Monday, December 19, 2011

An oily, sticky business

Amazingly intoxicating smell of sufganiyot (doughnuts traditionally eaten on the Hannukah holiday) today while waiting for the bus - then I remembered I was standing right outside Angel's huge bakery, a Jerusalem institution. No idea if they taste any good, but they could bottle and sell that aroma!

And in other sufganiya related news today - Junior's nature class made sufganiyot from scratch and baked them in their campfire in the woods - took about a field kitchen! I am told that they were the "yummiest sufganiyot ever".

We may need to try making ours on the barbecue this year...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The white season


 It was good to get back to the woods this week after a long break. The kids missed all those scrumptious climbable carob trees, the dried fruits in the upper branches still delicious for snacking on. I love the wonderful fresh scent of eucalyptus and pine, and the gentle shade they provide as the little people relax after a busy morning's climbing and playing in the dirt.

Just the other evening we were learning about lizards with David Attenborough's stunning "Life in Cold Blood" series and today in the woods we saw three species of lizard and a skink, as well as what looked like shards of reptile egg shells that had recently hatched. One little lizard was so bold that when the toddler reached out to touch it instead of fleeing it remained calm standing in front of us, it would have allowed itself to be petted had I not steered the toddler's hand away. Loving nature is one thing, making nice to wild reptiles quite another.

(Of course I arranged the whole thing so that our field trip would be directly related to yesterday's study material. I'm that good at predicting where tiny high camoflagued reptiles might be hiding in the big wide woods...)

I love being out in these woods this time of year. The shade of the trees makes the heat comfortable, blocking the worst of the still strong sun. At intervals there is a refreshing light breeze and while that still doesn't really make it autumn, it takes the edge off the oppressiveness of summer.

In many ways this is the white season, and not just because white, the colour of innocence and holiness symbolises the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days we mark during this transitional season. The summer's pure azure skies are broken more and more often with fluffy white clouds, some even bringing a light drizzle. After the long dry months white dust is everywhere, waiting to be cleaned away with the first autumnal downpour.

Almost nothing blooms now save for one hardy flower, the squill, which has made this season its own, dotting hillsides and highway verges like tall white festive candles. Their pallid blooms echo the season's clouds, puffs of purity and freshness sprouting proudly amidst the yellow-brown vegetation shrivelled and crisped by the summer sun.

There is a sweet Hebrew children's book about the squill "Why does the squill flower in autumn?" (it rhymes in Hebrew). It tells of how the simple white squill had trouble attracting bees and pollinating insects during more hospitable flowering seasons, like winter and spring. It just couldn't compete with the the attractive bright red blossoms of the anemone or poppy, the blue-purple lupins, yellow daisies or pink cyclamen. Then a little bird let it in on a secret - if it were to flower at  the end of summer and early autumn, it would have all the bees and bugs to itself. And so almost alone among Israel's wildflowers it chose to bloom in the harshest season of the year.

Traditional Jewish symbols of  the autumn festivals tend more towards the ripe red pomegranates and apples which also mark this season, the honey golden fresh dates and purple figs. These adorn Rosh Hashanah cards, sukkah decorations and kindergarten wall displays.

It seems a shame to me that these Land of Israel signs of the holidays are so well known and associated with the holidays in Jewish communities around the world while the humble but prolific squill, harbinger of the rain, symbol of fresh beginnings and freedom from sin, should be so unfamiliar outside the Holyland.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Keeping our heads above water

The wave of "social justice" protests continue to sweep the country with demands for a "socially just" budget, more government spending, higher taxes on the rich, increased state benefits, higher wages for state employees and more.

In principle many of the ideas sound good - more goverment programmes to help the poor and infirm, more government spending on healthcare, better paid state employees - in particular those with vital and difficult jobs like medical professionals and social workers.

Problem is that raising spending to do those things would probably have the effect of plunging Israel into the economic depression plaguing most the western economies.

Things aren't perfect now in Israel but they could be one heck of a lot worse. We are just about the only western country which actually has low unemployment (5.5%, Israel's lowest ever), our international credit rating was actually just upgraded to A+ (by contrast the US credit rating was just downgraded) and responsible fiscal management means we have far less debt than the US or western Europe.

Look at the terrible crises in Greece, Spain, Italy, and for that matter the UK and US, and be warned, that will be Israel if we rock the boat now with increased spending and higher taxes.

In Israel today the top decile (asiron ha-elyon) pay 75% of the total income tax paid, and the top one percent of earners pay about 31% of income tax. Raising taxes and giving them more reason to either evade or leave the country is going to hurt all of us and result in more of the burden shifting to the already overburdened and lower earning middle classes.

So yes, maybe some small things can be changed, there must be wasteful government programmes that could be cut so the budget can be spent on more useful initiatives. Overall though we are currently one of the most stable economies in the world at a time when some of the strongest economies in the world are on the verge of collapse. True, many Israelis are just about holding their heads above water, but increase spending and increase Israel's debt and we'll find ourselves drowning just like our southern European neighbours.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hoping for some southern comfort

This morning I had a call from the mother of a friend of my daughter's. She wanted to reschedule our proposed playdate this week. Nothing so unusual about that except for the reason. Their kibbutz isn't too far from Ashdod and since Thursday evening that part of the country has come under massive rocket fire from Gaza, including several direct hits on homes, schools and synagogues. My daughter's friend and her family have spent the weekend in or close to shelters listening out for sirens.

Plan had been that after her day at the kibbutz, we'd collect J and take her to the beach in Ashdod, followed by dinner at the nearby nice little kosher Indian restaurant. That was before a grad rocket injured several people outside an Ashdod yeshiva, while another grad lodged unexploded in the roof of an Ashdod synagogue.

I know this must sound terribly selfish, I'm thinking about my daughter's fun plans for the week while people are sitting in shelters and getting shot at. In a way that is precisely my point. Overseas there is this image of "warzones" places where people's lives are suspended permenantly among ruined buildings as they wait for the next rocket to fall or the next bomb to explode.

