February 27, 2018

Israelis live and love to travel


I just came back from a month-long adventure in New Zealand. Yes, I saw lots of sheep (there are some 27 million fluffy sheep grazing the rolling green hills and pastures). But, I also ran into many Israeli travelers. We knew we would run into Israelis, but were still surprised at the over representation of this tiny nation.

Since New Zealand is over 16,000 kilometers away from Israel and Israelis comprise 0.11 % of the world's population, meeting so many Israelis was astonishing. (The world’s population is 6.4 billion and Israel’s population is 8.4 million.)

So why, wherever one travels, does one hear Hebrew? Last year, 7.6 million Israelis traveled abroad. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism reported that nearly three quarters of Israelis went abroad at least once in the last two years. One in three Israeli travelers went away three times in two years and half of the travelers went away two times in the last two years.

Post-army travelers are definitely represented in these high numbers. After having completed a long and tough army service, many young Israelis put on a backpack and fly far away to decompress. You can hear Hebrew on a remote mountain peak in the Himalayas, meet Israelis enjoying a falafel in Berlin and tramping along ancient Aztec trails in the Andes.

Some 60% of them fly off to South East Asia, while 30% go to Central and South America. The remaining 10%? They can be found wandering around Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

However, it's not just young Israelis who love to travel. Older Israelis are also exploring the world in huge numbers. When we were away, we saw Israelis of every age hiking, touring and driving the roads of beautiful New Zealand.

On the flight there, I was seated beside a young woman who was about to travel solo for five weeks in New Zealand. Not your average backpacker, Sari is an Orthodox Jew from B’nai Brak. She was fulfilling a dream and was renting a car and driving across the north and south islands, planning to spend her Shabbats at the various Chabads in New Zealand. She had brought a suitcase of kosher food with her.

We also ran into Israelis at the base of the Tongariro Track, walking the trails on the Abel Tasman Track, and sitting in huts on the Kepler Track. We heard Hebrew in Milford Sound and in a tiny place called Akaroa. 

Israelis of all ages were there. I am not sure why they have the travel bug but it seems to be a national characteristic. 

Here’s another interesting statistic: the population density in New Zealand is 18 people per square kilometer, while Israel’s is 391 people per square kilometer. So maybe because Israel is so small and compact, Israelis have a desire to get out and stretch. 

Geopolitically, domestically and economically, stress in Israel is huge. In New Zealand, people need not be concerned with national defense or terror. Their worries are more in the environmental area. Headline news in the New Zealand Daily Times was “Albatross chick dies after attack.” Even this incident wasn’t hate or racially based. The perpetrator was the baby chick’s mother.

Whatever the reasons may be for heading to far-flung New Zealand, Israeli tourism has made an impact. While in remote Milford Sound, we read about a tour that provided guiding in the following languages: English, German, Mandarin and Hebrew. 

Kova Tembel photo by Sam Itzhakov
What about French, Dutch and Spanish? These languages were not represented, but Hebrew was. We also stayed at one place where earthquake evacuation instructions were in English with the Hebrew translation written underneath. 

We soon started to play the ‘Let's Spot the Israeli’ game, trying to pick them out of a crowd before we heard Hebrew.

Israeli ID giveaways
- Kova tembel sun hat

- Shoresh sandals

- Guys with a koo koo (ponytail) or dreadlocks - these are not European hairstyles

- Guys with a rough shaven look and often beards

- Rugged, casual clothes

We also noticed something deep in the Israeli eyes. This I cannot describe with words as it is almost a soulful knowingness. Most of their eyes are a beautiful blue or green set in an olive complexion. (This is not a Dutch, Scandinavian or German look!) Whatever it is, Israelis do look different. Or, have I developed my own Israeli radar?

We saw three young Israelis, all post army, sitting in a hiking hut quietly working on a jigsaw puzzle. One of them pulled out his camera to proudly show the ranger a photo of a kiwi bird he had spotted. A rare find.

Staying at the same hut, two older Israelis preferred to sit outside alone for breakfast. When they saw Amir pull out his tefillin and daven on the beach, a light of camaraderie opened in their faces. They invited him to eat with them and wished us  ‘lehitraot’ as we left.

