Report #6 - March 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. Feel free to forward these reports, and
equally free to ask that I remove you from our list.
It has been a busy month of work and this report will be proportionally shorter
because of that. The winter is almost over, and the hills have developed a green
hue on the Northern slopes, that looks very much like the face of a man
with green facial hair, who has not shaved in a few days.
News and Current Events
Wanted for Murder
There is a young man here wanted for murder in the US. He allegedly brutally dismembered and burned a man. His alleged accomplice committed suicide in jail in Maryland when first incarcerated. This guy has an Israeli father, so he paid bail and ran to Israel.
The courts just decided NOT to extradite him, but instead to try him here for murder. It brings up all sorts of questions and has prompted all sort of editorials and talk show discussions. There is another man who is currently wanted for a high crimes in Texas who also is believed to have fled to Israel.
I remember vaguely that Meyer Lansky the infamous Jewish mobster, tried unsuccessfully to gain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, under which any Jew can immigrate to Israel and get citizenship.
King Hussein of Jordan has died. His funeral was carried on local TV for many hours, and most people here mourned his loss. It is not clear how the new King Hussein (his son - 38) will relate with Israel. In the meantime, there is still a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, although Assad the President of Syria made a surprise appearance at the funeral, presumably to set the stage for softening of the strained relationships between Syria and Jordan, ever since the elder Hussein reached out toward Israel. Two weeks after his death, radio Jordan was still playing only a chanting dirge all day long.
The Yishuv, and Local Culture
Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrating the Persian Jews' success over a villain
named Haman who attempted to commit genocide against them. The story of Purim
is hard to document historically but the time period is generally estimated at
4th or 5th century B.C.E.
The holiday is commemorated by a public reading of the scroll telling the story
of what happened. It is a VERY happy time. There are numerous parties, both for kids and grown-ups. Everyone dresses up in costumes, dances, sings etc. Zosh was Spiderman and Yair was Superman. For masks, we cut eye holes in the sleep masks we got from Swissair when we arrived here 5 months ago.
People give each other baskets of prepared foods, and send money to poor people.
Every store sells baskets, wrapping material and various delicacies to assist those who are not so enterprising. Our Yishuv has something like "secret Santas" for christians in the US at Christmas time, where each person is given the name of two other families, for whom they must prepare a basket. Of course this is in addition to any baskets that family is preparing anyway. The kids in school do something similar, each kid picking another one's name out of a hat, one from their own class and one from another class. Culturally it has some of the feel of Halloween and some of Christmas. Although, it is Jewishly considered one of the minor Holidays, (it is not biblical like Passover and High Holidays), it has taken one a greater role in Israel, just as Hannukah has.
The holiday is one day long but here it is a week long event. This is because:
1. The holiday is preceeded by a fast day, in memory of the heroine Esther's fasting.
2. It is celebrated a day later in Jerusalem and other ancient walled cities. 3. The kids get off from school all 3 days, which this year are Monday-Wednesday.
Since Sunday is the only day in school before the holiday, the kids all come to school in costume that day, and it makes for some great pictures. The day-later celebration allows people to party in their home town, and then travel to Jerusalem to continue their celebration.
We went to a wedding party on the Yishuv for a couple who because of Rabbinical problems, were forced to marry in Cyprus, and then have the party back here. They are a Hiloni (secular) couple, but he is of the Priestly lineage (a Cohen), and she is divorced. It is not permissible for a Cohen to marry a divorced woman, so the Rabbinate here who is in charge of all sanctioned marriages would not marry them.
We attended a circumcision in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was very traditional with men and women sitting separately. In fact the women's section was effectively outside the actual service. I did get to bump into some very old friends, whom I was glad to see.
Zosh helped me for the first time in Hebrew last month, when I could not remember the word for sharpener. He knew it, as well as the words for pencil, folder, looseleaf, eraser, pencil case, blackboard, recess, chair, table etc. He still doesn't speak real sentences of Hebrew, but he is improving all the time with his comprehension.
Zosh also seems to have learned a popular gesture here, which Americans find rude. A person will raise his hand with the thumb and fingers pointing upward together, showing the backs of the fingers, and move the hand towards you, to indicate "wait a minute". Well that is the polite interpretation. Although it is and can be used politely, it is more often used, to indicate impatience and impertinence. As if to say "I am in the middle of something, wait your turn, are your blind?" I was a little taken aback, when I came to school to pick him up, yelled out his name, and saw him run to the car using that gesture.
We invited Zosh's girlfriend and her family over for a Shabbat meal. We often have her over by herself during the week, but we thought it was time to get to know the family :)
They are very nice people. The husband is a Dental Technician, and the wife is studying for her Master's degree in environmental science. Her thesis is on how to prevent the infestation of sand flies, into desert homes. It seems that they easily jump right through normal screens. So the trick is to keep them out but still allow views through the window. I can vouch for their horrible bites, so I am all for this research.
They have two daughters Paz and Moran, one in Zosh's class and one in Yair's. The kids played well together as usual.
The most interesting part of the get together, was because her family is Hiloni meaning "secular". Jews here often identify themselves as being Dati (religious) or Hiloni (secular). In many ways the country polarizes on this distinction, yet it is really a continuum, as you might expect. For one thing, the average Hiloni knows a great deal more about Jewish life and culture than many identified Jews in the US, so it is a little funny to call them "secular". In point of fact, the typical Hiloni here, is like the typical secular christian in the US - they participate in the celebration of the major holidays at least culturally if not religiously, and perhaps go to Temple when it is time to circumcise a boy or name a girl, or have a bar-mitzvah. While the typical "secular" Jew in the US, is more like a secular christian... dressing the kids up for Halloween, and buying presents on Christmas.
The whole experience of having people over for a ritual dinner, who have decided not to include those particular rituals in their lives, is interesting. It becomes necessary to judge the sensitivities. Sometimes, they are quite happy to have the opportunity to do what they otherwise don't do, but other times the expectation of their participation in a particular ritual can be presumptuous if not rude. I suppose it is same thing in the US, but I never noticed the difficulty there. Perhaps that is because our guests in the US are well known friends.
Yair is getting better at understanding his world but still has a long way to go. The other day, his teacher in my presence, told him to get his coat and project before he ran out the door with me. Yair, quickly ran and did what he was told. When I asked him later what she said, and quoted the sentence, he got the content completely correct but could translate very few of the words in the sentence individually.
He has become a bit mischieveous in class, prompting his teachers to have me remind not to make faces and run around during circle time. They attributed his behavior to his finally feeling comfortable in class. I attributed it to exactly the opposite.
Yair is in "Gan" or KIndergarten, which is a combo of Pre-K and Kindergarten for kids ages 4-6. It is in my opinion and in that of other people I have talked to here, the height of the Israeli education system. He learns and does more than any of us. They spend weeks on each holiday. If it is Tu Bishvat (the new year for trees), then they go plant trees, pick olives, pickle them and bring them home. For Purim, he listens non-stop to songs of the holiday. They put makeup on and dress up every day the whole two weeks before the holiday. He makes pretend scrolls with the story of Esther on it. This kind of involved learning, plus all the socialization is great. Also, the style here is to treat kids more independently. So they all walk to school by themselves and go home by themselves. They take them on trips all over the place. All in all he has had a super exposure to the culture here. When they are not doing holidays, they play games meant to teach proto-reading and simple math. The games are fun and the kids learn without knowing it.
Once school starts in first grade, then they get thrown in front of desks with 35 other kids and are given workbooks and very little personal attention. I think Zosh has learned a lot despite this environment, but no doubt that the Gan experience is superior.
Yona now seems to say Abba (Daddy), although it is not clear that he always means me. We bought him his first pair of shoes, and he is hesitatingly getting used to them. He walks very well now, and spends 12 hours a week with an Israeli daycare provider who has a boy a half year older than him. Yona like music and seems to dance now that he has his "legs". He is doing very well.
Trips and Outings
We visited Qumran, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is one of the 30+ National Parks of Israel, of which we have been to about 12. It was very disappointing both for me and the kids. It was very touristy, and had almost know reproductions or information about the scrolls themselves. The place where the scrolls were found can be seen, but is on the edge of a cliff and inaccessible both legally and practically. The kids enjoyed it, until a guard told them not to climb on the ancient walls of the Qumran sect.
We spent a weekend in Be'er Sheva, a large city in the Negev desert, just for the heck of it. We went to what is best described as a convention business hotel, with a pool and a lot of fitness facilities, for local members. The most interesting part of the weekend was the way the Hotel catered to our needs religiously providing Kosher meals and a setting in which to do all the appropriate rituals, even though the Hotel could not have been more secular in its style and clientele. There were perhaps two other religious families with kids... otherwise the place was filled with jet-setters, business travelers, local fitness freaks and wealthy tourists.
We visited Beit Guvrin, another national park, which has many caves quarried out as basements under ancient homes. The caves have spiral staircases going down, and one has thousands of little niches in the walls, presumably for the raising of pigdeons. This was fun for everybody. It is a popular class trip in schools as well.
We visited a Tefillin factory. These are ritual objects worn on the arm and head for weekday prayers. The detail of what goes into making these objects, a combination of leather, with bibilical passages on parchment inserted, and adorned with leather straps, was fascinating. The artisan, a Rabbi, took great pride in explaining his trade and skill. The kids needed to hear my translation since the Rabbi spoke little English, but they were more interested than I expected. Zosh asked the Rabbi if the ox used for the leather had to be ritually slaughtered. The Rabbi was impressed with this question, because in fact it does not. You can find the dead animal on the road, as long as the skin is removed and left in one piece. Perhaps just as fascinating was the road to this place which threads its way through the Judean Desert and then Palestinean controlled territory, where one might just spot a dead ox on the side of the road.
