Report #8 - May 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.

New format this month -- independent stories rather than categorized news.

Yom Hashoah

Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, was this last month. In some people's minds, the Holocaust is intrinsically connected to the establishment of the state of Israel. For these people, it is interesting that Israel Independence day occurs a week later. But for all people here, Yom Hashoah brings a heavy and serious mood. There are of course lectures, ceremonies and exhibitions at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem) and at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot (a Northern kibbutz with a museum honoring the Resistance as well as the Righteous gentiles of the world). However, most people just go to work as usual. There are no special additions to the daily prayers, nor is there
any religious ritual associated with the day. The TV and radio plays contemplative music and programming, and at 10 AM there is a nationwide siren and a minute of silence. This minute is perhaps the most unifying time for Jewish Israelis all year. It cuts across religious barriers, generation gaps and economic inequalities.

Wherever people are, when the siren goes off, they simply freeze. It is as if an alien spaceship had blasted the whole country with a bizarre weapon that immobilizes people for a minute. People stop their cars, get out and stand at attention. Some think, some cry, some wait to get back to work, some daydream, but everybody freezes. It is almost impossible to move when witnessing this. It happens everywhere, and the siren can be heard simultaneously in every square meter of the country. (Of coursethere are many synchronized sirens).

I was working at home, where I listened to the 4 beeps ticking off before the hourly news punctuated not by "Voice of Israel, from Jeruslaem, Here is the news" but by the siren, which I could here simultaneously through the radio and the window. Andrea managed to be in the center of town with her parents who were visiting from the states. It is not the only time national moments of silence occur during the year, but it surely the most significant.

Independence Day and Remembrance Day

These two days are consecutive, which is a nice idea. There is the somber "memorial day" where many restaurants are closed, flags are half mast, and slow meditative songs are played on radio, followed the cathartic upbeat joyous independence day. Memorial day here is not quite the same BBQ at the beach day it is for many of us in USA. Most people have a close friend or relative lost in a war or terrorist action, and the recent memories cause a general sense of restraint and contemplation. Of course the following evening and day, all hell breaks lose as people party and BBQ like mad. I think that all BBQing all year here is just practice for Independence day.

At the yishuv here, the Remembrance day ended in the evening with poetry readings and songs in the public square where most townsfolk gathered to listen. At sunset, the flag in the square was raised to its full height and the kids were all given flags, hotdogs and drinks. The adults party all night and spend the next day traveling to and from relatives, where they relax and grill meat.

Our kids really loved it here. Zosh and Yair stayed up late for the ceremonies, and tried to peek at the fireworks from the nearby town. They came home and stayed up late making flags and doing art projects -- No School the next day of course.

There are a huge number of flags up on Independence Day. Virtually every car and every light-post has one. The highways look like fanfares. The traffic is also horrible. We took the back roads out of town through the Arab villages.  We went to my relatives in Nes Tziyona, a small city outside of Tel Aviv. I was invited there 15 years ago, but misunderstood the local customs then, and arrived well after the party was over. This time we arrived 10-11 AM on time, and stayed until after the BBQ in early afternoon. BBQ is the universal method of celebration for Independence Day here, and as usual we were compelled to take a huge box of oranges, grapefruits and locquats picked by my Uncle from his trees in the yard.

I enjoy the way the "secular" holidays here, like independence day, "borrow" terminology from the religious holidays. People greet each other with Hag SameaH, just as they would on Passover for example. This is symbiotic, since the Jewish religion all over the world borrows from Israel to broaden and enrich their religious culture. I have enjoyed thinking hard about the relationship between nationalized Judaism and the Jewish religion. Somebody smarter than me, ought to write up something interesting :)

Shlomi's brother's Brithday Party

Zosh attended the birthday party of one of the brother of his friend Shlomi. Shlomi is an interesting character, not so different from Bart Simpson. He is strikingly independent and fearless. He is single-minded, bright and an underachiever. He has taken on the role of watching out for Zosh, by occasionally translating for him, but more often by beating up older boys who feel it might be fun to take advantage of Zosh. He is often yelled at by his teacher for getting into fights, and/or for not paying attention. She makes an effort to embarrass him, and manages usually to embarrass herself. He does not have much of a superego, and guilt does not stick to him very easily. Shlomi's parents are young, hip, loving but not too concerned about Shlomi. His mother comes from a family of 11, and his father doesn't talk much. (Note after rereading: I found out months later that his parents were divorced. This may have explained the father's awkward silence in response to my friendly chatter at the party. I thought it was Hebrew :)). Shlomi's grandparents own a horse ranch in the desert a kilometer from town, and the party was there. The party was for Shlomi's brother, but it was hard to tell. Shlomi got to invite friends, and be responsible. He was the one to lead the people around on the pony rides. He was the one telling who to go next, and who to stand back.

After the horse rides, Shlomi's parents had hired some local Bedouins to set up a Bedouin tent, and bake bread. They men pitched the tent, which is a rectangle of about 5x10 meters, uniformly 7 feet off the ground, with one long end open, just as you see off the road here. The woman, covered head to toe in clothing, built a fire, kneaded dough, and heated a huge wok upside down on the coals, under the tent. The kids gathered around, as one woman divided the dough into equal size balls, and the other twirled each ball into a thin circle like the guy in the pizza shop does, and placed it on the upside down wok. The dough was  flipped by hand once and then again, and placed into a big plastic container. There were no utensils save the big upside down wok, fingers, and the container. She made about 50 of these in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Shlomi's mother and a subset of sisters and brothers, were busy making falafel sandwiches and taking special orders for fillings from each of the 30+ kids at the party.

There was candy, a soccer cake, songs and games. I brought all three kids to this party, and they all enjoyed it, especially Yona, who couldn't stop chasing the horses and politely picking up and returning to them everything they left behind.

Choker Tattoo Necklaces

There is a huge fad here for girls between 9 and 17, to wear tight wide sheer web-like necklaces made of plastic, which look like tattoos. Is this a fad in the US too? I had seen the real thing occasionally at home on the ankles or necks of college students, but here the simulation has become universal. As you would expect, some parents permit this and some don't, and some have it depend on the girl's age.

I saw a beautiful 8 year old girl with one. She is one of 4 girls in a very wonderful and sweet family. She is the rebelious one. She told me that the necklace was not hers but that she borrowed it from (and pointed to) the girl over there. She said that her parents do not allow her to have one. They say it isn't nice. I told her that I thought it was nice, but not so appropriate. She shrugged her shoulders. The girl she borrowed it from was all of 5, and is in Yair's class. The 5 year old's mother is perhaps the most fashionable woman on the yishuvv and always wears makeup etc The issue of what to let a daughter wear, cuts across cultures quite easily. Not that I know a hoot about it, with three boys :)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We took Andrea's parents to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the week after Easter. It is in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church was built (I think) during Constantine's rule of Jerusalem in around 300 C.E. destroyed by the Persians and rebuilt during the Crusader period. Jerusalem has a long history...

Here's the one line version: Jews under David and Solomon, Greeks under Alexander the Great,Romans under Herod, Christians under Constantine, Persians, Moslems under Omar, Turks, Christians and Crusades, Moslems under Saldin, Ottoman Turks under Suleiman, British and finally Jews in a Democracy today. I forget where the Mamalukes fit in, and there are other minor players who I left out because there is only so much I process and keep. But even the little I remember shows what a strata of cultures lie in its social archeology.

It was quite crowded and busy. The rituals and lore of the place are not my specialty, but I know basically that there are a number of stations representing important stages or moments in Jesus' life from marching to weeping to crucifixion to death to resurrection. To my Christian friends, please forgive me as my profound ignorance shows through. Anyhow, it is a beautiful church, but more fascinating is watching the hundreds of visitors rubbing objects on stones, leaving notes, praying quietly, or just meditating.

Hexagon Swing Sets

They just built a hexagonal shaped swing set here with the swings affixed on the perimeter heading toward the middle, and outward. It is fun to sttand right in the middle when all 6 swings are being used. Has anyone seen this design? I thought it was very space efficient, and structurally efficient.

Hezikiah's Tunnel

The tunnel was built about 3000 years by King Hezikiah who expected a siege of the city of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (I think), and dug a tunnel from the GiHon Spring outside the city under the city walls into the city itself, so that the city could not be cut off from its water. The description of the ancient tunnel is in the Bible and it still exists, even though the walls of the city of Jerusalem in that period are completely gone. The city in that time was somewhat south of where it is today, and now the area is outside the current walls of the old city, and is populated mostly by Arabs. The area is not well marked and mildly more dangerous than walking around the center of town. We took a long time to find the entrance. The tunnel is about 1/2 mile long and 5-6 feet high. It is pitch black and is filled with 10-20 inches of water depending on the time of year. Flashlights are necessary and our kids were all "go" despite the long search for teh entrance in the hot sun. The entrance used to be open and free, but now there is a gate which is locked, and must be opened by a guard. The guard led us down some stone stairs, asked if we were going all the way through, opened the gate and then locked it behind us. The roar of the water was louder than we expected; the darkness swallowed the light of our flashlights; and Yair completely lost it. Zosh was willing to go a few meters in to check it out, but in the end we gave up on the plan of going all the way through. Next time we said.

The kids got pizza and playground instead, and they could not have been happier unless we had also gone to a video arcade :)


Of course we heard the tragic news here.  I heard a radio program where a professor explained to the listeners how the "independent spirit" of Americans combined with their frontier origins, makes the climate ripe for such episodes. Well whatever that means... but I did feel strange having my whole country neatly stereotyped and analyzed and psychoanalyzed on the radio. What was lacking here interestingly enough with all the terrorism people see here, was any sense of real empathy. I felt like I was in the USA, listening to a talk show of people arguing heatedly about some foreign event which they did not relate to at all.

Messibat Siddur

Zosh and his first grade class had a "Messibat Siddur", a ceremony and presentation centered around the children all receiving their first very own prayer books. This is a public school, but the ceremony is universal for both the "religious" and the "secular". What's more, the "secular" parents are right there taking pictures and helping design the covers etc. In many ways, it is the singular climax of the first year of school.

The whole class (with parents) meets in the Old City of Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall, and does their prayers by heart as they do in class each school day. Then the teacher hands out empty sheets for the children to write (a newly learned school) personal notes which they then stick into the cracks in the wall. Zosh wrote something about being sorry about all the soldiers who died. In his school, there is a big poster board with a collage of pictures and stories about one particular soldier who went to his school, and died in the army. This touched him.

After the prayers, we all walked through the narrow streets of the Old City to a place where we all sit and have a breakfast of salads, bread, and hot potato pastries. Finally, we walk again to a restored medieval Sephardic synagogue where the children put on a presentation, and then one by one receive their Siddur (prayer book) from their teacher. There is a lot of picture taking, hugging and ooing and aahing. The parents provide the cover designs and inscriptions, which the children do not see until they are presented their siddur. Andrea did the art and I did the inscription.

It was really fun and emotional especially for the teacher, who is in her first year of the job and announced that she had not been at a ceremony like this since her own some 20 years earlier.

Two More Months

We have little time left here and it all went by so quickly. I have one more paper I am trying to finish in the next few weeks. We have a few more people to see. We have a few more trips to take. Then back home. We are looking forward to returning. This is a wonderful place.

Best wishes to all our friends and family,

Shai and family,
Yishuv Alon
Iyar 5759