Report #3 - December 1998 - Yishuv Alon, Israel

Greetings friends – Here is the monthly report from Israel. It is a mix of
personal impressions from our experiences here. Please feel free to send your
comments, critiques and suggestions. In particular, if there is anything you
would like to hear more about, or less about, then let me know. Of course feel
free to forward these reports to anyone who you feel might be interested, and
feel equally free to request that I remove you from our list if you are tired
of reading about our impressions.

Best wishes to all.

Our Car - The Curse of the 1982 Subaru GLF

As you may remember from last report, we bought a cheap car here, which
immediately broke down and was vandalized. We put a lot of money into fixing
it, buying a cell phone for emergencies, getting an infant car seat, and after
all I started to like the car. It got us where we needed to go. A few weeks
ago, I drove into town, parked in a very nice neighborhood, locked the car and
attended the monthly Go club at someone's apartment in Jerusalem. I got there
at 8 PM and left at 11:30 PM. When I went down to look for my car, I couldn't
find it, and I remember thinking "what an absent minded professor I can be
sometimes". It didn't take too long for the obvious possibility that my car was
stolen to force its way out from behind strong unconscious repression.
Nevertheless, I did still walk up and down that block 20 times looking for it,
wondering at one point if I was so absent minded as to forget that maybe I took
a bus. I did not take a bus, and after a half hour I found a small collection
of shattered glass on the ground near where I thought I had left the car. That
and the fact that I could not find the car within a kilometer of where I was,
finally made me give up hope, so I went back to the guy's apartment and
explained that I was stranded. There are no busses to where we live late at
night and it is not at all easy to get a lift there. So I called the police,
called Andrea and tried to sleep. My host was most generous and understanding.

Our phone at the time was not in the same place we sleep because of renovations
etc, so Andrea did not know I was stranded until 3AM when she woke up and found
I hadn't yet returned. She was nervous I had been killed or something. Things
DO happen here every once in a while, and I had an unreliable car that could
have broken done in a bad area, where bad people might have found me etc etc.
She ran down to the phone and finally heard my message. She was terribly
relieved that it was all a matter of lost money and wasted time than
some unthinkable tragedy. For my part, I was able to come home the next day
without our car, to a happy grateful wife.

We now rent a car which is perhaps what we should have done from the start. It
is brand new, much more expensive but very reliable and pleasant. The woman who
rented it to me was very understanding after hearing my story so we got a
reasonable deal. When I arrived at the police station later on, (they will not
take the report over the phone), the first thing they did was tell me that I was
in the wrong station, but since I was already there, they would handle it. I am
sure my "don't you dare send me away" look helped here. I spent time with the
police who were helpful, took all the information and explained patiently that
since the Oslo accords, it is very easy to steal cars, because the thief can
just drive to a "chop shop" in any Palestinian controlled "A" region where the
police may not give chase.

Every few days I still call the cell phone, hoping some thief will answer so I
can yell at him. I mean the nerve of the guy -- he could have stolen the car
before I bought it, or at least before I fixed it! I had no theft insurance for
the jalopy so we are just writing it off as bad luck. Meanwhile, the "chop
shop" will no doubt sell the parts of this cursed vehicle and spread bad luck
over many new unsuspecting buyers. The final point of the story was that a
secretary in the math department later told me that she lived in the area I
parked, and that the street I parked on, once had 4 cars stolen from it in one
She doesn't know why - it is just like that, she said. I suggested the city put
up a warning sign.

Kids and School

My boys still go happily to their school every day. Neither one speaks much
Hebrew but the teachers claim that their understanding is improving greatly. Yair's
teacher in particular feels that Yair has made a breakthrough. She said that
last week he did what he was supposed to in class without anyone translating for
him or showing him, and the whole class applauded. Yair attends a kids sports
group once a week, where the teacher also claims he understands everything that
was said. Being skeptical, I took the opportunity to visit him at school
and in his sports group. He certainly does seem to know the routine, and is
able to do what he is supposed to do, but I could not reproduce his teacher's
claims in particular. The teacher told everyone to pick up a corner of a
parachute and shake it - he did it. The teacher asked everyone to sit with
their feet under the parachute and touch their toes underneath, he sat down but
he had no clue about the toe touching until someone showed him. The main thing is that he is not afraid. He trusts his  teachers, he has fun and he guesses what they are telling him very well.

