Thursday, December 05, 2013

Israel—Crossing the country…in 60 minutes

Intellectually, I know that Israel is really small. We’re talking the size of New Jersey roughly.

Still, it’s pretty dramatic to start on the Eastern side of the country and then, about 1 hour later, get to the western side. It reminds you of the stark reality of the precariousness of the situation. The distance that a missile can cover in about, what, 10 seconds?

Zippori-Layers of History

We were based in Zippori, where we stayed at the guest houses of some 60-something, Baby Boomer, Americans who moved to Israel 30+ years ago. Not religious, but believers in the Zionist idea. What struck my brother-in-law and me was that this particular genre of person…grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but not religious per se is really almost a relic of history now. Fact is, there just aren’t that many American Jews who fit that mold anymore.


Panorama of inside of Crusader fort (Zippori, Israel)

A very short drive from the guesthouses (which we really liked save for the dogs that chased me like crazy when I tried to run and the rooster that didn’t get the memo that he is supposed to wait until dawn to start crowing) is the ancient ruins of Zippori.

It’s one of those places in Israel where the multiple layers of history all coincide at the same point. A Jewish settlement that was destroyed by Romans, the Roman town, infrastructure, mosaics, the fort built by French crusaders….all coming together.

What’s more, it was the home of the Rabbinic court, the Sanhedrin, for a time and it was where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi codified the Mishna…some heavy stuff.

Add to that is the hill from which you can see for miles in many directions and really appreciate the geographic landscape of the Galilee.

Nahariya—German Jewish town gone askance

We decided that our best option for lunch would be in the seaside town of Nahariya, about 6 kms south of the Lebanon border.  I had been there in 1991 and remembered it as a very quaint, well-kept town. As I recall, it was founded by German immigrants for whom organization and cleanliness were important and the town reflected that. I also remember a boardwalk that was very pleasant.

Well, either my memory was incorrect or the town has changed dramatically. It’s not kind of run down and drab. It’s unfortunate. A lot of Russians seem to be living there—not saying there’s a connection between th1462278_10152074831089669_333051103_oe two—just an observation.

The most remarkable part of the city—and arguably the entire trip-was on our way into town. I was telling the kids about the city’s German origins and began by saying, “ok, we all know the bad things about German culture, what are some of the good things?”

Which is how I introduced things like organization and punctuality.

As we were talking, however, Nadia (age 5.9) said, “You know, I was reading in my book about Anne Frank and she was hiding in Germany.”

“Actually, it was Holland.”

She continued. “And there was a man, his name was A-dahn Hitler.”

“You mean Adolf Hitler.”

“Yeah, right,” she responded. “He wanted to be an artist, but he wasn’t very talented. Then, he decided he wanted to kill all the Jewish people.”

I turned to the NFO and said, “Did that actually just happen?”

Amazing what kids pick up.

Rosh HaNikra—Lebanese Border1484611_10152074855849669_525785566_o

A short (very short) drive up the coast and you reach Rosh HaNikra which is on the border with Lebanon.  It’s also the location of some magnificent grottos through which you can walk and admire how the sea and land have crafted some majestic pieces of art.

I had been there before, but wasn’t aware of some of the historical significance to the place until we watched a movie about it…located on a railroad track in a railroad tunnel.

Apparently, the British had designs on creating a rail network from Beirut (after they got it w/the fall of Vichy France) all the way to Cairo. The coast made the most sense, so they blasted 3 tunnels along the edge of the mountains separating Israel from Lebanon and where Rosh HaNikra is. They also built a small bridge over one gap in the land.

On the eve of Israel’s independence, some members of the Hagana (the pre-state militia) performed a stealth operation right under the noses of the British troops and sabotaged the bridge. The reason? There was concern that an invading force from the north would use the tunnels, bridge, and train tracks to transport weapons and materiel.

Now, the first tunnel (on Israel’s side) is open. The 2nd tunnel (at the border) is walled off—and a movie theater. And the 3rd tunnel? No idea.

From what they told us, it’s also the only place in all of Israel where it’s not a sandy beach, since the rock goes directly into the sea. And, I’m told, but not sure, that it’s the steepest cable car in the world (though not particularly long).

Kids loved it. We loved it.

Adventures on the Way Back to our Base—thanks to Waze

As I wrote, everyone in Israel uses Waze. Which is great, because you get reliable, real-time traffic information. You can also share information about broken down cars and speed traps.

However, after having Waze announce 4 times “Warning! Speed trap ahead” and seeing nothing, we simultaneously made the observation that maybe the police are using Waze and just letting it do the speed monitoring work for them.

But, that wasn’t all of it.

As we came down Road 6, Waze suggested an alternate route that would “save 4 minutes,” so of course, we took it.

After about 25 minutes, we came to a guardpost, manned by soldiers with a huge gate. We asked the soldiers if it was ok to go to Hashmonaim and she replied, “yes, you’re just going through the ‘Shtachim” which is the Hebrew word to describe the lands conquered in the 1967 war (with a few exceptions.)

We both had the same reaction…nervous. And “is this really a good idea?”

The soldier said, “it’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” but the NFO and I know enough to know that on any given day, it could be the day when some people decide to throw rocks (or worse) at cars with Israeli license plates.

It was dark and there were fewer cars. No houses, villages, stores, or gas stations. For about 12 minutes, we rode in total silence…my heart was definitely beating faster and my senses were fine tuned to both the road and the surrounding areas. I was on full alert. When you have moments like that, you are ridiculously focused. And I was.

As we came to the checkpoint on the other side, we saw about 10 men in their late teens, early 20s cross the road in front of us. Even though we were in site of soldiers, we held our breaths. It’s just the sad reality of life in the neighborhood.

Nothing happened and we made it back to our base, but it’ll be a while before I forget that feeling.

