Blog # 12 - An Interim Retrospective

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Middle East » Israel » Jerusalem District » Jerusalem
December 20th 2011
Published: December 20th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

It’s been so long since I’ve written a blog that I’ll focus here less on specific, time-linked events, and more on looking back over longer-term developments and changes. Also, some have responded to previous blogs with the observation that I’ve focused almost entirely on the boys, and given little space to Aimee and I. Consequently, here I’ll endeavour to include more about the “alter” (older in Yiddish) generation. At the same time, I’ll say by way of explanation, that the blog to date has reflected the fact that our adventure here in Israel is, at least in my view, ninety percent about the boys and only ten percent about us (and Rosie).

Aimee’s developed what to me seems like the ideal schedule; glass twice a week in Givat Ze’ev with her mentors and friends Robyn and Amnon Elbaz, Ulpan twice a week, which includes tons of “she’ooray bayit” (homework), a once-a-week course on the Book of Kings in the Bible that includes tours to the sites described in the Biblical Text, weekly Yoga with our amazing yoga teacher Zvi, running a few times a week with Rosie, and doing all the chores and meeting all the responsibilities that come with maintaining a healthy, functioning, household, and providing for the many needs of our boys. When you add it all up, there’s not enough time to do any one thing, but overall it’s close to a perfect routine for Aimee.

Last Monday, December the 11th, I joined Aimee for an all-day tour (that is part of her Kings course) to the heart of Samaria/Shomron, which is the northern half of the West Bank. We traveled in a bullet proof bus with extra thick glass (that is just a little foggy), and an “melaveh neshek” (an armed escort) dressed in army greens and packing an automatic weapon. The center piece of the tour was a visit with the small Samaritan community (called “Shomronim” in Hebrew) at Mount Gerizim, which overlooks the Arab city of Nablus. The Samaritans split off from Judaism at the time of the Babylonian exile about 2,500 years ago and developed many of their own laws and customs, but still emphatically consider themselves part of the Jewish People. Most notable of the differences between Jews and Samaritans is that the latter believe that Mount Gerizim is the place of the ancient Temple and not Jerusalem. They also do not accept developments in Judaism that came after the Babylonian exile. And perhaps most interesting and colourful, on Passover the Samaritans still sacrifice paschal lambs.

Until recently the Samaritans lived in nearby Nablus, but moved to the top of the mountain when the local population began to threaten them. Nablus is the site of the tomb of the Biblical Joseph, and a place where Jews are even more unwelcome than Samaritans. In recent years the Arabs of Nablus have deliberately destroyed much of Joseph’s tomb (which suggests what religious freedom would be like under a Palestinian regime). While on the hilltop the guide pointed out the location of Joseph’s tomb below. The sides of Mount Gerizim are so steep, that it appeared that if one tossed a pebble over the edge it would land on the tomb. Everyone, with the exception of our melaveh, who was joined by Israeli soldiers from the nearby mountain-top base, stayed well clear of the edge. The acoustics are such that from the mountaintop one can hear the sounds of the city below. Voices. Vehicles. Very eerie. Kind of like the sound of a wasp’s nest ready to open up. …That very night a group of religious Jews came, without army authorization or escort, to pray at the tomb and were shot at by unfriendly locals. Fortunately, none were killed or seriously injured, though one took a bullet through the hat that grazed his forehead. As Maxwell Smart would say – missed him by that much! The violent reality of the conflict here is never far away (though in the course of our daily routine we never really notice it).

Glass beads - The quality of the glass beads that Aimee’s been producing improves with every session on the torch. Aimee can best describe her work, but with my untrained eye I can see increased complexity combined with greater definition and precision in the designs, colors, and shapes. Having joined Aimee from time to time on her trips to Givat Ze’ev (where I do my ulpan homework and blog entries while Aimee’s on the torch), I can say that it’s difficult to imagine a more welcoming and inspiring place to learn and create art. The Elbaz family (parents and 3 young adult kids) are all passionate artists, and quite accomplished in a variety of areas, who live in a home chock full of their artwork and their collections of art and memorabilia (the American Black Memorabilia collection is my favorite), and who make us feel completely at home in their home.

