Monday, March 30, 2009

Coming Full Circle

In one week, I will have completed a full, yearly cycle of blog posts on this particular blog. I think I tend to see my lifetime in terms of cycles, instead of as a linear progression, because of my adherence to the Jewish calendar and its characteristic movement through seasonal celebrations and commemorations. The reading of the Torah comes full circle every year, but does not necessarily end or begin on the same date on our secular, Gregorian calendar because this calendar is solar, rather than lunar as is our Jewish calendar. Thinking of time as circular rather than linear is probably healthier for me psychologically because I don’t seem to worry about “sailing off the end of the Earth,” as in the time of Columbus, when people thought the Earth was flat. Endings are not really endings—only progressions into the next cycle.

We are approaching Passover, now, which in ancient times was considered the beginning of a new year and a new cycle of seasons. Our friend, Jay, called to ask us to make some modifications to their family Haggadah for Passover, which we have been working on for a number of years because of my desktop publishing business. Last year, I thought we had finally honed it to its completely finished version. Then, on the last day of Passover, his wife was killed by a drunk driver in a tragic car accident. When Jay called, he recited a litany of all the holidays and occasions he had somehow gotten through this year without Sandy. This is the big one, though, and the acid test of his ability to cope. The modifications this year are to make the Haggadah into a memorial version. Perhaps, the cycle of time and another year’s round of holidays will make the pain easier to bear after this. I hope so.

We all had a wonderful time at Mom’s 87th birthday brunch yesterday. We were all delighted on Friday evening when Ari called to say he was able to leave work a little early to start for home. He was caught in a massive traffic jam, though, so the drive that is usually 3 hours, took over 4-1/2. We were still at the table finishing up Shabbat dinner when he arrived. It was great having him here on Friday, and we were all delighted to see him, especially Mom. Shabbat dinner helped us to continue to use up leftovers before Pesach. We had fresh-baked homemade challah, leftover chestnut soup and also leftover butternut squash soup, Boston lettuce with leftover homemade Russian dressing, leftover Israeli salad, veggie lasagna that used up leftover artichokes, frozen spinach, tomato sauce, shredded parmesan and pasta. For dessert, we had leftover date bread sandwiches spread with vanilla-flavored, sweetened cream cheese, leftover hamentaschen and coffee.

Saturday morning, Adele arrived with her daughter and granddaughters, and while Erica manicured Mom’s nails and set her hair in preparation for the party, Adele watched Ava, and Brenna was sent next door to have lunch with her Aunt Beth. Saul, Ari and I went to synagogue, providing a much-needed opportunity for me to get out of the house. Saturday evening, I relaxed with the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle and solved the whole thing without understanding what the answers had to do with the theme of “Closing the Deal.” Then, I had a eureka moment when it hit me that all the theme answers ended with the name of a card game. For about two hours, I could not figure out what Century Twenty One and Pizzeria Uno, i.e., had in common. Ken and Randi had two separate incidents involving flight delay on their return from Hawaii and had spent Friday night in San Francisco in a hotel. They finally arrived home safely on Sunday morning at 2:00 a.m.

Happily, everyone came and went safely in order to attend the party. All seemed to be in good spirits, and Mom was positively radiant with enjoyment at reaching this milestone and being surrounded by her family, especially her youngest great-grandchildren. She was able to sit in her wheelchair for about 2 hours before having to be wheeled off to bed. She slept for long hours after that, but doesn’t seem any the worse for wear today than she has been previously. When she finally awoke this morning, she immediately expressed her pleasure and enjoyment at seeing everyone yesterday and asked me if Ari had gotten home all right. He had driven through a freak rainstorm that had brought hail and strong winds. Our town was one of the hardest hit during this strange weather, as evidenced by scenes of piles of hailstones displayed on the morning news.

The head of volunteers for our hospice organization delivered a beautiful birthday cake for Mom on Friday afternoon that came from Weinrich’s Bakery. The Weinriches were neighbors of ours in Wyncote many years ago, and our kids attended Miss Bunny’s dance classes together. Jessica worked in their bakery one summer while she was in high school. The cake was absolutely beautiful and delicious, and we were told that when the volunteer organization is short on cash, Weinrich’s often donates the cakes. Having known the Weinriches for several years, we were not surprised.

This week will be completely taken up with cleaning and preparing for Passover, so when I next make an entry on this blog, I probably will be well into my second-year cycle. Ari has been preparing a blog entry about an interesting karmic travel experience while he was in Austin, Texas, last week, so keep an eye out for that story in the meantime.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

PB & J

PB & J = Presley Bella and Jamie

Here we go again...
Presley just went down for a nap as I finished reading Aunt Mar's blog. I think she was bored from watching me type e-mail after e-mail, attempting to catch up. I started reading to her, but I think that was what ultimately put her to sleep. Good girl. I am glad that we didn't come to Shabbat dinner on Friday night because we both ended up in the thick of some horrible colds that lasted the entire weekend and then some (and on top of that, my show was canceled at the last minute due to some immature teenagers that I need to speak with tonight - ugh). I mostly felt bad for Presley. She was all stuffy. She has a love-hate relationship with the aspirator. Poor girl. I am feeling much better today. I rested most of yesterday. The asthma is still there. Although, I only need to take the inhaler a couple times a day, if that, so as grandma/gg says, "I can't complain."

Last week, Presley started talking for the first time. I know there are a ton of family jokes that you are all concocting as you read this, so I will just be quiet (for once! - see, even I can't resist) and let the video do the talking.

We are really looking forward to both gg's birthday brunch on Sunday AND Passover Seder on Wednesday. I was able to get instant coverage for my dance classes. The other teachers/directors were really understanding and willing to help out so I could have off that night. I have a dance competition coming up on April 19 in Plymouth Meeting, PA, so I am doing all I can to make each class count. The competition is free to watch at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, if anyone wants to come! I am working on doing an extra class free of charge on Saturday evening, just to help us prepare.

Speaking of preparations, please let us know if we can bring anything to gg's birthday brunch. I think I mentioned before that I am really good at making quiche! Probably best to call though, I am finding my online minutes are few and far between. Although, we are working on getting a web-cam so we can use Skype. I think Andy may be (reluctantly) on board. Haha! I think his tune will change, once he sees it in action.

You also reminded me that I got to work on an amazing event two weekends ago (Sunday, March 15) called the Citizens Bank Caesar Rodney Half Marathon in Wilmington for the American Lung Association (ALA). We had over 1600 people in attendance. I no longer work at the ALA as of that event, so I am home now during the day to raise Presley. She is worth it. You reminded me because I worked with a volunteer named Roxy. She is the life of the party. She made the days leading up to the event, and the event itself, loads of fun. I told her that I know another woman named Roxy (your friend) who is also a joy to be around. I am half-inclined, if I have another girl, to name her Roxy! Can't you see it: Roxy Parker. What a name! That one would HAVE to be famous. On that note, I am going to sign off. Hope everyone is well. Until next time, much love from the Parkers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Lamb is Back!

Although today doesn’t feel as much like a spring day as yesterday, (the temperature was 29°F. this morning), we are, at least date-wise, in the “lamb” part of March. The crocuses have emerged, the trees and lilac bushes are in full bud, and several inches of daffodil shoots are already visible along with little clusters of primrose leaves surrounding my gazebo. Even if we still might have a blizzard, real spring weather is just around the corner, and that makes me very happy. We all have weathered another winter.

Long hours of my time were taken up by my work last week, but both projects went to the printer simultaneously on Wednesday, and so I am free to concentrate on preparing for a family brunch to celebrate my mother’s 87th birthday on Sunday and preparing for Passover, which begins on Wednesday evening, April 8. I am especially proud of my design for a full-color annual report this year, and just found out that last year’s annual report won a state award that is being presented on March 31.