These places become divorced from normal life in the eyes of the foreign news (though of course this weekend's rocket attacks have gone largely unreported overseas). Yet this division of the world into neat "warzones" and "normal" just doesn't compute.

The cities and towns and villages of southern Israel are "normal" places, places where people just like you and me live and go to work or school or lounge about during the summer seeking relief from the heat by the beach or in the mall. People go jogging and walk their dogs and go to the movies or take a walk in the relative cool of early morning. There are run down tenements in dodgy neighbourhoods and luxury villas in comfortable suburbs, grim 50s apartment blocks and state of the art modern condo developments. There are farms and beaches and yeshivas and factories and hospitals and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful nature reserves. Just as elsewhere in Israel late summer is a time for music festivals, weddings and cooling off in waterparks.  People try to keep their children busy in the final few weeks of the summer holidays.

And suddenly all that is semi-frozen in the twilight zone uncertainty of a rain of rockets and sirens and government orders to cancel all large public gatherings, sporting events and concerts and for residents to stay close to their shelters or windowless interior rooms.

One friend was caught out by a siren while jogging one evening, spending the next half hour face down in the dirt and shaking from having felt and heard the impact of a rocket closeby. Another described the terror of having just left her cousins' house in Beer Sheva to return home to Jerusalem when the siren went, leaving her with a carload of children on an open road unsure whether to seek cover on the verge or to just keep driving.

In Tel Aviv the "social justice" protesters are still sitting in their tents protesting the rising price of housing and the cost of living. Down south sitting in a tent right now would be plain reckless.

Some would say going south right now was plain reckless but other friends of ours don't have that choice. For them the grievances of the protesters and the recent escalation of attacks from Gaza have come together alarmingly this week. Priced out of the centre of the country they found more affordable housing in Beer Sheva and are scheduled to move this week. School will be starting soon (God Willing in the south too) and they need to get settled in to their new home, rockets or no rockets.

Meanwhile another friend's sister and brother-in-law are in the process of signing on a nice apartment near the sea in Ashkelon. They too would have preferred something more central, closer to Tel Aviv, but Ashkelon is so much more affordable, and with its new housing projects, spruced up seafront promenade, marina and attractive beaches, seemed to offer a pleasant quality of life at a much cheaper price.

I asked whether they weren't concerned about Ashkelon's proximity to Gaza and the continued rocket fire. My friend's response? Once upon a time we were shocked that Gaza rockets could reach as far as Sderot. Then we couldn't believe Ashkelon was being hit. Then we were surprised at Grad strikes as far away as Beer Sheva and Ashdod. Then Yavne and Gadera. How long do I really think it wil be before they can reach Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, Modi'in and even Tel Aviv?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Red black mountains' majesties

I can understand why people would opt to drive down to Eilat along the scenic and remote Route 12, scene of Thursday's fatal terror attacks, rather than the more popular Arava route, with its many heavy trucks, heavy traffic and just far less evocative views.

Route 12 is the highway we like to take when driving by day. Just a few minutes after leaving the urban sprawl of Eilat and you are out in the untamed wilderness with views into Sinai, dramatic rugged red, black and orange mountains punctuated with dramatic wadis, the occasional ibex wild goats and dashing black and white wheatear perched on every other roadsign. In migration season you can see large numbers of majestic raptors from mountainside overlooks along the route.

By night the highway is positively spooky, shadowy dark mountains looming over the road like giant monsters and black wadis in the gaps between become bottomless voids waiting to swallow hapless motorists. Yet night has its beauty too - endless clear desert skies sparkling like a field of diamonds, the Milky Way a bright shimmering swathe across the heavens, maybe a desert fox or even hyena crossing your path, caught for a brief moment in a cone of headlights.

While this section of the road is usually considered safe for civilian motorists, it has always had its dangers. Bedouin smugglers use this long wild border to bring in illicit firearms, drugs, people and domestic animals. There are military checkpoints along the highway and often very visible military traffic and patrols. We've certainly been stopped along this route often enough and asked for ID. It's certainly always been my impression that the IDF takes the security of this vital road and adjacent border very seriously.

And now it's another dot on the map of terror.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Camp David revisted II

Time seemed to slide backwards today as Israelis heard the news of today's attacks down south. 

For roughly four decades now Israelis have been able to rely on a cold but seemingly durable peace treaty with Egypt to keep the south of the country mostly quiet and safe. Yes, there were occasional attacks here and there, but by and large Egypt had an interest in maintaining the treaty with Israel, and that meant keeping the peace along the border. There was no love lost between Mubarak's regime and the assorted Islamist groups seeking to destabilise Egypt through terror both within its borders and occasionally beyond them. 

There was enough mutual mistrust between Mubarak and the Bedouin of Sinai that he didn't mind ruling them with an iron hand while they in turn were often happy to support Mubarak's enemies, including Al-Qaida and affiliated groups seeking to use Sinai as a springboard for attacks on Israel. Most of these were thwarted, mostly because it was in Egypt's interest to do so - attacks on tourists in Sinai harmed one of Egypt's vital cash cows, while the peace treaty with Israel brought in much needed American aid and investment, including a substantial re-arming of the Egyptian military, as well as lucrative gas sales to Israel.

The Arab Spring seems to have turned much of this on its head. No one knows yet quite how the dust will settle, but for now enough is up in the air that Sinai appears to be reverting to a quasi-autonomous lawlessness. Some Bedouin there, never considering themselves to be fully Egyptian, are once again colluding with Islamist terror cells, either out of conviction, monetary gain or simply because it's another way of opposing Cairo. In recent months the gas pipeline to Israel has been sabotaged over and over again, while today's attacks appear to be bear out the repeated terror alerts in Sinai and warnings of increased terrorist activity in the area.

For years now there have been calls for a security fence along Israel's long porous border with the Sinai desert. Smuggling between Bedouin tribes on both sides of the border is rife including human trafficking of women for the sex trade, African migrants and refugees, drugs, arms, vehicles and domestic animals. While Egypt and Israel have tried to clamp down on this trade in recent years, the open vast stretches of open desert are difficult to seal and today's attacks are bringing renewed calls for the completion of solid barrier along the entire length of Israel's southern border.

