Settling In… with Flowering Rosemary, Agave Cacti, Windmills, and Cranes

Windmill near the King David Hotel

My Neighborhood

With almost three months in one spot, you have both an opportunity and a need to establish certain routines. Where will I lie my head at night? Where do I get food? What will be my commute routes and modes of travel to language school (ulpan) Monday through Thursday mornings, and my afternoons of volunteering (Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights – you can look it up online to see the organizations purpose and activities). And what of cultural activities? And social visits with friends and family.

Dear readers, I am writing to you on a Thursday evening – which is like Friday evening in the States for one of those working stiffs I think I can still recall being. Well, it isn’t exactly like Friday night, because in Jerusalem, the whole place shuts down on Friday after 2 pm and doesn’t awake till Saturday evening. There are exceptions – there are always plenty of exceptions – but shabbat is taken pretty seriously around here, so such things as public transit simply aren’t available. If you need something from the world, you best get it by Thursday evening…Friday morning at the latest.

I am now comfortably sitting in my North Talpiyot room, part of a three-bedroom unit I share with the owner of the condo, Gila. I was so fortunate to connect with her, and this rental arrangement is excellent for me – I hope for her as well. It is now one week in Israel and by George if I haven’t figured most of that routinizing stuff out!

Please let me tell you about my neighborhood. Across the street a major condominium complex is expanding. There are five cranes operating and perhaps as many multi-story buildings going up. Around the corner to the south is the entrance to the Haas Promenade, with beautiful views of the Old City of Jerusalem and surrounding west and east Jerusalem urban centers.

Overlooking the Jerusalem Peace Forest on the Haas Promenade adjacent to the cranes looming across the street from me

Terry, the Jerusalem contact point for Skilled Volunteers for Israel, the organization which performed matchmaker (Shadkhinit – שַׁדְכָנִית) duties for me and Bimkom, gave me a driving tour of my neighborhood on my first afternoon in town. She showed me the likely grocery shopping places, the urgent care medical facility which is 3 blocks away, an up close look at the (in)famous “separation wall” which divides East Jerusalem from the West Bank not far from my apartment, and the proximity to the Haas Promenade. We then had dinner together at a traditional Middle East dining place at the Old Train Station (a Food, Arts and Cultural site that reminds be a bit of a small scale Granville Island in Vancouver).  After dinner I walk back “home” along the beautiful “train track park.” They kept the rails, and filled the interior with preserved wooden planks.  

My first supper in Jerusalem at the Old Train Station Food, Culture and Entertainment Center. And no, I couldn’t finish everything!

Also, minutes by foot from the apartment is a walk to Emek Refaim Street, the heart of the German Colony, an upscale neighborhood. The Reform Synagogue, Kol Haneshema, which I went to for services 25 years ago, is also in the neighborhood, so I walked to Friday evening shabbat services there. While all in Hebrew, and filled with a number of different tunes, nevertheless, I felt right at home with the liturgy and the songs I did know so well. Just a touch on the universality and continuity of the Jewish people… and a pleasant walk back along the train track park to my flat.

The next day – shabbat – I had, as they say, “time to kill.” So I walked to my ulpan site to make sure I knew exactly where it was located, and then walked to the Old City because… well, because I could. Yes, my location is so central that it feels like the Old City is my “hood.” I took a tour of the Old City, checked out another falafel joint, and explored alternative ways of commuting to school.

In the foreground, a construction site for what will be the visitor’s center at The Western Wall (הכותל), and in the rear the Wall itself. Holiest site for the Jewish People, and hugely significant for Muslims and Christians, it is the remnant retaining wall for the Temple Mount, which was constructed about 2000 years ago in King Herod’s time, and housed the 2nd Temple.

