Searching for Jason!!

When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a game my daughters, girlfriend, and I used to play. It was called “Searching for Jason (Schwartzman).” We’d casually scout him out at record stores, museums, clubs, and on the street. He was one of our favorite actors, starring in many Wes Anderson films. Seeing film, television, and recording stars was no biggie in our area. They were everywhere. But this passtime was different. Not in a stalker kind of way, just a really fun game. Sometimes we got lucky. One of my daughters even got a selfie with Jason. Another struck up a conversation with him at Amoeba Records in Hollywood. And another daughter was good friends with his dog-sitter.

Fast forward to life in Israel. Around the holiday of Shavuot, my son was given a few days army leave. During Shavuot it is customary to pig-out on dairy products (celebrating both the Land of Milk and Honey and the giving of the Torah to Moses – the milk of the Word). So, we decided to take a field trip to a dairy  and restaurant I’d heard of at the little moshav of Bat Shlomo: Schwartzman Dairy, to be exact. Who knows? Maybe I’d chance a surprise Jason sighting!

Bat Shlomo (Solomon’s daughter, named for the niece of Baron Rothschild) lies just south of the Carmel Mountain Ridge, about fifteen minutes from our beloved town of Zikron Yaacov. We pass the exit on the freeway all the time, but as often is the case when you live somewhere, we had never taken that detour to explore – until now. What a treasure the place is! What a history! What a view! And what cheeses! Some of the best in Israel so far….

Situated on a hilltop, overlooking vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields, we were greeted at the little hamlet by a farmer on a tractor. He welcomed us by telling us the history of Bat Shlomo and proudly explaining how everything eaten at the restaurant is grown on the property.

Moshav Bat Shlomo was founded by a small group of European immigrants in 1889, under the patronage of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The leaders of this village were the newly married Transylvanian couple, Zelig and Chasida Schwartzman, along with and 64 other pioneers. Theirs was a tough plight as they struggled to build homes and farm amid the roving Arab and Bedouin bands. Regularly, their animals would be stolen, their houses and fields burned during nighttime raids. A watchtower was erected outside the property to insure 24 hour surveillance. The local Ottoman police were sometimes helpful in chasing off and, at times, killing the bandits.

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Zelig & Chasida Schwartzman

The Jewish Effendi – a wealthy Arab (Yemenite) in those days, and friend of the pioneers, Mahmoud Sa’id, helped Zelig Schwartzman legally buy formally undeeded Arab lands – at exorbitant prices. He also gathered together a group of Arabic speaking men to help guard the settlement and settle any disputes between the pioneers and the  nomadic desert tribes. Pillaging and looting were the legacy of these Arabs from ancient times. They would stop just short of murder for fear of blood revenge. So it was with great daring, chutzpah, and steadfastness that these Yiddish-speaking young Zionists worked the land and raised their families. Over a period of many years of backbreaking work, they planted mulberry trees (they had hoped to raise silkworms); they planted vineyards; they cleared the rocky land; dug wells; raised livestock (and kept fresh fish in the stocked fish pool); built stucco homes with red tiled roofs; and created livelihoods.

According to a 1922 census by the British Mandate, Bat Shlomo had a population of 66: 53 Jews and 13 Muslims living together. Today, the original street still exists, with all of the original 14 homes preserved and modernized, or in a state of renovation. Surrounding each home, are lush, verdant landscaped gardens. The crown jewel is the old synagogue, still in use today after over a century. It is a beautiful little village, with many of the residents direct descendent of the original pioneers.

In the center of the main avenue, is Schwartzman Dairy and Restaurant. Going here is an authentically Israeli experience, and a favorite hang-out of locals. Off the beaten path, known by word of mouth. Max and I made the cheese and gift shop our first stop. It was the most eclectic place, literally filled to the rafters with historical memorabilia, photos, and products made on the moshav for sale. Because sheep, goats, and cows are still housed out in the back sheds, there was a plethora of products from salves and soaps to woolens. Also available were a variety of honeys and honey products from local hives; date and carob syrups; different types of olives and made-on-site olive oils. We were able to sample their local reserve and estate wines: Cabernet Francs; Cabernet Sauvignons, all very expensive. There were spices. There were herbal teas, natural remedies, sauces, jellies, tapenade, nut butters and oils, dried fruits and all kinds of jarred relished and pickles – all made on the farm. Add to this an odd assortment of antiques, scales, photographs and other ephemera. It was so crowded with products and visitors that it was a bit claustrophobic, but totally worth it. Would I spy Jason crouching behind the counter or munching on cheese at one of the small tables?