Zosh has more pressure being in first grade, and his teacher was not so
supportive. We met with her and she basically said that she does not know how
to educate a child without Hebrew abilities. She thought it might be a good
idea just to let him play all year in kindergarten rather than risk his feeling
like he was not succeeding. Meanwhile, she hadn't yet given him any books nor
assigned him any homework! I should have asked whether it was HER success she
was worried about? But I wasn't sure it would come out in Hebrew the way I
intended it to. She went so far as to say that she couldn't figure  out how he would do math when he didn't know the Hebrew words for summands and  sum. After all, these were HARD words and he doesn't yet no easy words. It was around here that I almost lost my temper and told her what I thought of her
sums and summands, but I realized that Zosh would have to depend on her all
year, and I didn't need her to hate me. After calming down, I confirmed that
Zosh was not disturbing the class or acting out, so I told her that Zosh should
learn like everyone else, and she should know that we will help him if he needs
help. Meanwhile we went and got him the books ourselves. Now I work with him
30 minutes a day. In one week we caught up in math and his reading is getting
there too. Yesterday he came home with homework for the first time.

This teacher is overworked with 40 kids, 10 of whom are behavior problems. I
believe that she really felt incapable of teaching Zosh because of her time and
ability, and did not want us to expect more than she could do. She felt
pressured that we expected more of her than she expected to produce.
Now she seems on board with us and I think our strategy of not fighting her
directly was right. I did think of doing what a friend mentioned he had done
many years ago when his English speaking children were not being treated right
by the Israeli school system. He went to the ministry of absorption, and said
(my translation): "This whole issue is damaging our absorption into the
country". He assured me that this conversation went a long way to solving the
problems. So far we do not need to use this last resort.

Zosh (age 6) has one close friend in school, a little girl named Paz, and a few
less close friends. Paz is really a sweet girl, very bright, strong-willed,
empathetic, respectful and fun loving. I am really pleased with their
friendship. She often tells me when we have her over for dinner how much better
Zosh is doing with his Hebrew -- This is lucky - because he would never tell us.
When he does speak a little, she is his biggest cheerleader. Yair (age 4) has
many less close friends none of whom are as tight as Zosh and Paz. This is
their normal pattern at home too, with Yair trading breadth for depth and Zosh
the opposite. I don't know if it is personality or age related or both. Zosh
often thinks about his friends back home, wanting to invite them to his birthday
party. He has no one who really fills the shoes of his male friends back home,
and he is open about verbalizing this. The good thing is that he doesn't feel
sorry for himself nor is he angry about it, he is just a bit homesick. Yair
doesn't seem to care so much - for him it's "love the one you're with". And
Yona (age 9 months) can crawl in dirt and smile at people here as well as

The Mail

Our mail is forwarded from Sharon. The address is:

Yishuv Alon         // Settlement of Alon
D.N. Aravot Jericho // Postal Area - Plains of Jericho
90618 ISRAEL

The post office in USA in their wisdom, wrote the address as you see it below,
because it turns out they have only 3 lines allowed in their computer for a
forwarding address.
The address below of course makes no sense, because the phrase Plains of Jericho
has been split up.

Yishuv Alon D. N. Aravot
Jericho, ISRAEL 90618

When we first received forwarded mail we were nervous about this because we
thought the mail might end up in the Jericho post office after which we would
never see it again (it is not under Isreali control).  It turns we were right and wrong. We received yesterday, a  letter that was mailed originally in the US 5 weeks ago. It took 2 weeks to
arrive in Jericho, and then 3 more to come back out! I saved the triple
postmark one of which says "Jericho, oldest city in the world". Since then I
called the Sharon PO, and explained the problem very carefully to a helpful
clerk who promised me he would take care of it w/o any delays. Yesterday he
came through and the mail forwarding address was changed per our conversation.
Now it takes 8-9 days altogether.

