on the border with the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned.  With the uncertainty over who will be ruling Syria in the long-term, with the possibility that the “pro-democracy” protesters may bring down Assad, and replace him with a radical Islamist dictatorship (like in Iran) or with another uber-nationalist regime, leaves me, and I would venture most of my fellow Israelis, cold regarding any return of the Golan.  We may very well need that strategically vital piece of real estate to keep the Syrian army out of Tiberias, where we had dinner a few nights ago at a restaurant that sported a panoramic view of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the looming Golan Heights on the opposite shore.

Religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries.  Petroleum wealth distorting the politics of the region.  Destruction in Libya, trouble in Syria, Hamas and Fatah kissing and making up and unrest in the rest of the Arab world all point to a very uncertain new regional order.

Bubbles, trouble, oil and rubble.

5 million or 5 thousand? The difference is fundamental(ist)

10 04 2011

The Avshalom Cave - Beit Shemesh, Israel

hat’s a few zeroes?  Well, do the math.  Add a few zeroes to another few zeroes and you get zero.  The religious tensions in this holy land are just that: zero-sum.

Last week we took Tamar to spend Shabbat in Beit Shemesh where her best friend from her school in California is now living.  Her friend’s family is fairly Orthodox, while we are fairly Conservative, what they call here masorti or Traditionalist (in a Pluralist-Egalitarian bent).  Beit Shemesh, on the road to Jerusalem, is fast becoming a heredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) enclave, where religion is taken very seriously, and not a few fundamentalist attitudes exist.

From Hannaton in the Galilee to Beit Shemesh is an hour and a half drive, which we gladly took so Tamar could reconnect with her friend.  But in Israel gas is a whopping $8.50 per gallon, so every time we drive any “long” distance we multi-task the trip.

Just outside Beit Shemesh is a gorgeous stalactite cave open to the public.  Tamar is fascinated by ancient pre-history, especially the origins of the universe and what secrets can be learned by studying nature.  It seemed like a great idea to show Tamar this cave just before dropping her off at her friend’s.  Little did we know that the expedition would turn into an education about the conflict between science and literalist religion.  But, I’m glad it did.

Getting to the cave from the park entrance is a fun challenge.  There is a walk of several hundred stairs down the gully to the cave entrance.  Along the way are descriptive signs telling of the cave’s history and highlights.  Here is one sign we came across:

TRANSLATION: “Scientists know that the formation of the stalactites began some XXXXXXXXX years ago.”

Clearly someone disagreed with what “scientists know” and focused his, or her, protest by scratching out the words “5 million” before the word “years.” Fortunately, the words were still somewhat visible.  Read on to the end…

his is an old battle between modern science and fundamentalist religion.  According to Jewish tradition God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, which is the Shabbat (שבת).  Some streams of Judaism, like some Christian denominations, take this text literally and believe the world, and the entire universe, are only 5,700 +/-  years old.  Science, of course, dates the age of the earth to some 4.5 billion years, and the entire universe to about 15 billion years.  Non-literalist religions (Reform or Conservative Judaism and mainline Christian denominations) have reconciled the findings of science with the practice of their faiths: it is possible to find and worship a just, loving and compassionate God in a universe of unimaginable age.  Indeed, God’s wonders are all that much more magnificent in a 15 billion year old universe of infinite size.

Here in Israel the debate so familiar to Americans follows a very similar trajectory.  The etching out of the words “5 million” on the sign at the Beit Shemesh cave is but one example.

Oh, by the way, it is no coincidence that a family of maskilim (free-thinking enlightenment types) felt compelled to repair the fundamentalist affront to open thought, with the following result:

“5 million” returns to light

And with that, Tamar gained an important education in freedom of thought versus fundamentalist religious coercion.


Note to my readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging for several weeks.  I started ulpan, intensive Hebrew language course (what I call “Hebrew school”) in Haifa five days a week, and also the shipment of our household goods arrived two weeks ago.  We’ve been rather busy putting our house together, unpacking over 60 boxes.  We’ve come along nicely and I hope to be blogging more regularly again. Thank you!

Tongue Tied

28 02 2011

Just ask my parents and they will tell you how much I hated Hebrew school.  There I was, little eight-year old me, in the Hebrew school classroom playing with my pencil as if it were some kind of rocket ship while Mrs. Schonfeld tried to hammer the alef-bet into my stubborn little head.  Had I paid more attention, perhaps I wouldn’t have asked my wife yesterday if she wanted to burst into flames.

