Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When your kids find out it isn't always such a wonderful world

It's tough when they start to read beyond what we want them to see. We were still getting a daily print edition paper when Junior one day out of the blue turned around and asked "What's corruption?" And we were lucky it was as benign as that with all that's often in the papers.

After the Newtown shootings several American friends have asked me how I go about explaining this kind of evil to my children, how I protect their innocence, how I stop them from being afraid.

It's one of the toughest things about being a parent, the realisation that you can't shield them from the fact that horrorific things happen. The best you can do is try to answer their questions without getting into gory details, show them that it's OK to be upset or afraid (so many kids feel embarrased to show emotions like these) and hug them tight tight.

There are no easy answers for how to explain things to a kid, especially a bright kid who always has another "why?" or "how?" to ask.

I do think kids are more resilient than we often give them credit for. Junior knows that there are people living around us who want to kill us, I never wanted to have to explain that to her, but it's true and she picked up on it quite young, asking why we have to go through metal detectors and searches whenever we go to the shopping mall or train station, why all the schools and kindergartens have guard booths outside, why there are guards on the buses and trains. Kids notice these things, even if we unfortunately get used to taking them for granted.

I thought about fudging it but in the end I just came out with it that there are people who want to blow those places up and hurt us and the security guards are trying to keep us safe. It's a fact of life and she takes it in her stride.

When a terrorist broke into a family home and murdered almost the entire family in their beds with a knife I hid the paper, avoided news sites and the radio, but she heard the story on the radio while being given a ride by a friend's mother and came home to ask me about it. I told her the basic facts of what happened, that there were bad people in the world, but that there are also many many good people who are trying to help others, and that overall the good outnumber the bad. She seemed to accept that.

When a similar attack happened again recently, only the mother happened to be a martial arts expert and was able to protect her kids, suffering knife wounds, but forcing the attacker to run I talked about the story with my daughter. I think it was important for her to see the more positive outcome. We actually even met the woman by chance on one of our Jerusalem outings recently and Junior was excited to meet a real life heroine.

I wish she didn't have to know about such things, but I can't keep her in a cocoon. The important thing here I think is also that I answer her questions as best I can, I say I don't know when I don't know, but also I don't dwell on the news, don't let her get obsessed with it by not obsessing myself.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Letting the bullies win

Rosh Hodesh Elul was my nephew's bar-mitzvah at the Kotel. As we were walking to the women's section we passed a woman in a Tallit being escorted away by police for wearing a men's tallit. At the Kotel itself there was a group of Women of the Wall davening in multi-coloured tallitot (apparently only the traditional black and white ones were considered "illegal" on that occasion) with a stony-faced police officer standing right in front of them and filming their every action on video while another few officers stood facing the group of praying women just daring them to do something criminal like whipping out a Torah scroll. It would have been comic had it not been so serious.

They were singing a respectful and beautiful (and not overly loud) Hallel near the back of the women's section at the Kotel, in no way was it attention grabbing and in no way was it audible from anywhere near the mehitza or men's section (should that have been an issue).

The previous Friday night there had been loads of women in the Kotel women's section singing much louder at Kabbalat Shabbat, including a large group of uniformed female soldiers belting out a selection of vaguely "spiritual" NewAgey Israeli pop hits in lieu of formal prayer from the liturgy and a huge group from some Israel women's programme for Americans where the leader was not only getting them to practically shout out the greatest hits of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach during Kabbalat Shabbat but encouraging them to dance in a big wild circle right in the middle of the women's section, which unsurprisingly enough was incredibly crowded on an August Friday night.

If anything was a public nuisance that night, or possibly a hazard, it was this scrum of ladies insisting on their huge dance circle right in the middle of the already jam-packed women's section.

No police intervened (nor did anyone else) to stop these women from loudly singing Kabbalat Shabbat and even Israeli pop songs, and none of the many very Hareidi women also davening there complained, objected or any way approached these women to stop or in any way tone it down.

Sunday morning though the modest gathering of women saying Hallel together, some wrapped in prayer shawls, which admittedly, most Jews would consider men's garb, are suddenly public enemy number one, a threat to public order, so dangerous they have tense police hounding their every move and at least one of their number had to be arrested for the heinous crime of wearing a masculine style black and white tallit.

Meanwhile above the Kotel, on the Temple Mount, Judaism's most sacred of sacred places, Jews can't pray or even close their eyes or hum a tune because it "upsets" the local Muslims and they tend to get violent and riot when upset, so for the police it's easier to arrest the peaceful Jews who just want to pray at their most holy site. As a religious Jew I and many others are intimidated by the police of the state of Israel no less from going to visit the Temple Mount.

At the Kotel Women of the Wall upsets the Hareidi community and some elements within the Hareidi community get a bit violent and occasionally riot or burn trash cans when they do so, so for the police it's easier to just arrest the peacefully praying women who want to make a feminist, but peaceful, point.

It's called giving in to the bullies.

