Report #7 - April 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.

Introduction

In contrast to the steady work of February, March was mostly holiday and excursions. The kids were off from school for 2.5 weeks for Passover, and we took the opportunity to see some more of the country and visit with friends and relatives.

News and Current Events

There is little news of interest -- The campaign for the prime minister election has settled into a boring collection of talkshows and billboards.

Miss Israel was crowned last month and she is a beautiful young Arab woman. This was controversial in some circles - but generally went by unnoticed.

A former member of Knesset of a right wing religious party was formally convicted of various misuse of funds, after which he was "declared" innocent by a fairly powerful Rabbi in the party. The talk shows had a field day with this bizarre story. I watched interviews with both the convicted guy and the son of this old Rabbi, who himself is a Rabbi. It was very entertaining. The young Rabbi was very articulate and respectful of his father. The convicted fellow was contrite but charismatic.

We have no TV at home, but since we were on the road so much this month, I had more access to TV. It was a good chance to see more of what the coverage is like.


The Kids

    Zosh

Zosh has continued to improve his Hebrew, but has still a long way to go. He easily gets along on the playground, but can't really get all of a story read aloud to him.

He has started collecting soccer cards in an album like the other boys, and he kicks a ball along the street now and then.

His school took him to bake Matzot in honor of Passover, and his class joined the 6th grade for a model Seder, which parents attended. The 6th grade is like the 1st grade's sister class. Each child in the first grade has a child in the 6th grade who acts as a big brother/sister. The interaction works very well.

Next week Zosh receives a "siddur", a Jewish prayer book at a a big ceremony in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall. It is a climax of the school year which parents not only attend, but help extensively with decorations and preparations.


    Yair

I asked Yair's teacher at school if he was still misbehaving. She acted like she barely knew what I was talking about, and proceeded to give this lovely report about how well he is adjusting and how nicely he gets along etc.

I asked Yair what language people speak to him in school, Hebrew or English? He responded that they talk "regular". I asked him in Hebrew if I was speaking regular, and he said no; I asked him in English if I was speaking regular and he said no. I asked him what his friend Yotam speaks to him, and he said "regular". His teachers also speak regular. I imitated a phrase I heard his teacher once say and he said that was regular. After a long conversation, I deduced only that "regular" meant he could understand it, while English and Hebrew were distinguishable from each other and from "regular". I have since asked him questions at every opporuntity whenever I think it will provide further clarification. I have no real insight into his thoughts about this.  His teacher says that he understands everything; that he talks phrases in Hebrew with an occasional complete sentence; and that his friends use a combination
of Hebrew and hand signals. No one in his class speaks to him in English. (Zosh, on the other hand, has one friend that will talk to him in English and translate once in a rare while).

Yair has also managed to substitute Hebrew for English grammar, in the wrong language. For example, he yelled the other day "get off my pants". He meant that I should get them off, not that I was standing on them.

    Yona

Yona has grown up so much this year, it is quite hard for me to notice the changes! He was an infant with 4 teeth when we arrived who could barely crawl. Now he has 12 teeth, he almost can run, he dances, he almost talks, and he waves bye bye. He also participates in the wrestling matches with his older brothers, and I only thank God that they enjoy killing each other while protecting him. The only time he gets any advantage is in the morning, since he is up and they are asleep. he seems to get a kick out of sneaking into their rooms and waking them up, by a loud squeal, combined with a big smack on their heads. He does this to me occasionally and I hate it! He has also learned to imitate and tease and spit, traits that will serve him well if he ever appears on Jerry Springer. He is a cute kid so we get a LOT of oogles in the street. One particular time was at the Zoo where he and a baby monkey were trading punches and squeals at the glass viewing area. He seems to have some proto-words, both in Hebrew and English. It is sad when I think that he will remember none of this year.

Tax Season

April 15 is coming and I had planned to bag this year's taxes, apply for an extension, and file in the summer. Not only is there the overseas difficulty, but our taxes are complicated this year by the sabbatical expenses etc. In the end, I filed electronically with a few long nights on the internet thanks to Vanguard Investments, the IRS, and the state of MA department of revenue web site. It was all finished a month ago! I love the communications revolution. The money even goes automatically into and out of my checking account for both federal and state returns.

I should warn those of you "do-it-your-selfers" and "like to get their fingers dirty" types, that doing taxes on the Net is not fun. You do NOT get your fingers dirty. You must rely a lot on the correctness of the program you are using, which is not always justified for subtle issues. For example, once I entered a value in an incorrect location. No problem, I just went back to that electronic page and deleted it. The problem was that there were other values associated with that one, which were entered after it on subsequent pages. I was unable to locate these once I zeroed the original value. What is worse, is that the program did not know that these others should also be deleted,
so it did its best to put the numbers some where on the return with a bizarre abbreviated explanation. If I hadn't looked really careful at the return the program prepared and questioned every line, I would never have thought to go back to that original page, reenter $1 instead of zero, and then follow the links to the subsequent pages to delete the numbers. Finally, I went back and deleted the $1 and all looked well.

