Report #4 - January 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.

I noticed that in writing this month's report that our lives have settled down, and I don't have all that much to write anymore. So this may also the last mailing en masse.

Best wishes to all.


There has been lots of news here from the mundane to the serious.

Miss World was a young Israeli woman - the press here was quite proud.

Clinton came to visit and was in attendance at the Palestinian vote to finally eradicate
from their charter the goal of destroying Israel etc. This vote was in order
to fulfill the Palestinian part of the Wye accord. As might be expected, it was met here with a variety of feelings and opinions. The left wing was relieved and the rightwing was unimpressed. Soon after the vote and accompanying hoop-la, the minister of the Treasury resigned, and the Israeli government legislative arm (The Knesset) voted to move up the date for the election of the prime minister. This is essentially a vote of no confidence in the executive branch of the government, the implication being that the prime minister has lost his control of the majority of the 120 Knesset seats, and that he must reorganize immediately to demonstrate some consenus, or else face an early election process. The political manuevering now is intense and unpredictable with many announcements of intentions to run for prime minister. There is also a great deal of new alliances as parties and individuals jockey for the best position before the new election. The actual date of the new election is undetermined (sometime in the next 3-6 months is the best guess). Almost all the newspapers that "Bibi" has finally used up his good luck, and he cannot pull another rabbit out of his hat this time. He has many enemies and he has betrayed the trust of most of his allies.

It is a funny contrast to the US - where if the Cabinet falls into disarray, scandal or stops supporting the President's policies, then the President just fires them all and starts again. In our country, we topple the executive branch for different reasons :)

Clinton made an ass of himself here with almost the whole spectrum of political opinions, when the following story was reported. Clinton visited the home(s) of Palestinian families whose father(s) were dead due to suicide terrorist attacks (i.e. their fathers were terrorists). In a burst of sympathy and poor taste, Clinton compared the pain of the children of these men (now fatherless), with the pain of the children who were killed in the attacks. It didn't ring loud on the empathy scale here. Many people were angered by the comment and even the biggest Clinton supporters rolled their eyes at what they thought was a thoughtless comment.

The other big news is Lebanon, now that Iraq has faded quietly. An Israeli plane accidentally bombed a home in which a mother and her 6 children were killed. Almost immediately katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon landed in the Northern towns of Israel in retaliation injuring many and forcing the citizens of those towns into bomb shelters for 2 days. This news came as a climax to a heightening argument of whether Israel should withdraw from Lebanon.

Review: In 1982 (the last time I spent the year teaching here), Israel occupied a large chunk of southern Lebanon, in order to take control of outposts which had terrorized the northern towns (kiryat shmona etc) with rockets, bombs and occasional incursions for many years. The idea was to help the Lebanese government get control of their own land, create safety and peace for Israel's northern towns, and then get out. In 1998, they are still there.

There is a large group of people who see Lebanon as Israel's Viet Nam, and criticize the government vehemently for being arrogant and not learning any lesson's from history. More to the point, these people are disgusted with young men dying, for a cause whose goal (the control of rocket fire to Israeli towns) they claim is still not achieved, as shown by the recent incident. There are many radio talk show discussions about this issue and many demonstations in the big cities. It is also one of the causes of the recent lack of confidence in Bibi's government, and the coming early elections.

The Yishuv, Us and the Kids

We are well into a routine here having been in our real apartment/home for a month. The kids are used to school and although they still do not speak fluent Hebrew, they do understand a bit, and use a few Hebrew words.

Both Zosh and Yair have a few choice words for which they use the Hebrew instead of English. Yair knows the Hebrew word for scarecrow, which I still cannot remember; he doesn't seem to know the word scarecrow. They both sit and listen to me read them a book in Hebrew without any translation at all. They fill in missing words as I pause, just as they do in English, and when I am done they
answer "yes", to the question of whether that was a good story. If I try to switch the spoken language at home to Hebrew, I get quickly voted down, but the other day, I called home and Zosh answered the phone, "Shalom", so I talked to him in Hebrew for 5 minutes and he seemed to yes and no in a sensible way.

Zosh gets teased at school for having a "girlfriend"... they taunt him that he is "in love". He doesnt seem too bothered. His "girlfriend" still tells me more about what happens to him at school than he does, but he does confirm what she says, so at least as get passive communication.

Zosh says "I am really lucky Abba". "Why?" I asked. He replied: "Because I did not do anything to make Paz like me". Paz is the girl he gets teased about, and one of his 3-4 friends. He has mostly girl friends, which is very different from home. Especially at his age when girls and boys start separating for a few years, I found this very interesting. I will spare you my silly theories as to why this is the case.

