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.