Let me clarify one point: I love Anat very much.  And in all truthfulness,  I really do not want her to spontaneously combust.

Anat is Israeli, and in our new Israeli household we are trying to speak more and more Hebrew.  Yesterday morning, as we were getting ready, I asked if she wanted to ignite.  She burst out… not into a human bonfire, but in a lovingly derisive laugh.  At least I didn’t have to grab the fire extinguisher.

Hebrew can be a maddeningly difficult language.  Not being a Romance language there are very few cognates between Hebrew and English.  One word that works in both tongues, however, is idiot, which is what I often feel like when I open my mouth and try to wax eloquently in the Holy Tongue.

Actually, I already speak a pretty good intermediate-plus Hebrew, but usually it is just enough to get myself into trouble and here is why: by reversing a single letter, or mispronouncing a vowel, or transposing a single syllable, or applying a masculine qualifier to a feminine noun, you can render a word, or a whole sentence, completely, utterly and fantastically wrong.  So, yesterday morning when I meant to ask Anat, “Do you want to shower?” (lehitkaleach) what I asked instead is, “Honey, would you like to burst into flames?” (lehitlakeach)

There are other such examples.  Like the time I wanted to say “artillery” but instead said “underpants.”  The difference?  One syllable out of place: totachim vs. tachtonim.  Yes, it is a really good thing I’m too old for the Israeli army.  I can only imagine a scenario where Pvt. Santis spots an enemy column and calls on his radio, “Enemy tanks spotted!  Quick! Shoot the underpants!”

This is really a problem, a matter of pride.  Speaking of which, after I take my combustible shower I will  need to dry myself off.  So, do I mityabesh or mitbayesh?  The former means to dry yourself, the latter means to embarrass yourself.  Exactly.

Also, for the life of me I can’t remember the difference between teka and sheka.  One is an electrical outlet, the other is the plug.  Do you put the teka into the sheka, or the sheka into the teka?  I can rest easy on this one: I’ll be right 50% of the time.

Now, as an exercise, say “sheka, teka” ten times fast…

Or, imagine me teaching a history class in an Israeli high school.  Here I’d be talking about the pioneers that founded the state, only I don’t get it quite right.  Instead of describing the efforts of the chalutzim, I lecture patriotically about the chamutzim (pickles) who built Tel Aviv.

Without a doubt, this is Mrs. Schonfeld’s revenge. Mrs. Shonfeld, wherever you are, I am sorry!  I’m sorry for that rocket ship pencil.  I’m sorry for the spit balls shot across the classroom at Malka.  I’m sorry for bringing that dead bird to class one day!  I’m sorry!  Just, please, untie my tongue!

So, it is off to ulpan with me, where I will frequently consult a Hebrew-English hotel, whoops! dictionary (malon vs milon) while snacking on a melon (melon).


Duct tape nation?

11 02 2011

Israel has more companies on the tech-oriented NASDAQ
stock exchange than any country outside the US – more than all of Europe, India, and China combined. Nor is Israeli innovation limited to computers, security, and communications; the Jewish state leads the world in medical device patents, and is a strong global player in cleantech and biotech. (Excerpt from Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle)

For the last twenty-one years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.  Our neighbors were Apple, Google, Facebook, Maxtor, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Cisco, Pixar…

As could be expected, when Start Up Nation hit the bookshelves it was all the buzz in “The Valley.”  And why not? An estimated 40,000 Israelis live there, and most of them are in high tech as entrepreneurs, engineers or v.c.  So, here in the start up nation itself — where innovation, invention, and out of the box thinking reigns — a lesson in improvisation was just learned.

Israel is a small country where space is at a premium. Our laundry room is no exception: a side-by-side washer/dryer is not possible.  What to do?  What to do? Go vertical, middle-aged man!

One problem, though.  The dryer has wheels and nothing to lock it into the washer.  No brackets, no screws, no nothin’.  It positively teetered.  What to do?  What to do? Aha!  The Owners Manual, which instructed:

“Do not stack the tumble dryer on top of other appliances without the correct stacking kit.”

Stacking kit?  What stacking kit?  What to do?  What to do? Why, call customer service, of course.  Purposefully, that is exactly what Anat did.  And, here is how the conversation went:

Anat: We bought a dryer yesterday and Asi the sales person helped us.  So, I asked him what kind of dryer I should get and where do you install it in our small laundry room?  He said, ‘Just put it on top of the washer.’  I asked him, ‘What if it doesn’t fit the washer?’  He said, ‘All the dryers fit on top of the washers.’  So, after it was delivered we put it on the washer, but it looks very unstable.  What do I do?