Sunrise - Sunset

The night is beautiful at the yishuv. The stars are prominent and scream for
attention. Anyone who is even mildly inquisitive or analytical cannot help look
up, be moved, and understand why astronomy is the oldest science. Every evening
one very bright object appears first, and then hundreds of stars fill in the
background. It takes real effort NOT to notice that this bright object moves
across the sky pretty rapidly as the night moves on from southeast to southwest,
while the other stars appear fixed and glued to their starting points. I
imagine this is Jupiter but I haven't confirmed this yet. The sky is like a big
endless puzzle book. The questions and answers range from easy to impossible,
and every night it comes back so you get another peek at the questions.

Also at night are the many jet flights that fly up the length of the country.
The jets fly low and occasionally produce a sonic boom. When they do not
produce a sonic boom, you can find them in the sky by looking way ahead of where
you think the sound is heading. It takes about 30 minutes to fly the length of
the country in a fast jet. If the people on the ground here claim to feel
claustrophobic, what do these pilots feel like?

The sun rises over the Jordanian hills and every morning out of the window in
temple, I watch the red ball rise from a glow into a full circle too bright to
look at. The sun rises nowadays a little later each day, so even if I sleep
late, I won't miss it.
It is interesting BTW, that the shortest day in the year, is not also the one
with the latest sunrise. That is, although the time between sunrise and sunset
is minimum on December 21 (the shortest day of the year), the sunset is earliest
2-3 weeks earlier, and the sunrise is latest 2-3 weeks later.

Medical Care

When I arrived in this country I had a terrible case of laryngitis that had
blossomed into a horrible sore throat. The laryngitis came 2 days before I had
to sing in temple on Yom Kippur, and cut down my range from 2.3 octaves to one.
I sung around everything, changing keys continuously, and struggling to reach
notes that I normally sing an octave above. I love singing and I cannot begin
to describe how frustrating and handicapped I felt without the full use of my

I tried my voice every morning hoping that it had improved, but after 4 weeks it
was just a little better and it hurt a lot. Finally, I got scared that maybe
I had hurt myself and went to see a doctor. I felt just fine otherwise and I
told this to the doctor who ordered a strep test which was negative. He had
done his training in Chicago so we had a chat about the town, after which he
told me to wait a week and see. He is of the modern school that antibiotics
should not be prescribed unless really indicated. Well in a week things were no
worse or better and I returned. He sent me to see a specialist to rule out the
horrible stuff like cancer.

I called the specialist to make an appointment and he said that his office hours
were 5-8 PM on Mondays and that I should just come over. When I got to his
office, I was certain I had gotten the address wrong. There was no secretary,
no receptionist, just a dark second floor apartment. (It was the kind of place
I imagined one would go to get an abortion 30 years ago in the US). When I went
up, I saw a door open. There were 20 people waiting in a small room, spilling
out onto the stairs in the hallway. I entered the room and soon found a small
sign-up sheet on the wall with about 30 names on it. I soon discovered that not
everyone there was on the sheet and that not everyone on the sheet was there.
The issue of who was next was a bit chaotic, as only about 80% knew whom they
were after. I couldn't deal with this, so I read off all the names and crossed
off all the people who did not answer (presumably because they had already been
treated), and added the people who had not signed up according to the consensus
of whom they were after. I thereafter lent my pen to everyone who entered after
which someone suggested that I just donate it to the office.

The doctor went through patients faster than it takes to write down the
insurance numbers. He did all his own billing. After 10 minutes, 5 people went
in and came out. I thought that I had better make sure I tell him exactly what
my problem was, else I will be out of there before he knows my complaint. It
turns out that he did take a long time on the more interesting cases, and after
about 1 hour, it was my turn. I told my story succinctly and carefully, handed
him my referral and insurance and waited. He quickly took out a tongue
depressor (I was thankful it was not the horrible gagging gadget to thread down
my throat), and he pressed down very hard and took a good look. "Whoa!, that's
a bad infection!" he said. He actually looked pleased that I had a real problem
and wasn't just wasting his time. He wrote me a prescription for penicilin and
a bunch of other things, told me NOT to drink cold things, but do gargle with
warm salt water etc. I barely had enough time to ask him whether it was normal
to have an infection so long without it making me more ill. He showed me to the
door as he said "sure", and reassured me that my vocal chords had not suffered.
Ten days later I felt well and had 2.3 octaves once again.