At first, Aimee was ambivalent about taking an ulpan course, both because she saw how much homework I was getting, and out of fear that the ulpan would be too focused on grammar and other dry aspects of language school. The experience so far has been surprisingly pleasant and Aimee seems happy to fit in her homework late in the evening or during short breaks during the day between her many chores and responsibilities. I can hear the steady improvement of Aimee’s Hebrew, perhaps in part because Aimee is the main contact person between us and the boys’ school and because, unlike me, Aimee’s not afraid to make mistakes and be outed as an non-Israeli. Aimee’s ulpan class is a happy mix of Jews, Arabs, and non-Jews from around the world, including “Malkee-ore”, a Catholic priest from the Congo, See, a Korean who no-one can understand in any language, and Maria, a Polish woman doing graduate work at the Hebrew University here in Jerusalem. Our ulpan – Ulpan Milah – prides itself on attracting a diverse student body. When one of our neighbours registered for Ulpan she commented on the large number of Arabs in the ulpan in a way that telegraphed her discomfort. The office administrator responded that if the presence of Arabs presented a problem then Ulpan Milah was not the place for her.

I’ll throw in an editorial comment here: Mahmoud Abbas, the “president” of the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly proclaimed that not a single Jew will be permitted to remain in a Palestinian state, and that all those Jews currently living in parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim (more that 100,000 Jews) including those living in the 3000 year old Jewish Quarter of the Old City next to the Western Wall, will be expelled. The Nazi’s had a word or that – Judenrein (free of Jews). More contemporary commentators have popularized the expression “ethnic cleansing” which would seem rather apt here. Something of a contrast with the reality in Israel - in which about 1/5 to 1/4 of the population is Arab - and the many parts of “Jewish” Jerusalem frequented by Arab shoppers and workers (one of Aimee’s classmates is a young stylish Arab women who’s learning Hebrew to take a job in Jerusalem’s swankiest Jewish shopping area), and the “Jewish” neigbhourhoods in which Arabs comfortably reside, including two of my Arab workmates in the bakery. Not to mention the Arabs in high positions including the Israel High Court judge who recently issued the decision that sent Israel’s former President to jail (which is a huge news story here that I won’t get into). And the parks we’ve visited throughout Israel which are all filled with happily vacationing Arab families in their shiny new cars, and western fashions.

As for me, I continue with my ulpan, which is both rewarding in so far as I’m learning a lot, and frustrating in so far as I feel like I’m not learning enough, or fast enough or efficiently enough. I envy the boys who seem to be acquiring Hebrew by osmosis and speaking grammatically correct Hebrew without ever having learned grammar. Fifty-four year old brains were not designed to acquire languages. When I starting learning Hebrew in a serious way at 19, I recall forgetting every new word once or twice before it finally stuck. Now, I can learn a new word four or five times, and even then it may only stick for a while. Still, I figure one (at least as an adult) acquires language one word/concept/structure at a time, and I hope that one day all those new words will stick and add up to complete fluency.

I’ve augmented my ulpan learning with a few other tools for Hebrew acquisition. I’m registered for a marathon in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee in mid January and have started listening to the radio on an ipod during my long runs that are now pushing 4 hours. That’s a lot of Hebrew to listen to. With the news presented every half hour I can pretty much figure out all the stories by the second or third listening. On my first listen I find that whenever I hit I word I’m not completely familiar with my brain focuses on deciphering that word, and by the time my brain redirects its attention to the ongoing news cast I’m one, two, or three sentences behind. But it is a nice opportunity to keep up with the latest important events in the region. For example, the news during my last run reported that the police attended the home of a woman in the town of Kiryat Motskin who was found laying dead beside the critically injured body of her ex-husband, who was armed with a recently discharged handgun. Both had gunshot wounds to the head. The police announced that the ex-husband could be a suspect. Now is that crackerjack police work or what!?

The news is quite helpful for learning correct syntax and pronunciation. Not to mention picking up expressions, slang and otherwise, and all the English words that are flooding the Hebrew language. You may say that, for an English speaker, the influx of English is a “situa-tsiya” (situation) that is “too-good-to-be-true” but I’m “sorrrrrrrrrrrry” – I don’t agree. I don’t know what the “motiva-tsiya” is for this “situa-tsiya”, though some may say that the “push” comes from the fact that the corresponding Hebrew words may not convey the necessary “nuance” or “connota-tsiya” that the English word provides. Others would add that it’s not “politically correct” to be so critical of Israelis who are simply trying to be a little more “fancy” in their mode of expression. By the way, we’re all going to see Adin’s violin teacher – who is quite the “sensa-tsiya” in Israel - perform with his band this Wednesday in Tel Aviv at an event celebrating the recent release of his latest “albom.” Even though we’re not on the “mailing list” we already have tickets purchased “on-line” so we don’t need to worry about the concert being “sold out.” That’s it, in a “nutshell.”

