February 26, 2009

Hiking the Golan and the Talmudic Town of Devorah

Even though this was written during Pesach, 2007, the trails are still there, beckoning hikers.

Chol HaMoed Pesach is a special time for all Israelis. The children are off school and most parents take time off work to be with their families and to tour this magnificent country.

We headed to the Golan. After a rather late start, we drove north, eventually arriving at Gan Hashlosha, also known as Sachne. Set in the Beit Shean Valley, these natural pools and waterfalls look like a tropical oasis. And the water was surprisingly warm. Apparently, it stays at 28 degrees C year-round. Needless to say, every one of our kids had a totally amazing time. When the swimming became boring, they decided to jump off a cliff into the crystal-clear water. And yes, Shaya had to take the plunge after he saw Ariel and Aviva do it. Amir was encouraging while I held my breath and bit my knuckles, wondering how Shaya could be so brave at such a young age. Then they swam to the next pool and submerging under a waterfall – it was sheer fun.

Next we headed to the Golan, arriving at the base of Highway 98. We ascended the Golan Heights, going up and around hairpin turns, and feeling dizzier by the minute. We passed cyclists who seemed exhilarated by this challenging climb. Appreciating their agony, although we don’t think we could ever do such a thing ourselves, Amir gave them a thumbs up as he passed them. We finally made it to the top and the road flattened out smooth as a table top. There we passed deep green fields, ripe with produce. And where the land was not farmed, the fields were filled with wild flowers – a natural paradise.

We found the community of Chispin and our hotel. We had no idea that we had come across a hiker’s paradise until Amir spied a desk in the lobby. Here experts sat, armed with information on trails, flowers, waterfalls and archeological sites. They suggested we hike through Gilaboun and the Devorah Waterfall.

Fully aware that every time we say the word ‘hike’ to our kids, they grunt and roll their eyes, we decided to do it alone. This meant a 5 am wake up so we could be back in time for breakfast with our children.

We were up to it. Amir and I have trekked though India, Nepal, Sulawesi and Guatemala and were itching for some adventure. With four kids, we figured that this was the best we could do.

Up and out by 5 am, I was astounded by how freezing cold it was. The car registered 8 degrees C outside - and I couldn’t even have a hot coffee! We drove in the dark past Katzrin, down a dusty dirt road. On the sides of the road were fences with the words “Danger. Do not enter – land mines.”

We found a parking lot. Amir got out to daven as the sun was just coming up. I was frozen and refused to budge from the car, hoping for the sun would soon thaw me out with its warmth. Ahead, I could see snowy Mount Hermon looming. All around us were abandoned buildings with pock-marked walls. They was once a Syrian army base. I could not figure out why it had not been torn down. The place was eerie but it was a chilling reminder that not so long ago, this was not a very friendly place to be – certainly not a nature reserve.

Amir packed up his tallis and we left our car to look for the trail blazes. The blazes were right there, beckoning for us to follow. We scampered over boulders and back and forth across a river. Rocks and tree branches helped us over the cold water. We climbed until we could get a view of the Devorah Waterfall plunging down a cliff. We then walked up to a plateau filled with ancient stone buildings. This must have been from the times of the Romans. There had been no excavations done here and it was amazing how these houses had stayed in such good form for close to 2,000 years.

Devorah was once a substantial town from the days of the Talmud. We touch the tough walls of the homes, feeling the warmth of the morning sun on our hands. We wander inside a few houses and think about what life must have been like for the Jews here a few thousand years ago, living atop this beautiful plain with views of Hermon and the Galil. Today, it appears to be forgotten. Overgrown. Inhabited by lone cats.

But we are back. We have returned from a long absence and are once again living in and thriving in this special land. We are so fortunate to be here, walking in the very steps of our ancestors.

Small Signs of Having Arrived

Just found this little piece from way back and had to post it.

I know that we have arrived. Every so often I get a sign. Just last Shabbat, as we were walking home from shul, Shaya took my hand in his and announced, “Ima, after Shabbat, I want to write my name in the earth.”

I was surprised to hear this and after some thought, I realized where this came from. He was reading a book for English class by Sara MacLachlan. The book was about an independent woman called Sarah who is from the east coast who moves to the harsh, arid prairies to be a farmer’s wife. She struggles but cannot commit herself to this hard life. Yet one day, she takes a stick and scrawls the letters S-A-R-A-H into the land. At this moment, she has arrived and she knows that she wants to stay.

As for my little philosopher Shaya, he must be telling me that he feels Israel is his home. I am so touched by his thoughts and his ways of expression.

In fact, just a few days ago, I heard him having a talk with his little sister, Talya. Talya was saying, “Israel is my best country in the whole world.”

“No, Tilly,” Shaya replied in a voice of authority. “Israel is my favourite country in the whole wide world.” And he opened his arms as wide as wide can be.

Classic Israel Moments

“From the sublime to the caw blimey,” is that how it goes?

We are in the car turning onto a highway. We stop at a red light. It is a beautiful evening. The sun is setting and the sky is a mix of purples and pinks. We are all in a thoughtful kind of mood. The car next to us rolls down the window and the guy in the passenger seat yells out something. Two guys are in the back seat and everyone is in hysterics.

We roll down our window and stare at him: maybe he needs directions. He makes these choking sounds and yells out to the world. “Ho Hiflotz!” I recognize this word. Hmm. It takes a minute for me to find the root of this verb and then to conjugate it. Translation: He farted! Only in Israel would one not be too coy to publicize this. And these were not young teenagers – oy va voy.

Now we are biking. Just love to be out on my bike on those warm February days. We bike through some citrus groves and then across a field. We cross a gully and then connect with the road. A car was waiting to pass us just outside a farm. We pass the car and wend our way down a bumpy, dusty dirt road that is closed to traffic. Ten minutes later, we appear on the northwest side of Raanana, close to the park. We keep on biking.

A car pulls up beside Amir and drives alongside him, trying to get his attention. Amir stops and the driver hands him something. It is his bicycle pouch. In it are his house keys, car keys, office keys and his palm pilot, a record of pretty well every important phone number and contact we have.

He realizes that this pouch must have fallen off when he went down the gulley. Now for the driver to actually find this pouch on the ground and then to catch up with us was a feat – we had gone down a road that was not traversable to cars. So for this guy to get back in his car, assume the direction we were taking and then try a longer route to meet up with us is really quite something.

People here will really go out of their way to help. These are moments when we realize that we are all one big family and deep down, people really care. And since we are one big family, perhaps this is the reason there are so few cultural boundaries in Israel: case in point is the flotz scene above, performed unabashedly as if the guy were in his own house.

Postscript: Amir actually lost his phone again later on that day. We were in a store and quite a while after we had left, he realized that his phone was gone. He retraced his steps and they handed it back to us at the counter. Phew!

February 19, 2009

Dog Walking – A Perilous Pursuit

The newest addition to my morning routine: walking the children to school and taking along the dog. This sounds like a wonderful, relaxing family outing and a healthy start to one’s day - especially when the weather is ideal. Crisp sunny mornings are a February specialty here in Israel.

But first let me define the terms.

Every school day, we wake up early. But no matter how early we get up, the clock seems to race faster than us. I am always scrambling to find socks, shoes, put lunches in school bags, find the house key and Shaya is somehow always finishing his homework (a real stress additive). By the time I look at my watch, it is actually time to be at school and not to be leaving for school.

I look at our dog happily sleeping on the couch, his head propped on a pillow, his legs sprawled open. I think to myself, do I really want to wake him from his blissful morning nap? Do I really want the added time he will take away from our race to school when he has to lift his leg on every tree and bush he sees? But of course I give in; what’s a walk without the dog? It’s like going to the beach and not eating an ice cream.

Today I jingle the leash and he flies off the couch, gallops across the room and practically flings his neck into the contraption. This is actually his second walk of the day and he can’t believe his luck. We all squeeze out the door at once: children, huge backpacks on wheels, myself and a hyperventilating 60 pound golden retriever.

