Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hanukkah in the Negev

Israel is beautiful. The splendor of the Nevada desert, the awe of the grand canyon, the tranquility of summer in Aspen, Colorado, and the beauty of Monterrey, California are all  packed into the Southern portion of this country, known as the Negev, in an area smaller than half of New Jersey. (Everyone always compares the size of Israel to New Jersey, and who am I to differ?) For Hanukkah, we took a family road trip to the Negev for six days. A full photo album of the trip can be found here.

The first day, we picked up the kids from school and drove two hours to a Beduin tent camp site situated about halfway between Sde Boker and Mitzpeh Ramon. I'm not one for roughing it, so we opted for the heated cabins over the communal tents. Dinner was served Beduin style, on rugs in the sand in an open tent. As soon as we were seated a tray containing the entire dinner arrived. The food consisted of roasted chicken, pita bread, hummus, potatoes, rice, and various salads. I was expecting to eat with our hands, but there was plastic silverware.

After dinner, we walked around the camp site and huddled around a large fire they had built. Then, we went back to our cozy cabin, grateful we did not have the idea of roughing it and sleeping in the open tents. It was quite cold out. Before bed, I explained to the kids how to put their socks over their shoes so scorpions would not get in.  This was totally unnecessary, but I got a perverse pleasure from their seriousness on this matter. I learned this trick from my survival days in the desert, or maybe it was from a movie I saw, I can't remember.

The Beduin village (a.k.a. tourist trap) boasts a herd of about 20 camels, and the next morning, we took a ride on these large, gentle, awkward animals.

After our camel ride in the desert, which lasted about 30 minutes but left a pain in my buttocks for a bit longer than that, we drove to the Mitzpeh Ramon crater, Israel's version of the Grand Canyon. We took a short hike and then made several stops on our way South.

At one point, there was an area with mounds of colored sand that the children used to fill test tubes in artistic fashion.

After Mitzpeh Ramon, we headed South again, with our sights set on Eilat, a resort town on the edge of the Red Sea, bordering Jordan and Egypt. The trip took about two and a half hours from our last stop at Mitzpeh Ramon.

Eilat is known for its fancy waterfront hotels, expansive coral beaches, underwater observatory, and great nightlife and restaurants. We stayed at a place called Isrotel Agamim, about a 10 minute walk from the water. We opted for the half board option, which included breakfast and dinner. We arrived there on Friday night, and I was pretty disappointed with the dinner. However, my opinion changed on subsequent nights when the food was nothing short of gourmet, and Ann observed that since the restaurant was kosher, Friday night dinner consisted of food that had to be prepared in advance because no fire or electricity could be used on Shabbat. This explained why the options were so limited that first night.

The hotel had a ballroom reserved for lighting Hanukkah candles each night, and we were given the candle lighting times. I expected everyone to show up and light as a community, but strangely, each family picked a spot and a hanukkiah of their own and said the blessings themselves. There were parallel renditions of Maoz Tsur throughout the rooms, sung in various keys and intonations. It was quite a sight. We took turns with a different family member lighting each night.

On our first day, we went snorkeling in the coral reef area, with spectacular underwater views. This picture was taken from the underwater observatory.

The next day, we took a glass bottom boat tour for an even better view of this precious underwater phenomenon.

Here are some more pictures showing the beauty of Eilat.

We spent one of our afternoons and evenings in Eilat in Timna park, which needs to be added as a "must see" to anyone traveling to Israel. This park consists of some incredible natural desert sights, and several man made ones. The area was used in ancient times as a copper mine, and there is access (for those with less claustrophobia than I have) to the underground caves. The rock formations are like nothing I've ever seen before, and driving from one spot to the next, we felt that the views could not be more spectacular. The rock below is called the mushroom, for obvious reasons.

These rock formations are known as Solomon's pillars, although we were disappointed to learn that King Solomon was not actually here, nor was he in historic times.

Here is Benny, pictured after climbing through the hole in the rock at the top of the picture.

This view of a naturally formed bridge in the rock is stunning.

Timna park was historically significant in large part because there was an oasis of water, which made it habitable. The children filled platic jars with colored sand in front of the Timna lake, and later everyone at the park participated in a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

After three fun filled days in Eilat, we headed due North (the only direction to drive and stay in Israel) and stopped at the Hai Bar nature preserve. The place provides refuge for and rehabilitates endangered species. We took a driving tour through the park, guided by a CD, which explained the history of each of the species of animals in the park.

We stopped in Mizpeh Ramon for lunch, and then visited an alpaca farm, where the children rode alpacas and their father tried to ignore the smell.

After the farm, we headed further North and spent the night in a Kibbutz, where we had booked sleeping accommodations for two nights. At dinner time, the food in the dining room was our least appetizing meal of the trip, and we made a note not to eat there again the second night.

The next morning, we drove to a national park called Ein Avdat. This is one of the real national treasures of Israel. Unfortunately, the park has a hiking path that becomes one way about halfway through. There is a steep climb in the rocks, and given that 1,500 people take the hike in one day, they do not allow you to backtrack. Most tour groups have their bus drop them off and then meet them on the other side. As we were there with our car, once we reached the halfway point, I had to backtrack, get the car and drive to the other side to meet the family. Backtracking was very difficult, as there were several steep stairways carved out of the rock, full of Israelis who did not appreciate me going against traffic. Some of them expressed this to me in colorful language that I'd rather pretend I did not understand.

Ein Avdat has some of the most breathtaking views anywhere.

This stone staircase below is the one I had to navigate against traffic. I made my way bit by bit as people passed me and gave me a hard time. It was pretty scary. At one point, an Ibex startled everyone by running up the cliff side. The animal was disoriented by all the tourists, and it was actually quite scary. So much so, that everyone below him went back down, and everyone above him went back up. The animal left, and I got to start my descent against traffic from the beginning, with a bigger backlog of people at the bottom. It took me 45 minutes to get down.

In the afternoon, we drove to nearby Sde Boker, which is where David Ben Gurion spent his final years, and where he is buried. We visited his tomb, which overlooks the desert crater.

And, behind the tomb, we took one of the few family pictures with all five of us.

We returned to our Kibbutz, which had an indoor, heated pool, quite rare in Israel, and the kids swam and played for a while. Then, we decided to drive to Be'er Sheva for dinner. We found a great Asian restaurant which was quite better than the Kibbutz food, and then went back to the Kibbutz for our final night. In the morning, we drove a couple of hours home to Tel Aviv, and two days later the first storm of the year, a massive one, hit the country. Pretty good timing!

You cannot and should not visit Israel without a tour of the Negev. It's natural beauty is compelling, and all the major sights are within short driving range. One would have to purchase several airline tickets and budget several weeks of travel in the US to see a comparable, diverse set of marvels that can be seen in a six day trip with easy, short drives, in Israel.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elementary School in Israel

It would be an understatement to say that the schools in Israel are different from those in the States. Our friends Peter & Tammy Stone spent a Sabbatical here a couple of years ago, and their children are close in age to ours, so we were well briefed on the Israeli school system in advance of our trip.

In Baltimore, we have a wealth of choices for educating our children. There are, of course, public school, but also enough private schools to meet every budget and for virtually every religious denomination. In Israel, unless you want to send your kids to the English speaking International school or to special religious schools, they most likely will attend public school. The schools vary in quality, mostly based on the demographics of the neighborhoods, as children are zoned for a particular school, and it is very difficult to get them into a different one. This circumstance is not without its merits, as it is common for elementary school children (grades 1-6) to walk to school and to live among their classmates in the same buildings or in adjacent ones.

When planning where to live during my Sabbatical, our first priority was finding the best school for the children. Several of our friends recommended the schools Nitzanim and Aruzim in Ramat Aviv. However, we had trouble finding housing that met our needs (more accurately our wants) in that neighborhood. Furthermore, upon inquiring, we were informed that the third grade at Nitzanim was likely to be full, and as we have two children in that grade, the likelihood was that we would not be able to register them there.

There is a neighborhood called Ramat Aviv Hahadasha that looked promising, but the school there was one to be avoided, according to various sources. Ultimately, we ended up in Ramat Aviv Gimel at the Gimel elementary school. The process of registering the children involved obtaining a lease to prove that we are Gimel residents and getting a notarized power of attorney letter giving Sharon Geva the authority to register our children. After several hours of my life (that I will never recover) at the Israeli embassy in Washington, I obtained the letter, mailed it to Sharon, and she took that and our lease to the city government building in Tel Aviv. Then, our kids were officially enrolled in school.