The doctors here are good, but they do not make the money that doctors make in
the US. This guy works at a hospital and he simply cannot afford a receptionist
or a clerk or even a pleasant office for his private practice. People here
tell me that my experience was not typical, and that it sounds like the stories
people tell about the old days here. The clinics here are more modern,
nevertheless it is common here to find this scene with specialists.

Politics, Fanatics, Terrorists and Iraq

The Gaza strip is a strip of land (20 x 5 miles) that holds about 800,000 Arabs
and a few thousand Jews. It is relatively poor and is now completely under
Palestinian control (area "A"), except for a few Jewish enclaves. If the strip
were the size of a long finger, then there is a fingernail sized area called
Gush Qatif that is under Israeli control as well as two little dot sized
island villages, one called Kfar Darom (Southern Town). Kfar Darom is
completely surrounded by area "A" except for access roads which connects it to
the mainland. It is a dangerous place. There is a lot of hatred, economic
dependence and depression.

Two weeks ago, there was an "incident". There is a school bus that takes the 30
Jewish kids that live in Kfar Darom to their school in Gush Qatif on the access
road. The bus has metal grates over all the windows and windshield, and it is
escorted in front and back by two Israeli army Jeeps with 3 soldiers in each.
It is about a 20 minute drive through dangerous territory. I imagine the kids
are used to this routine. One morning, a van heading perpendicular to the road
appeared out of nowhere and looked as though he was going to ram the bus. The
jeep in front reacted instinctively, and cut off the van, smashing into it.
Moments later there was a huge explosion, the driver of the van was killed
immediately (a suicide mission), and the jeep lay upside down 10 meters away
with one soldier dead, and the other two badly wounded. No children were hurt.
The driver of the bus, who carries his own gun, calmed the children down,
checked for injuries, walked out to see that no more terrorists were around,
climbed back into the bus and headed for the border as fast as he could. The
kids were in school 30 minutes later. The Israeli army arrived in seconds,
evacuated the injured, and chased the terrorists' accomplices whose job had been
to look out for the bus and tell the suicide driver when to go. The chase went
well into Palestinian territory. There was some shooting between Israeli and
Palestinian forces, as the Israeli forces drove through enemy territory shooting
at suspected terrorists. This shooting was quickly stopped by the ranking
officers on both sides, as the matter of what had happened became clear. The
accomplices escaped. It is easy to see how it could have escalated out of hand,
with Israelis claiming they were pursuing terrorists who had threatened lives of
30 children and killed a soldier, and Palestinians claiming that they were
shooting at Israeli forces who were speeding and shooting in their territory and
not heeding warnings to stop.

Since this attack, the papers have carried articles about the family of the dead
soldier, a young Russian immigrant. There are related articles about Russian
immigration and their changing role in Israeli society. There are interviews in
the weekend paper with the heroic driver of the jeep that saved the kids. He
was injured seriously but recovered. It turns out that he was a reservist, 26
years old. He had missed his last two stints at reserve duty because he was out
touring abroad. This time he was determined to do a serious job. He said he
was very scared. He said the explosion was very big, and he added that he has
heard his share of explosions. He said he was glad he saved the kids. When
asked whether he felt sad for the life of the terrorist suicide bomber, he was
incredulous and said that no he didn't have any feelings for the dead terrorist.
He continued that there are lots of people willing to do crazy things for their
hatred, and he doesn't feel sorry for them. When asked what he thought of the
Jews living in these places, he said he thought they were completely out of
their minds. He could not understand what would allow them to risk their
children's lives. His ten minutes of fame are now over, and he has returned
into obscurity from his reserve duty.

Now that the USA has threatened Iraq, the people here are taking precautions but
I wouldn't say that anyone is really nervous. Sadaam is known as unpredictable
and crazy, but intelligence sources say that the chance of his doing anything is
very small. Nevertheless, gas mask centers have reopened, and tourists get to
the back of the line.

The Arab workers on our apartment are allowed in every morning and have made
very good progress. The one who got divorced from his wife, is now back
together with her, because she announced that she is pregnant. When I asked him
if he was happy about this (it will be his first child - he always tells me how
lucky I am to have 3 sons), he looked at me and said "Of course, who wouldn't

He has given me his word now on three consecutive days that my family can move
in before Shabbat. He says I can count on him. He ended up coming through on
promise just 1 week late.

