A Basket Full of Memories

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Middle East » Israel » Jerusalem District » Jerusalem
June 18th 2012
Published: June 19th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Blog # 19 – A Basket Full of Memories

With time running out on our year in Israel, and with a couple of months having gone by since the last blog entry, I’ve opted here to include a scattering of memories rather than a chronological summary. Since the last entry, Aimee and I have spent much time considering where we go from here and, more specifically, whether we should, or could, stay on longer in Israel. In the end we concluded that we need to return to Vancouver for the coming year, where we will continue to figure out our long range intentions as we go. The fact that we tormented ourselves so intensely over the issue of staying or returning is an accurate indicator of how positive, overall, our time has been here.

There have, of course, been downs as well as ups, and the experiences for each of the five of us (yes, Rosie’s a person too) have been very different. Adin, who had insisted in the car on the way to the Vancouver Airport back in August that he wasn’t getting on the plane or leaving Vancouver, is now quite clear that he wants live here permanently. “Can’t we just stay in Israel?” he asked me today (not for the first time). Which is no surprise because life for Adin has never been better. He’s got a group of great friends, an amazing teacher, and has a personality that fits so well here – a Vancouver born Sabra (the term for someone born in Israel). Rosie wants to be where the rest of us are, but no doubt prefers the kinder gentler dogs of Vancouver. Ezra, who has had a tougher time than Adin, wants out of Yehuda Levi School, and we can’t blame him, but is otherwise happy enough to stay. Ezra loves basketball here and has become one of the best players in his after-school basketball program. Aimee misses aspects of our life in Vancouver much more than I, though we both miss the outdoor space of our Vancouver home. We both agree that - were we to stay on in Jerusalem - we’d need to find an apartment with a little yard, or at least a nice balcony. By the way, we did find that apartment (which would have been a major upgrade on our current one in all respects) but let it go when we decided to return to Vancouver.


The Pesach break was long. As with all Jewish holidays, the school breaks here include the holidays, and then add a chunk of time before and after. Pesach, being the longest holiday, added the longest chunk both before and after, making for a three week break. Too long away from the routine in my view, but that’s just how things are here.

Our first outing, pre-Pesach, was a day long hike into the canyons, streams, waterfalls and pools of Ein Gedi, along the Dead Sea. For the boys the highlight was a seaweed fight in one of the pools high up one of the canyons. We also trekked to the cave in which, according to tradition, young David hid from King Saul who had grown jealous of David, to the point that the King had become obsessed with killing David. David fled to this cave where a spider saved him by quickly spinning a web across the mouth of the cave, thereby tricking Saul and his soldiers into believing that no one could be in the cave.

The Pesach break also brought a welcome wave of family visitors; Aimee’s mom Nomi and Gershon who stayed for three weeks in a rented cottage (they designated “The Cave”) located around the corner from us, and step sister Jessica, husband Brian and daughter Elana, who stayed for ten days in a rented apartment on the other side of Emek Refaim Street, about five minutes walk from us. They all joined us sightseeing, touring and shopping and for the Seder, as did nephew Raphy and friend Josh. Adin and Ezra competed vigorously to lead as much of the Seder as they could. Which was a lot. I figure that by next year I’ll be able to retire from Seder-leading. It was refreshing to follow the Israeli tradition of doing only one Seder, thereby pouring all our energy into one event without having to worry about mustering the strength to do it all over again the next night. Also, being far far away from Vancouver, we did not have to stretch ourselves in different directions in an effort to share Pesach with our complex extended family. Instead, everyone who traveled to Jerusalem joined us at our Seder. Life should always be so simple.

Two pre-Seder events highlighted our Pesach experience; matzo making, and chametz (leaven) burning. In the lead up to Pesach we wanted to find a bakery that makes handmade matzos, preferably the soft kind that were probably most like the matzos eaten in Biblical times. A few days before Pesach Aimee set out with Nomi, Gershon, and Adin looking for matzo makers in the ultra-orthodox neigbhourhood of Me’a She’arim, while I had to get Ezra to the neighbourhood of Nachla’ot for his weekly guitar lesson with teacher Gilad. After dropping Ezra off I struck up a conversation with Gilad’s neighbour, during the course of which I asked if he knew of a place nearby where I might see matzos being made. Gilad’s neighbour said that there just happened to be a matzo bakery up the block on Ussishkin Street. I walked up to Ussishkin but could find nothing that looked like a shop of any kind, let alone a bakery. Assuming the neighbour had given me the wrong directions or was misinformed, I returned to my favorite neighbourhood café, Salon Shabbazi, and studied Hebrew while sipping café hafuch (latte) at an outdoor table.

After the lesson I met up with Ezra and returned to Ussishkin for a second look. Still no bakery. This time, however, I paused to read a paper placard glued onto the locked and graffiti covered metal doors of a non-descript stone building at the corner of Ussishkin and Raffaeli Streets. Sure enough, this was the bakery and the placard announced that fresh matzos would be made on site. And it had a phone number. So I called on my cell phone and asked “Fuad” if I could bring my family by to watch the matzos being made. “Lama lo? Atem muzmanim” – Why not? You’re invited” he replied. The bakery would open the afternoon before the Seder and remain open up to mid-afternoon on the day of the Seder. When I got home I thought to myself – hey, I make challah at a bakery. Why not matzos? So I called back and told Fuad my story of how I worked at Magdaneat Pe’er Bakery making challah and I’d love to volunteer to make matzos. “Lama lo?” replied Fuad. “Atah muzman”.

So the afternoon before the Seder, Thursday, April 5th, I returned to the bakery at around 3:30 p.m. - by which time there was no question that this was a functioning bakery. The metal doors on Ussishkin were wide open and a long countertop window was open onto Raffaeli Street. When I arrived the first shift was already in full swing. By my count there were 21 people engaged in various tasks in a space about 40 square meters. Not much room, but everyone had their spot and their designated task, and there was no need for most to move around during the matzo making process. All people working there were men except for two women, one of whom was rolling out the dough and shaping the matzos, while the second was selling the matzos out the window as soon as they were ready. Everyone was so consumed with their designated task that I just stood at the side for the first few minutes waiting to be assigned a job. Speed is critical since no more than 18 minutes can go by from the time the water hits the flour until the matzo is put into the oven. Otherwise there is a danger that the dough would start to rise and turn into bread.

Everything was done by hand. The only bit of high tech was a iPhone hanging from the neck of the Mashgiach (religious supervisor) which he was using as a stop watch. Every working surface and utensil was stainless steel because of the ease with which they can be quickly and completely cleaned. Altogether there are six tasks, apart from the two Mashgichim whose job it was to make sure that the matzo making process met the strictest religious standards: The moment the mashgiach activated his stop watch one person poured water from a stainless steel jug into a large stainless steel bowl sitting on the lap of a second person. The bowl was filled with flour, and nothing else. The person working the bowl mixed the water into the flour with his fingers and began the hand-kneading process. A very tough process since, unlike other recipes with ingredients that soften the dough, there were no eggs, oil, or butter. After about two to three minutes a third person pulled the wad of dough, which was about three feet long and one foot in diameter, out of the bowl and slapped it onto a stainless steel table and kneaded the dough a second time by pulling a long stainless steel rod hinged to the edge of the table up and down on the dough. That person then hefted the dough onto another stainless steel table next to an old fashion balance scale. The fourth person then sliced off globs of dough - about four to five inches in diameter - and weighed each on the scale against a rock sitting in the second metal plate of the scale. If necessary the weigher would add or slice off a small piece of dough to even the scales, then tossed the glob onto a third stainless steel table where I and five others were working. Four of us were kneaders; grabbing the globs of dough as they arrived and kneading them into disks about three times the size of hockey pucks. Because almost half of the 18 minutes had already elapsed by the time the globs landed in front of us, we sometimes snagged the globs in mid-air or, at the latest, the very instant they landed. The farther into the 18 minutes, the harder the dough became. My fingers were sore throughout from pressing into the dough. The last two workers on our table rolled the disks into “pancakes” - eight to ten inches in diameter - with stainless steel rollers.

The eleventh worker then placed the flattened dough on one of four adjacent small tables where four seated workers, including one of the two women, rolled the dough into its full size and then rolled the dough an additional time with a plastic spiked roller to punch little holes into the dough. The eleventh worker then retrieved the finished matzo dough and placed it on a round cushion with an attached handle and passed the cushion to Fuad who fed the matzo through the round opening of a gas fired oven and quickly slapped the matzo onto the clay sides of the oven. All within 18 minutes. After about three or four minutes Fuad pulled the baked matzo out of the oven with long metal tongues. And then, within minutes, the matzo flew out the window to purchasers lined up outside.

Between rounds of matzo making there were short breaks of about four or five minutes, which were not really breaks at all. Once each stage of the process was completed we quickly cleaned down every surface and utensil, which one of the mashgeechim (religious supervisors) would carefully check to insure there were no bits of dough still attached to one of the surfaces. We then scrubbed our hands with soap, water, scrub brushes and steel wool. The mashgeechim then meticulously checked our hands to insure that we’d removed every bit of dough. Every hand washing took with it another layer of skin. The mashgeechim sent me (and others) back to rewash my hands a few times because they found tiny tiny specks of dough attached to the side of one of my fingernails. Even the smallest bit of dough would contaminate the next batch because the batch would thereby contain the tiniest amount of dough that had been allowed to rise. By the time the hand scrubbing was done it was time to start the next round of matzo making. So unless you happened to be the first in line to wash your hands there was no rest. Seven hours straight. I found myself working in what felt like a trance – knead, knead, knead, scrub, scrub, scrub, knead, knead, knead. All in an atmosphere that combined a sense of urgency with a touch of euphoria.

I didn’t realize this was all done in three shifts until 10:30 p.m. when the coordinator, Shimon, said to me, and the others on the first shift, “okay, you’re done. Go wash your hands, then have a meal in the back room, and we’ll get you a package (Chavilah) of three matzos as a gift.” I told him I needed an extra package for my neighbours (the Arbels). He said he’d prepare two packages for me, but I’d have to pay for the additional one. The matzos come in three sizes; regular, size-and-a-half, and double size, which ranged from about 12 to 20 inches. These matzos don’t come cheep. $25 for a regular package to $50 for a large. Since we had to wait for the matzos to be made before we could get our packages, we ended up hanging out for about an hour in a adjacent room which opened onto the street, where we gorged on falafel, schnitzel, Turkish coffee and mint tea. One really works up an appetite making matzos. While we hung out and ate, a steady flow of people came to the door from the street hoping to bypass the line outside the sales window. No dice. We were all waiting for our matzos and they’d have to wait too. When Shimon finally came with my chavilot he gave me the large one as the present and I paid for the small. We exchanged Pesach wishes and I promised to return in future years – B’Ezrat HaShem, with God’s help.

I stepped out on the street at 11:30 p.m. People were lined up at the window along Raffaeli Street. I asked a fellow mid-line how long he’d been waiting. One hour. Which meant that the line was two hours long. Clearly, this was the matzo bakery of choice for many Jerusalemites who patiently waited for two hours when, in many places throughout the city, they could have gotten fresh baked matzos without any wait at all. I walked home along Ussishkin, Arlazoroff, and Marcus Streets. Lights were on in the kitchen at the Arbel house when I arrived at midnight so I knocked on the door. It was at this point I learned that the Arbel’s leave their kitchen lights on after going to sleep. But I guess it’s hard to get too angry about a midnight delivery of fresh-out-of-the-oven hand baked matzo on Erev Pesach (Passover eve)

I drove by the bakery a few days later; it was sealed shut, as non-descript and unnoticeable as when I first saw it. It reminded me of the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon, which appears for only one day every 100 years. The bakery, with no name, bursts into hyper intense existence one day a year and then returns to sleep until the next Erev Pesach. And I know that the next time I’m in Jerusalem for Pesach, and every time after that, I’ll be back on shift at my matzo bakery of choice.

Bee’oor Chametz” – Burning Leavan. The morning of the Seder we gathered all the remaining chametz in our house and went out in search of a bonfire. There was a fire in an old oil barrel out on the street but we passed it by looking for something a little more pastoral. We walked up Klein Street to the open field at the top of the block. Sure enough, there was a long bearded man trying to set a scattering of sliced bread on fire. We added all our chametz and threw in all our cardboard packaging to stoke the flames, which slowly consumed the pile of old bread, cereal, cookies and assorted grain products piled up on a slab of bedrock. The boys grabbed a few last chocolate wafers out of the pile and stared at the last of their leaven treats disappearing in the smoke. As we stood by, occasionally shifting right or left to avoid the smoke, several other families joined us and dumped their chametz in our fire. Everything is a community event here.

On the way home we stopped by the cottage of Oma and Zaida and picked up their chametz. This time we opted for the old oil drum outside our building. We just got in under the wire, since all chametz had to be in the fire by 11:00 a.m. according to Jewish Law.

Yom Ha’atzma-oot – Israel Independence Day

On Yom Ha’atzma’oot, (YH) Israeli’s Independence Day, we joined Aimee’s cousin, Amy, and her family for what is a national institution - the Yom Ha’atzma’ut picnic. On YH the entire country finds itself a patch of ground, often tiny, lays out a tarp, sets up a barbeque, and grills meat. Being a small country, there is little elbow room between patches of ground. Just imagine being in a forest, dirt roads running in several directions, cars parked bumper to bumper along the roads, additional cars inching up the roads, and picnicking groups stretching off in every direction. And everywhere - the country’s dads fanning their barbeques with a ping-pong racket-sized square piece of plastic. Though the picnic was set for mid-day, Amy’s husband Ilan staked his claim to a choice patch of ground in the woods south of Jerusalem at 8:00 a.m. I did an early morning run through the city that day and saw many people in sleeping bags who had set up the night before.

Also joining us for the picnic were all of Ilan’s old Tsofim (Scouts) friends and their families who have been getting together for YH since before they all had kids. I mentioned to one of Ilan’s buddy’s, JJ, that in Canada people seek out as much space and solitude as they kind find on such occasions. JJ replied that being packed together with other picnickers is an intrinsic part of the event and actually enhances the experience for him, giving a sense of Israel being one big family on YH. I could understand his point, but couldn’t escape my Canadian desire for a little more peace and quiet.

Ice Hockey Night in Israel

One unexpected treat for the boys and I this year was real ice hockey in Jerusalem. The city set up a temporary ice rink in our neighourhood called “Ir HaKerach” (Ice City) about 10 minutes walk from our home. Originally scheduled to be open for a month from mid-February to mid-March, the venue proved so popular that the city kept it open until early June. The manager of the ice rink was Danny, a Russian immigrant who is one of the hockey dads from Ezra’s roller hockey group. Danny arranged to have us play most Friday mornings during the Pesach break plus, once school restarted, Friday mornings “before school.” As it turns out, because Fridays are short school days ending at 11:45 a.m., we didn’t bother dragging the boys to school after hockey most times. We generally hit the ice at 7:30 a.m. and did not get off until 10:00 a.m. when public skating started. Danny ran the ice hockey sessions and put the boys through a very rigorous practice before letting them play a game. I’ve noticed that Russians here are even more serious about hockey than Canadians. For them hockey is not a game. It’s far more important to them than that. Anyway, the boys loved the ice hockey, and usually ended up laying on the ice exhausted by the end. Two and a half hours is a long time to be playing hockey. To put that in perspective, in Canada practices and games are generally one hour, or an hour and a quarter max. As for me, I joined the boys on the ice, as did one of the other dads, JJ (not the same one). The two of us helped a little with the practices and otherwise occupied ourselves by skating and practicing hockey skills on our own.

There’s no Zamboni, so at the beginning and end of each session we scraped the ice “clean” with snow shovels. Which did a surprisingly good job and maintained the ice at a decent quality level. Either that or I’ve been away so long I can no longer tell the difference.

Lag B’Omer

Lag B’Omer, took place on Wednesday May 9th. Though a minor holiday, Lag B’Omer is a lot of fun since there are no religious obligations, and you get to build a bonfire and roast hotdogs and marshmallows over the flames. What could be better than that?

The first signs of Lag B’Omer appear days before the holiday when the country’s boys start stashing away wood for bonfires. Since there’s not much in the way of real fire wood in this country, the boys scour building sites for wood scraps. In the lead up to Lag B’Omer one can see the boys pulling little wagons and pushing shopping carts piled high with wood along the city streets to secret hiding places. After Lag B’Omer the bonfire sites are all strewn with nails from the incinerated scraps.

In the early evening we set out with our hotdogs and marshmallows for Churshat Ha’Yarayach (the Woods of the Moon) which is a semi-forested area a few blocks up the hill from us, just below the Jerusalem Theatre in the neighbourhood of Katamon. When we got there the entire area was already filled with families picnicking by their fires. Since we had not collected any wood before Lag B’Omer we looked to adopted a fire; we found the charred remains of one and, with the help of some dead branches I scrounged in the woods and dried grass the boys added we managed to coax the fire back to life. I even dragged one good sized log onto our fire that I’m guessing others had decided was too large to move. While I was laying on my side blowing the embers Aimee grew impatient and starting cooking some of the hotdogs on a neighbour’s fire.

As we cooked and ate, more and more people converged on Churshat Ha’Yarayach, as well as a number of vans packed with wood – no different than the scraps that the boys of Jerusalem had been gathering for days, just a lot more of it. Some of the vans even had wood piled several feet high on their roofs. Clearly these people were intent on building some massive bonfires. Once done with supper we walked to Emek HaMatzlayvah (The Valley of the Cross) where Christian tradition holds that the Romans cut down the tree used to make the cross upon which they crucified Jesus. Now, Emek HaMatzlayvah is a forested area known as Jerusalem’s favorite spot for bonfires on Lag B’Omer. Before leaving for Emek HaMatzlayvah I debated with myself whether to extinguish our fire or simply leave it for one of the many groups of people arriving to adopt for themselves. I opted for the latter, assuming that the fire would not stay untended for long.

We dropped Adin off along the way at a friend’s apartment for a sleep over, and arrived at Emek HaMatzlayvah well after dark. The scene was surreal. What is referred to as Emek HaMatzlayvah is actually one half of a valley that slopes steeply upward. Looking up the slope we saw dozens of bonfires - some with flames rising meters into the air- dotted up the hillside. Because it was pitch black all around the fires, they appeared to be hovering in the air. We walked up and then back down the hillside, stopping at many of the fires along the way, and rating each one on a scale of one to 10. Half way up the slope we ran into our neighbour Dani Arbel who was by the largest of the fires, built by a group of families from his sons’ school. Not at all surprising since the Arbel’s middle son, Evyatar, is a budding mad scientist constantly building things out of wood in his back yard, particularly weapons that he often trades with Ezra. Dani invited us to attend the Arbel family’s annual Lag B’Omer bonfire gathering back at their house later that night. Which we happily did, giving Ezra an opportunity to surreptitiously gorge on many more marshmallows while Aimee and I chatted with the Arbels and their guests.

The next morning the news was filled with reports and condemnations of the despicable Lag B’Omer celebrants at Churshat HaYarayach who had left their fire unattended (oops), resulting in the destruction of a significant section of the area. Aimee was sure that we (meaning I) were the despicable celebrants. Later I walked by and confirmed that the section of the woods destroyed by fire was not the area we had our fire. Whew!

More Grandparents

Aimee’s dad Barry and Sharon paid the perfect little visit, arriving later in the day on Thursday May 10th, and staying overnight with us until Friday May 11th. They arrived mid-day Thursday in Jerusalem from a Mediterranean cruise that dropped them off in Haifa, and departed Friday evening from Ashod. Upon their arrival, Barry and Sharon took Ezra and Adin out to lunch at our favorite neighbourhood family restaurant – Rosa’s – while Aimee and I attended the brit mila (ritual circumcision) of the newborn son of Adin’s violin teacher. Upon our return, Barry joined Ezra for some one-on-one basketball. It was a close match - with Barry making up in height for Ezra’s slightly greater mobility. We then hosted Barry and Sharon for Barry’s birthday at HeHatzer - our favorite classy Jerusalem restaurant. Ezra ordered his usual, steak, which he finished the next day for lunch. Adin also had his usual - French fries. Friday morning, early, meant ice hockey for the boys at Eer Ha’Kerach where Barry watched from the “stands.” Then, pulling the boys out of school for the rest of the morning, the six of us attended the Israel Museum. We had an early Friday Shabbat supper to ensure that Barry and Sharon could get back to their cruise ship on time. We were joined by Barry’s first cousin George Promislow who lives here in Jerusalem with his wife Avril and their youngest son Ariyeh, who serves in a small elite unit in the Israeli army comprised of super brains which focuses on R&D (research and development). It was a great Promislow family get together, though the evening was cut short when Uri the cab driver appeared to whisk Barry and Sharon off to their waiting cruise ship.

Ice Hockey Night Against Bat Yam

The culmination of the boys’ hockey experience in Israel was an ice hockey game on Monday May 14th against a visiting team from the Bat Yam Ice Hockey Association. Officially a city in its own right, Bat Yam is, in practice, a southern suburb of Tel Aviv. Actually, at the start of the year I had been speaking to the director of Bat Yam hockey, Yevgeny Gusin (a Russian, naturally), about registering Ezra and Adin to play hockey with them - until I realized the impracticality/impossibility of driving the boys a couple of times of week forth and back to Bat Yam. However, the one time the boys did play ice hockey in Metulla back in November was with the Bat Yam group.

The Jerusalem game came about when Bat Yam rented the temporary ice facility in Jerusalem and invited us to play against them. And, as in Metulla, the Bat Yam team included players as old as 16, and as big as me. On a few occasions Adin lined up to face-off against players six feet tall. The team also included at least one player who played on an Israeli team that won in an annual tournament in Quebec – against real Canadian hockey teams. And it showed. A few of the Bat Yam players were excellent by any standard. The outcome was never in doubt, but the score was actually quite close, in large part because Bat Yam loaned us one of their goalies. But the Jerusalem boys played their hearts out, raised the level of their game, and made a real contest out of it. I was proud to see Ezra and Adin fearlessly go to boards to dig the puck out, and skate hard whenever they had the pucks. With the smaller ice surface the Bat Yam players were always on them quickly, but our boys didn’t give an inch. Whenever Adin was “on the bench” he complained – accurately - that the six-footers were always bumping him off the puck and into the boards. But to Adin’s credit he never backed down or away.

The boys were exhilarated by the high level of the competition and did not seem at all bothered by the outcome, recognizing that when it comes to ice hockey, Jerusalem is not Bat Yam, and that they had done well to compete with these guys.

After the game the Bat Yam Coach, Demetrius (naturally another Russian) ran an intense, high-level, practice for all the players. The practice was optional, but none of the Jerusalem boys opted out. It made me think how great it would be if we had a permanent ice facility in Jerusalem. This summer a new permanent ice rink is opening in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. I have been encouraging the keenest hockey dads in Jerusalem to try to organize an ice hockey team in Jerusalem that would practice and play in Holon. Hmmmm. Maybe the commute wouldn’t be that bad.

Roller Hockey in Netanya

Friday afternoon, May 18th the boys also had their first official roller hockey game against a team in Netanya, a city to the northwest of here on the Mediterranean, half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa. I vacillated about driving the boys there since it’s about an hour and a half each way along my least favorite section of highways in the country. But I figured an official roller game would be a lot more exciting and competitive for the boys than playing with the same kids every week in Jerusalem. Turns out that Netanya, which has a large Russian population, has a very serious roller hockey program, a high-end outdoor roller rink, and a very serious Russian hockey coach who shouts as much as the most outspoken Canadian coaches from the bad old days when shouting was the norm. The “Jerusalem Selects” got beaten soundly, but played their hearts out again against a much stronger and bigger opponent. Clearly we don’t have enough Russian players in Jerusalem. It felt a bit like the Jerusalem squad was the Mighty Ducks - with their mix of hockey gear, bike helmets and roller blade pads - versus the Netanya Sharks all decked out in the latest Canadian ice hockey gear. In the end the Jerusalem boys felt good that they did pretty well against a clearly better team.