Yair's "gan" had a child theatre group visit and put on a WInnie the Pooh play. I visited that day, and was treated to a long epic of Eeyore losing and finding his tail. The kids loved it, and I will never forget the Hebrew word for tail.  Yair also went to an Artist's Park as a field trip, and participated gleefully in the Hanukah party which included a preschool simulation of the Maccabees triumph over the Hellenist oppression. I took lots of pictures. The scene was that out of any Kindergarten - a bunch of proud parents armed with video recorders and cameras, cooing as their kids sand and danced.

Yair's gan is visible from our porch, so either ANdrea or I walk him to school and he walks back himself, as I encourage him to run by waving frantically from our porch. I love watching him run and tumble down the dirt shortcut home. We often stay with him for a few minutes after we drop him off just to see how is doing and he has gotten used to this. His "gan" has kids in a 2 year age range so the actvities available range greatly. Yair likes puzzles, and he loves to do the class routine. He remembers all sorts of songs and dances and is the kind of kid that always joins in. His teacher says that he is an easy kid.

Zosh is learning to read Hebrew and English mostly by exposure, and partly by his every other day hour lessons with me. This is a commitment that both he and I take seriously and although it is a long hard road for him, he is making steady progress, with occasional jumps that are reassuring for me and a confidence builder for him. He and I also do math, chess and go. He enjoys these but not as much as his new helicopter Lego set. He spent two hours with me building it, after which I was ready to read a book, and he then took the completed model and played "make believe" with it for another two hours. Now he doesn't need me to follow the directions, he just makes his own design.

Yona, our baby, is almost one now. The responsibility of caring for him falls mostly on Andrea's overworked shoulders with nice help from my mother who is visiting for a short stay.

He has changed greatly since we arrived. He learned to crawl just when we arrived, and now he is taking his first steps, and saying his first wordlike sounds. When he isn't sick, he is a great baby. Someone here suggested that he gets sick here because his immune system is not used to the local viruses. What IS his immune system used to I wondered?

The people here do some funny things that after a while one gets used to without a flinch. One thing that comes to mind, is driving a car with a few bags of garbage teetering on the hood, partially obscuring the view of the road, while the bags are driven to the communal garbage bins. The really funny part of this scene is that there is often an infant or small child on the driver's lap. Andrea won't let me try this :)

Based on past performance, the temple here treats me now as one of the "torah readers", which means that any day where I am the only torah reader attending, I get pushed up to read aloud whether or not I have prepared. The idea is that I will do better unprepared than anyone else. I don't like to read without preparing so I have taken to preparing sometimes just in case. There are about 4 Torah readers here and I am number 3 in the lineup. The number one guy lent me a great book on the subject of Torah Reading.


Andrea now is volunteering at a big hospital once a week in the Audiology department, and working for pay at a small hearing aid store in the center of town, two days a week. She is getting out, learning Hebrew, keeping up with her field, and getting free time from the baby who is otherwise a 24 hour commitment.

I gave a talk last week at the University for which Andrea showed up unexpectedly at the last minute. (She did not ask any questions). The talk went over all right and I met lots of people.

I have been working steadily but slowly,writing more than I ever otherwise could during a typical academic year. One paper is out, and another very long paper is more than half way complete. After my talk, an editor of a Hebrew math magazine suggested another paper, which she promised she would help me translate for her journal. I have more work than I can finish, great support from Stonehill, Hebrew University and the National Science Foundation, and
good colleagues all over here and the states. It is very nice.


We go out a lot. Restaurants, fast food places, malls and tourist sites. We saw Massada last week and Yair thought that one of the wall ruins was the Kotel (Wailing Wall). We have been to the Kotel a half dozen times but I guess a ruin is ruin is a ruin to a 4 year old. He wanted to know where the Golden Dome was.

There are many McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFC, Pizza Hut and other fast food places, all kosher; and many fancy French, Italian, Yemenite, Indian, Chinese and Japanese places. What the country is missing badly is a chain of "family" restaurants like The Olive Garden, Bertuccis, IHOP, HoJos. Any investors?

Last week we went to a tank park... the kids love the climbing. The "park" is really a memorial to the tank command of the army here.  The movie they showed was a real hard sell of the love between a young man and his tank (armour and spirit make victory!). The tank provides the armour and the men provide the spirit. I wasnt ready to sign up but my boys seemed to think it was cool.

We visited a strange home built out of driftwood, junk and sand by an eccentric fellow who has lived in it right on the Mediateranean Sea for 25 years.

Many trips to Jerusalem the New and the Old City.

The other day we went to a vineyard which was a shot in the dark. A friend of mine here from Temple works there and I asked him if I could bring the kids over to visit. It is a small place and they don't give tours, but he says that sure I can bring the kids. I planned it so that it was the first activity of a long vacation day, in case they would hate it. Well they loved it. It was a real treat. The men there don't get too many visitors and enjoyed showing off to our boys. The boys got to see all sorts of cool machines and received free samples of grape juice and labels. I asked my friend what was in the barrels, and he said they were just for show -- all the wine and juice is stored in stainless steel.