For younger Israelis today's shootings have brought back memories of the Oslo intifada which began almost eleven years ago featuring many grisly sniping attacks on the roads of Judea and Samaria, as well as near the border with Lebanon. In their minds Eilat was meant to be immue to such things, a sort of safe haven, an escape from dark days in the centre of the country.

More than anything though the shootings today recall the early years of the state when the isolated, poorly defended wild south of the country was the frequent target of Fedayeen terrorists infiltrating from Egypt and Jordan. One of the most infamous of these attacks was the 1954 ambush at Ma'aleh Akrabim of an Egged bus travelling between Eilat and Tel Aviv. Eleven people were killed, including the driver. 

With the bus now a stationary target the gunmen boarded it to confirm that everyone had been killed, shooting the wounded and anyone who had thus far escaped. In a recent interview in the Israeli Makor Rishon newspaper survivor Miri Firstenburg described how she had been a 5 year-old girl riding that bus with her family. Both her parents were murdered, her brother so severely brain injured that he never recovered, spending the rest of his life in hospital until his death at age 40. She alone survived the attack physically unharmed. Today she campaigns for the rights of those orphaned by terror attacks, drawing on her own terrible experiences in the early years of the state.

Today terror once again came to the vital roads linking Eilat to central Israel. At the time of writing the media here are reporting on 5-7 Israelis killed and 25-31 injured. Had it not been for the actions of the bus driver, Benny Belevsky, who pressed down on the accelerator when the shooting started, today's attack could have been even worse. Thank God he was able to drive the bus to safety and avoid the fate of that other Egged bus in March of 1954.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Between protest tents and nargillah pipes

Watching the colourful Ramadan lights in neighbouring villages as we drive by DH mused, wouldn't it be nice if we could just drop by all neighbourly like with a plate of cookies and wish them Ramadan Kareem? They're so close by. Deceptively close.

And maybe it would be OK, we certainly meet enough decent Palestinians from the area working in nearby shops. Or maybe we'd be taking our lives in our hands. Hard to know since some of our neighbours started baying for our blood with chants of "itbah el yahud" (slaughter the Jews) over the mosque loudspeakers during the 2000-2003 intifada. Before that Jews went into our neighbouring Palestinian villages. No more though, not since a few of those Israelis didn't make it out alive.

We're driving home from breaking our Tisha b'Av fast with family in Jerusalem. The previous night, Tisha B'Av eve, we'd gone on the traditional walk around the walls of the Old City, especially interesting this year as Ramadan coincides with the Jewish fast this year, so as Jews were beginning their fast at sunset the city's Muslims were breaking theirs. This evening however, we are all breaking our fast. As DH notes, tonight is iftar (the fast breaking meal each night of Ramadan) for everyone.

The Muslim areas of the Old City and adjoining Arab neighbourhoods are festooned with holiday lights, neon stars and crescents and illuminated "Allah" signs bedeck homes and public buildings. All along the streets young men lounge with nargillah pipes and little boys feast on holiday sweets and corn on the cob purchased from the many festive food vendors. The Damascus Gate is especially busy with stalls and shoppers and just lots of men hanging around relaxing on this Ramadan night.

There don't seem to be many women out, just a few in drab jilbabs and hijabs out with their families. We get a lot of stares, mostly curious, some hostile, telegraphing "what the hell are the Jews doing here tonight?" I figure as it's a custom to walk around the walls of the Old City every Tisha B'Av night, some of them must realise it's Tisha B'Av, but I guess a lot of them just wonder why we're there on Ramadan. I wave and call out "Ramadan Kareem" and get quite a few shocked and bemused stares - and one smile. The kids Junior and I wave to giggle and wave back.

J keeps me very busy. First she asks me for the story of Tisha B'Av. I ask her which one and she says, both, the Babylonians and the Romans. I ask her to tell me what she remembers and she tells me the story of the Babylonian attack on the Kingdom of Judah, the siege of Jerusalem, the capture and forced exile of the Judean king to Babylon along with the Judean aristocracy and upper classes, the rebellion of the Babylonian installed new king, despite the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah not to rebel, and the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. I am impressed. She reminds me that she spend most of the of the public reading of Lamentations reading Yaffa Ganz's well written children's book on the subject. Just as well, the book of Lamentations is far from being a kid friendly read. I get to tell the story of the Roman occupation of Judea and the Jewish revolt which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. I try to be concise, but this is a kid who wants all the details.

We study the huge historic stone walls, in places mounted above steep cliffs of bedrock, making them particularly daunting to potential attackers. J tells me that the narrow slits are for the defenders of the city to fight the attackers with arrows, throwing spears and hot liquids. That's why the sieges lasted so long she explains.

She's curious about the Mount of Olives, sad to know that some was built over and destroyed during the Jordanian occupation (didn't they know about all the important history and the hakhamim (sages) and neviim (prophets) buried there?), fascinated by the ornate Russian orthodox church with its golden onion domes and the colourful fresco adorning the Catholic Church of all Nations.

Looking down into the valley she asks about the ornate tombs which stand out from among the more traditional headstones. She doesn't remember who Zakhariah is but enthusiastically regales me with the sad story of Absalom. "It's a tragic tale Ima, so it's OK to talk about it on Tisha B'Av night".

Soon we're passing the City of David, the original site of David's capital, nestled near the base of Mount Moriah, where David's son Solomon would build the Temple. I see a lightbulb go on in J's mind. It may be midnight but she remains alert and curious. "So that's why we talk about going up to the Temple Mount!" She exclaims. "The people lived down here".

Looking down into Silwan she notes all the colourful lights and asks me to tell her the story of Ramadan. I explain to her that Muslims believe that this is when their prophet Mohammed received the Quran. "Oh, so it's their version of Shavu'ot? Why to they celebrate it like Yom Kippur then?" I explain that it's kind of like Yom Kippur and Shavu'ot rolled into one.

