Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happy Birthday

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 September 2006.

I love birthdays. They represent our big chance to be royalty for a day. At our house, I go all out (some might say overboard) on birthdays. Yesterday, while celebrating a birthday of my own, I stopped to think about the way we celebrate birthdays here in Israel. Mostly, things aren't that different here.

As you can see in the photo, young children wear a crown of flowers on their birthdays. In preschools, birthday celebrants often sit on a special chair that has been decorated to look like a throne. In one preschool I know, the birthday kids rode in on a small wagon pulled by the teacher. There's lots of singing and music (note the cymbals). Israelis sing a Hebrew version of the ever popular Happy Birthday to You (the older kids even sing it in English, though it tends to come out "birzday", since they are unfamiliar with the "th" sound, which does not exist in Hebrew). However, there are several Israeli songs that are always sung on birthdays as well.

Of course, there's always a birthday cake and festive snacks. When my older daughter was in preschool, there seemed to be a competition amongst the mothers, who would prepare the fanciest cake. There were some amazing creations, adorned with marzipan, or small plastic animals. The snacks were almost always the same - and continued to be offered at all parties, whether in school or at home. They included toffees, marshmallows, small pretzels and the quintessential Israeli snack food, Bamba. Bamba is a peanut butter flavored snack that has the same shape and texture as the familiar cheese puff snacks available in the U.S. Practically everyone loves and eats Bamba, from toothless infants to doting grandparents.

In preschool, often it is the birthday child who gives a small gift to each classmate. We have a lifetime supply of floats suitable for use in a swimming pool, for example. Occasionally the teacher allows the class to give gifts to the celebrant. These are then dragged home in an industrial-sized garbage bag and sorted through. Some such gifts are still in use in our house, like the jump ropes and water pistols.

And then there are the special birthday wishes. In Hebrew, the word used for those special wishes is the same as the word for blessings (brachot, for those who know Hebrew). Indeed, someone celebrating a birthday will find him- or herself showered with blessings all day. In preschool, the children often draw pictures which are bound in a special cover and presented to the celebrant. Sometimes the teacher goes around the room, having the children offer their good wishes verbally. For a parent attending such parties, it can be tricky to hold back laughter at some of the blessings offered ("May you never break your leg falling off the swing during playtime," for example). It's the thought that counts.

As children grow older, they no longer need prompting to offer their good wishes. Here, people don't wish you a "Happy birthday!", they tell you "Congratulations!" (mazel tov) instead. Some kids will wish one another such things as success in their studies, and good health.

In the early years of elementary school, parents may bring cake or popsicles to school for the entire class to enjoy. Most teachers instruct students to invite all 35+ classmates to any birthday parties that take place out of school. Obviously, this can be an expensive proposition. It is common for parents hosting a party at home to hire an entertainer, such as a clown or a magician. Some offer craft-themed parties. Many parents, however, opt to hold the celebration elsewhere, such as a bowling alley or a place especially geared towards children's birthday parties. Several children I have known over the years have even held their birthday parties in restaurants or night clubs. As the kids get older, they begin to ignore the all-inclusive rule, and parties are often all-girl and boys-only affairs.

When my older daughter was in fifth grade, I learned of a new way of marking someone's birthday. I hope it is not a nation-wide custom. The kids in our neighborhood would buy a dozen eggs and a kilo of flour, and perform a modern-day tar and feathering of the celebrant. Throwing buckets of water over the birthday boy or girl was also popular. Fortunately, this type of behaviour usually only happened in the warmer months.

Starting around junior high school age, girls tend to buy one another helium balloon bouquets. These are often brought to school, though some girls wait until the afternoon to bring such offerings to their friends. Parties are once again coed, and often take place at night, rather than in the late afternoon and evening.

Most adults I know do not celebrate their birthdays with their friends. In over eleven years of living here, I recall attending only one birthday celebration for an adult who was not in my immediate family. It is customary, however, for friends to call with birthday wishes - blessings for a happy and healthy life. Another common saying on a birthday is "May you live to 120" (the age Moses was when he died).

Yesterday and today, I received e-mails, e-cards, telephone calls and even an old-fashioned greeting card, some from here and some from friends and family in the U.S. The sentiments expressed were all very much the same, no matter what the origin of the good wishes. I guess birthdays are pretty much the same, no matter where you celebrate them.

(c)Amy Samin

The War, from Here

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 July 2006.

We spent most of this month traveling around the northeastern United States. As has happened before, our enjoyment of the trip was ruined by upsetting news from home. This time, of course, was much worse. By mid-month, we were spending more time channel surfing for the latest news than visiting the spots of interest on our itinerary. The anti-Israel bias on the major networks only served to further upset us, until finally we found more balanced reporting on Fox News. Still, we knew we weren't getting the full story, so we checked in on the Hebrew press websites hourly.

Now we're home, and seeing the war from here is, as you might expect, another thing entirely. It's not just the different footage shown on the news. It's not the way each day is marked as day number X since the war began. It's not even just the weekly summary on Saturday night, showing the photos and basic information on all of the Israelis, soldier and civilian, Jew and Arab, killed in the past seven days.

It's the way, when an air raid siren goes off in Sfat, that fact is announced on national radio and television, along with instructions to the populace on what to do. It's the way neighbors, family, and friends exchange news, share their fears and worries over loved ones at or near the front lines. Forget the six degrees of separation; virtually everyone in Israel knows someone whose loved one is fighting in this war. Without too much effort, I can think of at least seven young people I know who are currently doing their regular army service. As for reservists, I can only speculate that the number is in the dozens. And it's not just seeing the war from here; the difference is in the way I can hear the army jets zooming by overhead, at all hours of the day and night. In fact, I hear them right now as I write this.

It's also the way the places that are being hit by hundreds of katusha rockets are all places I have visited. They are places where people I know live, or used to live. When we traveled to the north of Israel last year, I was concerned, briefly, about being so close to the border with Lebanon. I decided things had been quiet for quite a while, and I had nothing to fear. Little did I know that terrorists with rockets could have decided to shorten our vacation for us at any moment.

Being in Israel doesn't mean we don't know what the rest of the world is saying. Our nightly news is full of reports of the demonstrations in Europe and around the world. We are used to the anti-Semitism, the anti-Zionism. That doesn't mean it doesn't affect us. But we will persevere, because if we don't, we will perish.

As of now, the residents of Netanya haven't yet been instructed to enter their bomb shelters. I know people who are hosting, or seeking housing for, refugees from the north. Friends who work in the military are now doing so around the clock, even on Shabbat when necessary. Friends with teenaged sons are looking at the future and praying that this war won't go on as long as the last one. Indeed, all of us are praying for the safety of our soldiers and citizens.

That's how the war looks, from here.

(c)Amy Samin


Photo (c)Avinoam Samin
This Postcard from Israel was originally published on 27 April 2006.

When I was a kid, I learned about the Hasmonean family known as the Maccabees in connection with the holiday of Chanukah. Later, on my first trip to Israel, I discovered another, more refreshing, kind of Maccabee. When I moved to Israel, I was introduced to yet another Maccabi, one that was even closer to my heart (and other vital organs). All of that seemed like more than enough to be going on with, but it turned out that I hadn't quite finished with all Israeli things Maccabee/Maccabi.

After a few months of living here, I figured out that the professional sports teams (mainly basketball and soccer) have names like Beitar Jerusalem, Hapoal Petach Tikvah, and Maccabi Haifa. The first part of the name denotes an association with what were once certain ideological/political movements. The second part are names of the cities in which the teams are located. I quickly realized that while there are dozens of soccer and basketball teams in Israel, there is really only one serious professional team in Israel: basketball's Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv.*

Maccabi TA (as the team is most commonly known at home - Elite is the name of the team's sponsor) is the only Israeli sports team to enjoy international success, as well as top ranking at home. The team plays both in the national league, and in what is called the Euroleague. Maccabi TA has won five European league championships, and is heading into this year's Final Four playoffs tomorrow night. They have the largest (approximately 10,000 seats), most deluxe arena of any team in Israel. And, according to the team's players, Maccabi also has the best fans in the world.

As you might imagine, there are some non-Israeli players on the team. In addition to Israelis such as Tal Burstein, Yaniv Green, and Sharon Shason, there are a number of American players (some of whom have married Israeli women and become citizens themselves). Anthony Parker, Maceo Baston, Derrick Sharp and Will Solomon are valuable additions to the team. Nikola Vujcic, from Croatia, is another top player. We even have a promising new player from New Zealand, Kirk Penney.

Israeli fans are passionate about their sports teams, and no fans are more dedicated than those of Maccabi Tel Aviv. During home games, the seats are awash in a sea of bright yellow shirts, punctuated with blue and yellow hats and scarves. The noise is deafening, with horns blaring, whistles shrilling, and sing-song chants being offered up to inspire the team to ever more daring plays and three point shots. Often you'll see members of Parliament, television personalities, former team players, even Cabinet Ministers in the crowd. An impressive number of fans travel to watch the team play in Europe, as well. In almost every post-game interview, players mention the support of the fans. After the last regular season game this year, as in years past, the coach thanked the fans for their love and support. Then the team members stood together in a line, raised their linked hands, and bowed to the fans, moving to each side of the court until they had offered their thanks and appreciation to all of the fans in the arena, as well.

As much as the team values its fans, we supporters of Macabbi Tel Aviv appreciate all the team does for us. For Maccabi Tel Aviv represents more than a basketball team to us. The thrill of the game takes our minds off of our problems. Often an important Maccabi victory is the lead story on the late news, and claims the front page of the morning paper. It's a marvelous thing to see joy and celebration in the news, instead of the more usual discord and suffering. The success of the team brings out feelings of pride, as well. Our team has the responsibility and honor of representing Israel in European sports, and does an extremely good job of it. We know that in Europe, as well as at home, and not unlike the Maccabees of old, Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv is a force to be reckoned with.

*Note: As of 2008, Maccabi Tel Aviv has a new sponsor: Electra.

(c) Amy Samin

Dying of the Light

Photo (c)Avinoam Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 29 March 2006.

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Dylan Thomas

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been on my mind alot lately. I feel rather alone in that, though I know that's not the case. I suppose it's only natural that after months in a coma with little or no change in his condition, Sharon would be relegated to a verbal footnote at the end of the news broadcast, if that.

Not that anyone deserves such a fate, but it seems particularly unsuitable for Sharon. If you looked at the article linked above, you'll know that Sharon has been a major figure in the history of modern Israel. He was the kind of person who could truly be described as "larger than life" (and that did not only apply to his figure). You might hate him or love him, but you couldn't be ambivalent about him. Now, I suspect, if people think of him at all, it is as an object of pity. When he does, eventually, die, people will say, "Oh, was he still alive?"

For most of his life, when Ariel Sharon did a thing, it was with gusto. In 1989 my then-fiance and I were having dinner in a nearly-deserted restaurant in the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel. Suddenly, in walked Arik Sharon with an entourage. We watched, surreptitiouly and in awe, as he put away a meal that could possibly have fed a family of four, talking and laughing, gesturing widely to illustrate his points. His enjoyment of the meal, and the moment, was evident. Here was a man who loved life, and savored every moment.

Now this man, this fighter, this leader, is reduced to a comatose invalid. He has become an inanimate object to be shunted off into the oblivion of a quiet nursing home, but only now that the elections are over. We wouldn't have wanted any reminders of him to influence the voting, after all. It seems Sharon only remains strongly in the minds of the religious right, who have taken to sneering at him as the evildoer who is finally getting his just desserts.

In the first weeks after Sharon's devastating stroke, we played the "what if?" game alot. In the first couple of weeks, the questions were along the lines of: What if Sharon wakes up today and is ultimately able to resume his role in Israeli politics? Later, that changed to: What if Sharon wakes up this month, at least in command of his mental faculties? Finally, we wondered: What if Sharon wakes up before the elections? Of course, time passed and none of those scenarios came to be. Now, Sharon's waking up or not is no longer something that would have a tangible impact on the future of the country. A cause for celebration, undoubtedly, but not an earth-shaking one.

What is far more likely is that Sharon will spend whatever time he has left in silent oblivion, well cared for no doubt, and mourned by his family and friends. There will be no last almighty struggle, no application of that once-fierce will upon the greater forces that surround it. But if Ariel Sharon does, in fact, go gentle into that good night, at least he had - and took - the opportunity to rave and rage in all the years before this final, inevitable twilight came to lead him home.

(c)Amy Samin

Interesting Times

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 January 2006.

I once read somewhere that the expression "May you live in interesting times" is actually a subtle kind of curse. I can see why that would be. Sometimes life in Israel is just a little more interesting than I would like. I suppose the same can be said of anywhere on the planet. Anyone who is not happy with the way things are going in his/her country might feel that there's just a little too much going on; too much crime, too much apathy, too much suffering. If there was no war, no hunger, no disease, life would be quiet and peaceful. Soothing, rather than interesting.

That's not to say we don't have periods of calm and normalcy. Much of the time I feel my life is pretty much like what it would be if I lived in, say, Iowa. Of course, no life is completely free from worry. Like ripples in a pond, they spiral outward, from the personal to the global. My normal concerns center around things like the everyday health and well-being of my family, and whether we'll be able to establish an Internet network in our house. From there, my thoughts may turn to neighborhood issues such as lack of parking, and whether the sixth graders who serve as crossing guards at the intersection near the school really know what they're doing. The behavior and priorities of our city's mayor cause me a great deal of anxiety, as well.

Then come national issues. Politically, our country is in a tenuous situation. Our prime minister is in a coma, and the politicians are behaving like characters in a soap opera. The overwhelming success of terrorists in the recent Palestinian elections is a clear message with grave security ramifications for Israel. Our education system, while badly in need of an overhaul, may be headed in the wrong direction with the Dovrat reforms. Budget cuts have left the elderly and ill vulnerable.

Finally there are issues that affect us all. Globally, the environment, health issues, and terrorism are the chief causes for concern. At times I wonder how much longer human beings will be able to inhabit this planet.

Of course, you can easily insert your own fears and worries in place of mine. These days, even children know enough about what is going on around them to lose early on that carefree innocence many of us seem to remember having had. Life is no longer the simple experience it once was.

The question is, how do we handle the interesting times in which we live? The ever-popular "head in the sand" posture is one of my favorites, but I can only maintain that stance for so long. Some people take refuge in egoism, devoting their energies exclusively to their own comfort and welfare. Others look outward, and wonder, "What can I do to make the world a better place?" Through the Internet, I have come to discover just how many people there are who adopt the latter as their platform. I have been amazed and humbled by the sheer numbers of people who are willing to use their time, in a multitude of ways, to bring comfort and cheer to others. The cynics among us may feel that such actions, though well-intended, actually accomplish very little. I beg to differ.

It is easy enough today, through the marvels of cyberspace, to discover just what people think and feel. On-line newspaper articles, interviews and blogs enable us to get inside the minds of others. To those in need, on the receiving end of the help and good wishes of others, each small act of kindness makes an enormous difference. And those who know the story of the Starfish know that by taking action, the givers are also helping themselves.

Interesting, isn't it?

(c)Amy Samin

Paving Paradise

This Postcard from Israel was originally published on 20 November 2005.

When we first moved to this neighborhood in 1995, there were a couple of paved streets, an older section with a synagogue and a mom and pop market, a new elementary school, a few new apartment buildings with a couple more under construction, and sand. Alot of sand. We walked across sand dunes from our apartment at the edge of the neighborhood to check on the progress at our home's construction site. Now, of course, there are other houses, streets, preschools and a park between those two places.

When we bought our as yet unbuilt house, we saw the plans and schematics proposed for the entire neighborhood. Or, so we thought. We knew where the public playground would go, where the streets would be put in. After a bit over a year, our home was finished and we moved in. There were still more undeveloped lots than houses on our street (which, by the way, was nothing more than a sandy track). We looked forward to seeing the area grow, and eagerly awaited the day when neighboring homes would be built and the winds blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea would cease carrying sand into our yard.

Over the next few years, homes went up and improvements were made to beautify the neighborhood. Families with several kids - and several cars - moved in, and things began to get a little crowded. More preschools were built, and a group of residents fought for - and got - new classrooms added on to the already overfull elementary school. The road leading into and out of the neighborhood became congested, particularly during the morning rush hour.

A second elementary school was built, a new mini-mall complete with a small supermarket went up (putting the mom and pop place out of business). A second commerical area was built, complete with a MacDonalds. A traffic circle was put in on the main street leading past the first elementary school, and speed bumps were added to other roads.

Now things are going one large step further. Rather than continued development and refinement of the settled part of the neighborhood, we have signs of expansion on the previously untouched northern edge of the neighborhood. Signs for future high-rise apartment buildings have gone up, along with model apartments. Heavy machinery clears away wildflowers and brush, flattening out the dunes in preparation for the construction of a new, bigger shopping mall.

On the one hand, all of this construction and development is a sign of stable economic times - a good thing. On the other hand, the neighborhood is already straining at its seams. Parking in a small neighborhood like ours shouldn't be impossible, yet it is. While there are two elementary schools, there is no junior/senior high school. There aren't even enough preschools. Just leaving the neighborhood during morning rush hour can take a quarter of an hour, or more. This place is no longer the cozy haven it once was. Soon, the fabulous view of the Mediterranean Sea from the main road will be blocked by a shopping center and apartment towers.

In the early days, we were impatient for the neighborhood to be finished, and settled. Now, when we look back to those days, our eyes are covered by rose-colored glasses. Still, in spite of the inconveniences, the area was quieter, the pace was slower, and people had time to hang out in their front yards and chat. I guess the song really does have it right: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

(c)Amy Samin

Higher Learning

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 11 November 2005.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic. Art, science, and music. Enviornmental Studies... Road Safety... Torah? All of these are part of the standard public school education in Israel. Anywhere else in the world, I would likely object to the inclusion of bible study in the curriculum. But here, I find it surprisingly satisfying that my children are going to spend 11 years studying the Tanach.

Israeli students begin their biblical studies in second grade. The children participate in a marvelous ceremony known as Kabbalat Torah - receiving the Torah. The kids sing a few songs, the teachers and rabbi make speeches, the parents take lots of photos, and everyone has fun. At the end of the ceremony, each child receives a decoratively-covered textbook containing the book of Genesis and a bag of candy. After all, the study of Torah is a sweet thing.

Though this all may sound pretty simple, it is a special moment, for kids and their parents. Just this morning I saw a friend and her husband, on their way to their third such ceremony. She told me, "Each one is different, and each one is special. I am very excited!"

One result of this course of study is that Israelis know whole parts of the bible by heart. In casual conversation they may use direct quotations, or cite certain stories as examples that prove their point. The Tanach has become a part of the national language, even amongst secular Israelis. It's not something they forget over time, either - even if they cease studying upon high school graduation.

During the school year, there are local Torah Competitions, whose purpose is to test students' knowledge. And every Independence Day, the International Torah Competition is broadcast on television, live from Jerusalem. Everyone tunes in, both to watch and to try to beat the contestants to the correct answer.

I suppose it's pretty odd that this touches me so. I'm not a religious person, and there are other subjects I feel are more vital to my children's future success in life. But it is such a very Israeli thing, this inclusion of Torah in the school program. Like the star of David on our flag, it is a symbol and reminder that this is, indeed, the Jewish State. It was for things such as this that I moved here.

(c)Amy Samin


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 October 2005.

Whenever autumn approaches, I think of Carl Sandburg's poem, Fog. The dance between the muggy heat of summer and the mellowness of fall is done on tiptoe, like the cautious advance of a wary cat. When school starts up on September 1st, my childhood memories say "autumn," but my internal clock knows better. September, more often than not, is lived in the frayed shorts and worn-out sandals of summer. But eventually the time comes when I automatically begin making the minute adjustments in my daily routine that inform me of the approach of fall.

One of the changes is gastronomical. All summer long, I drink only ice coffee. When I start drinking my caffeine hot, I know autumn has arrived. Just as, months later, the switch from hot to cold will alert me to the advent of summer. Apparently, I am not the only one who looks for fall in terms of food. David of Treppenwitz fame has reported the season's first sighting of Krembo, and takes that as a sure sign of the changing seasons.

Other changes are sartorial. When I dust off my jeans, and dig out my Reeboks from under the pile of sandals in my closet, I know it's fall. Going barefoot on the marble floors of the house is no longer comfortable, so socks make a reappearance. Likewise, long-sleeved cotton blouses replace tee shirts. I won't need a jacket for some weeks yet; meanwhile, I enjoy the cool breeze and the slight shivers it brings.

Where I live, the humidity in summer is higher than almost anywhere else in the country. Autumn brings with it an unaccustomed dryness to the air, along with that cool breeze. I find myself drinking water not in an attempt to cool off, but to ease the parched feeling in my throat. The leaves on the trees don't turn flashy colors, but the dates ripen to deep gold on the palm trees.

In the house, first the air conditioning falls silent, then the ceiling fans cease their non-stop whirl. The sheets that were more than enough cover during the sweltering summer nights are replaced with lightweight cotton blankets. Once the fluffy comforters come out, fall will be a thing of the past and winter will have truly arrived.

All of these changes happen so gradually, it's hard to be fully aware they are going on. At first you just tell yourself it's cooling off a bit. Then one morning you wake up to a thunderstorm, and start wondering if any of last year's umbrellas are still operational. "What about autumn?" you grumble. "Wasn't it summer just the other day?"

There is autumn in Israel, but you have to watch for it. It doesn't look like the California autumns I grew up with, and bears absolutely no resemblance to the spectactular beauty of fall in New England. But autumn in Israel has a charm of its own, if you pay attention. Summer has released its sweaty grip, and it's possible to enjoy sitting outside in the gentle afternoon sun. The trick is to be aware of every subtle change, to absorb and savor it in its delicacy.

Although I've lived in Israel for over a decade, it's only been in the last few years that I've remembered to take notice of autumn as it "comes on little cat feet."

(c)Amy Samin

After the Holidays

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 14 October 2005.

Autumn in Israel is a time of renewal and reflection. While in other places the falling leaves and the chill in the air seem to signal the dying of the old year, here they mark the start of a new year. The season is alive with holidays, from the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) through the culmination of Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) with Simchat Torah (Joy in the Torah) some three weeks later. Naturally, all of these holidays mean time off from work, and vacation for school children. With Judaism's lunar calendar, the holidays don't always fall in October, but they do always occur in the fall, often shortly after the start of the school year. This year, all of these holidays fall within the month of October, and the children will be in school only 11 days this month. As a result of this fragmented schedule, people have taken to postponing plans until "aharei ha'hagim" (after the holidays).

Often, children's extracurricular activities and afternoon clubs and classes don't start up until after the holidays. The erratic schedule of a day off here and two days off there doesn't permit regular planning. Blissful days of sleeping late are interspersed with mornings when the shrill call of the alarm clock reminds students and adults that they have obligations to meet. Parents are focussed on preparing for the many family gatherings that accompany the season. Between the cleaning, shopping, cooking and baking, there is little time for anything else. Perhaps, as well, people are engaged in the kind of contemplation and internal stock-taking that Americans associate with making New Year's resolutions.

In the days before Rosh Hashanah, the phone seems to ring non-stop, as friends and family call to wish one another a happy new year. Sometimes good friends make plans to get together for a meal or a day trip, particularly during the week-long holiday of Sukkot. But more often than not, people tell one another, "We'll get together after the holidays."

The holiday season is sort of like a time-warp, or a 20-odd day period of jet lag. You feel divorced from reality. It's hard to remember what day of the week it is, much less the date. After a couple of days off from your usual routine, remembering what needs to be done tomorrow is a challenge. You find yourself drifting off into musings of things far removed from day-to-day practicalities. Old memories often surface, some of them pleasant, others distinctly uncomfortable. Such troubling thoughts can lead to the determination to replace such unhappy memories with good ones. You might find yourself spending hours doing not much more than planning ways to improve your life and yourself, all in the guise of napping after yet another overly-generous holiday meal. While it would be extremely unproductive to live this way all the time, this special state of mind clearly serves a valuable purpose.

No one seems to expect much to be accomplished during the holidays. The hard work, whether it be for pay or for an education, is mostly put off until later. While on first glance that may seem like a waste, I think it makes sense. The pondering we do now will more than likely result in better work, and a more determined effort to succeed, after the holidays.

(c)Amy Samin

From My Window

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 28 September 2005.

Those of us who don't have a spectacular, panoramic view from our windows might tend to become blase about what we do see when we glance outside. Normally, when I sit at our dining table and look through the windows, I see our own backyard, the roofs of neighboring houses, trees and small patches of sky. Today, however, we looked out and got a special treat: this kingfisher. While I am not normally a bird-lover, this little fellow got me thinking.

Things that we see and hear day after day tend to become part of the backdrop of our lives. It takes something just a bit unusual to remind us of things we've become accustomed to ignoring. We take for granted the drone of airplanes above us until one day the scream of a jet and the sonic boom that often accompanies it jolts us.

Kids laughing, dogs barking, and grownups gossiping are all part of my everyday background music. Those mundane sounds are a sign that all is well and life proceeds in its usual way. Then the parents two houses down go out of town, and their teenage boys throw a party with music loud enough to melt your ears. Or the Defense Minister decides that if the children in Sderot can't sleep at night thanks to the Kassam rockets being fired at their town, then neither should the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad sleep. Last night we heard the heavy thrum of helicopters overhead several times, so the morning's news came as no surprise.

I've learned to discern the nuances between similar sounds, as well. One siren usually means someone has had a heart attack or an accident. Several sirens may well mean another terrorist attack has just taken place. I can now even tell the difference between the search and rescue helicopters and the Cobras and Apaches on their way to or from a mission.

Although the view from my window is rather limited, it does change with the passing months. The leaves turn and fall from some of the trees as winter approaches. Our trees, and those of our neighbors, continue to grow and obscure more of the surrounding houses. In spring we count the blossoms on our fruit trees, and anticipate the summer harvest. And of course, as summer approaches I closely examine the progress of the plums on the branches of neighbor Chaim's tree that overhang our yard.

Then there are the cats. There are alot of wild cats in Israel, and many of them have decided to use our backyard as a sort of thoroughfare. They tiptoe along the tops of the fences. The scamper across the back wall as they pass from one neighbor's yard to another. Occasionally a particularly brave one may settle down for a snooze in our flower beds, or approach the barbecue, sniffing for something to munch. Occasionally there are battles, and sometimes come morning we discover a flurry of feathers scattered across our patio. We have watched many kittens grow to adulthood over the years. Most of these feline wayfarers are on their way to Chaim's house, where food and water are always available for them.

These homey sights and sounds are a soothing sign that life is going smoothly. It is easy to become complacent about these things, to accept them as our due and come to disregard them. It takes an escalation of the normal, or perhaps something completely out of the ordinary, to remind me that even the commonplace things should be valued. I am going to try to pay more attention to the song of the birds in the morning, or the shapes of the clouds that often appear come evening. Simple pieces of beauty ought to be appreciated and enjoyed. This is what the kingfisher taught me.

(c)Amy Samin

Piece of Cake

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 10 September 2005.

One of the things that stymied me when I first moved to Israel was translating my American-style recipes to the realities of baking in Israel. Not only is the system of weights and measurements different here, so are some of the products. From the beginning, my husband urged me to use Israeli recipes, but I wasn't quite ready to give up all the familiar cookies and cakes I had always loved. So through trial and error, plus discussing my frustrations with some American-born friends who have lived here longer than I have, I began modifying my recipes to their new environment.

The first obvious stumbling-block I faced had to do with my oven. I had expected a temperature dial in degrees celcius. Not too convenient, but once you've learned that 350F is about 180C, you tend to remember. But no. The oven I had (and nearly all others I've seen since then) have numbered "switch positions." Not only did I need to remember degrees celcius, I had to memorize the appropriate number on the dial as well. Of course, what constituted the appropriate number all depended on which setting I chose to use on my oven.

Then there was the whole margarine/butter thing. In America, both are sold in "sticks", each one equivalent to half a cup. American recipes, obviously, call for measurements in terms of how many sticks you need. In Israel, butter and margarine are sold in blocks of 100 or 200 grams. Thank goodness for Fanny Farmer, who graciously informed me that the metric equivalent to one stick of margarine is 115 grams. Not exactly a convenient number - all of my baking now entails an element of surprise, depending on how far off the mark I am when I slice my block of margarine.

To make life even more interesting, I discovered a discrepancy in the flour available here. The first several times I baked cookies, they came out flat and too greasy. I had measured everything carefully, even going to far as to use a ruler and a scale to guide me in the cutting of my margarine. It wasn't until I talked to a couple of friends that I learned the cause of the problem. Apparently, the regular white flour here is roughly the consistency of American cake flour. In other words, it is finer in texture than what my recipe called for. My friends advised adding about a quarter of a cup more flour than indicated in the recipe. This seemed to help.

The next challenge involved finding baking soda. I was able to find baking powder fairly easily, but baking soda eluded me. Finally I asked my husband to help me, and discovered the reason for my failure to locate this item. Baking soda comes in a small box labelled (in Hebrew, obviously) "drinking soda." I would never have figured this out on my own, I am sure. As an aside, my husband remembers being admonished as a child never to drink this "drinking soda" because it would make him sick. Go figure.

Once I had all those problems resolved, I learned that the cakes Israeli children prefer are not quite the same as the fabulously decorated concoctions you'll find in American cookbooks and magazines. Indeed, the most popular cake, I soon discovered, was a dark chocolate cake known as "black cake", which was usually baked by mom in the roasting pan from the oven (to make a sheet cake big enough for a whole classful of kids). The cake was topped not with frosting but with a thin chocolate syrup, which was then sprinkled with tiny, colorful candy balls. When I brought cupcakes to my daughter's class one year, the teacher was astonished. Apparently she had never seen such a thing before! I am sure that since then things have changed. We have even found cookbooks in Hebrew with cakes reminiscent of those found in Family Fun magazine. But I suspect that "black cake" with syrup and sprinkles remains a favorite.

Now, more than ten years on, I still fuss and struggle to use my American recipes. I have learned which ones work better than others - and which ones suit Israeli tastes. As time has gone on, more American products have made their way here, which helps me recreate the flavors I remember. I have made cakes shaped like hearts, teddy bears, treasure chests, mice and more. I've decorated cakes to resemble zoos and popular cartoon characters. At times I have made my own frostings and at other times I've gotten some help from the Pillsbury Dough Boy. I've introduced Israeli kids to banana cake, oatmeal cookies, bran muffins, and chocolate chip pan cookies. But I still haven't learned to make that chocolate syrup cake topping.

(c)Amy Samin


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 September 2005.

Sometimes when you have too many feelings in your heart, you can't find the words to express them. The days pass, filled with news coverage, stories shared in on-line groups and chat rooms, and commentary provided by experts and amateurs alike. Soon it seems there is simply nothing left to be said, so why say anything at all?

I have come to realize why it is important to speak up, even if it seems your thoughts and feelings have already been expressed by others. If you say nothing, sometimes people assume it is because you feel nothing.

The news of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, and the tumultuous aftermath, shocked and saddened us here in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to offer assistance to the U.S. Teams of search and rescue volunteers and various materials are already in place or on the way. IsraAID has put together a team of medical personnel, psychologists and highly trained search and rescue workers. Approximately 80 tons of supplies including tents and generators, among other things, is on the way. The way many Israelis see it, America has been our friend for so long, we want to be able to do whatever we can for her in this time of need.

But many Israelis are puzzled by the problems and delays that initially plagued the rescue operations. Here we are used to lightening-quick military and rescue operations. Indeed, if we did not have them, we might not exist at all today. It is difficult for many Israelis to grasp the enormity of America, in terms of both her physical size and her bureaucracies, and to understand why some things take longer there. I also think it is hard for Israelis to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster and the massive logistical problems involved in giving aid and shelter to the survivors of Katrina. For example, the estimate quoted on the news here of the cost of damages caused by Katrina is equal to nearly twice Israel's entire annual budget.

In the last few days I have read many stories by volunteers in Texas and elsewhere who have put their lives on hold in order to pitch in and help out. I have read dozens of e-mails by Americans who do not live near the main refugee centers but who still want to help in whatever way they can. By now I imagine most people have heard about the man who chartered an airplane to bring in supplies, and to take some 80 people to a shelter in San Diego. But even people without those kinds of resources are doing what they can. People out there are buying flip flops, T shirts and hygenic supplies and sending them to people they only know on-line, to be distributed in Houston and elsewhere. Some folks are thinking ahead to the holidays, making Christmas stockings and gifts for all those newly-homeless children.

Grass-roots aid efforts are also underway here in Israel. Some of those who are trying to help are former residents of New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Others are people who may never have visited the American South, but want to do what they can. Information on how to donate money to a special fund established by Magen David Adom (Israel's version of the Red Cross) appeared on the television news and in the papers, and Israelis have been responding.

As for me, after making a financial donation I started searching for other ways I could help. I have signed up for several needlework projects, through some of the on-line groups I know. Finding the right words these days is difficult for me, so I am going to let the work of my hands speak for me. Though my words are few, there is a wealth of emotion in every stitch.

(c) Amy Samin

Happy New (School) Year

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 1 September 2005.

The 2005 - 2006 school year is officially underway. Thankfully, the talked-about teachers' strike has been averted. The educational system here is undergoing some changes, and the process has not been an easy one. An education reform task force headed by high-tech businessman Shlomo Dovrat was appointed in 2003 to evaluate and revamp the system. This year marks the first stage in the implementation of the commission's recommendations, which are outlined in the report that bears Dovrat's name. One of the biggest changes for the general public is longer school days, with students remaining in school until 4 p.m., rather than 1:00 or 2:00. The longer school day means that parents who, until now, worked part-time jobs in order to be home when their kids got home from school will now be able to seek full-time employment. In addition, Israeli students will, for the first time, have a two day weekend just like most students around the world.

The Dovrat program has not reached our schools yet, so our kids will continue attending school as usual. The plan is that each year more cities will adopt the program, until eventually the whole country has made the switch. I have not yet heard an estimate on how long that will take.

Obviously, there are other reforms recommended in the report, including raising salaries and qualifications for teachers, to attract the highest possible caliber of educators. Some of the other suggestions are causing an upheaval in the teachers' unions. For instance, there have been mass firings (and later some re-hirings) of teachers. You can read more about the task force and its work here. The people I know are uncertain whether the Dovrat Reform will improve the education system or not, but most feel that a change was due.

There have been other changes since the last time I wrote about schools in Israel. A couple of years ago, many schools began requiring the students to wear uniforms. Now nearly half of the public schools in the country have a dress code. This seems to be just one step among many being considered to improve discipline in the schools. Some supporters of uniforms say dressing alike helps blur the socio-economic differences among the students. Others say the uniforms promote within the students a stronger identification with and support of the school. These may well be true, but it also seems to me that by requiring a uniform, the school's administration is saying to students, "you are under our authority while you're here." Based on my experiences, I would say that is a much-needed lesson for these children.

Also under consideration is the return of the policy of students being required to stand when the teacher enters the classroom. In addition, students would be expected to address the teacher, not by his or her first name (as they do now in many schools) but as "Teacher". I am also in favor of these changes, and not only because my own interactions with teachers when I was a student were of a more formal nature. I believe knowing you must show respect for your teachers instills in students the habit of decorous behavior at school. Whatever you might say about Israeli schoolchildren today, it's doubtful you would use the word decorum in the sentence, except perhaps to point out the lack thereof.

For parents of school-age children, the first day of school can be like New Year's Day. Our lives make a sudden shift. From the lazy calm of summer, we jump into the structure and schedules of school time. This morning, teachers greeted parents and children alike with the same words they use on Rosh Ha'Shanah (the Jewish New Year): "Shanah tova" (a good year). Now, the first day of school is behind us. The remainder of the year lies before us, brimming with hope and shimmering with possibilities. Let's make the most of it.

(c) Amy Samin

The Summer You Don't See

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 August 2005.

At times this summer it seemed that only one thing was happening here. The fact that the one thing was hotly-debated, much-protested, potentially violent and generally unpleasant guaranteed plenty of international news coverage. But what about the Israeli summer you don't see on television? Because for most Israelis, many of whom are not personally involved in the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, life goes on.

That's not to say people aren't paying attention. With live coverage of the actual evacuations, plus nightly in-depth analyses of the situation and its potential impact on Israeli society and security, it's awfully hard to be unaware of the disengagement, even if you're a teenager. Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with several teenagers I know, to get their impressions, and to find out what was really on their minds.

The thing that strikes me again and again when talking about political matters with Israelis of all ages is that, unless the person is, for whatever reason, 100 percent committed to believing his is the only valid opinion, people have remarkably open and flexible minds. They are able to see the pros and cons of most situations, and not just all one or the other. Given the driven, impatient nature of so many Israelis, I am always surprised by this ability to remain open to the possibility of looking at something from a different perspective.

For example, Ran, age 13, told me yesterday that at the beginning of the summer, his sympathies lay almost completely with the settler families, who were going to be forced to leave their homes. After watching events unfold in recent days, he has come to appreciate the difficulty of the task facing the army and police forces carrying out the evacuations. Ran told me he has alot of respect for the soldiers, and the way in which they have carried out their onerous duty. He feels that the settlers and their supporters who have used verbal abuse and physical violence against the soldiers and police officers have gone too far, and to no purpose. Ran and I discussed several aspects of the disengagement, and I was impressed by how much thought he has given to each of them.

Still, Ran and the other teens at our house yesterday are, quite naturally, also concerned with issues that will affect their own lives directly. We were joined by several more people, and the conversation turned to such vital matters as who will be the math teacher next year, and how the students think they will do on the standardized tests that are a part of every eighth grader's academic experience. The start of the school year in a matter of days was bemoaned. A late arrival to the party was greeted with shouts and hugs, and asked about her trip to France. Plans were made for a bowling get-together later in the week. Pizza and ice tea were consumed with great enthusiasm, and the in-pool volleyball game was resumed with renewed energy.

Such is the stuff that summers, even Israeli ones, are made of.

(c)Amy Samin

Summer of our Discontent

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 17 August 2005.

If this were a real postcard, the message on the back would probably say, "Having a terrible time. Glad you're not here." By now, no matter where you live, you have seen and heard enough to have an idea what summer 2005 has been like here. It got off to a nice enough start, with the Maccabiah Games in July. But if August is known as the "dog days" of summer, I would have to say it has been a pit bull of a month. All the emotion-laden demonstrations, bitter disputes, manipulative rhetoric and malicious disturbances have created an atmosphere of hostility and division that has kept up a low but steady growl for weeks. Now that the withdrawal has actually begun, I sense a softening in the tone.

If you had been watching television with me this morning, you would have seen live coverage of the goings on in Morag. You would have seen women settlers clutching babies and haranguing the soldiers who have come to remove them from their homes. You would have seen men settlers, still dressed for the morning prayers, sobbing loudly. You would have seen soldiers, speaking calmly in low voices. You would have seen crying settlers embracing soldiers who also have tears in their eyes, and heartsick soldiers soothing anxious children who are too young to understand what is happening. In short, you would have seen people... Jews... Israelis... miserable and in pain, doing what they must do.

If you had been watching television with me this morning, you would have seen baseball-capped teams of soldiers helping grieving settlers pack up their belongings. You would have seen the lines of shipping containers loaded onto flat bed trucks, used as moving vans, heading east out of Gaza.

If you had been watching television with me this morning, you would have seen live footage from Neve Dekalim, where, according to reporters, hundreds of youths from outside of the Gaza Strip have entered illegally, "looking for action." I don't know if these people feel any pain or sympathy for those being ousted. I fear that if there will be violence done today, it will be at the instigation of such people.

The day is not yet over, and no one really knows what will happen later today, or tomorrow, or the next day. I don't pretend to know how those who have been forced to leave their homes feel, but for me at least it is a relief to have the process finally underway. Because at some point, no matter how we feel about leaving Gaza, we have to move on. I hope we will be able to calm the vicious beast called divisiveness that has been snapping at our heels all summer, and find our way back to being one people again.

(c)Amy Samin

Northern Exposure

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 13 August 2005.

Earlier this week, we spent several days in beautiful Ramot Naftali, overlooking the Hula Valley in the upper Galilee. It was our second stay at the Avitan Guest House; it won't be our last. In Israel, many people call bed & breakfast hotels (or guest houses) tzimmerim, though you probably won't find that word in your Hebrew/English dictionary. Like many words in the Hebrew vocabulary, like many people in Israel... indeed, like many interesting sights in Israel, it comes from a different culture.

While Ramot Naftali is just one relatively small community, there is much of interest. I have already mentioned Amram's lovely boutique winery, which we discovered on our last visit. Also during our previous stay, we visited the memorial shown above. It honors the life and memory of Eitan Belachsan, who grew up in Ramot Naftali and who, in 1999, died too young defending his country. When we return, as I'm sure we will, perhaps we will find more memorials, this time to the battles fought there in the spring of 1948. The community of Ramot Naftali was established in the 1940s, and I have heard that one of the founding families lives there to this day.

Another interesting sight, not far from the gate of Ramot Naftali, was this structure. According to our host, Yitzhak Avitan, it is the tomb of a sheik, Nebi Yusha (which was also the name of the area before 1948). Unfortunately, the site was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and I was unable to get a closer look. From the roadside, the tomb seemed to be in ruins. To me, it serves as a reminder of one of the many peoples who once called this spot home.

Another nearby spot that tells the stories of previous inhabitants of this area is Tel Kedesh. Archaeologists have found evidence of many cultures, from the ancient tribe of Naftali, to Phoenicians, and more. Some fascinating artifacts have been found there, over several years of excavations. Interestingly enough, the team of American archaeologists working the site has also repeatedly stayed at the Avitan tzimmerim. Though we located Tel Kedesh, we didn't have time to explore. It has been added to the list of things we hope to see on our next visit.

The Metzudat Koach Memorial is located just a short distance away from the sheik's tomb. The site commemorates 28 brave Palmachi soldiers who died fighting to gain control of this strategic spot in April and May of 1948.

This is one of the things I find most special about Israel. So many different peoples have inhabited this land over the centuries, many more than I have mentioned here. Thinking about that makes me feel, on the one hand, like I am part of a timeless continuum. Perhaps one day people will study this time period, and ponder the lives of those who lived in the distant past of the 21st century. At other times, I feel that as one link in this long, long chain, the ups and downs of my life - indeed, of all of our lives today - are just one small part of a whole too enormous for me to comprehend. In this way I have discovered that living here is both uplifting, and humbling.

(c)Amy Samin

Let There be Sight

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 6 August 2005.

Cataracts are a pretty common problem for people of a certain age. Normally, surgery to remove them is a fairly simple, out-patient procedure. But when someone with a less than straightforward medical history needs cataract surgery, things can get pretty complicated. Such was the case when my mother-in-law had the surgery performed on her right eye earlier this week.

With a combination of diabetes and heart disease in her medical file, my mother-in-law was not a typical candidate for cataract surgery. But the team of doctors who dealt with all the preparation for, and execution of, the surgery were nothing short of exceptional. It didn't hurt that my mother-in-law had the surgery performed at perhaps the very best hospital in Israel. Every aspect of her condition and the surgery was considered beforehand, including whether or not she should switch to a different form of some of her regular medications. She had several meetings with various doctors before the surgery, and was kept overnight for observation following the procedure. In particular, her surgeon Dr. Hadas Meshulam, was attentive and caring. She took her time with the surgery, and with answering any questions my mother-in-law had.

One of the amazing things about all of this is that my mother-in-law does not pay a fortune for private health care. She is on a regular, government-provided health care program. Kupat Cholim Clalit was founded in 1911, and with approximately half the population on its rolls, is the largest health care provider in Israel. With all the debate I had heard in America over the years about socialized medicine, I wasn't sure what to expect from the system when I first arrived here. But my previous experiences, plus this latest exposure, have left me favorably impressed. The only down side was that she had to wait quite a few months longer for the surgery than she would have if she'd paid privately.

It's bad enough when advancing years make doing things more difficult. Add to that a couple of serious, chronic illnesses, and it's hard to find much to enjoy. When, on top of all that, you are no longer able to clearly see the faces of your beloved grandchildren, life doesn't seem much worth the trouble.

Yesterday, my mother-in-law came home from the hospital with a wide smile brightening her face. "I can see!" she exclaimed. And there was sight, and it was good.

(c)Amy Samin

Four by Four

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 3 August 2005.

According to the story of Noah, the animals entered the ark two by two. These days, the fashionable way to go on a journey is four by four - 4 wheel drive, that is. Last month we went to see what all the excitement was about on our first-ever "tiyul jeepim." Tiyul means trip, and as far as Israelis are concerned, any vehicle with 4WD is a "jeep." In the past, I had seen other groups of "jeeps" racing along a dirt track in a dusty line. I complained to a friend before the trip that we would undoubtedly spend the day bouncing up and down inside the car for several tedious hours. I was delighted to be proven wrong.

When we arrived at the gathering point in the morning, we were greeted by our guides and offered coffee and cake. Once the whole group was assembled, we were given details about the course we would be taking and the stops we would make along the way, as well as instructions on how to handle the terrain. Each "jeep" was outfitted with a two-way radio, and every participant was offered a snazzy baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of our brand of vehicle. I had already begun revising my thinking before we even hit the road.

Our group consisted of nine guest vehicles, plus guides in "jeeps" at the beginning and end of our line. At every tricky spot on the dirt road, the guide in the lead would give us the heads up via the two-way radio. He also told us about the flora and fauna in the area. We stopped several times for more detailed lectures on those topics. We also stopped at the Amphorae Vineyard for a tour of the winery and some wine tasting. Interestingly enough, it was after that particular stop that the joke telling over the two-way radio began.

Our group was an interesting mix of people, running the gamut from a pair of Germans here temporarily on work permits to a quartet of Orthodox Jewish men from our town, two of whom are volunteers with the organization ZAKA, which I have mentioned in a previous postcard. Much of the remainder of the group were typical Israeli families with kids, with a pair of slightly older couples rounding things out.

As we drove, we passed by centuries-old olive groves. Our guide even spotted a jackal at one point. Our trek took us through the Carmel Forests and up near the top of Mount Carmel, near Haifa. The photo at left was taken at a point overlooking Nahal Oren. Later we passed by the Carmel Forest Spa, which definitely looks like a place worth investigating. Our final stop was at a restaurant with the unlikely name of Cat Ballou, for a four course meal - pre-arranged and paid for by the company that ran the tour.

All in all, it was worthwhile trip. Far from merely enduring a long, boring, tooth-jolting expedition, we learned many interesting things and enjoyed the company of several members of the group. And while at the end of our four by four journey I did not see a rainbow, I did see the light: I learned not to let preconceived notions prevent me from trying something new.

(c)Amy Samin

Giving Birth

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 30 July 2005.

Probably the most nerve-wracking and wonderful adventure I've had to date in Israel was giving birth to my daughter Meital eight years ago today. That pregnancy, and her birth, were my most intimate contact with Israeli health care to date. Having already given birth once before, I knew what to expect from that aspect of things. But while much of the experience was (obviously) quite similar to Liat's birth in California, there were a number of differences that made giving birth in Israel a unique event.

My obstetrician was wonderful. An immigrant to Israel from Brazil, Dr. Malvina was everything one could want in a doctor. Many of my fears about giving birth in a strange place were assuaged by her skill, compassion, and calm manner. The hospital in which Meital was born is an excellent one, and everything I saw and experienced there was also reassuring. One of the biggest differences between Liat's birth in California and Meital's was that in the first instance, Liat and I were wheeled out of the hospital barely 24 hours after she was born. Here, I was kept in the hospital for two nights. I had the option of taking my meals privately in my room, or joining the other mothers in a small dining room nearby. Dinner that first night was almost like being in the dining hall of a small women's college, though the cause of the tired faces was much more wonderful than pulling an all-nighter.

Unlike with Liat's birth, I went through labor and delivery in the same room. Dr. Malvina put on a tape of soothing music, lowered the lights, massaged my feet, and in many other small ways tried to alleviate my labor pains as much as possible. Alot of the details of that time have faded, but I will never forget what happened immediately after Meital arrived in this world at 1:20 p.m.

A nurse came rushing into the room, announced that there had been a terrorist attack in the Mahane Yehuda open air market in Jersualem, and switched the peaceful music to a news report. From exhausted joy we were thrown into fear and anguish. These days, you can't really say that this was a typically Israeli event because of the attack - they are happening in cities around the world. What made this an only-in-Israel moment was that the nurse had no qualms about bursting into the room to make sure we heard the news.

Like the bus drivers who turn up the radio volume whenever the news comes on so that all the passengers can hear, this nurse was acting instictively. Something had happened, and she felt sure we would want to know about it. I confess that, selfishly, I would have preferred to remain in my private little bubble of happiness for awhile longer.

Life doesn't always give us what we want. I try to take a few moments each year, on this day, to remember the victims of the attack in Mahane Yehuda. Their lives were taken from them at the very moment when Meital was given hers.

(c)Amy Samin

How Low Can You Go?

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 27 July 2005.

Earlier this week, we went about as low as you can go. At nearly 400 meters (almost 1,300 feet) below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on the planet. It is also, among other things, the site of the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah. We stayed, as many visitors do, in the resort area called Ein Bokek, at the southern end of the Sea. To reach it, we followed a steeply winding road embellished by markers informing us of our relationship to sea level, and monuments to people who have died in traffic accidents on their way to (or from) the sea where nothing can live.

Ein Bokek is a rather strange place. There are over a dozen hotels, each with its own private beach area, a health spa or two, and a couple of shopping areas where you can pick up plenty of Dead Sea skin care products and a felafel to eat while you're waiting for the mud pack to do its magic. There's even - unfortunately, but you knew it had to be there - a McDonalds. But that's it. There's not even a single restaurant. I imagine that's because most (if not all) people who come to Ein Bokek are on the inclusive meal plan at their hotel. Which means, basically, that when it comes to food, you're stuck.

But for most people, that really doesn't matter. Because, of course, it's all about the Sea. I imagine all of the hotels have a small spa on the premises, including enclosed pools made up of water taken directly from the Dead Sea (which, by the way, is called Yam Ha'Melach in Hebrew - literally, the Salt Sea). Our hotel had two such pools, one indoors and one outside. They, and the treatments offered in the spa, were for adults only. Special times were set aside in the mornings (women only) and evenings (men only) for those who prefer to bathe separately.

We preferred to venture down to the shore for our Dead Sea experience. The salt encrusts everything it touches. Stand up in the Dead Sea, and you're standing on salt, not sand or rocks. The water was quite warm, over 30 degrees Celcius (over 88 Fahrenheit). I was surprised to learn that not only is it salty, it is quite oily as well. You may know that in the Dead Sea, it is impossible to sink - the composition of the water has you bobbing like a cork. As my older daughter said when she emerged after a brief soak (or should I say, float?), "Now I know how a potato chip feels."

While it is extremely hot and arid near the Dead Sea by day, when we strolled down to the shore in the evening we enjoyed milder temperatures and a refreshing breeze. With the beach nearly empty as night descended, it was the perfect place for quiet contemplation. In this ancient spot, so meaningful geologically, biblically, and historically, there is plenty to think about. It was disconcerting, in that peaceful twilight, to ponder the centuries of strife, wickedness, and danger this place has seen. I wondered how a typical citizen of ancient Sodom would view our world today.

(c)Amy Samin

Why I Live at the P.O.*

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 19 July 2005.

My local branch of the post office is a microcosm of Israeli life. Nowhere else will I find myself in such close proximity to all the different sorts of people who make up the population. The impatient sabra who is trying to close a business deal on his cell phone stands behind the Ethiopian woman with a child wrapped in swaddling on her back. In front of her is a contruction worker from Thailand. The elderly Russian woman at the counter is getting advice from the teenager with the belly button ring who is behind me in line. And me? I'm just waiting to pick up yet another package from America.

In the center of all the action is the patient and always gracious Edith Atias, owner of this branch. Edith started this post office branch in April of 1967, and has made it a homey, welcoming spot for the wide variety of people who use its many services. Not only do folks come to buy stamps and send packages, they send faxes, buy phone cards, and pay bills as well. Edith helps many of them in their native language; she speaks Hebrew, English, French, Arabic, Russian, Italian and Yiddish. Sometimes people just come to visit. I finally got around to asking Edith about the impeccably dressed elderly gentleman who always seems to be in the post office whenever I am there. Turns out, he is her ninety year old father! I would love to talk to him sometime; I'll bet he has some interesting stories to tell.

When you go to a place week after week, year afer year, you slowly get to know the people you see there. Not only do I know the names of the postal workers there, they know me, too. Sometimes I feel like a character from the once-popular television show "Cheers" - where everybody knows your name. It was at the post office that I learned the true meaning of the Israeli term "proteksia." When Miriam, who among other things handles all the packages that come in, sees me, she brings my package right out to me, no waiting in line. I also often see people I know waiting in line: the woman who used to be the guard at the elementary school, the local cop, people from my neighborhood, and various others.

It was also at the post office that I first experienced the true meaning of the word "tsafuf" (crowded). With people from so many different cultures all squeezed in together in a small space, I learned that many people here are quite comfortable standing a lot closer than I prefer. My husband taught me a handy expression to use when I feel encroached upon ("bo tagur li be'ozen" - literally, "come live inside my ear") but I haven't had the guts to use it yet.

There have been periods of time when I went to the post office two or three times a week. There have even been occasions (not many, thankfully) when I've gone twice in the same day. Mostly I am there to either send or pick up a package. Since I got interested in rubber stamping in 1998, I have sent and received dozens of packages: handmade gifts, stamp swaps and other items going out, gifts and stamp orders coming in. Naturally, stampers don't just send out plain envelopes. My decorated creations have caused amazement and many comments. If I went through a quiet period during which I had no reason to go to the post office, I was always greated like a long-lost friend when I finally showed up again.

Over the years, Edith's post office has become like a second home to me. When there's no line (which doesn't happen often) I have time for a nice visit with Edith and the lovely people who work with her. When it's crowded, I can people-watch - always a fascinating pasttime in this particular place. The blend of languages reminds me that people from many different lands, each with his or her own story, have come from far-off places to make this spot home. And like me, they have not lost contact with those left behind in "the old country." The need to stay in touch is common to us all.

Last month a new post office branch opened up in my neighborhood, a five minute walk from my house. It's located in a shopping center, with a bakery and cafe downstairs. It sounds great, but I'm not too thrilled. I suppose I will be picking up packages there from now on. But I know I will be going back to Edith's post office to buy stamps, send packages, and just to visit. After all, it's like home.

*With apologies to Eudora Welty.

(c)Amy Samin

Knitting from Right to Left

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 15 July 2005.

Actually, unless you are one of those talented people who can knit backwards, everyone knits from right to left. But in this case, I am referring to the pattern shown in the photo. This is my first-ever knitting pattern written in Hebrew, and working from it has been an interesting experience. As an added challenge, I've sworn not to use a Hebrew-English dictionary to aid me with unfamiliar terms. I'm not positive a dictionary would help, in any event. Even when I understand the words, I have to interpret their meanings. It seems that Hebrew knitting patterns, like those in English, are written in a special knitting code.

For example, the very beginning of the pattern tells me what I will need in order to create the sweater shown. Two balls of yarn, check. Number 5 "shipudim"... uh oh. The only shipudim I know are skewers, the things you use when you barbecue shishkebab (excuse me, I mean shishlik). Luckily, I am a knitter with over 35 years of experience. I brilliantly deduce that they mean knitting needles in size 5mm (that's size 8 for us Americans).

So far, so good. The instructions tell me there are two different patterns to be used in the sweater. With the help of some more common sense (and a photo of the completed sweater) I figure out that the two patterns used are the two most basic knitting patterns there are, garter stitch and stockinette stitch. It also didn't take me long to figure out that the phrase that, if translated literally, says "put up 60 eyes" really means "cast on 60 stitches." From that point on, there weren't too many surprises.

Now, about a week after casting on for the first piece of the sweater, I am just about ready to begin sewing the sweater together. I also need to knit the button band and buttonhole band. Here, the instructions are especially terse. That means I'll need to do the calculations myself. Luckily, math is pretty much the same in English or in Hebrew (as long as you're not dealing with the names for things in mathematical equations). And I don't even need to worry about whether the sweater will actually fit the intended recipient: I am donating it to charity.

Even though I remain unconvinced that I will ever become a "real" Israeli, I feel amazingly smug at my being able to follow this Hebrew knitting pattern. True, my knitting experience has helped alot, but in fact I have never knit this type of sweater (a raglan) before. The proof, I suppose, will be in the sewing together. Still, I have enjoyed pulling the pattern out of my knitting bag to pour over the instructions, delighted when I can decipher the Hebrew words and interpret them in English knitting terms I recognize.

Silly though it may sound, working this pattern has helped me feel like I fit in. The fact that Rivka, the owner of my local yarn store, gave me the pattern on my last visit makes it even more special to me. After all, she must have figured I could read the pattern and knit the sweater according to the instructions. She didn't try to give me a pattern in English (or Russian). With all the serious, important, even scary things that go on here every day, these simple, positive things can have a big impact. Her giving me the pattern made me feel accepted. My being able to complete it will make me feel proud.

I am looking forward to completing this, my first sweater knitted in Hebrew.

(c)Amy Samin

The Jewish Olympics

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 11 July 2005.

The 17th Maccabiah Games officially opened this evening in Ramat Gan. Dubbed the "Jewish Olympics," the Maccabiah brings together Jewish athletes from over 50 countries in what is one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world. Sponsored by the Maccabiah World Union, the Maccabiah Games' purpose is to strengthen Jewish identity and traditions through sport. Since the first-ever Maccabiada (as the Games were then called) in 1932, this celebration of Jewish strength and skill has been a source of pride for Jews everywhere. Or has it?

The other day, I turned on the television to the Israel sports channel and caught a program about the Maccabiah in mid-broadcast. One of the many people interviewed was a journalist for one of Israel's major Hebrew daily newspapers, who complained that the whole "Jewish Olympics" thing may have been okay in 1932, but that it didn't "sound good" in 2005. Do the Christians and the Muslims have their own Olympics? he asked. He then went on to complain about the amount of money it costs Israel to put on the Opening Ceremony, and ended by griping that the whole thing was unnecessary.

I guess I haven't learned my lesson yet. I'll admit it: I was shocked. How could anyone be against the Maccabiah Games? I wondered. Well, eventually I remembered that there are always people who are in favor of unpopular things, and against popular ones. So be it. After all, that journalist isn't all that different from those who told Yosef Yekutieli that his dream of "a worldwide Olympics for Jewish sportspeople in the Land of Israel"* was a pipedream. And yet, for better or worse, here we are.

The Maccabiah Games are not perfect, and they have been touched by disaster and tragedy. In 1997, a newly-constructed bridge collapsed, and four members of the Australian team died. Many others were injured. The memory of that day will always be with us.

Are the Maccabiah Games racist? I don't believe so. But then, I wouldn't be upset about an all-black or all-redhead Olympics, either. Not everything in this world must be all-inclusive. Of course, interacting through fair athletic competition is a wonderful way for people from differing backgrounds, who might otherwise never meet, to get to know one another. But gathering Jews from around the world, who might otherwise never meet - who, indeed, might otherwise never come to Israel - is also a worthy endeavor.

It's not just adults who come to compete. There is a Junior Maccabiah for teens, as well. Indeed, several talented youths have participated in the Maccabiah, then gone on to become famous. Remember Mark Spitz? At age 15 he won four gold medals in the 1965 Maccabiah Games, his first international competition. Some of the young men and women who will be participating in the competitions of the next ten days may well be the stars of the 2008 Olympics.

One of Israel's best-loved athletes is Tal Brody, who came to Israel for the first time in order to participate in the Maccabiah, also in 1965. He decided to move to Israel, and went on to become one of our most famous basketball players. Among his other achievements, he led his team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, to victory in the European Championships of 1977.

Of course, most of the Maccabiah's thousands of participants will not go on to become international sports stars, or even decide to move to Israel. That's all right. The important thing is, they are here now, participating in these Maccabiah Games. May they enjoy every moment of their visit here. Good luck to all!

* Quote taken from the official Maccabiah 17 website's history section.

(c)Amy Samin

Fruit of the Vine

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 8 July 2005.

It used to be, if you used the words "wine" and "Israel" in the same sentence, you'd probably also use words like "sickly sweet" or "only used for kiddush." Nowadays, when you put the two together, you can actually make favorable comparisons to the world-famous Napa Valley in California. In recent years, wine making (which has gone on in this region for thousands of years) has really taken off as a serious business, often with wonderful results. Not only that, a whole world of wine-related businesses and activities have appeared.

In 1995, the supermarkets we patronized had a small selection of wine (most of it sweet) on display next to the grape juice. The bottles were usually dusty. These days, you often find whole aisles or even sections of supermarkets devoted to wine. The store pictured above also has a wine expert on hand (an immigrant from France), to help you decide which wine will go well with your meal. Of course, it helps if you listen to his advice. Jil has told us stories of Israelis who come back to complain that the wine he sold them was "bad" when in fact the problem was that someone had paired a lovely bottle of Shiraz with his humous and falafel.

But things are changing. Today you can find a Hebrew-language magazine, Wine & Gourmet, several books, and even specialty wine stores, like The Wine Center. You can even find myriad choices in wine refrigerators and other wine-related products. Of course there are also wine tastings and similar gatherings including the annual Israeli Wine Fair, which has being taking place for the last seven years. As more Israelis travel the world for pleasure and on business, they return knowing more and wanting more from the wine they drink at home. And they are getting it.

The names of the giants in Israeli wine-making are well known: the Golan Heights Winery, Carmel-Mizrachi, and Barkan. We have discovered a number of wonderful boutique wineries, as well. Our visit with Amram (see photo, above) was delightful. In the basement of his home in Ramot Naftali, in the northern part of Israel, Amram has set up a wine cellar/tasting room, complete with photos and sample equipment, to which he refers as he explains how he produces his wine. After hearing his spiel, asking many questions, and tasting several varieties of red wine, we parted from Amram and his wife not only with several bottles of Merlot, Cabernet-Merlot and Cabernet-Shiraz , but with a bag of home-grown lemons his wife insisted we take as a gift.

Israel has, deservedly, received alot of attention for her advances in technology and medicine. Many of the inventions that make lives around the world better today originated in Israel. (For more information on such things, I highly recommend you visit Israel 21c.) It's a pleasure to see progress also being made here in the ancient art of wine making. There's something appealing about the notion that toiling alongside the high tech innovators are winemakers endeavoring to produce the best wines Israel has ever created.

Often we are preoccupied with the conflicts and turmoil with which our country is plagued. It's easy to feel that there's nothing going on here but tension and confrontation, especially in these weeks leading up to the disengagement. Too bad there's no holiday coming up, an occasion to celebrate the things we have in common, a reason to remember the ways in which we are united. Perhaps if we joined together in a "l'chaim!" (a traditional toast, meaning "to life!") over a glass of the fruit of the vine, we could use the opportunity to relish, if only for a short time, our mutual love of life and country.

(c)Amy Samin