Ramat Aviv Gimel is the largest elementary school in Tel Aviv. The very popular long-time principal is on Sabbatical this year, and a young, energetic new interim principal is in her place, an ambitious young man who appears determined to make his mark. I estimate that Ilan Grossman is in his early 30s, and I predict that by the time he is 50, he will be in a senior administrative position in the Israeli department of education.

Shorlty after we arrived, we received a call from a woman named Anna, declaring that she was Tamara's teacher, and that she was interested in meeting all of us. We came to the school that same day, and met a delightful, young, energetic and charming teacher. She is originally from the Czech Republic and has been in Israel for about 14 years. She went over the curriculum with us and showed us what books Tamara needed to buy. She reassured us that Tamara would do fine in her class, and I believed her. We've been unbelievably impressed with Anna, and frankly, she may be one of the best teachers that I've ever known. She sends the parents weekly email updates about what is going on in the class, and she went out of her way to make sure Tamara had friends in the class, encouraging other parents to call Tamara for play dates. Thanks in large part to Anna, Tamara is having a very positive experience in school. She has regular play dates with classmates, occasional sleepovers, and to my delight, she is even developing a bit of an Israeli accent in Hebrew.

Elana and Benny are not faring quite as well, but for different reasons. Elana's teacher, Gila, is wonderful. She does not speak any English, which is probably a good thing for Elana's Hebrew, although she cannot communicate with Ann, so everything goes through me. Gila is on the verge of retirement. Apparently, the only person who retires more often than her is Brett Favre. The last time I spoke with her, I asked if she was coming back next year, and she sighed and said, she was retiring, but that maybe she would come back. She wasn't sure. Gila is very conscientious and has made a substantial effort to get other girls in the class to call Elana and to include her in activities. However, 12 year old girls are quite different from 8 year olds, and it's taken Elana a bit of time to integrate into the class. Of our three children, Elana is the only one without a classmate who speaks English fluently, and she has had to survive on her (rapidly improving) Hebrew alone.

But, I think the biggest problem for Elana has been the structure of the Israeli school system. Elana loves learning. She is constantly reading, looking up topics that interest her on Wikipedia. School for her has always challenged her and satiated her thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world. Whenever we encounter the need for a fact, before we consult Google, we ask Elana (who we nicknamed "encyclopedia") and very often she knows the answer, on many different topics. Learning is not always easy to come by in an Israeli classroom. Class sizes approach 40, with one teacher, and Israeli children tend to be much more wild and unruly than their American counterparts. For a child who cherishes learning and information, school here does not provide the kind of outlet that she is used to at Schechter, and it is sometimes very frustrating for her.

Whereas most of the girls in her class tend to wander around Ramat Aviv Gimel arm in arm with their girlfriends whom they've known since infancy, Elana does not have a strong friendship like she does back home. However, recently, things have begun turning around for her.  There are girls who regularly come get her when it's time to go to out of school activities, such as the Scouts (Tsofim), and they walk her home. She often has lunch on Fridays with her friends from school in a shopping center near our house, and last night she attended a Bat Mitzvah party for one of her classmates and had a very good time. She got a ride there with one girl in her class and a ride home with another. In Gimel, a Bat Mizvah resembles a sweet 16 party, except it's for 12 year old girls. There is no religious component to it. Just, every girl gets a big birthday party when she turns 12, and it's called a Bat Mitzvah. Elana is turning 12 here on this trip, but we're planning an American style Bat Mitzvah for her next year in Baltimore. She'll have an aliya, read from the Torah, give a sermon, and if she does a good job, we'll let her have a party.

And now Benny. Oy, Benny. For the first month and a half that we were here, Benny decided he was on vacation. We did not realize this at first, but after a while, we grew suspicious of his claim that there was no homework, given that Tamara was getting a couple of hours worth a day in her class. We tried contacting his teacher, Ronit, and asking why Benny never comes home with homework. Ronit said that the homework was too hard for him because Benny does not know any Hebrew, and so she is giving him a break. She also delicately asked us if Benny had any learning disabilities or perhaps attention deficit disorder.

Deep breath. Here's more or less how we responded to her, through clinched teeth. Okay, first of all, Benny knows plenty of Hebrew. He knows how to read and write, and speaks it at least as well as Tamara. (It was helpful to have a twin in another 3rd grade class to make our point. We knew that Ronit could never compete with Anna in terms of the attention that she gives each student, but we felt she could try a little harder.) No, Benny does not have a learning disability. Sure, every parent thinks their kid is a genius, but based on his results at Schechter we are confident that he's well above average in every aspect of learning ability and cognition. Sure, he has trouble sitting still, but Benny is a very smart kid. And in this case, he's decided to apply his talents towards getting away without doing any work. Would it be too much to ask you to make sure he copies down the homework every day? We have a tutor at home that we hired to help the kids understand their assignments, but we need to know that he copies them down. That's all we're asking.

Her response was to refer us to the principal. Ann tried to reach Ilan on his cell phone number, which he had given me in case I ever had any questions. Don't hesitate if you need anything, call me, he had said. The principal answered and asked her if this was an emergency. He then gave her a lecture about calling him on his cell phone for non-emergencies. At this point we were wondering if his constant apparent concern and involvement was just an act. But, in truth, this was a while ago, and I've since formed the opinion that he must have been caught on a bad day. Israelis tend to be much more direct than we're used too, and they can easily offend Americans without realizing it. Anyway, the principal began by asking if we've had Benny tested for learning disabilities. We patiently explained that we believe that the problem is that he's getting away without doing any homework because his teacher has decided that it is not worth the effort to give him any assignments because he can't do them and because we're returning to the States next year. All we want is for the teacher to make sure he gets his assignments. The principal said that the only way to resolve this is to meet with Ronit.

The meeting was held the next day, made a bit awkward by a long, flaming email message that I sent her the night before. I couldn't help myself, and in hindsight, it was the wrong move. She started out very defensive. At Ann's urging, I profusely apologized for my message and said that I'm sure she's doing everything she can, and that all we want to do is something simple. When Benny comes home from school and says, as he always does, that there was no homework today, we want to know if it's true. She showed us where she writes the assignment on the board every day, and that gave me an idea. Every day, Benny has to copy the assignment from the board and get her to initial it or write a check mark. If he comes home without the check mark, then he will be punished. If there is no homework, then he needs to write "no homework" and get the teacher to sign or put a check mark. Ronit agreed to the plan.

I then had a long and serious talk with Benny about the importance of education, school and responsibility. I can tell you that I would not have enjoyed being on the receiving end of that talk. I probably would have hated it more than Benny did. It was the kind of "talk" that I had on a few memorable occasions when my Dad was less than pleased with me, and I'm still traumatized by those encounters. I explained to Benny that his vacation was over, and that he was going to have to get serious about work. Then I laid out the consequences of him coming home without the check marks. Without going into details, let's say that he tried it once or twice, and then realized it wasn't worth it, and since then, he's been getting his assignments and doing his homework.

Socially, Benny has been doing great. He is an extremely confident and social kid. I went on a class field trip to Jerusalem with him and saw that he was at the center of attention every step of the way. On the bus, all the kids wanted to sit with him. Walking to the Wall, he was the leader of the pack, and I noticed at one point that a couple of the girls offered him candy. He mostly speaks English to the other kids who answer him in Hebrew. The language does not seem to be a barrier for him. He is constantly on play dates and sleepovers, and if he had his way, I doubt we'd see much of him on weekends. I don't think he has an insecure bone in his body.

Much of the communication from the school to the parents happens over email. My Hebrew reading skills are not on par with my speaking ability, and this has resulted in some misunderstandings. For example, we received an email saying that we were supposed to meet with all of the kids' teachers for parent/teacher conferences. We decided that only I would go because Ann would not be able to understand what the teachers were saying anyway. I made the 3 appointments. Elana's was first, and so on the indicated day, I took off from work, went to the school, and met with Gila. She closed the door and said, "So, what was it you wanted to talk about?" I was confused and said that the email from the school said to make appointments with the teachers. She said that I misunderstood the message, and that it was just saying that such meetings are going to be held in the future. Oh. So, anyway, we had a nice discussion about Elana, and then I called the twins' teachers and cancelled the meetings, although Anna said she'd be delighted to speak about Tamara anytime. Later this week, we have the real parent/teacher conferences (I think), and I'll find out more about how they are doing.

Overall, the school system in Israel is disappointing. While I believe we ended up in one of the very best public schools, with two out of three exceptional teachers, I can't help but wonder how this country, which values children so much, got its priorities so wrong. Children in these schools who cherish learning are out of place. And, from what I hear, most other schools are a lot worse. Violence among the children is apparently commonplace, although we have not seen much of this first hand.