J has a book about the gates of Jerusalem and she's very excited to try and spot them all. "That's the Lion's Gate!" She yells at one point "that's where the Israeli soldiers entered to liberate Jerusalem in the Six Day War, it's not too far from the Kotel, Ima, we're almost there!" Well, still a a midnight slog uphill, but yes, we're close to our destination.

I ask her if we could have done this walk in 1966. "Of course not Ima! But I know we could have on Tisha B'Av 1967, Uncle told me he did it then".

It is past midnight but the area around the Kotel is teeming with people, huge family groups, tourists, religious and secular. There are local tour groups for curious secular Israelis to show them what religious Jews do on Tisha B'Av night and foreign guides explaining the strange Jewish practice of mourning for a city and Temple destroyed two millenia ago. Some people have settled in to spend the whole night reciting Kinot lamentations by the Kotel.

In the Davidson Archaeological Park by the Temple Mount some of the original huge scorchmarked stone blocks sit where they fell during the Roman destruction of the city. It makes me shudder ever time we visit the site.

Our car is parked near Independence Park so we pass the this summer's "economic revolution" protest tents pitched there as make our way home. There are far fewer tents than I'd expected judging from the media hype, quite uniform, as though someone distributed the same tent to everyone. Earlier in the evening we'd seen people sitting out in discussion circles on the grass, honouring the solemnity of this most tragic night of the Jewish year. All is quiet now, it is afterall well past midnight.

Breaking the fast with relatives in Jerusalem the next evening our meal is disrupted by a noisy, but quite small, demonstration in the street below, mostly against the rise in electricity prices it seems, "Tzu el hamirpeset, hamedinah koreset" (step out onto your balconies, the state is collapsing) is the cry we hear as we peek curiously outside.

The crowd look mostly like studenty types, a few clean cut in neat jeans and khakis others of the long haired crusty rasta variety, a few kids in Scouts uniforms and a few folks with rather prominent red flags adorned with the hammer and sickle. I wonder if the young people carrying them understand the message and memories these symbols convey to many in Israel. They sound like many more people then they actually are. The couple of large dogs are very quiet and docile.

Communist paraphenalia aside, they do have a point about electricity prices. Somehow though I don't think they're calling for the market to be opened up to more competition though.

Our host tells us that this has been going on almost nightly for weeks, sometimes into the wee hours. Normally the 23:00 cut-off for noisy events is meticulously enfored. At the moment though the police and municipality seem reluctant to clamp down on the noise of the protests. She's had many sleepless nights as a result. It's amazing how much noise a few dozen people can make.

All in all a very curious few days. Keep praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Never had it so good?

A wave of rebellion and despair is sweeping across Israel. Tented protest camps in every city and town proclaim that this country is impossible to live in, that Israelis are oppressed by a horrendous economy, brutal capitalism and a tiny wealthy elite robbing the very shirts off the backs of the ordinary middle and working classes. Demostrations bemoan the prohibitive cost of living, sky high housing prices, food and petrol that have risen so much they have become luxuries for ordinary people.

The protests wouldn't be out of place in many parts of Europe, and to see them you would assume that Israel's economy must be suffering the sort of disasterous financial woes afflicting Greece, Italy and Spain. Looking at the protest camps and the angry demonstrations in Israeli cities you would assume that Israel is facing double digit unemployment, failing industries and catastrophic debt.

You would be wrong.

The Israeli economy is actually currently one of the strongest in the world, reporting high levels of growth and a strong Shekel. Unemployment is at its lowest level ever, about 5.8%. Many shops and businesses display help wanted ads but seem unable to fill all the vacant positions.

Israelis are travelling abroad in record numbers. Glitzy new towers are popping up in Tel Aviv and elsewhere along with swank new restaurants and spas and luxury boutique hotels. Unprecedented numbers of A list international performers are gracing Israel's shores with tickets priced in the hundreds of Shekels, up to a thousand or more for the best seats. SUVs are being purchased in record numbers.

It seems hard to believe that these fruits of the boom are being enjoyed only by the tiny wealthy elite, yet many middle class Israelis seem to be struggling to finish the month on two average salaries.

Some among the protesters charge that the rich here are only getting richer by pushing the rest of the country into poverty. It would seem more accurate that many Israelis are being squeezed between Israel's comparitively low salaries and high taxes which includes 16% VAT and a top income tax rate of 57% (including national insurance payments) which kicks in at a relatively low level of pay.

One of the key grievances is the high price of housing in Israel today. Many people have been priced out of the centre of the country where many of the jobs are to be found. Young couples find themselves moving in with parents because rents have shot up to unprecedented levels.

Yet high housing prices are hardly the sign of a poor economy. Yes, the current property market looks unsustainable, a bubble waiting to burst. On the other hand this is a country with a young and growing population and a culture of property ownership, even when the cost of doing so is near bankruptcy. Traditionally it's quite common, even expected, that parents at least partially fund or even buy in advance apartments for their children.

Housing in Israel's densely populated central cities  has never been cheap though, why would anyone expect affordable housing in the middle of desirable locations such as north Tel Aviv or central Jerusalem?

In recent years real estate in many of Israel's big cities, in particular the capital, Jerusalem, has also been inflated by foreign buyers. New luxury developments in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Netanya, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Ashkelon and elsewhere are attractive as holiday homes to diaspora Jews, further fueling spiralling housing prices and leaving many Israelis priced out of major cities while these holiday homes sit vacant for most of the year. Entire Jerusalem apartment buildings and even neighbourhoods are virtual ghost towns outside of the popular vacation seasons.

One of the factors keeping prices so high is the insane bureaucratic hoops one has to jump through in order to get a building project off the ground. Prices are rising, demand is high, but in recent years building starts have if anything declined. The system is simply not flexible enough to be able respond quickly to market forces.

The Netanyahu government was trying to push through land reforms that would make it easier to open up land for construction but many of those currently protesting rising housing costs are those opposed to land reform.

It is one of the conundrums of the recent demonstrations is that many of the same groups protesting the lack of cheap housing are those who campaigned against new building starts on the grounds of protecting the environment. Protecting Israel's rich archaeology and beautiful nature is important, but a growing population also needs somewhere to live. Something has to give.

At the moment there seem to be few people trying to come up with creative solutions to all these problems, prefering instead to go head to head with "evil" developers seeking to make a profit, while accusing them of destroying Israel's ecology and not providing affordable housing.

While housing prices eat up greater percentages of an average family's income, the day to day cost of living  has shot up too. Global prices rises in basic commodities such as fuel, grains and cotton have of course affected Israel. Electricity prices are set to rise by 20% this month, with a 17% increase retroactively charged for the first half of 2011. Government taxes and levies have only compounded these increases. High taxes on petrol, cars and many imported goods keeps their cost artificially high.

Israel aims for self-sufficiency in many things but it is still a small country in a region where politics allows little to no trade with our immediate neighbours, Israel must import from further afield, in particular from Europe, another reason why the hike in global fuels costs has hit hard.

Years of drought and a national water authority and government which have been slow to implement plans to conserve water and construct desalinisation plants has resulted in huge rises in water tarriffs in Israel, greatly increasing the average family's water bill as well as the cost of produce.

Yet the malls are full, cafes and restaurants do good business, hotels are booked. Yes, many Israelis are doing so on overdrafts and deferrred payments, but many are not.

The Israeli economy has never had it so good, and yet, many feel that they've never had it so bad.

And this does seem to be the key uniting issue among the disparate protestors - what don't we feel? We don't feel good! From the genuinely poor protesting the backsliding ineffeciency of the Amidar public housing offices to the comfortable middle class students griping that they can't afford to live in affluent north Tel Aviv, close to the university campus, a general feeling of discontent is sweeping the country.

In the tented protest camps and demonstrations people are calling for a return to socialism, an expansion of the welfare state, more public housing, free government sponsored childcare, pay increases for public sector workers, free college tuition, a rise in the top income tax bracket, more taxes on the wealthy and cheaper food.

Meanwhile possible solutions, such as opening the country's protectionist dairy market to increased foreign imports to lower prices, are met with protests at the damage such a move could cause to Israeli farmers, who are already facing losses from the decrease in cottage cheese prices brought on by the recent cheese boycott.

It seems that Israelis want to have it all. Higher incomes with lower taxes but increased state spending and a generous welfare state. Looking across the Mediterranean to the ailing debt ridden economies of our neighbours in Greece, Italy and Spain should give us pause for thought, as should this week's down grading of US credit-ratings. Solutions need to be found to Israel's pressing housing problem and rising food costs, but doing so at the expense of destroying our economy will only lead in the long run to even greater financial woes in Israel. So far we've managed to ride out the worst of the global financial crisis. I pray that our government and parliament will have the wisdom to continue to do so.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Camp David revisited?

The two cute little girls in pink and flowers in my living room are playing war, prisoners, ransoms, great escapes, spying and peace negotiations. All set in ancient Egypt. Well, aside from a few scenes in ancient Israel.

Tiny plastic snakes, lizards and scorpions are getting in on the action, plus a few dinosaurs, paleontologists, a motorbike, the Egyptian royal family and Moses and family too.

At one point A announces that she doesn't like this game anymore. "I don't get the point!"

J patiently explains "It's a game about trying to make peace between countries" 

A looks unconvinced.

"It's bad to hurt people and be mean to people, so it's good to try to make peace between people"

This satisfies A, and the negotiations between the Egyptian royal family, the Israelites led by Moses and various other factions resume. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Feeling Groovy in Jerusalem

The mood was definitely groovy down in Jerusalem's American Football stadium tonight.

Groovy, but a bit gevaltik too. I have a hunch there was way more Barukh Hasheming (thank God) going on than at most other Woodstock revival events.

That, and at least half, maybe more, of the audience was wearing some kind of religious headgear. The hippie thing really can mesh wonderfully with modest clothing, long floaty Indian skirts topped off with vibrant tie-dye headscarves was just meant to be, and I've always thought there was something a little counter culture about otherwise straight laced guys wearing ethnically patterned handcrocheted skullcaps.

Somewhere between covers of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from my Friends" local act Libi and the Flash included their version of Psalm 121 (in Hebrew), itself a cover of Israeli world music sensation Sheva's hit song.

So yes, you could certainly feel the Jerusalem in the Woodstock, and maybe that detracted a bit from the "authenticity" of the event (that and there was astroturf instead of mud) but if you ask me that was the beauty of it. As a religious Jewish mother no way would I have taken my kids to any other Woodstock type event. Just no. Not part of my lifestyle or my family's lifestyle, no matter how much my mother loved the music and the fun clothing.

There were some wonderful local acts performing the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream and Jefferson Airplane. If I shut my eyes I could have been listening to my mother's record collection, or these days, my iPod playlist.

The standout performance was the tribute to Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin by up and coming young Israeli singer Yael Deckelbaum. What a voice. What perfect channelling of her musical mentors. It will be interesting to see what she does on her upcoming Hebrew language album.

There was a small crowd of folks dancing up by the stage, and there was beer for sale, courtesy of Jem, one of Israel's highly praised new boutique breweries, a co-sponsor of the event. It was all remarkably civilised though. I didn't see anyone drunk or lewd or just acting in a way I wouldn't want my little kids to see. As one lady I chatted to said "it's Woodstock made almost kosher". Even Led Zeppelin's "Gonna Give you my Love".

The crowd were warm, enthusiastic, friendly and just overwhelmingly happy.  My little guy wandered merrily around dancing and smiling at folks, introducing himself, spinning, stomping, waving and clapping energetically to the music.

At the small assortment of craft and knick knack stalls a purveyor of juggling equipment had set up a table of second hand equipment festival goers were invited to borrow and play with during the event - hula hoops, juggling batons, flower sticks, poi balls and more.

It was a brilliant idea. Kids and grown-ups alike were happily twirling batons and playing catch with the balls all evening. There were some incredibly impressive hula hoop displays too. And at concert's end all the items had been returned to the table.

Groovy evening in Jerusalem. Could a Woodstock revival be anything but?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Not arachnophobia

How to entertain the kids for an afternoon - spot a large spider trapped between the screen door and the glass door (ie where they can clearly see it but can't touch it or get dangerously close). 

Point it out to them. 

See them sit cross legged by the doors watching it on and off for most of the next few hours while Baby excitedly points and yells happily "akhavish" (Hebrew for spider), or, when it hides behind the window frame, dissapointedly "akhavish? akhavish?" 

Big sister keeps herself entertained making up stories about the spider and its extended family and web spinning antics. She names it Charlotte.

Charlotte hangs around the space between the screen door and the glass door for a few days. The kids look for her excitedly in the morning when they rise, wish her night night in the evening when she scurries into a crevice in the frame. 

On the fourth day Abba steps out onto the balcony and Charlotte escapes behind the aloe planter. 

Baby keeps searching the glass hopefully looking for the spider. "Akhavish? Where?"

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jerusalem Illuminated

I'm not sure my favourite (leather) walking sandals will ever quite recover from the soaking they had last night, but it was worth it. I should have thought to remove them before wading, sorry - "walking on water" - through the giant geodesic egg exhibit in Jerusalem's Old City, but J was standing next to me hopping from one foot to the other in excitement as the bizarre sculpture changed colours from muted magenta to blue to two tone red and purple and an ethereal mist wafted out from its apex (do eggs have an apex?), lending the whole scene an almost supernatural quality.

She couldn't wait to walk through and see the egg from inside. So I tossed caution to the winds, believed the guide that claimed visitors would "walk on the water" (I assumed some kind of stepping stones) and waded in with her on what turned out to be slightly raised rubber mats that weren't quite raised enough to keep our feet out of the water.

It was worth it though for the heady joy it gave J. She revelled in the sheer oddness of the whole thing, being bathed in gently changing jewel toned lights while walking through a wooden cut out egg perched on an artificial pool on a platform in the Southern Kotel archaeological park within sight of some of the most sacred and contentious places in the world.

She insisted on walking throught the exhibit three times and would have gone back a fourth only it was midnight by then and they were closing the gates of the archaeological park.

It was the perfect end to a curious night time adventure following the "orange trail" through the maze of old Jerusalem, one of several possible routes through the walled city, each leading visitors on a light themed treasure hunt of sculptures and installations adorning the historic buildings, courtyards and the ancient walls themselves.

The variety of ideas and media within the rubric of light was fascinating. We saw a short film expertly screened onto the arches of the Rothschild building, perfectly aligned so that the character appeared to be walking from arch to arch. Some alleys were lined with quirky illuminated shapes or light filled flowers.

One structure was decorated with brightly coloured neon letters in at least four scripts meant to symbolise the need for dialogue and listening to one another. Junior commented that it made her think more of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps that was the point.

Then there was a rainbow hued " light cake" made of over 200 drums, filled with pingpong and LED balls which every 15 minutes or so erupted from the "cake" in what was meant to represent a shower of coloured sweets transporting the viewer back to his or her childhood. Or just delighting the many visitors who still were children, judging from the crowds of youngsters.

For the past few years though the late June/early July light festival has become a city fixture drawing crowds of thousands to pack into the Old City's narrow streets to marvel at all manner of beautiful, bold and some just plain weird light creations and installations among the the ancient stones.

We had arrived just after dark and were met with a glorious giant tree of light just outside the Jaffa Gate. All around the gate futuristic looking "light palms" mimicked the more traditional date palms that line the promenade.

The whole area was teeming with people, locals, tourists and pilgrims. Once we entered within the walls though it wasn't so crowded that you couldn't enjoy the exhibits, as people split up to follow the different trails, each marked by a different coloured row of neon lights.

J loved the idea of the different routes: "Just like the Yellow Brick Road, only in lights" said she.

The only problem was there was so much to see and way too little night to see it in. No way could we have managed to see the orange, blue, yellow and red trails in four short hours, even without two little kids in tow. Eight to midnight just isn't enough time. And it isn't even that easy to come back another night - the festival is only on for a week.

I guess late June seems like an odd time for a Jerusalem light festival. It isn't as if there is anything light related in the calendar this time of year, well, other than the shortest nights of the year. Would seem to make an after dark event rather counter-intuitive as a June event, would it not?

The problem is that Hannukah is (drought years excepted) during the rainy season, the big Jerusalem pilgrim festivals and the High Holy Days already draw huge crowds to the city, as do Jerusalem Day and Independence Day.  The period of mourning leading up to the black fast of the 9th of Av is not an appropriate time period for such an exhibit and the relatively quiet period between Hannukah and Purim is usually right in the peak of the rainy season.

What's left? Some of the shortest nights of the year. And some of the most pleasant Jerusalem evening weather.

Not a bad way to spend a summer night. Not bad at all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

If you go down to the woods today...

Woke up this morning, looked out the window and could not believe it was June in Israel. Thick grey overcast clouds blotted out the sun and a brisk breeze had trees and flags dancing a samba.

If I didn't know it was June I would have been expecting rain. And you know how much I adore a good rain storm. Well any rain actually. Only rain+June+Israel = incredibly remote possibility. Remote, but not completely impossible.

As of 15:00 this afternoon though there is no sign of rain - one can but yearn. It has been an absolutely gorgeous day for being out in the woods - cool, cloudy, breezy - what an unexpected gift during the usually searing month of June.

I've come to relish these regular get-togethers under the trees. Not that my hometown isn't pleasant enough, but it is so invigorating to have a regular escape from cookie cutter concrete and asphalt.

It's lovely for the kids to have the chance to just play in and with nature, climbing trees, digging in the sandy soil with sticks and carobs, building with stones, collecting seeds and leaves and the odd snail shell. There's a good bunch of folks who come too and it creates a pleasant and safe environment in which to allow the young kids some freedom to wander and explore a bit.

Contrary to popular opinion though (you know who you are) I'm not all starry eyed earth mother about these days out. There are no loos out in the woods. No running water. I often come home sporting the odd bug bite. The sandy soil, leaf litter and pine needles do seem to get everywhere, falling out of  the darndest of places when I get the kids (and sometimes myself) changed into PJs come evening.