Now I'm aware that many of those who support the Women of the Wall and many of those who support the right of Jews to pray upon the Temple Mount disagree with each other theologically and politically, but the struggles they face for religious freedom are the same. Until both realise that it is in their mutual interest to pursue these cases of police injustice and downright brutality and the failure of the state to ensure that people of all denominations are free to pray peacefully at their sacred shrines nothing is going to change. The state will continue to pacify the bullies at the expense of protecting the right to worship for all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


I think I essentially have two reasons for posting this, in particular in the wake of the recent Gaza conflict I've had two lots of responses from friends and family overseas.

Some have said to me that Israel is an apartheid state, so of c
ourse the folks in Gaza have a good reason to shoot rockets at Israeli civilians

Others have said Israel should just "expel" all the Arabs or completely "separate" from the Arabs, and then "the Arabs won't make trouble".

Both positions show surprising ignorance about everyday life in Israel.

Fact is that in Israel on a day to day basis Jews and Arabs interact, shop together, work together, use the same public space, vacation in the same national parks and hotels, our populations are far more intertwined than the international media shows and in many way interdependent economically.

I will not pretend that the situation is perfect, only that it is far more complex, and I believe far better, than anyone overseas would realise if they just get their information from foreign media outlets.

The photos below are from Jerusalem, but they could also be any number of major Israeli cities, just walk down a street in Beer Sheva or Haifa or Kfar Saba or hang out at the mall in Modi'in or Tel Aviv, stay in a hotel in Eilat.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heart of Gold

We enjoyed a lovely morning in Jerusalem this morning with the guides of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, the highlight of which was J finding a porcupine quill in the bushes right next to the visitors' centre.

We walked down through the pine woods to Sacher Park, part of the city's green "lung", close to the centre of town, and from there over to the olive groves in the Valley of the Cross overlooking the impressive Georgian monastery and the Israel Museum.

We met a mix of Arab and Jewish families harvesting olives, beating the branches with sticks until the fruit fell onto the sheets laid out under the tress. They invited the children to pick some too and take them over to the ancient style stone press for squeezing into oil.

We've had decent rainfall this November and the first post-rain plants are waking up, sitvanit crocuses, karkom (turmeric) and the leaves of the cyclamen, though not yet the flowers.

It's always good to spend time in Jerusalem so I'm very glad that this year my kids are participating in an educational programme at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, ensuring that we visit the Holy City quite regularly.

The JBO began just over a decade ago in a little ramshackle hut behind the Knesset rose garden. Back when I was a student and working part time in Jerusalem I volunteered there a few times to learn about bird ringing. I liked finding time sometimes on the way home from class or work to hang out in the hide, amazed at the way nature had found a way to thrive in the heart of the city.

Since those early days the centre has flourished, boasting a nice little visitors' centre and offering a wealth of activities for kids and adults alike, from learning about bird ringing to night time nature safaris. The children always come home so excited by what they've seen and learnt, recounting to me all the new and seasonal observations they need to add to their nature diaries.

Despite the glorious day out in Jerusalem though, my highlight todaywas taking the monit sherut (shared service taxi/minibus) home from Jerusalem. For the most part we manage decently with public transport, but it's never easy at the end of a busy day piling everyone onto the bus, organising the bags, holding the baby, folding the buggy, paying the driver and just making sure nothing is lost or forgotten.

I usually get on right at the start of the route so that I'm not pressed for time at a busy city bus stop, but today we just missed our bus and it would have meant getting into rush hour to take the next one so I opted for the slightly more expensive, but more convenient sherut.

There I was with the baby and two exhausted kids, a couple of bags and the buggy, all flustered from having rushed over to the sherut stop from the bus stop (wonderful the way these two are nowhere near each other despite going to the same destination), already mentally figuring out how to juggle everything while not delaying the other passengers already waiting to board.

Suddenly the supervisor noticed me, calling out to the driver to come help, making me the centre of attention as the passengers in front of me in the queue all turned around to see what the fuss was.

"Can I hold the baby for you while you pay the driver?" asked the youngish guy immediately ahead of me. "I'll fold the stroller and stow it" said the middle-aged woman with the chic headscarf in a delightful French accent. "Why don't I help the kids on board" offered the lady next to her, while a couple of soldiers were jostling each other over who got to carry the diaper and picnic bags. It turned out these last guys weren't even riding on the same sherut, they'd been waiting in line for a different route and just came over to help.

The icing on the cake was that when I arrived at my destination a female soldier who'd been napping in the front seat asked the driver to wait for her so that she could help the kids and me off the minibus and get the buggy out of the boot, unfolded and ready for baby. It wasn't her stop.

Now I'm used to people being helpful in Jerusalem, there is almost always a kind soul who will help lift a pushchair off a bus or give the kids a seat while I pay the driver. To have the entire bus queue fighting over who gets to help, that is something new for me, even in the City of Gold.

"It's very simple Ima" said young J "everyone just wanted to share a mitzva"

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Well it started out nice enough.

Took the kids to a workshop at the Kfar Sava Museum of Archaeology. The guides there create an experiential programme that teaches the history of human civilisation. Today's class: life in the stone age, the highlight of which was each kid getting a piece of flint and chiseling away at it to make their own speartip, then lashing it to a stick with pseudo leather string to make their own spear, all ready for them to go out "hunting" - apple chunks were provided for our aspiring young hunter gatherers to try their new skills on.