 

The main attraction of the Schwartzman Dairy Store was the cheeses! Oh my goodness!!!! That’s all I can say! Cheese heaven!!!! The two gentlemen behind the counter were none other than the grandsons of Zelig Schwartzman. They sliced up generous samples of sheep milk cheddar, goat toms, parmesan, feta, ricottas, and various other dairy delights. After sampling and purchasing several varieties, some herb-laced, others with nuts and other savories (warning: very expensive! but worth every shekel), we decided to have lunch in their restaurant.

Adjacent to the shop, in the garden patio, covered with a varied assortment of tarps for shade, was the dining area. Crowded with locals, and totally mismatched eclectic, Max commented that this was “so typically Israeli. As far as ambiance, it can’t decide what it wants to be,” which for me, adds to the charm of the place. The tables are an odd assortment of picnic tables, long farmhouse tables and benches, metal fold-outs and cafe bistro tables and chairs. Persian and Arabic carpets as well as Indian fabric, Mexican rugs and vintage American cloths cover the floors and serve as tablecloths. There was a large aviary inhabited by an odd assortment of finches, cockatiels, lovebirds and doves in the center of the restaurant. Old farm equipment and tiki torches mix with totem poles, Israeli flags, old army paraphernalia  and twinkle lights which hang from the trees. There are old Purim and Sukkot decorations hanging, leftover from bygone holiday celebrations. The walls are crowded with fabulous old pictures from the early days of the moshav and vintage 1960 Israeli travel posters. An accordion player and violinist serenaded the guests with Broadway show tunes, Israeli folksongs, Yiddish melodies, and popular American hits from the 1950s-1970s as well as cowboy music and a couple random Tschaikovsky melodies. Strange, but fun. And no local Israeli restaurant would be complete without an assortment of dogs, chickens (and a goat!!!!) strolling through the premises! I searched in vain for a glimpse of Jason enjoying the local delicacies behind the large fern…. nope, just a mannikin clothed as a pirate. How random!!!

Max and I decided to split a Druze-style roll up: we had had others through the years, but this was the absolute best we’d ever tasted. A soft warm, herb-studded dough with fresh melty sheep cheeses, labaneh (the closest way to describe it is a salty thick sour cream), and zataar served with a side of olives and a chopped Israeli salad. For dessert, we tried my two favorite sweets in Israel: knaffe and malabi. Totally decadent and fattening beyond words. Total taste sensation. Sheer melt-in-your-mouth goodness. This did not disappoint. The knaffe was made with homemade halvah on the bottom, rich, salty, melted goat cheese in the middle, and crunchy strawlike phyllo dough threads on top. As if this is not enough, it is then saturated with a sweet syrup. Aaaahhh!!!!! The malabi is best described as a light panna cotta, like a sweet dairy jello. It is usually topped with rose syrup and crushed coconut and peanuts. This version was entirely different. The custard base was much richer, and the toppings included carob syrup and crushed pistachios. I can’t wait to go back for more – after I lose 10 pounds.

We had to take a stroll through the village outskirts to walk off all those calories. Amazing views, almost like Tuscan hills. The farmers were still working to bring in the wheat harvest, bundling up the golden bales in the fields. Peacocks strutted freely along the grounds, and the peals of children’s laughter could be heard in the distance. From the hilltop, the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean sparkled in the distance. It was the most peaceful, beautiful place. I can’t wait to go back. Maybe next time I WILL find Jason-

Scouting Israel

When I was a young teenager, my parents used to schlep me up and down the East Coast of the United States (at my pleading) to Richmond, VA; Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA and New York so I could attend Israeli Festivals and Showcases. They got to visit with family and friends, and I got to have fun. It was at an Israeli Showcase in 1974 that I first encountered Tsofim, the Israeli Scouts. I corresponded regularly with four of them for years, seeing two Scouts every year when they visited the States.

The Tsofim I was friends with fostered my love of Israel and my desire to eventually make Aliyah. Elisheva and Ido eventually “graduated” from the Scouts and entered the IDF. We were all counselors together at Camp Ramah in 1978, and kept in touch until 1982. They were true ambassadors, and both were from the suburb of Tel Aviv, Kiryat-Ono.

Fast forward to today. My husband and I have been making the trip to Sheba Medical Center 5-6 times a week for the past six weeks. Sheba sits adjacent to Kiryat-Ono. And, ironically, I’ve come full circle. From their letters, which I’ve kept tucked away and have been re-reading, Kiryat-Ono was a tiny little middle class village of single family homes and a few apartment buildings. About a twenty minute drive East of Tel Aviv, it was a sleepy little town.