Surprisingly, much good karma has arisen from my decision to stay at home this year rather than to travel to Baltimore to celebrate Passover with my children and grandchildren. Friends and relatives who read my last blog post came forth immediately with offerings of cooking help, still-in-the-box cookware items and dishes, and a willingness to share the seder evenings with us. We felt good about providing an opportunity for some who would be going through lonely times. My Mom, who is too ill to make the trip down to Baltimore, was greatly relieved to hear that she would be surrounded by loved ones this year at Passover, rather than be relegated to the care of a hired, live-in aide. My friend, Faith, was delighted when I offered to cater her meals as well. Another fortunate outcome is that I will have the opportunity, once again, to create the traditional dishes we have enjoyed over many seders and photograph them in detail for my recipe blog. We have a zillion photos of gorgeous table settings with friends and relatives around the table for all the years of seders, but none were taken of the food itself. This year is probably a last chance for me to make a visual record of the preparations that I have so carefully committed to a written record. My son-in-law, Alex, is a truly exceptional cook, but eschews the traditional dishes in favor of a more spontaneous and imaginative style of cooking that varies from year to year and is difficult to codify into written recipes.

One additional benefit to which I am really looking forward is cooking with my granddaughters, daughter, son, sister, cousin, and husband in the kitchen. Jessica and Ari are coming to visit with the girls the weekend before the seders when the kashering of the kitchen and the bulk of the cooking will take place. I have never looked forward to the pandemonium of too many cooks in the kitchen with such relish. Many times, the preparation process was fraught with tension. I intend to kick back and have an especially good time socializing in the kitchen this year. Alex, who prefers having the kitchen to himself, was just as delighted to be able to concentrate on his own preparations during that weekend. So… much good came out of acquiring the new puppy, Inky, who is as adorable as any puppy could possibly be.

On Friday, when Saul is off from teaching, we went up to the attic to see if we still had a Pesachdic Cuisinart. We did not. While we were poking around, I asked Saul to help me get out a framed pastel portrait of my friend, Roxy, which I sketched when we were in high school, and which hung in my old house for many years. We had spoken about it recently, and I plan to give it to her. While we were straightening up that area to get to the portrait, I ran across the empty box from the old scanner that sits on my desk and that has not been used for over a year because it is incompatible with my new computer. I asked Saul to help me to get it off of my desk and to pack it back in its original box. In order to do that, he had to disconnect a bunch of wires. Once he had disconnected all the wires, we decided to move my old computer to another room. Once we moved that computer to another room, I decided to clean up and put away all the extraneous stuff that has been sitting on my desk for a few years. In order to do that, I had to clean up the office closet. I would probably still be cleaning and moving other things around had it not been for the fact that I was forced to stop by the lateness of the afternoon hour and the fact that I needed to put Shabbat dinner on the table.

Only Larry joined us for Shabbat dinner this week. Jamie had mentioned a few weeks ago that she might join us, so I prepared a meal she would have liked. She was unable to come, but that was okay, because we all enjoyed it, too. We had the last full loaf of homemade challah left in the freezer, chestnut soup, guacamole and chips, salmon burgers, homemade macaroni and cheese, and desserts leftover in the freezer, which included date bread which we sliced and spread with cream cheese, and the last tray of assorted cookies leftover from our family cookie night. You may notice the word leftover used repeatedly. The whole thrust of meal preparation for the weeks leading up to Passover is to use up any food that has been hanging around for a while to be able to clean more easily and to make room for the special foods of Passover.

Adele came on Saturday morning so that we could go to synagogue services this week. We were treated to a delightful Bat Mitzvah followed by a lovely luncheon. Afterwards, we enjoyed a long Shabbat nap. Saturday evening, Saul caught up with computer work and I blogged until 1 a.m.

Our friend, Larry, had apprised us that IKEA was having a special sale on Sunday and their featured item was a large, lidded pot for only $10. I had arranged for Adele to stay with Mom in the morning, and our friend, Elaine, to stay with her in the afternoon, while we went to IKEA, the Shop Rite in Northeast Philadelphia that specializes in kosher and Passover food items, and Simon’s Kosher Meat Market to pick up our large order of meat. Yesterday began really well. When we arrived at IKEA, we were told that they were offering a free breakfast in their cafeteria. The large, airy, dining room was bustling with cheerful, efficient staff and appreciative customers. When I borrowed the salt and pepper shakers from the man at the table next to us, he expressed the sentiment that it was a shame that General Motors couldn’t learn from IKEA’s example. The pot was a great buy, and we purchased other inexpensive items I knew we would need, such as glass baking dishes, large stainless steel mixing bowls, candle tapers, and colanders, to mention a few.

When we arrived at Shop Rite, two parking spaces were available and Saul chose the one with the cart return on one side, saying that we could only get hit on one side that way. As it turned out, we were called to the courtesy counter by their P.A. system to inform us that our S.U.V. had indeed been hit on one side while we were shopping. An old woman with her son had waited frantically to apologize and give us her information. Saul went out with them to view the damage while I checked out our two-cart order. The damage was only some scrapes, so he told her he would let her know what the body shop had to say, tried to reassure her a bit because she looked as though she might have a heart attack she was so worried, and we got on our way to the butcher. After loading up a large cooler with our meat order and packing it into our S.U.V., we were dismayed to find that our battery had died. We called AAA and waited about half-an-hour for them to arrive and give us a jump-start. The verdict was that the vehicle is 5 years old and so is the battery—shelf life expired! And we just finished paying it off last month :0(.

Our evening was rescued by a picnic on our deck with Beth, who just returned on the previous evening from her trip to Honduras, and her friend Paul, who helped her stain her deck yesterday. They assisted us in cleaning up yet more leftovers. Beth was able to get Mom to eat a whole dish of Ben and Jerry’s Cinnamon Buns Ice Cream. Ari had an unexpected trip to Austin, Texas, on business for one night and day, and enjoyed his 4-hour, first-class flights immensely. I am happy to see that he is doing what he had always wanted to do as a child, and that was to dress in a suit, carry important information, solve problems that no one else could figure out, and travel around the world first-class.

Roxy has been keeping me informed about George’s “scientific” efforts to keep the squirrels off the bird feeder. I have been encouraging her to detail the specifics in a guest blog post. It appears that both sides have met their match. George has not been able to give up his persistent attempts, and neither have the squirrels. I say, “Let the match continue!” May we all have the persistence to keep striving to reach our heart’s desire even though we may fail in our attempts many times.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Too Sad to Write, or How to Get Rid of Depression in a Depression

Yesterday evening, over Shabbat dinner, our friend Larry pointed out that, while he had greatly enjoyed Saul and Ari’s travelogue, he was disappointed that I had not written in quite some time. That made me feel good that my friends wanted to hear about my ordinary days in addition to the exciting adventures of my husband and son in Israel. I told him that I, at first, was too busy to write because I still have some big looming deadlines ahead of me for my business. I also told him that, in addition to that, I felt too sad to write.

I try to stay away from writing my blog on days that I feel sad. Sometimes, I feel that I am being outnumbered and overwhelmed by an army of enemy soldiers, determined to destroy any sense of well-being I am able to muster, and drag me down into a morass of depression. In my hormonal teens, I spent weeks at a time in various stages of depression. In my, hopefully, less hormonal post-menopausal years, I have learned to do battle each day with all of those little things that get me down. Depression, both in its mental and economic sense, is counterproductive. All worthwhile activity grinds to a halt and is replaced by fatigue, malaise, and a sense of futility—bad karma. Listening to CNN (especially the financial reports) all day in the background can completely wipe out a beautiful, sunshiney day, and to what purpose? Watching John Stewart and Jim Cramer duke it out on the Daily Show this week was a great antidote. Soap operas put out enough bad vibes to make me want to avoid other people entirely. The morning news with its repetitive litany of murders, fires, crooked politicians, and now, each huge failing institution, is enough to make me feel like I am climbing a mountain to get back to any sort of good humor. Every day is a struggle for me, but most of the time, I feel I am succeeding, doing creative and productive work, and making the most comfortable environment I can muster for my mother’s last months of life.

There is a positive way to look at almost anything. While my mother’s health is obviously failing, she is not in any pain, and every day, I am grateful for that. There are so many painful ways to die and who knows if my own end, or that of my other loved ones, God forbid, will be in one of those ways? I am very lucky to have knowledgeable and compassionate hospice people to provide me with support. I have a husband and family who are mostly understanding and supportive, and that is a very great blessing. Many people out there are not so lucky. Two years have gone by since Saul’s major stroke, and he is miraculously almost completely recovered. I am also most fortunate, I think, to have the luxury of being able to care for my loved ones at home in a beautiful environment.

