Returns: Many Happy, Some Sad, and Some a bit Scary

The Israeli leg of the trip was clearly about reconnecting with people and places.  Mostly I wanted the opportunity to spend some time with my cousin Danny in Ra’anana and his wife Shirly.  But also see my cousins Hemy and Anat up north in the Hula Valley, Danny’s mother Adele and stepdaughter Liat, and other cousins in Kiryat Yearim and Bet Shemesh.  I also wanted to be able to provide an opportunity for Danny and Shirly to get out to meet relatives and to see some key sights in Jerusalem.  In all the above, the trip was successful.

But the context for these familial connections was a country in political turmoil. During my stay, the talk of civil war was not only in the air but coming out of the mouths of both the country’s president Isaac Herzog, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The streets were filled regularly with Israeli flag-waving protesters, opposed to “judicial reforms” proposed by the current coalition government. The lead governmental parties maintained the reforms were necessary to rebalance the rights of the majority of voters with an elite, self-selecting judiciary that had usurped democratic power undo themselves.  The protesters saw the government’s proposals as quite the opposite – the initial tolling of the end of democracy, protection for the ruling parties’ criminal members, and the dashing of minority civil rights. When I was there, compromise seemed impossible, though after I left, there was at least a temporary back off by the governing parties to allow for negotiations.

Upon my initial arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, I was also very much feeling at the end of the road energy-wise.  I was exhausted from about 16 hours of getting to and from South African, Turkish, and Israeli airports. My 6 ft 4 in frame struggled to sleep or find comfort in cramped quarters. 

My friends, David Sokal and Janet Woodward, who just happened to be visiting Israel at the same time as I, picked me up at the airport and drove me to Danny and Shirly’s in Ra’anana. The five of us stopped to chat a bit and drop of some of my luggage. Then they drove me to cousin Hemy and Anat’s beautiful valley home in Bet Hilel.  In a delightful coincidence, David’s family Kibbutz, that he had spent a year working in as a young man, was less than five miles from my cousin’s home in the northern reaches of the Hula Valley.

After a brief chat amongst my friends and cousins,  David and Janet took off. I was not to see them the rest of the trip, even though we had talked about getting together later that evening and the next day. Why?  Because I let Hemy know that I needed to take a bit of rest… and 14 hours later, I groggily awoke.  I had hit the limit.  Even though I wore a mask on the plane, almost no one else did.  I had spent innumerable hours in close quarters with folks who were coughing and doing their thing and I must have caught something.

So, my two nights, one full day visit with Hemy and Anat turned into a convalescent opportunity. They were so kind just to put me up and let me rest.  I ate Anat’s delicious food (she is an amazing cook!), took a brief tour of the countryside with Hemy, and had a chance to catch up on the status of other cousins and a bit about their take on the politics of the country. Hemy said he felt guilty that he had not yet participated in the protests. 

Hemy and Anat watching protests on TV.

Clearly, they had his and Anat’s sympathies, based on our conversation. Hemy, and several others from his side of the family, were leaders in Israel’s technology sector. Hemy is a hardware engineer and was instrumental in development of the smart card (you know… those stripes that are read on your credit card).

President Isaac Herzog solemnly addresses the nation on TV, warning that it is at the precipice of civil war and urging the government to halt its process of judicial reform legislation and negotiate with the opposition.

The next day, Hemy drops me off at the bus station.  He stays with me until the correct bus arrives then talks to the bus driver to make sure he knows were to drop me off (it will be in Herzliya, where I will need to transfer to a bus bound for Ra’anana).

On the bus, I took in the familiar as well as the startlingly new sights of the Israeli countryside.  The people on the bus and those ready to board were endlessly fascinating.

A nap on the bus before shabbat.

It is common for IDF soldiers, always well-armed, to take public buses on their way back home from bases to family homes on shabbat. The buses are free for their use.

Then there were the dramatic increases – even in the last four years since my last view – of the number of enormous skyscrapers that appeared to be popping up everywhere in the heart of the country’s urban area along the Mediterranean Coast. The filling out of an intercity rail network. The completion of a desalinized water processing and distribution system. Again, I’m awed by Israeli public infrastructure.

20 + story apartment buildings, completed and under construction seemingly everywhere. Road widening as well.

Closer to Tel Aviv…. the skyscrapers keep soaring.

While Jerusalem is by far the largest city in the country, from Haifa on the north to Ashkelon on the south, the coast and about 10 kilometers inland is where most Israelis live. Tel Aviv is the key center of this urbanization, with Ra’anana about 20 kilometers north of its downtown core.  It’s a tiny country, similar in size and population to the state of New Jersey.

Waiting for me in Ra’anana is a shabbat dinner with Danny and Shirly and Liat. Liat, nearly 21, is in the last month of her IDF duty, as she arrived in uniform and then changed into her civies.

Shirly, Liat and I play a hot game of Rummikub (invented in Israel and enjoyed with relish by my wife Jean and daughter-in-law Vicky).

Most of the next day, during shabbat, would be spend with Megose Solomon.  My connection with Megose needs some explanation.

When I was previously in Israel, I participated in a program called “Skilled Volunteers for Israel.”  As part of the program, I volunteered for an Israeli urban planning non-profit called Bimkom.  (To read more about that experience, you can go back to my blog in the spring of 2019.)  Well, when the Covid pandemic hit, there was exactly zero opportunities to continue this kind of personal volunteering work.  So the organization shifted gears and offered online (through Zoom) English language tutoring between Ethiopian Israelis and Jews throughout the world.  I signed up for that program. Megose became my second tutee, and we have been zooming with each other for about two years.  Getting together for the first time in Israel became a priority for me.

Megose in Old Yafo

As quickly became apparent in our zoom sessions, Megose’s English vocabulary was actually quite good. So, we would usually just end up in conversation. From time to time, I’d introduce a new English word or term and call it good. But really, Megose is quite English fluent.  He’s an industrial systems engineer with a broad range of interests and entrepreneurial aspirations.

Me in Old Yafo

For our time together, he had planned a trip to Old Yafo (Jaffa), an historically Arab city where finding something open on Shabbat would not be a problem.  I’ve been to Old Yafo several times and have happy memories of attending a jazz concert featuring my friend Shlomi Goldenberg (unfortunately, I was not able to see Shlomi  on this trip), and walking the waterfront port filled with marvelous restaurants and maritime scenic flavors.

Beautiful warrens of Old Yafo – Creative District

Pointing to an Old Yafo Theatre

Describing the Old Yafo Theatre.

Both Megose and I had upset stomachs, so all we mustered on this voyage to food heaven was drinking a few colas.  How frustrating!  But it was fun to spend time in person with a guy who I’d been seeing only in a box weekly for two years.

The Wishing Bridge is a famous tourist site.

And here are the famous tourists!

A view of Tel Aviv from an Old Yafo promontory.

The Old Yafo (Jaffa) waterfront. The Port of Jaffa has been around, in one way or another, for well over two thousand years. One of the earliest centers of civilization.

Another center of early civilization, and the once and future destination for my trip.

Typical Jaffa waterfront meal. I had one of these with family about 10 years ago.

This time Megose and I could only look at the food. Last time 4 years ago, my friend Len Madsen and I had delicious fish and chips.

Megose dropped me off at Danny and Shirly’s.  But that evening, I heard sounds of chanting outside the apartment walls.  I said I wanted to go out and see what was happening. Danny said he’s join me, Shirly as well. We walked over to the main street and saw many people carrying large Israeli flags all walking in the same direction.  We followed them to a town square and saw – participated from the outside – what had become a standard post-shabbat ritual:  massive protests to the government’s proposed judicial reforms.

Joining the protest marchers on the way to the town square.