I understand that Israel has to spend a tremendous proportion of its GNP on security. The country has a great public transportation infrastructure. Wonderful parks. Great public beaches. And, while the economy lags behind the US and some other countries, Israel appears to be in pretty good shape. But, they are killing their seed corn. One of the greatest resources here is the talent level of the people. Israel's impact on high tech, medicine, biology is legendary. And, rather than nurturing their young minds and encouraging academics at an early age, the school system is ridiculously under funded. Instead of 40 screaming kids per teacher, they should have 15 (without the screaming). Magnet schools should be set up, and a program should be in place for identifying gifted and talented kids at an early age. Israeli children are in school from 8 a.m - 1:30 p.m. six days a week. That system needs to be re-examined. No other country in the world (to my knowledge) practices these hours. If American middle schoolers can handle 8 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., so can Israeli kids. The teachers are each given one day off during the week, so they effectively have a 5 day work week. On the days that their teachers are off, the students are occupied by a hodgepodge of activities, including origami, playing with animals, and other non-educational subjects. It is a true shame that a country that I believe boasts more brain power per capita than any other is letting the opportunity to nurture this potential go to waste.

I have no doubt that the kids will return to Schechter in Baltimore next year and will hit the ground running. They have kept up with the math from back home, in addition to learning the math that is taught here, and whatever little they might be behind in some of their English subjects is more than compensated for by their life experience and their advancement in Hebrew subjects. Overall it is a big win, and while the kids are finding it challenging and at times overwhelming, I believe that the risk we took coming here for a year has definitely paid off.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dealing with Medical Issues

One of the most intimidating aspects of spending a year abroad is the prospect of dealing with a foreign medical establishment. Everything is different. Expected wait times, dealing with insurance, doctor-patient relations. I knew that it was impossible to go a whole year without some medical issues, and sure enough, in the first 3+ months, we've had our share.

I should point out that I viewed my potential interaction with medical treatment in Israel both as a consumer, and as a researcher, as my Fulbright project involves working with the Israeli HMOs on medical record security. So I approach each health challenge with some degree of curiosity, along with the anxiety that always accompanies such experiences. When I injured my wrist (described below), my host at Tel Aviv University, Ran Canetti wondered if this was my way of embedding myself in this issue, the way I became en election judge when working on e-voting.

Our first interaction with the Israeli medical system came when Benny managed to split open his foot running through the apartment. We were worried that he needed stitches because the cut would not close. Coincidentally, I had a meeting with one of the doctors at the Maccabi headquarters that day. Maccabi is the largest HMO in Israel and services over 2 million patients, just under 30% of the population. Ann and I spoke by phone, and she decided to take him to the Maccabi clinic near our house. They dressed and closed the injury, but when Ann was ready to pay, they were surprised to learn that we were not registered with Maccabi, and they said they did not have a mechanism to collect payment. The doctor wanted Benny to be re-examined a couple of days later, but the administrators at the clinic said that we could not be seen unless the children were registered.

Ann called me on my cell phone during my meeting at Maccabi, and a few minutes later, the clerks at the clinic were speaking with a senior official from their HMO. However, they were adamant that unless we were registered, they could not treat us, and apparently going over their head had no impact. Meanwhile, I obtained the number of a private doctor for Benny. Ann called the doctor who informed her that he did not see patients outside of the HMO, but that she should just get into a cab and ask him to take her to Magen David Adom, which provides emergency medical services and runs an ambulance service. I can just picture the wide open eyes of a Tel Aviv taxi driver as a frantic, American mother enters with her wounded child and asks to be taken to Magen David Adom. That cab ride would probably put him in more danger than his injury. We began looking for another private doctor, but in the meantime, Benny's foot healed.

Having a general purpose clinic right near our home is a great feature of living in a city like this, but not if they won't treat you, and I did not like our chances when it came to sneaking each kid in until it was time for payment and then being kicked out. I figured that this only works once. So, I went to the clinic and was forced to wait about an hour in the waiting room before I could meet the head administrator and request to register our family in the clinic. She said that only Israelis can be registered. I pulled out the childrens' and my Israeli passports and said that we were in fact Israelis. She frowned as though this was not what she was expecting nor hoping for, and sat down at her computer. After punching her keyboard for a few minutes, she looked up and said that I have to go to the bituach leumi, which means national insurance before I can register myself and the kids. I tried in vain to argue with her, but she said that without a visit downtown to the bituach leumi, there was nothing she could do.

I know the drill in Israel, so I decided it was worth wasting a few hours, or maybe days, of my life to take care of this. I called the bituach leumi office several times before I managed to speak with someone, and that person told me that it would not be a problem. She said I should bring my letter from Tel Aviv University regarding my appointment, all of our passports, Israeli and American, my Fulbright award notice, and anything else I could think of. I realized that what she was saying was that I would probably not be greeted with cooperation, and that I need to be prepared to make my case.

Feeling like a lawyer heading to argue his first case before the Supreme Court, I collected all of the relevant materials and headed downtown to the bituach leumi offices. The entrance to the national insurance office, once I got past security, was a complete mob scene. I was mentally prepared to spend my day there and to deal with a slow uncooperative bureaucracy, but I was still taken aback. There were people everywhere. I wanted to get in line somewhere, but I could not find a line. I saw a security guard, and I asked him where I'm supposed to go for . . . but before I could explain what I wanted, he stated that he was just security and had no idea. I decided that this was one of those moments when I had to put my manners and all of my cultured upbringing aside. I looked at the part of the mob that seemed to be going most aggressively in a particular direction and decided that this is more likely to be the right mob than the other ones. I started squeezing my way to the front. People yelled at me and asked me to get behind them, and I said that I just had a question. People replied that they all had questions. That made sense, but I pushed on ahead. Several times I was yelled at, but I just yelled something back. After about 45 minutes, I ended up near the front of the mob, and I managed to approach the desk. I explained why I was here, and of course, I was told that I was in the wrong line, and she pointed to another collection of people at the other end of a long hallway.

I went down there and discovered that there was a number dispensing machine. So, I took a number. I looked up at the board with the numbers, and saw that my number was several hundred higher than the displayed number. So, either they already called my number a while ago, or something was wrong. I asked one of the people waiting what the deal was with the numbers, and he explained that everybody is keeping track of when they came because the number dispenser is not working. I asked him how in the world I'm supposed to know when it was my turn. He looked up and yelled very loudly, "Who is last?" And some woman in the back yelled, "I am". He turned to me and said, you are after her. Over the next hour, people showed up and they seemed to know what to do. They yelled "who is last?" and got the reply. And thus, when it was finally my turn, I went right after that woman who had responded initially. Peculiar system, but it works.

When I finally got to meet the clerk at the bituach leumi, I started explaining that I'm a visiting professor on a Fulbright, and I pulled out all the evidence and laid it out. He asked me what I wanted, and I said that I and my children are Israeli citizens, pulling out further evidence, and we wanted to register with Maccabi. He looked at me and said. "That's impossible." Just like that. I knew that I was expected to argue with him, and I did not want to let him down. But, nothing worked. I asked to see his supervisor, and he said that he was the supervisor. I was feeling desperate, so I said to him, "Here's the situation. I'm in this country for a year. I have three young children. What am I supposed to do if they get sick?" I know that Israelis are super-sympathetic to children. I even showed him their picture on my cell phone. He said that he was very sorry, but that there are private doctors who will see them if they are sick. I said that when I called on the phone, the person told me that I should bring all this stuff, and that it would work out. He rolled his eyes and launched into a lecture about how the people on the phone are college students in Beer Sheva who don't know anything, and how frustrated he is with them always giving out wrong information on the phone.

I gave up and left.

Shortly after that experience, I injured my foot playing soccer. At first I thought it would heal on its own, but when I was still limping 3 weeks later, I decided to have it seen. I asked around, and a friend of mine recommended a private hospital in Herzeliya called the Herzeliya Medical Center (HMC). I called them up and made an appointment to see an orthopedist. He was American and seemed very good. He ordered x-rays, and told me I had a bone contusion (bruise), and that I was fine, and I could do anything but use pain as a guide. It was a good interaction and not that different from how such a doctor's visit would go in the States. Furthermore, the HMC accepted my Seven Corners health insurance that I received as part of the Fulbright program.