The current economic depression has caused us to have to dodge many more “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than in the past, but like many others, the change in my lifestyle that I predicted back in October, has also caused me to reevaluate what is truly worthwhile in my life and what is just stuff. The last two weeks have been rough. Right before Saul left for Israel, we remortgaged our home to pay off our credit card and other debt. We were lucky to have enough equity in our home to do so after the appraiser lowered the value of our home $158,000 from what the previous appraisal had been. I have not bought any new clothes or shoes since last summer except one new shirt for Saul to replace an old one that had become frayed. I am much more careful with my food purchases than in the past. I have been giving cash as gifts rather than go shopping. We used to eat out at least twice a week. That has become twice a month. We used to take long drives for recreation. That went out when gas went over $2.00 a gallon. I think that everything was so abundant in our country and credit so easily available that most people never thought twice about frivolous purchases and waste. While we are being encouraged to go out and spend to end this depression, I think all of us have had a sobering lesson in the consequences of greed and waste, and may never again be comfortable with frivolous spending. In the long run, I think that could be very good for our economy.

Baking cookies makes me feel good, so this past week, Adele and I made hundreds of hamantaschen for Purim to give away to our friends and family. Saul and I were not able to get coverage for Mom so that we could hear the Megillah read in services or participate with our community in the merriment, which I hear involved the rabbi and professional staff dressed in costume for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don’t think we have ever missed this service before.

When we met, Randi’s friend Paula had just lost her father, and, as it turned out, could not assist me in caring for Mom. Adele came almost every day while Saul was in Israel, and slept over for the first couple of days. Laura came to work with me a bit and I made lunch for her, Adele, Mom and me. Laura brought me a picture frame for my birthday that says “Grandchildren are a grandparent’s link to the future. Grandparents are a child’s link to the past.” By a lucky coincidence, Polly, Marianne’s friend who had been Mom’s original hospice volunteer, had a cancellation on the day of my birthday, and I took her up on her offer to cover Mom so that Adele and I could get away to have lunch together at King Buffet, a Chinese buffet we love in Plymouth Meeting Mall. I received lots of phone calls and well wishes on Facebook on my birthday. My friend, Faith, joined me for Shabbat dinner that week so that I would not be alone and I cooked us an elaborate meal of homemade challah, cod lamaize, homemade chicken soup with matzoh balls, chicken satay with snow peas, black and white rice, and chocolate mousse crepes for dessert. Faith brought me a tee shirt that says “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” I love it! We have not had so much private time to talk together since we used to meet for long walks around the track at Mondauk Common in Dresher at few times a week. Good friends are a great cure for the blues. Our friend, Irv, called from California, and we talked face-to-face on Skype for an hour. Haley and Eric came to visit Mom before leaving to join Ken and Randi in Hawaii and we discussed their wedding cake which I will be making in August.

My biggest challenge came a few days ago when Jessica emailed a photo of their new puppy. I love dogs, but have really been suffering with my allergies lately. The announcement of the puppy means that my (obviously unrealistic) hope of someday being able to comfortably stay in their home is forever dashed. Saul and I have always prepared elaborate seders for Passover. Preparing for the holiday properly is a huge undertaking which we have gladly entertained since the first year we were married. A couple of years ago, at Jess and Alex’s request, we moved everything needed to prepare for the holiday to their home. Last year at this time, I rode back and forth to Baltimore from Ari’s condo in DC to help prepare desserts before Saul was finished with school and was able to join us for the seders. I was about to undertake the same sort of regimen this year, with the added complication and huge expense of finding someone to stay with Mom, who is not well enough make the trip. Saul and I decided that compromising my health to do the same this year would not be advisable under the circumstances. As I have gotten older, it seems to be harder and harder to bounce back from chest congestion. This last blow when I felt I was finally winning the battle made me too sad to write for a few days. Although not being with my family for my favorite holiday is a real setback, I am looking for ways to turn this around, too. Perhaps, we will take a Passover vacation, although our initial investigation of the subject found prices to be astonishingly and ridiculously high. Coupled with the expense of caring for Mom and our current economic crises, it will probably turn out to be out of the question. Perhaps, I will go to IKEA and purchase, inexpensively, everything I need to prepare for the seders and a week of Passover food here and find some unattached souls who would be willing to enjoy the seders with us. Perhaps I will be able to solve Faith’s problem of having to spend huge amounts of money for kosher for Passover food from the kosher caterers for her family seders. She doesn’t like to cook, and I love cooking for Passover. Before the seders in Baltimore, I used to prepare her turkey and condiments every year along with my own. Perhaps, Saul and I will find an agreeable place to volunteer our services for a Passover seder this year. I am determined not to let this get me down.

Repeat after me, “depression is counterproductive in every circumstance.” Get up, use your imagination, and do something positive and uplifting to turn it around.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Trip Concludes, but the Stories Continue

From Naharayyim, we continued northward toward the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Neri called his girlfriend at a local high school, and arranged to meet with her during one of her short breaks, so we dropped him off at a beautiful high school campus right on the southern shore of the Kinneret, and figured we’d go have a cup of coffee or something nearby while we waited for him to call us back.

As we came out of the school and drove about one kilometer north along the western shore of the Kinneret, we came upon a cemetery where we all knew of many famous people who had been interred. We visited the graves of Rachel (the poet), Naomi Shemer, and various other political founders and leaders of Israel.

We wandered around for a bit looking at some of the beautiful monuments that have been constructed there until Neri called back. We picked him up and continued our journey. Dad was looking at the map, and mentioned that he had always wanted to visit Kfar Nachum, where there is an ancient synagogue.

We drove through T’veria, (Tiberias) but got a bit detoured and turned around due to some construction, so about 20 minutes later we found ourselves getting close to Natzeret (Nazareth) which was entirely the wrong way. We turned around and got back on the right road, but it was getting late in the afternoon, and we were all becoming a bit road weary. We finally found Kfar Nachum, which turned out to be just a big church, so we were a bit puzzled. After we asked in the souvenir shop, we found out that there was indeed an ancient synagogue, but it was in another location down the road. After a bit more confusion about where we were supposed to go, we found our ancient synagogue and paid the entrance fee of less than 1 dollar per person (3 shekels). After we wandered around for a bit and took some beautiful pictures, we were ready to go back to the Kibbutz. I found out later that Efrat’s migraine had gotten much worse as the day wore on, so I am particularly impressed at her success in maintaining her composure.

We stopped on the way back at a very fancy restaurant at Ashdot Ya’akov, where we had a small late lunch, as we had decided to go out later for felafel and shawarma in Afula after resting back at Beit Hashita for a few hours. Neri also had basketball practice over at Kibbutz Geva, so we figured we would drive out to Afula whenever he got back. We almost forgot to take pictures of all the various dishes, but Neri reminded us, and even had some fun rearranging his plate so that it would photograph better after he had taken a few bites. The waitstaff went crazy over Dad’s Obama shirt, which he had gotten from Chestnut Hill College on the occasion of the inauguration. We’ve been inundated with so much Obama regalia here in the U.S., but apparently Obama t-shirts are very popular in Israel and hard to obtain, much like Levi jeans in past years.

After passing through Beit She’an, we stopped at a spot where Ma’ayan Charod passes under a bridge and drops downward much like a waterfall. This spot is dry almost 365 days a year, with there being a small trickle of water at certain points in the winter. With all of the rain that has come this winter, though, it was flowing like a real, genuine river.

After a few minutes, we got back in the car and drove the few minutes back to the Kibbutz, just in time for Neri to get his stuff together for practice. Dad and I got our internet fix and caught up with Mom while Efrat got some much-needed rest. As I was trying to organize my pictures in Picasa on Efrat’s computer, I accidentally deleted them, so I had a scary hour or so before I found a utility that looked like it would be able to resurrect them. Once we were all set with the utility running, we headed out for Afula.

Our first stop was “Home Center,” a big-box, home-improvement/utility store, to check if they stocked a specific kind of felafel-making kitchen tool my mother had asked us to bring back. They did not stock it there, but we were told that any other store with kitchen tools should have it. The big chains carry only stuff that big chain shoppers would want—mostly Western stuff.