If I try, I can empathize with  him and the other workers despite the huge cultural gap, but I cannot empathize with the suicide bomber. I have never been THAT angry.


I have driven commercial trucks and private vehicles in New York, Chicago and
Boston. In each of these cities, the citizens believe that the drivers in their
town are the worst in the country. The drivers in these cities are bad (I
personally would rank them Boston, NY, Chicago; Boston being the worst), but the
drivers here are on another level of BAD entirely. It is a well touted
statistic, I don't know if it is true, that the number of drivers killed here in
a year is more than all the people killed in all of the wars in the last 50
years. There are TV and radio programs encouraging people to drive with sense.
Everyone has a sticker on their bumper that translates to "Watch your distance".
Nevertheless, accidents occur here with frightening frequency.

Many of the roads here are two lane highways, and people pass wildly. I have
witnessed many near head-on collisions and heard on the news about the ones that
were not misses. I have never in my life seen such anger on the road. It is
routine for drivers to go 60 MPH 3 feet in back of a car they wish to pass, and
if god forbid the car in front does something offensive, then they really
tailgate him. You can hear the thoughts of "I 'll teach you" in the exhaust
noise of the passing cars.

There is a notion here that everyone knows someone that was killed or badly
injured in a war. This is why people feel such a personal involvement and
commitment to the defense of the country. I don't know if the notion is really
true, but it is certainly true if you substitute "car accident" for "war".

The other day I was in a horrible traffic jam. It turns out the intersection
ahead was being checked for a suspicious bomb-like object. It was rush hour, so
all roads to the intersection were blocked for about 45 minutes. Traffic was
pretty much a standstill up and down the hill into Jerusalem. I had left a
space of two car lengths between myself and the car in front of me as I tried to
listen to the radio and relax. The woman in the car in the lane next to me,
opens her window and motions to me to listen to her. She went on explaining
that at least two cars could fit in the space I was leaving, and what a moron I
was for not moving up. I reminded her that we hadn't moved in 30 minutes, and
besides she wasn't even behind me! She looked at me like I was nuts. I thought
to myself that I have no idea what she is feeling or what she is thinking.

I will leave it to others to speculate about the psycho-social reasons for a
country en masse to be so careless on the road, but whatever the causes are, you
can bet that whatever that woman was feeling is the result.

Weekly Outings

Andrea has made a point of planning weekly family outings that the kids and I
both have enjoyed immensely. We have visited historical sites, holy sites,
playgrounds, mini-golf and the center of town. We have eaten at kosher
McDonalds, Sbarros, KFC and Burger King.   The kids remember the Wailing Wall, and saved their Burger King crowns. They  were disappointed by the mini-golf but loved the old tank and one the 1967
battle sites.

Wood versus Stone Buildings - The Three Little Pigs

I had a conversation with a friend of mine here who is an architect. I asked
him why don't they build any pre-fab wood buildings, instead of the slow labor
intensive stone and concrete stuff. I thought that the savings in labor would
offset the increase cost in the materials (stone is plentiful here but not
wood). He said that many people had the same thoughts, but that every single
person that tried it failed miserably. He said that people had no interest in
buying the wood stuff even if it was cheaper. They would thump on the hollow
sounding wall and say that they wanted a real HOUSE, one that was solid.
They had a sense that wood was closer to a caravan, trailer or tent than to a
"home". This sense is so strong and consistent that there is no market for the
wooden pre-fab homes in Israel. If it's not made of stone, it's not a home.

Another interesting thing to note about the houses and apartments is that the
design MUST include one room that has (1) a solid steel door which can be closed
and sealed and (2) a square meter window with a swinging steel door. In our
house, it is the kid's room :)

Rabin Memorial Day

One day a few weeks back, was Rabin Memorial Day. Rabin was the prime minister
Who initiated the peace process with the Palestinians, and  who was assassinated by a right wing Jewish fanatic in Tel Aviv a few years ago.  Rabin was also commander in chief of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1967 war.  He was clearly a man with a mature vision.  Bumper stickers abound on cars saying "Goodbye (Peace) my friend" or "My friend,  you are missed". On the memorial day, his picture is all over town, in every  temple, and public place.  Even the right wing, who hated him, mourn his loss. And the really fanatical  right wing don't dare say anything in public on that day.

