Sunday, July 24, 2016

Midwest Meets Mideast #7: Kevin, I’m your Biggest Fan!

From Akko, we drove down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Haifa on Sunday afternoon. Our launching point for our northern Israeli adventures was a rented apartment overlooking HaCarmel Beach on the far west side of the city. The apartment was much swankier than the 19th Century Jerusalem Hotel, featuring a kitchenette, a larger shower, and toilets less in danger of clogging and overflowing. Furthermore, Leonardo Plaza (in Hebrew, “Leonardo Plaza”) was a five minute walk to the beach if you included the elevator ride down in those five minutes.

Speaking of the elevator, I have never before seen a “smart” elevator bank. There are no buttons within the elevator itself. Instead, you push the floor you want on the outside of the elevator, the panel tells you which number elevator to go to, and the elevator then takes you to the floor you preselected. On the one hand, this is a more efficient system, sending you an elevator predestined for the floor you want so you don’t have to stop on multiple floors. On the other hand, this is a pain in the tush because if you forget to read the panel when you press the button, you may step onto the wrong elevator and joyride the length of the hotel before finally escaping.

But eventually you do get to the beach, and as long as there are no jellyfish, you can enjoy yourself in the beautiful Mediterranean waters. Yes, everyone tells you that jellyfish can be a real problem, so be careful. However, I figured that as long as I put bathers between me and any potential jellyfish swimming to shore, I always had an early warning system. I just had to consciously listen for screams of pain or Russian expletives.

Yes, there is a lot of Russian spoken in Haifa because there are a lot of Russian tourists there. My wife commented at one point in the trip that she missed the diversity of the United States. She was referring to the racial diversity, of course, but frankly I found Israel to be much more diverse than the US. Sure, the vast majority of people look Mediterranean with a few lily white Europeans, very dark Africans, and occasional Chinese tour group thrown in for good measure. But language-wise, Israel is MUCH more diverse. Where else can you hear Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, Spanish, French, Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Turkish? It’s like Epcot Center with better food, better prices, nicer staff, and an actual acknowledgement of Israel.

The first night we arrived, the boys and I left Morticia in the apartment to “recharge,” which is a euphemism for “collapse on the couch in a semi-comatose state until food magically arrives and is inserted in my mouth.” We hiked in the oppressive evening heat and humidity to Monkey’s Pizza (in Hebrew, “Monkey’s Pizza”), a pizza shop that seriously looked a lot closer to the hotel on Google Maps. The shop was in a frenzied state when we arrived, with the sales people simultaneously taking phone and in-person orders while young mothers yelled at their tired, frustrated, and cranky children. I attempted to order four personal pizzas in Hebrew (three only cheese, one with mushrooms), and the nice young lady immediately switched to English, sensing that not only was Hebrew not my first language, but conversing in English would be less painful for everyone involved. So, in English, she confirmed my order. We waited and watched the mothers started to yell at each other’s children, until our pizza finally was ready. Of course, they got the order wrong, but at least we ended up with two large pizzas, one with cheese and one with mushrooms. And now we know why the place is called “Monkey’s Pizza.”

Haifa was our launch site for our day trips into Northern Israel, but we did take one day just to relax, sleep late, and wade in the still thankfully jellyfish-free waters. Along the promenade was a gelato shop with the darkest, richest chocolate gelato I have ever had. My boys found it too strong, but my wife and I both enjoyed it because we knew that this was the maximum amount of chocolate one can get without a prescription.

And that was just fine for my boys, because there were many, many other flavors of gelato to choose from, including lemon, mango, strawberry, milk chocolate, tiramisu, Snickers, and Oreo (in Hebrew, “Oreo”). And I didn’t make them eat falafel the entire time we were in Haifa.

Which actually, kind of bummed me out.

Midwest Meets Mideast #6: Food, Glorious Food

One of you challenged me to come up with a limerick using the phrase, "Ani Tzimchoni." You know who you are. Challenge accepted.
In Israel, Ani Tzimchoni
Falafel I eat hungrily
Tomato, Cucumber,
And pita. A number
Of carnivores wish they were me.

There. Consider the mic officially dropped.

Please allow an excursion from narration for a touch of gustatory exposition. I would like to talk about food.

Israel is fantastic for vegetarians. If you eat eggs and dairy, the chances of finding a decent meal is pretty high. The fresh fruit in Israel is much better than the fruit in the US. The bread in Israel is better than in the US. The cheese in Israel is...OK, well, they are getting there. Even the crap food rivals our crap food. For example, Bamba, a very popular snack food made by the Osem company, are corn puffs coated in peanut butter. Sure, it tastes like Styrofoam, but I will put their Styrofoam coated with real Argentinian peanut butter up against our Styrofoam coated with processed cheese powder any day. 

