Saturday, June 15, 2013


(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Right after writing a post about how the region and, in particular, the countries on Israel's north could blow up at any time, it might seem a bit absurd to head up that way for a few days of R&R. 

But one of our sons was here for a few weeks, the north is beautiful in May, and Israel has a way of seeming calm and secure even when there is turmoil all around.  We've become Israelis in the sense that we do not generally allow the outside noises to impact enjoying life to its fullest and with all of its richness. 
So we drove on up to Moshav Yuval, a little farming community near the northernmost city of Metulla.  Moshav Yuval, unlike the pioneering farming cooperatives cum rural commuter villages that many moshavs closer to the big cities have morphed into, still has a real farm feeling, down to the screeching chickens and the farm-fresh eggs frying in the pans.

Moshav Yuval was founded and is still largely populated by Cochin Jews, Jews from the Kingdom of Cochin in South India, now part of the state of Kerala.  We stayed in one of the four clean and cute little cottages owned by Sara and Yehuda, who came to Moshav Yuval from India with their families when they were very young kids.

They never left. They raised three kids, all in or graduated from universities, working and studying elsewhere. Yehuda's still farming and, together he and Sara welcome guests to their cottages on their meticulously kept property. 

From the porch on our cabin, and from all of the many levels of the hillside on which their house and cottages are built, we had an outstanding view of the still green hills and mountains of Lebanon just a few hundred meters away.  We hiked along and in clear running streams, did a little light river rafting trip, and ate some great trout at a restaurant with water flowing and fish swimming right along side your table. 

To say our relaxing and fun few days up north seemed entirely incongruent with the blood and guts being spilled in nearby Syria, and the tension with Hezbollah just north of us, is a classic understatement. 

But incongruousness seems to be the norm when it comes to Israel. The picture often painted by those who seem obsessed with demonizing and destroying Israel is of an oppressive, racist, militaristic, tension-filled cauldron.  It's just not the Israel those of us who live here know.   

One day after we returned to Jerusalem, we took a drive out to Yad Kennedy, Israel's memorial to President John F. Kennedy, an impressive structure surrounded by the forest west of Jerusalem.  We took a nice little hike from there to a spring.  At the spring were two Israeli-Arab gentlemen taking a break and trying to cool off from the heat.  They were working thinning out the forest--tough work. 

Along came three girls just finishing 12th grade, all of whom attend an arts school.  One sings and the other two dance.  From talking to them, it was obvious they came from educated, comfortable homes with lots of opportunities.  They were  on that cusp from cute, innocent, wanna-be worldly to mature and really worldly.  

Fingernails manicured and toenails pedicured, they could have fit in at any mall in L.A. and any fancy street in Manhattan.  But I knew we weren't in those places when one of them whipped out the little Bunsen burner that is de riguer for hiking Israelis and brewed up some Turkish coffee for us. 

The singer spoke good English because she lived in Arizona as a little girl for two years when her father's Intel job took the family there.  And she wanted to use her English.  And she was still little girl enough to want to sing when we asked if she would.  So, there we were, sipping our coffee on the side of the spring in a forest, with the two Israeli-Arab foresters cooling themselves off, listening to our young friend sing a beautiful rendition of a Jewish prayer.

These comfortable,  artsy, manicured and pedicured young girls then told us what they wanted to do in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces).  I expected their ambitions to be "jobnicks," the term for those who seek or are assigned to the army bureaucracy, safe but bored. 

Not for these girls.  They wanted combat training, intelligence, tough stuff.  One of the girls:  "I want to have a gun."  Incongruities indeed. 

Before I could ask how shooting guns impacts well-done nails, along came four or five young guys..  They carried a guitar and a wind instrument, and,  although I did not see it, I would bet my last shekel there was a Bunsen burner in one of their backpacks.  The girls lost interest in us. 

Israel and the debates surrounding it are full of this incongruousness, contrasts, and outright hypocrisy.  It is one of the things that make Israel interesting and exciting, and often make the debates frustrating and exasperating. 

Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, seems to be on a nonstop campaign to make Jerusalem relevant, hip, attractive, modern, and tourist-filled. He wants a lot of new and fresh to mix with and be a counterpoint to our ancient and historic. 

And so we are treated to a seemingly endless supply of festivals, openings, concerts, remodels, renewals, refreshments.  You name it, it's happening.  It all makes for a "What's going on down there, what's that light shining up there, what's that sound coming from there?" atmosphere.

So, there we were on a beautiful Jerusalem evening, on a tree-lined pedestrian street with outdoor cafes and bars, listening to a free concert as part of the Israel Festival.  A couple of Shapira brown stouts and a tribute show to  legends of African American music--Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, among others--by a band from the African Hebrew Israelite Nation Dimona, aka the Black Hebrews. 

The community migrated to Israel from Chicago in the 1970's, lived a fairly isolated existence in the desert town of Dimona, and had a fairly tense relationship with Israeli officialdom.  In recent years, they and Israel have relaxed a bit, relations have been improved, industries and restaurants owned by members have sprouted, and some of the kids are serving in the Army. 

The music was great, the atmosphere was terrific, the crowd was appreciative.  The Chicago African-American accents were a bit incongruent, and the contrast with the image of Israel often portrayed by its enemies was dramatic.  (For more on the community, see

The next day, a week ago Friday, was another free concert, this time at the renovated Tachana Rishona (the First Station), the old Jerusalem railroad station-turned-restaurants/shops/farmer's market/concert venue.  I am not sure if we were still celebrating the opening of the station or the Israel Festival.  Perhaps it was a two-fer by the mayor. 

In any event, it was a beautiful and jazzy pre-Shabbat concert by Ester Rada, an Israeli native from a religious family of Ethiopian Jews. Critics have described the actor/singer's music as  "cross-cultural sound that is a deep reflection of the Israeli born Ethiopian's heritage" and "graceful composition of Ethio-Jazz, funk, soul and r&b, with mixed undertones of black grooves".  I thought it was nice.

And Mayor Birkat's pièce de résistance was the Formula 1 Peace Road Show that took place on Thursday and Friday.  Probably the height of incongruent--but wasn't that the point?-- saw the hottest of the hot Maseratis, Ferraries, and other Italians and Germans roaring and kind-of racing around Jerusalem's streets. 

 Over a 100,000 Moslems, Christians, Jews, and whoever else came out in what was a fun, festive atmosphere, and everyone roared as the cars and motorcycles roared by. The made-for-a-poster shot that most of the photographers went for was the speeding cars juxtaposed against the walls of the Old City--instant classic. Incongruent? Yes.  Fun? Yes, indeed.



  1. great post alan! send it to the nytimes blogs!

  2. I'm ready to hop on a plane. Great post.

  3. A beautiful word picture well written. Thank You for giving us a better understanding of life in Israel.

  4. Toda raba, enjoyed reading it. What a country!

  5. Sounds like you are enjoying life in the twilight of your years. Remember you used to be a tough individual in Sacramento facing all those sharks. It appears, You have grown weak smelling the flowers and drinking the kool-aid in the warm sun of the middle-east. Do not be lulled into a sense of comfort in Israel. That small country is surrounded by some real bad characters. It is your responsibility to protect your wife and yourself.
    I suggest you and the wife enroll in a shooting school. The world is changing---you must prepare for tomorrow.

  6. Thanks, Alan. I really enjoyed your piece.

  7. lovely and evocative- keep'em coming and you have given me a nice place to go on vacation!
    But I want to know what you think of Samantha Power!

  8. Terrific, as usual.