Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sefer ha'Zfira: the Zom Tamuz War

I apologize, but I haven't yet gotten a copy of the super-fun miklat pictures. So you'll be stuck reading my writing for the time being. I should give credit: I have no camera, so all of the pictures I've posted so far have been due to Yaniv and Gilad. (I suppose that's also blame. Where're the pictures, ah?)

At first, the katyusha attacks in the North meant very little. Another kidnapping, another response. I heard only the second of the first two Ra'ad Wahad (Thunder 1) missiles strike Haifa on Thursday as I walked up the stairs to make an Indian dinner at the house of a Russian couple. We cooked, listened to the radio, and despite constantly walking to the window and looking north, my coconut-mango rice pudding turned out delicious. (I also need to get pictures of that...)

And then it was quiet, no real problem. Work as normal. My schedule before the violence was already one of crazily late nights, so it wasn't unusual for me to be dozing lightly at 9am on Sunday -- when more rockets landed. Up, out of bed, grab my friend from down the hall, into the miklat. I had been planning to do a big shop in case of exactly this happening, but "this" got the best of me. There was no siren. These were loud blasts, and even the Israelis were a little jarred. But during a pause, I skipped upstairs to grab a bowl, a spoon, Multi-Grain Cheerios, and milk. Some Israelis brought in some fruit, a nicer radio. They discussed cellphone plans that could get on the network, get reception in a steel box underground -- Cellcom was great, Orange and Pelefon no good.

And the day calmed down even more. I headed over to another miklat with Gilad, my German exchange-student flatmate. There we met Liora (Israeli) and Camli and Walid (Druze), along with Sara (American -- was at the Russians with me). A little snack, a narguileh -- outside, on a bench in the shade. It was a picnic, a break.

A couple of people suggested getting a van-taxi to drive us to Tel Aviv. A holiday, quiet, some time to get real work done, great cafes and bars -- who could resist? As that was being worked out, Liora and I head upstairs -- to the third, uppermost, and most dangerous floor (sorry, Mom) -- to make some omelets for sandwiches, food for the road. Just as I finished the first omelet -- yogurt for fluffiness, chopped parsley, some sauteed onions inside -- another siren rang. Off goes the gas, run downstairs -- only one blast. Wait twenty minutes, back up to finish the rest. And before we knew it, we were past Binyamina and Zikhron, in Hadera, safe.

So what does all of this mean? Is Haifa a warzone? What about the North, about Yarca and Zfat and Kiryat Shmone? And what about Lebanon?

The North is rough. A shopping mall in Yarca was hit twice -- empty at the time, of course. Zfat and Kiryat Shmone everyone has seen. But people aren't stuck inside their miklats, doing nothing all day. Neighbors get together, now that they finally have nothing else to do. And though thousands have fled, most wait patiently. It's a long, boring, and occasionally nerve-wracking block party.

Why do I write so blithely about the North? "There are missiles, no, rockets falling on them!" A katyusha is like a rock, a thrown rock. You don't want to be hit by a katyusha. You don't want to be anywhere near them. But it's not a missile, it doesn't level houses, it doesn't explode violently. Miklats are completely safe -- despite a story I've heard of a door being blown shut. This isn't the Gulf War.

Haifa is a different story. The Ra'ad Wahad, the Thunder 1, is longer range -- bigger. The hole a katyusha blows is no more than thirty centimeters in diameter, a foot; a Ra'ad tore the roof off of a warehouse, leveled two floors of a building in Bat Galim. This is the reason the attack is an escalation: not just because of the range, but because of the size of the munition. (Some people think the missiles are Ra'ad rockets; others Fajr Arbiye or Hamsa. No one was saying on the Israeli news, and both missiles are of Irani manufacture.)

Nonetheless, grocery stores are open, some cafes are open. Oh, how I miss my favorite falafel, which might also be open! The staff are returning to the Technion. My friends -- Gilad included -- are going back soon. (Gilad is in fact a saint, since he'll be packing up my things and sending them along.)

This all begs the question: "If all of these weapons are so weak, why is Israel responding with such force? This seems unreasonable, uneven, unfair." Israel is big and powerful; it can blockade a country of its own size in a few hours. Hizbollah has around 4,000 militants; perhaps half of Israel could be called up for Army duty.

But the Israeli force is targeted,not just looking to kill. Katyusha batteries are bombed shortly after missiles are launched; this way nearly 30% of Hizbollah's attack capacity has been eliminated. Citizens are caught in the blast, as Hizbollah forces people to stay near installations in the South, keeps villages hostage. The situtation is complicated and tragic.

And from afar, I would say, "Let them take a pot shot. It's not doing a lot, let them waste their resources. They'll be embarrassed." I said this to Israelis when Kassam rockets flew from Gaza into empty fields near Sderot. They laughed, or were angry. You can't let someone attack you, they argued, and not respond. All that does is invite more attacks, make you seem weak.

When I called my girlfriend to tell her that I was alright, she was mad. "I can't believe they're doing this. Doesn't either side realize this isn't going to get them anywhere?" I was taken aback. This was one of the first things out of her mouth. Didn't she care that rockets were being shot at my city, at me? It doesn't seem ugly
to me at all to worry first about my family and well-loved friends in Haifa before I worry about politics, or Lebanon, or what France thinks.

Now I agree with many of the Israelis -- lefties themselves, but with a caveat: when you are attacked, and your attacker smugly claims to be the first defeat you, you cut him down. He can be the smallest little nothing, but you stop him. And I hope you who read this understand that I'm as pacifistic as can be, am against the war in Iraq, want Israel out of Gaza and eventually out of the West Bank. But some positions are only tenable from a distance.

It feels good to be back. My mom went a little crazy, insisted I return early. I flew first class: the duck was overdone, but everything else was perfect. I'm well rested and performing some of the East Coast rounds.

I can't think enough of my friends back at home. Gilad is the greatest, packing up my things for me. He must be very pleased that I left my narguileh behind. Yaniv is still very shaken, but I'm sure he's calmer by now -- his grandparents seem to make him nervous, since they keep the news on all the time. Camli went down to Tel Aviv to work -- the companies are paying 150% time for workers, plus hotel rooms. She's only been to Tel Aviv twice before, so Liora is showing her around. What a shame! Even inside Israel's borders, Arabs don't get a fair deal. (See? I told you I was a lefty.) Walid visited home, but headed back to the Technion to get work done.

And to think, I was complaining to Liora only weeks ago that Israel was boring, and that I wouldn't miss it. Israel is an exciting place, full of energy and hope that I can barely believe; and to miss it? The easiest thing in the world.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Life in Israel

For those of you have escaped my mother's constant bragging about what her sons do: first, congratulations; second, I've spent the last year in Haifa, studying computer science at the Technion.

The truth of the matter is that the place doesn't suit me. I learned a lot, but if I could change the past, I would have spent only the spring semester here. Part of the problem is that I don't much get along with the Jewish Israelis. Apart from other exchange students, my best friends are Druze.

I visited Daliat al'Carmel, the biggest Druze settlement in Israel, before I met Camli and her boyfriend Walid. It's famous as a center for shopping and cuisine. I went back with Camli, meeting her parents and exploring more of the town itself. (They call it a village, but with around twenty thousand people it's no village.) Three weeks ago, Walid had a huge birthday party. I was supposed to be שר הבשר "the minister of the meat", but Walid's uncle Tufik totally outclassed me on the grill. Nevertheless, we got along fabulously, and Walid eventually suggested visiting his hometown, Yarca, to see his home, family, and Tufik. Who can pass up an offer like that?

So last Thursday we followed through: I went with Walid to Yarca, with most of the other exchange students tagging along. The town is northeast of Akko, and it wasn't a long drive. The first stop was Kfar Yasif, a Muslim and Christian Arab town on the way to Yarca. The first agendum was a "nargilly", as Benjamin Disraeli would call it. Afterwards, we were hungry -- I hadn't eaten all day. Walid knew a place nearby, Lebanese shawarma. Oh man, it was good. We watched them bake the lafas (large, flat, pocketless pitas) and slice off the juicy, juicy meat.

Lebanese shawarma in Kfar YasifGilad and Yaniv look much more normal when they're not chewing, I assure you. But Bas always looks like that. Gilad has been one of my best friends here in Haifa; we've shared an apartment since September. Yaniv came in March; his English fluency (and company) have been another component of my happiness.

After stopping off at a few churches in Kfar Yasif, at which we were the subject of considerable wonder, we headed over to Yarca. Coffee at a friend's house -- the door was open, why not walk in? Another cup of coffee! A quick aside: why is Arab coffee so good? (Hint: that's a rhetorical question, and I'm about to tell you.) Because they put crushed cardamom pods in it, making it קפה נחלי "cafe nahli" rather than just coffee beans. I don't think I'll ever go back: cardomom forever.

Awakened from our collective food coma, we headed to Walid's house. It wasn't just a house, but a complex: an older home belonging to his grandparents and parents and another, bigger one for his uncle; floors intertwined, each occupied by one of the six brothers in Walid's generation. Parts had an unfinished patina -- most people take part in the construction of their own homes, I was told, and the temptation to stop at "good enough" must be great -- but the interiors were beautifully decorated. I haven't seen many nicer dining or living rooms. Depressingly, much of it seems rarely used, if ever. I wonder how much they could have saved if they didn't feel the need to display such fine things. My favorite part of their house, other than the grape-vine trellised porch, the pomegranate tree, the expansive herb garden, and the heirloom plum tree -- was the view.

Yarca, looking out at Kfar Yasif and beyond Unfortunately, it was a bit too hazy to take good pictures. But trust me, you could see to Haifa, to Rosh ha'Niqra, and further on into Lebanon. You can see the sea at the edge, under the cloudy glare. (The pollution got worse through the night; the moon changed colors from bright white to deep orange.)

We drank another cup of coffee, watching the sunset, dutifully smoking another "narguillet". I tasted the sweetest watermelon I've ever had, along with some cherries and the sour, unripe grapes that hung above us. The watermelon wasn't local to the village but is rather a testament to the quality of Israel's fruit produce.

Once it was quite dark, we got a phone call from Tufik -- it was time to head over for the מנגל "barbecue". We got in the cars, Walid taking his father's cab instead of his vintage 1973 VW Bug. (Unfortunately, I only have interior pictures; it's a really great car.) I was surprised to pull up to a huge group of women and a fantastically steaming pot. We weren't going to Tufik's yet; first we had to see the burghul. Walid had been talking about it all day, but I still didn't have a good image. Here's a good image:

The burghul pot You may be asking what burghul is. Go ahead: "What's burghul?", you ask? Burghul is bulgur: boiled wheatberries. It's eaten throughout the Middle East, where it's generally called burghul; it's 'bulgur' only in Turkish. We got out of the cars to an immediate offer of juice from Tufik's wife, which is of course not to be declined. She proceeded to translate for me as I asked one of the women working the pot how much wheat is in there (150 kilos) and how long you boil it (about two and a half hours). (She was amused when I understood only some of the numbers in Arabic. "Two hours?" I said. "No, no, two and a half," she corrected. Presumptuous Jews with their newfangled language...)

The beautiful thing about the bulghur is that it was a neighborhood effort. On an errand for more pita later on, we drove by other corners of Yarca boiling their own wheatberries. Each little section of town boils a couple of "units" (70 kilos, which can be bought for about 50 or 60 shekels) of wheatberries to share; everyone gets together to do it, helping to build the fire, arrange the pot, and fill it with the wheat. After boiling, the group goes from house to house, pulleying the boiled wheat up to be spread across the flat roofs, were the sun dries it. Once burghul is fully dry, it's ready for kibbeh (a burghul and lamb pastry) or tabouleh (crushed burghul mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, mint, and lemon).

The neighborly feeling is remarkable; it's very satisfying to see people working together for their food. Walid and I talked about it later. He appreciated it not only because it was delicious and neighborly, but because it's so local, so unglobalized. I have to agree.

After tasting the fresh burghul plain and with sugar (delicious either way, like a less nutty quinoa), we finally headed over to Tufik's place. It was similar to Walid's family's house, only smaller -- it was built more recently, and lacks the twisty passages caused by iterative expansions. It, too, had a beautiful interior with unfinished edges and a tendency towards ostentation. One thing was different: their kitchen was clearly used and loved. That night was no exception, of course. Tufik set me about as his sous chef -- something I'm sure my girlfriend Beth appreciates on a very deep level, as well as my flatmates.

The meal consisted of a few things: kebabs, which are meat patties; shish kebabs, which is meat on a stick; and an overflowing plethora of salads. The kebab was made at Tufik's place, being a mix of lamb, beef, and turkey. The shish kebabs came from Walid's mother: chicken and a few lamb. The vegetable salads -- tabouleh and a cabbage salad -- were made in the kitchen, but the hummus, tehina, and labneh (thickened yogurt) were purchased. And, of course, before we even started to cook -- a cup of coffee.

Tufik and I were mostly on kebab duty. Which meant I was mostly on chopping parsley and holding things for Tufik duty.

That's a lot of kebabs Good kebab. He uses his own spice mix, also grating in onion, hot pepper, and tomato. He thought my suggestion of adding an egg to help it stick together was heresy, but I secretly hope he'll try it sometime -- I think it'll round them out. He did fine without it, certainly, since he used a grill basket. A good idea for burgers, I think.

That was our night. Tufik's younger daughter (perhaps seven years old?) showed me her school grades; everything was mumtaz, excellent. I duly flattered her, calling her "Mumtaz" the rest of the evening. We talked with Walid, with Tufik, with a few friends from the neighborhood, extended family. It was surprisingly free of the senseless language and culture talk that usually goes on; we talked about food, about the World Cup (auf gehts Deutschland!), about music.

We stayed late, until around 1:30am, when Gilad had to go pick up his mother from the airport. Yaniv and I rode back in the Bug with Walid, taking a detour through the Akko harbor. Perhaps not the safest place to go at 2am, but it was beautiful.

Yarca will remain one of my fondest memories of Israel; for me, it is a kernel, a condensation of its country -- a distillation of the best and the worst, of the whole.

A doorway in Zfat

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Pictures from Kew

Aviva in front of the monkey tree

A lane of azaleas and rhododendren

More Photos from Kew

Aviva and Amy
asserting their womanhood

Little BIrd

Hannah Mathilda makes her
little bird mouth, indicating
that she wants to be fed

Hannah Mathilda

A serious pose

Hannah Mathilda and her Ema

Deb converses with H. Mathilda

Hanging with Hannah Mathilda

As many of you know, I am spending the summer in L.A. helping out with our newest family member, H. Mathilda Weisz. She is ADORABLE (though she is not exactly delicate given the snorting, snoring, and farting that goes on). It is my first long-term encounter with caring for a baby girl and I must confess that it is disconcerting at times. The sense of adventure/beat-the-clock that one has changing a boy so as not to get sprayed just isn't there for a girl. I can't say that I miss it, but I am aware how much less anxious and efficient I am at changing her diaper than I was for my own boyz. I am impressed by all the fabulous new gadgets that didn't exist when my boyz were young, particularly a NASA-inspired foam crib lining that prevents head denting while sleeping. She sleeps like a baby, which I guess is only appropriate. The wisdom nowadays is that babies must always sleep on their backs (twenty-three years ago I was constantly flipping David Greenberg back onto his stomach, which was the requirement then, and irritated him immensely. Sorry David, you were born before your time.) I hang with Hannah Mathilda from after midnight feeding (anywhere from 12-2) until she wakes up again and has a bottle with me (pumped milk from Deb) and then we both go back to sleep. On a good day, I can have Hannah Mathilda with me from midnight to six so Deb can get a block of sleep. After depositing H.M. with her parents (anywhere from 6-8 a.m.), I return to sleep and rise to hang with the family, particularly Emmett, about whom there will be a separate post. If all adults have had a chance, to eat, shower, and go to the bathroom, it's a red letter day. There are some days where we walk around unshowered and in a fog, but more often, we are getting basic needs met. A load of dishes and a load of laundry is always running. I am feeling spoiled by the easy availability of kosher meat. Last week, I made meatballs, which Emmett and I called "spicy meat-a bahlls," much to our mutual delight. Turns out, I have the perfect sense of humor for a 2 year old. But that will come as a surprise to few of my loyal readers. Enjoy the pictures of Hannah Mathilda above!

Edina and David

Edina and Dave in David's apartment

Ben, David and Edina at the Castle

On the castle hill

Ben, Edina, and David

After a meal at a Thai restaurant

Edina and Ozzie

Edina and her
cute little dog,

A Trip to Heidelberg

Right before we left London, Ben and I took a side trip to Heidelberg, where David is working. David was accompanied by his girlfriend, Edina and Edina's dog, Ozzie. We walked the central market pedestrian shopping area, saw the schloss (castle), and the botanical gardens, but the highlight was meeting Edina and spending time with her and David. I even warmed up to Ozzie (who receives all his commands in Hungarian). Those of you who know my general aversion to dogs will be amazed that I actually found the little hot dog (dwarf dastchund) non-threatening and even cute. Edina was a joy to finally meet (she and David have been together since December of his junior year). Edina cooked some fabulous meals and was extraordinarily welcoming to me and Ben. She will be spending July in Spain, waitressing and working on her Spanish. Edina speaks Hungarian and fluent English. At University she plans to study Turkish and Arabic. I suppose that if you come from Hungary (they met while David was studying math in Budapest) you get good at other languages. David and Edina regularly switch back and forth from Hungarian to English with ease. I asked Edina whether David has an accent in Hungarian and she replied that he has a Russian accent. Hmm... This from a kid who barely passed high school Spanish. David's German is functional , his Russian excellent, and his Hungarian, at least in talking to the dog, flawless.