But, luck was not on my side. A couple of weeks ago, I fell off of my bike riding to work. I missed the ramp from the sidewalk because I was looking to see if any cars were coming, and I happened to go off the curb over a sewer drain, which was a bit high up. My front wheel collapsed, and I hit the ground hard. I put out my left hand to break my fall, and when I finally got up, my hand and wrist were killing me. I went home and immediately drove to HMC. Lucky for me, there was a hand surgeon there. Unlucky for me, he was not nearly as nice as the orthopedist who saw my foot. I ended up spending 6 hours there, about 3 minutes of which were with the doctor. He made me wait outside in the hall while he met with other patients and performed surgery. I was told that he had squeezed me into an already overpacked schedule, and I was grateful, although I was not happy about the service I was getting. In my brief meeting with him, he told me that the x-ray was inconclusive, but that he did not see a fracture. However, he thought I may have broken my scaphoid, a small bone that usually required surgery to repair. He said that I should wear a brace all the time, and that he wants more x-rays in 2 weeks to determine whether or not there is a fracture. I was supposed to take it very easy with my hand.

So, for 2 weeks, I wore the brace, did not ride my bike, and took it very easy. I was optimistic that the bone was not broken because after a few days, the pain went away, and there was only the discomfort of wearing the brace all the time, even to sleep. On Sunday, I went back to have the repeat x-rays taken, confident that I would be told I was fine. The doctor was not there, so I left my cell phone number for him to call me with the results. Ann and I had plans at a very nice restaurant that night. As we were leaving the house for dinner, my phone rang, and it was the doctor. He said that he saw a line that looked like a fracture. He asked me where I lived, and I said Tel Aviv. He said that in that case, he wanted to see me again next Sunday because he was not going to be in Tel Aviv until then. And he hung up. I was in complete shock. If my wrist was broken, shouldn't it be in a cast? Am I supposed to wear the brace? There's no way I'm waiting a week to take care of this.

Ann and I went to the dinner, and while I enjoyed the food, I was absolutely miserable. I faced the prospect of 6 of the next 7.5 months in Israel in a cast, possible surgery in this country, and an unpleasant recovery. I was particularly disappointed because I had convinced myself that my wrist was fine before that call came in.

The next morning, I made my mission to find the best hand surgeon in Israel and see them right away. In hindsight, nothing could be more naive. I pulled out all the stops and wrote to everyone I knew here in Israel asking for recommendations. Several people started making phone calls on my behalf. The big breaks came from the doctors I had met here as part of my research, including a private doctor and some doctors at Maccabi. I also had an orthopedic surgeon in Baltimore and my uncle who is a famous doctor on the case. By the end of the day, I had the names of two well regarded hand surgeons who practiced in Tel Aviv, among other places.

I called one of them, and the earliest appointment I could get was for December 21. I begged and pleaded and explained the urgent nature of my situation. I had a potentially broken wrist with no cast on. I needed to be seen by a specialist ASAP. The receptionist would not help me. So, I googled the doctor and found her email address through some of her research publications. I wrote her a long desperate email, invoking my professor position at Johns Hopkins, hoping that she would make the association with medicine. But, she never answered. In the meantime, I called the other doctor and sent her a similar email message. The other doctor, Dr. Hagar Patish responded to my message in the afternoon and said she could see me the next evening at her house where she has a clinic. Bingo!

I had to go back to HMC to pick up the x-ray so that I could bring it to Dr. Patish. Tuesday morning, I drove to Herzeliya and retrieved the CD containing the x-ray. The receptionist there told me that there was a report with the x-ray. I said that I knew that, and that I had spoken to the doctor. She suggested putting the report in the case with the disk. On my way to the car, I opened the report to read it, and to my surprise, it said "no fracture found" and it was signed by a radiologist. What?!?!? A wave of relief swept over me, but I still was a bit nervous. What was that doctor who called me talking about? Tuesday night could not come quickly enough.

I don't remember much about Tuesday (yesterday). All day long I was preparing for the meeting with the hand surgeon. I was barely able to eat. At 4:45 pm, I drove Benny to soccer practice and then proceeded to enjoy an hour of Tel Aviv traffic as I headed to the doctor's house. Ann went to get Benny when his practice was over. Dr. Patish greeted me warmly. She asked me some questions and then pulled up the x-rays on her monitor. It was the friendliest experience I can ever remember having with a doctor. She showed me every aspect of the x-rays, and pointed to a line on the scaphoid on the first set of x-rays. She said that this line could indicate a fracture, but that strangely, the line continued past the bone, so maybe it was just something on the picture. She then pulled up the x-rays from two weeks later and we went over them. She took several minutes and told me that she saw no evidence of any fracture, and that she was pretty comfortable ruling out a broken scaphoid. She said that if there were a fracture from the first x-ray, two weeks later it would be magnified. She then performed a physical exam (does this hurt? does this hurt?) and said that she was even more certain that the wrist was fine. She also said that I absolutely should have been in a cast immediately after that first set of x-rays. If the scaphoid was broken, and there was reasonable evidence that it might be, it would be very serious not to have it in a cast. Yet more evidence of how much of a loser that first doctor was, and a lesson to me about finding the right doctor early when something serious is going on.

After the examination, we launched into about a 40 minute discussion of electronic medical records, about my research, patient privacy and about her opinions of medicine in Israel versus the US. Finally, I asked her if she could take the Seven Corners insurance or if I should pay and then get reimbursed from my insurance back home. She responded to me, "You are my guest here." At first I did not understand, but then she explained that she was not going to charge me for the visit. I was embarrassed and muttered something like "Are you sure?" and tried to protest, but she would have none of it.

Only in Israel.

On the drive home, I was just amazed at the quality of treatment I had just received. No doctor had ever explained to me my condition and all the potential ramifications as clearly or thoughtfully as she had. She showed me the x-rays and discussed them as though I were a medical student and she was my professor. And in the end to not charge me. I know from some of my phone calls on Monday that most orthopedists in Israel when treating a foreigner as a private patient charge 800 shekels (a bit over $220) just to say hello.

I'm not thrilled about the prospect of dealing with whatever medical issues come our way in our remaining time in Israel. But, the knowledge that there are doctors here like Dr. Patish, even if they are hard to find, is very comforting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poker in Tel Aviv

I've written a blog entry about poker in Tel Aviv, but I'd rather not post in on my public blog. If you are interested and did not receive it from me by email, please let me know, and I'll be happy to email it to you if I know and trust you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

15 Simple Facts and Observations in Israel

1. There are cats everywhere. Theories I've heard as to why range from the need to control viper snakes to dealing with rats and mice. Regardless of the reason, you see stray cats everywhere. They are mostly not too afraid of people and usually expect food from you. On Yom Kippur, they seemed especially vocal and pushy, probably because there were not as many scraps to be had. Israelis seem very friendly to the cats. One of our neighbors regularly feeds the cats that hang out by our building. The cats appear to favor a particular location, and I've become familiar with some specific cats that hang out in various spots around town. But most of the cats here also carry diseases, and we've instructed the kids to look but not touch them.
This poor cat is injured. He hangs out next to my car most of the time.
Here he is by the back door of our building.

This is my favorite cat by the office. I see him just about every day.

2. Cash is more common than in the US, and credit cards are eschewed in many places. But, don't try paying for something small with a big bill. They prefer small bills. The largest bill is 200 shekels, worth about $50, and most vendors complain if you pay for something small with such a large bill.

3. The food tends to be fresher here. People have smaller refrigerators that they refill more often. Most people seem to shop several times a week, buying less than we do in the States. Fruits are locally grown and only available in season. I have not ever seen canned vegetables or fruit served in a restaurant, on pizza or anywhere else, and even the corner tiny restaurant served homemade pasta when I ordered a bowl of penne. We've been to a couple of unbelievable restaurants here, and even the cheap corner falafel stand can be counted on for culinary satisfaction. Israel is way ahead of the States in the food department. Hands down winner. Bucking the trend and not nearly as good here are beef (not enough to graze on in the desert?), broccoli (so much for my favorite stir fry dish), and corn on the cob (we're spoiled by locally grown corn on the cob in Owings Mills). We have not found skim milk here and few reduced fat foods, although Israelis on average appear thinner than Americans.

4. You cannot buy a wireless router in Israel. I know. I tried. The WiFi router in our house is so weak, that I can't get the signal in the room around the corner. I'm having my cousin bring me an 802.11n router (time capsule, actually) when she visits.

5. It is not that easy for an adult to find a soccer team in Tel Aviv. You can go to the Yarkon park on Friday afternoons, but you may have trouble getting into a game. After 5 weeks of trying, I finally made it onto a team, and proceeded to injure my foot within 40 minutes. Now I'm on injured reserve.

6. It seems impossible to find a live poker game in Tel Aviv. I had a few close calls, but none of them panned out. Still trying ...

7. Watch your step! There is dog poop everywhere. I'm not kidding. If you are not vigilant you will step in it. Israelis love their dogs, but many do not pick up after them. Dog poop is an unfortunate trademark of sidewalks all over the place in Israel. I'll resist the temptation to include a relevant photograph.

8. Traffic lights operate slightly differently here. When the light is green, it flashes a few times before turning yellow. When the light is red, the yellow comes on along with the red before the light turns green. For those of you who do not speak the language, a simultaneous red and yellow traffic light means "floor it!" in Hebrew.
The yellow light turns on before the red turns to green.
9. It did not rain for the first 52 days we were in Israel. On the 53rd day, we had bad thunderstorms for half an hour, and then the sun came out.

10. Israelis give extremely high priority to elderly, to babies and to the infirm. Here's an example. At the post office, you take a number and typical wait about 20-30 minutes to be served, and you cannot avoid visiting the post office - that's how you pay bills, add credit to the cell phone SIM card and handle various other details. I've learned to bring reading material. The other day, there was a particularly long line ahead of me when an elderly woman with a walker came in. She had difficulty getting a number out of the dispenser because her hand was shaking. One of the women in line walked up to the window and said something to the postal worker who proceeded to drop the current customer, handle the older woman, and then return to the original customer. Nobody complained. This type of catering to weaker people is commonplace, and I've seen it numerous times. A parent with a small baby will almost always be moved to the front of any line, especially if the baby is screaming. On one occasion, I was tempted to ask our kids to try to misbehave a little louder because I was quite certain we would be advanced in line, but looking around at the other Israeli children, I did not think we could compete.

11. At the supermarket, the shopping carts are linked to each other with small metal chains. To extract a cart, you insert a 5 shekel coin into a slot on the cart thus releasing it, and that coin remains in the cart while you shop. To recover your coin, you must attach the cart back to the other carts. It's an ingenious system that ensures that people will put carts away and that Americans who are new to the system will realize they left the 5 shekels in the cart as soon as they get home.

12. There is recycling in Israel, but it takes a real effort. Scattered around town are these large metal cages with holes just big enough to stick in plastic bottles. Those who care to recycle have to collect their plastics and then carry them a block or two to these recycling cages to dispose of them. Apparently, much of the recycling operation in Israel is controlled by organized crime.

13. Keys are different here. On most standard house keys, the key is more of a female than keys in the US. The grooves are on the inside of the key, whereas a standard house key in the US is male and bares its grooves on the outside.
Our house key.
14. There has been no real estate downturn in Tel Aviv. Prices only go up.

15. Sunday is a regular workday here. The kids have school on Fridays, but everyone else is off; the university is closed, and there is no mail delivery. One of my colleagues at the university told me that Friday morning school is the best Israeli invention, as the parents get to hang out for brunch, there's no work, and you get a 4 hour break from the kids, who get home around noon that day.

Friday, October 01, 2010

My uncle Asher, may he rest in peace

My father is the youngest of five boys. This week marked the end of an era with the passing of one of his brothers. We are all extremely saddened. My father and his remaining three brothers, Emanuel, Mordecai, and Yussel wrote the following obituary. Asher was incredibly accomplished and loved his family very much. I had a great relationship with him, and I already miss him dearly.


Asher Rubin, a retired Deputy Attorney General for the State of California and a devoted husband and father, died peacefully at his home in Marin County on Wednesday, September 29.

Asher was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on November 9, 1936, to Sophie (née Greenberg) and Jacob Rubin, a teacher of Hebrew. In the company of four accomplished brothers, Emanuel, Mordecai, Joseph, and Abba, and a mother who threatened to trade him for one of Eddie Cantor’s daughters, Asher early in life developed an outspoken personality mixed with humor. When Asher was eleven, the family moved to the town of Liberty, in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where he went to high school. He honed his sense of humor while working for six summers as a busboy at the famed Grossingers resort hotel.

Asher graduated from Columbia College in 1958 and then entered Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1961. His younger brother Joseph was also a student at Harvard while he was there. Asher’s most notable achievement at Harvard was, at a public gathering, telling the feared and formidable professor of law, James Casner from the stage, that his younger brother Joseph was “bitterly disappointed that he was not being called on enough in class.” After graduation, he moved to California to serve as a clerk to Justice Thomas P. White of the California Supreme Court. He joined the office of Attorney General Stanley Mosk in 1963, where he remained until 2001, except for a brief interlude in the Office of the General Counsel of the Peace Corps and on the public relations staff of The Weizmann Institute in Israel.

As a Deputy Attorney General, Asher represented various officials and agencies in appellate and trial litigation involving many of the important political and social issues confronting California from 1962 through his retirement in 2001. He appeared before the United States Supreme Court in two cases, Honig v. Doe and California Human Resources Dept. v. Java, which settled significant disputes regarding special education and unemployment insurance. He appeared before the California Supreme Court in controversial cases that affected reproductive rights, unemployment insurance, industrial safety, and health care benefits. He represented President S.I. Hayakawa during the bitter student strike in 1968–69 at San Francisco State University.

Asher was known for his sense of humor and could not restrain himself, even in court. During the student strike, when Judge Ira Brown asked him whether President Hayakawa would comply with an order of the court, Asher replied that Hayakawa would probably move the campus to San Mateo County. When an attorney for the appellants applied to the Court of Appeal for the second time to file a brief over the page limit allowed by the rules, Asher filed a short reply: “The appellants think it not nifty to have their brief reduced to fifty.” When a federal court judge asked him whether he should recuse himself, he replied, “Right here in front of everybody?” And when he asked another federal judge for extra time to file his brief when George Deukmejian was Attorney General, the judge was reluctant, commenting: “What do you people in the Attorney General’s Office do all day?” Asher replied: “Well, we spend most of our time trying to spell Deukmejian.” The judge granted him a forty-five–day extension.

Asher was active beyond his professional life. At the Attorney General’s Office, he wrote, appeared and sang in holiday skits and wrote poems in honor of innumerable deputies at their retirements (“Do not go gentle into that little cubicle.”). With Morris Bobrow, he wrote musical reviews such as If You’re from Milwaukee, You Must Know Bernie and Premises, Premises. He was also a member of the Tiburon Theater Troupe. His community achievements were many. He was a past president of the Tiburon Peninsula Club, a feature writer for the Nob Hill Gazette, on the board of directors of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, chairman of the Tiburon Art Festival and a board member of Image for Success.

How would Asher’s many friends describe him? He was a New Yorker. Although of long tenure here, he never assimilated the relaxed rhythms of a Californian. For him, right now was too late, impatience was a virtue, and observing the 90-degree rule on a golf course was for the other guy. In golf as in life, he took it straight from tee to green as fast as he could go. He was always a good friend, helpful and supportive, a strong tennis player on the Tiburon Peninsula Club team, and a delightful poker player and golf partner, although he described his golf game as “painfully average.”

The center of Asher’s life was his family. He is survived by his wife Diane and their two children, Jacob, a student at Stanford Business School, and Shaina, a student at Brooklyn Law School. He was very proud of their accomplishments and he loved them very much.

We are saddened by his passing and we will miss him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding our rhythm

Just over six weeks in Israel and we're getting into a regular groove. We have soccer practices and games, piano lessons, parties, play dates, school, homework, and all of the every day activities that accompany regular life. Ann observed the other day that it no longer seems like we're on a trip, because we have all of the same routines that we do back home. We still have cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, taking out the garbage, recycling, buying gas and other chores. Gas costs double here, and at the moment, it is easy to figure out the conversion because there are 3.8 litres/gallon and the dollar is just under 3.8 shekels, so the price in shekels/litre is almost equivalent to dollars/gallon (a fact that I found much more exciting than Ann did). My last fill up cost 6.35 shekels/litre so you can do the math. However, we drive very little here, as walking, biking and buses are usually better options.

Although we've settled in and are starting to feel at home here, hardly a day goes by without some episode that is pure Israel. Experiences that could never happen anywhere else. A case in point is the purchasing of our bicycles.

