Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our First Chanukah in Israel

We left the US on Sunday, December 13, the second day of Chanukah 5770, and arrived in Israel on Monday, December 14, the third day of Chanukah. Hence, we missed lighting for the third day. This made me wonder if there were some issue about traveling on Chanukah, as there is traveling during the Counting of the Omer. If there is, I am unaware of it.

In any case, it is hard to get used to seeing a "peh" ("here") instead of the traditional Galus "shin" ("there") on your dreidels. I kept seeing the peh but reading it as shin.

A Great Miracle Happened HERE

Since Israel is a Jewish state, the seasonal holiday is Chanukah, not Christmas. So, in public places you see only Chanukah celebrated, and in a very public fashion. We were in Bank Hapoalim in Mitzpe Ramon when it was candle lighting time (sunset). All business stopped in the bank while the Chanukah candles were lit, with all of the staff and customers gathering around to say "amen" to the brachos (blessings) and sing Maoz Tzur, the traditional holiday hymn, after. In our branch the honor of lighting the candles went to a customer who was a pioneer in the West Bank. Note the large semi-automatic pistol tucked into his waist band, a sight you are unlikely to see in any bank in the US.

A semi-automatic pistol is a great accompaniment to Chanukah candle lighting

Pam and I took our place behind the candles on this seventh night of Chanukah. The bank also handed out sufganiyot (fried donuts), yum.

Pam and Ira in Bank Hapoalim on the 7th nigth of Chanukah

It was great celebrating Chanukah with our family. It always amazes me how early gender behavior asserts itself in children. Here you see Yair, just 2 1/4 years old, already in the traditional male holiday pose, reading one of his Chanukah presents. He loves books, and he loves cars and trucks!

YaYa, already all-man at 2 1/4 years old

Chavie Gets a Shrine in Mitzpe Ramon

As we were unpacking our boxes we came across a drawing of our daughter that was made by someone from her wedding photo. We didn't know the artist, a client of my brother-in-law's social worker girlfriend, nor did we ever like the very poor drawing and hideous frame very much. We kept it out of a sense of obligation and because it's the kind of thing that's hard to throw away once you've been given it. It was never supposed to have been packed and moved to Israel, but here it was. My wife threw it into the dumpster, our moving across the world seeming to be a good excuse to get rid of something so personal.

The next day my wife is walking to our daughter's apartment, when lo-and-behold, she spies the drawing, retrieved from the trash and perched on top of the public phone across the street from my daughter's apartment: a veritable shrine to Chavie. She couldn't believe it, nor could the rest of us, and we laughed every time we saw it for the next few days. People would come by and look at it and move on. A few days after it was put up, it disappeared. I like to think it made its way into someone's home where it will be appreciated.

Chavie gets a shrine in Mitzpe Ramon

Morning Ibex Sighting

On my first full day in Mitzpe Ramon, December 15, 2009, I arose early to go to the crater's rim to look for Ibex. Morning is generally the best time to see them, dusk the next. As I walked up the hill of Nachal Grofit to the crater I spied this Ibex coming around the corner of the school:

An Ibex seen on my first morning in Mitzpe Ramon


 As I draw closer I see this magnificent male in the early morning light

He turns and walks about 10 feet in front of me

The next morning I see a herd of Ibex with a small boy near-by. He chases them. They run away into the rising sun:

A young boy chases a herd of five Ibex (Double-click for full-frame)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We are Visited by Mark and Uncle Rafi Finkel

I wish I could say we entertained the Finkels, but their visit coincided with the 10th of Tevet, a fast on the Jewish calendar, so the most we could do was show them around. Mark was in Israel for a friend's son's Bar Mitzvah. Mark is the kind of guy who will drop everything to attend a friend's simcha, and he was in Israel for just a short time for that. Uncle Rafi is one of the unsung heroes of the Jewish State. He came to Israel in 1948, after lying to get in to the Marines during WWII (he was under-age), "because of what happened to the Jews in Germany." He has been involved in many of the road building projects in Israel and can tell you just about everything that has happened here from personal experience.

Our first stop was at the little neighborhood shul at the crater's rim. It is divded into an Askenazic side and a Sephardic side. Since most of the residents of Mitzpe Ramon are Sephardim, it is by far the best attened in the neighborhood.