We then headed down to the small strip of felafel/shawarma/seed and nut kiosks in the downtown area near the Central Bus Station. Afula is famous across Israel for its felafel and seeds/nuts. Because of Ta’anit Esther, though, most of the places were closed. Nonetheless, on Neri’s recommendation we got some great shawarma (finally!), and Efrat got some felafel. After eating, Dad and I picked up some more roasted almonds, and the 70+ year old guy behind the counter also went on and on about Dad’s Obama shirt and how much he and everyone else in Israel is excited about our new President.

We headed back to the Kibbutz, and Dad and I got in some Skype/photo uploading/blogging time in Efrat’s office before trudging back to our apartment to sleep.

Dad and I got up a bit earlier Friday morning, for two reasons. First, we wanted to get back to Netanya at a reasonable hour to hit up the shuq and a supermarket to pick up some swag, before Shabbat started, to bring back to the U.S. But mainly, we needed to be completely out of our little apartment on the Kibbutz before 9 a.m., as it was being used by its rightful owner (one of Efrat’s neighbors) for teaching daily classes on the “Alexander Technique,” which is apparently some kind of massage therapy. We hadn’t known this on Thursday morning, and had caused some considerable consternation when we had not vacated on time.

Our plan was to have a quick goodbye with Efrat and get on the road before she managed to rope us into breakfast, but when we arrived, breakfast was already on the table. We stuck around to eat and afterward to upload our pictures to Efrat’s computer and instruct her in how to use Skype with the new webcam we had set up for her.

We put 50 shekels of gas into the car at the Kibbutz gas station on our way out (the credit card reader was malfunctioning with international credit cards), and got back to Netanya around 11:30. After picking up some cash from Moshe, we headed over to the Netanya shuq and Shufersal next door and were very satisfied with the stuff we were able to score there. We got some Hebrew books and movies for the girls, two felafel-maker tool thingies for mom, a whole bunch of kippot, a Hebrew-language computer keyboard, some chocolate bars, assorted teas, and various other odds and ends.

We got back to the Wasserman house with plenty of time to have some lunch, relax, and Skype with Mom before Shabbat. I actually fell asleep sitting up on the couch for about two hours mid-conversation, and was awakened in time to shower and change before Shabbat began. Dad and I opted out of going to shul with Moshe, Meytal and Adi, and instead hung out with Sylvia and their neighbor Malka for their traditional start-of-Shabbat chat. I’ve had several such meetings with Malka over the years, but this was Dad’s first time.

Moshe and the girls returned shortly after Malka left, and we were treated to a delicious Shabbat meal. Sylvia made me swear to detail every dish that was served at her home, as I suspect she felt cheated by my laziness in detailing the menu of the engagement party in my blog post earlier in the week. We began with gefilte fish and Israeli salad for Moshe, Adi and I, while Sylvia and Meytal ate leftover salmon (not to be confused with the band of the same name), vegetables and rice from the engagement dinner. We all shared some incredible challah along with hummus.

After clearing all the fish-related plates and utensils from the table (per kashrut), we were treated to what I think was the best chicken soup with noodles and matzah balls I have ever tasted. Seriously, up until Friday I had never tasted any chicken soup that could even hold a candle to my mother’s or Alex’s, but Moshe’s chicken soup simply blew me away. My Dad and Adi feasted on turkey necks from the soup, while I ate some baked chicken leg and rice.

We had some pareve, chocolate-coated Tofutti bars for dessert, sang some z’mirot and benched birkat. Adi went out to hang out with some friends, Meytal and Moshe went up to sleep, and Dad, Sylvia and I stayed up a while longer to chat about old times, memories and family. Dad and I woke up the next morning at 9 a.m., just a few minutes after the family had left for shul, so we went downstairs and had some tea, coffee and cheesecake for breakfast while we read Israeli newspapers and relaxed. It was starting to get pretty hot outside and upstairs, but the downstairs was nice and cool. Adi and Meytal returned around 10:30 a.m., and Sylvia and Moshe got back shortly thereafter.

We all sat down to a delicious meal of salads, challah, hummus, and Moshe’s incredible cholent with potatoes, kishke, sausage, beans, and all sorts of wonderful stuff. Dad was enjoying himself so much he was scraping the burnt stuff off of the bottom of the pot.

After lunch, Dad, Moshe and I napped for a few hours while the ladies went to a women’s study group. Shortly after they returned and turned in for naps, Dad and I set out for a walk around Netanya. We walked up to the sea, where the main road down the side of the cliffs to the beach meets up with the new section of the tayelet (promenade) that runs southward along the newer, fancier neighborhoods. We stopped to rest on some benches there, and headed north for a few blocks before cutting over toward the apartment building on Smilanski Street where we had rented an apartment for a few months back in 1985, during our first family visit to Israel. We both got a bit mixed up on how to get there, however, so we cut our losses and turned toward Herzl Street and Kikar Ha’atzma’ut, which is a big, pedestrian-friendly square above the main beach area. We wandered around for a bit and found another bench on which to sit for a while to do some serious people-watching and enjoy the warm weather and beautiful views. We reminisced a bit about our previous stays in Netanya and our memories from around that area. From the bench where we were sitting, for example, we could see toward the location of the former restaurant where my grandmother, Evelyn, famously got a bit freaked out at being served a whole fish (with head on), the old Blue Bay Hotel where my grandparents stayed for several weeks during our summer visit in ’85, the ice cream stand where my mother tried to order “chatul” (translation: cat), and many other great stories.

After resting for a bit, we headed south along the tayelet, which has been beautifully expanded and renovated in recent years and was teeming with people basking in the unseasonably sunny warmth. As we found ourselves back in the old neighborhood near Smilanski Street, we tried a different route, and soon found ourselves standing in front of the old building where our family had spent the summer in a first-floor apartment. We shared some fond memories of early-morning visits to the bakery on the corner and a few Shabbatot at the American shul down the street. As the sun started getting low, we started heading back for the Wasserman home, and made it back in time to sit and chat with Sylvia and Meytal over sunflower seeds and some much-needed cold water.

Moshe got home around 6:30 p.m., and we performed the Havdalah service with matches, as is their family tradition. When Adi got home shortly thereafter, we had some dinner of the usual Israeli salads, cheeses, bread and hummus. Dad and I took turns packing our stuff, and we watched some old videos we had made together during our ’85 trip that I had never seen before. There was some great footage of my Dad’s parents that he had taken before joining us in Israel when the school year ended for the summer, as well as of Sylvia’s mother and step-father. As we watched his father sending video messages in Yiddish to his brother and sister in Israel (all three have been gone for quite some time now), Dad pointed out that he is about the same age now as his father was at the time the video was made.

We both showered and changed, and at around 12:45 a.m., we headed out for a final visit to Jerusalem before leaving Israel on an early morning flight. This was one of the many ingenious suggestions of my mother, of course. On our previous visit to Jerusalem on Tuesday, my father had forgotten to bring the notes he had gotten from his students to put into the Kotel. We were both mortified, and not sure what to do, beyond leaving them behind for a friend or relative to bring with them on their next visit. Mom pointed out that Marianne was flying back with us, and that it would be nice of us to drive to Jerusalem and pick her up in the middle of the night before the flight, instead of having her make her own arrangements through her sister. Marianne was thrilled, and I found out later that she would have had to take a cab anyway as her sister and new brother-in-law do not drive.

Dad and I arrived in Jerusalem right on time at around 2:00 a.m., and after some minor argument about how to best park closest to the Kotel, I remembered a short cut that involves driving directly through the Old City itself. I have walked the same route many times, so I was not so worried about getting lost, but I think that driving down 2,000-year-old streets that were not particularly designed for cars of any size made Dad a little nervous. We later realized that a bit too much caffeine in his system had made him a little jumpy, but I can see why he was somewhat intimidated. I, for one, was enjoying the idea of being able to tick “driving through the Old City of Jerusalem” off of my ever-growing imaginary bucket list of things I would like to do. We got a great spot, and around 2:25 a.m., we agreed that we should try to make similar last-act-of-the-trip, middle-of-the-night visits to the Kotel on any future trips to Israel. Having the place almost to ourselves was a very special moment I will always remember. I took a short video of the scene to try and share the experience.