Nestled between Ramat Aviv and Ramat Aviv Gimel is a lovely neighborhood called Neve Avivim, which sports several expansive parks with playgrounds, dozens of apartment buildings, and two small shopping centers, one of which plays host to Mordechai's bike shop. Mordechai is an Orthodox Jew who looks the part. I might describe him as a "Black Hat". He wears the requisite uniform, complete with yarmulka, tzitzit, and full beard and looks like someone you'd more likely expect to see praying at the Western wall than running a bike shop; someone whom at first glance I would associate more with the study of Torah than the adjustment of chains and brakes. His grease stained hands were in stark contrast to his overall facade.

Upon entering the bike shop, I was greeted by Mordechai with a warm smile, and a firm handshake.

Bruchim Habaim! What can I do for you?
Well, we're here for a year and we're interested in bikes.
Where are you here from?
Baltimore, Maryland in the United States.
And you've come to Israel! That's wonderful. What are you doing here?
I'm here on Sabbatical and I'm a visiting professor at Tel Aviv Univer . . .
It's so great that you've come to Israel, finally. But why just a year?
Well, the sabbatical is only a year, and then I have to get back to . . .
Why just a year? Why not two years? Maybe you'll like it and you'll stay. Any chance you think you might stay? Israel is a great place. I am telling you. Israel. There's nothing like it. Stay. You'll see.

I knew I was in trouble. We had not even begun talking about bikes yet, and he's already negotiating with me. Eventually, I identified a couple of bikes that Ann and I liked, and as luck would have it on that particular random day, all of the bikes that we considered were on sale, according to Mordechai. Of course, none of them had any prices posted, but amazingly, he knew all of the prices by heart. I pointed out that I was not just buying two bikes but five, and that surely there was a volume discount. Mordechai assured me that I was getting even better than the volume discount. We haggled a bit over the price, and I then asked if he would buy the bikes back from me in 9 1/2 months when I left Israel. Although he assured me that he would, I was not entirely satisfied, and I suggested that we determine the buy-back price now and then subtract it from the purchase price, in a sense renting us the bikes for our remaining time in Israel. He agreed and even threw in the helmets, bike locks, and baskets. He would not take anything other than cash, and when I asked him about paperwork, he scoffed and said, "I'm here. Where am I going to go? You have a problem, you come back and I'll fix it without charging you." I nervously mumbled something about getting that in writing, and Mordechai looked at me as though I had just landed from Mars, and I quickly dropped it.

We returned the next day with the children and they each picked out a bike. For Tamara, Mordechai suggested that rather than buying a new bike, I take this really nice used one he has at a really good price. It was indeed used, but not really nice, and the price didn't seem so great, but who was I to argue, so I agreed, over Tamara's protestations. The store was very busy, so Mordechai suggested that we come back later in the evening when he would have the bikes ready for us to take. Upon our return several hours later, we ran into Dafna, the mom of a girl in Tamara's class. Dafna had lived in the States and speaks English well. She came to the bike store to get some service on her bike, and when she saw the bike we were buying for Tamara, she took Ann aside and told her that this was her daughter's former bike, and that they had donated it to the store with the request that it be given to a needy family. Meanwhile, I noticed Mordechai glancing uncomfortably at the two women speaking from across the store. Ann told me what Dafna said, and suddenly Mordechai did not seem so pious. Meanwhile, the hour was late, the store closed, and we were asked to return the next morning.

When I arrived back at the bike shop the following day, Mordechai told me that he had bad news. Apparently the bike that he was going to sell Tamara had already been promised as a donation to someone, but to make it up to me, he was offering me a brand new bike in its place at the same price. Really?!? Once again I negotiated a price that included the return of the five bikes, including the helmets and locks, at the end of my Sabbatical, and I paid him in cash with no paperwork. He seemed very eager to please me and get me out of his store. His demeanor could be summarized with one word - "Busted!"
I should point out, though, that I never did ask Mordechai why he tried to sell me a bike that had been donated, and so it is possible that it was an honest mistake.

As I was leaving, I asked Mordechai if he didn't want some guarantee that we would bring back the bikes. He said that for most people he would request 2,000 shekels, but that I had an honest face and he trusts his judgement of character, and that he was not at all worried that I wouldn't bring back the bikes. I suppose he is right.

The bike purchase was an interaction that felt uniquely Israeli. At least that's what I thought, but I did not have a true sense of the Israeli experience until I opened up a bank account here. Up to now, I managed to get by with a US credit card and using ATM machines, but there are too many situations where it is inconvenient to be without a checkbook or an Israeli credit card, so I broke down and took the plunge. After our experiences with Israeli bureaucracy obtaining Ann's visa and getting my city parking permit, I dialed in my expectations, cleared my schedule, collected every possible document I could conceive of, except my American passport, which I assumed I would not need, and headed to the Mizrachi bank on my bike.

As an aside, my previous visit to a Mizrachi bank was somewhat awkward. I needed to exchange a document related to our apartment lease at a Mizrachi bank in Petach Tikvah, about a 15 minute drive East of Tel Aviv. When I arrived at the bank, there was a line of people standing at the entrance door and a guard holing the door to let people in one at a time after screening them. For some reason, he was not letting anyone in right now, so I assumed that there was some maximum number of people they wanted in the bank at any given time. The line was daunting, and I hoped that I would not have to wait in this line of about 15 people just to drop off my document and get a replacement. I walked up to the guard, avoiding the hostile stares of those whose line I hoped to cut and mentally prepared my case. "Excuse me, I'm just here to exchange this document," and I held up my one pager for him to see. He looked at me and sarcastically said, "Well, I'm just here to make a deposit." I was confused. "Oh, I thought you were a guard," I said. He looked at me like I was crazy: "What kind of guard? What are you talking about?" The crowd behind us was now more curious and perhaps entertained than hostile. I asked him why nobody was going into the bank if he's not a guard. Someone behind me replied that they were waiting for the bank to open. I sheepishly moved to the back of the line, and a few minutes later the bank opened, and I took care of my document exchange and got out of there as quickly as I could. Sometimes being a foreigner can make you feel very small.

Anyway, I did not make that mistake again and made sure that the Mizrachi bank in Ramat Aviv was open for business before entering. I asked someone who worked there where I go to open a new account and was directed to a desk in the back of the bank. As I sat down, I inspected the comfort level of my chair, as I expected to spend a considerable percentage of my time that day in it. The bank worker was very friendly, and she started asking me questions. Ten minutes later, we had gotten to know each other pretty well, but she had still not asked me a single question related to open up the account. To get us on track, I told her that I had never had a bank account in Israel, and so I was not familiar with the process. She assured me that it's very simple. She asked for my Israeli identity card and upon receiving it began typing on her computer. She paused from time to time to ask me questions. How old were my kids? What school do they go to? How do they like it here versus in the States? Questions that I suppose are necessary for opening up a bank account. Regardless of my natural impatience when filling out applications at the bank, I'll take extreme friendliness any day over any other kind of interaction. That said, I wondered if I was going to get out of this bank without an invitation to Shabbat dinner.

Once she had assessed the kind of account I wanted based on my banking needs (a judgment I felt I had to leave in her hands, as I was more confused by my options at the bank than I was about cell phone plans when I bought Elana's phone), the woman, whose name is Hen (pronounced with the harsh sounding H of Hanukkah, for which there is no letter in English) began printing out pages upon pages of documents, which she proceeded to review with me. These were the terms of my account. As she was turning the pages and showing me the terms, she whispered to me that nobody really reads these, and that she had never even read them, so I should just ignore them. Practical advice, which I don't imagine you get from the bank when opening an account in the States. The rules are different in Israel. You pay for every single teller transaction. You even pay to deposit cash in an ATM. There's apparently a fee for asking what the fees are and a fee for receiving the answer. Once the account was open, I was afraid to cough in the bank, because somewhere in my documents there was a fee listed for that. I declined an ATM card because the fees are high, and my US card works fine here. I did, however, sign up for a VISA card. Luckily, there is a promotion where you get an Israeli VISA card that is free for the first year, but then the fees are higher in subsequent years. Hen told me that there was no cancellation fee, and since we're leaving in less than a year, it seemed like a pretty good deal. When the time comes, we'll see if I'm really able to cancel the card with no penalties.

Banking is different in other ways as well. For example, when you order checks, you have to come back to the bank a week later to pick them up. They won't send them to your house, they don't notify you when the checks arrive, and they will not tell you on the phone if the checks are there. As I indicated, the service is much more personable. I was comparing stories with my cousin Abby who is visiting Jerusalem right now, and she told me of a recent bank experience. She was cashing a check and asked to get some of the money back in cash. When the teller looked at the amount, she said, "Why so much? Do you really need to carry that much cash around?" I cannot imagine that kind of comment at the PNC bank in Lutherville.

Once you have a bank account in Israel, the next step is to get money in. One way is to wire the funds from the US. Once the bank receives the wire, they call you, and you have to come in to transfer the money into your checking account. Of course, there are fees associated with that, and a commission on the exchange rate. The best way to get money into Israel seems to be via PayPal. I set up an Israeli PayPal account and linked it to my bank in the US and to the Mizrachi bank. Then I transferred funds through Paypal, and PayPal does the currency conversion at the going commercial rate, with no commissions. I was impressed that when I tried to transfer funds, my account was suspended, and the fraud prevention department at PayPal called me to verify my attempt before they would let the transaction through.

All told, I was out of the bank in less than two hours. The only two documents that they needed were my national ID card and, wouldn't you know it, my American passport. Apparently, I had to fill out a form to register as a dual citizen for some tax reason, and they needed a copy of my passport, the only document that I left at home. So, I brought the passport in the next day and everything was fine.

Tonight is Erev Simchat Torah, the Eve of the celebration of the Torah, which my friends in Nashville when I was growing up commonly referred to as "Another one of those made up Avi Rubin holidays". Here in Israel, this is one of the most joyous events of the year. We celebrate that another year has elapsed, and we roll the Torah scrolls back to their starting point and commence the reading of the Torah from "In the beginning." After the holiday, all of the neighborhoods have massive outdoor parties with bands playing music, dancing in the streets, food, etc. I've been told that it's not something to be missed, so we are looking forward to a great time.

Next week, Ann starts her Ulpan, which is an intensive immersion Hebrew program. She will have class downtown for almost 4 hours per day, four days a week for the next five months. The kids get back to school after more than a week off, and classes start at Tel Aviv University. So, our lives will get back on the daily grind track, enhanced by the novelty of being in Israel.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur has always been my least favorite holiday. There I said it. I know it sounds heretical, but for me, the deprivation from food and especially water for 26 hours trumps all the meaningful sentiment that is part of the holiest day for the Jewish people. Despite having built up some additional reserves in the last several years, I do not handle fasting very well, and around early afternoon on Yom Kippur, I get very dizzy, cranky and miserable. Growing up, whenever life presented me with challenges, my Dad would say to me, ".קשה להיות יהודי" (it's hard to be Jewish), and for me this rings the most true on Yom Kippur. One of the standard greetings on this holy of holy days is, "Have a meaningful fast." And, while I've caught myself saying that many times, the real meaning is that I can't eat or drink, and I simply dread it.

So why do I do it? I suppose there are several reasons. Fasting on Yom Kippur is part of who I am and part of what I do. I can't imagine not fasting - it has never entered my mind. Not an option. There is something special about standing during services with hundreds of other (hungry) people who are sharing the same experience and chanting familiar songs that Jews all over the world are repeating every year. Songs that were sung by my grandparents and their grandparents, and even by my ancient ancestors; songs that I hear my children sing, and that their children and grandchildren will sing. These tunes have been refined over centuries, a melodic evolution that resulted in sounds that would spiritually lift even the most agnostic of people. The final song of the Yom Kippur service, Avinu Malkenu, echos in my head for hours, and I can't, and don't want to, extract it. It's a part of my heritage that I experienced as a child in my parent's synagogue, in college at Hillel, and at our own synagogue as an adult, and without which I would feel that part of me was missing. For me, it's all about tradition and community.

After having experienced Rosh Hashana in Israel, I knew what to expect on Erev Yom Kippur. The stores that even opened that day closed around 1 pm, and the buses stopped running, and then around 4:00, the roads went completely quiet. Here in Israel cars are not allowed on the streets on Yom Kippur. Instead, nonobservant Israelis take to the streets on their bikes, rollerblades and skateboards. In fact, we biked to Kol Nidre services because we knew we would not be able to drive home, and walking would have meant starting our fast even earlier to account for walking time, a totally unacceptable option. I recall Ann making some comments about biking in a dress or a skirt, but that problem was resolved when she remembered how people dressed for Rosh Hashana in shul. The average congregant wore either slacks or jeans, a polo shirt and flip flops. There were some Israelis who wore shorts and T-shirts, and a group of American college students conspicuous in their dress slacks and ties. The rabbi had prepared us for this by stating the dress code: no ties allowed, and anything else goes. At Kol Nidre, one fellow arrived wearing a white t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with his rollerblades hanging over his shoulder, presumably his ride home.

After Kol Nidre, we left the shul to a unique spectacle. All of Ramat Aviv was out in the streets. Most were riding bikes, but many were just standing around talking. The streets were so crowded, that we had to ride our bikes for one stretch on the sidewalk, which I felt kind of defeated the purpose of being able to ride our bikes in the street. When we got to the major road, the crowd thinned out a bit, and we were able to ride in the middle of the street, along with hundreds of other people. You would think that on these split highways, people would ride in the same directions that traffic normally flows, but you would be wrong. There was random two-way bike traffic on both sides of the median, so we had to pay close attention as we rode to avoid bumping into oncoming bikers. This was especially stressful as I was the lead bike with my three children behind me and Ann bringing up the rear. While there are no traffic accidents on Yom Kippur, I would bet that the emergency rooms are more crowded on this day than any other because Israelis seem just as reckless on bikes as they do in their cars, and the bikers ranged in age from 2 year olds with training wheels to senior citizens. I shot this 17 second video with my iPhone right outside of the shul:

I woke up on Yom Kippur morning thinking of food and knowing from experience that I would be fine until about noon, when I would start deteriorating steadily. While Ann fed the twins breakfast upstairs, I got ready to leave for morning services. I don't know how Ann is able to prepare the kids' food during Yom Kippur while fasting. I prefer not to see anything edible. Elana fasted last year and was determined to do so again this year. I took great inspiration watching this 11 year old kid with a will of iron go through the day with no food or drink. Elana knew she could quit at any time, but she managed to fast until the very end. (Only later did I learn that she had a 10 shekel bet with her friend Daniel that she would be able to fast the whole time.) During some of my rougher patches, I looked at Elana and said to myself that if she can do it, so can I.

After Tamara and Benny had eaten breakfast, we rode our bikes to shul. It is one thing to know intellectually that the streets are safe for bikes, but it is still quite an experience to turn from our small neighborhood street onto a major road and cross a large intersection by bicycle, with the children following close behind.

The ride home in the early afternoon was uphill and more challenging because it was hotter out, and hunger, thirst and exhaustion were settling in. We considered riding back to the synagogue for the evening Neila service, but I did not want Elana riding a bike in her weakened condition, and was frankly not so confident in mine and Ann's abilities to ride safely either, so we walked. The rabbi announced that the service would end at 6:30, and a woman congregant raised her hand and exclaimed that it was actually 6:26 pm, generating widespread laughter. At 6:18, the Hazan (cantor), who had not paced himself that well, finished the service. An awkward silence ensued. The rabbi stalled by making some announcements, but could not fill the time. Sensing restlessness in the congregation, he sent someone outside to see if he could observe 3 stars, and upon an affirmative response, proceeded to call for the tekiya gedolah, a prolonged sounding of the shofar signifying the end of Yom Kippur. What followed is a blur in my memory, but somehow, approximately 3 minutes later we had made the 25 minute walk home and were sitting at the table eating delicious leftovers from Ann's pre-fast extravaganza. I'm not certain, but there's a pretty good chance that we set some olympic records getting home. I noticed that most of the people walking home from various services were not lingering to socialize in their customary way, but were setting speed records of their own, walking with a purpose, and carrying any small children with them who might have slowed them down.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement when we seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings during the past year. I wish the Jewish scholars who set the rules had come up with something easier. How about a simple "I'm sorry"? But, they chose fasting, and so another year has gone by, and another fast is done. Until next year, I plan on enjoying every meal, every snack, and every nosh that comes my way. Gmar Chatima Tova to all my friends who observe Yom Kippur. May you have a healthy, happy, peaceful and prosperous year!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rosh Hashana

The warnings began on Sunday morning at the university. First, a colleague stopped by to give me a heads up. A couple of hours later, a friend, Benny Pinkas sent me an email tip. By the afternoon, Sharon Geva had weighed in sounding the alarm, and we woke up Monday morning at code red status. Putting off grocery shopping any longer would be at your own peril. Israel was about to shut down for almost four days, and you do not want to be last in line when Jews are stocking up on food.