We live on the first floor of an apartment building, one steep set of stairs from the ground floor. TJ is strong enough to drag a sled across the Arctic Circle so we are careful to pull on his leash and hope he does not make a mad dash down. Otherwise we would start our day in a big tangled heap at the foot of the stairs. TJ starts to pant but stays with the program. Yet once outside, he makes a mad dash for the first peeing apparatus he can see.

Dog Walking
Since our family is far from normal and we like to live on the wild side, we have made dog walking an extreme sport. Holding a leash on one’s side is far too boring for us. We place the leash around the kids’ waist and then they use their body weight to control the dog. It feels a bit like water skiing without the waves.

This morning, Shaya is at the helm. I fasten the leash around his waist and off he goes, flying ahead of us. We catch up at the next pee stop and then off he goes, flying down the sidewalk. Tilly finds this very amusing and laughs the whole way to school, her sky blue Skeechers trotting along in tandem. All is well, although we are now painfully late. I try to run faster than the dog so he will overtake me and thus place Shaya back up front. (Shaya must be part turtle-part Rastafarian as he is not naturally inclined to rush anywhere, no matter how pressing.)

We get to a busy road with a pedestrian crossing, one of the main intersections in our town. It is eight o’├žlock and peak traffic time. This intersection is quite beautiful with a palm-lined median separating the two lanes. It is bursting in color with freshly planted purple and pink cyclamen.

Pedestrian CrossingsNow pedestrian crossings are a tricky business in Israel. Drivers do not stop for pedestrians no matter how thick the white lines on the road. They do not discriminate between age, size or height. Most walkers are resigned to simply wait at pedestrian crossings until the traffic clears.

I actually find this behaviour to be very strange. Israel is a country where people are generally assertive and where everyone wants to go first. Why don’t Israeli pedestrians take back the pedestrian crossings for themselves? I guess a few tons of hurtling metal will put down any form of rebellion.

Emigrating from a country where people uphold the laws of the road and respect pedestrians, I am the decidedly assertive pedestrian. Each time we approach a crossing, I give my kids a play by play. “Put your foot out and make eye contact with the driver. Wait until the car stops and then go!”

On this particular morning, I bark out my commands. A woman driver stops. I shout, “Go.” I herd my troupe across the intersection. We make it half way across – to the botanical oasis in the centre. I face a second lane of traffic and a car stops for us. Tilly comes across with me and I look back only to see the dog is running in circles, madly doing his pre-poo dance, chasing his tail and doing aerobatics with his snout. Meanwhile, the traffic is piled up and honking. Tilly is across the road, I am now in the middle, shouting at Shaya. And Shaya is attached to a dog that is trying to find the most perfect cyclamen to dump on. The horns are honking.

I quickly realize that the dogs wins and I return to his paradisiacal toilet of choice, poop bag in hand, waiting for his highness to finish up. Cars are filing by slowly, watching my dog desecrate their gardens. In Israel, everyone has to give you their opinion, especially when you don’t ask for it. And of course, an old man honks his horn at me and shakes his head in disgust. If he had the time, I am sure he would have stopped traffic to get out of his car and lecture me about how vile animals are.

In fact, I have a nasty neighbour who one night passed my and my dog on the street. TJ was having a harmless yet good old sniff in the plants. The neighbour slowed down, rolled down her window and told me that my dog should not pee in the street because his urine poisons the plants. Once I realized the insanity of her comment, I did not act in a composed way. I ran after her car, waving my poop bag at her and calling her crazy. She delighted in the fact that she infuriated me. She simply rolled up her window and sped away. I must have made her day.

I am seriously working hard on being more composed but life’s events happen so quickly, they often take my by surprise.

With composure I tried to clean up after my dog,shuffling the dirt around to look like a good citizen. Why my dog should choose such a place and time is beyond reason. He had his choice of gardens and flowering bushes, all down a quiet, private street. But no, it had to be here – in the centre of town.

Needless to say, we were late for school. We were flustered and sweaty. Shaya was all tied up in the leash and Tilly was tired of laughing. As for TJ, he was grinning from floppy ear to floppy ear.