Customer Service Representative: Oh, it fits, don’t worry.

Anat: Are you sure?  It doesn’t look stable, it has wheels on the back.

Customer Service Representative: Lady, I have the same thing in my house.  It’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Anat: But Asi didn’t even ask what kind of a washing machine we have.  What if it falls down?

Customer Service Representative: It won’t fall down.

Anat: But the instructions say, ‘Don’t stack the dryer.’

Customer Service Representative: It doesn’t matter. Most homes in Israel have the dryers on the washers.

Anat: What if it moves?

Customer Service Representative: Just put a towel under it.

Anat: What? Put a towel?

Customer Service Representative: Of course! I put a towel between mine and its just fine!

Taking this as our cue, here is our solution…

What is the “take away” from this episode?  We just aren’t in America anymore.  Making aliyah is more than just changing geographical location, it is a very big cultural shift.  We new immigrants have to reorient our expectations.  In the U.S. a customer service representative would never tell you to stabilize your stacked dryer with a towel.  Instead, they would help you find the correct stacking kit.  Here, however, the culture is: If it doesn’t work, make it work.

And that, my friends, is what makes this country tick.

Shabbat shalom!  !שבת שלום

The sales person at the store told us, “Of course it goes on top of the washer.  No problem!”

I left my heart in San Francisco… and Los Angeles and Munich and Phoenix and Boston and San Jose and San Diego

7 02 2011

Without a doubt the most difficult part of making aliyah is leaving behind those you love.  You can argue all the points about joining in the great Israeli experiment and going forth to build the Jewish future in the Land of Israel.  But, when all is said and done, you are left with the reality that you are indeed far from many of those you love.

Don’t get me wrong!  I am not having second thoughts about moving here.  Indeed, just the opposite.  Israel is my home now and here is where I intend to remain.

But, aliyah is not only about what you are coming to, but also what you are leaving behind.  The first “oleh hadash” (new immigrant) to Israel was Avraham.  Our tradition (Genesis 12) has God telling Avraham:

Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

My coming here has focused my mind on this narrative, giving me deeper insight into what Avraham may have been feeling when he left behind his homeland and family on a journey to a land he had yet to see.  While the text in Genesis is silent on what was in Avraham’s heart, the original Hebrew hints to what may have been his inner voice.   “Go forth” is the English rendering of the much more personal Hebrew  לך לך (lech lecha), which  is better understood as “Go for yourself” or “Go to yourself.”  This journey of aliyah is deeply personal, requiring the oleh to dig down deeply into his or her very core.

And yet, I cannot ignore the holes in my heart for my family and friends left behind.  My beloved father and mother, living in Boston and Phoenix respectively, who do not really comprehend my decision to make aliyah, even though I have been talking about it for over thirty years.  I love my parents deeply, and I miss them very much.  I know they are unhappy and fearful about our aliyah.  And, I do understand their sadness and wish there was a way I could make it easier for them.

Then there are my two oldest daughters, Yasmin and Allegra, my precious little girls who are now young women and “launched” into the world.  Yasmin is living and thriving in Los Angeles after having graduated UCLA last spring.  She turned twenty-three the day before we left for Israel.  And my eldest Allegra is on her own adventure in Europe – currently Munich – aiming to take up the exciting and challenging career of gemology.  I am joyously proud of them both for their respective accomplishments in their young lives, and there is not a day that goes by when I do not miss them.

My wife Anat’s family has become my family, too.  And, I left them behind as well.  Her parents Pola and Zvi have always been so loving and supportive of me.  Although they live in the Bay Area, they are Israelis and know what Israel means to us.

Where else have I left my heart?  In Boston with my kid brother Neal.  In Los Angeles with my cousins Avra and John and their sweet little boy Zev.  In San Jose and San Diego with my brother-in-law Micha and sister-in-law Dana and their spouses Kaye and Daniel and all their beautiful children, my nephew and nieces.  In Phoenix with my Uncles Marvin and David and Aunt Marilyn.  And, of course, I left my heart in San Francisco, with all my dear friends.

If you already made aliyah, no doubt you left your heart in many places as well.  If you are contemplating aliyah, you need to know you will leave your heart somewhere.  Yes, it is hard.  And yet, I am at peace knowing that I am home and made the right choice in coming to Israel.  There is no right or wrong answer; one size does not fit all.  Listen to your heart honestly, and let it lead the way.  Maybe, just maybe, you too will לך לך (lech lecha) to this land.

%d bloggers like this: