March 20, 2018

Beware the Zombies!

Guess there is no going back. Pesach is in the air and is coming fast to a home near you. I’m staying calm and composed simply by using the denial method. Besides, it is now beach weather here. Why stay indoors cleaning?

One thing I am doing is buying Pesach products. This is because I have a phobia of being near chaotic grocery stores closer to the holiday. In fact, I actually went Pesach food shopping just yesterday.

However, this morning I decided to face the contents of my pantry and see which chametz ingredients are still lurking there. I found a box of lasagna noodles and half a box of cannelloni. As I cannot have them in my cupboard after next week, I have two options: throw them out or make a lasagna.

So back to the grocery store I went, this time in search of ingredients to prepare my chametz dishes. Sounds a big backwards?

When I went to get a shopping cart, I saw that the Shufersal store had implemented a kind of high tech grocery cart vending machine. 

People were standing around looking at it quizzically, not knowing what to do. What was so wrong with the old system of putting a 5-shekel coin in a lock to release a cart?

And why would the store invest in a fancy new lock system, yet not replace their shoddy, dangerous old carts? These shopping carts roll sideways, not forward. Pushing these carts could send a sore back into spasm. 

And trying to maneuver a full shopping cart that goes sideways through a busy parking lot without denting a parked car or hitting a delivery truck is an insurance liability.

We pulled at the locked carts. Nothing. We looked for the 5-shekel lock on the cart. Removed. We then took to staring at the new machine. Silence - a rarity in Israel. This machine had thrown us shopping robots completely off balance. 

Someone approached the machine and clicked on the computer screen. The machine talked back. It told the person to take a cart from Row Number 1. He approached the row and, eureka, a cart was released.

We followed suit, typing in our citizenship number and getting our carts. This high tech system care of our start-up nation enables the store to know who has their cart. I imagine the Shufersal cart police turning up at my house demanding an absconded shopping cart.  

It is a broiling March day as I exit the store. I am sweating as I push my cart sideways through the busy parking lot. As I cannot access my car easily, I consider pulling the shopping bags out and lugging them to my car. I try to do this, but the cart rolls off on a collision course towards another car. Did I mention that these carts also have a tendency to crash into expensive objects?

But even if the cart were to obediently stand still, I realize that I could never leave it  - it has my ID number associated with it.

Looking around, I see confused shoppers who cannot deal with the new machine wandering like zombies, looking for an empty cart like mine to nab. 

I hold onto it tightly and steer it to the high tech machine positioned close to my car. I type in my ID number and hold my breath. Nothing happens. I do it again. Nope. This high tech machine care of the start-up nation will not compute. It does not let me return the cart.

I wrestle the cart all the way back to the store entrance, feeling like I’ve ridden a long slimy snake back to the starting point in Snakes and Ladders. And, at the store entrance, the machine happily directs the cart back to its nesting box.

I’m no engineer or logistics expert, but the problem with this high-tech innovation is now obvious. You can only return it where there is a slot  – and this slot is obviously nowhere near  shoppers’ parked cars. 

I know there are smart minds in this country but maybe we export our clever stuff and leave the half-baked ideas back home in Israel for zombies like me.

Whatever the reason, I’m too tired and sweaty to think about chametz or Pesach or shopping carts. 

It is time to perfect my Pesach denial method and head to the beach.

Chag Sameach!

February 27, 2018

Israelis live and love to travel


I just came back from a month-long adventure in New Zealand. Yes, I saw lots of sheep (there are some 27 million fluffy sheep grazing the rolling green hills and pastures). But, I also ran into many Israeli travelers. We knew we would run into Israelis, but were still surprised at the over representation of this tiny nation.

Since New Zealand is over 16,000 kilometers away from Israel and Israelis comprise 0.11 % of the world's population, meeting so many Israelis was astonishing. (The world’s population is 6.4 billion and Israel’s population is 8.4 million.)

So why, wherever one travels, does one hear Hebrew? Last year, 7.6 million Israelis traveled abroad. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism reported that nearly three quarters of Israelis went abroad at least once in the last two years. One in three Israeli travelers went away three times in two years and half of the travelers went away two times in the last two years.

Post-army travelers are definitely represented in these high numbers. After having completed a long and tough army service, many young Israelis put on a backpack and fly far away to decompress. You can hear Hebrew on a remote mountain peak in the Himalayas, meet Israelis enjoying a falafel in Berlin and tramping along ancient Aztec trails in the Andes.

Some 60% of them fly off to South East Asia, while 30% go to Central and South America. The remaining 10%? They can be found wandering around Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

However, it's not just young Israelis who love to travel. Older Israelis are also exploring the world in huge numbers. When we were away, we saw Israelis of every age hiking, touring and driving the roads of beautiful New Zealand.

On the flight there, I was seated beside a young woman who was about to travel solo for five weeks in New Zealand. Not your average backpacker, Sari is an Orthodox Jew from B’nai Brak. She was fulfilling a dream and was renting a car and driving across the north and south islands, planning to spend her Shabbats at the various Chabads in New Zealand. She had brought a suitcase of kosher food with her.

We also ran into Israelis at the base of the Tongariro Track, walking the trails on the Abel Tasman Track, and sitting in huts on the Kepler Track. We heard Hebrew in Milford Sound and in a tiny place called Akaroa. 

Israelis of all ages were there. I am not sure why they have the travel bug but it seems to be a national characteristic. 

Here’s another interesting statistic: the population density in New Zealand is 18 people per square kilometer, while Israel’s is 391 people per square kilometer. So maybe because Israel is so small and compact, Israelis have a desire to get out and stretch. 

Geopolitically, domestically and economically, stress in Israel is huge. In New Zealand, people need not be concerned with national defense or terror. Their worries are more in the environmental area. Headline news in the New Zealand Daily Times was “Albatross chick dies after attack.” Even this incident wasn’t hate or racially based. The perpetrator was the baby chick’s mother.

Whatever the reasons may be for heading to far-flung New Zealand, Israeli tourism has made an impact. While in remote Milford Sound, we read about a tour that provided guiding in the following languages: English, German, Mandarin and Hebrew. 

Kova Tembel photo by Sam Itzhakov
What about French, Dutch and Spanish? These languages were not represented, but Hebrew was. We also stayed at one place where earthquake evacuation instructions were in English with the Hebrew translation written underneath. 

We soon started to play the ‘Let's Spot the Israeli’ game, trying to pick them out of a crowd before we heard Hebrew.

Israeli ID giveaways
- Kova tembel sun hat

- Shoresh sandals

- Guys with a koo koo (ponytail) or dreadlocks - these are not European hairstyles

- Guys with a rough shaven look and often beards

- Rugged, casual clothes

We also noticed something deep in the Israeli eyes. This I cannot describe with words as it is almost a soulful knowingness. Most of their eyes are a beautiful blue or green set in an olive complexion. (This is not a Dutch, Scandinavian or German look!) Whatever it is, Israelis do look different. Or, have I developed my own Israeli radar?

We saw three young Israelis, all post army, sitting in a hiking hut quietly working on a jigsaw puzzle. One of them pulled out his camera to proudly show the ranger a photo of a kiwi bird he had spotted. A rare find.

Staying at the same hut, two older Israelis preferred to sit outside alone for breakfast. When they saw Amir pull out his tefillin and daven on the beach, a light of camaraderie opened in their faces. They invited him to eat with them and wished us  ‘lehitraot’ as we left.

On one of the last mornings of our trip, as we were doing dishes in a camper park kitchen in Akaroa, an older guy sat alone. He pulled out a finjan, an Arab-style coffee pot and prepared to make his morning ‘botz. (The Israeli word for mud and a strong Turkish-style coffee.)

He asked us in English if we wanted a coffee. “It's strong,” he warned us. And then we knew!

Who else would travel around with a finjan? He even brought his own paper espresso cups from Israel. We looked down at his feet. Shoresh sandals!

He was a retired air force pilot who was taking out time to see the wonders of the world. He too was heading back to Israel soon and as part of his travel experience as a non-religious Israeli, he would be spending Shabbat at a Chabad in Christchurch!

As soon as he realized we were from Israel, he opened up and was fascinated to meet anomalies like us, Israeli immigrants who speak poor Hebrew and are, as olim, still outsiders in Israeli society. So on his adventures abroad, he also learned more about who lives in his own country.

Travel opens minds. When other travelers (including New Zealanders) asked where we were from, they would always then ask us why we would choose to live in Israel. I never asked people why they were living in Germany or Luxembourg or the Netherlands. I once explained to a young German girl that I am there because I am a Zionist.

“A Zionist?” the young German exclaimed.

It was a conversation stopper. She was silent.

Zionist. That beautiful term I used to describe a return to our homeland obviously has a dark meaning for the rest of the world.

But then Amir explained to her, "It did work out so well for the Jews, my family included, who were living in Europe in the Second World War. We too need a safe place and a homeland.”

Silence again. Hopefully that was food for thought for a young liberal German mind.

When we travel, we open our minds and our souls. We make new connections and broaden our knowledge. 

We develop new appreciations and learn about ourselves and others – and when in New Zealand, this also includes albatross and penguins and sheep!

January 25, 2018

Loving Our Neighbours

I was recently struck by a headline “Bicycle Responder Who Saved 2,500 people Recognized by Community.” 2,500 people? Did this good news story make it outside of Israel?

Meir Farkash, an EMT volunteer (emergency medical technician), has been to 2,500 calls in the past four years – all on his personal bicycle! Of these calls, 300 have been life threatening. And what is more, this good citizen is only 25 years old!

Because of his incredible dedication, he was just given an electric bike by United Hatzolah.

Meir Farkash
This is heroism. I am sure these emergency calls come at any hour of the night or day, under beating sun or pummelling rain. Whatever he is doing, Farkash puts it aside to pedal and help.

In Judaism, volunteerism is not unusual. It can be traced to the Torah where it says in VaYikra, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself (19:18).” The religion was always designed around volunteerism, with societies set up to assist people from cradle to grave.

As for modern-day Israel, the state was literally built brick by brick and ploughed field by field by volunteers who had a vision. Kibbutzim and moshavim were also founded on the principle of helping others.

Today, this selflessness often starts at a young age with army service and sherut leumi (national service program), then continues for life. Civilians who were once soldiers continue to do miluim, volunteering in their former units once a year (or during a war) until they are 40.

See the video of Israel's Santa by clicking on the link.
Around one third of all Israelis do volunteer work of some sort. One well-known Israeli volunteer is Nichola Abdo, a  Christian Arab who visits children in special education schools and hospitals dressed as Santa. 

I could not find recent statistics, but in 2008 there were some 24,000 volunteer organizations in Israel. This number has grown incredibly; I know of many newer amutot which are reaching out to help those in need.

We can get so easily wrapped up in our own problems and hectic schedules, then forget about helping others. But there is incredible satisfaction when reaching out and making a difference.

The day before Farkash was to receive his award, he saved the life of a prominent lawyer, arriving at the scene within moments and resuscitating the man with CPR. He joined the man in the ambulance and was happy to hear that his patient was released from hospital two days later.

Farkash has now been awarded with a new electric bike, but says, “It’s not about the glory, it’s about helping people."

If you’re ever in Ramat Hasharon, you may spot our hero Meir biking around in his orange Hatzolah jacket on his nifty new ebike.