The University

The Hebrew University (Givat Ram) campus is like a typical large university
campus in the US.  It is about a 15 minute walk from my office to the student union, and that is
about half the length of the campus. There is parking on campus, and many
busses to places all over the city. The landscaping is beautiful; there is a
huge library; many cafeterias and lunch spots dot the campus. The student
strike is still on, so the campus is relatively quiet. Still there are waiting lines for lunch and at the bookstore.  If I had gotten a job teaching, I would not yet even have started!
There is another campus of Hebrew University on Har Hatzofim, where it was an
enclave from 1948 through 1967. The Har Hatzofim campus has much more concrete
and less green than Givat Ram. Now it is the home of the humanities and social
Sciences while Givat Ram is the home of the “hard” sciences. There is a shuttle
bus that takes about 20 minutes.

The Makolet

The makolet is our yishuv general store. Last week, they started selling big
fried jelly doughnuts - a Hannukah tradition here. I joked to the owner, that
Hannukah was still a month away, and she replied that the vendor was trying to
sell her these things since the day after High Holidays, and that she finally
gave in. (That brought a memory of early Christmas commercialization in the US).

It is hard to get fresh produce out of season at the Makolet. So now there are
bananas, clementines, persimmons, cucumbers, peppers, apples, onions, mushrooms
and potatoes. It is hard to get fresh broccoli or berries - so one needs to get
these frozen. There is lots of yogurt, white and yellow cheeses, olives, dried
fruits and nuts. There is lots of beef and lamb, but mostly people eat chicken in many different forms.


There is a mixture of western and eastern music you can find on the radio. The
international selection of rock and roll is available as is the local version of
this in Hebrew. There is also the traditonal arabic music which is not at all
similar to western music. The Jewish Sephardic cantillation and folk tunes are
similar in style to the Arabic music. The temple here has a lot of Sephardic
style tunes and customs, depending on who is leading, and I really enjoy trying
to tune my ear to a completely different kind of music. It is a little like
learning to appreciate Jazz... the Sephardic tunes always "end" without warning
on what seems like an upbeat. It is hard to pick up the "melody". A tune is
sometimes a repetitive musical phrase without any "home", that keeps changing
slightly and subtly until it ends. I really like it, but it is hard for me to

Moving In

We finally moved from our trailer caravan to our house. It is large by Israeli
standards - 4 bedrooms. This is even larger considering that it will eventually
Be the upstairs of our friend's home - but that is the Yishuv dream. We are
comfortable in it, and I have my own office.

My Work

One of the best things about my work in history of mathematics is that it is
multidisciplinary. Last week I got to visit the curator of the coin department
at the Rockefeller Museum to discuss some details about medieval coinage that
showed up in a math problem in a manuscript. He was a fascinating man, who
showed me many coins both medieval and ancient. It was much more exciting to
hold these coins in my hand than I expected it to be. We did some research, I
got to use the library and I got a private tour of the museum. He griped about
the administration who don’t treat the staff right, and the government who is
making it harder for them to get permits for excavations, but mostly he taught
me passionately about his expertise – medieval coins.

The museum is an archeology museum that coincidentally was the site of an
important battle in the 1967 war. The bullet holes are left intentionally in
the walls of this otherwise spectacular building. The original building was
funded generously by Rockefeller during the British occupation of Palestine
(1920’s). The charter called for the museum to be run by an international board
of scientists, and the architecture is appropriately a creative blend of eastern
and western styles. After 1948, it fell into Jordanian hands who continued to
administer it with an international board of scientists. In 1966, Jordan
“nationalized” the museum, and in 1967 it was captured by Israel as part of the
battle to capture the old city of Jerusalem. The museum stands on high ground
at the northeast corner outside the walls of the old city. According to
international law, Israel was then allowed to nationalize the museum once again,
despite the original charter of Rockefeller, and so now it continues to be run
jointly by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum.