Report #5 - February 1999 - 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 thought that I might quit this with last month's installation, but I have decided to do at least one more month.
News and Current Events
There is new currency here. It is very colorful and high tech.
There are new elections on the horizon, and the parties have been jockeying for
positions. There is a new centrist party and of course Labor and Likud. Now there is a kind of a quiet before the storm. Netanyahu just won the Likud nomination hands down in an 80% vote of support with a 30% turnout. Ministers are resigning and moving around everywhere.
There have been 800k Russian/Soviet immigrants in the last ten years to this country. This has become very noticeable. Certain professions are filled with Russian speakers. For example, almost all the guards at the Israel museum are native Russian speakers. There are Russian radio programs, newspapers, and even one advertisement circular. The latter has a radio ad, that has a Hebrew speaking spokesperson with an ever so barely detectable Russian accent (the Russian accent is very hard to cover in Hebrew) saying how normally they are completely assimilated into Israeli culture... they read Hebrew newspapers, go to Israeli nightclubs, eat Isareli food... but when it comes to buying cars, or stereos are any othe rused appliance... they go for the best... the Russian
ad pages... etc etc
Perhaps the most interesting issue that has popped up in the news, is one that I believe is central to the whole future of this country. That is the separation of church and state. There is no such thing here of course. For example, Jews are granted automatic citizenship; there are religious "public" schools; the Rabbinate is in charge of all marriages and divorces; "blue" laws concerning the opening and closing of businesses on Shabbat (Saturday) and issues of parking etc abound; most food is kosher. What came up recently was the matter of who decides the question of whether a person is Jewish or not. The Knesset (like Congress) who is swayed heavily by the religious lobby, wants to leave this in the hands of the Rabbinate, a primarily Orthodox, right wing opinion that accepts no conversions outside Orthodoxy. The Supreme Court ruled recently that conversions by Reform or Conservative Rabbis were legitimate. The implications of this ruling are not yet clear. Practically, the court sets precedent and rules on particular cases, but does not make laws. The tension between the Knesset and the Court is very democratic and reminiscent of US politics.
In Lebanon, an Israeli soldier was killed accidentally by friendly fire. This fueled the debate over why the army is still there.
In Hebron, a car was attacked by terrorists, putting its occupants in the hospital, and under criticism for not driving in army provided protective vehicles. This resulted in careful security being set up in the area. The next day a Palestinean was shot by the Israeli army as he ran wildly through the center of town, ignoring all orders to stop in this area. He was waving a pistol that later turned out to be a toy.
The millenium is bringing fears of various messianic fringe lunatic types, bearing down on Jerusalem in fanatical hopes of the second coming.
The Yishuv, and Local Culture
For being such big customers of the local Makolet, (I was told that ours is the 4th highest bill in town), we received the prize of a free package of toilet paper. I guess if we eat a lot... we will need it! The grocer, Hezi says that his business will hurt when we head home to the states.
People and Places
I have recently had the chance to visit a number of different homes and people...
1. My cousin has a home in Nes Tziyona, a 100 year old town south of Tel Aviv.
He works as an electrical engineer for a good company that has international
connections. He does very well. His home is really spectacular on Israeli
standards and pretty nice by any standard. Large spacious rooms, jacuzzi, big screen TV, 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, office etc. My cousin has three kids, works long hours, and is a modest generous happy man, too busy to completely enjoy the pleasures he has at his disposal. He walks the thin line between religious secular.
2. A friend, who works for Microsoft, lives in Mevasseret, a wealthy secular suburb of Jerusalem popular with Knesset members. His home is similar to my cousin's, with all the comforts of any American home. He is divorced with a 18 year old daughter, and his new girlfriend had 2 young kids, who are charming. He is very cosmopolitan, and is disgusted with what he feels are religious fanatics controlling too much of the political world outside their jurisdiction. He spends plenty of time in Seattle, speaks perfect English, is articulate, and makes good sense. He was never lured by the charms of religion, and finds no need for it himself, although he can tolerate the need others have for it. He cannot understand the focus on LAND in most of the Arab-Israeli negotiations.
3. Another friend, is an artist and lives in a trendy artists' district in Tel Aviv. He is perhaps a typical artist, in that he is unconventional. He is unmarried, and at 35, lives a very carefree existance. He teaches dance and martial arts by night, and paints by day. He would love to get his work shown in some nice exhibit in the US. His "home" is not really a home in the conventional sense. It is a warehouse, in which he has built various lofts and living spaces. The bathroom is very spartan and old. The kitchen and living room are indistinguishable. The ceilings are the roof, which are
corrugated aluminum. The walls are filled with his art, and there is a big room of mirrors and mats for his classes. He and I enjoyed some tea and Go. He has many friends, seems to have a girlfriend, and he has a nice dog. He is very happy, perhaps mildly disappointed that he is not more successful, and jokes that he still has time to start a family. The flat next door to him, is a refurbished yuppie palace that sold for 1/2 million dollars.
Many of the business cars have meters on the car, for gasoline. That is, you go fill up, the amount is recorded automatically and the bill is sent to the employer, who gets the location, mileage, amount of gas, etc.
Hitchhikers abound on the yishuv. It is quite easy to get a ride into towm, but a bit harder to get back home. On the road, people hitch more frequently than in the US, and there are signs everywhere to pick up a soldier... so he can get home to the people waiting for him. I used to hitch like a madman when I was young and had no car (age 14-27). I promised myself I would return the favors when I got older... so now I drive around with a car filled with 3 kids, my wife and stroller... and no room for hitchers.
We are used to driving around in the "territories" which is where we live. The various roadblocks at the junctions with Israel proper, as well as the Gas Station oases with the surprisingly good restaurants, have become routine. We are used to the strange sights of men on old bicycles, with daughters on laps towing things across the street. We are used to the tents of the bedouins, the small villages, and the occasional remnants of refugee camps. We are used to the construction on the new lanes of the road. I even got permission from Andrea, to put the garbage on the hood, and take Yona on my lap for the drive to the dump, here on the Yishuv.
The kids' schools concentrate a lot on driving safety, reminding me of my baby boomer childhood songs... "Dont cross the street in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle of the block..." They did a little presentation with hand motions and singing in school, that was just like the stuff I used to watch on TV. They even sent a letter written by a 4th grader, beseeching adults to drive carefully. BTW, I could not help notice how my written Hebrew, is just about at that kid's level.
There has been a recent tumolt on the Yishuv as to what to do about dogs who are left unleashed. It is a serious issue which has caused a number of mild fights I suggested they build a big dog pen where the dogs could run... There is only 100 square miles of nothing surrounding the yishuv anyway. The suggestion was received with mixed reviews... It is being considered at the next monthly meeting.
There is a funny piece of Graffiti that is everywhere. N Na NaH Nahma Nahman MeUman. In Hebrew it spells out the first name of NaHman from Uman, letter by letter. He is a Hasidic Rabbi who died many years back... People put this slogan on everything, abandoned buildings, cars, phone booths, to bring good luck. I find myself singing a tune to the words, every time I see it... I should have put it on my Subrau!
The weather is coolish and the winters rains are light. Andrea saw an incredible rainbow the other day. She said she felt like she drove right into the middle of it. The desert is a little greener, but the main thing I notice when driving around is the flocks of sheep moving on the hills like chocolate syrup dripping down the sides of an ice cream cone. It is fun watching the Bedouins run them along some steep spot. We often see animals along side the road. Today I saw a camel grazing next to the shoulder. The other night, we drove right past a cow that was trying to cross a highway.
We use space-heaters a lot, and our clothes don't dry quite as fast as they used to. Tel Aviv is a lot warmer, and when I visit there, the locals can tell I am from out of town by my sweater or jacket.
We spent a Shabbat at a place that is just a few hundred meters from the Jordanian border. In the afternoon we took the kids to the dairy cow barn, which is even closer to the border. Even though there is a peace treaty with Jordan, there is still no open border except at a few guarded crossing points. It was interesting seeing the sea of lights showing all the villages on the other side of the barbed wire. My kids have some idea that Jordan used to be the bad guys but now they are not. The cows smelled but the kids loved it.
The bureaucracy here is legendary. I make a lot of microfilm copies for my research. There is a budget line on an NSF grant for this purpose. It took me two faxes and 4 personal conversations until I was able to get copies done without having to pay in advance. Even after this, they changed the price on me, each person blaming it on the other one... saying that even though I was local, I should pay the outside price because the money was from outside. Finally, I got them to relent but it required a strong argument, a phone call and a big smile. In an unrelated incident, it took 4 calls and 3 put on holds, for the secretary to find me the area code of Parma, Italy... I had to send a FAX to ask permission to copy a manuscript.
High tech wins out over all the bureaucracy. We can still get a call, email or a FAX right here in this little house in the middle of the desert, anytime, but not a FEDeX or UPS package. Those need to go to the university.
At the university, there is no liberal arts. It all works on the European system. People then apply for high schools, and learn general stuff, while deciding on a specialty... like we do in college. In college, they study mainly their own field, like we do in graduate school.
There is NO serious college sports here. The track looks like a high school track and field, and a poor one at that. It is almost always empty. I think the thought of a college soccer coach making 200,000 dollars a year is a big haha here.
The cafeteria is super. I LOVE eating there. They serve meals like you find in homey restaurants in small US towns. Big portions and good food. I go back and forth between the Shnitzel, rice and cabbage; and the falafel sandwich with "Kubeh" soup -- a strong tomato soup filled with vegetables and meat dumplings.
Zosh had a birthday party. It was a huge success. We joined with another boy in his class, and hired a professional clown. This was the best birthday clown I ever saw. Not only did he have all the skills, juggling, music, dancing, magic and a good routine. But he was also very clever and related wonderfully with the kids. He changed plans in midstream when necessary, and improvised all the time. He had no fewer than 30 children completely mesmerized without any help at all from any other adult, for a full hour. Having always thought of myself as an amateur clown of sorts, I could only gape at the master. He ended with a really cool levitation of each birthday boy, and balloon animals for all. Zosh enjoyed all the attention, and was quite a sport for the levitation trick, even though he looked very nervous. I took lots of pictures!
We also had our first Parent/teacher meeting. Andrea stayed with the kids, and I went to talk to Zosh's teacher. Well I had all the anxieties of any parent, but it turned out great. Zosh is doing fine. In math, he is right on track, and in reading, even though he can't understand what he is reading, he can still read. She remarked that he still doesn't have any boy friends, because his language is not yet there. But I already knew that. Meanwhile, I have started to talk more to the boys in Hebrew, and they seem not to notice. I asked some people who came here as children, how many months it took them to learn the language? They all concurred that a minimum of 5 months was necessary until they were really cooking. This gives Zosh another month of free time :)
Zosh brought home an electronics project, of a homemade flashlight. He has his art work in the school hallway. He has homework all the time, and is making progress on his English reading with me every other day for an hour. I am very proud of him.
Zosh has really started to like Chess, and has gotten passed the beginners stage. I wish he would like Go, but I think Chess is great too. I set him up to play on the Internet. Look for "zosh", on the Internet Chess Server. He plays a little too slowly for the speed world of Internet Chess. But he likes it a lot. He likes bringing his two knights out on his first two moves; he can checkmate with a Queen and King, against a King; he can win simple pawn end games when he has the advantage; and he usually notices when his pieces are under attack. His grandfather, for whom he is named, and who taught me to play Chess, would be proud.
Yair came home with a beautiful poem and his picture stuck on it. He brings home hundreds of kindergarten projects which I have taken to putting on my home office wall. The other wall is for maps. He is talking a lot more in hebrew, and certainly understanding a great deal more. Last week, I asked him whether G'vina meant cheese or telephone. I was joking, since I knew he knew the answer, which he dutifully gave me. Then I asked him how to say telephone. After he gave up, I gave him a hint, that it started with Tel-... He gleefully replied "Tel-Aviv". The other day, I listened to the radio jotting the words that are English ripoffs. In 5 minutes I got: obsessivi, proyect, objectivi, normali, practicali, gimickim, radio, televizia, and telephone!. You can
figure out what they all are.