Today, as part of the central coastal plain, where many many Anglos reside, it has become a sprawling upscale metropolitan area, a mix of secular and religious Jews. Anchored by Sheba to the South and the prestigious Bar Ilan University to the North, it is a rapidly-growing family community. High rise apartments are being built at a dizzying pace, and with that, malls, cultural centers, beautiful synagogues, and fantastic restaurants and gourmet foods stores.

And right next door to this strip mall was the Center for Tsofim! As we were looking for a place to eat (KiSu Asian has become our new favorite place), the Scouts had just dismissed and were everywhere! Pre-teens through late high school. Their uniforms had changed only a little bit, and it brought back a flood of memories!!! And here I am! And here they were! I wish I’d kept in touch with my four friends over the years. I only hope they are happily married with families, health and success.

In the center of the city (no longer a quiet hamlet), you can still find the original single family homes and gorgeous tree-lined streets. Some of the older homes are being renovated; others torn down and replaced with bigger, modern villas.

John and I have taken advantage of our time in “the Merkaz” (central Israel) to scout out other areas as well. There’s Petakh Tikvah and B’nei Barak, both growing exponentially from tiny villages in the 70’s to high rise metro areas today. And each city has its unique flavor. Whereas Kiryat-Ono is more like Southern California, B’nei Barak is home to a huge Orthodox Jewish Hassidic community. So much so, that the entrances to the city are closed to driving on Shabbat and holidays. And as the sign says in Hebrew, they mean business (or no business!) -don’t even think about driving there. It’s not going to happen!!!!

On to Holon, just Southeast of Tel Aviv, where we spent a pleasant afternoon. Holon was originally built by Polish Holocaust survivors as an industrial town shortly after World War ll. Known for its textile, metal, and appliance factories, this working class town was repeatedly attacked by surrounding Arab communities during the war of 1948. Today, the city has been transformed into another very upscale urban area with a population nearing 200,000. Besides Hebrew, languages spoken are English, French and Russian.

I had wanted to visit the Israeli Design Museum in Holon for years. Each month features an homage to innovation and design from eyeglasses to timepieces to vacuum cleaners. Its quite unique and interactive displays bring common objects to life. Our time there brought us the design of Dyson -as in household appliances. John, an industrial design engineer, was totally in his element.

Holon also has a fabulous children’s museum and a comic and caricature museum (we didn’t have time for that one). It is home to the Olympic Israeli rhythmic gymnastics team (first place) and has a world-class music conservatory. Violinist Pinchas Zukerman holds master classes for the young students there each summer. There is also a huge children’s theater in Holon. And Holon Cinematique, Israel’s only digital and media arts festival is held annually. It’s definitely a happening place!

We did manage to stroll through Yanit Park, a man-made family water park. Really well laid out and even though it’s in the city, you feel like you are in a tropical paradise with fountains, pools, paddle boats, wave generators and water slides. Holon is made for families, culture, entertainment, and fun.

Still, in the midst of all the new, history is given it’s due. You can visit the old part of the city, now a living museum of historical pioneers’ homes and the monument/museum of Tel Harish where battles for Israel’s independence were fought.

This area is so different than where we live in the North. For a country the size of New Jersey, there’s a seemingly endless amount of variety and diversity! And there are so many more places for us to scout out!

An Early Summer Feast

 

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The last of the Spring holidays is rapidly approaching here in Israel. It has been two months of non-stop festivities beginning with Passover for the Jews, Easter for the the Christians and Ramadan for the Muslims. The Jewish people have been counting the days of the Omer (for the late spring harvest) and working on improving their inner spirituality.

We had an interesting holiday of Lag B’Omer a couple weeks ago, celebrating the Light of the World, and also the life of beloved first century sage, Rabbi Akiva. This festival is usually celebrated with joyous bonfires, singing and dancing. Tragically, for Israel, it was marked by arsonist terrorists setting fire to several communities. The moshav of Mevo Modi’in was utterly destroyed. We know four families who lived there, including the Solomons and Swirskys. Their sons form one of our favorite LA bands, Moshav. Hamas and other terrorist factions in Gaza have been sending over incendiary devices attached to balloons, burning up thousands of acres of forest and farmland.