Federal Express 1 day delivery

A student sent me some material by overnight delivery and was assured despite his concerns, that I would receive it in the desert in time. The next day I got a call from the company that they had a package for me and wanted to know where to deliver it. I told them how to get here and they said that they don't go there. After a long time of discussing what guaranteed door to door really means, I got them to admit that they just don't deliver to the desert. We finally compromised by letting them deliver to the university, where the secretary signed for me.

The Holiday Season

The big holiday school vacation times here are (1) High Holidays and Sukkot (4 weeks)(2) Hanukah (1 week) and (3) Passover (3 weeks)

We just finished the 1 week Hanukah break. The yishuv had some big public lightings and various festive parties and events. Ramadan, the month long Muslim daytime fast began around then as well. What is conspicuous by its absence is the Christmas celebration. There are simply not many Christians in comparison to the Jews and Muslims, so it is very easy to forget that Christmas is coming, which I never do in the US. I actually had the bizarre experience of calling the US for some business reasons on December 25 and hearing a recording that the place was closed for Christmas. What's more, I did it again later in the day! The only place where I got any sense of the Christian holidays was in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the tourists crowd the Christian quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulcre.


Winter has finally started. It gets in the 60's in the day, 40's at night, and very windy. It hasn't rained much which is the talk around town and country. There is no central heating so we run various space heaters and huddle in nice sleeping bags.

The good news that with winter here comes strawberries and lots of them!

Down in the Wadi

We took my mother down to the wadi when she was here last week for a visit, and a strange thing happened. When driving back up from the restaurant at the bottom, a woman ran out in front of the car almost in tears, with a man a few meters away. Their car was parked on the side of the road about 50 meters up from the the dead end where the restaurant is located. She begs me for a ride up the hill and says that it is an emergency. She had a nylon bag pressed tightly to her stomach and full of stuff that was not visible. When I pressed her for some more detail, she explained that she thought the man with her was going to hurt her. He was standing nearby talking to her in soothing tones, nervous, and keeping his distance from her and me. I asked her where she wanted to go, and she said just up the hill away from him so she could get a phone to call a cab. I told her that if she wanted a phone, the closest one was in the restaurant behind us, 50 meters away. She says, "restaurant? where?". I showed her and she thanked me and hurried down the road on foot. The man followed, and I watched until she was safely inside.

The thing that bugged me the most about this incident is how suspicious I was of this woman. This time I was able to do what I thought was a reasonable thing for her safety and still protect me and my family from the small risk that she and he were working together and up to no good. I don;t know what I would have done if it was in the middle of nowhere. Her life might have been in danger, but I certainly don't want to be the dope in the news who picked up two terrorists or thieves posing as fighting lovers. It is a thin line between careful and paranoid in this environment.


The yishuv is filled with cats and dogs. Some nights are dead quiet and some are filled with communal dog barking and cat wailing.  There are also goats, roosters, sheep, donkeys,
camels and ibex wandering on the nearby hills, usually tended by a person, but sometimes wild. Their are yellow scorpions that sometimes wander onto beds and pillows, but the mosquitos and flies have left for the winter.

Traffic Reports

You know how one of the last things a person learns in a new city is how to parse the traffic report? I think it took me 4 years in Chicago, and 2-3 in Boston. There are still parts of the Boston report in that I don't get, because I never drive there. Well here the traffic report is national. They go through all the major roads and intersections in the country in two minutes or less! Different scale I guess, but easier to parse because of it.

I managed to get a traffic ticket here for driving in the left lane while not passing. This was after I was carefully warned to make sure I left my lights ON during the day in the winter. So there I was driving well under the speed limit and with my lights on, toward a parked police car, confidently cruising by when his cohort jumps into the middle of the lane and flags me down. Things work differently here. In the US, if a cop stops you and you get out of your car, they yell and point a gun at you. Here, I sat for 5 minutes, finally got out, and then they yelled at me for taking so long to walk over to them. When I asked in English, what was the problem? He looks at me and says in Hebrew "What no Hebrew?" At that point, I thought it was too late to go back and speak Hebrew. My strategy had been a failure. They were not going to let me go because I could not communicate with them. When he gave me the summons, I say "Hey that's a lot for driving in the left lane!" He replies "It isn't dollars, it's shekels". I said "It is still a lot". (It was 190 shekels - about $50). Finally as I walked away, he says "If you pay it good, if you don't pay it, then fine". I haven't paid it yet. I am trying to "win" by not paying it AND not letting it bug me.