Monday, December 02, 2013

Israel in 2013-Hannukah in the Land of the Maccabees

Unlike my personal and professional life, I take a very laid back approach to travel, particularly with kids.

Long ago, in my backpacking through Europe days, I gave up on the notion of “trying to do it all” and instead take a mentality of “whatever you are doing, you are doing in <place you are visiting>.”

Now, that doesn’t mean I just sit in a café all day and 1474665_10152063551674669_2099422980_nwork on my laptop and, of course, try to marry this with my philosophy of “do things that are unique to <place you are visiting>,” but it’s a balance.

In short, my goal is “one big objective per day” and then everything else is bonus. I don’t want the travel experience ruined by the “we have to get here” mentality and not being able to appreciate the subtleties of a location like “what are rest stops like here and why?” or “how do people shop?” and more.

Ok, enough background. On with it.


We found the deal of the century on Turkish Airlines ($700 RT per ticket), which everyone universally agrees is a great travel experience, so I was of the mindset of “whatever we do in Israel, it didn’t cost that much to get us here Winking smile“. Plus, between it being Thanksgiving time and Hannukah, the stars were aligned…or should we just say that yet another miracle occurred.

Base of Operations

One of the challenges of any travel scenario is establishing your base of operations. Fortunately, my brother-in-law lives in Hashmonaim, which is near Modi’in. The location is ideal, about halfway in between Tel Aviv and Jeru974244_10152070041919669_1183148934_n (1)salem. The only downside is that Foursquare seems to think it is Palestinian Territory.

The Phrase that Sums Up Israel

I was entering the bank in Jerusalem and the security guard asked me a simple question: “Do you have a gun?”

I said “no,” and moved on.

But in that moment, you get a rich appreciation for the complexity of life here.

Agree? Discuss below.

Daily Goals

Day 1-Technology and Business

Knew it would be challenging because of kids’ jet lag (though I have to say they were absolute, 100% rockstars on the flight over. 3 iPads were deployed and the kids didn’t even get up once on the flight from DC to Istanbul—not even to use the bathroom).

As a result, the NFO was very accommodating in granting me one “business day.” Not only do I like this for the benefit of building the personal and professional network, but one of my favorite things in every trip to Israel is to understand how the Israeli business and technology sectors are evolving. As the home of Start-up Nation and the country with the 3rd largest number of public companies on the NYSE (after US and Canada), in my opinion, you can’t understand modern Israel without investigating this side of the story.

I was aided in my efforts this time by the indefatigable and unparalleled Jeremy Lustman, who heads up the DLA Piper office in Israel and is mega plugged in. He set up 2 solid meetings for me.

Israel’s prowess in technology based on military/defense needs continues (as it must) and I’ve lon1472422_10152070183129669_349431820_og said that the irony of the ongoing Arab war/vilification of Israel is that its existence is what gives Israel so much potential and wealth.

Places like Herzliya reflect this. With the names of pretty much every technology company you can think of on buildings, it’s a testament to the recognition of the world’s largest companies of this reality. The proof is in the dollars.

What I also saw, however, was that Israeli companies, which historically have been very weak at marketing are starting to turn that around.  It’s something I saw a few years ago and I think is a reflection of the natural evolution of the country’s business leaders. More international experience in terms of management and understanding of the expectations of what it takes to survive and thrive.

Day 2-Jerusalem of Gold

No trip to Israel is complete without a trip to Jerusalem, the ancient and modern capital of the Jewish state and the epicenter of Judaism as a religion.

Still, that emotion is overcome by the fact that, well, it’s really a hassle getting in and out of town by car. Still, we deal with it, right?

We stopped at Mahane Yehuda, the big, open air market, where all types of fruits, vegetables, fish, and more are sold. While the NFO and the kids walked through there, I was able to meet up with some longtime friends on Ben Yehuda (the main pedestrian mall) including Noa Choritz, Neil Gillman, and Gil Kezwer. 

I like maintaining relationships…that’s no secret, but I love hearing the diverse perspectives of th1468378_10152072541834669_401113543_oose who have lived here for a while. Some have become more right-wing (though I heard the best statement of all time from Gil’s wife, Randi who said, “I have become more right wing but I realize that it takes both wings to fly.”)

People and walking…those two things are fail safe ways to enjoy any trip anywhere.

After a short lunch at the Village Green (great vegan/vegetarian food), we set off on foot to the Old City, making our way down through the Shuk (market), we arrived in mid-late afternoon at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site and the last remnant of the 2nd Temple.

For many, it’s a spiritual place and a time for reflection. My last few visits there didn’t really hit that high mark for me. This time, after stuffing a special note into the Wall, as is the custom, my nephews, Paco, and I were sitting on some chairs watching people do their thing and I had a moment of spirituality myself, one where I felt the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders. I felt like I had to impart some of a sense of history, as my friend Jen Pearlman says “of living vertically,” so that these boys would really understand why this place was of special importance and why it needed to be protected and defended. 1464216_10152072681164669_534476813_o

An awesome feeling indeed and I did my best. A different type of spirituality, outside of myself, I suppose.

One of the things that always strikes me about Israel, but Jerusalem in particular is how you see Arabs going about their daily business and…no one really cares. They are a part of the fabric of life here. It’s stark primarily because of the opposite situation. I believe you would be hard pressed to find the capital of an Arab country where you would see religious Jews openly identifying themselves and walking with zero concern for their personal safety.

Day 3 and 4-Take It Easy

As Day 3 and 4 were Friday/Saturday, things tend to be a bit slower (well, hectic leading into the Sabbath) and then quiet (depending on where you are) on the actual Sabbath. We took the kids to a local park and then had a great time with my brother-in-law and his family.

Day 5-Go North, Young Man.

On this trip, I was determined that my kids learned that there was more to Israel than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On our previous visit, we had planned to go South, but, well, there was a war with Gaza, so we couldn’t do that.

This time, we thought our luck would be better in the North, so we went to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee (the lowest freshwater lake in the world), having a nice lunch on the promenade. On the way, we were struck by the beauty of the open land around it, the rolling, rocky hills and the agricultural wonder that has occurred there in the past 60 years.

Tiberias is one of the 4 holy cities of Judaism (Hebron, Safed, Jerusalem) and was the place where the Talmud (Jerusalem version) was codified because Jews couldn’t live in Jerusalem following the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans in 135.

Unfortunately, for a city that has so much to offer, it really shows its age. It’s like the city got left behind by time and is stuck in the 1960s. What’s worse, in my opinion, it seems like they are leaving a ton of money on the table since the place is a mecca for Christian pilgrims (yes, I get the multi-religious semi-pun) because of the proximity of Nazareth, the miracle of the fishes, sermon on the mount, etc.

It’s a shame.

But not nearly as big of a shame as what happened to the tomb of Maimonides. Arguably the greatest Jewish mind of all time, he is buried in this city in a glorious tomb.

I was there about 20 years ago and it was marvelous and spiritual. Now, there’s a massive iron sculpture above it (which isn’t so bad), but the travesty is a white Home Depot-like fence that splits it down the middle and serves as the divider between men and women (since people tend to come and pray at his grave).

Now, I get that men and women are supposed to be separate during services and I’m ok with that, but this is a freaking grave…not a synagogue and the morons who put this piece of crap have turned a beautiful piece of art into nothing more than a utility. The opposite of how it should be.

It’s kind of like splitting the Mona Lisa down the middle and saying “ok, you can look at half the canvas and you’ll appreciate Leonardo just as much.”

Ugh. Embarrassing and silly.

Not that I don’t understand the reasons for why the fanatics who did this, did this. It’s just that I don’t agree with it at all.

That night, we stayed in a quaint Zimmer-style cabin near Moshav Zippori (itself a historic place). I really liked it.  Relaxing, peaceful…and great wi-fi. Winking smile

Day 6-Onto the Heights

When you see the Golan Heights up close and think about the military challenges that faced Israel in the 1967 war, you can’t help but be in awe that they were able to accomplish what they did.

