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?


In Blessed Memory: Rev. Dr. L. T. Archer Summers

15 05 2011

Rev. L. T. Archer Summers

My friend, Rev. Dr. Landon Tracy Archer Summers, passed away today.

Archer was a pastor at the Burlingame United Methodist Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for over two decades before moving to Israel.  More than that, he was a beloved husband to Rev. Dr. Boyung Lee and a loving father to his two teenage children Jack and Clara.  May God grant them comfort at this difficult time.

He was far too young at 51.  He never told me he was a diabetic, and I’m not surprised by that because Archer was never one to complain.  He had a strong athletic body and looked like he would live well into old age.  But, on Saturday May 7, something went terribly wrong.  His brain was deprived of glucose, and he was found at home alone unconscious and unresponsive.  He was brought to the hospital, where his family held vigil.  This report reached us Wednesday last week, along with the grievous news that there was little to no hope for any kind of recovery.

One of Archer’s long time friends, who studied Hebrew with him in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, wrote in an email of Archer’s amazing accomplishments.  He graduated from Georgetown with a BA in Classical Studies and later returned to complete a law degree, he graduated from Harvard with two masters and a doctorate in divinity and education, traveled to all seven continents by the age of 24, was the greatest dad to two extraordinary children, served as a minister to churches in Maine, Connecticut and California.  He spoke Hebrew, Russian, Greek, Latin and some Korean to impress his in-laws, was Program Manager of the USDA Graduate School (America’s largest continuing education program), received a Congressional award for his inspired work to promote peace in the Middle East, served on the Washington State Board of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education, was given the Unsung Hero award from the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, was extremely proud of his West Virginia heritage and was a lifelong fan of Monty Python and bluegrass music.

Archer with Boyung

I met Archer in July 2007 in my capacity as director of the San Francisco JCRC’s Middle East Project.  At the time he was senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto and was also on the Executive Committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East a mainline Christian group that seeks a balanced approach to Christian involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He had been to Israel four times since his initial visit in 1978 when he studied Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  When I walked into his office on that beautiful Bay Area summer’s day, I took notice of his many books on his bookshelf on Judaism, Hebrew (modern and biblical), Israel and the Kabala.  I also noticed a photo of his son Jack wearing a Red Sox cap.  Already two reasons to like this guy!

At this first meeting Archer described his pain at the direction his denomination was taking regarding Israel.  Archer was clearly disturbed that a small group of activists within the denomination were promoting a clearly anti-Israel agenda that wasn’t merely critical of Israel, but in fact demonized the Jewish state, painting Israelis as being entirely in the wrong, and Palestinians and other Arabs as being entirely in the right.  Archer was a nuanced thinker, he saw the world in many shades of gray, and could not accept a narrative that painted an entire group of people in such black and white terms.

From that time on, our personal relationship grew.  I met his remarkable wife Boyung, a power in her own right, and his son Jack whom Archer brought to a meeting with other Christian clergy under JCRC auspices.  In 2008, JCRC recognized Archer as an unsung hero honoring him for his tireless work to bring a more balanced discussion of the Middle East into his denomination, and for working hard for the betterment of Jewish-Christian relations.  (If you wish to see a video of Archer you may view it here on JCRC’s YouTube page.  We also honored Rev. Doug Huneke, another wonderful friend, who appears first on the video.)

Last year in 2010, Archer and Boyung were our guests of honor at our last Passover Seder in California. It was such a joy to have them over and share our traditions with them.  I will always remember that seder as being something very special.

This past Friday at sundown, just before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, I received an email from a family friend who wrote the following:

Archer, in his own unique and irreverent way, has made it clear that he doesn’t want any life sustaining measures taken to support him if a full recovery were not likely. We have reached the stage of being able to honor those wishes and a short time ago permitted the medical staff here to remove respiratory, hydration and insulin support. Thankfully, he is resting comfortably and breathing on his own. Church friends will be pleased to know that he is now wearing his favorite pastoral stole. Sitting here with him, we also feel confident that he is engaged in lively debate with God.

With this heavy news I entered Shabbat.  As the sun went below the Galilean hills, our Shabbat services began.  During Shabbat services it is customary for the 23rd Psalm to be sung toward the end.  I never really understood why, until now.  The Sabbath is described in Jewish tradition as an “oneg” or a joy.  Why, I wondered, would Psalm 23 be included in this service?  I asked one of the rabbis here at Hanaton (we have ten!) and he reminded me that Shabbat is described by our tradition as a “taste of the World to Come,”  an inkling of eternal paradise.  The 23rd Psalm, with its promise of God being our unwavering Shepherd as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, opens the curtain just a tiny, tiny bit to the Olam HaBa (the World to Come).

I believe that Archer is entering Paradise, in deep discussion with God on some fine points of theology, and is giving the Holy One, Blessed Be He, a run for his money.

Archer, I miss you.  May your name be remembered for a blessing.

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).


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