May 13, 2006

I spent a week in Israel recently, living on Kibbutz Givat Brenner while seeing some of the sights Israel has to offer in the major cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I had a wonderful time and I've already been inundated with requests to know when I'm coming back.

Yes, I Took Public Transportation

When my parents traveled to Israel last October, they had the good fortune to travel during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Hezi and Mimi, my cousins who have lived in Givat Brenner for 27 years, had the whole week off to drive them all around the country. My schedule worked out differently: on a few of the days I was in Israel, both Hezi and Mimi were at work as usual. That left me with the prospect of using Israel's bus and rail systems to get around.

When traveling into Tel Aviv I took Israel Railways' trains from Rehovot. These trains are modern Bombardier bi-level coaches with automated announcements (only in Hebrew) and comfortable seats. The signs are in the standard Israel trilingual pattern of Hebrew and Arabic (both official languages) and English. Fortunately, railway employees and many passengers spoke English well enough to help me buy tickets and find the right platform.

Tourists are often reluctant to take public transportation in Israel due to safety concerns. I felt very comfortable on the train from the moment I walked into the Rehovot train station past a gentleman with a metal-detector wand reminiscent of those you see at airports. (Those same checkpoints are also found at Israeli bus stations, shopping malls, and even Tel Aviv University.) At the Tel Aviv University train station there was one particularly bizarre exchange: I passed through a metal detector and set it off. As I prepared to do the whole "visiting Magneto in prison" airport security routine, one guard asked me indifferently if I was carrying any weapons. I said no. She said, "OK, go on." I'm very glad I appeared nonthreatening enough to pass through security without any fuss. Later I was told by family that even if I said "yes" to the weapons question, I would have needed to show proof that I could carry them legally. Soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces can ride the rails for free and many carry their automatic rifles in plain sight while they do so.

Impressions of Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv was the first city I visited outside the kibbutz. I met up with my friend Shoshannah who at the time was doing a yearlong program through OTZMA. She showed me around this uniquely-modern city. During the 1920s and '30s, rapid expansion in the then-British mandate of Palestine led to an unusual number of Bauhaus-style buildings being constructed. Furthermore, the hot temperatures led to a lot of cafés sprouting up: as in other European cities, people felt more comfortable sitting outside sipping coffee than they did sitting inside as the sun beat down on their living rooms. Many of these cafés now offer free Wi-Fi access, encouraging patrons to stay there even longer.

Given the choice of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Tel Aviv definitely seems the more fashion-conscious and cosmopolitan city. Boutiques and shopping malls abound in the downtown area and the environment really feels more European (or even American) than Middle Eastern. Sure, you can get a shwarma and the place shuts down on the Sabbath, but the heavy-handed influence of the ultra-orthodox haredim isn't nearly as strong in Tel Aviv as it is in, say, Jerusalem.

There are beaches in front of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea where one can rent a beach chair for 12 shekels (about US$2.70) or just sprawl out on the sand for free. I spent enough time enjoying the beautiful day Monday to develop a healthy sunburn. The sea tends to moderate the temperatures and weather. All the high-priced American hotels, as well as several pricey apartment buildings, overlook the Mediterranean. I visited Shoshannah's friend Natalie, a young Alabaman Jewish woman who is positively enraptured with Israel, at her spacious walk-up apartment within walking distance of the beach; Natalie and her roommate pay only $750 per month combined for such a convenient location. (Many real estate transactions are done using US dollars to guard against currency volatility.)

I toured one of Tel Aviv's markets where vendors sell everything from clothing to knickknacks to fresh-baked bread, ending up with a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball t-shirt for just 20 shekels the day after the team lost its bid for a third-straight Euroleague championship. I also noticed but didn't patronize the many fresh fruit stands that dot the streets of Tel Aviv, where any fruit or vegetable can be juiced and served to you right on the spot for only a few shekels.

Remembering the Diaspora

On Yom HaZikaron on Tuesday, the Israeli day of remembrance, most places shut down for a day off. Even Israeli entertainment TV stations run downbeat programming or go off the air entirely. However the trains stay in service so I traveled to Tel Aviv University to visit Beth Hatefutsoth, the Diaspora House. Although the museum claims that you'll need five or six hours to take it all in, it was only open from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM that day so I didn't get to see everything in great detail. The museum teaches all about the diaspora, the dispersion of Jews outside Israel dating back as far as the eighth century B.C.E. (Before Common Era, a non-Christian analog to B.C.) and currently referring to Jews who live outside Israel.

The museum includes antiquities from the various eras of persecution and exclusion that have defined Jewish life through the centuries. I found it interesting how these same exclusions have shaped Jewish culture as the Diaspora returned to Israel. Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, for example, trace their different cultures and even languages to the cultures to which they found themselves displaced. (As an example, see Ladino, a language which sounds like Spanish but is written with the Hebrew alphabet.) There's also a large collection of scale-model synagogues which demonstrate a beautiful range of architectural styles and internal layouts. Some synagogues through history had been adapted from churches' or mosques' designs. I was particularly surprised to see Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, in the museum; I didn't know it but Touro is America's first synagogue, dating to 1759. Several of the European synagogues presented in Beth Hatefutsoth were destroyed during the Holocaust; whatever artifacts survived are presented in the museum.

There is a national two-minute siren to mark the day of remembrance at 11:00 AM. While inside Beth Hatefutsoth, I did not hear the siren and did not hear any sort of public address announcement to mark the siren's sounding. When I told Hezi about this he became upset; why would a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of Jewish struggle fail to observe a key moment in Israel?

In the coming days, I'll write up my experience in Jerusalem and offer some more thoughts on my time in Israel.