Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Real Israel

Monday, May 21, 2012
Today we arrived in Jerusalem, and maybe the real Israel. We had a pleasant interlude this weekend in Amirim, a village in the upper Galilee, high in the hills near the Golan Heights. Amirim only allows vegetarian restaurants in its community of private homes and guest houses. Yes, the V word. I survived with the help of Esther Stupp (not pronounced shtup), a 70ish woman originally from northern Ontario, where her family were the only Jews in the remote vicinity. Because of the difficulty of getting Kosher meat, she effectively became a vegetarian at an early age. When her older sister came of marriageable age, the whole family moved to Montreal. Esther eventually immigrated to Israel, has four children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all living as Orthodox Jews in Israel, she was proud to report. Of course, saying that someone is an Orthodox Jew in Israel is like narrowing down the field to righthanded people.

Actually, until meeting Esther, we spent our first week in Israel entirely among aggressively secular, middle-class Jews. It almost felt as if we had landed in Scarsdale. That explains my opening sentence. But, back to breakfast with Esther at Stupp's Restaurant -- A Glatt Kosher Vegetarian-Dairy Restaurant. For 110 NIS ($28.60), 2 people get a choice of lemonade with mint or watered-down frozen orange juice, admittedly a weak start. However, almost immediately there arrives freshly-baked breads, a tomato-onion focaccia, an olive focaccia, and a whole wheat loaf, accompanied by garlic-herb butter, a few pats of regular butter, labana (yogurt with olive oil), mango jam (orange marmalade the second morning), caponata, cole slaw, olives, tahina, a large vegetable salad, Bulgarian sheep cheese, and fried potato puffs. Then there is a choice of aggs, but skip the scrambled or simple omelettes and get the deep-fried crepe stuffed with eggs, cheese and tomato, a special treat whose name eluded me. We drank café hafookh, Israeli latte, the best cup of coffee to date. Such a deal.

Breakfast with Esther was not entirely trouble-free, however. My attempt to offer a simple explanation of Reconstructionist Judaism had her uttering prayers of forgiveness, and the idea of ritual equality for men and women was a total non-starter.

We drove from Amirim to Jerusalem, about 2 hours, with a side trip to Afula, the town near Nazareth, where America's Favorite Epidemiologist, still far from earning the title, moved to in Israel decades ago to explore resettlement. To my great good fortune, Afula lacked decent nail salons and the rest is history. Today, it is vastly changed from my bride's recollections, just as I have observed roads, buildings, neighborhoods, communities, villages and towns where none stood 24 years ago, on my one and only prior trip to Israel.

Jerusalem, from the perspective of an automobile driver, is Boston with hills. Once I overshot our hotel, it took almost one hour to get back to the spot, including a sojourn down a street entirely devoted to sleek, new trams (trolleys) unwilling to share the right of way with an out-of-town visitor. Even though I turned off that street to go the wrong way on a one-way street, I saved little time arriving at our destination. The GPS in our rental car was near-perfect, but my last-minute erroneous substitution of King George Street for King David Street as the site of our hotel certainly impeded progress. Fortunately, Hertz was directly across the street from our hotel, once we found it, and we ditched the car so we could experience Jerusalem on foot, as Jesus did.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Our friends Phyllis, originally from Toronto, and Itamar, a kibbutznik, came to Jerusalem to join us on the tour of the Western Wall Tunnel, now reputedly the second most popular tourist spot in the country, trailing only Masada. We were in an English-language group led by a lovely young woman graduate of Hofstra University. The tour was a fascinating look at the engineering prowess of Herod, a maniac with an edifice complex 2,000 years ago. The usual image of the Western Wall is 60 or so yards crowded with Orthodox Jews and others praying and sticking messages into the crevices.

The actual wall runs about 1,600 feet, and was one edge of a major marketplace. Most of it was buried under new construction over centuries. Once the Israelis began excavation and renovation of the buried portion of the wall after the Six-Day War, the project, as with almost any activity in Israel, became the source of inter-group hostility. Arabs objected to the work being conducted almost directly below the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, considered the the point of departure of Mohammed to heaven. However, many Jews, and a few real people, believe that Arab anatagonism was stirred by the evidence that Jerusalem 2,000 years ago was a vital urban center, populated by Jews, Romans, and others.