Fresh juice is almost ubiquitous in Israel. Walk around any big city, and you can get freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, and often pomegranate juice.  Yes, pomegranate juice. This smooth pulp-free  nectar is sweet and flavorful, a beverage to be sipped rather than gulped. Or heck, gulp it down. It’s hot out there, and they can just make you some more for another 20 New Israeli Shekels (NIS). 

How about the lemonade? Our hotel breakfast in Jerusalem included an amazing lemonade that was a perfect balance of sweet, tart, and cold. It was far superior to any lemony concoction in the US, definitely better than the powdered (please excuse my course language) crap i’ve become accustomed to, and even better than anything homemade coming out of a neighborhood lemonade stand.  My entire family is now convinced that lemonade MUST be served with mint leaves. After our stay on the beach in Haifa, I am convinced that a little arak added to the mint lemonade can’t hurt either.  

Bread? Street vendors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv sell the most amazing bread, fresh and warm. My youngest son and I fell in love with the baygaleh vendors who sell elongated Jerusalem bagels coated with sesame seeds, and often available with za’atar spice. You can hear them chanting “baygaleh, baygaleh, baygaleh!” in voices slightly louder and more impassioned than the minarets calling the faithful Muslims to prayer. 

Along with baygaleh, bread vendors sell challah, pastries, olive loaves, and of course pita.  Lots and lots of pita. In the Machaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem, one vendor sold us 30 large fluffy pita bread for 10 NIS which was about $2.60 US. It was very good pita at an amazingly low price, but even I was sick of eating peanut butter on pita for breakfast and snacks after a week. 

On the second to last day of our trip, we were walking through the Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market) in Tel Aviv on a Friday, and I wanted to get some challah for Shabbat. Micah convinced me to buy a couple of baygaleh as know, because we really, really like them. “Shalom,” I said to the frumpy middle-aged woman at a bread stand, “Ani rotzeh echad challah v’shtey baygelah.” (Which translated more or less to, ‘Howdy! I want one challah and two of them there baygelah thingies.’) 

“Here,” she said grabbing another baygelah, “take as my gift. and this too.” She added on two small olive loaves.

“Todah rabah. Kamah zeh oleh?” (Thank you. How much does this cost?) She said something that I didn’t quite catch. I started sorting through my coins. Immediately, the woman jumped forward to help me.

“Here. This and this and this,” she said taking a bunch of my coins and swatting away my hand as I tried to take some back. “Now I need twenty shekels. And this. And this.” I pulled out a twenty shekel bill.

“Also you take this,” she entreated, adding another small bagel to our bag. “And also this.” She finally handed us a large bag of half-size pita. I could see my family’s eyes rolling back into their heads, partly because this was way more bread than we could possibly eat in 48 hours, but mostly because the site of pita was making them all just a little bit nauseated. 

I honestly lost count of how much we paid for all of that bread. I knew I was being taken for a rube, but sometimes you have to bow to the absurd. Sometimes it is worth the extra shekels for dinner and a show. So if you see Dahlia, our grandmotherly vendor at the Shuk HaCarmel, say hello and Shabbat Shalom from me. And watch your coins carefully.

I had been warned that there were not nearly as many falafel stands in Israel as there once was, but still you can find falafel in any Israeli city. You can find falafel platters at the fancy restaurants. You can find falafel in the grocery stores. You can find falafel in small street shops of questionable hygiene. And I hunted down every bit of falafel I could find, because falafel is one of my absolute favorite foods. More than once, I walked down the street in pure ecstasy munching on falafel balls stuffed into a warm fluffy pita, along with hummus, tahini, cucumber, tomato, pickles, and hot sauce. And still I looked for more falafel. 

My family did not share my passion, or as I am sure they would call it, my obsession. In fact, after three to four meals of falafel, they called it quits and demanded that I find them something else. Hence, the second to last night in Tel Aviv, they ate street vendor pizza while I ate falafel. And the night we left Israel, they pounced on the Pizza Hut in the Ben Gurion Airport. Not me. I found a cafe serving potato knishes. 