This week, we are looking forward to the last holiday of the season, Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai; the wheat harvest that has just come in…. as we travel on Route 6 every day, we have seen the gathering and bundling of the golden fields of wheat. It is spectacular!!!!…. the fruits and vegetables coming into season; the summer flowers; the Land of Milk and Honey; the sincere milk of the Word; and the love story of Ruth and Boaz.  And the Christian communities here will be celebrating the Feast of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit fell upon the talmidim of Jesus and upon the congregation of people gathered in Yerushalayim for the Shavuot holiday. Wow! That’s a mouthful!!!

Some religious Jews stay up all night studying Scripture. The seculars (khiloneem) celebrate the agricultural aspects of the holiday with parades and floats and lots of flowers. And EVERYONE enjoys eating dairy products!!! Lots of dairy!!! Cheese platters; cheesecake; noodle puddings; cheese blintzes; and interesting regional specialties. So, without further ado, here are some amazingly delicious and culturally different recipes I’d like to share with you:

LAYALI LAVAN

This recipe comes from Lebanon. the Jewish refugees that escaped persecution from the Arabs in the 1940s-1950s brought this exotic and romantically delicious recipe with them.  On a warm summer evening, eating it is like flying on a magic carpet with your lover into the sunset. It’s just that awesome!!!     8-12 servings depending on how big you slice it-

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
  • 3/4 cup cream of coconut/coconut cream – 2 cans
  • 3 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 3/4 cup solet (semolina)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup ground pistachios
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons rose water (available in MiddleEastern/Indian stores or Trader Joe’s in the U.S.)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons orange blossom water (available in Middle Eastern/Indian stores or Trader Joe’s)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 1/2 cups milk (can go vegan by using unsweetened almond, rice or coconut milk)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Chill the cans of coconut cream in the fridge for several hours or overnight. You need the cream to be cold enough to completely separate from the liquid below. DONOT SHAKE can!!! Open and remove the solidified cream to a large mixing bowl. Discard the liquid or reserve for other use. Using a hand mixer, whip up the coconut cream just as you would make dairy whipping cream. When thick and fluffy, set in fridge to keep chilled.
  2. On a medium-high heat stove, whisk together the milk, semolina and salt in a large pot. Bring mixture to a rapid boil, stirring constantly. Make sure it does not burn!! As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat and stir in the dried cranberries, rose water, orange blossom water, and orange zest.  With a rubber spatula, turn the mixture into a 9X13 inch baking dish. Smooth the surface so all is even. Allow it to cool to room temperature 25-45 minutes. Once it has cooled enough, take the whipped coconut cream from the fridge and spread an even layer overtop the semolina milk surface. Cover and chill in the fridge for 2 hours or overnight.
  3. For the super delicious syrup: Make this right before serving. It will be poured, warm and fragrant over the dessert just prior to serving. In a small saucepan, put the sugar and gently pour the water overtop, adding the freshly squeezed orange juice. Cook on medium high heat without stirring. As soon as the syrup reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat to simmer as you swirl the pan to just mix the ingredients. Add 1/2 teaspoon each of orange blossom and rose waters. Let come to room temperature…but still slightly warm, and put into a lovely small pitcher.
  4. To serve: Slice up squares of this rich custardy dessert and carefully transfer to individual plates. Decorate with chopped pistachios. I like to add a small amount of dried rose petals (unsprayed!!!) from the garden for that pop of color and romance. Drizzle with (pour it on, baby!) the fragrant syrup and enjoy!

 

The next recipe comes from the Persian Jews. It is very different to the Western palate, but I just adore this one!! Besides being a tasty coffee latte drink you’ll probably never see at Starbucks, it’s beautiful to present with slices of poundcake or a few plain cookies or macarons. A delicious summer drink! Serves 2.

             PERSIAN PINK SPICED ROSE & CARDAMOM LATTE

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 shots espresso coffee or turkish coffee powder
  • 8 cardamom pods or 3/4 teaspoons dried cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon rose water
  • 1/2 teaspoon beet juice or red food coloring
  • 1-2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons dried unsprayed pink or red rose petals, crushed
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme

DIRECTIONS:

  1. In a medium saucepan, pour the milk, rosewaterand cardamom along with the beet juice (which I use) or food coloring and honey. Stir until well combined and warmed. Do not allow it to boil! Remove from heat, and if you are using cardamom pods, remove the pods with a spoon. Whisk with a hand-held frother or immersion blender for a few seconds to froth up.
  2. Pour an espresso shot into each cup or glass. Spoon the warm pink froth over the top and sprinkle with rose petals. Place a small sprig of thyme on top.