We got some directions from a few policemen to Marianne’s sister’s place, and were able to find it shortly thereafter, after stopping a few passers-by and calling for last minute assistance. On the ride back toward Tel Aviv to the airport, we shared stories of our trips with Marianne, who had a delightful time with her sister.

We returned our rental car a little after 4:00 a.m., and got through the security and check-in for the flight reasonably quickly. Say what you will about tight security, but they’ve got it down to a science in Israel, and the new Ben Gurion Airport is a marvel of both architectural and functional design. After we worked out a minor problem for Dad with the passport control people, we found a quiet corner of the food court to snack on croissants, borekas and salad, while we took advantage of free, airport-wide WiFi to Skype with Mom one last time. We headed over to the gate, and I dozed off for a bit while the boarding process was delayed by about 40 minutes.

Dad and I were able to sleep through most of the flight to London, which was wonderful for two reasons. First, it helped us to get back on a normal U.S. sleeping schedule, as our departure and arrival times corresponded to approximately 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. U.S. east coast time. More importantly, however, our seats were not particularly comfortable, so sleeping took our minds off of how pinned-in we were.

We arrived in London about an hour late after being forced to circle the city for about 25 minutes prior to landing. We rushed toward the United Airlines transfer desks, and I was thankful for my Premier status, as we were able to bypass the lines and get straight to a person. While they initially said there was no chance of us making the connection, after a few seconds of pleading with them, they radioed down to the gate and told us to run. I ran ahead with boarding passes and passports while Dad and Marianne went as fast as they could. We were the last three people to get on the flight, and it was not too full either. Marianne was supposed to be seated toward the rear of the plane, but we took advantage of the empty seats to get her into our Economy Plus section, where there is a bit more legroom.

Dad and I watched several movies together, and I dozed off for about a half hour mid-way through the last movie we watched, “Doubt.” We landed in Washington, seamlessly got our stuff, picked up my keys from one of my co-workers and parted ways.

While I am told that I am reasonably good at writing, my greatest weakness is in crafting an adequate conclusion. That being said, this endeth the travelogue.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Shmuel Visits the Kibbutz

Despite the fact that Dad went to sleep hours earlier than I, by 9:30am Wednesday morning, he was still sound asleep and snoring softly when I finally decided to get up. Thankfully, Moshe had turned on the "dood" for me earlier in the morning so there would be hot water for showers for both of us. The "dood" is a little red switch in every Israeli home that controls the hot water heater, and takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and a half to heat up the water inside, depending on its size I suppose. Most Israelis have them on timers, or they just flip them on a bit before they plan on jumping in the shower. I mention it here, because I often wonder how much energy in America is wasted by our hot water heaters that are constantly maintaining our hot water at a certain temperature 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If I could, I'd have turned mine off when I left for Israel--just like I turned the heat in my apartment down to 55. Note to Obama administration...

Before long, Dad and I were on our way to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, to visit with my adopted family here--Efrat Shalem and her son Neri Mizrahi. I had gotten back in touch with Efrat about 5 years ago, catch up with her and Neri via email every so often and have made a stop at Beit Hashita to visit for a day or two on each trip to Israel since. Efrat had become acquainted with my parents over several Skype and phone conversations over the years, so she was very excited to finally meet Dad and play hostess to the two of us.

When we arrived a bit after noon, we reaffirmed our desire to have a relaxing day on the Kibbutz and to stay close by. The previous day's activities in Jerusalem and all the traveling we had done in Haifa had really taken a toll on Dad's legs and knees, and the fresh air and pastoral atmosphere we were enjoying over cups of coffee outside on Efrat's backyard lawn was facilitating a much-desired relaxed, mellow mood.

Efrat's niece, Carmit, joined us shortly thereafter for a delicious lunch of Schnitzel (in Israel, that means breaded chicken cutlets), salad, homemade tahini (it's pronounced "T'china" for those of you who still say it wrong as "Taheenee"), and potatoes.

Unfortunately, Efrat had come down with what we understand to be a once-a-year migraine earlier in the day. She had taken some medication and gotten some massage treatment before we arrived, but was still feeling reasonably under the weather. We left Efrat to lay down and rest for a bit, while we took our car up the hill into the new neighborhoods being built up at the top of the Kibbutz, and to two beautiful vista points that have been built in that area--Mitzpeh Charuvim and Mitzpeh Yos. Mitzpeh Yos was around in Jessica's and my days on the Kibbutz as students, but it has since been built up as a genuine rest stop now along a new dirt road that runs along the tops of the hills connecting the various Kibbutzim in Emeq Charod almost all of the way Eastward toward Beit She'an.

After a short car tour of the Kibbutz with Carmit, we returned to Efrat's house, where we got caught up a bit with internet duties and Skyped for a bit on the new webcam we had brought as a gift and set up on Efrat's computer, while we waited for Neri to return home from school. Of the many ways the Kibbutz has changed over the years, one is that everyone now travels by privately owned cars from place to place, whereas before the vehicle of choice was the "Toos-toos," which is a gas-powered motor scooter much like the Honda Alex used to drive to Chizuk Amuno. Bikes were always popular methods of transit on most Kibbutzim, but because Beit Hashita was built up the side of a hill, there was a necessity for a bit more oomph, I suppose.

Shortly after Neri returned from school, we set out together in our car for a short ride up to the top of Mt. Gilboa, and across its peaks. The views and natural beauty up there are stunning. One thing we saw at the very entrance to the scenic route at the top of the mountain was that they are building a full-on ski lodge, for what they call "Dry Skiing." Lest I remind you, we're talking about an area where the temperature rarely goes below 50 degrees fahrenheit. Though we all saw the picture at the construction site, along with the shells of what look to be some pretty authentic looking ski lodge buildings, we all had various theories of what "Dry Skiing" actually is. For now, I'm going with Dad's theory that it somehow involves teflon.

As we continued along the road, we were treated to a variety of views including dense forests, vistas of the valley below, and grassy/rocky fields. The forests and fields were all thickly carpeted with wildflowers of white, yellow, purple, pink and deep red. We stopped to take pictures at a few places, rolled down the windows, and breathed the fresh mountain air deeply.

We came down the mountain along with the setting of the sun, and stopped at an adorable little Middle Eastern restaurant at a gas station near Beit Alfa. Jessica later reminded me that so many of the most worthwhile restaurants in Israel are located in small-town gas stations. Dad and I got a second chance to redeem ourselves from the Avazi photo scandal from earlier in the week, and were sure to capture all of the various salads and dishes laid before us on the table. Neri got a big kick out of the fact that we were taking pictures of what was, to him, fairly pedestrian food. We all enjoyed skewers of roasted lamb and some pretty lively conversation. One thing I have always loved about my family is that we have picked up many good friends over the years that have become like extended family to us. I was particularly thrilled to finally get some of my real family together with Efrat and Neri to further cement the relationship, and overjoyed that we were all having such a great time together.

We returned to the Kibbutz, and after another internet/Skype session, sat and had a relaxing evening of tea and channel surfing, as we gossiped about the latest Israeli celebrity scandals, politics, reality TV shows and hidden camera exposes.

Dad and I went up to the small apartment that Efrat had arranged for us, made the beds, and turned in around midnight.

We awoke around 8:15, showered, lounged around for a bit, and joined Efrat and Carmit for breakfast around 9:45. We discussed our plans for the day while we took turns trying to wake up Neri, who was basking in his day of not having to go to school. Efrat had allowed him to take the day off so that we could travel up in the North. We decided to be spontaneous, with a few ideas in mind in case things didn't pop up along the way.

As we were leaving the Kibbutz, Efrat suggested that we stop by the Metal Factory to visit her brother Yehuda, who I hadn't seen since my last visit. The metal factory used to be on the Kibbutz itself, but became very successful with contracts for John Deere and Case spindles, as well as work with Chinese companies, and moved to an expanded location closer to Sdeh Nachum a few kilometers down the main highway about 10 years ago. The new facility is simply massive, and very beautiful. We wandered around what seemed like several square kilometers of factory floor for a bit, until we located Yehuda. After a warm welcome and some bonding with Dad over his knowledge of various random engine parts, Yehuda gave us a little tour of the factory's operations and explained to us how they put together the various parts involved in the new cotton combines. Unfortunately, the factory has gotten various work stop orders from its American clients in recent weeks, so there have been layoffs and there was a perceivable lack of activity in certain areas.