After the tour, we went though the Makhne Yehuda Market, a covered area of hundreds of stalls selling everything from Kosher meat to T-shirts. I purchased only some of the latter, because they pack more easily. Just outside the market, we ate at Misada Rachmo (Rachmo Restaurant), Ha-Eshkol Street, as jointier a joint as you could expect to find, very busy serving Kosher meals with meat, not dairy products. While a member of your party captures a table as soon as it becomes available (remember Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay?), the rest of you line up to approach a window, order and get your food immediately doled out without anything lost in translation. What may be the best deal of XXI century is their Business Plate for 50 NIS. Great goulash, rice with fava beans and fried onions, chopped cucumber and tomato salad (a common denominator of Jewish-Israeli-Jordanian-Arab restaurants), pickles, pita bread, and a can of Diet Sprite. Alternatives included meat balls, chicken schnitzel, roast beef, other side dishes, or a variety of hummus-based dishes, available à la carte, as they say in that part of town.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Allow me to explain a bit more about Jerusalem as the real Israel. With the exception of Esther Stupp, everyone that we dealt with during our first week was a secular Jewish Israeli, as unlikely to attend Saturday synagogue services as a PLO rally. They were businesspeople and waiters, suburban housewives and retail clerks. Most were of European or North American origin, one or two generations back. Only when we got to Jerusalem were we able to see 57 varieties of Jews, of almost every racial background (except East Asian), representing every degree of devotion to religious observance, from every economic class including beggars and homeless, young men and women in military uniform carrying Uzis or shopping bags. Also, in and around Tel Aviv, noses often seemed to have experienced some alteration, while in Jerusalem you saw noses, real noses, Jewish noses, Protocols of the Elders of Zion noses.

Today, we took a tour of the Israel Supreme Court, given free in English at noon, Sunday through Thursday. Both the building and the legal system were addressed, and I was fascinated by it all. The building is 10-years old, and architecturally based on the square, symbolizing truth/facts, and the circle, justice/perfection. Much of the interior, including the courtrooms, relies entirely on natural light. The court has 15 justices, serving until age 70, appointed by a panel containing government ministers, parliamentary leaders, academics and sitting court members. Currently, 5 members are women, and one other is a Christian Arab. Three judges sit together as a panel, requiring only 5 courtrooms.

I was startled by the volume the Israel Supreme Court handles, over 10,000 cases annually, mostly appeals as a matter of right from District Court decisions. The District Court is the court of general jurisdiction, handling most criminal and civil matters. There is no intermediate appellate level, and no jury system. Adding to the burden of work are two areas of original jurisdiction reserved to the Supreme Court, only a tiny element of the US Supreme Court's activity. The Israel Supreme Court hears matters of administrative law, that is, challenges to government rulings by citizens and non-citizens alike. It also hears "constitutional law" cases, although Israel does not have a written constitution. It does have 11 stated precepts of justice, however, against which legislation may be tested. For instance, the court recently voided the Tal Law, the controversial exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military service, as a violation of the precept of equality.

We sat in on oral argument on a case, argued entirely in Hebrew, but cogently explained by our guide. The government denied citizenship by naturalization to the leader of a Black Hebrew sect, originally from Chicago, now with several thousand members in Israel. Children of the group have become citizens by birth, and some adults by naturalization. However, the leader is polygamous (how did Romney sneak into this discussion?), and the government opposes on policy grounds. Note that the application is not being made under the Law of Return, which gives instant Israeli citizenship to any Jew by birth (except Meyer Lansky), Kosher converts and, recently, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who can spell Yid. Besides, the racial angle, which might affect relations with African states that Israel continues to cultivate and black Americans, some Israeli Arab citizens are known to be polygamists as well. Discuss.

We flew to Eilat at night, in order to get an early start on our visit to Jordan tomorrow morning. The temperature in Eilat earlier on Wednesday reached 104°, but of course, it's a dry heat.


  1. Alan
    I can't believe that you ate at Esther's restaurant!!We were there 3 years ago and stayed at the moshav in Amirim. Did you stay there or just have a meal? The history of the village is interesting as well.

  2. We stayed in the Ohn-Bar Guesthouse down the road. We had a small cabin that packed as much equipment and furnishings as might be found in a submarine's control room in less space.