A sea of flags, demanding democracy.

I viewed the crowd as neither angry nor celebratory. There was this feeling of determination, conviction, and yes, patriotism.  It was easy to be inspired by this display of civic power and purpose.

Video link to Ra’anana protest:

The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport and picked up a rental car.  The process took FOR EVER… but I finally made it back in the late morning to Danny and Shirly’s.  From there, we drove over to see Danny’s mom Adele. Then on to the archaeologically significant, and current entertainment center, of Caesarea.

One incident worthy of comment.  As I was picking up a cola at a beachfront stand, a woman comes up to me and asks if I’m American. She then starts up on the political events in Israel.  “The extreme left is full of hate,” she said. “They hate this country and hate Zionism.“ She went on to tell me that she was a nurse by profession, and had helped Arabs who were ill in hospital. But that they just hated her, and she learned that they were just animals.

“You sound like you have some feelings of hate, also,” I suggested. 

“Oh no, I don’t hate anyone. It’s the Arabs and extreme left who hate.”

Roman ruins at Caesarea.

Shirly at Caesarea.

Danny at Caesarea. His heart-shaped pin literally says “Free love.” He wanted to put it on before walking out to the Ra’anana protest. I think it could be best translated into English as “Let love out freely.”

We ate a late lunch in Caesarea and went home to rest up a bit before driving to Kiryat Yearim for a dinner with our cousins Janine and Brian Benjamin.

The Benjamins were both born in South Africa. Brian was an accountant and Janine described herself as a hippy in her youth.  Together, they decided to live a fully Jewish life, according to halachic (Orthodox Jewish Law) principles. They made Aliyah to Israel and fulfilled their dreams.  Brian spends his days studying Torah and Talmud. Janine had worked in schools but is now retired.  They have nine children and 49 grandchildren. Since my last visit with them, they were able to move to a more modern, larger apartment in the same (religious) community. 

Danny had not visited with them in many years and this was the first time Shirly had seen them. We were all treated to a delicious meal, and our hosts could not be more gracious. I had brought some kosher dried peaches from South Africa (at the suggestion of the Benjamin’s daughter Tamar) and Danny brought wine.  As we departed both couples looked forward to sharing shabbat together sometime in the near future.  Perhaps even getting together for the upcoming Passover holiday.  It was a lovely evening.

The next day, our plan was to visit Jerusalem, including my old haunts near The German Colony (Emek Refaim), and Danny’s old haunts at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.   Shirly had never been to either place.

Four years previously, we had an ongoing joke that if one wanted Japanese -style sushi, one went to a restaurant called Japanika.  The word for panic in Hebrew is pronounced panika. “Lo” means “no” in Hebrew.   So, I would say, “Lo panika, Japanika!” and off we’d go for sushi.  But as it turned out, Japanika had recently closed down.  So I now said, “Panika, lo Japanika!”

Lo panika. Sushi!

But we solved that problem, with a delicious sushi meal at another restaurant on Emek Refaim.  On the way there, we stopped off at “First Station” which is food and entertainment center created from Jerusalem’s original train station. I always walked past First Station on my way to school in the morning from my apartment.  A converted pedestrian and bicycle rail-trail also went past the station and we took it to walk to our sushi engagement.  From there we drove over to my old apartment, to a nearby park that overlooks the Old City, and then up to Mount Scopus.  Danny went to university there and also worked in one of the restaurants near the campus.  It was there that I first met him.

In front of my previous apartment building.

After Mount Scopus, we wound through the busy streets of Jerusalem to make our way down to the city of Bet Shemesh, our dinnertime destination with David and Lauren Port and their three children, Orly, Elisha and Ezra.  I previously referenced them in the Beyond the Pale blog of a few weeks ago.  It was a delightful and energetic change of pace to be with three lively young folks for sure.  It was also fascinating to me to see the change in venue for the family.