We went into town to visit a teacher from Zosh's and Yair's school in Sharon, who was visiting her daughter for a week. The kids loved it, because it connected them back to their old lives, and they got to eat out at McDonald's again. I don't know how they will ever get used to the fact that all the McDonald's near Sharon are not kosher and thereby off limits, after this year off fast-food mania. They have more happy meal toys from McDonalds, KFC and Burger King than the total we brought with us to this country. I guess we are now part of the "billions" served.
We plan to see Alladin with the kids this week, at the Jerusalem theatre. I imagine the timing is to coincide with Purim.
Andrea and I went to see a local folk singer who has been around quite a while and has a mixed following of old and young, Matti Kaspi. He reminds me of what Harry Chapin would have been like had he lived on. The artist had a terrible sore throat during his performance but joked about it with the audience. The audience, knew every song word for word. I knew one song. Andrea loves this guy and it was a dream come true for her to see him in person. I enjoyed watching the crowd, and getting a sense of the local music scene. The place reminded me a Greenwich Village Cafe, serving hot drinks, to 200 people sitting on stools, crowded into a small room to watch and listen to the artist. They have a different artist every weekend.
The place is right near a huge mall with a multiplex cinema and lots of climbing
rooms for kids. Andrea agreed the following week to go with me to see the
newest Jackie Chan movie, which no doubt has left US theatres many months ago.
The last month has still been an intense work time for me. I spent 10-12 hours
a day doing the most tedious part of my work, cross referencing the 12 manuscripts with my own composite version. I finally finished last week, resulting in over a thousand footnotes. The whole paper is now about 100 pages, and it seems that it will be no trouble to publish it in two parts. Now I can get back to the more fun job of checking the translation and analyzing content.
I have been doing a lot of Torah reading in Temple, since the other two regulars have been taking lots of vacations recently. I will do one of the three readings of the Scroll of Esther on Purim.
I looked up an old friend who moved here 10 years ago, who was my Bridge partner way back when. He is now a Professor of Economics with four kids. We got together to play in the big International Tournament that occurs here once a year in Tel Aviv.
It was quite exciting to see the hundreds of Bridge players, some world class players from foreign countries, and some like us - local folks. He and I had a decent game and an enjoyable time. Plus I got to show him all the local places to eat supper at the nearby Tel Aviv University area, where I had worked years ago.
For the few duplicate Bridge players on this list, be aware that in Israel, you are NOT allowed to have your convention card or agreements with partner in view during the competition. This is exactly the opposite of the rule in the US, where the ACBL insists on identically filled out convention cards for each partnership. Also, there are a number of conventions here which are much more popular than in the US. For example, a 2 Diamond opener showing (a) either a weak 2 opening in hearts or spades, or (b) a 20-21 balanced hand or (c) a strong minor opening. We played this and it was fun.
My job is going well. My boss is back from after his heart attack, in good health and good spirit. Many of his clients pop in just to wish him good health. I've been doing about 3 hearing tests per morning on the average. I've been managing well with my broken Hebrew, and I even write out notes on the bottom of the audiogram in Hebrew, although I'm sure my spelling is atrocious. Sometimes, I'm too flustered, and I write the whole thing in English. I like my boss very much, but I don't always agree with his recommendations to clients about hearing aids. He's not a crook or anything, but he's not nearly as thorough or scientific as I would be if I were making the recommendations. I would not be happy at the job long term for that reason, but for a short-term experience, it's great.
I was getting bored watching people work at Hadassah, and considered quitting. I switched from watching regular hearing tests to helping out with ABR's (auditory brainstem response) for a few weeks. But then, I decided I still felt too unnecessary, and attempted to quit. Instead, the director and I came up with a project for me to do. They have a few hundred used/refurbished BTE hearing aids that were donated for people who can't afford to buy new ones. So now, I am measuring and categorizing those hearing aids in a room where I can also observe many of the hearing tests that go on. I feel much better there now that I have a purpose. All of the staff were pleased to hear that I decided to take on this little project.
I joined an aerobics class two evenings a week. It's fun. It meets upstairs from Yair's gan. I cut back the morning swims to once/week. I have also starting running on Friday mornings. Running here is very different than in Sharon because of the hills. I have a 2-mile roundtrip route that is mainly uphill on the way out, and downhill on the way home. The last stretch of the uphill is too steep for me to run (so I walk it), but we'll see if that improves over time. The most interesting thing about my starting to run again, is that I've been taking Julie and Dovi's golden retriever with me! I am not a dog-person, but I've really enjoyed his companionship for running. I take him with his leash as far as the gate of the Yishuv, and then let him run free on the hill alongside the auxiliarry road that I run on. This past week, another dog from the neighborhood came along with us uninvited. As we got to the auxiliary road, we came upon about 8 donkeys, which both dogs enjoyed chasing around the hills. We're not sure if the donkeys are owned by anyone in the vicinity or not, but we see them occasionally grazing nearby.
Shai covered the update on the family. I'll just add that I spent a few hours in Zosh's class with him. I found it very unstructured. I also spent some time with Yair in gan, and found it to be a very nice environment, like Shai described.
Best wishes to all our friends and family,
Shai and family,