Meanwhile the younger siblings had playtime outside, running around the lawns or watching the beautiful koi fish and dragonflies at the many ornamental ponds scattered throughout the complex. Babies practised pulling themselves up and cruising along the low stone benches. The weather was clear and unseasonably warm even for a Kfar Sava November. Just a perfect morning for all the family.

The highlight for my toddler though was that we were going to take the train home. I find it's the easiest way to travel with the kids, they love watching trains in the station and the scenery out the window, they can get up and move around during the journey and it's easier to get the baby buggy on and off than with a bus.

Train stations in Israel have airport style security complete with x-ray machine and metal detector arch. Really. Still for the most part they've been a bit more relaxed of late. Not today. I was surprised at how thorough they were, really taking apart our bags, searching the buggy. Hmm, I thought, something is up.

One of the perks of a museum trip today was I was just too busy to actually listen to the news. Actually everyone was. Not so the folks on the train. As soon as a got on I could hear the conversations of the other passengers further down the car "It's starting again" "Yes, there was rock throwing again and a possible shooting at the dangerous bend near our village last night."

Then I noticed a bunch of missed calls on my phone and called my DH back and heard his slightly shaky voice and the news about the bus bombing in Tel Aviv and my heart sank with that old too familiar feeling. I hope it isn't starting again. Arriving at Tel Aviv's Hashalom train station to change trains you could have cut the tension with a knife, like everyone was already expecting the next blow, everyone had that same question mark hanging over them "Is it starting again?"

On the next train there were two people heatedly "discussing" the Gaza issue. OK, so they were yelling at each other so loudly the whole long car could hear, like front row seats on one of Israel Channel 1 political "discussion" shows. Good thing it was one of the newer ones divided into compartments so someone could just get up and close the connecting doors. Pretty good sound proofing.

We arrived in Modi'in just as the city was going in to lock down due to a massive police anti-terror sweep in the area. The whole afternoon and evening echoed to wave after wave of frantic police sirens and circling helicopters, as though the entire Israeli police force was concentrated right outside our windows.

Toddler, blissful in his innocence, was thrilled. "Look, a helicopter! Oh, another helicopter. Look it's coming back!"

Thousands of Modi'in residents were stuck in town with thousands more stuck on their way home as local roads and even major highways were blocked by police checkpoints and roadblocks.

Well I certainly had a unique excuse to give my dentist later that evening when I showed up late to my appointment. I was stuck waiting for my husband to take over from me with the kids, but he was stuck in the huge backlog of cars behind the police checkpoints unable to reach me on the phone because the toddler had disabled it while I was busy nursing the baby and poor DH was left wondering what on earth was going on with those of us trapped on the other side of the police roadblocks.

Never a dull moment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


It's a Hamas plot to prevent Baby from going to sleep on time. He was just nodding off this evening when the boom jolted him to sudden whimpering wide awakeness.

It was so loud and distinct I almost wondered why our local sirens hadn't gone.  Once I'd settled baby back to sleep I checked and realised I was hearing an impact from around 20-25 km away where unfortunately a building was hit and several people injured.

I think we're hearing these rocket strikes from far away because of the way our building is oriented,  we have a clear line of sight/sound in the direction of towns that have had alerts. Just hearing the booms is bad enough.

I took the kids to their usual science activity today at Rehovot's Weizman Institute of Science. They have a fantastic outdoor science museum there which is great for a one off visit, but which also offers various courses and classes for children of just about all ages.

Normally on a weekday morning we have the place to ourselves. Today it was packed, children, grown-ups, teenagers, the place was buzzing. They had opened their doors to families from the south where schools are closed due to the rocket threat. Some of the children were there in groups organised by local municipalities or youth movements, but there were also private family groups from various towns and villages in the Gaza border area.

Weizman isn't alone in opening its doors to the traumatised citizens of southern Israel. Educational centres, museums and zoos around the country have been organising similar programmes. Even schools in safer areas have been hosting students from rocket fire zones, classes hosting a few extra students, like my neighbour's sons' school where they told staff and pupils to invite any southern relatives to join their school while studies are cancelled in regions within 40km of Gaza due to the security situation.

It's the silver lining in all this craziness, the way Israelis pull together and open their hearts and homes.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Out of the mouths of babes...

Conversation between my 7 y-o and her friend:

Friend: We have a playdate today because I was supposed to go on a tiyul to a forest but there is nowhere safe indoors there if the rockets fall so I don't have school
Junior: Don't you know what to do if rockets come and you are outside? You just lie down on the ground and put your hands over your head, like this:

And she proceeds to demonstrate.

Junior: Didn't you learn that at school?
Friend: No
Junior: I learnt that from my friend A. She lives in a kibbutz that's been in rocket range for a long time. She taught everyone at her birthday party this year.

