The Israeli Hanukkah

December 6, 2010

Ask anyone who knows me well–I have an insatiable sweet tooth.  However, it’s anything but ordinary; I usually pass on cakes, chocolates, pies, and cookies.  My weakness is candy.  Pre-packaged or bulk, I’d be willing to bet I’ve tasted almost every artificially flavored option out there.  It’s a love that has brought me down the aisles of CVS Pharmacies and Walgreen’s across the country.  Because of this, I’ve been exposed to every seasonal item and decoration (the “holiday” aisle is always next to or inside of the candy aisle, isn’t it?).

Thus I anticipate each holiday, waiting for the day when the pumpkin-shaped Snicker’s becomes a Christmas tree, a heart, an Easter egg, and so on and so forth.  America has made its holidays into a marathon of consumerism.  (I would like to point out that I have no problem with this and seriously enjoy anything with a theme, especially candy).

Well, here I am; it’s December in Israel and I’m thousands of miles from a CVS.   I’m in a Jewish country and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t wait to see what they had in store for Hanukkah.  But as November drew to a close, I was yearning for a symbol of the next holiday; blue and silver wrapped candies, chocolate gelt, anything that would tell me of Hanukkah’s approach.

To my surprise, Hanukkah arrived quietly and tastefully (no spray-painted frost in the windows or reindeer on the lawn).  On the first day I began to notice small menorahs in store windows and tables of sufganiyot, or donuts, at the front of gelato shops.

As the sun sets on day five, I’m loving every bit of this non-Hallmark holiday.  Town squares across Tel Aviv have evening candle-lighting ceremonies with singing and dancing.  Every bakery window is filled with trays and trays of sufganiyot.  Children walk home from school with construction-paper menorah headbands.

Hanukkah in Israel is all about gatherings.  Each night I have experienced Hanukkah in a different way and with different people; every celebration includes songs, candle-lighting, and plenty of sufganiyot.  I have yet to see anyone walking down the street with gift-wrap and presents, a staple of December in America.

Maybe it’s the lack of Christmas competition, but Israelis don’t seem to care about making a big fuss over the holiday.  And although I’m left craving peppermint candy canes from Walgreen’s, it has all been a delightfully pleasant change.

Sufganiyot at the bakery by my building...

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Living in a foreign country for 6 months is something I am fortunate enough to have done more than once.  I studied abroad in Nice, France two years ago; the program was small, the town was small, and I often found myself wishing I had instead moved to Paris, where my best friend was studying.  Looking back on my taste of la vie francaise I realize where I went wrong; I stopped noticing the little things.  I didn’t spend enough afternoons sipping cappucinoes at the beach-side cafes, I stopped searching for quiet streets to walk through, and I didn’t eat enough wheels of Camembert and Brie (okay, that’s probably a lie).

My life in Israel is, among other things, another chance to find that which I missed in France.  Sometimes it is difficult to notice the little things in Tel Aviv; it’s a huge, dirty, crowded, loud city.  However, I’m determined to pay attention and although it makes me feel like a cheesy, over-dramatic tourist, lately I’ve been stopping to let things sink in.

During my parents’ visit to Israel last week, I took them to a small and inexpensive restaurant, Odelia’s, down the street from my apartment.  The place literally defines no-frills food, although most Israeli cuisine would fit into this category.  The menu is small and the only reason the prices vary is because the items are offered in three different sizes; but incredibly enough, the most expensive dish is around 10 USD.  In my opinion, Odelia’s has the best hummus, and everything tastes exactly as it would if it was served up by a grandmother in a babushka.  Lately, they’ve been offering tea or coffee on the house.  Neither of these are standard; the tea is simply a cup of hot water filled with fresh mint leaves and the coffee is made from a thick and grainy sand that sits at the bottom of the cup.  At the end of my meals at Odelia’s, I feel absolutely fine handing over 10USD for a bowl of fresh hummus, vegetable soup, and warm pita.  The best part? They blast 90’s pop songs from the speakers.

Last night I went to the house party of a friend of a friend’s who had just been released from the army.  All of the guys there had been friends since high school, but as is common in the army, they had been separated for 3 years in different army units.  The party was in the backyard of the house where a couple of light-bulbs hung from tree trunks and there was a string of tattered and dirty Israeli flags around the chairs.  I’m not saying that it’s uncommon that a group of friends would get together to celebrate such an event in the States.  But watching them grill meat together in the backyard of a run-down house and talk about their upcoming two-month trip to Thailand made me envious of their contentment.  There’s no doubt that life is hard in Israel, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, no matter how little they have.

Today I spent my time picnicking at Park HaYarkon.  Because it was Saturday, the park was filled with families.  By sunset, several of them had set up picnic tables with dinner and were beginning to eat by the light of a candle.  I watched several fathers with their children; one was teaching his son to ride a bike and was jogging alongside and letting go of him every few seconds.  Another was playing basketball with his son.  Near the end of the park I came across a father who was lying in the grass with one of his daughters and singing; his other daughter was next to them in a wheelchair and was clapping and laughing along with the melody.  All of this was taking place around the Yarkon River which is  extremely unsafe and polluted; literally, if you were to swim in the Yarkon you would end up in a hospital.

What I’m trying to say is that Israel is a country facing an array of serious problems and conflict, but everyone around me seems to be finding happiness in the little things in life; or maybe I’m just getting better at noticing them the second time around?

Park HaYarkon

Peoples’ Protest

November 2, 2010

Working in Israel is a learning experience. Meetings are interrupted by cell phone conversations with nonchalance. As frustrating as this can seem at times, it’s simply a cultural difference.

In Israel there exists a level of informality in both everyday life and at work. In fact, following your meal at most restaurants, the waiter is likely to place toothpicks on the table. As my Mom pointed out at her first meal in Tel Aviv, “Only in Israel would it be okay to pick at your teeth at a nice restaurant!” Even as I write this I’m sitting in a pair of jeans at my desk, snacking on carrot slices and humus. This informality is pervasive in everyday Israeli life, and in my opinion is at the root of the problem of inpunctuality; or more precisely, “Israeli time.” Things here tend to start at least fifteen minutes after their scheduled commencement. Weddings are known to begin at least an hour after the time on the invitation. How does one know to show up at 5:45pm for a 5pm ceremony? These are the questions I ask myself everyday.

Working at a university in Israel is one of the best ways to learn about the culture because I am interacting with both my peers and superiors and thus can gauge the overall feelings on campus about culture and politics. The latest issue in the news and on campus relates to the stipends for Yeshiva students, a law that is currently under evaluation by the Prime Minister. The Yeshiva student law is a perfect example of the rare clash between traditional and modern life and religious and secular values in Israel.

One would assume that a country for and by Jews would be relatively supportive of its religious population. However, this population, theYeshiva students, are exempt not only from working (instead they study the Torah) but more importantly from participating in the necessary and unifying experience of every other Israeli citizen: service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Men are required by the country to give at least three years to the IDF and women are required to give two. For an entire population of the country to disqualify themselves from the service that exists for their protection is obviously a segregating factor.

After hearing about this dichotomy, it came as no surprise to me that the students at Tel Aviv University were planning on protesting the law. Israel has the highest number of academic degrees in the world; its students work hard after the army to save up money and continue to work at restaurants and bars throughout the school year to put themselves through college. It is surprising that a country that places such a focus upon education is essentially ignoring the financial needs of its students in order to give millions to support a population that will never serve in the defence forces or hold a job. In addition, this population gets pregnant early and often.

Last evening there was a protest in Jerusalem that drew over 5,000 students, something that rarely occurs in the United States. Israelis may be laid back and informal, but I guess they know when it’s important to get serious.

 

Protest at Tel Aviv University, November 11th, 2010

http://www.ynetnews.com/articlesnc/0,7340,L-3983222,00.html

A Vegetarian in Israel

October 5, 2010

Israel was a transition; language, lifestyle, climate.  But there is one aspect of my life that has remained unchallenged: my eating habits.

I am approaching the fourteen-year anniversary of my decision to become a vegetarian.  After years of making ketchup and mustard sandwiches at barbecues, being taunted by my brothers at the dinner table, and my favorite question You’re a vegetarian, but do you eat fish?, I’ve been pleased with the recent options and developments for vegetarians in America.  I’ve eaten my fair share of tofu hot dogs, burgers, bacon, chicken nuggets, you name it.