When last I saw them, they were in a modest apartment in a historic Jerusalem neighborhood.  Their new flat was in a high rise apartment, part of a massive and unfinished apartment complex, 30 kilometers to the west of Jerusalem. David described the move as a question of finance.  Jerusalem housing prices were outrageous, during the pandemic he and Lauren found it difficult to work, and their parents had a flat in Bet Shemesh.  So they moved in there temporarily (her parents were back in England at the time) and they found that they could buy their place in Bet Shemesh for a much more reasonable price. 

Massive apartment complexes under construction in Bet Shemesh adjacent to David and Lauren Port’s flat.

As mentioned before, the pace of housing construction in Israel appears to be extraordinarily fast. Yet, high housing prices continue to be one of the main domestic issues.  I was wanting to understand why, in a nation with very high housing prices, there was so little visible homelessness compared to the United States. In particular, homelessness is such a massive problem in the higher priced coastal areas of our country.  So, I did a bit research. 

Turns out that the latest homelessness count in Israel is about 3500 people. That compares to over 600,000 people in the US (some estimates are much higher).  Even accounting for population differences, you are 10 times more likely to be homeless in our country than in Israel. Probably more so if you live on the coastal states. Why is that? 

I have my theories.

No doubt, a factor is that Israeli culture tends to be intensively family-oriented.  The thought that one generation would let another be on the streets would be less acceptable. Another factor is that Israeli social services, including mental health services, is commonly accepted to be must more comprehensive and generous than in the US.  My sense is also that the “lifestyle choice” of homelessness is simply not accepted/permitted as legitimate. In the US, there are some legal protections for that choice which may not exist in Israel.

OK… those are mostly speculations on my part, but the reality is powerful, nonetheless. In my 3-month previous stay in Jerusalem and along this trip, I never once saw a homeless person sleeping on the street or in a tent.

Kadima (onwards)…

My last full day in Ra’anana and Israel was one mostly of rest.  Danny and I went shopping for Judaica that I had promised to bring home.  I purchased a hanukkiah, and several versions of Hamsa. We played a little Rummikub, looked at old photo albums that Danny had put together from a previous trip with his mother to the US, as well as more recent wedding albums and other memorabilia.

Shopping day in Ra’anana. I don’t know why I think its funny to have a dance studio above a pet shop, but I do.

Danny had gone to pastry school years ago. He made an amazing cheesecake – with ginger – and I had bought some babka from… what else… a babka shop.

Beneficent babkas!

From a photo album Liat put together for her mother.

Photo album pictures of a younger Adele, Danny’s mother and my mother’s first cousin. When I met her as a kid, I called her “Miss South Africa” because she apparently won a “best legs” contest.. as well as a typing speed test.

Good thing that I needed to get to the airport early in the morning. About an hour after I deposited my rental car, protesters had blocked all incoming traffic, trying to stop Netanyahu from flying out. But make it to the plane I did.  

We left Ben Gurion a bit late.  I had to walk briskly through what felt like miles of concourses in Istanbul to make it – barely – to my plane to Seattle.  But make that I did too.

I had returned to South Africa. I had returned to Israel. And now, I have returned to Olympia and the welcoming arms of my wife Jean.  There is no doubt that upon those returns, some of the places I visited were troubled. Turkey, SA and Israel all appeared to be confronting some existential questions of democratic self-rule.  And for some of the people I saw, aging had left them in a much more frail condition.  But overall, there was much happiness I experienced in seeing the positive unfolding of my cousins’ lives.

I’m left with a grateful sense of shehecheyanu. This is a Jewish expression which literally means “that we are alive”. It is a statement, and common prayer, that recognizes time and appreciates that we are alive in this moment.


2 thoughts on “Returns: Many Happy, Some Sad, and Some a bit Scary

  1. Really found your blog interesting. Some of the Jaffa pics didn’t have people included. Where
    were they? Re: homelessness, how much of an issue is drugs in Israel?


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