Yom Yerushalayim

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, celebrates the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem 45 years ago during the Six Day War of June 1967. The date of the holiday, which is determined by the Jewish calendar, fell this year on Sunday evening, May 20th. Since Yom Yerushalayim is not a religious holiday with long established customs, and since we’d never been in Jerusalem before on Yom Yerushalayim, we didn’t really know what to do. We scanned the list of holiday events but couldn’t find anything likely to be family friendly – i.e. that would not result in a typhoon of complaints from Ezra and Adin that would make our lives a living hell. So we decided to walk to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in the evening where we knew people were gathering in the plaza in front of the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount). Naturally, we coupled the proposed walk with a bribe to the boys that we’d get them a special sugar treat in the Old City.

We intended to enter the Old City through Zion Gate on Mount Zion, but the way was barricaded and the police told us that access to both Zion Gate and the closest other gate, Jaffa Gate, were closed. Why? They wouldn’t say. Could we access Zion Gate from a different approach? They didn’t know. At this point I sensed that the Jewish Quarter was probably packed with celebrants and the authorities had decided to block the inflow of more. Given that the soldiers had not said that Zion Gate itself was closed I figured there was no harm in circling around the churches of Mount Zion and coming at the Gate from a different, less traveled, direction. Sure enough, the Gate itself was open, and we walked through unobstructed. We never actually made it to the Kotel Plaza itself. The central public areas of the Jewish Quarter were packed and we knew it would take at least an hour to inch towards the Kotel. As they say in Israel – “Lo Kedai” or “Lo Shaveh” – it’s not worth it. So we quickly bypassed the crowds and walked through a series of deserted laneways to a look-out overlooking the plaza, the Kotel, the Temple Mount, and the Mount of Olives beyond.

The Kotel plaza was packed with thousands of celebrants waving large Israeli flags. The plaza seemed like a single massive organism. Shifting, undulating. We stood watching, mesmerized. We felt the power of the nation in the people below us. After a half hour Adin, who was sitting on my shoulders, said it was time to go, though perhaps not so politely. We walked back to the main square where the boys made their annual purchase of cotton candy - and all was right in the world. Happily there was a remarkably clean public washroom nearby where the boys washed the sugar off their hands. We then walked back up David Street through the heart of the Arab Market. The shops were all locked down. No doubt as part of security measures to ensure no clashes between the Old City’s Arabs and the Jewish celebrants. Once out of the Old City we flagged a cab. We figured the boys had earned a ride home. When I told the cabbie our destination he asked if we wanted the “moh’neh” (meter) or to pay 25 shekels. Which impressed me, because I knew from experience that 25 shekels is almost exactly what the meter would cost. In other words, a very honest cabbie. I told him that it would probably turn out to be the same, but we’ll go with the meter. He replied that it would depend on traffic. As it did turn out the fair was 27 shekels. At first I thought the cabbie was Russian, but when I asked where he was born, and he replied here in Jerusalem, I realized he was Arab.

Galil Tour with Yad Ben Zvi

Tuesday May 22nd and Wednesday May 23rd Aimee and I did a two day tour to the Western Galilee with my Yad Ben Zvi Institute course. The boys stayed at home with their favorite babysitter, Shachar, who slept over at our apartment. The boys were pleased because that meant two days without homework, music practice, making their beds, household chores, limits on their sugar and junk food intake, or any constraints on playing on the computer or watching DVDs. In other words, the boys were happy to see our backsides and less than enthusiastic when we returned the next night. Upon our return the apartment was dark, except for the glow radiating off the faces of the boys and Shachar, from the light projected by their computer screens. No one moved or acknowledged our presence. It felt a bit like stepping into a futuristic movie in which humans had melded with their computers and had lost the capacity for verbal communication or the ability to move their limbs.

As for Aimee and I, we set out on the tour bus at 7:30 a.m. There were about 40 participants, which constituted about half of the class. It was the perfect size because we could all fit comfortably on one bus and the group was small enough for a lot of social interaction. I’m guessing that many of my classmates opted out of the two day tour because they are too old and frail to withstand the rigours of an extended tour. As I think I’ve described previously, virtually everyone in my course is a pensioner, with the average age - apart from myself and two teachers on Sabbatical - being about 75. At the same time, they are pensioners with incredible joy de vivre, stamina and resilience. And even though we visited many fascinating places on the tour, the highlight was getting to know my classmates better and learning more about their own lives. In Israel, everyone from that generation could be the subject of a full length book or movie. And every story his different; from the holocaust survivor who survived in the forest without his parents from age three to seven, to the woman who came on a two week trip from New York with her young boys (dad was already out of the picture) in the late 50s and simply stayed, to the woman who, as a young girl, was part of a population of secret Jews who lived as Muslims on the border of Iraq and Iran, but practiced their Judaism in hiding for many generations.

What is unique about a Yad Ben Zvi tour stems from the fact that Ben Zvi is an institution of higher learning and research into the social history and anthropology of Israel’s diverse population. As such, the tour took us into the heart of different ethnic communities in the Western Galilee, meeting and talking with community veterans, leaders, and a wide range of characters over tea, coffee and cakes in their living rooms, community centers and synagogues. We saw the sights along the way, but the core of the tour was the people themselves. On this particular tour we focused on the Jews from Kurdistan, Tunisia, and Yemen. One particularly compelling individual we met was the near-90 year old aunt of our Kurdish guide who lives in a mountaintop community called Sh’tula, steps away from the highly militarized border fence with Lebanon. This woman, about 10 years ago, traveled back to her birthplace in Northern Iraq to resue a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), crossing borders illegally on the way. She is also well know to Israeli army units who stop in for coffee and cakes while patrolling the border for terrorist infiltrators from Lebanon. On occasion the units will pass through with captured terrorists. When they do, the aunt also offers refreshments to the bemused terrorists – “they need to drink too” - who no doubt expected a somewhat different reception.

Another captivating person we met on the tour was Carmela, a daughter of Yemenite immigrants, who entertains guests in her Succah – a large straw hut - next to the family avocado orchard. Carmela, now a very youthful 54, married at 19; her mother married at 17, and her grandmother at 13. Carmela’s daughter married at the advanced age of 27. Carmela, a dancer by training, described her heritage through a combination of dance, storytelling and craftwork.

