Tuesday, May 11, 2021

One small step?

Why is this happening now? Is it to do with Ramadan, land rights, Bibi, Yom Yerushalayim and so on?

I may be wrong, but I think those are all more minor "hooks" to hang a new round of conflict on, but I don't think they are what is motivating Hamas. I'm going to put the issue of PA elections on one side, though I think that is also relevant, and look at the Israeli elections, or should I say, electoral chaos?

It seems to me that the Hamas response is due to the change in the Israeli Islamist party which has broken ranks with the main anti-Zionist Israeli Arab political parties and said that it wants to put the national conflict aside for now and focus on domestic issues it has in common with Israeli Jews in order to better provide for the needs of the Israeli Muslim community.

It's maybe one of the biggest impacts of this covid year which has put so much focus on local policy from the economy to public health to the balancing of protecting public health while protecting freedom of worship and so many related issues.

In April 2020 the leader of the Islamist Party, Mansour Abbas, also addressed the Knesset on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to express his solidarity with the Jewish people's suffering during the Holocaust, emphasising that this was a day to put aside the national conflict between Jews and Arabs. 

Abbas has been meeting with rabbis from across the spectrum, from Hareidi to religious Zionist. Recently the head of Israel's Islamic Party has been going to the home of Israel's most senior religious Zionist rabbi, Rav Druckman, senior in the Bnei Akiva yeshiva system, and meeting there with him and other senior religious Zionist rabbis, having interfaith dialogue, talking about issues they can cooperate on.

Yes, so far the actual politicians haven't agreed on a coaltion, Smoterich remains resolutely opposed to working with Islamists, but the rabbis, the spiritual leaders are trying to build bridges to the Muslim community. This is a huge step forward in reconciliation and one can only hope more grassroots understanding and good relations. Yes, it is motivated by political expediency on both sides, but also a realisation that covid and Israel's electoral stalemate have brought, that different communities have to work together or the political system will remain permanently gridlocked.

Hamas is livid about what it sees as "betrayal" and "normalisation" between Muslims and Jews in Israel. It needs to incite a new round of conflict to stay relevant, and to block this attempt at building better Muslim-Jewish relations in Israel, and maybe healing some of the animosity, because any kind of normalisation or interfaith understanding makes Hamas irrelevant.

To be clear, I don't think brotherly love has broken out between Israel's Islamists and religious Zionists, but interfaith dialogue and intercommunity cooperation is a start, a way for people to get to know each other better and maybe through that come to make a real peace with each other. Even if not coalition comes of their talks, a door has been opened, contact made. One can only hope and pray that this will be a building block toward better relations between different communities and a way forward to real peace one day. That is what has Hamas spooked and anxious to ignite another war.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Strawberry fields forever

I can't believe I just bought another kilo of strawberries, but it's end of season now and finally they are affordable.

Earlier in the week we went strawberry picking at a local farm and came home with 5.5 kilos worth. Should have lasted a few days right? We polished them off for dinner that night, nothing else needed, just a side of creamy water buffalo yoghurt. Some of the best strawberries ever.

We hadn't planned on strawberry picking but a spring heatwave was rolling in (yuck) and a local farmer was worried that his ripe crop would go bad on the bushes before it could all be harvested, so for a small token fee the general public was invited to bring baskets and buckets and to come pick as much of the ripe fruit as they wanted. For the price of a 500g punnet of strawberries in the shops we picked several kilos worth. It was a great deal and so much fun.

Some of the strawberries were already starting to become overripe. They looked gorgeous hanging on the plant but if you touched them they disintegrated in to a red gooey mess. We come out of there looking like we'd done a murder, stained head to toe in red juice. There was plenty of perfectly ripe fruit though, and I mean perfect, as in peak sweetness and flavour, needing to be consumed on the day they were picked.

What we didn't eat on the day I turned in to my grandmother's strawberry tzimmes, essentially a simple cold fruit soup, just cook the berries with water and a dash of cinnamon and vanilla, then chill and serve in the heat of the day either from the fridge with a dollop of sour cream or yoghurt or semi-frozen from the freezer as a slush in a big beer glass. A little slice of heaven.

Strawberry fields forever.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Water and honey

We had just arrived at the waterfall at the end of this delightful riverside trail in northern Israel, everyone just standing there enjoying the sound of the water when someone broke the serenity of the moment to shout "Look up there!!!"

So we looked up and at first saw nothing, but then we looked higher and near the top of the cliff above us was a sight I have never before seen in real life - a wild bee hive, pale golden honey combs nestled in crevices of the dark rocks metres above our heads.

So we stood at the end of the trail between these two astoundingly beautiful natural phenomena, the waterfall and the natural bee hive, marvelling at both the sight we had come to see and the unexpected bonus we came so very near to missing simply because we were too captivated by the gushing, rushing waterfall to look up behind us and see the wonder what was hiding in plain sight. 

All along the trail we were surrounded by dense clusters of blooming hycinth squill, their tall blue-purple stalks creating mini-forests all around, perfuming the air. Nestling closer to the ground were the last remaining end of season oriental hyacinths, little patches of lilac-blue, most now faded, some completely withered, but so delightfully fragranced that we still smelled them before we saw them. Even closer to the ground were end of season cyclamen, patches of white-pink and bright green heart shaped leaves still blooming bright and strong among the rocks. Here and there we spotted pure white star of Bethlehem and wild garlic flowers. It was a paradise for bees, how logical for them to build themselves a home in the rocks amid such bounty. 

Mah rabu maasaykha, how wonderous are Your creations. Tiny wild creatures without the power of speech, unable to apprentice or draw up plans, but intrinsically able to work together to build stunning works of art and delicious, nutritious food from a dazzling array of flowers. How blessed are we in this world that not only do we have the pratical benefit of bees, but an asthetic one too, the honey process could be utilitarian, but instead Hashem created a system that includes adorable furry bees, bright gorgeous flowers with delightful fragrances, eye catching honeycombs and geometric shapes.What a gift to the world. 

I have visited so many apiaries around Israel and each time I find myself astonished anew at the fascinating and mysterious world of bees, but what a blessing and a privilege to finally see a wild hive in its raw and natural state just minding its business up on that cliff above one of the most popular trails in one of the most popular national parks in the country.

Wishing you much sweetness and good health from "Land of Milk and Honey".

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The gruesome details of memory

 CW: this is a post about the Holocaust, it will not be a pleasant read.