The 3 Israels

After the trip through the “Shtachim,” the visits to Nahariya and Tiberias, and the base of operations in Hashmonaim and meetings in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, it dawned on me that there are-at least-3 Israels. Maybe more.

Of course, it’s not universally true, but in general

  1. the high-tech, modern Israel. Advanced, everything you would find anywhere else in the first-world and even more so. Cutting-edge.
  2. the “left behind” Israel. Places that are sorely in need of economic development and just a paint job.
  3. the “other” Israel. Which includdes:
    1. some Israeli Arabs
    2. the ultra-Orhodox Jews with 7, 8, 9 or more kids who are on welfare and live in poverty
    3. many of the Arabs who live in the Shtachim (but, I need to be clear, I’m not saying there plight is all Israel’s fault-it’s not)

The Peace Process, John Kerry, and Jerusalem

The NFO had to fly home a day early, so I was on point with the 3 kids alone. More on that later.

But, we took the opportunity for Paco and Nadia to reconnect with some classmates who had moved from Maryland to Jerusalem for a playdate. That gave me the chance to hear what their dad, Jack Kustanowitz, had to say about his perceptions of the Peace Process.

He had read my earlier post saying that “no one talks about the Palestinians. People are focused on Iran” and he agreed with it.

The sad reality, in his opinion, is that outside of Israel and the Arabs, no one really understands the situation, nor why it is intractable.

In fact, the night before, after my run, I was just thinking, “you know, there is just NO solution whatsoever.”

When all is said and done, it comes down to the question of: Can the Arabs who want to destroy Israel succeed or can Israel succeed in preventing that from happening?

Jack’s observations were spot on.

On the one hand, when “things are quiet,” and there’s no terrorism, most Israelis are of the mindset of “hey, things are good, why should we rock the boat and give the Palestinians a state?” Which leads to stalemate with Palestinians…which is what we are seeing now.

It’s only when terrorism occurs that people get frantic are inclined to talk (not all, of course, but some) because the same terrorism emboldens the hardliners even more. Which leads to a stalemate w/in Israeli society, so no progress occurs.

In either way, no progress occurs.

But, that’s not it….because the same lack of understanding about the Palestinians is at play.

Most Westerners think “it’s about settlements and it’s about Land,” but when they think about it, they think it’s about the land captured in 1967.

What they don’t realize is that it’s about the land “occupied” since 1948…that is all of Israel.

It’s just such a foreign concept. No one can comprehend that the US would come out with a position tomorrow of, “you know, we don’t want Guatemala to exist. And we mean, just erase the country. Give it to its neighbors and change the map.”

But that’s exactly what is wanted.

So, I suppose, in some respect it does come down to Settlements…if you are of the position that Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva are settlements that need to be uprooted.

So, in Jack’s estimation, if the relations between Israelis and Palestinians is like a repeating curve (think Sine wave), the objective for Israel is simply to reduce the altitude of the curve so that the periods of intensity are not as intense and just modulated.

Call me a pessimist.

The First Station and a Long Walk


Tonka and I left the Kustanowitz residence and headed to Emek Refaim where I said to her, “if there’s one place in Israel where there’s a high probability of my running into someone I know, it’s here.”

5 minutes later, straight out of ‘Father Knows Best,” I ran into Devorah Plotkin Walder. Yay.

Tonka and I then set out to follow the refurbished train tracks between Emek Refaim and Baka that are now a first-rate pedestrian area (it used to be an eyesore) and walked to the terminus which is called “the First Station,” because as difficult as it may be to believe, it was the First Train Station built in Israel (well, British Mandate Palestine) in the late 1800s. Now, it’s a great mall with shops, restaurants, etc.

We then walked back to Talpiyot (about 3 km) to vist a friend, Isaac Hassan, who has founded a co-working/incubator space designed to inspire all Jerusalemites (Jews, Arabs, etc.) to become entrepreneurs. You should check it out

Headed for Home: Appreciating the Kids

I always enjoy traveling to Israel. And, after the fact, I’ve always enjoyed traveling with kids. In the past, there have been moments of huge hassle—strollers, diapers, fighting, etc.

This time, however, was different.

Sure, they had their moments, but pretty much from start to finish—and I’m including plane rides, these guys were world-class troopers.

This trip was about and for them…and I feel like we succeeded.

I could see their wonder, their curiosity at every turn, their appreciation for the sites (ok, mostly) and the joy of the overall experience.

I could FEEL the family bonding taking place. And it was worth it.

It’s not easy-especially for someone who loves his work as I do-to slow down for this period, but I am so glad that I did. This was about creating a memory for a lifetime.

Most nights, when they eventually conked out, I found myself just staring at them as they slept, appreciating the people they were becoming. Similar in some ways, very different in others.

I love seeing the sibling partnership and camaraderie forming. Like the time when they were bickering in the backseat and the NFO said, “let them resolve it.”

Within minutes, they had reached the conclusion that it was more fun for them to sing songs together than fight and we were regaled for an hour with their chorus. A mental snapshot.

Even flying back with them (though I got them up early and the day was long) was fun. Sure, the 3 iPads helped, but when push came to shove, they moved when they needed to (e.g. our short transfer in Istanbul) and even slept in their clothes the night before our depature, thinking it would save us time during our early morning departure.

As you all know, in any travel experience, there are so many variables. In Israel, because of security, there are even more. Anything can throw you for a loop. There’s always waiting, no matter where you are, and no matter what, you have a choice.

You can whine and complain or you can open your eyes and look at the world around you, wonder why it is the way it is, and share your questions and opinions.

When you do that, you become richer.

And I really feel like that is something that my kids started to really understand on this trip. It is something I hope they take with them on the great trip through LIFE.


appreciating kids

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