On one of the last mornings of our trip, as we were doing dishes in a camper park kitchen in Akaroa, an older guy sat alone. He pulled out a finjan, an Arab-style coffee pot and prepared to make his morning ‘botz. (The Israeli word for mud and a strong Turkish-style coffee.)

He asked us in English if we wanted a coffee. “It's strong,” he warned us. And then we knew!

Who else would travel around with a finjan? He even brought his own paper espresso cups from Israel. We looked down at his feet. Shoresh sandals!

He was a retired air force pilot who was taking out time to see the wonders of the world. He too was heading back to Israel soon and as part of his travel experience as a non-religious Israeli, he would be spending Shabbat at a Chabad in Christchurch!

As soon as he realized we were from Israel, he opened up and was fascinated to meet anomalies like us, Israeli immigrants who speak poor Hebrew and are, as olim, still outsiders in Israeli society. So on his adventures abroad, he also learned more about who lives in his own country.

Travel opens minds. When other travelers (including New Zealanders) asked where we were from, they would always then ask us why we would choose to live in Israel. I never asked people why they were living in Germany or Luxembourg or the Netherlands. I once explained to a young German girl that I am there because I am a Zionist.

“A Zionist?” the young German exclaimed.

It was a conversation stopper. She was silent.

Zionist. That beautiful term I used to describe a return to our homeland obviously has a dark meaning for the rest of the world.

But then Amir explained to her, "It did work out so well for the Jews, my family included, who were living in Europe in the Second World War. We too need a safe place and a homeland.”

Silence again. Hopefully that was food for thought for a young liberal German mind.

When we travel, we open our minds and our souls. We make new connections and broaden our knowledge. 

We develop new appreciations and learn about ourselves and others – and when in New Zealand, this also includes albatross and penguins and sheep!

January 25, 2018

Loving Our Neighbours

I was recently struck by a headline “Bicycle Responder Who Saved 2,500 people Recognized by Community.” 2,500 people? Did this good news story make it outside of Israel?

Meir Farkash, an EMT volunteer (emergency medical technician), has been to 2,500 calls in the past four years – all on his personal bicycle! Of these calls, 300 have been life threatening. And what is more, this good citizen is only 25 years old!

Because of his incredible dedication, he was just given an electric bike by United Hatzolah.

Meir Farkash
This is heroism. I am sure these emergency calls come at any hour of the night or day, under beating sun or pummelling rain. Whatever he is doing, Farkash puts it aside to pedal and help.

In Judaism, volunteerism is not unusual. It can be traced to the Torah where it says in VaYikra, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself (19:18).” The religion was always designed around volunteerism, with societies set up to assist people from cradle to grave.

As for modern-day Israel, the state was literally built brick by brick and ploughed field by field by volunteers who had a vision. Kibbutzim and moshavim were also founded on the principle of helping others.

Today, this selflessness often starts at a young age with army service and sherut leumi (national service program), then continues for life. Civilians who were once soldiers continue to do miluim, volunteering in their former units once a year (or during a war) until they are 40.

See the video of Israel's Santa by clicking on the link.
Around one third of all Israelis do volunteer work of some sort. One well-known Israeli volunteer is Nichola Abdo, a  Christian Arab who visits children in special education schools and hospitals dressed as Santa. 

I could not find recent statistics, but in 2008 there were some 24,000 volunteer organizations in Israel. This number has grown incredibly; I know of many newer amutot which are reaching out to help those in need.

We can get so easily wrapped up in our own problems and hectic schedules, then forget about helping others. But there is incredible satisfaction when reaching out and making a difference.

The day before Farkash was to receive his award, he saved the life of a prominent lawyer, arriving at the scene within moments and resuscitating the man with CPR. He joined the man in the ambulance and was happy to hear that his patient was released from hospital two days later.

Farkash has now been awarded with a new electric bike, but says, “It’s not about the glory, it’s about helping people."

If you’re ever in Ramat Hasharon, you may spot our hero Meir biking around in his orange Hatzolah jacket on his nifty new ebike.

December 28, 2017

Resetting the start button

In Israel, life could become clamorous with negative headlines and doomsday politics.  We read the news, dismiss most of it as inaccurate and hope one day the world will wake up and understand the truth.