Forthcoming Blog Entries: The Ulpan Experience, Volunteering, and Connections with Friends and Family

Smirking at SeaTac, Nu’ing in New York, and the Ukrainian/Italian/Spanish Connection from Ben Gurion

When do you know that your vacation trip has started? When you notionally wanna get away and begin to work on the purposes and logistics? When tickets are purchased? When packing begins? When you leave your home, driving out of your driveway or walking to the transit hub, heading down the same road that you have traveled hundreds of times, but this time the destination is unusual, or even unprecedented? Did the trip start when you have physically arrived at a space different from your regular patterns?

And how is that perception of change differ if at all when you are traveling not on a vacation but on the next step in an evolving and non-routine retirement?

Here are a few incidences that occurred during this transition to Jerusalem that marked the emergence of a start of a trip.

At SeaTac’s American Airlines self check-in station: 

“So, you are going to Tel Aviv,” the young lady in uniform both stated and kind of inquired, leaning in to me and the machine, smiling brightly, ready to offer me help that at the moment I did not need. 

“Yes,” I smiled back at her.

“Well, it must be interesting, but it’s not really my kind of place.” She paused.  “That’s Israel, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” I responded.

“Well, I must have been listening sometime in school to remember that!”

“Education is a great thing,” I smiled back!

Then she helped me wrap the baggage claim tag on my large suitcase.

At the End of the Transportation Security Administration Security Line

After 20 minutes of strolling and waiting in the security line, I reach a good-hearted TSA agent.  She smirks playfully at me after taking my boarding pass and passport. “Does it smell to you?,”  she whispers.

 “Say what?” I reply.

“Does it smell like food?  Something smells good” she smiles, eyes twinkling.

“When was the last time you ate? I ask.

“Last night..  ’bout 5 o’clock.”

“You gotta go get something to eat, young lady.”

“That be for sure” she laughs, and gives me a big smile as she hands back the docs.

Now For Something Naughty

It’s 6:30am SeaTac time and I’m hungry myself. At the airport you have plenty of food choices. But I’m about to go to the land of serious, ubiquitous koshrut. Eretz Yisrael: the Kosher Everest.  And I’m feeling naughty.  One last sin before my great Jewish transformation.  

I order a Black Forest ham, cheese and egg sandwich at Subway.  Not even that tasty, as it turned out, but every mouthful savored.

I do order the egg whites and select “wheat bread.” Secular pieties as partial redemption?  Nah, just useful rationalization.

America to Israel at Kennedy

Israel didn’t start at Ben Gurion Airport. It started at the El Al boarding line at Kennedy.

The trip from Seattle to New York was uneventful. But upon leaving the plane and arriving at JFK, the airport’s renowned dysfunction hits you right away. Not one airline official to give directions. No signs pointing to other terminals or identifying which terminal I need to go to re-board on El Al.

Heck… I’ve got a little time. I go for a slice of NYC pizza. Surprise. It’s awful. Really poor and really expensive. I move on.

After asking several people the way, and walking what seemed like about half a mile – I am not exaggerating – going up and down several escalators, and hopping on a train to Terminal 4, I get off to find a vast hall of dozens of international airline counters. I wonder how much time is spent at Kennedy determining which airline line should border others? Unsurprisingly, El Al’s is located far down the hall from EgyptAir and QatarAirways.

When I arrive to the El Al boarding line, I’m back in Israel. More than half of the line-mates are Haredi. I’m surrounded by people of all ages speaking Hebrew and Yiddish (many, but not all, Haredi use Yiddish as their day-to-day tongue, reserving Hebrew more for religious observance). There is already a palpable intensity in the air. No shouts, exactly, but lots of verbal banter and ordering around of some passengers by other passengers. “Where are you going, boychik? Nu?”

El Al staff, all in uniforms, were secular and slightly brusque in affect. I give the first lady attendant my passport. She studies it carefully and starts asking me questions. “I see you’ve been to Jordan.”

“Yes,” I respond. “My sister and I went to Petra 5 years ago.”

“How long were you there?”

“Parts of two days and two nights.”