We continued on from the factory toward Beit She'an, where we turned north toward T'veria (Tiberias).

Our first stop was at Gesher, which was short-lived for two main reasons. None of us were so interested that we wanted to pay 30 shekels per person to get in, and we seemed to be behind two busloads of screaming schoolchildren. The ticket office offering to give us a tour along with the school sealed the deal that got us out of there as quickly as possible.

We then continued on to Naharayyim, which is a border crossing with Jordan where the Jordan river meets the Yarmouk river. This is also the site where several young girls were shot and killed during a school trip in 1997 by a Jordanian military border guard in a nearby watchtower who had gone crazy. There is a beautiful memorial to them, which, for some reason, consisted of a great deal of astroturf instead of grass. My hope is that this is some kind of temporary solution. Each of their names is spelled out in beautiful red flowers.

We took some pictures of the border crossing, which had a wonderful sound of rushing water from all of the rain that had come earlier in the week. Dad got a little too close to the border, and was whistled back by an Israeli soldier in one of the watchtowers.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Shmuel’s Journey to Jerusalem (by way of Haifa and Netanya)

We awoke Monday morning at our usual relaxed hour of 9:30 a.m. Shira had prepared for us yet another wonderful breakfast of assorted salads and cheeses. Unfortunately, I had mentioned the day before how much my father and I love the croissants in Israel (and baked goods in general), so Shira took the opportunity afforded to her by my father being busy in the bathroom and my being half asleep to run out the door to buy fresh chocolate-filled croissants at the supermarket downstairs. I, in turn, took the opportunity of her being gone to finally do something for myself, and made us all some Earl Grey tea with milk.

Over breakfast, we discussed our plans for the day, and after quick showers we set out toward Stella Maris—where we had failed in our attempt to enter the building the previous day. It was certainly worth the wait, as the several-hundred-year-old chapel boasted some beautiful frescoes and sculptures. I also learned a bit more about how to use my new camera, and was able to take very nice pictures in the dark. Just as we were leaving the chapel, a group of about 40 Polish tourists came through. We’ve been seeing Poles everywhere we go this week.

Leaving the parking lot at Stella Maris, we came upon an Arabic music CD of some kind (the title was 'Eid Al-hib, which loosely translates as “Festival of Love”) lying on the ground next to our car, which we picked up and played during our ride to Kababir, an Arab village within the Haifa city limits, to where Shira had never been. I found this particularly interesting, since Shira has lived in Haifa practically her entire life, and Kababir was essentially a neighborhood just outside the city center.

We drove to a beautiful mosque, and arrived in time for the ending of the afternoon prayers. We were warmly greeted by a younger gentleman, who is in charge of the programming and youth groups associated with the community there. He spoke perfect Hebrew and English, and mentioned that he had studied for a few years in Manitoba in college. We got to talking, and he mentioned that the mosque was locally famous for its collection of Qurans in many different languages—even Yiddish. We were ushered through a large auditorium underneath the mosque into a small museum where there was an extensive exhibit on their particular sect, called “Ahmadiyya” Islam. It is apparently a sect that originates in India, whose principal motto is “Love for all, hatred for none.” True enough, there was indeed an abridged version of the Quran in their collection in Yiddish, along with full and abridged versions of the Quran and Hadith in about 75-80 languages including many regional African and Indian dialects of which we had never heard.

From Kababir, we drove through some beautiful new neighborhoods on the ocean side of Mt. Carmel, down toward Haifa’s main cemetery, where we visited the graves of my grandfather’s brother and his wife (Shira, Eliezer, Yudit and Miriam’s parents), Binyamin and Etel. Israeli cemeteries are arranged and built much different than those in the U.S., and I remember as a child watching the horrified looks on the faces of Israelis when they see people walking straight across the grass-covered and flat American graves. In Israel, they build a stone grid with pre-laid walkways, as you can see in our pictures, and the graves are built up to about mid-calf height in marble. I grabbed a few stones from the ground near my great Aunt and Uncle’s grave in order to bring them back to place on my grandfather’s in the Philadelphia area. Shira asked why I was picking up dirty stones, and when I told her she was first overwhelmed with emotion, and then set upon finding “more beautiful stones” for me to collect.

From the cemetery, we drove back up Mt. Carmel, through Haifa and out by way of the Ahuza neighborhood and University of Haifa campus, through the beautiful vistas of the Carmel National Forest and down to two Druze villages which have grown together into one large city—Isfiya and Dalat-al-Carmel. We drove for a bit toward the shuq in Dalat-al-Carmel, where we stopped and wandered around the stores for an hour or so. We drank freshly-squeezed orange juice at a kiosk, and my father and I fretted silently over the abundance of shawarma we could not sample, as Mark was expecting us back for a special lunch he had prepared for us. As we returned to our trusty rented Isuzu Liana, we passed two small kiosks where local Druze were displaying the special flat, round griddle-like ovens they use to make fresh laffa. Dad asked the woman in the first kiosk if he could take video of her preparing fresh laffa, but she refused politely, as Druze are one of the many cultures with superstitions about photography’s implications on the soul. The older man in the kiosk next door also refused, not because of the Druze taboo, but because he already had baked 25 laffot that morning, and did not want to waste the fuel to heat up the oven again.

So the three of us packed ourselves back into our little white Liana and headed back to Haifa, stopping once in Isfiya on the way to take pictures of a number of old, burled olive tree trunks at a landscaping store and again at a scenic overlook, where the gathering dark storm clouds added an ominous but beautiful quality to the Western Galilee spread out before us below.

When we returned to Mark and Shira’s, we saw a beautiful table laid out with various salads, cheeses, salted salmon and herring with sliced onion and lemon, and boiled potatoes (Mark—though he’s been in Israel since the 70s—is still very Russian in many ways). We had some more of Shira’s delicious vegetable soup which warmed us all up from the moist, cool weather outside, and I struggled with many herring bones. We then had salmon fillets, and finished off with some tea and coffee.

Afterward, we had a few Skype sessions and learned of a freak blizzard back home that had apparently brought a considerable amount of snow to Philadelphia and Washington. Shira and Mark got to say hello via webcam to Sami and Izzy for the first time, which everyone enjoyed, and I got some of my loose ends at work tied up while Dad chatted with Mom and Aunt Adele on Skype.

Around 5:40 p.m., we changed and packed up our things to prepare for our drive to the second leg of our journey, to be hosted by Moshe, Sylvia, Meytal, Eli and Adi Wasserman in Netanya. We set out a little after 6 p.m. after a minor debacle with a locked electronic gate in Shira and Mark’s parking lot that did not want to let us go, and arrived at the Wasserman home a little after 7 p.m.

At this point, a little background information is in order. My father and I chat on AIM and Skype regularly with our cousin Sylvia, and with her daughter Meytal. Though we had made plans for our trip to Israel weeks before, we found out days before our departure that Meytal was to be engaged to a wonderful guy, Eliashiv. Eliashiv grew up on a religious Kibbutz called Ma’aleh Gilboa, which is very close to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where both Jessica and I spent a year of high school. The official engagement was to occur at a large party which was to be the same day we had planned on arriving in Netanya. Sylvia, had invited us to attend a pre-party dinner for the immediate family (parents, siblings, aunts and uncles), which was just getting underway as we arrived.

Click here for additional photos.
It was a beautiful event, with abundant and wonderful food. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, as I am not the foodie my mother is in having the need to break down every meal into individual dishes—especially since there were probably over 20 different ones to list in this case. At 8:30, guests began to arrive for the larger event. Tables were moved, guitars and drums were brought out, and the singing and dancing began. Speeches were made, a plate was broken by both mothers (as is tradition), and the party went on until about midnight (not bad for a weeknight). Afterward, Dad and I helped with the cleanup efforts as best we could, and spent some time on Skype catching Mom up on the party. Thanks to the miracle of WiFi, Mom was even able to join us in the living room (via my laptop camera) for the opening of some of the gifts by the bride and groom-to-be.

Sylvia, Meytal, Dad and I stayed up chatting over tea and leftover cakes and cookies from the party until almost 4 a.m., at which point we trudged up to bed.