I didn’t quite know what to expect in Israel.  Sure, I knew I’d find a variety of falafel stands and every type of hummus imaginable, but what if I got sick of these two options?

Tel Aviv, as it turns out, is full of delicious meat-free meals!

Odelia’s: By far my favorite culinary experience in Israel.  This small restaurant next to the Hotel Deborah is a MUST.  Their hummus has that perfect balance of garlic, creaminess, saltiness, and spice.  In addition, every menu item is dirt cheap.  If you get a chance to go here, get a dish served with their mejadara (Arabic rice with lentils).  Very tastey with the same brothy flavor of rice pilaf.

Thai House: Who knew there was delicious Thai food in Israel? Thai House is a little bit pricier–but it is worth every shekel.  The food is spiced perfectly; nothing is ever “too much of this” or “too much of that.” The Tom Yam soup has a sour and spicy broth and the Phad Kee Mao noodles (although very different from the ones I’ve tasted in the States) are rich in mushroom-y flavor.  I found myself trying to soak up every last bit of sauce with the leftover rice.

 

Buddha Burger: This vegetarian restaurant offers up an entire menu of meat substitutes.  Along with its health smoothies and salads, you can order a (chicken-less) schnitzel burger, seitan (a type of tofu) schawarma, and several other Israeli-inspired vegan meals.  Delicious and extremely inexpensive!

Moses: These burger joints (relatively upscale) are found all over the city, and although the menu is dominated by meat, they know how to make a fabulous veggie burger.  The “Missouri Burger” (my home-state, by the way) is a house-made tofu burger and is served with all kinds of delicious toppings! Definitely worth the semi-steep bill (even fries cost extra!!!).

Abu Adham: I personally believe that Odelia’s, a block from my apartments has the best hummus, BUT it was necessary to try one of the many famous hummus cafes in Tel Aviv.  The best part about these places is the simplicity; upon sitting down, a waitress brings a basket of 3 pita, 2 pickles, a half of a raw onion, and 2 spicy peppers.  The menu is short and cheap; pick one of the eight hummus varieties, each costing somewhere between 5 and 10 dollars.  Easy, inexpensive, and great protein for a vegetarian!

Fresh Cafe: A great chain of cafes in Tel Aviv, Fresh provides a menu of veggie-friendly dishes for very little money.  The best part? All of the items include a listing of calories and fat.  The salads are large, the vegetables are fresh, the meusli is filled with home-made granola and exotic fruits…what else do you need?!

 

Aside from my favorite restaurants, there are tons of options in Israel and every menu has a few items that will please a vegetarian.  A few evenings ago we stumbled upon one of two (that we have seen so far) Mexican restaurants in Tel Aviv.  “Mezcal” was pretty overpriced (45 NIS for a margarita!) however, each item could be substituted with tofu!  Mezcal, unfortunately, does not understand the concept of salsa and jalapenos and gave me two miniature dishes of both, which lasted me one of my four tacos.

Surprisingly, Israelis are completely sushi-obsessed! And every sushi menu thus far includes many vegetarian rolls, soups, salads, and noodle stir-fries!  And if all else fails, every street is sure to include at least one falafel stand (Hippo, a chain with a location on Dizengoff, is very yummy and has a do-it-yourself spicy sauce bar)!

Yom Kippur, Israeli-Style

September 19, 2010

In the States, Yom Kippur always emitted feelings of seclusion; a few of us were excused from school for the day, only to be tortured by the smells of nearby cafes and restaurants that floated through the synagogue doors. But in Israel, Yom Kippur takes on an entirely new meaning.

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Sometime during the midday heat on Friday, Israel literally shut down.  Tel Aviv, with its orchestra of car horns and bus exhaust and squeaking brakes, suddenly fell into silence.  In preparation for the chag, or holiday, all businesses and roads were closed and would remain so until Saturday evening.

After dinner on Friday, we walked outside to explore the streets and neighborhoods surrounding our apartment.  Couples walked by pushing babies in strollers, dogs trotted along (unleashed as always) beside their owners, and children passed calmly beside us on their bikes and skateboards.  The concrete reflected greens and reds as the traffic lights changed back and forth, regardless of the quiet streets.

Saturday was no different; with no TV (channels are temporarily disabled), the day became a mixture of board games and walking.  The beaches and streets were dotted with people.  As the sun began to set, symbolizing the end of both Shabbat and Yom Kippur, we walked towards Hayarkon (the main street running parallel to the water) to watch the sunset.  Bikers pulled over to lean against the railing and groups of people sat in the grassy medians and on the sidewalks to watch the pinkish orange sun set behind the ocean.

On the walk home, some of the store coverings had been lifted, padlocks were being removed, and “Money for Nothing” was already playing from the outside speakers of the sushi restaurant below our building.

The holiday, for me, wasn’t about religion at all.  In fact, on an hour long visit to the nearby synagogue, I felt disconnected from Yom Kippur and the feeling that had begun to build.

Tel Aviv is in all senses of the word a secular place; the majority of its inhabitants do not partake in the fasting and services.  But there is something to be said about 36 hours of quiet and that in itself was more meaningful to me than any Yom Kippur of the past.

#3

September 13, 2010

“You want to live here?” he said, standing in the doorway with his helmet on. “You want to live here, in the Middle East, in this hell?”

I was used to this by now; sometimes it came later in the conversation and sometimes it was immediate, a reflex.  Why would anyone leave the comfort and ease of America to settle into a country plagued by war and prejudice?

Our laundry man (machines in Israel are more of a hassle than they’re worth thus laundry pick-up and drop-off services are commonplace) watched as our faces changed.

“But it’s Israel, you know?” Four American girls smiled back at him.

“Yes, I know,” he laughed, “And there’s nothing like it.”

What is it about Israel?

In a country where each day brings the possibility of real violence and persecution, the supermarket is about as tense as it gets in Tel Aviv.  Upon first glance, two Israelis seem to be arguing religion and politics near the pasta aisle; one throws his hands in the air, the saliva flying from his mouth as he shouts and points.  But alas, this interaction is a standard Israeli conversation–loud and passionate.

“Where can I find whole-wheat spaghetti?”

“I don’t think we have it! But what’s wrong with regular spaghetti?”

I am aware of the disconnect between my life in Israel and that of the native Israeli; I don’t have a relative in the army, I myself have not served in the army, and I don’t know a family member or a friend that has been killed defending Israel.  But even our laundry man, who expressed his initial astonishment at our plans to move here, understands the connection.  The country is hot, the people are loud, things tend to take longer than needed, and there is a constant fear below the surface; but the struggle is worth it.  So what is it about Israel?  I guess I’m still waiting for the words.

Tel Aviv

September 3, 2010

View of Tel Aviv from the walk to Jaffa.

I am writing from my apartment, 4 floors above Ben Yehuda, a centrally located street filled with boutiques, sushi bars, organic cafes, and the occasional falafel stand; all of this just two blocks from the sprawling Mediterranean beaches.  The past three days have been a combination of euphoria, disbelief, and an overwhelming desire to explore all of my surroundings.

It is nearly impossible not to feel at home; aside from a brief moment of stomach churning realization (I’m thousands of miles from home and can’t understand a word of Hebrew!), the city has already transitioned into a constant source of comfort and contentment in my mind.

Often times Israel and its people are compared to Sabra, a cactus fruit; it is spiky on the outside and contains a watermelon-like, sweet inside.  I have to disagree with this metaphor; sure, Israelis are a straightforward, no BS people.  But this exterior is hardly unpleasant and becomes immediately irrelevant in any one-on-one conversation.  On our first night in Tel Aviv, a waitress literally sat down and talked with us through our meal, leaving us her name and number in the hopes that she could help us adjust to the country and perhaps show us the best bars in town.  Since then we’ve met Israelis anywhere and everywhere, and each time they are beyond eager to hear about our program, our lives, and share in our experiences.  Here, a dinner invitation to one’s home is genuine and an offer to meet for coffee is a legitimate addition to one’s calendar.

I am surrounded by incredible scenery, unparalleled history, and generous people; I can’t imagine a better place to be spending the next five months (and maybe more!).