Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stories, Observations and a Few Odd Facts

As you may know, I am especially fond of story. Nomi, our guide in Israel, was an excellent storyteller and in the course of our trip, I've filed away many interesting stories, observations and a few odd facts. And of course good stories are meant to be shared.

The Haredim
On the flight to Israel, there were many Haredim, the extremely religious Orthodox Jews easily identifiable by their attire. The word Haredi actually means one who "trembles at my word". In Israel we saw many bearded men wearing large black broad brimmed hats and on the Sabbath we spotted one with a "streimel", a large traditional fur hat. The married women dress in black and white and wear a head covering or a wig. Usually they have several young children in tow. I watched them with some curiosity, wondering how they saw the world. Often in arranged marriages, they know no other world than the closed society in which they were raised. On the flight to Israel I awoke to men standing in the aisles in morning prayer, prayer shawls held aloft, then drifting down round their heads, they could as easily been at the Wailing Wall. Within the prayer shawl they created their own private world of prayer as the breakfast carts maneuvered around them.

Nigerian Pilgrims
Along the way we observed large groups of Africans all dressed in matching brightly colored garb. Nomi advised us that these were Nigerians and their government began to pay for Muslims to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Christian Nigerians said, "What about us?" and the government began to pay for them too to go to the Holy Land. They only receive $1000 which is a fraction of the cost of
travel. Thus they economize wherever possible, buying one bolt of material and each sewing their clothing from it. As she told us this story we drove by the place where the Jordan River flows into the sea of Galilee and there the pilgrims stood in the river awaiting baptism.

The Druze
Another interesting ethnic and religious group that we observed were the Druze. The Druze are loyal to the country they live in and as a result often end up on opposite sides of conflicts. Many are in the Israeli army. They are found in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. You cannot join the Druze religion because they believe in reincarnation so you must be born a Druze to be one. They are identifiable by the white head covering and black loose pants that they wear. Many of them live in the Golan Heights and speak fluent Hebrew.

More Than Food
I loved the Israeli food and I don't think I had a bad meal in the course of the trip, but meals often proved to be about far more than food.

One day we stopped for lunch at a goat farm and our guide struck up a conversation with a gentleman who had come there for lunch. Upon learning that she was a guide he asked where the group was from. To his amazement it was the very organization where his child had spent a year working with the local community in Illinois, in fact many of the people around that table. Now what are the odds?

At another lunch stop at an olive farm we heard the story of the late Ehud Yonay as told by his wife. His family had settled in that community in the 1920s. The community was originally created by Hasidic Jews from Poland who gave up waiting for the Messiah and came to Palestine to farm the land. Ehud went to California where he wrote the original article that led to the Top Gun film. He was also the author of No Margin for Error, the story of the creation of the Israeli Air Force. He later returned to run the family olive farm where we had stopped for lunch.

Tel Aviv Cats or Be Careful What You Wish For
In Tel Aviv you will see many feral cats on the streets. In fact there are 39,000 of them, one for every ten residents. Why so many? Apparently in the 1930s cats were brought from England to deal with a rat problem. They quickly multiplied and now if you see a cat with a striped tail it likely has British ancestors.

Bauhaus Architecture
Tel Aviv has the distinction of having the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings with 4000 buildings in this style. In the 1930s German-Jewish residents fled Germany and accounted for this building boom. So we have architecture driven by anti-Semitism.

The Second Temple Menorah
When the second temple was destroyed, the Romans had a quandary. Their practice was to take the representations of the gods of the people they conquered and treat them in a humiliating manner. What to do with a people who believe in one God and do not make idols? Instead they took the grand menorah from the temple and took it back to Rome in a triumphal procession where it is depicted on the Arch of Titus. So where is the menorah today? Rumor is that it resides in the Vatican.

The Calendar
Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why September begins with the root word for seven, October-eight, November-nine and December-ten? But wait a minute, they are actually the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months. The Roman calendar began with March so this numbering was once accurate. The Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar added two additional months, January and February. The Roman Senate named the month of July in Julius Caesar's honor for reforming the calendar. It replaced Quintilus, then the 5th month. When Augustus came to power they renamed the month Sextilus as August in his honor. Not wanting to slight either Julius Caesar or Augustus they made both months 31 days in length.

And a few interesting facts....

The Dead Sea has nothing living in it. I suppose the name is a give-away, but it never dawned on me that it has no fish. The sea is 33% salt versus the ocean which is only 3%. In Hebrew it is called the Salty Sea.

A home is only taxed when it has windows so you will see many Arab homes without them. I recall a similar system in Mexico involving not finishing the top floor.

As we passed City Hall in Jerusalem, our guide pointed out the bullet holes in the building. She related a story of the mayor's secretary exclaiming "They are shooting at us!" to which the mayor replied, "Duck, madela, duck". (madela means young woman in Yiddish)

And a few food facts...
Bananas are often seen with a blue bag over them so they ripen at the same rate.

After 15 years they cut down palms and replant them as it is too hard to harvest them when they are too tall. Well that makes sense, doesn't it?

Supposedly there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate which represents the 613 commandments that Jews are to fulfill. This is the reason the fruit is often a symbol for Jewish organizations.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Bit of Magical Thinking

It has been both a challenging and interesting time in Israel this past week. I am traveling here with my 86 year old mother, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. As most dreams go it had a bit of magical thinking involved. I think she was imagining a "beam me up Scottie" experience with effortless travel spiriting her away to Israel in the body which supported her travels twenty years ago. Reality bites. There have been many moments when she longed to click her heels together and arrive back at her home instantaneously.

We began our trip with a battle over using a wheelchair, probably not uncommon with elders who are not ready to acknowledge their limitations. Suddenly what I knew would be a challenging trip became quite overwhelming as I contemplated moving her safely and quickly through O'Hare on her own steam. My sister gave me the advice to go with the flow. She lives closer by and sees my mom weekly so has had more practice dealing with such moments. So I let her do her thing. Dragging her small carry-on behind her as I managed the larger bags, she'd walk for a bit, then pause to catch her breath while looking to me woefully, managing to project both exhaustion and defiance. When I found a cart to load the bags on, I had her help push. I know she is particularly fond of shopping carts that she can grasp for balance, a walker by a less threatening name. By the end of that stretch she agreed that the airport was much bigger than she imagined and perhaps a wheelchair might be helpful.

I have been greatly impressed with the ease with which airlines initiate the wheelchair conversation. They seem to have a practiced eye for identifying who needs assistance. After that first day my mom began to welcome their offers of help.

As I expected, getting my mom out of her familiar setting was a bit confusing for her although that seems to have stabilized now that we are no longer changing hotels. I am doing my best to be her source of familiarity and to quell that first impatient impulse. Life is so much more difficult for her than it used to be and by and large she proceeds with good humor.

I realize that I've had the luxury of focus for much of my life. The ability to focus comes with quiet and the lack of distractions. I had not fully anticipated the fatigue that accompanies attending to someone else's needs and repeated questions while keeping them on schedule. My fellow travelers have been very kind to my mom and I appreciate that they reach out and literally lend a helping hand.

I end most evening too tired to write despite the fact that we have an excellent guide who tells us many interesting stories. But a few stories stay with me which I will share in these pages in abbreviated form.

For now a few general impressions... I have been struck with the closeness of borders. Now I know Israel is a small country surrounded by a number of unfriendly countries. It is one thing to know that, yet another to realize viscerally exactly how close those countries are and with that, the threat that always exists in the lives of Israelis. One day we drove ATVs along a barbed wire fence festooned with signs that indicated, Danger-Mines. I take my mom to some interesting places! On the other side of the minefield was Syria.Every decision Israel makes has security consequences, a fact that countries with physical security often fail to appreciate. One does not return territory without assessing the potential range of shelling. The return of Gaza has reinforced that awareness.

When we first entered Jerusalem we went to the Hebrew University at Mt Scopus for a Shehecheyanu blessing. There we learned that this world renowned university that began in 1925 with such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber on its board (I am sure there is the potential for a great improv skit on their board meetings), had to close the Mt Scopus campus from 1948 until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. The Hadassah Hospital at Mt Scopus was also closed during that time as Jordan forbid access. Ironically Haddassah Hospital serves all populations in Israel and Arabs make up 30% of its population. Now imagine a US university or hospital faced with such a circumstance.

One more story on a somewhat related theme. Our guide told us a personal story from during the 1967 war when she was a high school student. She and fellow students were required to dig temporary graves in Tel Aviv as they expected 20,000 deaths. Juxtapose that thought with the fact that her father was in the army and they hadn't seen him for a month. She and her mother made sandwiches for soldiers when the Army was having difficulty feeding the soldiers. For every sandwich they handed out they got a note in return saying "please call my wife, my mother, my family and tell them I'm all right". I think about how such experiences color one's perspective, what it must be like to live daily with an awareness of threat. And  perhaps those of us who judge from the comfort of our well-protected nation are also prone to magical thinking, skipping over unpleasant facts and realities that conflict with our tidy solutions.