Sunday, January 18, 2009


The following post has been submitted by guest blogger JP Ganong, who does all of the driving here in Israel. I am just too terrified to get behind the wheel.
It isn't easy to navigate Israeli cities. Most roads twist and turn and change names with little warning. There are signs with arrows indicating which way you should go if you want to go to some other street, but nothing to indicate how to continue on the one you're on. Worse, there are plenty of one-way streets so you can't retrace your path when you inevitably miss your turn. Then when you want to turn there are signs posted that no turns are permitted. I'm convinced that the second Lebanese War occurred when the IDF got into the wrong lane and couldn't turn around.

Israelis are championship lane changers. Even on the open road they alternate lanes as if they were walking across hot coals. They can squeeze into even the tiniest gaps. It's like parallel parking at 75 miles per hour.

You could probably drive in Israel if you were blind but not if you're deaf. Israelis completely ignore emergency vehicles with their flashing lights. It's as if they were at some sort of disco. I've even seen people speed past police cars. They only pay them any heed when they have their sirens on. And if you're deaf you can't hear the most commonly spoken language in Israel, the car horn.

The car horn is used for a variety of purposes. For example, a short urgent horn while changing lines means, "This lane is occupied." A medium, insistent honk at a light means, "The light has turned yellow for the other direction, you should start accelerating". Two honks and headlight flashing from behind means, "I want to drive a higher multiple of the speed limit." And a long, agonized honk from a parked car means, "Someone triple-parked where I was double-parked and now I'm boxed in." I have heard many other car horns and even regional dialects but it is difficult to translate with the phrasebook while dodging motorcycles. So far the only thing I can say in my rudimentary car horn is, "Please don't kill me". It sounds like kind of shrill squeak.

Israelis are more predictable than US drivers. You don't know whether a US driver will let you in or whether he will be a jerk and accelerate. All Israeli drivers just go. In Israel, if you decide to let someone in as you would in the U.S., they won't budge. The secret is to act momentarily distracted by the radio, or by a map or the collar of your shirt. Then the Israeli instincts will kick in and they will zoom ahead of you. You can try to honk and wave and eventually they'll get the idea but they won't take any pleasure in it and you'll hold up traffic.

Another thing to get to used to is motorcycles and scooters. Traffic laws do not apply to motorcycles and scooters. Newton's Laws do not apply to them either. Motorcycles go between lanes, along the shoulder, up the median, across the sidewalk and circle your car twice before leaving the driveway. Looking both ways when crossing the street is not sufficient. You have to look both ways, up, down, behind you, around the corner and under the bushes before you can be sure that no motorcycle is approaching. We had to lay strips of spikes to keep them out of the bedroom. At first I was really uneasy about motorcycles passing me on all sides at high speed and between buses But I take some consolation in the fact that if I ever am in an accident that two or three motorcyclists will soften the blow of the collision.

Taxi drivers have to work particularly hard in Israel to distinguish themselves as crazy drivers. They do this by straddling lanes for miles, picking up imaginary fares in tunnels and using their turn signal only when changing three or four lanes at once.

Despite all this, there seem to be remarkably few crashes in Israel. I think that this must be due to drivers expecting everyone to drive like a maniac. I have seen evidence of only one serious accident. The wreckage was almost like a Hollywood prop. It looked like the Death Star at the end of the movie. Like it had suffered a head-on collision. Several. It was as if the police had left it there as a deterrent to other drivers.

The accident report will surely reveal that the root cause was a car horn malfunction.

Monday, January 12, 2009

See it all...small.

Over the weekend we went to see Mini-Israel. It's replicas of all of Israel's attractions in miniature form. The buildings are nothing special. I mean, the real buildings are special, of course, this is the Holy Land. But the mini buildings are too small to impress. It's the teensy people the make this place cool. All of them are different. Or at the very least, a heck of a lot of them are different. Look at all of the little people in the pictures below. Everyone is wearing different clothing and stands in a unique position.

I didn't really notice that the people were different until we reached the Wailing Wall. You can't tell from the picture, but all of the people who are praying are unique. Above you can see people praying to Mecca. Their little backs are hinged! You press a button and they pray and go up and down. Looking at the Muslims, you think that they all are the same (because they move up and down at the same time) but get in closer and you will notice that they are all different, they are all wearing different clothes. At the Wailing Wall, all of the Jews are wearing the same clothes, but they move uniquely and are postured differently from one another.









Right about now, I am sure you're all thinking that I am now going to draw a picture of 'all of these different religions and cultures all living in one small area', or 'all of these unique individuals, everyone, at their core is human." But that isn't true. I guess that's why there is all of the fighting.

So no, I am going belabor the point of 'people are people' sharing a sacred area. Mini Israel, to me, is not really an accurate portrayal of the region. The problem here is that everyone lacks concern for the individual. If Mini Israel were an accurate representation of real Israel, then all of the Jewish faces would be the same and so would all of the Muslim. The real problem in this region is that the individual is not valuable, it's the whole that matters. Be it the Zionist's dream of a Jewish State or Hamas's human shields, both sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole.

But I will say this: if you look down on the Temple Mount (Mini version, of course), all of the areas seem exactly equal to me. It's like the architectural equivalent of my mother counting out the jelly beans in our Easter baskets...with four kids everything has to be even or there's fighting.

Back to the displays. There is a display of a kibbutz with farms and dairies and teensy animals, and a tiny speaker playing a tinny Jewish folk song. There is a tiny Ben Gurion Airport. Masada is big, though! There is a tiny Haifa, and a tiny Ceasarea with a tiny aqueduct and a tiny collesium. There is even a tiny version of the neighborhood I live in, and a tiny version of the street I walk the dog on.

I live in the Bauhaus neighborhood, for which Tel Aviv got it's Unesco World Heritage status as the White City. The architecture is Modernism, or what I like to call, "Boxy, but Good".

The street I live on is called Ahad Ha'am. Everyone knows it, it's a long street. But every time I try to say the street name, people have no idea what I am talking about. Cabbies give me a blank stare. I should preface this by saying that nearly everyone under the age of 40, and mostly everyone over that age, speaks English. As a result, and out of laziness and convenience, I have only bothered to learn very basic phrases in Hebrew. You know, "please", "thanks", and "I'll have another". But my pronunciation is horrible. In fact, when I am pronouncing things the correct Hebrew way, I feel like I am being offensive. Hebrew sounds like every terrible Yiddish characterization. It's very difficult for me to bring an "h" up from the back of my throat like I am going to spit. I feel like I am making fun of the language!

The Israeli newscasters on the English language channels speak with the Queen's lilt. Until they come to an "h", that is. One of them, a doppelganger for Julie Andrews, is the perfect Brit until she says the one word that's in all the news these days, "Hamas". Perhaps it's all of our disdain for the group, but even Mary Poppins spits at the camera when she says it! Hamas!

Anyway, as I was saying, I live on Ahad Ha'am. Try and say it while spitting the "h"-es. It's tough! Ahad Ha'am literally means "one of the people", and everyone points that out to me. It's also the pen name of a notable Zionist, Asher Ginsberg, who spoke of "a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews". His grave is in Tel Aviv. From Wikipedia:

Ahad Ha'am's ideas were popular at a very difficult time for Zionism, beginning after the failures of the first Aliya. His unique contribution was to emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, something that was recognized only belatedly, when it became part of the Zionist program after 1898. Theodore Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha'am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.

Ahad Ha'am's 'cultural Zionism' and his writings have been widely distorted however, or misunderstood and quoted out of context to imply that he thought Jews should not settle in the Land of Israel / Palestine, or that he thought it was impossible to ever establish a Jewish state.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bombs are dropping. Why are you shopping?

In Portland several years ago when the Gulf War first started, there were protests weekly in the city. It so happened that a throng of protesters were standing in front of what was then Macy's when I wanted to enter. They yelled, "bombs are dropping! Why are you shopping?!" I said, "I need socks."

War has come to Israel, but you sure wouldn't know it from the people that flock to the suburban stores to shop. Just a half hour outside of Tel Aviv is a big shopping area with an Ikea and a host of other 'big box' stores. In the photo above, people are lining up not because there is a big sale (well, actually there is a sale), but because of security. Security points like this one are are a way of life in Israel, even before the war. You go through a metal detector and your purse or bag is searched. When you enter a garage, they often open up your trunk. They are polite and fast and thorough. Israel has to do this, people want to kill them.

So we drove to the suburbs today, ostensibly to buy Jeff a proper pillow (no down for him, he needs foam), and ended up cruising the other major markets as well. Things are packed on a Friday morning, as most shops shutter for shabbat at 2 or 3pm. We went to Ikea, a Whole Foods like store called Tiv Tom, and another store which was kinda like Target with groceries but without all the designers and branding. Visiting museums and historical sites are all part of travel. But show me where a man shops, and I'll show you his soul!
Ikea is just like every other Ikea on the planet, except that they serve hummus in addition to meatballs in their cafeteria. And you can buy Absolut at the absolute cheapest price around. I was fearful of spending too much money, but I showed restraint and just bought what we needed: some glasses, a lamp, a some more hangers. And the pillow, which is the most expensive thing we bought today by far, about $40.
The Target-like store is fantastic. It has a
football-field length deli case with feta as far as the eye can see. We pick up a few things including some tasty halva and baklava for tonight's dessert. That's the halva lady on the right, there.
The Whole Foods-ish store, Tiv Tom, is quite posh. Their deli is selling sushi and they have a Sur la Table like housewares department. Prices reflect this. The have a sausage and cured meat station that is shaped like a big square, with a long line snaking around it. There are many samples and everything is so delicious. A whole other section is is devoted to 'bulk': dozens of pickles and salads, spices and spice mixes and bins of different tea blends. The descriptions are written in English, too! I buy several rice mixtures and some other seasoning blends. Prices are pretty good. You end up spending about $1.50 for a pint-sized container of mix. I love tasting before you buy. Things are unfamiliar to me and expensive here. I am much more likely to take a chance and buy something if I can taste it first.
The title of this post is, "Bomb are dropping", so I'd better deal with that. Even though there are a lot of people shopping and carrying on with their lives, it is by no means business as usual around here. The animosity towards Israel in the international media is especially troubling. I don't want to wage an un-winable war of words with anyone, but if you are not living here you can't possibly understand the need for Israel to continue defending itself.
I want to clarify a few things and give the whole picture. First and foremost, Hamas (the 'political' party that runs the region) is a terrorist organization funded by Iran (among others), which has been bombing Israel for years. Before we decided to move here, we researched the region and read about the many bombings that had been happening in and around where Jeff works. A shopping mall in one area we were interested in living in, Ahskelon, had been bombed by Hamas in May. Intel would not longer allows its ex-pats to live there. The bombing from Hamas has been going on for a long time, and the international reports that say that Israel initially broke the cease-fire are ridiculous.
There is no international media inside Gaza, there is only Al-Jazeera. It's a whole 'nother argument why Israel is not letting international media inside the area. But the pictures, video and indeed many of the statistics (especially those about civilian casualties) that the international media are getting are from Al-Jazeera. The old adage is true is that if it bleeds, it leads. Hamas is bleeding, so the international media could care less about the just motives of Israel. One friend argued with me that I might only be seeing one side of the story. I am obsessed with the war. I mean, I live here, it's only fitting that I would read endlessly about it. I get almost all of the international tv news and read two newspapers a day in addition to reading all of the internet sites (NYTimes, et al). It isn't me that's only getting one side of the story.
I could go on and on about the atrocities that Hamas has committed against the country, but there is just one simple point that I need to make. Hamas has openly declared that its goal is not to just eradicate Israel, but all Jews. It is not just their political goal, but their sacred religious goal.
Jeff sees the victims of Hamas' reign of terror every day at work. If we had decided differently on where to live in the country, I would be sending you these updates from inside a bomb shelter. The sad fact is that a lot of Jeff's co-workers live in the strike zone and are constantly hearing the sirens warning them to get to a bomb shelter. The siren goes off and you need to get yourself and your children to a bomb shelter within a minute. No matter what time of day it is, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, you have a minute to get to a safe place. Can you imagine what that does to a child day after day? More Israelis aren't killed because they *do* have this sophisticated warning system and bomb shelters, but the schools have closed and life is far from normal for them. And Hamas has been bombing Israel for years!