That same morning:

"Isn't it terribly dangerous walking in a wilderness full of terrorists?"
"But it's the only way we can reach Eretz Yisrael, we have to"
"I know, we will just have to do it, my Abba has talked of this for years, going home to Eretz Yisrael"
"Do you have a weapons permit?"
"Yes I do, I will protect you"
"You know I am pregnant, if I get hurt I will need you to look after my baby"

(My daughter and her friend playing with their Playmobile toys)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shabbat shalom?

Thank God our sleepy little town stayed sleepy over Shabbat.

With the increase in rocket range in recent days we considered it prudent to leave the radion on over Shabbat. In times like these Israeli radio operates a "silent frequency" especially for observant Jews who ordinary would not listen to the radio on the Sabbath. You leave your radio tuned to this station and it will only broadcast in the event of an emergency, in this case an announcement came on each time there was an alert for incoming missiles.

The "silent frequency" is for the whole country so every time there was a siren anywhere in Israel the radio came on with a "Code Red" announcement. Unbelievable how many times Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beer Sheva and the various rural southern regions had sirens over Shabbat, plus also once in Tel Aviv and once in Jerusalem. Thank God for Iron Dome which has successfully intercepted so many of the rockets on a trajectory for built up areas.

Over and over again we heard "Code Red, Code Red for Ashkelon" "Code Red for Beer Sheva" "Code Red for the Eshkol Region" and so on, with the names of so many rural areas, towns and cities, sometimes with alerts following rights on the heels of the previous one, as a barrage of rockets rained down. It truly brought home to us more than anything just how horrific the situation in the south is.

Our guests this week were from Tel Aviv and they were only partly joking when they said they had come to us for respite from the rockets. They had already been through 3 sirens in 2 days, one as they were driving to us on Friday. They described the chaos as cars frantically stopped on the highway and drivers scrambled for cover by roadside barriers and verges. My husband had a similar experience travelling home from work on Thursday.

This evening after I put the baby to bed I happened upon a regional news programme broadcasting from the Tel Aviv area just as they were announcing a siren in that part of the country.

I realised that as they were reporting the booms of the Iron Dome interceptions I was hearing them here in my home with almost no time delay. Woke the baby. Confirmed that we'd been hearing Iron Dome booms the day before too. They were incredibly loud. Amazing how far the sound carries from so far away. God Bless Iron Dome.

Today I had the windows open which meant that I could also hear my neighbour's son asking his mother if they could go up to a nearby hill and see if they could see the "action" over the coast. Her hysterical response - absolutely not!

As the rocket range seems to be getting closer to us people in my area have been readying their shelters - just in case. Many parents are concerned that a number of kindergartens are operating out of temporary caravan trailers which offer no protection in the event of a rocket attack and certainly don't have the shelters required by law in public buildings. A friend called to confer with me as to whether she should send her son to preschool tomorrow - wouldn't it be irresponsible of her to send him just in case our area was targetted?

Meanwhile people all over the country, including many family and friends, are getting a Tzav 8 - call-ups for reserve duty. One friend recounted how someone she works with got his papers in the middle of a meeting and just upped and left right there and then. It's particularly hard in areas under fire where suddenly mothers are home alone with kids who are already traumatised by the stress of constant rockets barrages and sirens.

I'm just a stay at home Mum, so of course I don't have any real insight into whether there will actually be a ground offensive or whether this is just a precaution. A ground campaign is always risky, with the chance of it becoming bogged down in an open ended operation or going horribly wrong in other ways. Going in on the ground is unlikely to completely prevent Hamas firing rockets at Israel. On the other hand maybe it is necessary if there are clear attainable goals. I do think though that the current air strikes against Hamas are effective. Israel seems to have good intelligence about the men behind the rockets and has succeeded in taking them out. Whether that's enough to end the rocket onslaught I don't know, but it is certainly sending Hamas a clear message that Israel is well aware who is responsible for the attacks on Israeli civilians and will hold them accountable.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Imma it's an emergency situation, we NEED chocolate!

At around 02:00 last night there was an almighty hullabaloo outside our building with a car pulling up outside, much frantic slamming of doors, good natured spirited chatter and laughter and from the sound of it many many people getting out and running up the stairs to our building.

Today I noticed an unfamiliar infant buggy in the hall. Turns out our upstairs neighbours are hosting relatives from the south, quite a number of them. More than one vehicle's worth by my estimate. That would explain all the door banging.

In some towns within rocket range where school has been cancelled due to the security situation the local municipalities have arranged day trips for the children to safer parts of the country. Many of my friends' kids have spent the day in Jerusalem.

For our part we've invited friends from the south to come to stay with us, but most insisted they were staying in the south, putting their faith in the Iron Dome anti-missile system to intercept most of the rockets from Gaza and not wishing to send the message that Hamas could chase them from their homes.

Maybe they were on to something. This evening just as my husband was just leaving Tel Aviv on his way home from work the sirens wailed over the city, sending people scattering for cover by the side of the road. My husband and several friends reported hearing booms, apparently Iron Dome intercepting rockets. It's the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at Israel, that the air raid sirens have sounded over the Tel Aviv region.