 

On Shavuot, the Russians eat cheese blintzes with cherry sauce on top. These are thin crepe-like pancakes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese or fruits. Both varieties are available in the frozen foods section. I love to make pre-packaged sweet potato ravioli with a sage-infused cream sauce or a cheese tortellini with a basil-pesto infused cream sauce. Both are equally delicious.

My Christian friends living on the shores of Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee celebrate the Pentecost by eating freshly caught lake fish (Dennis, Amnon or St. Peter’s Fish) covered with a red tomato sauce to remember the tongues of fire that alit atop the disciples’ heads. I believe a sole, halibut, flounder or tilapia (any white fish) will be a tasty substitute.

 SPICED WHITE FISH IN TOMATO SAUCE  serves 2

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 fillets of firm, white fish
  • 7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon caraway or fennel seeds, roasted in a pan for 1-2 minutes
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • small green chile pepper, seeded and chopped(remove the seeds & don’t touch your face! Wash hands well!!)
  • 3 tablespoons of flour or semolina, which is traditionally used
  • 150 ml/ 5 oz. water
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons silan (date syrup) or honey
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • lemon wedges
  • handful/bunch chopped fresh coriander/cilantro/cuzbara leaves
  • salt 7 pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with chopped garlic, spices, and chili and blend to a paste by spoon or in a food processor. In medium-large pan, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil. In small bowl combine the flour or semolina (preferred) with salt and pepper and dredge the fish in this mixture. Sear the fillets on both sides in a hot pan until golden brown in color. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate to absorb excess oil.

Heat the rest of the oil in the pan. Add spice paste mixture and stir for about 30 seconds. Stir in the water and tomato paste. Add the silvan or honey and lemon juice and let simmer. Salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Add the fish fillets to pan. Bring the sauce to a simmer, cover and let cook through about 15 additional minutes.Remove fish to plates, pouring the red sauce over top. Garnish with lemon wedges and chopped herbs. A traditional accompaniment to this is ptitptitim, or a very fine grain couscous. Of course, no Middle Eastern feast is complete without a bazillion different varieties of fresh olives; eggplant salads a million ways to Sunday; pickled carrots, turnips and cabbages; humus and pita and steaming hot Turkish coffee spiced with cardamom!

As the Jews say, “Khag sameakh!” and as the Christians say, “Happy Feast!”

 

 

If You Build It, They Will Come

There’s a standard joke in Israel that our national bird is the crane. It sure seems that way, as giant cranes can be found everywhere. There’s definitely a construction boom going on here. Where there were once barren mountaintops and desolate beaches, in the past four years, whole new cities are springing up.

With Anti-Semitism reaching record highs across Europe and in the United States, now is the time for Jews to plan making Aliyah to their homeland. And Israel is certainly getting ready for them. We pass one of these new communities every day on the way to Tel Aviv. Halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv on the new Route Six superhighway, an eight minute drive to the beautiful beaches of Caesaria, is Harish. Built on a mountaintop with sweeping views in all directions, this new city is geared for affordable housing for young families.

Yesterday we decided to investigate this brand new master-planned community. Wow! Just two years old, and already with a population of almost 12,000, the developers are expecting Harish to reach maximum build-out within ten years with a population of 100,000! The neighborhoods are arranged in high rise apartments; large single family apartment condos, duplexes and townhomes. Each neighborhood boasts spacious parks and playgrounds, kindergartens, elementary schools and gorgeous synagogues.

There is a huge mall going up. The main boulevard in town is lined with shop spaces for rent. These will eventually become sidewalk cafes and restaurants as well as retail and service establishments. The city has Macabi, Clalit and Meuchedet health clinics and a wide variety of city offices and services. There will be an immigrant absorption center with Ulpan Hebrew classes. There is so much potential here.

Everything is state-of-the-art, with modern conveniences suited to the Western lifestyle. A diverse and pluralistic community, Harish is open to all Israelis, Jewish and non-Jewish; religious and secular. There are already two large community centers, with plans for four more. Also in the works are sports facilities and health club/spa. Shopping markets flank each neighborhood. A hotel will be built in the next year.

So, how affordable is affordable? A lovely 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment condo with large balcony and additional reinforced safe room( all new construction is mandated to include a safe room) can be expected to go for around $250,000 USD. There are also full-service luxury apartments and penthouses for the ultra-discriminating. Plenty units, varying in style and size, are also available for rent. The city has its own bus lines, taxi services, and is right off the main highway for ease of commuting. There will be a cultural arts center and multiplex cinema.