MA, God love them, rejected my return the first time, because my claimed wages were not equal to my W-2 forms. They were in fact greater, I included some $350 of income that had not been reported on W-2. You got to wonder what programmer used "not equals" instead of "greater than or equal to". In the end I put the amount on a different line, and they liked that.

The contrast with what I did 15 years ago is notable. In 1982-3, I was here teaching and made what I thought was no taxable income in the US. However, it turns out that they changed the rules for certain fellowships that year, and $4000 of my meager income was indeed taxable. I found this out, the following year after I returned and the IRS "reminded" me. We had a short correspondence after which I realized they were right, and I owed them some $256 including interest. Then they added a $250 penalty, which after one more letter of explanation, they agreed to wave.

Trips and Outings

    This section would end up being a travel guide for families with children if I actually made a comprehensive description of the dozens of things we have done and seen this holiday (Passover) season. Instead, I will try to pick a half dozen of the less boring trips which have some sort of story attached. We have seen almost every well known tourist site in the country so these are all for the most part "off the beaten track".

    Field Schools and National Parks

Field schools here are clean, Spartan pleasant accommodations at the national parks, that provide people with lodging, meals, lectures, hikes and a base camp.

We stayed for a Shabbat with friends at the field school Ein Gedi National Park. This is a pretty well visited site by natives and tourists alike. It is near Massada and the Dead Sea, centered on two big wadis that empty from the southern Jerusalem area into the Dead Sea. The most notable thing was how easily our observance of Shabbat was accommodated. In the states, there all sorts of issues we would have had to work out with difficult explanations, including being able delay check out until after sunset, being able to pay for entry to the park before Sabbath, arranging Sabbath meals etc. At the field school they were very used to observant people, and routinely accommodated us. The meals were attended by mostly secular people, however, the food was kosher and kosher wine for rituals was routinely provided. There was even Fri evening and Sat morning prayers.

We also stayed in Sde Boker Field School, which was quite fancy for a field school. (There was even a TV, and the boys and I watched The Simpsons!)  Sde Boker is a remote site in the Northern Negev desert which has a research facility, a kibbutz, a small shopping area, post office, restaurant, high school (remember that high schools here are like colleges in US - they are competitive, not local and specialized) and a guest house. It was founded by David ben Gurion, the first (and third) prime minister of Israel, who lived the last 20 years of life there with his wife, and who is buried there. His dream was to populate the Negev, which he thought was beautiful and a held the key to future growth. For the most part, his dream is coming true, albeit slowly. One thing about Israel, which is ironic, considering the emphasis and fights over land, is how underpopulated the land really is. Except for an 8x40 mile strip of land in the Tel Aviv vicinity, there are no really dense population areas outside of the major cities. It is so easy to drive into emptiness with miles between settlements. There are a dozen kibbutzim in the Negev and perhaps a half a dozen cities but for the most part it is barren desert, used by the army for training and practice. The hikes at this place and the previous national park are wonderful but nothing unusual for people used to hiking.

We stopped at Mizpeh Ramon, which is an even more remote site in the central Negev. The small town is situated at the top of the world's largest natural crater. It is geologically fascinating and has some nice hikes too. The town has some other attractions like an Alpaca ranch where you can go pet these llama-like South American creatures. I stayed in the car with the sleeping baby for this, while Andrea and the boys fed, pet and got bit by the lovely things. We drove parallel to the Egyptian border all the way to Eilat. The border is very quiet since the 15 year long peace treaty.

We spent a few days in Eilat doing nearby hikes, taking boat rides with glass walls to see the coral, going to a carnival, eating out, and letting the kids play lots of video games. Eilat is like a different country. It's main industry is tourism. It is a duty free area. There are hundreds of restaurants, although relatively few kosher ones, and there are over 35 Hotels, for the many visitors.

When we were there, a local water bottling company, even pulled a stunt by flying a plane load snow down from Mount Hermon in the north and dumping it on the main square. The kids threw a lot of snow balls, one hitting me in the face and camera after a well planned photo, as I underestimated Zosh's strength and aim. Eilat is divided physically into the town and the tourist town. There is even an airport separating them. It is a strange mix of super service and tackiness, with great natural beauty. You can get a 5 star hotel with a 5 star meal, and have someone come walking through the restaurant to give you a coupon for another restaurant, presumably for the next night?!

Eilat shares the coast of the Gulf of Eilat with a city in Jordan called Aqaba. Aqaba's main industry is commerce and its port is very busy in contrast to Eilat's quiet port. Eilat gets automobiles and petroleum shipments but Haifa and Ashdod are much bigger and busier. Israel gets oil from Egypt as part of the Camp David agreements, from the wells that Israel discovered and dug when they occupied Sinai. Israel can purchase the oil from these wells at below market prices, for 80 years. Aqaba is Jordan's only connection to the sea, and therefore it is humming. Aqaba in contrast has only 1-2 hotels.

The Gulf of Eilat which is an extension of the Red Sea, has world class coral reefs, and plenty of snorkeling, wind surfing and boat rides.

    Other Parks on Passover at Maaleh Gilboa

    When my in-laws arrived to visit for Passover, we took them and the kids to Park of the Jordan, Sachne, and Hamat Gader. All these parks in one way or another have swimming, hiking and special features. In one place, there are hot springs and alligators; in another there are Kangaroos to pet and feed with a labyrinth made of shrubs; in still another the water is channeled into lots of little swimming pools. All these places were close to our base for Passover which was a kibbutz at the top of the Gilboa mountains overlooking Beit Shean, a small town on the Jordanaian border with lots of Roman ruins. All the places are close to the Jordanian border, with one being right on the border itself. There is a super view of the Jordan river from a high spot in Park of   Jordan, where one can see the whole Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and meandering river with decent flow. Once south of the Kinneret, the Jordan river slows to a trickle because of the water usage being so high.

    Although the national park in Beit Shean with the "well cared for" ruins was closed, a hippodrome in the middle of town was free and open. We pulled our rented 9-seater minibus right up to the ramp, and explored. There was an old sun bleached sign describing the history and details of the structure. It was very hard to read but after a lot of attempts we discovered that it was a fun place where Roman gladiators would fight each other or wild beasts... The kids loved that idea. It was 75 meters across and in pretty good shape for a 2000 year old stadium. The most interesting part was finding 3 local kids  trying to fan a fire in the corner of the place where they were baking potatoes. Their complete obliviousness to their play area, was completely parallel to the way the city had not turned its back on this ruin. Beit Shean has lots of Roman remains, including pillars and columns sticking up out of newly built homes.

    We stopped one day at a Juggling festival in the middle of the Bikaa Valley, on the Jordanian border, near not very much else. It was the 4th Israeli Juggling festival, and it was well attended considering its remote location. Seems they get the site for cheap, because then the site gets to promote itself as a great place "to build a house".

    Monasteries and Mosques

    We stopped at a the Mosque of Abu Musa (the Prophet Moses) where you can see what is supposedly Moses' tomb. The place was built a few hundred years ago when the Christians had usurped Jerusalem as the center of religious activity, and the Moslems thought that it would be a good idea to compete, by providing a new holy site a days travel away near Jericho.

    We stopped the same day at a monastery near Jericho where they had a floor tiled with a repeating pattern, that popped out like a 3-dimensional Escher print with stairs seemingly going up and down. It was very funny and disorienting to see the occasionally 90 degree rotated tile, which sticks out easily and brings you back so fast to two dimensions.

    Secret Bullet Factory

    The most exciting thing we saw for me, was a secret bullet factory in production from 1945-1948. The factory supplied the needs of the Israeli Hagana, in the time of the declaration of independence of the state. The British were still in control, and if they had found the place, they certainly would have closed it down and arrested the 50 workers. The factory was located between Rehvot and Nes Tziyona, on a hill and was "covered" with a makeshift kibbutz right near the British rail line, coming out of Tel Aviv. The reason I liked this so much, is because the place is right near some bunks that I lived in almost 20 years ago when I attended a science program at the Weizmann Institute of Science. The place was not publicly exposed until just 10 years ago, with the secret kept from everyone 40 years longer than necessary. It is neat to see the laundry machine swing up and away to reveal the ladder heading downstairs.

     Zoo, Family Restaurants, and the Monster

    One local day trip we took was to the Jerusalem zoo, which is relatively new and almost world class. It is designed well and the monkeys were a big attraction with Yona. Afterwards, we visited a famous old slide in Kiryat Hayovel, with 3 long slides coming out of the mouth of a monster. It is made of concrete and I could not find out much about its history except from the woman sitting next to me who said she remembered it from when she had young kids, and she was over 60. We finished this day by finding a family restaurant with great service, something I was afraid did not exist. It modeled itself on the smoky steak places of the Shuk (market) but was clean and had good children's menus etc.

    Driving

    Throughout this month, I must have driven between 2 and 3 thousand kilometers along Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian borders, thorugh and around almost every major road in the country. I had previous to this year navigated this country mainly by bus, so this experience was worthwhile to me, giving me a feel for the land from the front seat. It is not densely populated in most places, and it has a great variety of natural beauty for such a small place. The country is not too far off a rectangle of 300 miles by 40 miles.


Best wishes to all our friends and family,

Shai and family,
Yishuv Alon
Nissan 5759