Our personal antidote to this dissonance is to walk the trails of the country we love. We take out a map, put on our hiking boots, pack up our tent and sleeping bags and head into nature, reaffirming our bond with awesome Israel.

 The weather here this December has been exquisite. It has been mostly sunny and the temperature hovers between 21 and 24 Celsius, making it ideal for hiking.  

We left for our camping trip this past Tuesday and since it had rained heavily on Sunday, we had quite the souvenir waiting for us – mud!

We started with an insanely muddy descent down Har Gilboa. Har Gilboa, with its peak at 1,629 feet above sea level, is the place in the Torah where King Saul and his sons Yonatan, Avinadav and Malchishua were slain in battle. 

Today, it is a peaceful mountain covered in meadow flowers with incredible views east to the fertile Jezreel Valley and the mountains of Jordan.

We slip-slid down, carrying pounds of thick mud under our boots. I often opted for the zero gravity move, which meant my backside made more contact with the trail than my feet. With the mud on our shoes and heavy packs on our backs, it was slow and at times treacherous. 

White crocuses were beginning to flower and purple cyclamen peaked out from the rocks. We saw many deer running across the ridges and shy rock rabbits jumping for safety upon spotting us intruders.

When we made it to flat, firm and dry ground, we were relieved. We walked until we found an oasis in the trees, a park set around a pool of thermal waters. We ate a simple meal, set up camp under the stars and rested our tired legs and achy shoulders. Jackals howled, then all was quiet.

 There is something magical about leaving busy lives behind and returning to simplicity. We had nothing but the packs on our backs. No worries and few needs. We ate basic food that tasted good because we were physically exhausted. Our bodies had worked hard in the sunshine and fresh air and now we were to have a well-earned, rejuvenating sleep.

At the end of 2017, society, with its urban lifestyle, instant communication and slick inventions, feels it has made progress. Yet we have lost a connection to the meaningful. We have deviated very far from staring at the deep dark skies and focusing on the howl of jackals; of having weightless minds and sun-kissed cheeks while touching the land in a gentle, respectful way.

 In this teensy country of natural wonders, I can search out such places where I am able to reset my start button. If others in this world could reconnect in this way, maybe there would be less clamor and confusion.

My pack is ready and sitting by the door waiting for a new adventure. Is yours?

November 26, 2017

Dreams Come True

Israel is a multi-cultural Mosaic. These days, you hear many languages on Ahuza, Ra’anana’s main street. And we can spot the countries of origin right away, without even hearing the language spoken.

For instance, French men tend to wear tight pants and chic leather loafers while les femmes grocery shop as if parading along a Christian Dior catwalk. (And yes, they carry a fresh baguette under their arms!)

French aside, we now hear Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (recent immigrants from Brazil), Russian, Ukrainian, Amharic (from Ethiopia), Arabic, German, English and, from time to time, some Hebrew.

But what about Kuki-Chin? This is a Sino-Tibetan language that is spoken by our Bnei Menashe immigrants and is now heard on the streets. The Bnei Menashe, called Kuki, are from West Bengal in northeastern India.

Just last week, two flights of Kuki olim landed in Israel. After watching a video of showing reunions of these families at the airport, tears ran down my face – tears of joy and tears of pride, realizing I’m witnessing the redemption of scattered peoples returning to Israel.

The Kuki story is a miracle unto itself. In 722 BCE,  the Jews were expelled from Israel by the King of Syria. The tribe of Menashe travelled northeast and kept wandering until they found themselves in the Chin Hills not far from where India meets Burma. 

Although this area is mostly Hindu, the Bnei Menashe were able to keep their Jewish customs and traditions for 2,700 years. They did this through prayer, song and stories. Over the years, some were converted to Christianity by missionaries but others clung to their dream of a return to Zion. They often had to practice their religion in secret, but recently have been able to pray openly.

And now, 2,700 years later, the Bnei Menashe are finally coming home. The chief rabbi of Israel acknowledged their Jewish roots and an organization called Shavei Israel is bringing them to Eretz Israel.

In the past 15 years, some 3,000 have come to Israel, many of them settling outside Jerusalem and in the Galilee. In Tsfat in the Galil, I often see them shopping on market day, their babies cozily tucked inside colorful cloths. The young moms are tiny and compact, exuding happiness in the lightness of their step.

This very special people has a thirst for learning. They are spiritual and proudly practice their Judaism. They are committed, sincere and are true Zionists. And once they arrive, they become educated, find jobs and join the army.

There are still 7,000 living in West Bengal who wish to make aliyah. They are learning Hebrew and Torah studies in preparation for their dream to come true.

And just last week, families fell into each other’s arms in a beautiful reunion. One woman waiting at the airport was reunited with a niece she had not seen in 23 years and with a mother she had not hugged in 15 years. Now, together, they will live in the land of their dreams.

When I look at these people, I am inspired. While living life day to day, it is easy to become ungrateful, frustrated, disenchanted. Yet when we look at the Jewish redemption and of dreams coming true, it’s our wake-up call to see the bigger picture. It's time for reflection and pride and it's a moment to pull out the Kleenex.

These new olim may be counting their blessings to be here, but we must recognize that they are a blessing for the Jewish people. Israel is a living, colorful, radiant mosaic.

October 23, 2017

Israel the Extrovert

A few weeks ago I read an article about the new ‘Cadenza’project in Jerusalem and realized how perfect Israel is for such an endeavor. 

A concrete encased electric piano is placed on a busy thoroughfare of Ben Yehuda Street. Here, people rush on and off the light rail, head to the office and at night, to bars and nightlife.

Anyone is invited to sit down and play. And as Israelis are not exactly introverted, this has become an attraction. Not only do people play, strangers gather to sing. This is not surprising in a country where people are informal and often (for the good and the bad) treat each other as family members.

After watching a few Cadenza videos I felt it was time to compare outgoing Israelis to the basic introverted qualities as presented by Susan Cain in her book "Quiet." 

Let’s see how Israelis fare:

Introverts prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
Like migrating birds, Israelis are most often found in thick flocks. Their conversations are animated, their gesticulations fierce. 

They do everything together and in crowds. Even activities that one imagines are for quiet reflection attract numbers. Bird watching, spring flower appreciating, hiking and beach combing attract loud animated hordes.

People describe introverts as ‘soft spoken’ or ‘mellow.’
Not around here. Even the sound of Hebrew negates this statement. Perhaps it’s the raspy  ‘kh’ heard in words like chaver, chametz and Chanukah. This jarring sound is made far down in the throat by the uvula, which is the same place a snore emanates from.  

But if you’re of Yemen origin, you’ll make another sound that’s so unmellow, it has a special linguist tag - ever met a voiced pharyngeal fricative? You’ll hear it in Arabic and in Hebrew when a Temani says the letter ‘ayin’ in Ivrit (the word for the Hebrew language). 

Here in the middle east, simply buying agvaniot (tomatoes) and chasa (lettuce) can involve a fricative, turbulent and raspy discussion. 

Introverts dislike conflict.
This is the Middle East. Need I say more?

Introverts are not big risk takers.
If there is anything that involves high heights, sheer cliffs, murky depths and daring, Israelis are first in line. Extreme sports? Israelis salivate over cliff diving, big wave surfing, zorbing, white water rafting, bungee jumping and parachuting.

Was this desire ingrained in Israelis after serving in the army or is it just part of belonging to an extroverted nation? 

If you ever want a popular beach for swimming, simply look for the DO NOT SWIM sign. There may no lifeguards there, but this is where our extrovert Israelis hang.

The introvert enjoys solitude.
As you can see from the success of the Cadenza, solitude is the last thing on the average Israeli mind. Unlike an introvert, Israelis actually search out others. Be it on Ben Yehuda Street playing to a crowd or trekking in the Himalayas, Israelis like to be part of a scene together. 

Like to barbecue in nature? So do millions of Israelis on Yom Ha’atzmaut as they squish into the same park.

As they desire to be the center of attention, solitude is not on the Israeli mind. Even Israeli kids love performing in front of crowds. It’s the culture.

Craving solitude, I’ve hiked deep into the middle of the desert only to find myself at a campsite swarming with hundreds of electrified school kids, blaring music and microphones.

I’ve biked off road into pastoral fields and verdant valleys only to be overtaken by a flock of dune buggies driven by thrill-seeking city folk who just love group activities.

Welcome to Israel.  This is what makes the place tick with such a fricative high pulse.