Because green space is so important to Israelis, the city will be fully landscaped with walking trails connecting each neighborhood and hiking trails just outside Harish. It’s beautiful to see all the young families: little children riding bikes an the sidewalks; lots of families out for sunset strolls; large groups of kids playing unattended in the parks. It seems to be quite a safe environment with a free and easy lifestyle. It is a great opportunity as there is a tremendous need for doctors, nurses, teachers and service providers. An excellent chance to enter on the ground floor of an up-an-coming place.

There are towns like this springing up throughout Israel. And every existing city’s horizon is lined with the ubiquitous cranes hovering overhead. So, the country is awaiting this huge influx of immigrants. Hopefully, many people will heed the signs of the times and make the move soon. Israel is a wonderful place to live. For more information on this town, see Harish.co.il. There is even a button for English!!! Also, for info on this place, all other cities, or info on immigration to Israel, I highly recommend the agency, Nefesh B’Nefesh. They can be found at non.org.il. and on Facebook and Instagram.

A Little Geography Lesson

My husband and I have been driving down to Ramat Gan/Kiryat-Ono, suburbs just Southeast of Tel Aviv, every day for the last few weeks. It’s about a two hour drive from where we live in the North, and has afforded us the opportunity to see quite a bit of the country and gain a broader perspective on where we live.

Most people have heard that Israel is a tiny country. But, just how tiny is it? And exactly where is Israel located? What about the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza? Driving through the country gives a unique view, and clarity even more than looking at maps, but today we’ll do both.

Israel is situated on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. This little sliver of land is only 420 km/261mi long. Putting it another way, it’s about a seven hour drive from Metulla, the most Northern town on the Lebanese border to Eilat, the Southernmost city on the Red Sea. At its widest point, Israel stretches 115km/71 mi from The Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. About an hour and a half drive.

That little orange slice on the map above will show just how small the country is, especially when viewed in comparison with the surrounding neighbors.

The trip we take is beautiful in the late spring with all the flowers blooming and the olive orchards of the North and myriad vineyards lining the hillsides. The golden sheaves of wheat and barley are just being harvested. Along the newly developed superhighway, Route 6, we pass little Jewish hilltop villages, most looking like pristine Southern California towns.

About an hour into our trip, Route 6 runs parallel to the border wall separating Israel from the West Bank. The wall is a necessity against the terror attacks from the Palestinian Territory. When I’ve asked people back in the States how big they think the West Bank is, the typical answer is that it is a very small, densely packed area the size of Manhattan in NewYork or the Conejo Valley in Southern California. In actuality, it occupies about 30% of Israel’s landmass. See the map below:

From the city of Beersheva, South, it’s all desert. There are small farms cropping up throughout the desert region, with irrigation and hydroponic farms dotting the sand, but for the most part, the South is inhabited by Bedouins. The area between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is the most heavily built-up and populated area, where the high tech sector is, and the largest cities and their sprawling suburbs.

By passing through checkpoints guarded by the IDF, one can drive through the West Bank in some areas. Route 90 winds it’s way through Samaria and Judea roughly paralleling the Jordan River from the North to the Dead Sea – about a four hour drive by car. There are a few Jewish settlements there, neat homes and well-irrigated farmland have turned these areas from sparsely-used wilderness to thriving agricultural communities. But most of the West Bank is a “no-go zone” to Israelis. Not patrolled by the IDF, much to popular thought. Controlled exclusively by the Palestinian Authority (Abbas/Abu Mazen). Signs reading “Enter at Risk to Your Life.”

So much for “Occupation.” We are NOT ALLOWED to go beyond the sign. Israel has no place in these territories. Israel is not an occupying force in the West Bank Area A, which is most of the area. It’s a jumbled up jigsaw of who owns what. Area B is under dual control and the tiny scattered areas of Area C is opened to, settled and owned by mostly Jews.

A couple things really amazed us. First, from the West Bank border on Route 6, it is possible to see the Mediterranean Sea and coastal cities on Israel’s western border. It’s a mere 7 miles from Qalqaliyya or Tulkarm across Israel at its narrowest. Think of it…. 7 miles is all it takes to cross/ divide the country! It seems to me that this could be a threat to national security, but….