Israel also has quite a few upscale and creative vegetarian restaurants. Our friends the Zalbens met us for dinner at Nagila, a kosher vegetarian restaurant which blessedly has menus in both Hebrew and English. I opted for the Caribbean pastry, a curry dough pastry filled with root vegetables, zucchini, and pine nuts. Other dishes we all tried trended to the more exotic (Mejadra la Ja’dahna stew of rice and black lentils, and the coconut curry stew) to the mundane (herb latkes, and spaghetti with marinara sauce). However, all the dishes were delicious, and I highly recommend you try out the establishment the next time any of you are in Jerusalem.

What amazed me the most about food in Israel is how much you can find that is not processed and stripped of all flavor. There is a deep connection to the food that mirrors the deep connection to the land. Israelis may live in a geographic desert, but they certainly do not live in a food desert. Every time you buy a baygelah from a street vendor or watch someone squeeze orange juice right in front of you or scoop you some exotic spice mixture, you can’t help but feel, “this is real. This is authentic. This is what food should be.”

And when you get sick of that, there is always Bamba and Pizza Hut.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Midwest Meets Mideast #5: Partners in Crime

Partnership is not necessarily about equality, at least not entirely. True partnership is about understanding one another's strengths, weaknesses, needs, and abilities, and coming together with a mutually acceptable plan of attack. In a true partnership, both sides contribute to the best of their abilities and know the other side has their back.

When my wife and I drive through a strange geography, be it Eastern Tennessee, Chicago, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Yokne'am, or some backwater segment of Parke County, Indiana (where traditional maps do not ever work), it is well established that I drive and she navigates. In Israel, we continued this partnership with me maneuvering our vehicle around crazy Sabra drivers and she translating Google Maps into useful instructions such as, "Ok, wiggle left at the next roundabout and then make an abrupt right. Then get in the right left lane because you will need to make a right after the next left turn." And she knows that I will understand and follow these instructions to a tee because we are a partnership.

Last Sunday morning (day 4), we left Jerusalem and drove to Akko in northern Israel. I drove, Morticia navigated, and Lurch back-up navigated when my phone lost its Google Maps connection partway through the trip. Sometimes even a good partnership needs a back up plan. Things I like about Israeli driving: good road signs with reasonably unambiguous markings, well-placed speed limit signs, traffic circles that make U-turns possible when you make a wrong turn, well marked lanes. Things I don't like about Israeli driving: yellow dotted lines that mean something completely different from the US, lack of ability to correct wrong turns without adding 10-15 minutes to your trip, Israeli drivers. All in all, driving in Israel when you don't speak the language could be a lot more challenging than it is, which doesn't mean that it's not a constant mental drain even with a good partner. But we made it to Akko safe and sound and mostly talking to each other.

Our trip to Akko came about through my role as (now ex-) president of the Indianapolis Bureau of Jewish Education. Indianapolis is part of Partnership2Gether, a program from the Jewish Agency for Israel that connects central cities in the US with cities in northern and southern Israel. P2G has programs related to the arts, youth education, medical education, and community resource development. A teacher from our Hebrew School connected me with representatives in Akko who were incredibly gracious hosts. They took us to a local grade school that "twinned" with various American school classes (and we were serenaded by a 1st/2nd grade summer school class). They took us to a shop that sells wonderful crafts made by physically handicapped children, as part of a program that helps them achieve more independence. They took us to lunch at Kibbutz Shomrat, a nearby kibbutz that specializes in goats milk products, where we had one of the best meals of our entire trip (my sweet potato ravioli in goats milk cheese sauce and the goats milk ice cream may become MY happy place). And finally, they sent us on a walking tour of the Old City of Akko.

My gift to them (really to the school) was an educational care package from Indiana: books of Mad Libs, pencils from IU and Purdue, and a box of Orville Redenbacher microwave kettle corn (Redenbacher being a Hoosier after all). After all they did for us, I felt my gifts were pretty paltry until I realized that this was all partly a sales pitch on their part to get me to drum of money and support for P2G in Indiana. You know, in my role as (now ex-) president of the BJE. In addition, one of their volunteers recruited Lurch to help her create an electronic music version of Yerushalayim Shel Zachav for Jerusalem Day, and she then set upon recruiting me to become the leader of the American Education Task Force.

My wife smirked through the entire lunch. Even halfway around the world, people are pulling me onto their committees.

Midwest Meets Mideast #4: Following the Leader

We found the best licensed tour guide ever. Her name is Asnat Cohen, and she can be reached at +972 505 340681 or at Her rate for the full day tour (8:30am - 3:30 pm) is $375, not including entrance fees and lunch. But she is highly knowledgeable, personable, and flexible, all the qualities necessary for a good guide. If you are in need of a tour guide in Jerusalem or know of someone in need, I can't say extoll her praises enough. Please pass along her name. There. Protectzia Managed.