Stores started closing at midday on Wednesday and would not re-open until late Saturday evening. Even in Tel Aviv, which is likely the most secular place in Israel, you could feel the electricity in the air. As Ann and I combed the grocery store isles on Monday to stock up our bunker, I could not think of a comparable experience in the US. The upcoming holiday hung in the air with a weight that I had never experienced before; anticipation was everywhere. It was part of every observation, every movement for the entire week. For some, Rosh Hashanah means a few days off of work and a couple of extra beach days. For others it is a meaningful religious experience. But in all cases, this week is a big deal. The country celebrates, each person in his own way, and without the commercialism that accompanies major holidays in the US. In the supermarket, it seemed people were shopping to feed an army, and given that this is Israel, in many cases they actually were. In offices that we visited, women were handing out candy bars and wishing people a happy new year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the buses went still, shops closed and the streets were eerily quiet, as ovens across the country lit up, and people prepared for the first of three dinner feasts in a row. Wednesday and Thursday nights were the Rosh Hashanah holiday dinners, and Friday night, of course, Erev Shabbat. We were invited to three different houses. If gastronomy were an Olympic event, Israel would have its share of gold medals, as each meal outdid the next in quantity, variety and quality of food.

On Wednesday night, we went to dinner at Zvi Geva's parent's house. They live just outside Rehovot in a beautiful house with a fantastic garden in back where the table was set up for about 20 people. Zvi's mom called for 7:30 p.m. (or 19:30 as it is known here), but Sharon advised us that start times here are "open to interpretation". In fact, on a couple of occasion we arrived somewhere at the announced time, and people were not ready for us yet. Israel is clearly the origination point for Jewish Standard Time (JST). We left home at 6:30 and hit the kind of bumper to bumper traffic that I remember from my days in New Jersey when I needed to get to New York City during rush hour. Although under normal circumstances there is little in the world that I despise more than being stuck in traffic, on that evening, I felt it was a meaningful experience, as millions of Jews were all heading to Rosh Hashana dinner at the same time, and most of them appeared to be in my lane. It was a shared moment that made the 5 mph drive a bit more tolerable (not really). We arrived about half an hour late, which meant that we were one of the first ones to show up.

The dinner was an absolute feast, and at midnight we rolled over to our car to head home - and once again hit complete gridlock. While my sensibility was telling me how wonderful it was to share the road with so many celebrating Jews returning from their holiday dinner, I would be lying if I said I was thrilled, and we got home well after 1:00 in the morning.

The next morning, we woke up the kids so that we could get to shul in time for services. The congregation is led by an American Rabbi named Jeff Cymet, whose brother coincidentally lives in Owings Mills and belongs to our synagogue there. The Rabbi had perviously reached out to us when we arrived in Israel and invited us to dinner at his house, and we got to know his lovely Australian-born wife and three kids, two of whom are close in age to ours. Benny who had been playing with their children all evening, commented when we left that he had forgotten he wasn't in America that evening, the ultimate compliment. Rosh Hashana services were very familiar. The only difference from the typical conservative service was that the sermon was in Hebrew, and I did my best to whisper a simultaneous translation to Ann, hoping not to get shushed by anyone.

After services, lack of sleep from the previous night took its toll, and we took afternoon naps to recharge our batteries as another major holiday meal awaited us that evening at Rabbi Cymet's house. We managed to force ourselves to show up a little late, and still felt like we arrived early. There were several families in attendance, one of whom actually arrived almost 2 hours late, during the middle of the meal. I think I need to buy a watch that uses JST to be more socially accepted here. I'll just set it back an hour and a half. The meal was completely out of control. There were at least four main meat dishes, a couple of vegetarian dishes, two types of soup, salad, gefilte fish, several side dishes, and many different desserts and fruit at the end. Luckily, my stomach had stretched out the night before, and I was able to consume about twice my previous record. We were 2/3 of the way through our holiday dinners, and I did not think I had the stamina to go all the way. Friday night, we had another feast at Sharon and Zvi's house, with many of Zvi's relatives, and while only two days into the new year, we had eaten about a third of our typical annual consumption by the end of that dinner.

During several of our holiday meals, and in the course of other visits here, politics were often discussed. Israelis have strong political views, and they are not afraid to share. This past week, the Israeli prime minister was in the States meeting with Obama and the Palestinian leader Abbas for peace talks, and it was interesting to observe the reactions of Israelis first-hand. It is hard to generalize the Israeli point of view for several reasons. First, we only came in contact with a limited set of people, and most of them are academics, coming from similar socio-economic and religious/secular backgrounds, and sharing similar world views. Second, in several instances my discussions were in Hebrew, and while conversationally, I get by pretty well, heated political discussions (i.e. political discussions in Israel) represent a challenge to my comprehension. That worked out okay because I noticed that the Israelis in my sample set were much more interested in telling me their political opinions than in hearing mine. Nodding and smiling worked great.

I'll summarize the Israeli points of view that I heard about the peace talks, but keep in mind that I've spoken with a relatively small, statistically insignificant number of people. The predominant opinion that I heard is that Israelis are jaded. They've seen this all before, and they don't expect anything to come of it. They feel that unsuccessful peace talks are worse than no peace talks, and that the worst outcome is a peace treaty that ends up meaningless. Several people expressed that they did not feel Abbas has enough power or control to live up to any kind of treaty anyway, and I heard a number of people state that they thought the talks were a setup to make Israel look bad. One person in a heated discussion expressed the opinion that the only outcome from peace talks is that more Jews will get shot as Arabs try to derail the process. I did meet a couple of people here who were more optimistic and who think that this time it is different, and that real progress will be made. Most people believe that some agreement will be signed, but that it will not amount to anything significant and will not change the situation.

What surprises me is the extent to which I sense polarity in Israel. I knew about the tension among the religious and the secular Jews, and I was aware that left and right were further apart than even in the US, but being here has brought home that the divisions here are much worse than I realized. I cannot tell if it is because I am older and more politically aware, because my Hebrew is getting better, or due to the fact that things really have deteriorated, but I am observing a political situation that is worse than anything I have seen here in the past. The religious right is growing in population and gaining control in the government. Many on the left see this as a threat to the nation and even to its security. One Israeli commented to me, "Who is going to protect our country in 20 years when the religious have full control of the country? They don't serve in the army; they don't pay taxes, and they don't contribute to society in any meaningful way." Another Israeli described to me how the ultra religious avoid army duty by studying Torah until the age of 26, and by then, they have several children, no practical education or skills, and they cannot hold a decent job. Yet another Israeli told me he can't stand Jerusalem anymore because "there are too many Arabs and religious Jews there." And finally, I also heard the opinion that Israel should return all the territories because that would "get rid of all the Arabs there, and they would no longer vote in Israel anymore and would have less representation in parliament". Several Israelis expressed to me that the difficulties that Ann had proving she was Jewish when obtaining her visa, and in fact the very need for her to provide this proof are evidence of the control that the religious right maintains in the ministry of the interior.

I have no doubt that the ultra-religious Jews harbor feelings for the secular Jews and the Arabs that are at best equally antagonistic and likely worse. My observation is that the Arabi-Israeli problem is perhaps no longer the biggest problem in Israel. The Israeli-Israeli and Jew-Jew problems are VERY serious. They are perhaps not as violent, but the long-term threats from this conflict may be just as dangerous to the future of this country. I am shocked at how negative some people are about prospects for inter-faith peace, and how unwilling they are to entertain possible solutions. In Ramat Aviv Gimel, we are living at the epicenter of the brewing conflict, as an international spotlight is shining directly on Ramat Aviv, adjacent to our town. The Chabad, a very religious orthodox sect of Judaism, is moving into the neighborhood in large numbers. I observed them on street corners on Fridays offering me and other passers by to put on tfillin and to say a few prayers. I've discussed this with incensed secular Jews who feel threatened by the Chabad who wait outside the middle school and try to walk with their children and preach religious faith to them. Before leaving Baltimore, I listened to an NPR segment about these tensions in Ramat Aviv, and now I've witnessed them first hand. If you let them, the politics can really get to you, and I've left several of these discussions pretty depressed.

Back to happier things, I'll summarize the holiday experience we had in Israel. They keywords are food, togetherness, more food, exhaustion, blowing of the shofar, political discussions, food, traffic, whole country celebrates, food, and little sleep.

My previous blog entry about obtaining Ann's immigration visa generated the most feedback to date. Some compliments, several personal war stories, and one comment that the Israeli immigration system is a utopian dream compared to the process for foreigners in the US. I have had enough exposure to the US green card system to concur. If adversity is what inspired me, then this posting will disappoint, as our Rosh Hashanah experience in Israel was uplifting and justified the effort of bringing the family to Israel for a year. A truly unique experience.