My weekly lecture/tour course at Yad Ben Tsvi, also helps “upgrade” my Hebrew. The three hour lectures are challenging – my head feels like it’s about to explode by the end – but I do follow close to everything that’s said. Last week’s all-day tour took us to Ramle, which is located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and focused on the Jews from Tunisia, Buchara (in former Soviet Central Asia) and the Karaites, who are a sect that broke off from Judaism at some point between the 7th and 9th centuries in Iraq. They rejected all the rabbinical commentary on the Torah and believe(d) that the Torah itself is the only legitimate source of religious belief and practice. There are about 50,000 Karaites worldwide with 40,000 living in Israel where there are accepted as Jews according to Jewish law. One of their largest communities is in Ramle (which is close to the airport) and the nearby town of Matsleach (“success”). As it happens, my father lived in a village (in what is now the Ukraine) which was home to one of the few Karaite communities in Europe prior to World War II, and he had friends who were Karaites. A local specialty sold in the Ramle market is “Sandveech Tunisie” (Tunisian Sandwich) which is a long roll filled with a red hot sauce, tuna, slices of hard boiled egg and Israeli salad. A nice combination that is safe to try at home.

Running season is in full swing. As mentioned, I’m registered for the Tiberius Marathon, which takes place in a few weeks. Having survived my final long run yesterday night/morning injury-free, I can now go from saying that I’m “registered” for the marathon to saying I’ll be “doing” the marathon. From here on in it’ll be medium distance, then short runs. I’m pretty much at the point where I can stop running altogether and still do the event. Having a 9:30 a.m. meeting yesterday, I needed a particularly early start to get my run in – 4:12 a.m. to be exact. This meant that Rosie and I ran the first 2 hours in complete darkness, which is fine along city streets, but not ideal through forest and fields. In the forest and fields we had to rely on muscle memory and landmarks illuminated in the distance, which worked some of the time, but at other times left us covered in mud and thorns. Good if you have a martyr complex, not so good if you’re a four legged animal whose body is close to the ground. Upon returning home I spend a half hour pulling pinecone-shaped thorns out of Rosie's fur and shaking the dried mud off her underside. During the run we saw the Old City walls lit up to our right, ran past an exact replica of the Lubavitcher Rebbi’s Brooklyn house in the northern neigbhourhood of Ramat Shlomo, and ran through the woods past Ramat Shlomo towards the large Arab city of Ramalla. At this point I picked up and carried three large rocks to ward off the pack of wild dogs that roams in those woods (fortunately we slipped through undetected this time). We then ran through a second forest that separates the north-west neighbourhood of Ramot from the nearby Arab village of Beit Iksa, from which a terrorist walked across the valley a few weeks back and murdered a young man in Ramot. I retained one good sized rock in my hand through here, fearing the terrorists far less than the wild dogs – and then got the chance to throw the rock (plus two more that I picked up) at a second pack of wild dogs near the town of Mevaseret Tzion to the west of the city. From there we continued alongside a large vineyard patrolled by an array of “domesticated” dogs (slavering fire-eyed pit bulls seem to be the “domesticated” dog of choice in Israel) below the neighbourhoods of Beit Zayit and Ein Kerem, which is the church-filled birthplace of John the Baptist, then trudged up through a steep forest trial where we encountered deer in the valley between Ein Kerem and Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum), and then finished off by cutting across southern Jerusalem to home. Along the way we essentially circumnavigated the entire city.

Work at the bakery remains a welcome part of my routine. We’ve got a pretty efficient regular team happening now. My start time has shifted to 1:00 a.m., which gives me a little more time for a pre-shift snooze. The explanation for the later starting time is that there’s little to do until the first batch of dough is ready, which takes about an hour. Both Moshe the owner, and Neemer the night manager, explained that it was the other who decided I should start later. I guess neither wanted to take responsibility for the concomitant reduction in my salary by 25 shekels ($8 Cdn). I was away in Vancouver a couple of weeks back so I asked Neemer on my return how things went in my absence. He replied that they managed but it was “k’sat kashay” (a little difficult). It’s nice to feel needed. I guess 1000 challot is a lot for one man to braid.

I continue to like the fact that I’m part of a Jerusalem institution (though some may say I should be in an institution of a different kind for doing this). They now rely on me at the bakery and I feel committed to the place. Magdaniyat Pe’er, unlike other major bakeries in this town, remains a family business where the baked goods are sold right out of the bakery. The bakery itself seems to be known to all long-term Jerusalemites. The place is rough around the edges, just like the city and country it’s part of, and the items we produce lack the cookie-cutter prettiness of the baking from the mega-bakeries around town. And I like that. Some of the equipment dates back to the opening of the bakery in 1947, and it looks the part. That’s 64 years in which Pe’er has been making challah for Jerusalemites at the same plywood-surfaced work table that I (now) spend seven hours at every Thursday night. It’s fairly simple work, though there’s plenty that can go wrong if one doesn’t pay attention. And when something does go wrong, count on Neemer to fly into a hysterical rage and threaten to throw large and sometimes lethal objects across the room. Two foot long carving knives used for slicing the dough seem to be his object of choice. Notwithstanding his temper, Neemer is a sweet guy who probably would never actually let go of the knives. I think.

With each four strands of dough I braid I always strive for that perfect challah; symetrical along it’s entire length with no bulges or irregularities, curving neither to the right or left, tapering every so slightly towards each end, and with each end a mirror image of the other. When everything runs smoothly, and the challot land on the baking trays near perfect, there is definitely a zen thing happening.

I think what I like best about the experience is my walk home between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning. The streets are still quiet, though people are starting to trickle out to start their days, as I finish mine. I’m light-headed from lack of sleep and exhaustion, but feeling good for having braided my way through several hundred challot during the night. Sometimes I weave along the streets on my way home, feeling more tipsy than unstable. We all know about endorphin produced “runner’s high.” I wonder if there’s a baker’s equivalent?

Last Thursday night, before work started, Aimee and I did a bakery tour including some in the most religious parts of town. We visited about 10 bakeries, but the one that grabbed our attention was the Landner Bakery (also spelled Lendner) which is open only Thursday night and Friday, and produces only challah and bread rolls. Landner produces 2000 challot a week and one guy does all the braiding himself. From my observation I figure he takes between three and five seconds a challah – which is two to three times as fast as me. While in Landner I started braiding challot across the work table in front of him. I’m guessing this doesn’t happen too often, especially by someone like me, who doesn’t look the part and, by civilian standards, is pretty fast and proficient. He asked me where I had learned to braid. When I told him Magdaniat Pe’er he became very inquisitive about how much I was earning – which is apparently rather less than he is making. It seemed like he was contemplating selling his services to the highest bidder, until he realized he’s doing pretty well for his one day a week. I must say I’m tempted to look into working at Landner. As old and authentic as Pe’er is, Landner is all the more so. The equipment there looks to be from an entirely earlier generation, and they bake their challot in a wood burning oven. … Musing to myself – perhaps I could do an early shift at Landner, then come home for a snooze before doing the later shift at Pe’er. Now that’s Mishugeneh (crazy)!

Last Friday I extended my day-night-day with a morning half marathon – the Chetzi Maraton Emek Ha’Mayanot” - near the town of Beth Shean, located two hour’s drive north of Jerusalem. I got off work early at 5:15 a.m., walked home, rinsed the flour off my face and arms, downed a bowl of porridge, grabbed my running gear and a pre-run banana, and jogged to Emek Refaim for the 5:50 a.m. pick-up by a friend of my downstair’s neighbour Ya’akov, who was also doing the event. A fourth participant, also a buddy of Ya’akov, joined us as well. As they chatted happily about the upcoming race I curled up in the corner, leaned my head against my rolled-up down vest, and tried to sleep. The weather for the event was close to perfect, with only the occasional strong breeze to “complain” about. The run, even though it’s way off in the countryside, is the half marathon national championship, so there were close to 5,000 participants. There were also groups of soldiers that ran the course, or sections of the course. They were an impressive and inspiring sight, carry their unit flags, which they passed from person to person, and sang and chanted as they ran. By contrast to running events in North America, which split quite evenly along gender lines, the participants in this event were about 90% male and 10% female. I’m not sure why. The route was beautiful, the first event I’ve run through the countryside. Lots of cornfields. We even ran through a kibbutz, Cheftsiba, which was home to the only “fans” along the route. The smell of the “refet” (cowshed) brought back sweet memories of time on kibbutz, and gave me a nice boost. I ran a 1:53 (and a few seconds) which is a little slow for me, but finished strong, which is my goal in ever event. Next up, the full Tiberius Marathon on Thursday January 12, 2012. We may make a family trip out of that and spend a few days, including Shabbat, in the area.