Dad and I slept in until our usual 9:30 a.m., but by the time we had gotten up, all the furniture from the living room had been brought back from the neighbor’s house, and both Sylvia and Meytal were up and about. We had some breakfast, and the four of us were shortly on our way to Jerusalem.

Though we have been here for a few days, this was actually the first time Dad and I had been on a longer, inter-city drive since we arrived. I pointed out various spots of interest to him, like the whole new city of “East Netanya” on the other side of the coastal road, the massive Ikea right behind the old Tempo factory, and so forth. Though we did not stop, I could see his amazement that his childhood stomping grounds near Givat Shmuel and the area around Bar Ilan had grown into a land of skyscrapers, stadiums, and high-speed rail. We drove along the Ayalon freeway through the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, which looks as modern and urban as any American or European city. Dad has not been in Israel for 18 years now. In 1991, Israel boasted one “skyscraper,” which was about 22 stories high.

We turned eastward on Road 1, which begins as a flat, wide, 8-lane freeway before it begins to narrow and wind through the Judean hills climbing higher and higher toward Jerusalem. We stopped at a small exit near Sho'eva to fill Liana with gas (I thought she was a guzzler, but it turns out that she just has a really small tank), which turned out to be more complicated than it needed to be. Apparently pumping gas in Israel requires you to enter both your license plate and identity numbers into the computer! I had always before only seen full service stations, so anyone who truly knows me would know that I was eager to find the self-service pump. With some help from the attendant, Meytal and I managed to get it done, and we continued on our way.

Sylvia often jokes about my incredible sense of direction in Israel, and her need for GPS in order to find anything. Truth be told, the country is small enough to figure out how to get pretty much anywhere you need to go if you are familiar enough with the simple topography. By simple topography, I mean as in, “I’m on this hill here, I need to get over to that hill over there,” or “the ocean is on my right, so that means I’m going south.” Really, it’s not that hard.

Jerusalem is a pretty big city though, with lots of traffic. We got a little lost finding the Old City once we got there. To my own credit, though, I can say that I did get us there after only about 15 minutes of not knowing exactly where we were. And, to my own credit, I can also say that we did not need to ask a single person for directions, nor was the map of Jerusalem we had with us any help. We found a parking spot not far from the entrance to the Kotel, and went through the airport-like security entrance. Since there are separate sections for men and women at the Kotel, Dad and I parted ways with Sylvia and Meytal, to meet back on the plaza after 20 minutes.

I am not a particularly observant Jew, nor do I particularly understand the fascination of modern Judaism with the Kotel itself, but that is a much larger philosophical topic than I can handle here, though I’m happy to talk about it in another forum. I am a spiritual and highly sensitive human being, however, and I still get an overwhelming charge of emotion and feel an almost tangible connection with something much larger than the mundane (perhaps it’s God or whatever you want to call that higher power) from close contact with the Wall. That’s all I’ll say about it for now.

We took some pictures, adeptly avoided the beggars and t’filin pushers, and met back up with Sylvia and Meytal as planned. We headed up the long flights of stairs toward the Jewish Quarter for a lunch of shawarma (FINALLY!), but it was an overall disappointment. I’ve never considered Jerusalem to be a particularly “Israeli” place, and especially not the Jewish Quarter. To hear more English spoken than Hebrew, and to see more English signs than Hebrew is always a major letdown. I hope to have some good shawarma later in the trip, back in the “real” Israel.

We parted ways again after lunch, as Meytal and Sylvia wanted to take a tour of the newest attraction at the Kotel, which is called Sharsheret HaDorot, or “The Chain of Generations.” I declined this particular tour, as it looked to me like a bunch of names etched in glass tablets by people who forked over money to have their names etched in glass tablets near the Kotel. My understanding from Meytal afterward was that this was not particularly far from the truth.

Dad and I instead went through the Arab shuq toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is said that Jesus was crucified and/or buried. The “and/or” depends on the sect of Christianity, I suppose. We are far from experts in the symbolism of the stuff in the church, but went mostly in order to bring back photos and mementos for Dad’s co-workers at the Catholic private college where he teaches, Chestnut Hill College. Though it is very dark inside the church, my new camera has some wonderful settings for such situations, and I think I was able to capture a good amount of great pictures while we were there. Before we left, we bought a number of olive-wood Jerusalem Cross rosaries for him to bring back as gifts.

Afterward, we returned to the Kotel for a tour of the Kotel Tunnels. Sylvia, Meytal and I had all done this tour at least once, but it is something that should NOT be missed if one ever finds oneself in Jerusalem. We took the Hebrew tour, which at least made it more interesting for me as I had previously only done the English one. At this point, Dad’s strength for more walking was really fading, but he soldiered on in immense awe of what we were getting the chance to experience. Essentially, the tunnels run under the Arab Quarter, along an upper part of what was the original outer Western Wall of the Temple Mount from the Second Temple. The Kotel is really just a small part of the larger wall, and most of the Kotel stones are not the original Herodian ones that had been there in the times of the temple. The stones we saw were amazing, and cut like none others I have seen. We walked along the narrow tunnel along the wall all the way to the edge of the Temple Mount, passing through a small point that is the closest one can get along the walls to the original Holy of Holies. We continued along the wall along a path that was once an ancient street teeming with vendors and pilgrims, through an ancient aqueduct that brought fresh water to the Temple, to the Northern boundary, then around and back up into the Arab Quarter.

We dragged ourselves back through the Old City to our car and drove back to Netanya over some cookies from the party and Mei Eden bottled water. When we got back, we had a light dinner of leftovers, and I called Efrat to arrange for the next two days of our adventure at Beit Hashita and Northern Israel. Everyone went to bed early, and I stayed up to finish writing this entry, but will come to a finish now as it is 1:30 a.m. here and I still need to upload our pictures for you all to enjoy.

So goodnight to Sami and Izzy, who will be having this read to them as a bedtime story tonight. Saba is surely getting in better touch with Shmuel this week, and I’m sure he’ll have a whole bunch of new stories to tell you soon. Lilah tov, v’nishikot chamot!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Plane Rides, Downpours, and a Whole Lot of Tea

Here begins what we hope to be the first of several interesting blog posts on our trip to Israel...

Dad and Marianne arrived in Washington at a perfect time, just as I was finishing up the last few tasks that needed to get done before leaving. I had brought my suitcase with me to work that morning, and decided to leave my car in the garage for the week.

We had a wonderful meal of gigantic salads at Chop't, just around the corner from my office in Rosslyn before setting out for Dulles Airport. Marianne commented on the beautiful sky as we made our way westward on the Dulles Access Road, which we all hoped to be a prophetic sign for our respective journeys. In an apt observation, she commented on how this was the type of color that could not be replicated by paint or even the most impressive of digital cameras.

I dropped them off at the departures curb with our belongings, and drove the car out to the Economy Lot, being sure to leave myself a note on my iPhone of where it was parked. Waiting for the shuttle bus, I met a very nice group of UVA students who were on their way to Sao Paolo as an "Alternative Spring Break Mission" to build houses in Brazil.

To make a long story just a bit shorter, my status in the United Mileage Plus program and membership in the Red Carpet Club made the entire Dulles process an incredibly pleasant venture for all, so we were VERY relaxed by the point at which it was time to board the plane to London. I was even able, at the last minute, to secure an Economy Plus seat for Marianne, which ensures a slightly deeper seat pitch and an additional five inches of legroom. While walking down the jetway with her during our priority boarding, she hugged my arm tight and said, "I'm never traveling without you again!" It's moments like these that I always think about our family concept of travel karma, and how grateful I am to be given such opportunities to spread this kind of happiness in places that often bring the worst out of people.

Our flights themselves were a bit uneventful. Dad and I ate our "chicken" dinners while watching the movie "Burn After Reading," which was cute and entertaining, but perhaps only so as a captive audience. We both fell asleep fairly quickly afterward and slept most of the way to London with the usual 45 minute-1 hour intervals of waking up and shaking arms back to life, etc.

