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