May 31, 2013

We're on holiday...and we live here

There’s something about beaches that brings out the holiday spirit.  As we were in need of a break last Sunday, we jumped on our mountain bikes and headed west towards the sea.

There’s also an element of excitement living in a tourist destination and when we feel like getting away from it all, we simply leave our town with no major investment and no jet lag.

And when we combine beaches and touring with our mountain bikes, we end up with sixty-five fascinating, beautiful kilometers, a lot of adventure, tired calves and a mild sunburn.

Our first view of the sea was in Herzeliya Pituach, where we followed a dirt road that hugged the cliffs above the sparkling Mediterranean. Sunday in Israel is a work day, so the beaches were empty save for some surfers gliding atop the white caps.

We rode past Sde Dov airport, where prop planes practically scraped our helmets before touching down. Old men sat patiently watching their bobbing lines. I swerved away, terrified of being the next hooked halibut, as a fisherman eagerly reeled in his rod,.  The days of solitary fishermen are numbered as I heard this area is slated to be Tel Aviv’s new Riviera with luxury Cannes-style hotels, galleries, restaurants and performance halls in the plans.   

The Namal, once an old port with warehouses, is already a sophisticated shopping area with sleek restaurants and upmarket shops and a wooden boardwalk that undulates like the sea. Large waves crashed onto the walkway, spraying me with a salty mist. People quietly lounged outside on café couches sipping their morning coffees.

Continuing south into downtown Tel Aviv, the energy picked up. Crowds of tourists spilled out of hotels and onto the beaches. A small sign posted on a large wooden fence announces that it was “Yom Nashim,” women’s day at the separate beach.  There is a place for all in this city as at the neighboring beach, dogs chased Frisbees into the surf on their very own “Doggy Beach” while a yogi perfected a downward dog stretch atop the warm sand.

We pedaled down the boardwalk onto a specially designed bike line that rode alongside the cars. As traffic signals with a red and green flashing bicycle cautioned us to stop for pedestrians, I envisioned entire cities with dedicated bike lanes. In fact, these bicycle lanes were so popular, I had to ‘check my blind spots’ before changing lanes or pulling out.

The path carried us south past beach and parkland with rolling grassy hills. Soon we were in Old Jaffa with its cobbled roads and art galleries tucked behind stone archways. We parked our bikes beside Arab men leaning over a serious game of shesh pesh and sipping strong coffee.

After a filling meal at the Tripolitarian Doctor Shakshouka restaurant, we were invigorated. The restaurant was packed with close to 100 tourists, part of a federation group from the U.S., a reminder that we live in a hot tourist spot. And as we retrieved our bikes, we ran into another large group: sari-clad Indians getting the Jaffi lowdown in Punjabi.

Leaving trendy Jaffa behind, we cycled downhill to the old port and a transitional part of town where centuries clashed; roosters cock-a-doodle-dooed from ramshackle gardens outside old tin-roofed homes (it was a scorching afternoon so their internal clocks were certainly off), while gleaming mansions with uninterrupted sea views clung to a bougainvillea-clad hillside. The gowns in the bridal stores notified us that we were in the Arab part of Jaffa. Yet a few ‘pedals’ away were the beaches of Bat Yam. Arabic turned to Russian in a single breath, while shesh pesh transmigrated into very serious games of chess.

We parked our bikes and went for a swim in a protected inlet. Here the water was warm and we swam along a man-made reef to popular Russian tunes on the local radio station. I was forced to trade in my Tolstoy association of Russia with snowstorms and fur hats for sunny beaches and bikinis.

As the sun started a lazy descent and school children flocked to the beach holding their parents’ hands, we knew it was late and time to head back. We had biked 30 km and had to return via the same route. Picking up speed, we flew northward, catching a more Israeli crowd hitting the beaches; young guys clacking madkot balls, diving across the sand to return a tricky shot; and teens arrived on bicycles, surf boards tucked under their arms, eager to catch the afternoon waves.

The muezzin called and we stopped, transfixed. It was four o’clock. We were in Jaffa and as the sounds wailed from the mosque, we watched a group of children playing in the park, swinging on the monkey bars, flying down slides and shrieking as they played hide-and-seek. They were speaking Arabic; they were Israeli citizens, they were free to play and practice their religion and have fun and imagine in their own language. They were free to have higher education and be part of an advanced medical system that treats everyone equally—and they were living a life that many children in this world are denied.

The sun glistened atop a shiny sea behind these happy children, the sky was still a deep blue, and as we felt the breeze on our arms, we too felt free. And thankful. 

There’s just something about beaches that brings out the holiday spirit.  

May 24, 2013

A Game of Dwarf and Giant

My daughter is done school for the year.

“It’s only mid-May,” a rational, observant person may remark.

 “She must be a university student? Or graduating from grade 12 with just exams to write? ” a Western-educated person would assume.

No. She is twelve years old and is only in grade six. Welcome to the Israeli school system.

She has now been at home for one week and the school administration hasn’t noticed. Or maybe they don’t care. The homeroom teacher is so obsessed with choreographing the end-of-the-year play, she too is unaware.

The math teacher? She hasn’t done the calculations to realize that the school year does not officially end until June 30, which, mathematically-speaking, leaves a solid six more weeks to teach. 

The history teacher? The state of Israel is only 65 years old so there is not so much on the curriculum anyway. 

The Hebrew teacher? Well, she never really got studies back in motion after the three-week Pesach vacation. And since there were a few other holidays sprinkled in (Yom HaZikaron, Ha’Atzma’ut and Shavuot), the school routine fell apart, along with our diets after bingeing on cheesecake.

Our Israeli children have not really learned anything in school since Purim (and if you want to stick that date on a calendar, hamentaschens flew off the shelves early March.)

So how does anyone get a real education around here? It seems as if school kids spend time on parades, preparing gifts for gamad v’anak (dwarf and giant, don’t ask) and dancing, not on physics, trigonometry and essay writing. World geography? It falls apart after they introduce the major continents. Given the political turmoil in this part of the world, the educators must rationalize that the global map could shift at any moment.

We shake our heads. At first it was despair, then aggravation. Now, we are accepting; my daughter sleeps in, bakes, rides her bike and reads. She may even start Spanish lessons. And all of these activities are more useful than sitting around watching a bunch of girls jump and twirl and spin over and over again.

Yet, look at how many Israelis win the Nobel Prize, make scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs. There must be a sort of  higher education around here, somewhere, sometime, somehow.  This is yet another open miracle about living in Israel. 

May 19, 2013

Triathlon Blues

Rap. Rap. Rap.

It is my 14-year-old son waking me. “What time is it?” I ask him groggily.

“It’s 4:30. We have to leave soon.”

Friday morning and it’s even too early for the birds to sing. Bleary-eyed, I shuffle to make a coffee.

My son is dressed and has his gear ready for his first triathlon; bathing suit, towel, goggles, bike helmet and running shoes. We swing his bike atop the car and race towards Netanya. The sky is a pinky-orange swirl as we arrive at the beach, gleefully pulling into the best seaside parking spot ever.

As soon as my son arrives with his bike, I see the officials scramble around him, shaking their heads and pointing to their clipboards. No. He is absolutely, certainly, 100% not allowed to use his mountain bike in this race. Regulations.

“Drafting is allowed in this race and your bike is dangerous,” they explain.

“Didn’t you read the application? It is written on every page.”

Hmm. I let my son sign up for this race on his own. I guess 14 year olds don’t read small print. And certainly Anglo moms like me don’t read forms in Hebrew. Looks like he is disqualified before he even starts.  His face drops, his lips tremble. He came here to win.

A small Russian woman with a clipboard takes his hand and walks over to some bikers, asking if someone will lend him a bike. The mini sprint for the young athletes starts earlier than the adult race so maybe, just maybe, someone will take pity on this poor, unequipped boy.

The clock is ticking and the junior race is about to start. No bike. The athletes here look like they’re from another planet. They are all muscled and sleek and are wearing skin-tight garb. Their bikes are as trim as the riders. In my mind, I know this competitive bunch would rather give away their spouse than part with their bikes. They too are here to win. I bite my lips and look around.

They are all writing on each others’ arms and legs with thick black indelible markers: left and right forearms and calves are inscribed with a number, type of race, sex and age. In such skin-tight gear, confusing male and female is next to impossible, but, hey, those are the regulations-- and they too must have been written on every page of the application. Mothers are plaiting their daughter’s hair into perfect French braids. This, I understand, is no fashion statement as it is the best way to keep long hair tightly back for the swim, bike ride and run.

Finally, an older man in his sixties generously offers his bike. Shaya leaves his gear at the transition station (this is a new word for me and is triathlon talk) and heads to the beach. A few minutes later I see my son running back to me and my heart sinks again.

"What now?"

"My goggles!" he sobs.

I hand him his goggles and he heads to the sea. He must swim straight out to a row of buoys and back again. Huge waves crash against the shore. I see the other junior sprint triathletes are already way out to sea but my fearless son will not be disillusioned. He runs into the water and crashes into the waves, his small arms trying to surge past the foaming crest. He rides the waves and is pushed back. I spot his black swimming cap bobbing in the waves as he slowly makes his way out.

The others are on their way back at breakneck speed, flying out of the water like lemmings and running up the ramp to the transition station. I have never seen a more determined group of 14 and 15-year old kids in my life.

I watch Shaya’s little cap slowly make its way to the buoy and then back. My heart is in my throat. A crowd gathers. The adults are now getting ready to jump in and start their race. Little Shaya fights the waves with determination and finally gets out of the water. He is not last. He is dead last. But he will not give up. Yet. He is told where to go next and runs to the bike. He has never been on a fancy road bike and doesn’t even know how to work the gears. But he pedals on.

Meanwhile, his competitors race and draft as their fancy biking shoes crunch down the pedals, their eyes slits behind fancy blades, their mouths pursed, their teeth grit into a mantra of  “Win, harder, faster, win.” The mini athletes’ parents stand on the curbside screaming, “Chazak, chazak.”

They dismount in perfect triathlete fashion, pulling their feet out of their stirrups and shoes ahead of time and running their bikes back to the transition station. Shaya still rides round and round, now being joined by the super-competitive adults who pedal so fast and ride so close together, I feel queasy just watching.

He eventually finishes the bike ride and is directed to the run. We stand by the side and clap and cheer. Despite his late start and challenges, he perseveres. With tears in my eyes, I run the last few meters with him, proud that he has stuck it out and excited by this big accomplishment. And he is not dead last. Four others come in after him, his consolation prize for a lousy late start.

The day is still young and as we get ready to leave, we soon realize our parking spot is so good, it is part of the race, tied into the course with police ribbon.

“You are stuck here for the duration of the race. Maybe another four hours,” an official with a clipboard says.” No parking zones are probably also written up somewhere in the regulations.

We are stuck here in triathlon land to check out the tight suits with special bike padding, to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over rippled muscles and feel like big fat slobs beside these super achievers who swam 1500 meters in crashing waves, sped 40 kilometers on a bike and ran 10 kilometers. 

We entertain ourselves by reading the athletes’ ages scribbled on their calves as they cross the finish line but feel sobered when we see that one super athlete is 74 years old, a few others are in their sixties and many are above fifty. Shaya is fortunate to get an early start in what seems to be a big part of Israeli culture. 

May 9, 2013

A Funeral and A Wedding

This is a country of intensity, of gears that groan in low, yet quickly shift to high, to soar and to fly.  This past week was one of intense sadness followed by joy as only can be felt in Israel.

I recently saw a photo of a young boy clinging to the body of his father, crying, screaming in despair. His dad, a 31-year-old father of five, was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus. This vision will never leave me.

I just received a letter written by a man who knew the family and who was at the funeral and shiva of Evyatar.  He experienced this shift from despair to hope. 

This is what he saw.

The 26-year old widow, mother of five, walked in. Friends who provided amazing warmth and strength surrounded her. Then, in walked the three oldest children and I remind you the oldest is seven.

I was asked by one of the boys if I had Bamba or candy and then he said, “Did you know that my aba was killed by a terrorist? My Aba has to sleep in a grave and the terrorist was taken to a hospital.”

It was this same child we all saw live and then in the newspapers hugging his dead father wrapped in a tallit asking him to wake up.

I was amazed that the people of Yitzhar where they live had total control and showed respect at the funeral. I was wrongfully expecting them to be demonstrating, but they didn’t and I saw a totally different side of them, breaking existing paradigms, at least for me. There were 2000 people at the funeral according to the news reports.

(That morning) Evyatar prepared lunches for his five kids, fed them dressed them and took them to school, went to the bus stop to wait for a ride to work where he was practicing for his next play (he was an actor). Next a ruthless murderer stabbed him in the back, was slightly wounded by the army and taken to a hospital.

A friend of Evyatar’s got out of his car dragged him behind the bus stop said Kriyat Shema and closed his eyes.                       

To end on a sweet note, Evyatar z”l was always smiling. It was said by close friends that they only saw him not smile twice and the second time was at his death.

His brother Elyada came home to sit Shiva for one day in Hashmonaim. I brought him chairs from the Bet Knesset Rimon to use for the Shiva. On Friday, Yehuda, his childhood friend and myself took the chairs and passed them over the wall from his porch to mine so that we can use them for a Shabbat Chatan (UFRUF) over Shabbat. 

I called Elyada in Kfar Chassidim to tell him that it was a very symbolic act. His brother spent his entire 31 years making people happy. It was so befitting that the chairs we sat on at his Shiva is put over a wall to celebrate a new groom to be.

The nation winces with the pain of this family. Senseless, shocking, a loving young father is killed for being a Jew. We cry, yet we continue living, our feet becoming more entrenched in this land.

A funeral and a wedding. This is how we will survive.