Israel may be losing the PR battle but the important thing is that it is continuing to protect its people, regardless of the pressure of the world community. And right now, I am one of its people. Hamas is bombing 45 miles from where I live, and 12 miles from where my husband works. Hamas has frequently used suicide bombers. So yes, you can be sure that I want Israel to keep fighting until there is a regime change in that region, or until Hamas is no longer able to send missiles into the country.
I have received and responded to all of my friends' and family's e-mails about us being safe. Yes, yes we are safe! Do not worry, I tell you all, we are safe! But over a million people, hundreds of thousands of them children, are not. And Israel must be allowed to protect and defend them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Match me such a marvel
save in Eastern clime

A rose red city
half as old as time...

It is not easy to discover Petra. Each and every step of the way, from crossing the border into Jordan to fully exploring the site, is difficult. But as people coming down from El Deir told us as were scaling the mountain, "it is worth it."

First, some background for the uninformed. Petra is a 2000 year-old city carved into mountains by the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab tribe. The Nabataeans were, "masters of the region's trade routes, levying tolls, protecting caravans laden with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides." And Petra was on a trade route.

Petra seems to me to be shaped like a watering can, and the only way in is through the spout. The spout, in this case, is called the Siq. The Siq is a narrow and nearly mile-long canyon, carved by wind and sand. It's a natural defense. To me it is the Siq and the rest of the impenetrable natural surroundings that make the buildings of Petra so spectacular.

Like I said before, you have to work to get here, and it ain't easy. After waiting in line for a hour to cross the border, you take a two hour drive to get to the town of Wadi Mousa. You do this the day before so that you can see Petra in the morning, when the light is the best. Wadi is the Arabic word for valley and Mousa means Moses. The town is named for the perennial spring, the Ain Mousa which according to the bible is where Moses struck a stone with his staff and "water will come out of it for the people to drink". The water itself, which still spews forth, is the reason the Petra is here in the first place. It's a desert. Any city will sprout up around water in a desert. The Nabataeans channeled this water through crude aqueducts in the Siq and through the city.

So you walk a half mile from the entrance of Petra to get to the Siq. The Siq is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As you can see from the photo above, it's a narrow and winding slot into the city. You walk along, looking at all of the beautiful rock formations and the color of the stones and then suddenly you turn a corner and there is the Treasury. It's a couple of stories high and carved into the mountain. The word Petra, in Greek, means "rock", and it's fitting given that all of the buildings are carved into sheer rock.

It's not actually a treasury, it's a tomb. All of the building's names are the same original names used by the Bedouin and the Swiss explorer who discovered the site to the Western world. Anyway, the Treasury is huge and this beautiful rose color in the morning light. When we went back in the evening, the color was a dustier darker red, so if you go, go in the morning. The building is this hodge-podge of architectural styles: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. The rooms are carved out of the stone mountain as well, though they are plainer than the facade.

In all of the photos of Petra's buildings you get this idea that they are all in one central region. And while that is true for the most part, it is really a city, with different parts to it like any city. And it is spread over a lot of land. We hiked for nine hours and still didn't see anything other than the main buildings. Also it's exhausting to see the site on foot, as you are hiking over rocks and trudging through sand. Some people used the camels and donkeys that the Bedouin are constantly proffering, but we had little cash and were kind of stubborn, so we hiked.