Today, the vistas are breathtaking (even with the fences that identify live minefields), but under heavy fire? Going uphill?

Are you kidding me?

Once you get to the top though, it’s like the Great Plains…flat, peaceful, few trees, serene. I felt so at peace when we arrived in Avnei Eitan, a cooperative of about 100 families calmly situated in, well, the middle of nowhere…and about 10km from the Syrian border. 

The reason for our visit to this outpost was the “Automatic Dairy” where the cows go through a machine called the “Astronaut” which is, well, just fantastic.

Each cow had an RFID chip around its neck and it enters a massive machine 3 times per day. The chip tells the machine which cow it is. The machine knows things such as how much milk the cow gave last time and the entire history of the cow. Frankly, it’s and Electronic Medical Record for each cow (they can do it for cows, just not website).

The cow is on a scale, so the weight is recorded and the proper amount of food is distributed.

Meanwhile, 4 suction cups are attached to the udder of the cow but only after the teats have been cleaned with a brush (like a car wash) and their exact location targeted and pinpointed by laser. As each of the 4 compartments are drained, the suction cup drops away until all are done. The teats are washed with some anti-biotic spray and the gates open (even if the cow isn’t finished eating). Precisely 17 seconds later, a shock is delivered in order to encourage the cow to leave.

Of course, after the first few times, all of the cows leave at the 15 second mark. No muss, no fuss.

This technology, which costs about $150,000 has enabled the dairy to move from 10 cows to 75 with very limited additional increase in manpower. In fact, our tour guide told us that now she is able to leave the dairy, w1460622_10152072301334669_165643528_ohich she wasn’t able to do before (or someone had to be there) and they can manage/measure the entire process…from their iPhones!

I loved this tour as it reflects the ingenuity and spirit of innovation that is Israel.

On the way up to the Heights, I was telling the kids about the history of the 1967 War and the challenges of scarcity/resource allocation and how “necessity is the mother of invention.” (I also introduced them to the Knesset-Israeli parliament process and they quickly understood why it was such a challenge!)

The machine isn’t Israeli-made (it’s Dutch), but the point was made and they saw how the operation of the dairy could scale because of technology (something I am always happy to have them see!)

Gamla-The afternoon took us to Gamla, aka “The Masada of the North,” a secluded location that served as a refuge for Jews who were trying to escape Roman persecution. Tragically, the 9,000 people there all died, choosing suicide instead of slavery at the hands of the Romans when their situation became desperate.

We took a moment to hear from my brother-in-law about this time in Jewish history while on a 1 hour long like over the hills and terrain, absolutely breathtaking and well worth it. Joined by a longtime friend, Shmuel Goldman-a resident of the Golan-we had a chance to just soak in the earth.

Over 20 years ago, before a trip to Israel, a family friend gave me her advice about how to experience it. To this day, I remember it: “Walk the Land.”

And I do, every time I am here.

Other Observations

  1. New Highway 6 is great.
  2. A few people talked about Iran. No one talks about the Palestinians.990667_10152059797499669_655580464_o
  3. I still can’t understand why coffee from pretty much any shop in Israel is better than most places in US. Certainly better than Starbucks (which isn’t in Israel, btw. They gave up and left due to strength of coffee culture).
  4. I popped a Golan SIM card into my Nexus 4 and had connectivity everywhere. Great stuff.
  5. Waze is even better in Israel because EVERYBODY uses it. Really helpful for crowdsourcing traffic.
  6. As some of you know, I enjoy checking in on Foursquare. Not only can I find friends and suggestions in the area, but it’s a diary for where I go. I was a bit disappointed to see that the Golan Heights, according to them, are part of Syria and Hashmonaim, where my brother-in-law lives is part of Palestinian Territory.

No need to worry…I sent the issue along. We’ll see what happens.

Ok, I cranked this out all in one day. Random stuff that I will realize that I forgot and report on last few days to come.

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