The tall buildings in the background make up the lovely, upscale coastal community of Netanya. This photo was snapped from the car looking into Israel proper from the highway. Tel Aviv is 12 miles from “Palestine.” Traveling on the Route 6 toll road, we see their cities, the Palestinian flag, the many mosques. The Arab cities have no/few trees, parks or recreational areas by their own design, unlike the Jewish towns. Their homes are mostly flat-roofed, boxy structures of multiple stories, mostly of unfinished architecture.

And across the highway, as we approach the area between Ra’anana and Petakh Tikvah, outside Tel Aviv, there are more Arab villages, mixed Muslim and Christian.

Driving West off the 6, we enter into the TelAviv suburbs, which are packed with the new construction of high rise apartments. The difference between the rolling mountains and rural feel of the North lies in direct contrast to the big city life of the central coastal plain.

In my next blogs, we’ll travel to some of these cities and explore a few of the sights there. We are trying to take a bit of time to discover other parts of the country we’ve not frequented and get a feel for what the Merkaz, Central Israel, has to offer. I hope you’ll join us!

A Tale of Two Countries: The Changing Face of Nationalism

As a young girl, growing up in the United States in the 1960s, we were all still quite patriotic. Sure, we were an imperfect people; there were raging global conflicts; and America was, at the time, a melting pot of diverse cultures. But being American, with a common e pluribus unum (from many, one) and liberty for all mentality, we were mostly united in pride and nationalism. We took pride in our history, sometimes overlooking flaws, and reveled in the intrinsic goodness of what we stood for. The people of the United States had made mistakes along the way, but we were always seeking improvement.

We were a patriotic people. Every Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, the flags flew high from our porches. When I was a girl, our entire town, Blacks and Whites, Christians and Jews, would come together for parades, games, races and picnics in the parks lasting until dark when sparklers would be lit by the children and fireworks displays would illuminate the sky.

We were the children of pioneers, former slaves, immigrants escaping famine or religious persecution. We were farmers, factory workers, ranchers, suburbanites, city dwellers, Republicans and Democrats. We were vastly different, but always American, with a pride in our nation – not always seeing eye-to-eye, but united in the possibility of being able to achieve a dream with hard work and faith and shared community. Nothing was impossible.

It deeply saddens me to watch what is happening in the United States from a world away. Today patriotism is equated with elitism. Nationalism has been skewed to mean chauvinism. There is a deep and growing rift between various groups, and what is acceptable today is all-too-quickly and easily tossed aside or branded as hateful and unacceptable by small, but vocal minorities seeking to change everything we once held valuable: among those the great constructs of freedom of speech, assembly, religion.

Living in Israel today reminds my husband and me of what life was like in the States in the 1950’s-1980’s. We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ children- a diverse mix of people from every nation, culture and language. We are farmers, ranchers, factory workers, techies, suburbanites and city dwellers. We each have our own cultures and traditions, yet we are proud to be Israelis living in the only Democracy in the MidEast. We have vast differences politically. We love to argue. We are sometimes stiffnecked in our opinions and religious traditions. We rarely admit we are wrong. Yet we are mostly united. A motley band of brothers.

For the past few weeks, Israel has been getting ready to celebrate our 71st Independence Day. Israeli flags are hung from posts over every highway, overpass and bridge. People are not ashamed of hanging the flag from their porch or balcony. Flags on cars, city buses. Blue and white string lights on homes and city intersections.

You can see the national pride everywhere. And it is not a bad thing. It is not a display of superiority or power. It’s a pride of residence, of having come this far in 71 short years. Of togetherness… despite our differences. We live in a bad neighborhood where many of the neighboring countries want this tiny nation obliterated. The last week was a testament to this fact. Yet we emerged stronger than ever this week, resolved to exist, determined to succeed.

Wednesday Israel remembered the cost of living in this bad neighborhood. It was a national day of mourning and remembrance of all those killed defending this land and all those murdered in acts of terrorism. We mourned the cost of freedom. Then, as the sun set on Wednesday evening the mourning turned to joy at our Independence. Fireworks displays from every city, town and yishuv took the place of missiles. Concerts featuring headline acts in most cities took place.

I attended our local concert with music by Moshe Perez, Static and Yael Dayan. The amphitheater was packed with families: there were religious and secular Jews; neighboring Arab villagers; young and old all celebrating our country’s freedom. Vendors selling all sorts of ethnic foods mixed with those selling flags, the ubiquitous inflatable hammers, light-up and glow-in-the-dark accessories. The town squares were all lit up and revelries we’re taking place on porches and balconies. One apartment complex opened up their common space as a thank you to all servicemen and women.