Around the corner a ways and over the hill from the Treasury are a series of buildings called the Royal Tombs (which, I think, were actually tombs). They sit all in a row, and are all very different. They are huge and it takes an hour to explore them. The one at the right is called the Palace Tomb. (kinda looks like a palace, doesn't it?). There are several others, including the Urn Tomb (whose actual urn is kinda small) and the Silk Tomb (named as much because it's walls look like washed silk). Allow about an hour and a half to visit this area.

Though all of the tombs are weathered, they still have very sharp architectural details that stand out. I can't imagine these being tombs though. Why all the rooms?

Back down the hill from the Royal Tombs is a Theater and a Colonnaded street, both of which look very Roman to me. The Romans did take over the Nabataeans, and I know that they enlarged the Theater...I need to do some more reading. Anyway, the Theater is also carved from the solid rock wall. It originally sat 3000 people, but the Romans carved into existing tombs (see the rooms in the back) so that it sat 7000. I did read that the tombs had been covered with masonry originally, so the Romans weren't too unkind to the dead. You can barely see it in this picture, but a wall was also constructed around the stage (the side facing the Colonnaded street). I am thinking this is to insure that everyone who wanted to see the play had to pay! On either side of the Theater are two vaulted passage-ways. I need to remind everyone that this is carved out of solid rock! Yes, there are bricks here and there, but the passage-ways, the seats...all carved out of the mountain!

So the Theater is kind of at the top of the Colonnaded street and at the very end of the street is the what was the main temple of Petra, the Qasr al-Bint. It's the only free-standing building in the city to have survived the earthquakes and floods that have hit the area over the centuries.

Jeff and I decide to skip lunch and "do" the Monastery, or El Deir. I am glad I brought water. I read in a book that there were 800 steps leading up to it. I asked Jeff how many there were to the top of Notre Dame (which we visited in the Spring). "Oh, about 300." Okay, so at least two Notre Dames high, I think I can handle that! I mean, we've scaled the Great Wall, how hard could this be? It took us more than an hour to climb up the mountain. I must have stopped to rest 50 times. Yes, it was hard, very hard. And those "steps", uh, only in the loosest terms would them be called steps! They were boulders, not steps. It was a very steep, uneven and treacherous, and littered with donkey poo. I did feel smug as I lumbered past some 20 year-olds (and I recognised their coughs as being those of a smoker...thank God I quit)! We finally get to the top. As you can see it looks a lot like the Treasury, but it is much, much bigger. Maybe it's the climb up to it, but it seems to me to be the biggest building in the city. For being at the top of a mountain, the facade is incredibly well-preserved. No one knows whether this was a tomb or a temple. I can't believe that some people travel all this way to see Petra and never see anything more than the Treasury.
We are at just the right age to be tavelling. Not so young as to be broke or uninterested. Not so old as to be physically unable to handle the journey. Not so middle-aged as to be weighed down with life commitments. This may not be the right time to be in this place (the Middle East), but it seems like it's come at a great time for us.

I could write a thousand more words about Petra, post a hundred more photos and it couldn't come close to conveying the wonder of the place. For me it's become one of those three or four things that you need to see in order to know. It's one of those places that you need to experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy New Year!

For New Year's we decided to drive to Eilat, at the Southernmost tip of the country, spend a couple of days there and then head over to Petra in Jordan. So we packed up the car, dropped off the dog and headed south through the desert.

Two major highways run the length of the country, one goes through the desert in the center and the other snakes alongside the Dead Sea along the border with Jordan. We decided to take the "scenic" route on the way down, even though it took us through Be'er Sheba (the site of some bombings). More than half of Israel is made up of the Negev Desert, and this might be our only trip south, so we wanted to see it. The highway that takes you through the Negev is windy and very scenic. We drove for desert for at least four hours. It was quite a spectacle. Just nothing for miles but deep craters and moonscape-like canyons of desert.

We drove through Mitzpe Ramon, the location of a huge 28 mile-long crater, and Israel's largest national park. The highway descends steeply through its five mile span. It was thrilling and precarious, a great drive!