Uncle Rafi and Mark stand in front of our neighborhood shul in Mitzpe Ramon

The ark of the Sephardic shul is carved olive wood, and chandaliers hang in the traditional Sephardic style from a pyramidal roof.

 Mark in the Sephardic half of our neighborhood shul

The Askenazic side of the shul has an ark made of beaten copper, reminiscent of the copper cladding on the alter in the Temple reminding the people of Korach's sin of disputing the Kahunah. A giant, round metal chandalier hangs from the center of the pyramidal roof. When the rising sun shines through the eastern windows in the morning it were as if the glory of G-d filled the room.

A copper-clad ark graces the front of the Ashkenazic shul in Mitzpe Ramon

We next made our way to the eerie that overlooks Ramon's Crater, a spectacular 650 feet below.

The eerie overlooking Ramon's Crater, 650 feet below

We were fortunate to happen onto a herd of about 20 Ibex kids and mature Ibex by the crater rim. I believe this was a mixed herd of kids, females, and males, an oddity since the males and females usually group separately, except during breeding season in the fall.

Ibex kids grazing on seemingly nothing

Shortly after, a group of yeshiva students arrived to feed the kids bread.

 Yeshiva boys feed the young Ibex

Bochrim feed the kids (double-click to watch full-frame)

As we walked along we saw some magnificent young Ibex.

A magnificent young male Ibex at the rim of Machtesh Ramon

Public displays of art are common in Israel. Here a male Ibex looks like he is part of his own 2001 Space Odyssey:

2010: A Space Odyssey in Mitzpe Ramon - an Ibex discovers tools

This Ibex looks like he has been injured, perhaps by a predator. Ibex use their horns for protection, but also for mating fights. It is rare for an Ibex to be injured in a mating fight, although their horns are heavy and fierce.

A male Ibex displaying the scar of an old wound

Pam, Uncle Rafi, Mark, and Donny with Ibex and Space Odyssey Rocks of Mitzpe Ramon

Herd of young Ibex by the crater rim at Mitzpe Ramon

Of course, eventually the young boys do what all young boys do, chase the Ibex and stampede the herd off.

Yeshiva bochers stampede the herd of young Ibex

Eventually we come 'round to the Chabad House in Mitzpe Ramon. Here Mark and Uncle Rafi try to make some semblance of a "770" sign, sitting in front of the Chabad House.

Mark and Uncle Rafi make the sign of "770" in front of Mitzpe Ramon's Chabad House

Finally it was time to say good-bye. Mark and Uncle Rafi kindly gave us a ride to Be'er Sheva, where we picked up a rental car for the next of our round of activities. Thanks Mark and Uncle Rafi. L'hitraot!

See you again soon, Mark!


To Market, To Market To Buy a Fat...ummm...Radish

Parshat Shelach; Numbers, 13:

23. They came to the Valley of Eshkol and they cut a branch with a cluster of grapes. They carried it on a pole between two [people] and [they also took] some pomegranates and figs.

כג. וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם וּמִן הָרִמֹּנִים וּמִן הַתְּאֵנִים:

The spies carrying their grape cluster, from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

Monday and Thursday have always been market days in the Holy Land, the day everyone came to town to shop and conduct business, and the days the Torah portion for the week was read since everyone was assembled. So it remains in Mitzpe Ramon where Monday is Tourist Market Day. Vendors come and set up their wares in the market center near our apartment. The market is covered with a cantilevered metal roof, and the goods are laid out on stone platforms underneath. There are more vendors than tables available, so they lay out their goods under makeshift tents and desert covers that keep out the sun.

The tourist market in Mitzpe Ramon

The clothes and other tschatshkies for sale are rather disappointing, but the food, especially the fruits, vegetables and nuts, are outstanding and cheap. I was surprised at the size of some of the fruits and vegetables, reminding me of the biblical passage of the Meraglim (spies) and their grape cluster that was so large it had to be carried between two men on a pole.

Giant radishes

Baseball bat size leeks

Man-eating celery

Above we see giant radishes, the largest of which is the size of a bocchi ball, giant leeks the size of a baseball bat, and man-eating size celery. There were no grapes, so I couldn't tell if they had to be carried in on a pole between two men.

The colors, textures, and smells of all the foods were wonderful. The vegetables also still had soil on their roots, so it was very much a connection to living things and a reminder of where our food actually comes from. Let's look at some of the wonderful vegetables and fruits that were available:


Root vegetables


The white potatoes were very interesting. Creamy on the inside, but the outside skin was quite tough, and the dots on the skin puffed up and became quite hard after cooking. Although I usually eat potato skins, I skipped these.

These carrots were the size of a baton

Colorful fruits, note the succulent strawberries at the top

Gourd, perhaps a pumpkin?

At all of the outdoor markets it is common to see this gourd for sale by the slice. This is actually a small one. It kind of looks like a pumpkin, but also kind of not.

My favorite stall was the one selling nuts and grains from all over, together with the freshest dried fruits and dates I have ever had. These were not hard and smelling of cardboard, like dried fruits in the US, but soft and juicy.

The grain and fruit stall at the Tourist Market

The grains and nuts just glowed in their sacks in the sunshine, and I couldn't resist taking their pictures.

Grains, nuts, corn and peas

Rice and peppers

Brown rice

Pam with bags of nuts

I couldn't resist buying the almonds with the various raisins, which made a delicious lunch for the rest of the week -- roisin mit mandelen (?)

Some of the tented stalls had quite an elaborate set-up for displaying and selling clothes. This one had a portable dressing room where you could sequester yourself to try on clothing and then check your appearance in the mirror.

Pam checks things out in "Macy's of the Negev"!

And then there are the truly useless displays of second-hand and cast-off things that seem to show up at every flea market.

Second hands and cast offs at the market

But we will look forward every week to buying our fruit and vegetables at the tourist market in Mitzpe Ramon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Final Taxi Ride

There is a joke that goes: How do you get to Mitzpe Ramon?
Drive to the end of the world and turn right...and that is just how you do get to Mitzpe Ramon.

This joke has probably been told about every place that is remote and seems unattractive. Mitzpe Ramon is certainly remote, and since most Israelis experience it through their military training, it probably feels unattractive to them. In any case, it does seem like you are driving forever to get there. It is over two hours from Ben Gurion airport, a long drive in Israel for most people, and the desert just magnifies the distance and isolation.

Our taxi soon gets onto Israel's only toll road, Highway 6, heading south. It passes one of my favorite sights, the giant concrete factory that is visible from miles away. The mass of tubes, chimneys and conveyors gives it an other-worldly appearance.

The concrete factory on Highway 6, south of the airport

It is winter in Israel, the time of the rainy season, and the vineyards and orchards are beginning to bloom.

Signs guide us off Highway 6 and onto Route 40, the only road to Mitzpe Ramon. We are familiar with this route, having driven it in the summer when we were last here helping our daughter move from Be'er Sheva to Mitzpe Ramon and doing our own apartment hunting.

We pass a peloton of bikers on an overpass, and later this lone biker on the road. This is more bikers than we have ever seen on Israeli roads so perhaps biking is on the increase. I am a big biking fan so I hope so. I have numerous friends in Englewood who are serious bikers and love to bike in the Mitzpe Ramon area.

Nabatean ruins are visible along the highway where the Spice Road used to run 20 centuries ago between Baghdad and Jaffa.

We pass by a new forest on the outskirts of Be'er Sheva, Israeli's fourth largest city and an hour from the airport. We still have over an hour of driving ahead of us to get to Mitzpe Ramon.

High cirrus clouds are the predominant cloud cover this time of year in the desert.

As we drive I become aware of a metronomic ticking that has accompanied us the whole way. It is so regular you could play a Mozart sonata to it. After a few minutes I realize it is Spot, panting in his kennel in the back of the car. He usually gets excited when in the car and begins panting, but I have never heard him like this.

As the maximum security Ramon Prison heaves into view, we realize we have only five more miles to our destination.

Just outside of Mitzpe, one of my favorite sights, the Wise Astronomical Observatory with new IDF trainig facilities on the plain below. I hope the base doesn't add too much light pollution to the pristine skies here.

After 2+ hours on the road, we finally reach the end of the world and turn right. Our apartment building greets us, but the moving boxes are packed so high and deep inside that as of this date, over a week later, we still haven't been able to move in.

We see our grandson, YaYa, after a five month absence.

And we move in next door with Chavie and Donny while the unpacking is done. Spot, exhausted but no worse for the wear, immediately falls asleep and will not be heard from for almost two days.

All's Well that Ends Well
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