Actually, I started my day by walking to Eldan Car Rental to pick up our rental. I had originally rented a small minivan, but I obviously didn't read the small print when I reserved online, and I discovered when I got there that I had rented a manual transmission. The last time I drove a manual, I was younger than Lurch. The time to relearn, I decided, was NOT in the middle of Israel. Luckily, they had a Kia Sorento available which has served us pretty well. In fact, I have only three minor complaints. First, the right passenger seat in the back was busted and wouldn't recline properly, so Pugsley had to sit in the middle seat propped up against his big brother. Second, since the owner's manual is entirely in Hebrew, I couldn't even check to see if I was doing something wrong in getting the seat to recline (spoiler alert, I wasn' was just busted). Third, Israel is not made for big ass cars. Parking is a challenge when you literally can't see the parking lines or curbs. However, Israel is a country built upon faith, which may be why I did so much davening in the car. Who needs shul? Just try to navigate an SUV through Akko. I swear I started growing payot the moment we hit Highway 1.

But enough of that. Today was all about the Old City tour. Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice.

Asnat started by taking us up on top the ramparts near the Jaffa Gate. My eldest son vigorously opted out of the rickety spiral staircase to the top of the wall, so the rest of us had an abbreviated tour of the top of the wall before we came back down to collect Lurch.

Asnat took us to the Kotel, the edge of the Temple Mount, the Arab shuk, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and countless other spots throughout the city. We had lunch at a moderately pricey but nice restaurant somewhere in the Old City where I got my first falafel of the trip. We learned about the history of the city from ancient to modern times, learned the difference between a Crusader's and an Arabic arch, learned about the ancient tunnels in the city...frankly it's all a bit of jumble right now. Go to Wikipedia and look up Old City Of Jerusalem. Whatever it says, we probably touched it.

Lurch was most interested to learn that Asnat used to live in The Netherlands and spoke fluent Dutch as well as Hebrew and English. Lurch has plans to move to the Netherlands as soon as he is financially able, so he naturally asked more questions about the Netherlands than about Jerusalem.

I hope you are all highly impressed. I had to find a Dutch tour guide to keep my teenager engaged in the family tour of Jerusalem. They never talk about THAT in the guidebooks.

Midwest Meets Mideast #3: The Map is Not the Territory

We began our first full day in Israel around 9:00 am, which was way earlier than my jet lagged travelers wanted, but comparatively late if you want to beat the desert heat. After the aforementioned breakfast, we set off to find our way through the Old City to the Dung Gate so we could visit Ir David (the City of David). Simple, no? I let Morticial and Lurch lead using the map from the tourism office to give them an illusion of control. Naturally, it did not take too long before we got lost, or as I preferred to think of it, creatively placed. The problem, as we discovered, was that the many maps throughout the Old City had helpful markings that said "You Are Here". And unfortunately, these markings were typically wrong. Completely wrong. Lying, in fact. Eventually, I had to take over navigation again. Middle Easterners are my people, and I knew that maps don't follow Western logic in the Old City. Four rugelach, one baygelah, and one melt down later, we found the Dung Gate.

The walk through Ir David would have been a lot more pleasant in March than in July, but I think overall, the family found the ruins interesting. We opted for the 'dry' route through Hezekiah's Tunnel instead of the 'wet' route. I personally would have taken the wet route if it were solely up to me; back when I was 12, wading through the waist-high cool waters was the highlight of my trip. However, we were not wearing bathing suits, and I didn't want the rest of my family to suffer any more claustrophobia than absolutely necessary.

Eventually, we made it to the end of the ruins, and we tried to find the cool underground tunnel that would take us back to the Dung gate. This path was beautifully illustrated on the tourist map, but apparently the map was also printed in the Old City and therefore it lied. We ended up walking uphill in the blazing heat through a questionable neighborhood called Silwan. For those of you who don't know Jerusalem, this is like me saying, "well, our map of Manhattan was poorly marked, so we walked back to our hotel through a lovely neighborhood called 'Harlem'."

Exhausted, sweaty, but otherwise unscathed, we made it back to our hotel and all had a well-deserved nap.

In the early evening, we met up with my friend Robin and her brood. Robin is an old friend from an Israel youth trip I took way way back when I was 17. Robin and her husband Ron made Aliyah about 14 years ago, leaving Milwaukee for sunny Yerushalayim. They and their lovely daughters walked us through Machaneh Yehudeh, a lively outdoor market that succeeded in replacing much of our spending cash with spices, pita bread, and gifts. We then had dinner at a vegetarian restaurant which was as exotic for them as it was for us, but for different reasons. They translated Hebrew for us, and we translated vegetarian for them.

And by the way, 'vegetarian׳ in Hebrew is tzimchoni. You can't imagine how proud I was every time I got to say, "Ani tzimchoni." And by the look on the natives' faces, they were proud of me too...assuming that pride in Israel is shown by a complete lack of interest.

Midwest Meets Mideast #2: The Saga Begins

We drove to Chicago last Tuesday (July 6), left our car at a long term hotel parking lot, and took the shuttle to Ohare. Other than the typical 45-minute flight delay so typical of ORD, we made it onto the American Airlines flight to London Heathrow. Our security transition in London was blessedly short, considering that we had to navigate our way to the El Al section of the airport, and considering that Morticia had to explain to the security guard that Pugsley's toothpaste, which was indeed 4 oz, not 3 oz, was in fact a prescription product that he needed on the trip.

Our 10:30 pm arrival at Ben Gurion Airport was also thankfully uneventful other than walking around the upper level once or twice until a nice lady pointed us to the stairs. But with my very broken Hebrew and the entire country's knowledge of English, we picked up some shekels from the Kaspomat (ATM), got through Customs, and found a sherut (shuttle bus) to Jerusalem.

It did not take long before we got to see the real Israel. A very helpful passenger on the shuttle gave us information on how to get to our hotel, even calling our hotel for us to confirm its location and telling the driver where to drop us off. He then proceeded to get into a discussion (what Westerner's would call an argument) with another passenger on which hotel we SHOULD have been staying at.

We arrived at The New Imperial Hotel around 11:45 pm. This hotel, built in the late 1800s, is the oldest operational hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel, which is just inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, is run by the Greek Orthodox Christians and was once a luxury hotel used by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 1900s. Personally, I loved its old world charm, decorative beauty, and exceedingly polite staff. However, being an old hotel, the first obstacle we were greeted with upon arriving with all our luggage was two steep staircases and no elevator.

Breakfast was included in our reservation, which was a very Lebanese breakfast of chopped salads, hummus, fresh fruit, plain white cheese, hard boiled eggs, and, of course, cold cereal for the fussy American tourists. We were also introduced to Israeli lemonade which is far, far superior to anything we can find in the States. I may never be able to drink American lemonade again.

DW loved the bed, which was the most comfortable mattress she had ever slept upon, including our own. The boys were less enamored with the amenities. They did not like the tiny shower nor the substandard plumbing that required all our used toilet tissue to be tossed into a separate garbage bag in the bathroom. However, I think all was forgiven on the last day when Pugsley got to play with 2 kittens on the roof who found his shoelaces highly fascinating. Thankfully Customs will not allow the transport of live animals or we may have ended up with a couple of pets. And remember what Ogden Nash said about kittens...

The problem with a kitten is that
Eventually it becomes a cat

Midwest Meets Mideast #1: Not So Innocents Abroad

On July 6, my family and I traveled to Israel for a 10 day vacation. I had not been there in 30 years, and the rest of the family had not been there ever. With one child about to go off to college, this was our last chance (most likely) to take a family vacation, so we set out on the Herculean task of seeing an entire country on a small budget in 10 days with a limited command of the language. While it is true that most of the country carries signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, not all signs are in English, so your brain has to constantly decode information. Sure, you know that "yetziah" means "exit" every time you see it plastered on a green exit sign, but other missives that automatically decode into useful instruction always take more time. For example, in Haifa, we saw a gigantic sign advertising what looked like a jungle reality show about the "OJITNK." At least, that's what it said in English. After musing about the Ojitnk and whom they might be, my oldest son finally figured out that the sign wasn't English at all. It said "Amazons" in Hebrew script. Ah yup. D'oh!

What follows are communications I wrote to my family near the end of the trip. Had I been a good travelog writer, I would have written up each day before going bed, like my wife did dutifully. Me, I waited until the last couple of days before I started writing in earnest. So, now it is a race between my ability to focus on writing and my memory of the trip. Wish me luck.

Since my family values its anonymity, I will refer to my two boys as Lurch (oldest) and Pugsley (youngest). My wife is of course Morticia, which says more about our relationship than my ability to come up with aliases. Whereas I am sure future employers of my children will easily be able to triangulate their code names with my real name to discover secrets about their childhood, I am not sure I want them working for any employer who is that anal retentive. Or the government. But I repeat myself.

Kadima (forward)...