After five hours, we finally we arrived in Eilat! No wonder most people prefer to fly here!

For New Year's Eve, we decide to take the easy route of going to the dinner that our posh hotel is throwing. The menu looked great, and the stumble back to our rooms would be short. The only problem is that neither Jeff nor myself planned on going anywhere fancy. After deciding that no, my beach cover-up would not work as a dress, I put the one sweater that I brought and lipstick. Jeff wears his sneakers. The dining room is filled with either very elegantly dressed Jewish people on holiday, or tacky tables of Russians.

The night is like the weirdest wedding that I have ever been to, and it went on and on for 6 hours. Playing is a huge band of black Jews from America who sing a range of songs as varied as the crowd. The song list includes Islands in the Stream, Hello Dolly and selections from Depeche Mode.

There are a trio of Norwegians at our table, two of which speak English. We wait for an hour for food and by the time it comes, I have already probably consumed approximately two bottles of Yarden Chardonnay. Please let them bring food soon, I think. Jeff comments on the evening as being, "the strangest cultural juxtaposition as was ever found on the deepest, darkest shelf of Goodwill bric-a-brac." I think he has had some chardonnay too!

The food starts coming out and it is very, very good. I don't mean good, as in, "this is good for a hotel who is serving 500 people," but good as in, "wow, who's the chef?" There are maybe 8 courses served, and in between each, the band plays a few songs and more wine is consumed. A long night. The most memorable of the dishes was a starter that was a sliced torchon of foie gras with a sweet and tangy fig compote. The fish course was also great. It was a fillet of the local specialty called Dennis, wrapped around asparagus spears. We were also served lamb chops and fillet mignon. I was pleasantly surprised the food was as well-prepared as it was. It's very hard to turn to out dinner for that many and have it come out hot let alone tasty.

We love the band. The lead singer looks like one of the Commodores. He says something pithy about the war, and then scats What a Wonderful World. The band is the highlight of the evening, and they all wearing matching suits and dresses. I am momentarily blinded by sequins caught in the lights. Fueled by the bottles of vodka at their tables, the Russians are dancing. Everyone is dancing. Strapless dresses and yarmulkes and fur coats are flying. And I think to myself, after a certain age you really shouldn't wear satin. The band plays a Banana Boat version of Graceland and the lead singer shouts, "feel free, feel cool about yourself." And suddenly, we are imitating the band's moves and dancing with the rest of the crowd. Jeff is in a conga line and I get dragged in too. And the band plays It's Raining Men and I stop and look around at this varied group of people dancing: the Russian trophy wives with fake boobs and plastic faces and dresses, and older Jewish couples with ropes of pearls around their necks, and a trio of Norwegians and two Americans in sneakers. I laugh out loud. We all go out and watch the fireworks and come back in and drink some more champagne. I am falling asleep at the table when they serve dessert and too full to eat it. We head back to our room and I say to Jeff, "that was one of the best birthdays on record."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jerusalem Syndrome

Jerusalem Syndrome.

"Reports of visitors to Jerusalem being seized by a religious psychosis date back to the Middle Ages. In the 1930s, Israeli psychiatrists formally described the condition in which tourists assume the persona of a Biblical character and make strange pronouncements at a holy site. (In one 1969 case, an Australian tourist set fire to a local mosque, sparking a citywide riot and a 1998 film of the same name.) An article in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000 noted that 1,200 patients had been referred to a central mental facility with the disorder between 1980 and 1993. Some had previous mental disorders; others seemed quite sane before and later resumed normal lives. The authors warned tour guides to be alert for the disorder's seven characteristic stages: Sufferers appear agitated; seek to leave the group to tour Jerusalem alone; become obsessed with purity and cleanliness; prepare a toga-like gown "often with the aid of hotel bed linen"; shout Bible verses, then march to a holy site and deliver a confused sermon that often appeals to humankind to adopt a more moral way of life."