So yes, a day out in nature does come with some organisational challenges for the parent of small kids. Certain trees do seem to get well irrigated even in the dry season. It feels as though we schlep with enough food and water for an army and enough toys for a few neighbourhood preschools. Many of the other families just bring with huge witch's cauldrons and cook fresh food over the fire while the kids play. Brings a whole new meaning to outdoor kitchen.

Then there is the usual fight over sunhats. Big girl is by now a well drilled Israeli child. Outdoors means hat, water and comfortable walking shoes. Baby is still coming to terms with the hat part. Sometimes also the shoe part.

Trees do offer shade but it isn't total and on a more typical June day you can fry while taking a midday walk on the path down to the spring or sitting for too long on the swing at the playground where the tree canopy parts just enough to let the strong sun in. So the rule is sunhats or be sorry.

Today was overcast though and Baby was having none of it. At least until he was sitting in the dirt happily minding his own business rooting around for interesting leaves when something small and hard bopped him on the head. A few minutes later the same thing happened to me, only instead of jumping up with a yelp, I calmly noticed that it didn't actually hit my head but landed safely in the brim of my wide Australian bush hat.

We were sitting in the shade of a eucalyptus tree and the wind was blowing in great gusts. Bop, bop, bop went the tree, jettisoning its version of acorns on us. Baby reached for my hat and smiled as it caught the offending pods. Wish I could say the same for his sunhat. Boy has a big head for a toddler but it is still nowhere near adult size and it was pretty useless perched on my head like a book at a finishing school. Bop, bop, bop went the tree on my head. Bop, bop, bop.

So the lesson of the day is this - Australian bush hats are way more useful than just as a sunshade (its usual purpose). They come in really handy for catching the "rain" of eucalyptus seed pod thingies that came flying off the trees and bashing unsuspecting folks on the head. So useful that one should really own at least one per family member, regardless of age. Need an Australian hat to protect against an Australian hazard, right?

Friday, June 10, 2011

My dahl recipe (more or less) by popular demand

First off, I don't usually exactly cook by recipes for stews, soups etc, it just sort of comes together. Well, that isn't to say that I never follow recipes, but there are those faithful staples that I just throw together by instinct and eye and then someone says what's your recipe and I have to think how on earth I'm going to right this down because frankly I can't remember whether I use a teaspoon of something or a tablespoon or maybe half a cup?

Dahl is one of those recipes I make again and again. As a child I learnt it from my Indian and Pakistani neighbours, (though I make no claims as to the authenticity of my version), and it has been a favourite comfort food ever since, something I could quite easily live on if I had to. It's one of those recipes that friends and guests often ask for, so with the above caveat, I've tried to reconstruct my dahl recipe on paper, you may need to tweak it:

About 1.5-2 cups red/orange lentils
4-5 bay leaves or curry leaves 
2 tsp dried turmeric or preferably about a "thumb" of grated fresh turmeric
1 tsp dried ginger or about a half "thumb" of grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2-1 tsp black pepper (if you want it spicier use cayenne or ground chilli instead, I tone this down for family who prefer milder tastes)
2 tsp cumin
@ 1/2 litre onion soup/onion stock -( You are best using homemade, though I guess it would work with a bought stock, I once made this fleishig with leftover chicken soup, better using onion soup as the stock, or another clear veg soup)
5-6 cups water (or more if it looks too dry)
Salt to taste
Juice of @ lemon or lime (maybe a bit less) - I prefer lime but they are incredibly hard to find in Israel, and in season only briefly.
Olive oil
Generous handful (or two, depending on your taste) cumin seeds
2-5 finely minced garlic cloves
Fresh coriander, finely chopped

1. Measure out the lentils into a sieve and wash cold water over them, thoroughly soaking them for a minute or so.
2. Add to a pot with the soup/stock, ground cumin, ginger, turmeric, curry/bay leaves and black pepper.
3. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook until the lentils start to become mushy and soup like - probably around half and hour to 45 minutes.
4. When the lentils are starting to look suitably mushy give them a little help by stirring up the ingredients, mashing a bit with a wooden spoon to help them along.
5. In a separate pan heat the olive oil and then saute the cumin seeds with the minced farlic for a few minutes until toasted. Meanwhile let the dahl keep simmering on low.
6. Add the toasted garlic and seeds to the dahl, mix well and leave on the heat.
7. Add small amounts of lemon/lime juice in small increments, to taste. The lemon juice shouldn't be a dominant flavour, it should just help to bring out the other flavours, so you don't want to drown the dahl in lemon juice.

Serve piping hot or cold with the finely chopped coriander sprinkled generously on top (unless of course you are one of those folks who hates coriander, in which case, you might want to substitute finely chopped fresh mint instead). I like it as a soup or as a main or side dish spooned over brown bastmati or jasmine rice, with or without a dollop of plain, natural yoghurt, with a simple fresh chopped Israeli style cucumber and tomato salad on the side.

Oh, and I find that sometimes when I have guests who really can't stand anything with much spice, I make this with some coconut milk added or a few tablespoons of natural yoghurt stirred in and my guests who profess to hate all things Indian/spiced etc, usually come away asking for the recipe and saying that they didn't realise Indian type foods could taste so nice without being "spicey" (ie fiery hot) 

Monday, June 06, 2011

Still crazy after all these years?

About 16 years ago I was a young undergraduate attending a lecture by a visiting professor, a respected expert on the Middle East. I forget the exact details of the talk, but I do remember going up to the lecturer at the end and asking him whether he thought it likely that Israel's enemies might use civilian Palestinian refugees to overwhelm Israel's borders, for example if Lebanon decided to push its large Palestinian population into what was then Israel's defensive perimeter in southern Lebanon, or, following an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, into northern Israel.

I wondered how Israel would, should or could respond to hundreds or even thousands of civilians trying to storm her borders.