When my daughter heard the new about Tel Aviv this evening she took out the little Home Front Command "What to do in an emergency" booklet from it's place next to the phone book and proceeded to read the entire thing out loud to me, chiding me for not having the plastic sheeting and other essential emergency equipment ready in our Mamad, or "secure room", the small reenforced shelter room all modern Israeli homes have been built with since the rocket attacks of the 1991 Gulf War.

I pointed out that a)not all of the items mentioned in the booklet were relevant to our current situation b) if we filled our Mamad with all the stuff recommended by Home Front Command there wouldn't actually be any room in it for us!

Then she asked if we could at least get some emergency rations like chocolate and Bamba (peanut butter fluff snacks, an Israeli institution), you know, so that her toddler little brother won't get nervous in case we have to go to the shelter.

I went back into the kitchen to finish clearing up from dinner and there she was with her favourite My Little Pony blanket, map of the world pillow and a stack of books ready to set up a cosy corner for herself in the Mamad, "Just in case there are sirens tonight Imma."

I explained to her that while our small town is technically in range now, as far as we know the Hamas people in Gaza shooting the rockets don't have that many long range rockets and anyway, they have their sights set on bigger and more important cities. Also there is the Iron Dome anti-missile system that thank God has managed to intercept many rockets before the could hit Israel. And in any case, if the siren did go we would probably just spend a short time in the shelter, not like in the towns and villages right next to Gaza where they only have 15 seconds warning time.

Finally I said to her "You know how quickly you can get to the shelter, we've done quite a few drills and we've done timed race games so that Toddler will know too, I think you'll be fine."

My daughter looked at me thoughtfully. "Well Imma, you are probably right about these sorts of strategic issues, but I think I'd like to set up a cosy corner in the Mamad just the same, you know, in case you're wrong."

Here's hoping and praying that our boys and girls in green get the rocket launchers before they can launch any more.

From Beit Yisrael to Gaza

Taxi driver yesterday had the radio on in the cab and was fuming about all the people hesitant to respond to the rocket fire on the south with a full ground assault.

He was a 40ish heavyset guy, no kippa on his shiny bald head, hunkered down behind his steering wheel with grim determination like all the traffic around us was out to get him.

"It's time to deal with this Gaza situation once and for all" He declared. "How many rockets do we have to take? The world hates us anyway, who cares what America or Europe or anyone has to say. We need to send in the army and clean out all the terrorists to protect our people."

In my mind I was thinking that there is no such thing as a "sterile operation". No way to mount a ground assault without further casualties. That the folks in charge have to weigh the risks of the rockets with the risks of escalation. That nothing is that simple.

"Those idiots on Facebook" he said "What are they waiting for,  someone to be killed? A whole family to be wiped out? The Israeli army must act now to prevent an even greater tragedy and I should know. Do you remember Beit Yisrael?"

I nodded that I did, of course I did. It was a Motzei Shabbat back in 2002, we had guests and I was clearing up from Shabbat when I saw the flickering of the news on my neighbour's TV in the apartment across the yard, harsh reality breaking into the lingering quiet of Shabbat.

"It was my brother-in-law's family that was decimated in that suicide bombing" he continued. "So many children gone in a flash. They went for the Shabbat, for a family bar mitzvah, the Rabbi said it would be a great zkhut (merit) to keep a whole Shabbat and they tried, but by that afternoon they'd had enough of the crowded building and cramped conditions. They went out to leave and this yeshiva student pleaded with them to stay, it was only a couple of hours until the end of Shabbat. But they started to leave anyway, their son was sitting in the car listening to music, they were already out the door of the building."

And he proceeded to tell me the whole long story of that grisly night in March 2002 from the perspective of his family who were attending the bar mitzvah, how the tragedy unfolded. How the wife and sister were saved by going back to get a jumper because the girl felt chilly. How the son sitting in the car was killed. How a yeshiva student was holding the baby as the father folded the stroller into the car, and the baby was saved. Later the yeshiva bohur came to the shiva and Rav Benayahu blessed him and his wife that Hashem would give them with twins within a year, and it came to pass.

I just sat there speechless the whole way, grateful that for once Junior had dozed off and the boys were too young to understand.

"And that is why I don't understand these people sitting comfortably in Tel Aviv like it's just rain in the South. That's why Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) must act. Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles doesn't understand the reality of all these rockets raining down on the south and leaving so few casualties in their wake. You know how much family I have in the South? If God Forbid a rocket scores a direct hit on a house and someone else has to go through what my family went through, it will be far too late"

I had nothing to say to that.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beer Sheva II

Beer Sheva is a hodge podge of architectural styles. There are run down areas of urban decay, dreary blocks straight out of the post-war east European style of mass public housing. Other older tower blocks have been renovated and beautified, their gardens well tended. In between are neighbourhoods of private homes, a child's drawing of a simple white house with a red roof or Mid East style boxes with wrought iron gates and enclosed courtyards.

Only the swish modern buildings are built according to the post-1991 Gulf War construction codes that require homes to each have their own personal "secure room" shelter. For everyone else a siren means either a mad dash to an outside shelter or holing up in whichever room has the fewest windows or external walls.