Our Kurdish guide Avner, also regaled us with family lore, the changes from generation to generation, and the wisdom of some old time traditions. Up to and including his generation, children in his family grew into independent self-reliant (married) adults at a young age. Avner’s daughter, however, returned to live with her parents after the army, studying one profession after another in university, and vacillating about all manner of coming-of-age decisions. That all ended abruptly at age 27, when Avner said enough is enough and “invited” her to move out on her own. Within a year Avner’s daughter was engaged to be married and had decided on the profession that she’s still happily engaged in many years later.


This year Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) fell on Saturday evening, May 26th, and Sunday, May 27th. Shavuot, in Jerusalem as anywhere else, lacks the drama and action of other major Jewish Holidays. Commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot is distinguished by two traditions – eating foods made from dairy products, and staying up through the night learning Torah. Our neighbourhood has a synagogue on virtually every block, sometimes more than one. Almost all synagogues posted lists on the street of the classes they would be offering through the night. In the days leading up to Shavuot, individuals and groups of people clustered around the signs perusing the night’s offerings. I no longer have the stamina to stay up all night for anything, (except making challah), but I picked one class to experience the spirit of the occasion. I chose to attend a class given around the corner by Rabbi Adin Steinsalz who is considered one of the greatest living Torah scholars in the world. We have a couple of his books and he played a role in our decision to name Adin “Adin.” Rabbi Steinsaltz gave his class around a table in the yard outside the synagogue. Looking much like a leprechaun in Hasidic garb, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s eyes sparkled with warmth and mischief. Between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. my brain was incapable of absorbing much apart from the atmosphere, but I enjoyed sitting under the night sky in that sweet state of semi-consciousness half way between sleep and wakefulness. When I walked home at 2:00 a.m. the streets remained alive with people criss-crossing the neighbourhood going from class to class.

Tiyul to Golan

As with all holidays in Israel, Shavuot came with an extra school day off at the end. So we packed Rosie off to the local dog-sitter and headed north at 7:15 a.m., which for us is very early to begin an outing. Our destination - the Ramat HaGolan (the Golan Heights). In preparation I scrutinized our guide books looking for a hike that included water. I concluded that Nahal (Stream) Sa’ar near the base of Mount Hermon, where the boarders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet, would be perfect – a river through a canyon, with waterfalls and natural pools suitable for swimming. Problem was, that the guide books didn’t take into account the seasons. Turns out that despite the record breaking rainfalls of this past winter, by the time we got to Nahal Sa’ar the river had dried up and those pools that still had water, were stagnant and green. Being in the midst of a heat wave, with the temperature in the mid 30s Celsius, I knew we had to find a place with water, and fast. And that I couldn’t rely on the guide books. So I quickly reviewed all the destinations in the Golan and settled on the Nahal HaMeshushim Nature Reserve. The guide book contained a phone number and I called and confirmed there was water suitable for swimming in Braichat (Pool) HaMeshushim.

Like many of the National Parks and Nature Reserves in Israel, Nahal HaMeshushim has a Young Rangers program modeled after the program in the U.S. National Parks, called in Israel “Packachim Tse’eerim.” For a modest price the park sells a work book with a number of “meseemot” (missions) that include such things as crossword puzzles, and matching games all related to the nature in the individual park. Upon completion of the meseemot, the local park ranger swears the kids in as junior rangers in an official ceremony which concludes with the ranger issuing the kids a junior ranger badge. Since time was running short when we arrived, we bought the workbooks and planned to have the boys complete them upon our return from the pool, which is a 30 minute hike from the ranger station.

Before embarking on our hike the boys got to chose a frozen treat from the store at the ranger station. Their first few choices were sold out the day before, when the Reserve was filled with over 1000 Shavuot visitors. Eventually, the boys picked something that was still available, which they ate while we hiked towards the pool. Aimee was the only one of us who had been to Braichat HaMeshushim before – and that was about 30 years ago. The pool and its setting is one of the most beautiful sites in Israel. And thankfully there were only about ten other people the day we visited. The pool, about 30 meters across and 70 meters deep, is fed by cold – though not too cold - water that cascades into the pool from a waterfall. The word “Meshushim” means hexagon, and relates to the hexagonal rock formations that surround the pool which were created by volcanic activity. The pool is also filled with fish that nibble at your toes if you sit still on the pools edge for more than about 10 seconds. Some of these fish are up to one foot long, and do some pretty aggressive nibbling. I think they are after the dead skin on your feet. Aimee and I swam some lengths back and forth to the falls. Ezra joined us for a lap, while Adin stayed closed to the edge. He wanted to swim with Aimee or I, but with no life guard and 70 meters of water under us, neither Aimee nor I were too keen about having Adin hanging from our neck in the pool. The pool was the perfect answer to a hot hot day during which we’d earlier been disappointed by the dried out river and falls of Nahal Sa’ar. We stayed until minutes before closing, and would happily have stayed longer if we could have. For the last half hour we had the pool all to ourselves. I’d definitely come back again and again, were it not for the three hour drive from Jerusalem.

Back at the ranger station the boys quickly filled out as much of the workbook as they could before the ranger had to leave. The ranger did a quick ceremony, pinned the badges on their shirts, and shook their hands. Later at home Adin completed the book. Ezra, not so much.

En route back to Jerusalem we stopped for a second swim on the northeast shore of the Kineret, aka the Sea of Galilee. Pretty much all beaches around the Kineret are private. But for a grand total of 9 shekels – 3 dollars – for the entire family it seemed like a bargain. The lake water felt like a hot bath after Braichat HaMeshushim. As we reached the lakes edge I announced that we should do a Shechechiyanu (blessing when doing something for the first time) since the boys and I had never previously swam in the lake. But before I could start the blessing Ezra yelled out in pain. He’d been stung on the foot by a wasp that was floating on the water a few inches off shore. Ezra never cries from pain, but had lost all interest in going in the lake. Adin, who’s uneasy about insects at the best of times, immediately said he wanted to go back home to Jerusalem. The compromise was a picnic supper while I swam for about a half hour in the lake. Thankfully, the water was a little cooler a short distance from the shore. It was kind of spectacular actually, watching the sun sinking over the Galilee as I swam back and forth, parallel to the shore. By the time we drove off, the sun was just setting across the lake. The boys were quickly asleep for the ride home.