He responded that such an event wouldn't happen, that such a suggestion was fantastical. His face radiated the contemptuous ridicule he clearly felt at my overactive imagination. I could see him mentally ticking the "nutter" box. I didn't entirely blame him, this field does seem to attract way more than its fair share of wackjobs, each with their own hysterical doomsday theories for the Middle East, especially Israel.

Feeling thoroughly chastened and a touch humiliated, I left the lecture hall resolving to keep my crazy ideas to myself.

Then this May Syria did just that, massing groups of Palestinians to push over the Israeli border, maybe as a desperate distraction from Syria's own internal chaos, maybe just to make it clear to Israel what the consequences of regime change might be in Syria. I'm sure Assad could come up with plenty of reasons.

Israel reacted in shock, military included. If there is one things that Israelis fear, it is being faced with hordes of apparently unarmed civilians who nevertheless are presenting a very real security threat. Israel cannot stand for hostiles - civilian, military, or something vague in between - storming her borders. Israelis are horrified at being put in position where the only option is to shoot to prevent such a mob from over-running Israeli positions.

Watching the news footage from the north and listening to the assorted academic experts being interviewed for their learned opinions I found myself curious whether the illustrious professor remembered my apparently ludicrous question from all those years ago. Would he agree that I wasn't such a ridiculously imaginative undergrad afterall? This is one case when I would have preferred to be wrong.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lag Ba'Omer Grinch

It's Israeli bonfire season again, time to batten down the hatches, seal the windows and hide indoors until the air clears.

I associate many of our holidays with the smell of burning, but now that I think of it there seem to be many variations of that smell.

Hannukah and Friday night come with the warm, sweet smell of olive oil, mostly odourless as it burns, then pleasantly pungent as the oil burns down and the wick putters out.

Purim in Israel reeks of cordite from the firecrackers. Kind of like the Chinese New Year. Funny they often come out around the same time, I've often wondered if the Israeli firecracker tradition is in someway connected, maybe we get the surplus from the Chinese celebrations.

Pesah eve comes with the whiff of burning bread. Or rather the smell of people trying in vain to get fires going with the remains of their leaven. Hopefully without any plastic packaging, but there is always someone who thinks that will help.

On Yom Ha'atzmaut the whole country smells like a giant grill restaurant. I imagine this must have been what seder night was like at the time of the ancient Temple, a whole nation barbequeing in unison.

Then there is Lag Ba'Omer, holiday of burning, or so it seems. Weeks in advance the children of Israel (note the small c) start gathering wood. And I don't mean firewood, I mean anything that could be considered wood or woodlike, be it packing crates, mdf closet doors or even chipboard and formica old furniture. What's that you say, those things can give of fumes when burnt? Really?

Sad to say that the yearning for kindling of any kind seems to be so keen that some kids will even rip the wooden planks off park benches (in our area many of the benches are metal or stone for this reason) or bits of scaffolding from building sites. 

There just aren't that many spare logs and twigs in these parts where our local trees tend towards puny rather than mighty, and belong to either private individuals or the state.

The aim is to gather the greatest pile of flammable stuff you can and then, on the great night itself (give or take a couple of days) to set it alight into a mighty torch, while you stand around and wonder what to do next. It isn't even as if the nights are usually that chilly this time of year, so it's often uncomfortably warm around the flames. 

It's a curious thing, this juvenile attraction to pyromania. Schools, synagogues and youth groups organise their own bonfires with legally obtained fireworthy lumber, roast potatoes, marshmallows and corn on the cob, maybe a nice singalong too. 

They usually have the good sense to hold their event in the week before Lag Ba'Omer, while the air is still breathable and there are still plenty of open areas uncluttered by competing fires.

As you may have gathered I'm not a big fan of this holiday. Whose brilliant idea was it to set the whole country alight davka at the beginning of the warm dry season, just when the rain has usually come to a halt and there is no way to cleanse the air from all this ash, soot and smoke? 

The pall of Lag Ba'Omer hangs over Israel for days to come, a toxic miasma keeping the elderly, the sick, asthmatic and the allergy prone indoors, and the rest of us wishing we could legally open our emergency gas masks to escape from the noxious air.

Most irksome of all though is that all the stories associated with this holiday, from Rabbi Akiva to Bar Kokhva to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, are largely forgotten in the single minded pursuit of fire. 

I mean come on, why couldn't we have celebrated by eating carobs or remembering the need to be nice to one's fellow human being as per the story of Rabbi Akiva's students? We could have started by not trying to burn down the neighbourhood.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blue and white forever

No birds have come to our balcony this week.

Not our regular jays and bulbuls, our sometime visitors the blackcaps, great tits, sunbirds and graceful prinias, or our uncommon avian guests the ring-necked parakeets, laughing doves and blackbirds.

The feeders are forlorn, their seeds and fruit waiting in vain.

I think we have scared them away.

It's all my daughter's fault.

Last week at the craft store she used her pocket money to stock up on long strands of Israeli flags and blue and white bunting, declaring "This year we are going to decorate properly for Yom Ha'atzmaut!"

So early Sunday morning found vertically challanged me teetering on a stool and trying to keep the baby from getting tangled in lengths of patriotism as I struggled to bedeck our balcony in honour of the impending holiday.

An hour later and our porch was festooned with fluttering blue and white flapping delightedly in the breeze.

When J finally roused herself she was beside herself with delight.

"All my flags are up Ima!"

"Look how they flap in the wind Ima!"

"The sky even matches our flag Ima!"

And indeed it did. Grand azure expanses dotted liberally with storybook large white fluffy clouds.

"Ima, we finally look Yom Ha'atzmautdig!"

Israeli flags and streamers in the garden below echo our loving decorations, as do most of the balconies and windows in the buildings across the street and on the lamposts all down the main boulevard below us.

I started getting that warm fuzzy feeling.

Suddenly J stopped her enthusiastic outburts and looked perturbed.

"We don't have lights Ima."

"Ima, our neighbours have Stars of David made out of lights!"

" Ima, the house on the corner has blue and white lights all along their railing that flash on and off like the blue is chasing the white or the white is chasing the blue."

"Ima, why don't we have lights?"

I guess there is always next year.