I always take lots of photos from my wanderings around Israel for our friends and family abroad, many of whom I know have never visited Israel or have done so only briefly. My photos from Beer Sheva are nothing earth shattering - a street view, historical site, a park, a couple of museums.

Stormclouds over scrub and farmland on the outskirts of Beer Sheva

When (if) you see reports of southern Israel coming under rocket fire, this is what those reports mean, just ordinary places you might live or visit, except that every so often, way too often, the folks in Gaza lob rockets at them.

To me it is walking around the very ordinariness of a place like Beer Sheva on a quiet day without sirens that truly brings home the craziness of the situation. Just walking in the park or praying in the synagogue or enjoying a family dinner with friends and thinking that any minute the peace might be shattered by the eerie sirens of my mother's childhood in wartime London. It boggles the mind.

Waiting for rain in the countryside around Beer Sheva

One of several beautifully planned play and recreation areas at the Australian cavalry memorial park in Beer Sheva. This sign reminds visitors of the rules of the park including no eating of sunflower seeds in the playground and respectfully waiting one's turn on the play equipment.

Soldiers from Australia and New Zealand played a pivotal role in the British fight against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Perhaps their most famous battle was the Beer Sheva cavalry charge, one of the last in history.

The Joe Alon Bedouin Heritage Centre in the Lahav Forest just north of Beer Sheva offers an insight into the traditional lifestyle of the Bedouin tribes of the Negev and Sinai, employing local Bedouin to guide visitors.

Beer Sheva

This past weekend we were down south visiting some dear friends in Beer Sheva.

I took the train down on Thursday so that my aircraft mad kids could spend the afternoon at the nearby Air Force Museum. They spent a good couple of hours racing around the outdoor exhibits and calling out the names of the ones they recognised, but I think the highlight was

scrambling on the old trainers with open cockpits strategically placed near the indoor museum so that visitors can get that urge to climb on something out of their system before going on to the collection of historic aircraft with the big "do not touch" signs.

That evening we went on to Beer Sheva itself, dropped the kids off at our friends' flat with a babysitter while the four of us grown-ups went out for dinner at a modest studenty little Indian vegetarian place.

Friday dawned grey and overcast, a first real hint of winter. Still it wasn't too chilly so our host took us to a nearby park, built as a memorial to the Australian cavalry who fought for the British in the First World War and played a crucial role in defeating the Ottoman Turkish army. Aside from the memorial there is a lovely park and several fun playgrounds for children of all ages. A perfect blend of history and energy burning excitement for the kids.

As the rain clouds grew more ominous we headed to the Joe Alon Bedouin Heritage Centre, a museum showcasing traditional Bedouin life in the Negev and Sinai. The children were absolutely riveted, impressed by the skill with which the Bedouin mastered their harsh environment and the resourcefulness with which they made what they needed from what was to hand, from weaving baskets and shelters from palm fronds to recycling tin cans and bottle tops to make toys.

There was even a mini traditional Bedouin tent for the children to play in, and the kids got to work, inspired by what they had seen in the exhibits, pretending to grind wheat and bake pita, weave goat hair for their tent walls and pound coffee beans the traditional way. Our local Bedouin guide seemed chuffed by how they got into the spirit of things and taught them the special rythymn for pounding coffee along with a generous dose of folk tales.

We enjoyed a beautiful Shabbat in our friends' Beer Sheva community, visiting their shul, meeting families from the neighbourhood, the children playing happily together. The afternoon's excitement was seeing a bevy of horses going by, some local teenagers out for an afternoon ride on the usually busy main road, almost devoid of traffic in the lull of Shabbat.

And on the drive home we heard on the radio about the escalation in rocket fire on southern Israel from Gaza.

Over the last day or so around 90 rockets have been fired into southern Israel. Their range includes the small farms and villages close to the Gaza border, coastal cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod, all the way up to towns like Gedera and Yavneh, commuting distance from Tel Aviv.

Two of those rockets fired today targeted Beer Sheva and the sirens once again wailed over the city sending residents to seek cover wherever they could.

First World War Australian cavalry memorial with typical Beer Sheva blocks of flats 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pomegranate season

"Ima, do you know how I feel when I eat this wonderful ruby pomegranate? I feel like a great princess who gets to dine on fine delicacies every day. I feel beautiful with the beauty of this queen of pomegranates."

That was J waxing lyrical about this evening's dessert. She got through one and a half whole pomegranates by herself, the kind that look ugly and beat up and dried out on the outside to the extent that you are almost tempted to discard them as past their prime but when you open them you find them a delightful juicy ruby on the inside and so full of flavour, so perfect that they are gobbled up in minutes.

It's funny to me to see the current fad in the world for pomegranates, as though they are something new, just discovered rather than a key fruit central to the cultures of some of the world's most ancient civilisations.
Of course we have grown up with pomegranates, a lifelong favourite of mine be they tart, sweet or somewhere in between. As my one of my mother's English friends used to call them "those funny red things that Jews and Iranians eat". Quite.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

חתונה מאוחרת...

יום של צער ושמחה מעורבים, הבשורה על מות בעלה של חברה ואח"כ חתונה. 