Akitzat Tsee’ra

One of my periodic activities over the course of the year has been visiting our friends Ayelet and Me’iri at the village of Givat Yeshayahu in Emek (Valley) Ayala and working in their vineyards. Emek Ayala is south west of Jerusalem, half way to the Mediterranean coast, and lays on the frontier between Biblical Israel and the Philistine territory. The vineyards where I work are the site where David slew Goliath. The region has been home to grape cultivation dating back to biblical times, and currently produces a third of Israel’s wine grapes.

I’ve worked in the vineyards several times throughout the year and by now have worked in all seasons; harvesting in the fall, and pruning at various points through the winter and spring. The last few times I’ve worked a vineyard with young vines in their third year. I’ve grown attached to these vines and feel like I’ve played a role in a critical stage of their development. Though they’ve started producing grapes already the grapes cannot be harvested according to Jewish Religious Law until their fourth year. Earlier in the spring I cleared underbrush away from around the vines with a “chermesh” – a scythe - because chemical weed killers will also destroy the young vines. Once the vines mature, the undergrowth is sprayed away without harming the vines. The scythe is remarkably efficient – if handled correctly. Thanks to some mid-morning instructions from Me’iri I went from a very inefficient golf-swing motion to a much more efficient horizontal sweeping motion. I had no idea that anyone still uses scythes and had previously only seen them in pictures. They’ve been in continuous use at least dating back to Roman times. It’s highly likely that some ancient Jew was working with a scythe in a vineyard in that very same location in Biblical days.

Since then I’ve been pruning the young vines, which is a process that takes considerable thought and judgment. The young vines produce several branches near the base of each plant. Once the branches reach a height of about one meter all branches must be cut away except for the one branch that appears to be the strongest. Sometimes the strongest branch is obvious, but often it is not and there are several criteria to apply in deciding which branches to remove and which one to leave. It can be quite subjective and very challenging. And not at all boring since each plant is different and the various criteria apply to differing degrees with each plant. Me’iri assesses each plant almost instantly and prunes away the unwanted branches just as quickly. For me it can take up to a minute to do one plant. And in a vineyard with more than a thousand vines, this is not a small job. Much of the work is done on one’s knees or in a crouching position, which, after a few hours, can start to wear on aging joints.

A couple of Thursdays ago Aimee joined me for a day at Givat Yeshayahu. Aimee worked with Ayelet packing raisons for the market. As for me, I was back with my young grape vines. While taking a water break I noticed a Tsee’ra (wasp) walking about on the inside of the left lens of my sunglasses. I instinctively threw my glassed down onto the ground. Whew! Saved! My relief that I had not been stung on my eye was short lived, however, when, within seconds, I felt tiny footsteps on the back of my right hand. I shook the wasp off my hand but not before the little sucker plunged his stinger right below the knuckle of my baby finger. The fiery pain eased within several minutes, and I went back to work, thinking I’d gotten off pretty lightly.

During that morning I also learned a bit of vulgar slang from Me’iri. While pruning side by side we got into a discussion about the situation in the West Bank. I recounted something that I’d “learned” about the situation, to which Me’iri emphatically replied “Zi-on!” In the context I understood that Me’iri did not accept as true or accurate what I just said. Me’iri and Ayelet later explained that to say “Zi-on” – which is the Hebrew slang for male genatilia – is the English equivalent of saying “bullshit.” “Zi-on”, however, is much more vulgar and is not used in polite conversation. It is only used in two situations – either with a close friend, or with someone you really dislike.

By the time we arrived back in Jerusalem, the right side of my hand was swelling, turning red, heating up, and becoming stiff. By the next morning, my entire hand was swollen, stiff and sore, By mid-day the swelling was working its way up my forearm. As fortune would have it, our friends and neighbours in the next building, Danny and Revital Arbel are both physicians. With Aimee’s prompting I popped over and showed Revital my hand. Revital, a gynocologist, checked for a pulse and found one – a good sign she said. Revital quickly spoke to Danny on her cell phone. Danny’s the head of the surgical department at the Hadassah Hospital. Revital got off the phone and offered to take me to Share Tsedek Hospital where she’s on staff. Revital said it could be just a normal reaction to a akitzat tsee’ra (wasp sting), but it could be also an infection caused by the sting. I agreed and Revital drove me to Share Tsedek, which is a five to 10 minutes away.

At Share Tsedek we went up to the reception counter in the Emergency Section. Since I had no health insurance here (I have since obtained insurance) the initial cost to be checked by someone in the emergency department would be 1,180 shekels which, at the current exchange rate would be just over $300. Revital thought for a second, and said “bo eiti” – come with me. She then marched me into the emergency ward and approached one of the physicians there. A very pleasant Arab physician immediately checked my hand and asked me a series of questions. He assured me that there was no infection and that the swelling was within the normal range of reactions to a wasp sting. He gave me a bunch of medication – a couple of kinds of antihistamines and steroids – all free. On our way out of the emergency ward Revital smiled a Mona Lisa smile and explained, “Ba’Aretz eem yaish chaverim, lo tsareech protekzia” - in Israel if you have friends you don’t need connections.

Revital then walked me up several flights of stairs to her department where she provided me with a course of antibiotics, just in case an infections did develop – all free. … From door to door we were done in about one hour. As a thank you Aimee and I brought over two large bottles of chilled beer that we’d brought back from the Golan Heights a few days before. At which point the Arbels invited us to stay for Shabbat supper. Although our table was already set for supper, we happily consented.

Though the Arbels are accomplished physicians at the top of their professions, they are also the free-spirited parents of five free spirited kids ranging in age from 7 to around 22, and it was a pleasure to watch them interacting throughout the evening. Their two youngest sons pop into our home unannounced and join us for supper from time to time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The youngest son Asaf checks out the contents of our fridge without asking, and brother Evyatar clears the table after the meal, also without being asked. During the course of the Shabbat meal Danny and Revital had a heated argument arising out of issues related to Revital’s work with Arab women in the West Bank. It occurred to me that one measure of a strong marriage is the capacity to argue vigourously without ever making the argument personal. And the capacity to hold drastically different opinions without ever holding those opinions against your partner.