During our short stopover at Heathrow in London, we met some very nice and interesting people. One such gentleman with whom we were chatting turned out to be an attorney at Holland & Knight, which is one of the larger worldwide law firms with which I occasionally work. He was incredibly friendly (especially considering the fact that he was a litigator!), and was heading to Israel on some business. We agreed to trade business cards once settled on the flight.

The BMI flight to Tel Aviv was adequate. The seats were a bit more comfortable, but we sorely missed the extra legroom, and it was that type of flight where every square inch was occupied. The flight attendants were particularly friendly, however, and Dad and I both enjoyed our drinks of Israeli tomato juice "with ice, lemon and sauce." I hope I'm up for it during our 7am flight back on Sunday, because it was extremely yummy. Maybe I'll be daring and have them give me some vodka on the side... ;) Dad made some friends among his row-mates, and we had a great time laughing it up with them in both Hebrew and English. I was happy to even help one of them out during the landing with some Tylenol Sinus, as he looked like his head was about to explode.

We arrived in Tel Aviv almost exactly on schedule around 7pm local time to some serious storms, some moderate turbulence, but an otherwise safe landing. After walking the 8 or 9 miles from the gate to Passport Control through the caverns of the new-ish Ben Gurion Airport (I picked Dad's jaw off the moving walkways a few times), we were through to baggage claim with no complications, and walking through customs with all our stuff within minutes thereafter.

Marianne met her sister immediately, and we all enjoyed the tearful few moments between them. Dad had a short catch-up with Rabbi Chinitz, and we got their phone number to stay in contact and at least arrange to meet back up with Marianne for the ride home.

When we parted ways with Marianne, Dad and I noticed that we were standing right across from the cell phone rental, and who should be there, other than our good lawyer friend from London. After what seemed like 45 minutes or so of them trying to get him set up, doing some networking and whatnot, we were able to get our own phone and local phone number, and head toward the rental agencies while calling Mom to give her our new number.

Reut with Budget Israel was incredibly friendly and helpful, and managed to give us quite a bit more than we had reserved for very little. By the time we were pulling out of the airport, it was already a little after 9pm, but we were both so ecstatic from the experience thus far that we barely minded the torrential rain and perpetual construction. We used our phone to contact Sylvia and Shira, to let them know we had arrived. We decided to stop briefly in Netanya on the way to Haifa primarily so that I could use the bathroom, but managed to get roped into some good coffee, great cake, and even better conversation. They were all positively glowing from the excitement of Meytal's recent engagement and the upcoming party to celebrate the same.

After a brief 20 minute stop, we were back on the Coastal Road, heading north to Haifa through the driving rain. I pointed out some landmarks in Netanya to Dad on the way back to the highway for reference, and he was amazed at how big everything has gotten.

We arrived in Haifa around 11pm, and thankfully the rain had stopped. I made the same mistake I always do on my way to Shira and Mark's apartment (note to self: next time it's RIGHT at the circle, not LEFT), so the customary phone call was made to get last-minute redirection.

Shira and Mark sat up with us for an hour or two, catching up over a light meal (for us) of some hot vegetable soup, bread, assorted cheeses and some delicious babaganoush. Dad and I were in bed by around 1:15am, and fell asleep with a fair amount of ease. Considering the possibility of jetlag, we both slept fairly soundly through the night and morning, and finally resolved ourselves to get out of bed around 9:30am.

Shira had prepared a beautiful spread for our breakfast after we both showered off our travel-shmutz. We had some fresh Israeli salad with olive oil and some of the Ala'ea red salt we had brought from Hawaii, along with more assorted cheeses and a beautiful frittata. We shmoozed over some hot tea with milk before setting out.

We began with a short drive to Yafeh Nof, which is a neighborhood just below the Merkaz HaCarmel area, looking out over the bay-side of Haifa and at the top of the massive gardens leading down to the Shrine of the Bab, which is a famous Baha'i Temple and the center of their faith. Most people would recognize it by its iconic copper dome. The gardens are maintained in a lavish state by the Baha'i members, but are unfortunately closed to everyone. Even viewing them from afar is quite a pleasure, as you can surely see from our pictures.

We took a short stroll through the neigborhood there (Dad insists that it was uphill-both ways), as Shira pointed out some interesting houses. We also made a brief stop at the home of a local iron sculptor who has filled an area in front of her home with some beautiful works.

We then returned to our car for a scenic drive through the French Carmel neighborhood to the very top corner of the city where there is a Carmelite Church called "Stella Maris" that has been there for hundreds of years. This area has a truly beautiful view both out toward the Mediterranean Sea, into the Haifa Bay, and northward toward Lebanon. We took some photos in the gardens of Stella Maris, where there were some particularly interesting modern sculptures of angels. Unfortunately, as we wandered leisurely through the grounds, we were unaware that they were about to close the building for the afternoon, so we were unceremoniously turned away by the man who was locking up.

As we returned to the parking lot, we were unfortunately unable to help a driver with a dead battery, as there was a car parked between us and his jumper cables would not be able to reach. I was eager to be given the option to spread a bit more good travel karma, but alas, it was not to be.

As Shira had forgotten her cell phone, and we were having no luck reaching Mark from ours, we ditched some last minute plans to sit at a cafe at the Dan Panorama, and instead had some coffee and chocolate croissants back at Shira and Mark's apartment. Frankly, the view is better. At this point, we were also able to review and upload some of our pictures, with which we were reasonably satisfied.

We got in touch with Mark, and made plans to meet at a favorite restaurant of mine, Shira and Mark's, which is called "Avazi." It's a pretty good Israeli chain, and I was very happy to bring Dad into the Avazi experience as well. Basically, it's a Middle Eastern restaurant where you order a main course (basically, some kind of meat or fish on skewers), and they bring you freshly baked sesame laffa and about 20 different kinds of salads on little tiny plates which are replenished as they are consumed. The amount of stuff they bring you there is practically embarassing, and we had to ask them to stop at a certain point as were getting nervous at the amount of delectable food in front of us that was clearly going to be wasted. Dad, Mark and I had two long skewers of roasted lamb (by long skewer, I mean about two and a half feet long, with about a foot or so of succulent meat), and Shira settled for one skewer of beef.

As the table was being cleared, Dad and I had a moment of panic when we realized that Mom was going to KILL us for not photographing the spread that had been laid out before us. Please forgive us, Mom, and if it makes you feel better, we are happy try to find another Avazi somewhere in our travels this week to recreate the experience... I personally blame it on food-related over excitement.

Mark parted ways with us after the meal in order to catch up on some sorely needed sleep of which we had deprived him the night before. Shira, Dad and I milled about the Haifa Mall for a bit, later crossing the street to the "Castra," which is sort of like a mall, but the exact definition of which we are unable to agree upon. The Castra is covered in works of art, on the outside mostly of a biblical nature. We had a good time taking some pictures of some of the murals in an outdoor courtyard area, and some of the other sculptures there. On the inside are a few stores, cafes, and a good amount of art galleries. Since Shira had lost the argument over the check at our supper, she was determined to load us down with a few gifts to take back to the U.S., and we were happy to oblige at that point.

We took a drive home through heavy rush-hour traffic (which meant it took about 7-10 minutes longer than normal), as the Castra and Mall are located next to a newer area of Haifa that plays host to such behemoth local employers as Intel, Google and Microsoft. After the obligatory tea with croissants and cookies (it had already been at least two hours since we had drank tea with fresh mint at the restaurant, after all!), we took a short drive with Shira and a newly-refreshed Mark down the hill and up to the Qrayot area, where Eliezer and Pircha live in Qiryat Bialik.

Dad, after valiantly trudging up to their fourth-floor walkup penthouse apartment, was positively giddy to spend a few hours catching up with his cousin and childhood chum Eliezer. We sat and drank tea (noticing a theme here?) with various treats. I have to say that he has been the perfect wingman on the trip, and I doubt I would come to Israel without him by my side again. My Hebrew is good enough, but having someone else (especially one who enjoys the spotlight) to help facilitate the conversation has been wonderful. I feel less like a wallflower with him around, for certain.

We headed back to Haifa and arrived back at Mark and Shira's around 10pm, where we sat down for a light late meal of some hot vegetable soup and more wonderful shared stories while our pictures from today uploaded to Picasa.

Now, as the clock nears 1am again, we must bring this travelog to an end. To be continued soon!