חתונה מאד מעורבת: חרדים וחילונים ומה שביניהם, חוזרים בתשובה ועונים בשאלה וכולם בתוך משפחה אחת, אחים ואחיות והורים וילדים. אני לא יודעת אם זה כך אצל כולם, אבל נדמה לי שאנחנו מגיעים להרבה אירועים כאלה שמכנסים לתוכם כל מיני קצוות של החברה שלנו, רוב הזמן תוך משפחה אחת שחבריה בחרו בדרכים כ"כ שונות. אז אולי עמנו אינו כה מפולג כפי שמייצגים אותה 
בתקשורת או אולי פשוט נפלנו על אחרית הימים, וכמו בחתונה בה השתתפנו הלילה משפחה חרדית תתחתן במשפחה חילונית ורב חובש כיפה סרוגה תערוך להן חופה.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sky rockets in flight

Imagine being all excited about your 6th birthday party.

You've been planning for months. Your birthday is around Purim time so you're planning a fancy dress party. Your costume is chosen and ready. Your cake is baked. Your mother has bought all kinds of goodies your health conscious family doesn't usually have in the house.

You've invited friends from all around Israel. You're excited to show them your kibbutz with it's cow shed full of black and white cows. You're very proud of "your" cows.

You're counting down the time left until your party, only just over a day to go.

And then rockets start raining down on southern Israel, air raid sirens blaring night and day sending you and your family and your neighbours scurrying for cover with only seconds to spare. Your mother announces, sorry sweetie, it's just too dangerous to have your party here right now, we can't invite people to our home, it isn't safe.

My own 6 year-old, J, was supposed to be going to A's costume party. She too was all excited, anticipating the games and of course, the thrill of real live cows in the barn.

Only A lives in a kibbutz within rocket range of Gaza and as of Saturday night over 100 rockets had been fired into Israel, the residents of the region staying close to their shelters.

Saturday night we got a call from little A's mother telling us that for the third time in about a year she's had to tell guests not to visit because of the "security situation". This is the third time J was meant to go down to A's southern kibbutz and A's mother has had to cancel because of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

Poor A as you can imagine was disappointed. And worried about the cows that don't have a shelter like the people do.

Luckily her mother is a resourceful woman and on short notice she figured out that the birthday party could be relocated to parkland just north of their kibbutz, an area still out of range of the rockets from Gaza.

A got to have her party and host all her friends from around Israel. They had a treasure hunt in the woods and pass the parcel, then her big brother did a magic show followed by a feast of falafel, hummous, pita and salad, chips, Bamba (peanut butter puffs - Israel's national kids' snack) and a chocolate crisped rice birthday cake.

J came home bouncing and happy, excited by the surprise location of A's birthday party and by the little individual packs of candy each child received - there were SO many flavours to choose from!

She also came home chattering about all clear signals, sirens, clearing up unexploded bombs and the dangers of unexploded ordinance.

Try as one might, you can't shield the kids from this, even if they aren't in areas directly affected by the rockets. J knows that her friends to the south of us have to live with air raids. She knows that there is a chance that one day we might be in range too. She knows what to do during drills.

After today she also knows first hand from A and other kibbutz children what it's really like, what the adults warn the children to be careful of (if you find bits of shrapnel or exploded rocket when you're out playing don't touch!) and what they do if the siren catches them outdoors or in the car.

I can see that to some extent she is anxious about it all, a little scared, but mostly she is matter of fact, practical and accepting. This is just the way things are. This is the way A has grown up, and for J it's as straight forward as that. Rocket attacks are to her and A as much a force of nature as the theoretical earthquakes we drill for too.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Hamentaschen recipe

 It's that time of year again, stores are chock full of garish costumes and face paint, DH is practicing his theatrical Megilla reading and every evening our peace is disturbed by teenagers throwing firecrackers in the park late at night. Purim must be coming!

Our multitudinous local bakeries have been selling hamentaschen since the day after Hannukah, and as with the Hannukah sufganiyot every year sees new attempts to out do the competition with unusual and bizarre hamentasch flavours.

Our family custom is to make our own, for the younger generation it is one of the highlights of the month of Adar, and just like  the bakeries, we seem to experiment with new fillings each Purim. One thing remains constant though, our basic hamentasch recipe.

I seem to have developed a reputation for being the go to person for wholewheat hamentaschen. "My" recipe is based on my mother-in-law's white flour recipe which I adapted for wholewheat, and just because I can't help tinkering with recipes. What I love about this recipe is that it is simple and kid, even toddler, friendly, so it's fun and easy to turn hamentaschen making into a family project.

Wholewheat hamentaschen dough

2 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of one orange (about 1/2 cup)
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup demarara (light brown) sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 3/4 cup wholewheat flour + a little more

Choose a filling of your choice for example a jam of some sort (we like the whole fruit kind), brownie mixture, chocolate chips, dried fruits, dulce de leche, poppy seed, pie filling, English mince pie filling, halva spread, peanut butter, carob spread or even soft cheese with cinnamon.