Thursday the parks and beaches were packed with picnickers. The smell of the barbecue was pervasive. Many towns held local parades with bands and floats. And everywhere the flags. It reminded me of the July 4th celebrations of my childhood. A celebration of patriotism, of accomplishment, of our existence and national pride. Without reserve. And it was glorious!!!

This week Israel hosts the Eurovision International Songfest & Competition. It’s a source of great national pride. We will also be hosting several international sporting events this summer. To be able to root “for the home team” is still a big deal here as is standing for the National Anthem. As is waving a flag. As is being a proud citizen of a nation despite its flaws. Nationalism. Identity. Patriotism. These are all good things. They define who we are and look to what we can become.

War!

The many blogposts I intend to write- and I have many wonderful sights, people and culture- seemed to get pre-emoted with other more serious stories these days.

This week we were supposed to be celebrating. Eurovision, the international song fest similar to a global “American Idol” of sorts starts in Tel Aviv tonight. Hosting this gala been quite a source of pride for this tiny country and has been the talk of Israel for the past several months. Already, contestants and event goers have started arriving. It is scheduled to last until May 18.

This week we celebrate Memorial Day, an entire day of national mourning over the lives lost in wars and to terror attacks. The remembrance of cost of freedom that turns at sunset to jubilation over our independence in 1948. I was going to write about nationalism of the good kind, where it doesn’t matter where you came from, but who you are now.

This week marked the start of Ramadan. Yesterday morning at 10:00 am, a time when most Israelis are in synagogue or are enjoying what is supposed to be a lazy, relaxed Shabbat, the Gazans began their shelling. Hamas. It actually translates to ‘violence.’ Hamas. The past 36 hours has developed into an incessant barrage of rockets from Gaza. The Red Alert buzzer on my App has not stopped for longer than about 40 minutes. Then it resumes. Incoming missiles in the center of the country. Listing each community effected.

Thank G-d, we are all safe up here in the North. So far there have been 5 Israelis killed with hundreds of injuries, some critical, some light shrapnel wounds, on the Israeli side. Hundreds have been treated for shock. Thank G-d for Iron Dome which has intercepted a vast majority of the missiles. Many have fallen in open spaces. But still, far too many structures have incurred direct hits. Homes. Kindergartens. Workplaces. A gas station. A hospital lightly hit. Schools have been canceled as well as any public gatherings and open air markets. All emergency shelters are open. In some communities, there is only a 15 second warning to take shelter. And the arc of shelling has swept wider and further into the Areas South, East and North of Gaza.

Can you imagine any other country having to deal with this and what their response would be???? Yes. The IDF is doing surgical strikes taking out weapons production sites; Hamas military headquarters; terrorist strongholds; terror tunnel shafts. Hamas targets civilians. Israel targets terror. Over 700 missiles have been launched so far by Gaza.

It seems Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are both responsible for the escalating violence. Israeli reinforcements and artillery are being moved into position as this develops into a war of attrition, according to Debka.com. It’s apparent that the fragile truce brokered in March by Egypt has collapsed and Netanyahu is not interested in accepting another false cease-fire. Of course, many news stations are saying it’s the fault of Israel for cutting funding from Gaza.

As I’m writing this, I have been checking international news outlets. ABC is not reporting anything at all. CBS has picked up the story, but it’s well down on their list of news. BBC has remained completely silent. The Guardian has it listed as a top headliner, but distorts facts and makes Israel the aggressor. HuffPo is in lockstep with a verbatim article from NBC. CNN and NBC include it in their top news stories. However, NBC is giving it a biased slant in favor of the terrorists. The story leads with a picture of a young Gaza’s girl sitting amid rubble. They report a pregnant Muslim woman and her young toddler were killed, but make it sound like it was due to IDF retaliation. In fact, according to Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, IDF, on reviewing the video footage, one of the hundreds of missiles launched by Gaza fell short, wiping out an apartment building on the Gaza side. The mother and two children were killed. Fox News has listed it way down the story line All Israeli news outlets are giving detailed regular updates.

From recent news reports: “We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work. HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed”, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit tweeted. Also leading terrorist operative, Hamid Ahmed Abdul Khudri has been killed in Gaza.

We pray for the safety of all the citizens of Israel. For protection and wisdom and courage for our young soldiers, male and female. We pray for wisdom for Netanyahu and the administration that they act in HaShem’s timing and intensity. We pray for a deescalation of violence. And that it does not spread to include multiple fronts. We pray for safety for us as we travel down to Tel Aviv tomorrow. We pray for peace.