A quick reference back to the Misrad HaPnim (Ministry of the Interior). … When I received my work permit over a month ago, I immediately called Yehudit Pastarnak, the director of the Legal Department at the Keren Kayement L’Yisrael (KKL, pronounced “KaKaL” – the Jewish National Fund) with whom I had maintained regular contact for the previous two months, updating her on my progress towards obtaining the work permit/visa, which she had stated at our first meeting in August was a prerequisite for getting work at KKL. At our original meeting Yehudit had said I could start work the next day, but for the absence of the work visa. However, whenever we spoke thereafter Yehudit always seemed pre-occupied and kept telling me that things were in a state of upheaval at the leadership level of KKL, that there were ongoing “heat-pat-choo-yot” (developments), and that her own future with the institution was unclear. Then, once I finally received my visa/work-permit my calls went directly to her voice mail. After I left several messages over a number of days, Yehudit’s secretary called and said that there was “currently” no position for me at KKL. As an apparent explanation for why Yehudit did not call herself, the secretary said that her boss was in a “yeshiva” (a meeting). I told her to convey warm regards to Yehudit, but that I would assume that there was no chance of work for me at KKL in the future and I would look elsewhere for opportunities. … While my expectations were low prior to the call, I was nevertheless disappointed that Yehudit could not find a few minutes - either before or after her “yeshiva” - to speak to me directly. I wonder how you say, “being strung along” in Hebrew?

So, at this point, I’ve decided to take my new fancy and fairly high-end digital camera (with video capacity) off the shelf, learn how to use it along with the necessary editing programs, and see where it takes me. This is a photogenic country with lots of untold stories. Some even in bakeries.

And now, to the boys. For them the last month has been transformative. And it’s mostly thanks to Supergol Israeli soccer sticker-cards. Since they’ve gotten into Supergol the boys have quickly acquired the language of Supergol, which is entirely Hebrew and includes pretty much everything they need to know to fully engage in the Supergol craze amongst young boys, and some young girls, in this country. Though their school recently banned Supergol cards (addiction and obsession are both words that fit the craze), the month leading up to the ban enabled the boys to fully submerge themselves in the Hebrew world of Supergol. They now have regular play-dates with non-English speakers, actively encourage us to arrange playdates with them, and have a growing stable of Hebrew-speaking friends. It’s now almost no struggle to get the boys to shul on Saturday mornings … they just pocket their Supergols, immediately approach the other boys playing Supergol outside the synagogue building, say “efshar mool-ie” (do you want to play me?), and start playing. Ezra will pretty much play anyone, which was to his detriment at the start when he lacked the skills to succeed at Supergol and would quickly lose all his cards. However, now, after hours and hours of practice, he’s become a better than average player and is on his way to becoming a shark. Adin, as with everything, is much more cautious about who he’ll play. Hence, he loses less, but hasn’t improved as dramatically as the Z-man. There’s a great deal of truth to the view that kids learn more of a new language during recess than in the classroom.

We’ve noticed another phenomenon … Ezra speaks Hebrew with two different accents - Sabra (native) Hebrew in the Supergol-playground world, and with a Tischler family accent for everything he learned from us. For whatever reason, Adin still speaks entirely with a Tischler accent, and has been ribbed for it by some of his classmates. But the ribbing hasn’t stopped him from speaking. Tal, his teacher, tells us that he speaks to her “rageel” – regularly and about all things - and even agreed to sit beside a non English speaker. “Hoo mamash midabare” – he’s really speaking – says Tal.

As a result of our first meeting with Ezra’s teacher, Hana, a month ago, we’ve been feeling a lot better about Hana. In that meeting Hana came across as caring and concerned about Ezra, who she really seems to like – “who me’od cham, ve’tamid meh’cha’yech” (he’s so warm and is always smiling, she said). At the same time, she’s a little overwhelmed by the demands of a large and particularly wild class. Though Ezra continues to be way behind in some Hebrew subjects, he has caught up in math and, from time to time, has even been ahead. Ezra proudly reported to us last week that other kids in his class copied his math homework. Working on math together for a half hour every day has become an important part of Ezra’s and my daily routine. And I enjoy it - Ezra and I are learning the mathematical terms in Hebrew together. We still can’t say rhomboid in Hebrew, but we’re pretty strong with other geometrical and math-related terms. Staying up to date in math – and doing it pretty much entirely in Hebrew – has been great for Ezra’s self-confidence.

It’s also very helpful that the boys both love sports and are pretty talented athletes. Sports for them has given the boys another huge doorway into the social world here. It goes without saying that they are roller hockey superstars. And the other day I was shocked to see Adin playing soccer one-on-one in the school-ground with one of his buddies and doing some very fancy footwork. For Adin, hanging out with his classmates and playing pick-up soccer after school is an integral part of his day. On days that I come to fetch him after school I have to drag him away.

And now the boys are off for the Chanukah break, so I expect we’ll be doing lots of fun things “soon” to be described in our next blog. …. The passage of time, now after five and half months in Israel, has picked up pace. I’m expecting the remainder of the year to fly by.

Additional photos below
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21st December 2011

Hey Fred, Loved the blog. I found it really interesting and entertaining!

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