Preheat oven to 180C or about 350F
1. Mix wet ingredients
2. Add dry ingredients and knead. (If the dough is sticky rather than smooth and easy to work with gradually add a little more flour to the mixture in handfull increments, until the dough has a smooth, non-sticky texture and is easy to shape.)
3. Take a pinch of dough. Roll into a ball and then flatten into a circle. You can take a small pinch to make mini-hamentashen or a largish pinch to make them big, whatever size works for you.
4. Fill with jam or other filling of your choice
5. Fold over the filling and pinch into a triangle shape
6. Do not grease pans
7. Bake at 350 F (about 180C) for around 15 minutes (check after 10)

NB If you're using wholewheat flour this will come out looking darker than with white flour.

a) Mix in some cocoa powder with the flour, even substitute as much as 1/4 cup cocoa powder to the dough.
b) Dilute the orange juice with liquor such as Baileys or other Irish cream, creme de menthe, rum, chocolate or coffee liquor.
c) Replace the vanilla extract with peppermint extract, works especially well with chocolate filling and with added cocoa powder in the dough.

Chocolate hamentasch filling

@250gr dark or bittersweet chocolate
3 tbl oil or softened butter
2/3 cup wholewheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
2 tsp peppermint extract or vanilla extract
2 tsp coffee
3/4 sugar
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips

1. In a microwave proof bowl melt the chocolate, taking care that it doesn't burn. Try it in small increments, the exact time needed will vary according to different power microwaves.
2. Mix in all the rest of the ingredients except for the chocolate chips.
3. Fold in the chocolate chips.
4. Fill hamentaschen (dough recipe above, I usually add cocoa powder to the dough). You will need to work fast as the filling will stiffen and harden as it cools.

Any left over filling can be used to make chocolate drop cookies, bake for about 10 minutes on 180C.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Tu B'Shvat

So we didn't do anything too exciting for Tu B'Shvat, but we did have a great walk on a hill near our home. Almond trees are not at their peak yet, aside from one tree, many cyclamen are yet to open, but the crown anemones are glorious, plenty of Land of Israel iris, wood sorrel and Dominican sage, asphodels starting to bloom in patches, some spring groundsel and pimpernels, start of the wild mustard, chamomile and several other flowers we usually see slightly later in the season and even a few early green ears of barley. Plenty to feast the eyes and senses on.

I've been walking over this hill for so many years, observing it in all seasons and weathers, but exploring with my kids is like seeing everything anew. I'm still the crazy lady lying belly down in the mud trying to capture just the right angle for a cyclamen portrait or a shot of an interesting clump of anemones, but now I have J and T getting down on the ground with me and noticing an ant or a grasshopper hiding in the grass, or spotting a tiny unfamliar wildflower I might not have seen otherwise. And sometimes as I'm trying to get my photograph T will climb on my back or J will lean over and block the light, but that's part of the fun of it, they want to learn everything from what each flower is called to why I need to twist in convoluted contortions to shoot a picture of a flower.

Their boundless curiosity forces me to keep learning too, whether it's recalling long forgotten classes in geology or history, or looking up botanical facts, I have endless questions to answer. Even T is now old enough to be able to ask questions, albeit usually of the one or two word variety. He has graduated from being a "she-eino yodea lishol" (one who doesn't know how to ask) to a "tam" (one who asks simple or naive questions).

J is often the one who rushes to answer these days, she is so excited to have a little brother to teach. The two of them enjoy exploring the hill together, J sometimes leading him along by the hand, pausing to point out items of interest, crouching down with him to inspect a patch of lichen or teach him the parts of a flower. I have no idea what T is absorbing from all this at his tender age, but he laps it up, thrilled when he recognises a flower he's learnt about, questioning if another yellow flower is the same as the one next to it.

The highlights of our Tu B'Shvat walk were definitely the butterflies though - a painted lady and a green-striped white. I gave J our pocket butterfly field guide and she sat on the ground and opened it up, pointing out the different insects to T and trying to figure out which was posing for us on the path. Then the painted lady led us a game of chase around some of the prickly pear cactuses the kids trying to trace its erratic path, giggling in delight when it swooped low over them.

It wasn't all nature lessons though. Our region is blessed with an abundance of archaeological sites - ruins from Crusader, Byzantine, Roman, Second and First Temple periods, and earlier. The earth is littered with shards of pottery and the entire hill is covered in ancient cisterns, now thankfully gated over for safety. Little T who barely talks in sentences recognises ancient olive presses and excitedly yells out the Hebrew "beit bud, beit bud!" whenever he sees one or anything resembling one. J points out the difference between the large rectangular stones typical of the Second Temple or Roman periods, and the smaller, uneven stones used in later construction, such as the upper section of the Crusader ruin atop the hill. We carefully peer down into an ancient mikva (ritual bath) and note the remains of plastering on its walls.

To be sure we are a family addicted to books, watchers of documentaries and regular visitors to museums, but here, in our own backyard all of that truly becomes real and tangible. My oldest thrives on the theoretical, but out here she learns what books and films and museums just can't quite teach.

Our little local hill is truly their classroom.