He has a light sensitive night light. Turning the light off, seems to make it go on. One day, with his windows wide open, he turned his light off, and the night light did NOT go on. He ran over to me and told me that there muct be a power failure. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, and even longer to explain it to him.
Yona had his first birthday today. He is the only one of our three kids to have had a one year old birthday party. It was messy and fun, but pretty meaningless for him. The older boys and their friends loved it. Pizza and cupcakes! Yona has some tricks though. He can walk! He started walking about 10 days ago and has been progressively getting less wobbly every day. He can also climb up stairs. He says "Bow", "Ma", and "Ga", and other "words." He goes to day care 3 mornings/week, and seems to have fun there.
We have Israeli babysitters who do not speak English, and that seems to work out
just fine. The kids listen to bedtime stories in Hebrew, and enjoy them as much
as the English stories.
The kids eat a lot. Breakfast at 7, Brunch at school at 10, Lunch at home at 1:30, Supper at 5:30. Yair has gained some weight. Zosh is about the same. At most fastfood places the kids get "kids meals" which usually include some kind of toy or prize. Besides all the other stuff we have accumulated, just these toys have filled a shelf or two in their rooms, with water guns, board games, models, cars and toy animals.
We all went to the local guy for haircuts. Zosh said he wants to stay in Alon forever, because the Barber here doesnt put that paper around his neck. I suggested that he just ask the barber in Sharon, to take the paper off. The barber, for his part, asked me if there were barber jobs in Mass.
We visited the Science Museum on "kids night", and the kids enjoyed it. There was lots of hands-on stuff in the modern style. There was one interesting exhibit that simulates a mine field. You get a detector, that tells you where the mine is without setting it off. If you step on a mine a red light goes off... you're dead. If you make it to the end, a green light goes off... you are still alive. There is a little note about how Lady Di spent a lot of her time helping clean up mine fields all over the world. Here in Israel, there are still places, in the Golan (the old Syrian border), that have undetected mines. Hikers need to be very careful to stay on trails there.
The last month has been an intense work time for me. I spend from 7 AM to 7 PM sitting in front of the computer, typing, translating and editing. Sometimes I go back to work at 10PM until 2 AM.
Just as I thought I was reaching the end of a big section, I got slowed down by a long inscrutable section that took me days to work through. Yesterday I arose from my stupor, and got back to normal. My second paper is now 74 pages long. I hope that doesn't scare away the journal I hope to publish it in... (Maybe the bad sentence structure in the last sentence will scare them away).
I noticed the other day, just how many possessions we have back home, that I don't miss at all. Yet when I am home, I can't seem to throw any of them out. Even here, where we arrived with 8 small boxes of clothes and possesions, we seem to have quickly accumulated more stuff than I feel I really need.
When I get home, I must remember to Simplify!
Andrea (this section written by Andrea)
My boss was hospitalized for two weeks after a mild heart attack. He's back at work part-time now, looking thinner but healthy. He quit smoking and improved his eating habits. I've been working together wis his daughter and son, and I am sometimes able to help out with hearing aid trouble-shooting, and making hearing aid recommendations. I've been doing an average of two-three hearing tests per week. I'm OK at the hearing test itself, but I have a hard time taking history in Hebrew. I wrote down some common questions that I need to ask people, but the problem is that I may or may not understand the answers. I find that I understand some people's Hebrew very well, and other people, not at all. This is mostly because of their accents.
My exercise schedule was too tough to keep up. I was never out of the house by 6:40 AM (with Yona). My new plan is to continue to swim one morning/week, and begin going to an aerobics class that meets on the Yishuv two evenings/week.
I'm much more content with my life here than in the beginning. I'm not quite as tired as I was. Yona wakes up only once/night, and then only briefly. I am trying to look at my surroundings and take it all in because I know that before I know it, we will be back in Sharon, and this will all feel like a dream.