Rosie: Lost and Found

Since the end of Marathon Season and the onset of summer heat, Rosie and I have been running much less than we’re accustomed to. One day last week I resolved to get an early start to avoid the heat. So at around 6:30 a.m we set out on one of our short routes - south to an urban nature reserve called Emek HaTsva’im, the Valley of the Gazelles, which actually does contain a small herd of gazelles, and then north along a bike path to Jerusalem’s largest urban park, Gan Sacker. Emek HaTsva’im is the last remaining piece of wild land in Jerusalem, which is surrounded by wire fencing, but with numerous open entry points. I assume the gazelles stay in the reserve because the reserve is surrounded on all sides by busy streets and relatively dense construction. But within parts of the reserve it’s quite easy to imagine what this part of Jerusalem looked like decades ago before the city swallowed up all but this little enclave. Since I started running through Emek HaTsva’im last summer I’ve always let Rosie off leash in the reserve, which entails two significant violations of municipal law. First, it’s illegal to have dogs off leash in the city anywhere. There’s a strictly enforced fine of 700 sheckles – about $200. And second, it’s illegal to have dogs in the reserve, on or off leash. And to compound my violations, it’s illegal to walk in most of the reserve, including parts that I always run in with Rosie off leash. I do so because it's a good place to run there seems to be no official presence of the reserve authorities in the reserve. It would seem that the land was designated a reserve and then simply forgotten.

So as is our custom, when we arrived at the reserve a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. I let Rosie off leash and started running clockwise along a path around the perimeter of the reserve. Every 30 seconds or so I turned around to ensure that Rosie was still following me. The area is overgrown with wild grasses, now straw coloured, bushes and trees. Rosie typically doddles off leash but catches up when I call her. We repeated this routine along the first half of the south-north length of the reserve. It was difficult to see Rosie from a distance because her light strawberry blond hair blended totally into the background. At the top of the reserve I turned back to call for Rosie. No Rosie. I figured she was back behind a twist in the trail so I doubled back to call her. Still no Rosie. I retraced my steps all the way to the bottom of the reserve, which was a distance of about 800 meters. No Rosie. She couldn’t have been out of my sight for more than 30 seconds. But now she had vanished. Almost always when this happens Rosie reappears in seconds if I call out to her. Not this time. I spend the next hour criss-crossing the reserve and asking everyone I encountered – about a dozen people – if they’d seen a dog. Nothing. Rosie had just disappeared. I ran through all possible scenarios I could think of; Rosie had been apprehended by the reserve authorities or the dog pound, or had squeezed through the wire fence and ran onto the adjacent Begin Highway, which is Jerusalem’s biggest and busiest artery. Or somehow Rosie had gotten in front of me without my realizing it. I recalled the many homemade signs taped to lampposts in the area describing dogs that had gone missing, presumably stolen. By 8:00 a.m., after an hour of searching I concluded my chances of ever seeing Rosie again had vanished with Rosie. Rosie had made her way home alone in Vancouver from considerable distances a few times, but never here in Jerusalem, which is one of the most confusing cities to find ones’ way in.

Still, I hoped that Rosie had given up on finding me and somehow found her way home. I guessed that to do so Rosie would either retrace our steps, or continue forward along our running route and make her way home the way we usually ran home. I opted to run forward, since that was the way we always got home. I ran along the bike path paralleling Herzog Street; Herzog is one of Jerusalem’s largest streets with 3 and sometimes 4 lanes in each direction. I crossed at the intersection of Shachal and Herzog Streets. It was now the middle of rush hour. I then crossed another larger intersection at Shehour and Herzog. At the intersection of Herzog and Hazzaz Streets – also one of Jerusalem’s largest and busiest – I crossed under Hazzaz through an underground crossing, then crossed the 8 lanes of Herzog above ground. It was now 8:30 a.m. I then ran up a steep hill to the top of our neigbourhood and zig-zagged through the maze of side streets, arriving home around 8:40 – more than an hour and a half and about four or five kilometers from where I’d lost Rosie. I pictured spending the rest of the morning searching the streets, and on the phone with the dog authorities and the police trying to find some trace of Rosie. By now I figured the very best case scenario was paying a massive fine to recover Rosie from the pound. But I figured even that was a long shot.

I opened our apartment door, fearing how upset Aimee would be at the loss of Rosie. As I stepped through the door I saw some movement under the dining room table and immediately realized that Rosie had done the impossible. But unlike with my typical arrival home when Rosie leaps all over me, she stayed under the table. I can’t think like a dog but guessed she was reacting with a mixture of guilt, anger and fear of having been abandoned. Whatever her feelings, Rosie spent the rest of the day looking emotionally exhausted. …. Aimee said that she was returning from having walked Adin to school at 8:00 a.m. when Rosie appeared beside her at the entrance to our apartment complex. Aimee assumed that I was just behind Rosie, having let Rosie off leash when I saw Aimee up ahead. But when I did not appear Aimee realized something was amiss and started speculating about what might have happened to me.

In the end, my guess is that Rosie took off after a gazelle that fled into the heart of the reserve. By the time I doubled back Rosie was so far off the trail and hidden in tall dry grass that we could not see each other. After wandering about looking for me in the reserve Rosie somehow made her way home, taking one full hour to do what would normally be a twenty minute run. Aimee figures she waited at the intersection for people to cross and then crossed with them. But for now, and forever, what really happened will remain a mystery. Anyway, no more off-leash runs for Rosie in Jerusalem. … At least for now.

The End in Sight

We’ll maintain our routine until the end of June and then have about 10 days to travel around Israel and pack before our July 12th departure. We’re all going to miss this place a ton – even Ezra, though he would almost certainly deny it if we asked him. It takes a long time to feel at home in a different culture and to create a new network of friends. But we have spent a year doing so, and will be sad to have to start saying our good-byes. Aimee wants to start pulling the boys out of school to do more day trips, but I want to cling to the sense of normalcy and routine as long as we can - to push aside the reality of having to return to reality so soon.

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