Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Finding a tasty bit of icy inspiration in Israel

Israel is a tiny country packed with history and adventure, all euphonically blended with spiritual connections. It’s that one place in the world for Jews, Christians and Muslims that offers up a ready link to an ancient narrative that continues to inform and direct our lives.

So it’s not surprising that I’m most happy when visiting this tiny nation simply walking around, taking in the sights and sounds that often are foreign and discordant, but always alive and exciting. If forced to make a list of the touristy spots not to be missed, I’d have to include such iconic locations as the Old City of Jerusalem; Herod’s fortress at Masada and the spiritually rich village of Sfat; the always lovely city of Haifa and picturesque community of Zichron Yaakov.

Most recently I’ve discovered another spiritual connection, a spot of cosmic import hidden away on one of Tel Aviv’s majestic boulevards. Tel Aviv, of course, is filled with special delights, a happening city that is regularly listed as one of the most tourist-friendly destinations in the world. So it’s really no surprise that along with its beautiful promenade that nestles up cozily to the Mediterranean; its world-class shuk and nearby artist market; its theaters, museums, first-class restaurant, bars and nightclubs that it also offers some of the best gelato on the planet – and, yes, I’m talking ice cream!

If you’re in need of a real spiritual experience, and a sugary high, I strongly suggest the next time you’re in the area that you search out Siciliana, one of the ubiquitous cafes lining Ben Yehudah Street, just a few blocks south of Ben Gurion Boulevard. You really can’t miss it. On a hot summer afternoon, it will be the place with a long line of locals and tourist hanging about. Inside, heaven waits!
In fact, I’m thinking I heard a heavenly choir shout out the first time I stumbled across Siciliana just a few weeks ago. I was in search of something spiritual – gin with a splash of tonic. But once I saw the assortment of goodies on display at the café, I knew I had stumbled across my own little bit of paradise!

For only 19 shekels you can get a whopping large cup of manna that will tantalize your taste buds. When playing around with gelato, I like to keep things simple. So I went with a heavenly helping of whiskey chocolate, nicely paired with a scoop of creamy vanilla. It was divine, an inspired creamy treat that was smooth and tasty.
Of course, I could have opted for the fudge chocolate or crème brulee; strawberry, espresso, or mango delight; bourbon special, cherries jubilee or cookies and cream. I’m thinking you’ll want to give yourself a little time to make the right decision. After all, in this little corner of heaven, the devils in the details.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the Israeli army it's okay to play -- sometimes

Working in a warehouse holding hundreds of boxes of medical supplies for IDF troops in Israel can be a difficult process. The mission, all part of a unique volunteer program, Sar-El, can be painfully slow and tedious. That’s why the young soldiers working with volunteers sorting through the mess of stuff decided to go to war.

Their base, and for the moment mine, is a massive facility near Tel Aviv that houses one of the spiffier Sar-El facilities for volunteers. It spreads out over several acres and includes a weathered but sturdy campus of warehouses, meeting rooms, barracks, dining area and offices. It’s also a perfect place to stage a battle!

For volunteers, the work of carefully examining serial numbers and checking out plastic bags holding a wide-variety of medical equipment can be mindlessly boring. But it’s all for a good cause and the proverbial light at the end of the warehouses’ tunnel – to twist an old phrase – is always just around the bend. For the young soldiers the light is often years away and the tedium can become overwhelming.

To cope, at least during my most recent volunteer encampment in early May this year, Eran, Uri, Itamar, Tova and dozens of their comrades took up arms – well, at least water balloons – and turned the asphalt area in front of the warehouses into both a battlefield and water park! I’d have a tough time detailing the rules of the game. From where I stood, it seemed like the goal was to stay dry while drenching anyone in striking distance.
The real madness and general appeal of the, ah, maneuvers, became clear when I managed to ask one of the young warriors what was happening. In English that was much better than my Hebrew, yet still difficult to decipher, Uri explained that, well, the commander – and her assistant – were off the base. So it would seem that what I was being told was that universal truth, “When the cats away the mice will play!”

Another universal truth, at least in Israel, is universal conscription. Boy and girls, in their late teens, are called into national service. You spot them across the country, dressed in army khakis, an automatic weapon draped across their shoulders. At first blush, it’s all a little daunting, youngsters playing at war who should still be in school or playing at the mall. After a short time, the young soldiers become part of the euphonic blend – the sounds, noises and color – that make up this very special country. Given the aggressive politics of the region, it all makes sense in a sad and melancholy sort of way.
That said, young soldiers are still young people, needing to let off a little steam now and again. It’s nice to know, despite the burden they carry, that they remain playful souls who can laugh and joke and, when their commander is away, toss a few water balloons at their friends.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Singing Hatikvah and finding hope in Israel

There is much still swirling around my noggin as I process the ups and downs of my most recent journey to Israel earlier this month. What lingers about at the moment is a very special happening during the first week of the trip as I transitioned yet again from flabby civilian to IDF volunteer. I’ll explain.

On this particular morning in early May, I joined with a group of volunteers from around the world – Australia and New  Zealand; Israel, France, Germany, Holland, Russia and Poland; the U.S. and Canada – shuffling about on an asphalt parade ground on a massive IDF base near Tel Aviv.

We were all volunteers for Sar-El, an organization that places people on IDF installations in Israel to help out as needed. Mostly the work is cosmically menial; but it’s work that needs to be done and it releases “real” soldiers to handle more important tasks.

Each morning after rolling out of our bunks in our oh-so spartan quarters, getting cleaned up and dressing in uniforms – yes, we wear IDF-issue outfits; how cool is that – dining on a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt and all the tomatoes and cucumbers we can scarf down in 30 minutes, we join with a company of young solders for morning flag raising.

On this day, our madrichot – that would be Tamara and Eleanor, our guides and commanders – decide to take the morning ritual to a new level. We’ll not just heft the iconic blue and white banner of the Jewish state into the sky over Tel HaShomer, but also sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

Hatikvah manages to be both uplifting and melancholy, an anthem that poetically speaks of hope and the Jewish soul, all wrapped up in a musical score of aching beauty. For most Jews, certainly those of us raised on the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, the melody rests lightly in our hearts and souls, easily recalled whenever the first mournful notes are played.

The problem is that the words are in Hebrew, a remarkably difficult language to learn – especially for foreign volunteers who are often older than Israel itself. It’s one thing to say hello, shalom, in Hebrew; it’s a bit more rigorous to recall and recite the sophisticated lyrics of the anthem.  

So while a few brave and bilingual volunteers begin singing, the rest of us stumble about, humming the tune and sounding off whenever the word Hatikvah is mentioned. Meanwhile, the company of regular soldiers nearby, young men and women drafted into the IDF and serving out their time as laborers, stare at us in bemused silence, trying to figure out why we’re singing their national anthem.

But like the country itself, there’s something contagious and endearing about Hatikvah, both the words and the melody. The silliness of the effort gradually morphed slowly into a grand effort, the mournful tune giving way to the stirring anthem that has sustained and unified the Jewish people for decades now.

Even some of the young troops are caught up in the moment as together we share the words of the poet Tali Herz Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

I can’t help but think that on this day, if only in a very small way, I’m part of the ancient promise, first whispered to Abraham; a vision that is no longer simply a hope, but today a reality.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Where in the world is Nor Grebnief off to now?

I’ve been checking out my packing list for an upcoming trip to Israel. Clothes and toiletries; that would be check and check! Camera, iPod and Kindle; check, check and check! Passport, airplane ticket, cash and credit card; check, check, check and check!

I’m good to go, it would seem. Oh, wait, almost forgot to detail the really important stuff – sheets, pillow case and towels; laundry bag, detergent, clothes pins and hangars; flashlight, extra batteries and snacks! No, I’m not headed off to summer camp, although the spartan quarters that I’ll be calling home for much of my stay in Israel could easily pass for a kid’s retreat.

I’m taking part yet again in a volunteer program, Sar-El, that will have me living and working on an army base – if I broke the rules and told you exactly where, both you and I would be getting a visit from a beefy Mossad agent!

Instead, I’ll simply report that I’ll be kept busy doing pretty much whatever I’m asked to handle – sorting, packing, cleaning, painting or any other specialized tasks that I’m uniquely qualified to handle. On the weekends I’ll be free to travel around the country and already have plans to visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Zichron Yaakov – a lovely little village nestled against the Mediterranean, just south of Haifa. I’m thinking there will be drinking!

Sar-El has been around for decades, created to provide volunteers for the IDF so the real soldiers are free to handle important stuff – wars, uprisings, protests; you know, defending Israel for you and me. Truth to tell, I’m not thinking too much about politics or existential threats to the Jewish homeland when I’m busying pulling weeds or sorting medical equipment on an IDF base.

The why for trekking half-way around the globe would take way too much time to explain; but the short version would have to include meeting and working with other like-minded folks from around the world. Sar-El also provides an opportunity to get way outside the tourist bubble and enjoy a reasonably up close and personal relationship with the soldiers and civilians who call this country home.

Oh, there’s also the serpentine streets that wind about the Old City of Jerusalem and the oh-so cosmopolitan vibe of Tel Aviv; splendid sunsets over the Mediterranean and million-shekel views from Haifa; the ancient secrets of Sfat and moving history of Masada. Did I mention there would be drinking? Why, yes, I think I did!

There are also modern delights and spiritual experiences to be had, including world-class hummus, shawarma and rugelach! But I digress. The bottom line – and I’ve reported this before – I’ve met people who’ve traveled to Israel and had bad moments, but never met anyone who had a bad trip. Stay tuned; I’ll be right back!