It's a cliche to say that the further the the Second World War recedes in to the haze of the past the harder it is to convey to a modern generation the extent of the perverted hellishness of the Holocaust.
Maybe that's a positive thing, that most people alive today cannot perceive the privation and depravity of those times. Or maybe it's a danger because if even then many people refused to believe that such events happened, how do we preserve the memory of the Holocaust today and in the years to come?
There is a compartment in my mind full of horrific details from a lifetime of hearing the stories of survivors and reading primary accounts. Mind and soulbreaking memoirs that once read cannot be unread. Personal testimonies told in hushed tones by little old ladies and shrunken old men who in their distant youth experienced and witnessed the unthinkable, not just with their own eyes and ears, but on their own flesh.
My grandmother-in-law describing how the Nazis discovered the Polish farmhouse where she was hiding, she and her mother fleeing in to the night, feet pounding through the forest, praying not to trip, her mother beseeching her to go on ahead because she was younger, faster. And she reluctantly obeyed, the gap between them widening, as minutes later hearing shots, a cry and a thud, in the distance the baying of search hounds and voices in German.
And she knew that thud was her mother being shot, that she would never see her again, fighting with every nerve and sinew to just keep running, not to turn round, not to stop, not to go back to her dying mother, knowing the Nazis would soon be upon her wounded mother, but that this distraction was the only thing that might give her the chance to get far enough away and survive.
My childhood rabbi, the first army chaplain to arrive with Allied forces to liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, finding himself standing in a sea of walking corpses, the dead piled up like firewood or lying where they fell. Battle hardened Allied soldiers falling to their knees in shock, struck dumb by the diabolical scene all around them, passing out from the stench of death, sickness and feces that permeated the place. Even as their minds tried to comprehend what they were seeing some emaciated camp inmates collapsed and died before their eyes.
Today so often talking about the Holocaust is all so sanitised. Ask someone what the Holocaust was and if they know they will likely say 6 million Jews were killed in gas chambers, which obviously isn't entirely accurate, but on the surface of it, conveys at least some understanding of what happened.
Ask them what they mean about gassing though and they will probably imagine some kind of poison gas cloud almost gently knocking out its victims as it killed them, the image becomes almost sickly "humane" as a method of execution. What most people fail to realise is the extent to which Zyklon B killed in a far more horrific manner.
The Nazis liked using Zyklon B gas because it left little visible evidence on the corpses, allowing the perpetrators to continue the lie that this was "humane fumigation" of people they considered to be vermin. We believe that today we are so hyper aware of mental health issues, but the Nazis were too. They didn't want to traumatise their death squads. As much as the illusion of "fumigation" and "showers" was there to make the victims more docile about going to their deaths, it was also there to make the task easier for the executioners themselves. Simpler for them too to maintain a facade of rounding up the Jewish "filth" to be sanitised and cleansed, herd them in to a room and let the gas do its work, neat and tidy hands free murder with squads of slave labour to clean up the resulting "mess".
The truth is that death from Zyklon B is agonising torture, far from any kind of peaceful passing from the world, most people taking minutes to die as the gas painfully, slowly, broke down its victims.
But the Nazis preffered Zyklon B because they didn't want to traumatise their personnel with overly grotesque deaths. Even so, members of the sonderkommando, the slave labour forced to clear the bodies from the gas chamber, described the dead with blood seeping from their ears, some frothing at the mouth, others with corpses covered in red spots or bruises as they struggled to cling on to life until the last moment.
Even in the gassing murder trucks used for some executions, the Nazis trained their drivers to pack in the victims to the gassing chamber and drive just so that most of the condemned passed out from suffocation or the motion of the truck, allowing minimal use of the carbon monoxide employed in the mobile gas chambers, which left blue and messy corpses having lost control of their bodily functions.
And this is just the very tip of the tip of the iceberg of eye witness accounts, snippets that are usually locked up tight somewhere in the back of my memory because they are too awful to bring out in to the light.
I wonder if without rubbing our faces in the gruesome details though we are all in danger of being unable to keep that memory of the Holocaust real. Already Nazi and Holocaust have become pat phrases to throw around our political discourse at anyone whose politics we suspect of being problematic. Every lightly flung Hitler and fascist comment hurled at a political opponent diminishes the true memory of what the Holocaust was, the enormity of it, the extent of this mammoth centrally planned and bureaucratic killing machine.
Our world has known many murderous dictators, but even Stalin's homicidal rule and Pol Pot's killing fields were in a different league to the state regulated mass murder infrastructure of Nazi Germany, with its meticulous records, complicit industrial complex, precision technology and punctual railways. There have been many crimes against humanity, but sheer organisation and planning of this specific crime against humanity stands out in its heinousness because this was no incidental war crime or spontaneous massacre but to an extent the raison d'etre for much of the Nazi war machine.
It feels sick to talk of these things, the extent of the degradation and pain suffered by the 6 Million as they went to their deaths, the technical details of how Zyklon B gas killed. But how can we not?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Tis the season for garlic and matza

Fresh garlic season is upon us and every year I try to do the whole plaited garlic drying thing, but it never seems to last, at some point I find it gets mold or starts to rot, summers are too humid.

My plan this year is to try plaiting and drying some in the kitchen where we just double glazed our door, so hopefully better insulated against the humid summer weather, and freeze the remaining garlic.

Hedging my bets, but maybe this will be the year I succeed in drying out the fresh garlic and making it last?

Meanwhile I'm taking some of the fresh garlic greens along with the garlic itself to use in my chicken soup (well, it's really turkey soup, but same idea). I find they add great flavour and this time of year I use them instead of leeks. Putting up a big pot with kneidlakh (matza balls) for this Passover holiday weekend.

Usually this week we'd do a communal matza bake the traditional way, so much fun and a great way to get everyone involved from kids to grandparents.

The trick with matzah is that to be considered kosher for Passover the entire matza making process, including baking must happen in under 18 minutes. It's a mad race to mix the dough, knead, roll it out and get it in and out of the oven within the time limit or else it is considered leaven. Not only that, but everything must be thoroughly scrubbed down within that 18 minutes so that not even a dot of dough or flour might remain stuck to anything, hands, surfaces, utensils, not a thing. Would make a great tv game show.

It's a rubric that lends itself to team work and a fun community project, with everyone assigned a job, including someone to man the stopwatch, do a count down and call time.

Last spring we were under strict lockdown, only allowed 1000 metres from our homes, no mixing with anyone outside our households. Definitely no community baking, even some families who traditionally bake their own had trouble getting out to bring the fresh spring water used to make matza.

This year with Israel's high vaccination rates the covd situation is much better but in most places still no communal matza baking or else just for those who have been vaccinated, so children under 16 who are not yet eligible for vaccination can't participate, though some schools managed to have matza baking. Lets hope for next year for everyone.

I will miss using matza we've made with our community, but we'll be fine with only bought matza this year, both machine made (square) and handmade (round, think pita/matza hybrid). I see so much matza lasagne, farfel and matza brei in our immediate future.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Northern exposure

Things are gradually re-opening in Israel with covid rates declining for weeks, so headed up to Mount Hermon for a last chance to see snow before it's gone, and really, we got there just in time.

The melt was already underway with just patches of snow left in shaded areas on the lower slopes and even riding the cable car to the top yielded fields of snow interspersed with bare rock. There was enough though for some sledding, snow ball fights and of course snowman building. Always a thrill to be above the clouds.

Driving back down we stopped a few times to enjoy the first post-melt spring wildflowers - oriental hyacinth, from which the popular cultivated plant was domesticated, round-leafed cyclamen, more delicate than the common cyclamen found elsehwere in Israel and vividly coloured tiny delicate grape hyacinth in cheery clusters along the mountainside. 

At one point a jackal, majestic in its luxurious winter pelt, darted across the road in front of us, clambering over a rocky outcrop before pausing to stand and stare at us, eye to eye, in the fading late afternoon light, the last rays of the sun illustrating why this is known as the golden jackal. 

The approach road passes through the Druze town of Majdal Shams and is lined with food stalls selling regional farm produce, especially the famous Druze pita bread, a popular local treat. A visit to the area is not complete without enjoying some of the excellent local fare.

We stopped at the "Pita Queen" run by a delightful older lady who is a font of culinary and health advice.

We enjoyed watching her whip up some fresh Druze pitas, which are nothing like pita bread that you might find in a bakery, rather they are thin and papery, almost like a crepe and must be eaten hot and fresh from the saj (metal domed griddle) on which they are made.

Traditionally served with a smear of labeneh, olive oil and zaatar, or just olive oil and zaatar, sometimes a little chili pepper.

She offered us tea, made the local way with cinnamon and cardamom, gratefully received on a blustery spring evening. We sat in the car enjoying the view, warming our hands on paper tea cups and chatting to the Queen herself as she pottered around telling us about her wares. 

In the back of her small kitchen she had a pot bubbling away with a warming dessert of hot sahlab/sahlev, somewhere between a thick starchy-milky drink and a pudding seasoned with rosewater, maybe cinnamon, sometimes vanilla too, and topped with more cinnamon, shredded coconut and/or crushed pistachios and/or crushed peanuts.

It was introduced to the Levant during the period of Turkish Ottoman rule and today is a popular winter treat in countries like Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Authentic Turkish, Greek and Iranian salep is made from orchid roots but in Levant countries it is usually milk based with corn or other starch rather than orchid roots. Perfect to warm you up on a chilly day.

Piled up in front of her stall was assorted farm produce made by her family: wildflower honey, balls of labeneh in olive oil and lemon cured olives.

In season there are delicious apples from the orchards now in blossom, but this time of year she was selling Coke bottles full of cider vinegar from last season's crop (drink every morning for good health, fertility and weight loss), as well as homemade olive oil (drink every morning for longevity and good health). This is her daily regimen for getting in shape for the summer, when God Willing, her son is getting married.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Is this why case rates remain high despite high vaccination rates and some (but quite limited and poorly enforced) lockdown measures?

Reminder that when this lockdown was declared due to skyrocketing infection rates the government and the Ministry of Health wanted to close schools. The Ministry of Education opposed closing schools and the Knesset Education Committee vetoed the government decision, forcing schools and kindergartens to remain open.

So despite the supposed lockdown schools were (except in red zones) operating as usual, with the following results:

"Health Ministry data shows that one in three confirmed cases in recent weeks are below the age of 20 and one in eight are below the age of ten.

According to Education Ministry, there were 23,549 students who tested positive — 4,000 of whom are in preschool, 11,680 in elementary school and nearly 8,000 in high school."