She looked a tad worried. Asked me to wait, and motioned for another staff to come by. They talked briefly, she handed me back my papers and she told me to move on to the baggage station lady. I then handed my passport and boarding pass to the new lady who gave it to another staff person. After about a minute where I saw him talking to other staff, he came back, handed my papers to the baggage station lady, who in turn handed it to me, and … I was free to go to the plane.

What does security mean to me as I begin this sojourn in Israel? Am I ok with a second look by officials simply because I visited another country long ago?

Israel is a “security state.” It has never been recognized by some of its neighbors (Syria and Lebanon) and there is a “cold peace” with Egypt. Questions of safety in Israeli society and the acts of the State to secure that safety are principle concerns of everyday life and the political life of the country. I am visiting Israel at a time with a national election called for April 9. I expect this already intense and conflicted place to be even more visually predominantly so in the coming months. I’m sure there will be things to blog about.

No, Everyone Does Not Speak English

Arrival at Ben Gurion after another long flight. I’m both beyond tired and exhilarated. There are critical things to do. Make sure my smartphone accepts a new sim card and allows me the access I need to communicate and access the internet. Secure luggage and identify the location of a Nesher Sherut collective taxi which will supposedly take me to the front door of the apartment in the North Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem where I am renting a room. Get cash (shekels) for the sherut and other short-term needs. For all those things… success. Boxes checked. The sky is partly cloudy. The freeway to Jerusalem is a breeze. I’ve arrived.

On to the sherut, I strike up a conversation with two middle age women. I ask them if they speak English. Nope. Hebrew or Yiddish? Nope. How about German? No. Russian? Why yes! (Ah… they looked Russian to me… should have known, right?) Well, turns out they are Ukrainians – not Russians – who are living in Italy. Go figure. Between my Spanish and their Italian, we hit it off famously!

The Way (Derekh) Forward Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Dear Readers,

In the fall of 1973, my father, mother and I lived in the London ward of Belsize Park in the borough of Camden. Dad was on sabbatical from his university post, mom was on break too from her professional social work job, and I was a 17 year old high school senior. For the first semester of that senior year I had developed learning contracts with my social studies and English teachers so that I could secure a few credits and still graduate with my peers later that school year.

My English teacher, Mr. Felstad, whom I grew to deeply admire, assigned me Beowulf and Chaucer and various English notables, and also required me to keep a daily journal. I still look back on that journal from time to time, decade to decade, cherish it, and thank Mr. Felstad for his wisdom.

It is with this emotional connection to journaling as background and motivation that I attempt to conquer my first 21st Century-style journal – a blog. I fully recognize that the nature of this beasty is not private, and will more likely result in the prosaic than profound. But since this has an audience of more than one, I will attempt topics that may at least be marginally interesting to friends, family and/or colleagues.

Let’s end this first post – written on the day before I take off for Israel – by attempting to answer the question that my wife Jean, my sons, sister, friends and just about everyone who hears my plan has asked me: Why are you doing this? Why visit Israel for three months, a couple weeks after you have retired from 25 years at the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission?

The answer will no doubt change in the midst of the visit. Perhaps with seeping regrets or unexpected revelations. But as of now here’s what I got.

First of all, I want a clean break from my work-centered life. Many folks who retire from full-time professional work, find an emptiness that needs filling. Find a need to redefine self, now that a large part of their identity is stripped from them. Without a major and consuming break from past habits, I might find the road to the next stage of my life more subject to inertia than positive choices.

Secondly, I want to explore my Jewish self. Even in light of the complex and controversial politics, and the intense day-to-day living, in Israel, during my previous two visits I had a visceral sense of being somehow at home there; with people whose manner felt deeply familiar and akin to my own. So I want to connect with my relatives, some of whom are quite elderly, while I still can. I want to attempt to learn Hebrew, while my brain still can. And I want to explore Jewish practice and culture.

Finally, after a full year post heart valve surgery, I am still so conscious that life is precious and short, and one’s health can not be assumed into the future. The opportunity for an extended time in Israel, or any other such adventure, is in the words of Hillel, a question of “If not now, when?”

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton