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Friday, November 18, 2011

With Nidal at his studio.

Driven Artist

Winding down, or trying to. This is my last, or next to last, night here. It is Thursday, my flight is 6am Saturday morning, and I am planning to leave here 2am Saturday morning, by taxi, for the airport. I don’t know yet whether I’ll try to sleep a few hours first, or not. It’s about an hour’s drive, and Said has ordered a taxi for me. The driver doesn’t speak any English, so he will call me when he arrives and say ”taxi” and I will come downstairs to meet him. At least, that’s the plan, and I sure hope this is one plan that goes according to plan!

Tomorrow, Friday, is the day the gallery is closed. And it is just occurring to me that this, my last day, will also be the first day I am here alone with the gallery not open. The other Fridays either Suzi was here, or I was away. So it will be a bit strange.

Tonight Said took me out to dinner, along with Rawan, his daughter, home from Jerusalem for the weekend, Eiman, Laila, and Ola( who recently finished her degree at the American University in Jenin, is now working at the gallery while she waits to see if she passed her licensing exam in Physiology Therapy. She says job opportunities are good. She’s been working with a group of high school students doing their community service taking photographs of the remaining old buildings of the city. And she also helps with interviewing the elders.

The original plan had been for us to go to lunch at 1pm, and for Lilli to join us. But Said had lost track of the fact that these high school groups were coming, so that plan changed. Kamle therefore couldn’t come, which was a shame. She told me she’d be working in the office until 2pm today, so I came downstairs shortly before that to say goodbye. But she’d already gone. So I will have to call her in the morning. I feel bad not to be able to say goodbye in person. She’s such a warm and good natured person.

One plan that did work out was for me to visit Nidal at his studio this afternoon. Mohammed, as usual, took me. I have gotten so attached to Mohammed, and it was hard to say goodbye to him. It was hard to say goodbye to the girls, too, but maybe a bit easier than it could have been, as it was three of them together.

Nidal is the painter who went to Russia for six years to study, and whose paintings are exhibited currently here. He is an intriguing person, shy in a way but passionate and vocal about his art. His studio, which is right next to his mother’s house, is two stories high. The first floor walls are covered with large canvasses with sketched in scenes awaiting paint. It seems as though he’s easily got a couple of years’ work ahead of him right there.

Upstairs are many more completed canvasses, the majority of them scenes of St. Petersburg, (how did he get them all back here?), but also quite a few of local scenes, and some portraits and still lives. After we’d looked at as many of them as possible (not all of them were accessible, they are stacked all over the large space) he asked me if I wanted to see a few more in a small room. The room he led us to was in his mother’s house, next door, and she, clad all in shades of purple, matching her room which was also lavenders and violets, served us nescafe and almond pastries. I asked how many people lived in the house, and Nidal said only his mother, his siblings lived nearby. He’d also showed me some early paintings from when he was a teenager, and one that had a slash in it. Matter of factly, Nidal said his father had done that. When I asked why, he quietly laughed and said his father was foolish. I think he meant crazy. Actually, my guess was that he didn’t want his son to be a painter. Pretty lousy way to express it. When I asked if his father was still alive, and what kinds of terms they are on, the answers were yes, and not good.

Mohammed later told me tha Nidal and his dad were on better terms than they once had been. But when I described the conversation to Said, he said that no one from Nidal’s family had come to the opening of the exhibit.

The painting of his that I think I like the best is one that is in the exhibit, and quite different from all the others I’ve seen. It’s a young woman washing dishes in a kitchen, and more realistic, less impressionistic than most of his other 250 plus. He told me that it is of his sister.

Nidal is driven, his whole life seems to be devoted to his art. He works in the building trade to support himself, but told me about the vast amounts of money he spends to buy the best paints, etc. There’s a bed in his studio, I wondered if he sleeps there all the time or just when he’s painting. He is quiet in temperament. Mohammed, who is anything but quiet, has decided that Nidal needs a wife, and is trying to match him up!

I thought I understood Nidal to say he had never sold a painting. I hope I heard him wrong.

The restaurant we went to tonight is Kapolsky’s, which is part of a chain that has been around since 1934. I know that because it says it, in English, on the employee’s shirts. This is the same restaurant that I went to with Nidal and Mohammed a couple of days ago, the day I met Nidal. I hadn’t been especially excited with my chicken cutlet , although Nidal and Mohammed seemed to thoroughly enjoy what I couldn’t eat. I had been quite taken, though, with this very cute young waiter who constantly had a huge grin on his face. Tonight, he just beamed when he saw me, and immediately started practicing his English on me. Mohammed had said all the girls love him, and I can believe it.

Tonite, no need to wonder about choices from the menu, Said took care of that. He told me they always ordered the same things there, and had called ahead to say we were coming.

We had what seemed even a greater variety of salads than usual, and some that were unusual. One had greens, eggplant, tomatoes, walnuts, a few other ingredients. There were mushrooms with a tahini sauce, grilled eggplant with some kind of green sauce, which I think was my favorite, cole slaw, corn salad, etc, etc. I told Ola, sitting next to me, that in the U.S. we didn’t usually share small portions of many things like this, except for Chinese food. and she was surprised. Next came several main courses, again to share. A dish that was pretty much a dead ringer for lo mein, with about twice the amount of soy sauce than at home,, (Said said it was a Thai dish) another unusual salad with eggplant and a variety of other ingredients, and then, a potato and cheese casserole, bubbling hot. By that time I was overwhelmed and even though Rawan said it was very delicious, and I believed her, it was just too much, and too rich looking, for me to consider at the moment. Now, I regret that I didn’t at least give it a try. Everyone had had healthy portions of most things, interesting because the girls had just eaten a big meal a couple of hours before, at the gallery, and had told me they were just going to have something to drink at the restaurant.

Suddenly, the three young women, Eiman, Leila, and Ola, stood up and said they had to leave. Quickly, I hugged them all and said goodbye. They are all on Facebook, and hopefully we will stay in touch. Rawan, her dad Said, and I were left. Said ordered coffee, ordered tea for me, and our cute waiter brought a teapot with green tea and cups for all of us. He then also brought us tea bags with regular black tea. Rawan added the teabag to her herbal tea, which I gather is typical. Said drank his coffee and then his tea, I drank my green tea, and then we got up to leave. As we were heading out, the young waiter said I love you and made a heart with his fingers. I told him I loved him too.

By the way, on the subject of missed appointments and changed schedules, Lilli ( the only non Arab working at the gallery) had said she thought it was a different attitude about making plans, more casual, that when one said let’s do such and such, it really meant well, maybe we’ll do that.

I invited Lilli, (it only dawned on me today that her name is actually pronounced more like Leelee) and whoever in her family could, to join me for lunch tomorrow at El Baboor, the famous expensive restaurant in town. She responded by inviting me to her house for lunch, a different but wonderful plan. Even plans made with Lilli often seem not to come to fruition, largely, no doubt, because she is working within the framework of the gallery and everyone else’s style and schedule. But tomorrow I expect things will go as planned, since no one else is involved. It should be a nice last afternoon, and I look forward to meeting her husband and kids.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Very Strong Picture

I am back in Umm el Fahem, in my apartment in the gallery, for the final days of my journey. During the past several days, I have spent additional time in the Memory exhibit with Mohammed. One request Lilli had made was that I work with him on posting the English captions to the exhibit had They already had been written,and were on the computer. They just needed to be checked for the English and put on the wall. Lilli felt, and I agree, that it is important, with many English speaking visitors, to have the captions in English, and especially for the permanent exhibit.

Unfortunately, though, we discovered that the numbering on the captions is different from that in the exhibit. The reason, I am sure, was that this was originally mounted as a temporary exhibit, then rehung when it was decided to make it permanent. But it makes for a monumental task of trying to find and match the captions with the pictures. We printed them and cut a lot out of the nearly 500 captions. I doubt that we will get more than a couple dozen on the wall, if that. Lilli is nevertheless very appreciative, feeling that just getting it going is a big accomplishment. I hope so. Mohammed is very committed and motivated so perhaps he will see it through.

I am still focussed on the idea of creating a day trip here. Knowing how things seem to work, I am trying both to stay enthusiastic but not get overly invested in the idea. I keep thinking of the beautiful brochure that another volunteer, Anne, from England, put together last year, that was printed but never distributed, and is now unfortunately out of date. Again, though, Lilli says that whatever progress I make on the idea will be a help.

I have been in contact with Yoni/Jonathan (I guess he uses both names) Gilben, of GoEco, and briefly with Maoz Inon, owner of the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, and also the Abrahman Hostel in Jerusalem, and I think at least part owner of Abraham Tours, as well.Abraham Tours runs the trip I took to Masada, the Dead Sea, the hike along the stream to the falls, the camel ride and Bedouin dinner and a number of other tours. GoEco is somehow connected to these other enterprises, although I am not quite sure how. The GoEco orientations take place at the Abraham, and include a free night’s stay there, and GoEco advertises the Abraham tours. Yoni and Maoz are both enthusiastic about the idea. There is another organization called Marvad Yarok,, in English, Green Carpet, that works to support tourism to this area, and I have met one of the women involved with that group at a conference here.

My thought is a trip that combines a visit to the gallery with some other stops, making a day of it, and hopefully luring some people here who wouldn’t otherwise think to visit. The archeological site of Megiddo, which is actually also known as Armeggedon, is only a few kms away from here, and I imagine people would be interested in that. Mohammed took me out there a couple of days ago.

There is a walking trail of Umm el Fahem, which has been published in book form with map and photos, developed by two men, one of whom is also involved with Green Carpet. I have been wanting to walk the trail, or at least part of it, since I got here. What has been holding me back is the incredible steepness of the hills. Yesterday, Mohammed and I drove through parts of the walk. There were some interesting spots, but unfortunately a couple of the places that sounded most interesting are no longer there, a sesame roasting place and a candy making business. For me, some of the most interesting places on a tour, like the one in Nazareth, are the hole in the wall places like a spice store (actually, that was a pretty big hole in the wall!), and that was what I was hoping to find. There had been a halvah factory, owned, in fact, by a relative of Said’s, but it has moved to a different town. Mohammed and I did run across an older man who repairs shoes, bags, and zippers, and talked with him for a while. But it seems like most of old Umm el Fahem has gone the way of many cities, not just Arab Israeli ones, but cities in the U.S. too, whose center has been lost to newer development.

Along our drive uphill and then back down, we came across someone Mohammed knew. Actually, we came across a lot of people he knew, not surprising. But this man got in the car with us, and Mohammed introduced him as an artist. Well, I soon found out, he wasn’t just any artist, he is one of the four showcased in the current exhibit here. His name is Nidal Gabarin. To be honest, I have focused less on his paintings than the other art on exhibit here, only because they are impressionistic paintings, most or maybe all from the six years he spent studying art in Russia, and seemed less unusual and less connected to this area. When I went on his website today, I was astonished at the sheer number of his works, hundreds of them ranging from the 90’s to the present. I was quite taken with many of them. Many are Israeli scenes, which I don’t believe are in the exhibit here. ( I am going to take a break soon and go look – the advantages of living in a gallery!)

Yesterday, thinking in my mode of designing a tour, I asked him if he had a studio, which he does, just outside of Umm el Fahem, and if he ever had visitors. He immediately invited me, of course, and we set up a time for tomorrow. Which I now have to change, because Said just let me know we are having a goodbye gathering, for me, tomorrow at the same time. I am hoping I can still fit it in, in my remaining three days. And I am wondering where he stores his hundreds of paintings. He also told me that he has recently moved into making copper sculptures. None of those were on his site, though.

There were several cafes mentioned in the walking tour, and I had wanted to stop at one. A couple were hangouts where men were sitting and playing cards. I wouldn’t have minded going in, in Mohammed’s company, but they didn’t seem to be places tourists would be inclined to stop at. One place mentioned sounded nice, with a view. We stopped there, briefly, but the few people there were playing pool, and it was too cold to sit outside, and Mohamamed decided to go to another place instead.

So, we wound up, the three of us, at a restaurant which several people from the Gallery had mentioned to me, early on, as one of the best places in town. It was the same place that Suzi had not wanted to go her last night because the food wasn’t Arabic. I had really been looking for a very local type place, but I guess Mohammed didn’t realize that. I was getting hungry, though, so decided this was going to be my big meal of the day. The menu was only in Arabic, though, so I had no clue what was available. And it was extensive, which made translating difficult. I finally settled on roasted chicken, which arrived with fries and the requisite assortment of salads. It was, of course, much too much to eat. I wound up sharing it with both men, after convincing Mohammed that even though he was on a diet, it was fine to eat the cucumber and tomato salad with lemon and parsley. Once convinced, he partook of all the salads, lots of bread and hummus, a small amount of chicken, and a large number of fries.

This morning, Said’s brother Farid was here, the one who did the powerful performance piece at the Haifa Art Museum. I reminded him that he‘d said he would give me something written in English about his art. And I told him I’d written about him, and posted a picture from his performance on my blog. It was the picture of the kiffiyah and the tallit tied together at the end of the performance. I showed him the photo, still on my camera, and he said “very strong picture” as if complimenting me on my photograph, when it was actually the image he’d created.

Last night, Said introduced me to a man who was visiting from New York, although he was originally from near here. He had never been to the gallery before, or even known of it, until he recently met Said in New York. His name is Sameh Zoabi, he is a filmmaker, just finished his first full length feature, which is called Man Without a Cellphone. It sas recently shown in festivals in NY and at the MFA in Boston. He is married to a Palestinian American woman who grew up in Brooklyn and they have a one year old. He comes here over a dozen times a year to visit.

As you can see, there is a pretty constant parade of visitors, and I know I haven’t mentioned all of them. I can think of several more even as I write this. One photographer who was here a couple of days ago commented to me, everyone knows of this place. Everyone in certain circles, I said, to which she agreed.

I am beginning to get concerned about going through Israeli customs and security. The first thing that made me worried was when Lilli said, on the day Suzi was leaving, that the former volunteer, Anne, had been given a hard time when she said she’d been in Umm el Fahem. The advice Lilli gave Suzi was to not mention she’d been here unless she had to, not to lie, but to be vague and say she’d been travelling around the country. Which both of us have, in addition to being here.

I am having very mixed feelings. First of all, I am uncomfortable about lying. Not from any moral grounds, from fear of being caught. Also, there is a part of me that wants to be totally upfront, out of curiousity and also out of defiance. Lilli understood me perfectly.Suzi and I bought some glassware in Ba'arta, a town with a market near here. A town, I later found out, that was split down the middle some years ago, so there are now an East Ba'arta and a West Barta, and a fence between. Security questioned Suzi about the glassware, but didn't give her a difficult time. I look at mine now, realize they are wrapped in an Arabic newspaper. Is that what caught their attention? Or did they recognize it as Palestinian design? I have several other items of Palestinian design, needlework pieces. I ask Lilli if she can bring me some Hebrew language newspaper.

I would like to think I am being a bit paranoid ,but unfortunately I know I am not. The longer I have been here, and the more I have read, the more convinced I am that the Jewish government has and continues to treat not only the Palestinians but also Israeli Arabs as inferior citizens in many ways.

I am reading a book by a British born, Zionist raised, now Israeli woman who decides to live in an Arab town. She is vehement in her denunciation of most Jewish Israelis, even the most liberal ones, for their treatment of Arabs, beginning with the seizing of their land and homes in 1948. So many of the situations she describes, of people incredulous that she could live with Arabs, and with condescending attitudes to them, ring true to my experiences here. She also writes of young Israeli soldiers traumatized by what they are required to do. Of course, that could be said of Americans in the military as well. In this case, though, they are doing it, in the case of the Israeli Arabs, to citizens of their own country. I don’t know if that makes it worse, but perhaps it makes it harder to rationalize. The biggest point Nathan makes is the irony of Jews ghettoizing and treating Arabs in some of the same ways Jews were treated in the Holocaust and throughout history. She makes it clear that while the extent of atrocities isn’t the same, that in no way excuses what the Jews have done, and continue to do.

I, as a short term visitor, would not presume to make these judgments with the little I know of Israeli society, but I must say that most of her arguments align with my thinking, and that they are things I was already thinking before reading her book.

The book, The Other Side of Israel, was published about five years ago. The author’s name is Susan Nathan.. I am curious as to whether she still lives in the same Arab town, if her feelings have changed at all, if she has more or less hope for the future now than when she wrote it. I am thinking of writing her to ask.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Haifa with Hedvig

Haifa was the last stop of my Israeli tour, before returning to Umm el Fahem for my final week. I had been there once before, but only for a couple of hours, to see Saids’ brother Farid’s performance piece at the Haifa Art Museum. I had only gotten a small taste of the city. Haifa is known as the most mixed Jewish/Arab and most liberal thinking city in Israel. That in itself made it appealing to visit. But, in fact, what had brought me there was something different.

I am a member of an email list, the Czernowitz list, comprised of people with a connection to the Jewish history of the city. located in Ukraine. I have mentioned it here before. My own connection is double, one, that I volunteered in 2008 to work on restoring the neglected Jewish cemetery there, and two, that my own great grandparents are buried in that very cemetery, a fact I wasn’t aware of until after I’d signed up for the cemetery project. For anyone interested, that whole trip is documented further back on this blog.

Most of the people on the Cz list, as it is referred to, either lived in the city as children, before, and in some cases, during the war, or, like me, they have an ancestral connection to Czernowitz.

The list members are dispersed throughout the world, with a significant number living in Israel. Because I knew that my plan to live in Umm el Fahem might not be comfortable to some, I hesitated to approach people directly, not wanting anyone to feel any obligation to invite me to visit. But a member I know personally suggested a woman named Hedvig Brenner, known as the “grande dame” of the Czernowitz list. I sent her an email saying I’d love to meet her.

Hedvig, who just turned 93, promptly responded and invited me to spend a weekend with her. Although, for reasons of time, that got whittled down to just one night, it was one of the most delightful events of my travels here. Not only did Hedvig host me, and cook for me (delicious mushroom and barley the first day, wonderful chicken noodle soup plus wiener schnitzel, salad, and mashed potatoes the next) she invited the rest of the Haifa Czernowitzer crowd to meet me. It was quite a gathering. I “knew” a couple of the folks already, because they are frequent posters to the list, and knew of the others. When I asked Hedvig how many people she expected, she said, oh, about seven. I think I counted ten, and one person was sick and had to decline. It was really quite a delight to meet them all, and particularly a man named Hardy Breier who posts almost daily and whose posts are usually sardonic and witty, and always interesting. (Hardy, hope you’re reading this!)

Hedvig had recently returned from Germany, where she’d made a presentation at a seminar. Back about 10 or 12 years ago, after having retired from her career as a physiotherapist, she began a second career as a writer. She has written a personal memoir, and also four volumes of an ongoing lexicon of Jewish women artists, and is working on the fifth. (in German, she has hopes of getting them translated into English.)

She’s quite an inspiration, Hedvig, with her energy, interests, and enthusiasm, at 93 years old. Later, she showed me some of her treasured books, one was a children’s book in German, from the late 19th century, that had been published in Japan, with exquisite illustrations printed on rice paper. I can’t remember if it was that one, or another, that she and her husband had smuggled past the Romanian authorities when they left that country.

The walls of Hedvig’s small apartment are covered with art, mostly paintings by her son, who joined us and all the other Czernowitzers. A few were by her husband. Hedvig had painted a few herself, which she showed me. There were more paintings than wall space, and some were stacked on furniture, which she moved to make room for the guests.

Hedvig is tiny, and feisty. She is probably a couple of inches under five feet. She wears an enormous smile almost all the time and never seems to run out of energy. She let me (made me, really) sleep on her bed, and she slept on the living room couch. No matter how much I insisted, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m stubborn,” she said, with a smile.

Aside from hanging out with Hedvig, I spent part of my day cruising Haifa. Hedvig was clear that the number one place to visit was the Bahai gardens. Despite her own art background, she said, museums are nice, but you can see a museum anywhere. And she was right. (well, I’d already seen the Art Museum.) The Bahai gardens are spectacular.In addition to the traditional three Abrahamic religions, Israel is home to the International Bahai center. If you are Bahai you can visit when you like, if you are not, you can go on a guided tour. I was lucky to come upon the right gate at nearly the right time for the one English language tour each day. Although, frankly, it would have been okay to go on the Hebrew tour. You’d miss something, obviously, but the gardens speak for themselves.

. At one point, I asked our tour guide if he was Bahai. He answered that he wasn’t religious. He was, nevertheless, very respectful and sincere about describing the gardens, their symmetry, the use of water throughout, and the special feeling one got from being there. I told him I wasn’t religious either. At the end of the tour, I mentioned that I was living and working in an art gallery in Umm el Fahem, which I have been trying to mention wherever I go. His response – “Oh, I’d be afraid to go there.” So much for openmindedness. It is upsetting how many people seem to have that attitude. I wonder if I made even a small dent in his thinking.

Haifa is on a hill, Mt. Carmel, I believe. It seems to me that most of Israel’s cities are on hills. Jerusalem, I guess, is the original city on a hill,after which Boston is called the same. I walked downhill to the Bahai gardens from the bus, the gardens themselves descend steeply, in terraces,, and the city continues descending to the sea. I walked through the Arab market and just about to the Mediterranean, close enough to see the cruise ships. Luckily, there is a six stop metro, or perhaps better described as a funiculaire. The whole thing is on a slant, including the platforms, in stages like terraces. It’s pretty neat looking. I took it all six stops, which brought me right back to where I caught the bus back to Hedvigs.

The man who brought me from Hedvig’s in Haifa back to the Gallery was named Rohanna. He is a Christian Arab who Hedvig told me she had used as a driver many times. When he came, and I was still packing up, he sat down with Hedvig in the living room. I could hear parts of the conversation, discussing families, Hedvig’s recent trip to deliver a lecture in Germany. In the cab, we began discussing politics. To my surprise, Rohanna became more and more vehement as the drive progressed, angrier than anyone I had spoken with along my journey, including in Umm el Fahem He was angry at government policies that repressed Arabs, kept them from decent jobs, housing, etc. I asked him how long he’d been driving a cab. Twelve years, he said. And, what had he done before that? He was a chemical engineer, but hadn’t been able to advance in his career. I didn’t doubt much of what he said, and wondered why it was he who was so honest with me, or angry, anyway, not with me, but with the government. I would expect, although I don’t know, that Muslim Arabs are even more discriminated against. Yet no one in Umm el Fahem has expressed this degree of frustration to me. It was certainly an interesting, though unsettling, drive.

Coexist Redux

The "Suicide Bomber" piece at the Museum on the Seam.

I went in search of more info about the "COEXIST" logo and bumper sticker. Here is what I found. A Polish artist, Piotr Mlodozeniec, designed the image for a 2000 exhibit at the Museum on the Seam, which later travelled around the world.

The singer Bono later used the image prominently in his Vertigo tour. Bono says he first saw it spray painted on a wall in the United States.

An American company in Indiana filed for, and received in 2005, a US trademark for the image. They later filed suit against other online companies that were using it. The artist was surprised to find out that his image was being used for profit by multiple companies. He did not approve of the companies using it. He did, however, say that he supported Bono's use. Later, however, Bono's people chose not to meet with him at one of Bono's concerts.

The Museum made a statement that Mlodozeniec had signed an agreement with them at the time of the original competition, that they had sole authority to permit use of the image.

All of this was as of 2005. I can't seem to locate anything more recent.

As a 2005 article on the subject was headlined, "Can't we all just coexist?"

On a tangentially related subject, the Museum itself has been boycotted by the Arab family that had owned the house and was ousted in 1948. They, as do many Palestinians, believe that they were unjustly removed, and that issue needs to have been dealt with before a subsequent use was determined.

So many ironies.

I don't actually find, by the way, the image above particularly appropriate to these comments. I posted it before I knew the direction this was taking. A powerful piece, though.

The singer

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sabras, spices, a Roman bathhouse, and Saraida's great great grandfather's house

I decided to go to Nazareth on the basis of two things, a description of its winding old streets and market, and, a brochure I saw at the Abraham Hostel, with a photo of the Fauzi Azar Inn. I am sure that neither of those is the same reason that brings most visitors to Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood.

The Inn, it turns out, is owned by the same man who is one of the owners of the Abraham. The places, though, are rather different. The Abraham is new, modern, and bustling, with I believe close to 100 beds. The Fauzi Azar is located in an old Arab home from the late 18th century. The story of how it became an inn is intriguing.

About a decade ago, a young Israeli Jew, Maoz Inon, and his then girlfriend, now wife, were backpacking around the world. They decided that when they returned to Israel they would like to open a hostel. Once back, Maoz looked around the country for a location, and focused on Nazareth. He discovered a decaying, unoccupied house, found the owners, and made a proposal. What they agreed on was that the family would rent the house to Maoz, who would fix it up and operate it. They began with three rooms, eventually renovating enough of the building to open 14 rooms. It is a friendly and atmospheric place.

Saraida Nasser, the great great granddaughter of the original owner, is the manager. Her grandfather, Fauzi Azar, sadly died trying to put out a fire and save the house. It had been vacant since her grandmother's death in the 1980's.

Unfortunately, Saraida was not there during the two days that I was. But it was with good cause. She was attending a meeting in London for folks concerned with ecological tourism that supports the community. They present awards, and as it turns out, Fauzi Azar won first prize! So while I was there, we had a small celebration, wine all around. They are very hospitable in general, serve a massive breakfast complete with eggs, fruit, veggies, and the best dates I’ve ever had, always have tea available, and someone seems to bake a cake or two every day.

They also have volunteers, in addition to the regular staff, through GoEco, same organization I am volunteering with. There seemed to be a lot of volunteers there, including two, a couple perhaps in their seventies, from England and Scotland, who had just arrived, the same day I had. They were planning to be there for several months, past Christmas. I gathered that the woman, at least, had particularly wanted to be in Nazareth for Christmas.

Every morning at 9:15 the inn offers a free, two and a half hour tour of the city. They are led by an American woman, Linda, who has been volunteering there for over two years. Linda is warm, and wacky. I confess I was cringing at times as she barreled into a shop, loudly greeting everyone, in English, with an occasional word in Arabic. She seemed to know most everyone in town, not surprising as she does this tour six days a week. At one point, she admonished a small group of boys who were playing with guns in the street. Linda is not afraid to speak her mind. I certainly didn’t disagree with the sentiment, just the manner, a bit overbearing.

Linda took us into one interesting spot after another. One street was all carpenter shops, significant, of course, this being the childhood home of Jesus. Many places she seemed to have discovered and added to the tour on her own. We went into one amazing spice shop, although that description does not do it justice. There were spices, also grains, candies, herbs, of all kinds, in an immense multi- room shop that clearly had been there for a long time. The walls were decorated with all kinds of farming, sifting, and grinding implements, old jars, etc. I recognized some from the Memories exhibit back at the gallery. Linda said she used to do a 5 shekel ($1.35) tasting tour, where people could sample whatever they wanted, but it began to take too long. She encouraged us to go back on our own, which I did the following day.

At one point we stopped into a café, where we were offered a choice of pomegranate lemonade or a hot spiced drink with cardomon. While we were sipping, Linda pointed out a stone staircase along a wall. It stopped about halfway down to the floor level, and was decorated with clay pots as well as a photo of the owner deejaying, which was his second job. Linda described that someone had recognized the staircase as Roman, and was incredulous that the owner had half torn it down. The owner responded that he hadn’t realized, thought it was ugly, and only left the half of it to decorate with the pots, etc.

Along the tour, we came across a vender with a cart and an interesting machine that scrolled a raw potato into a long spiral, which he then put on a stick, fried, and served with ketchup. Three of us shared one, courtesy of the man. The others in the group didn’t seem interested. Linda said she was going to add him to the tour. I asked him how many of the machines there were in the country. He said 17, and his was the first one in Nazareth.

We went into remains of old caves, places that are believed to have old tunnels that haven’t been explored, a mosque (she’d brought scarves for us to cover our heads) and more. One place she mentioned, but that we didn’t visit, was some well preserved ruins of a Roman bathhouse. The reason we didn’t go there is because they charge to visit, and this was a free tour. (not sure how the tasting thing had fit into that.) But she encouraged us to go later, which I did, with the British couple.

The story was pretty amazing. The couple that owned the store above, and, apparently, the ruins as well, had been doing some renovating when the incredibly well preserved ruins were discovered. The government, then told the couple that they had to excavate and had to pay for the excavations. So now, under their shop, are the ruins. For 100 shekels,($27) negotiated by Linda, the three of us got the tour.

The tour begins in the shop itself, where ancient clay pipes can be seen. A hole has been cut out of the floor, and replaced with plexiglass, through which one can see down into the bathhouse itself. (without having to go on the tour.) Next, we were brought into a lower room, where there were tables and a kind of bar. The tables were covered with marble slabs, which I later realized were sections of old flooring from the baths. There we were served tea and pastries. We were escorted to a lower level still. There were the most impressive of the incredibly preserved ruins, the caldarium (hot room) which extended up into what is now the shop, ancient arches, sections of marble flooring, and the furnace, with charred pieces of wood still intact. Aside from being a significant archeological find, located in and under what is now a gift shop, the find indicates that the concept of Nazareth being a small town in the time of Jesus may be entirely inaccurate. A small town would hardly merit a large bath complex. Additonally, the excavated ruins are close to Mary’s well, a significant Christian site, where the Annunciation is said to have taken place. It appears that the well fed the baths. Some speculate that Mary, and perhaps Jesus, may have bathed there.

The name of the shop is Cactus. They carry a number of fine items, including purses repurposed from sections of Palestinian embroidered clothing. I asked Elias Shama, co-owner with his wife, why they’d named the shop that. He explained that he is from a section of Nazareth called Sabra, which means prickly pear cactus, for the large number of the plants that grow there. Sabra, the same word in Arabic in Hebrew, is also the word for an Israeli born in Israel, referring to someone prickly on the outside, sweet inside. I wonder if Elias knew that. I believe that he is a Christian Arab. His wife, Martina, is originally from Belgium.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this visit, aside from talking to Martina at length after the tour ( Elias, although the one who conducted the tour, is more taciturn) is because it is so unexpected. The location, the fact that it seems to be a relatively unknown treasure, the contrast between the ancient ruins and the quality modern crafts, the tour coupled with the tea and sweets, all of it combined to make for an interesting hour or so. And, of course, I did buy an embroidered purse. My way of supporting Martina and Elias to recoup some of the fortune they have spent on the excavations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Name and a Place

Saturday evening, Back in Umm el Fahem

My tour around the country has ended. I returned home to the gallery last night, Friday. It really does feel like home. I am glad to be back, although I thoroughly enjoyed my eight days on the road. It is hard to be living out of a suitcase, staying one, two, or three nights in a place.

I returned by cab from Haifa, another $50 ride. Getting spoiled, I guess. But I was worried about trying to catch a bus to Umm el Fahem, on a bus line Suzi had found but no one else seemed to have heard of. Especially on a Friday, when transportation stops early, although the time it stops seems to vary. The cab was well worth it to me, and I wound up having a very interesting discussion along the way with the driver. More about that later.

Now I want to backtrack for a bit, to Jerusalem and the two museums I visited there, plus my stay in Nazareth, and then Haifa. Not sure I will get to all of it tonight.
This trip to Jerusalem, I did not even enter the old city. I had wanted especially to visit Yad Vashem, the well known Holocaust Museum. But before I went there, I went to the Museum on the Seam, which a couple of people had recommended to me. It’s a kind of off the beaten track place from the many famed places in Jerusalem. I don’t know how many tourists make it there. I don’t know how many locals do, either. Later, when we drove past it on our way out of the city to the Dead Sea et al, d and I mentioned it to Alon, he was not familiar with it. Of course, he also mentioned to me, later in the day, that I seemed very concerned about issues of conflict. Which really took me for a loop. I guess I assumed that everyone in Israel did. But perhaps when it’s a constant part of your existence, it isn’t necessarily forefront in your mind.

The Museum on the Seam, at any rate, describes itself as a socio-political art museum. The name comes from the fact that it is literally on the line of what once separated Israel and Jordan, and now divides East (Muslim) Jerusalem from West (Jewish) Jerusalem. The house was once an Arab mansion, then later was a military outpost from 1948 until 1967. Elements of the military history have been kept in the museum architecture, although very little sense of it having been an Arab home survive, except from the outside. In the 1990’s through, I believe, 2005, the Museum hosted an exhibit called Coexist, which then travelled around the world. It is from this exhibit that the semi-ubiquitous ( oxymoron, I know, but I liked the way it sounded) coexist bumper sticker comes. You know, the blue and white one with the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian symbols worked into it. Except here, the emblem is black and white. Which makes me wonder if the image was co-opted, or used with permission, or if the artist and/or museum cared. I’ll have to check into it. One piece that impressed me the was a huge figure of a woman, perhaps 12 feet tall, with long black hair and a black sequined top, whose voluminous dress was composed entirely of images of September 11th. (that wasn’t obvious until you came close or read the description.) I don’t know just what the artist was trying to say, but it was impressive. Although I also have to admit it reminded me of two very disparate things: one, it looked strikingly like Cher, the top part, that is. And, the other image it evoked for me was that of Frume Sarah hovering frighteningly over Tevye and Golde in the dream sequence. I know, I’ve got Fiddler on the Brain, what can I say, it’s embarrassing.

The other piece, the one that truly impressed me, was the first thing on the wall as you entered the Museum. It is called Suicide Bomber, and is in the form of one of those army green Revell models we used to break apart and put together to form a battleship or plane or whatever. My father did the pr for Revell; I used to do a lot of them. So here, all attached on a frame, were the various parts of a body . Incredibly powerful.

And then, the same day, on to Yad Vashem. Kind of a heavy day thematically. But then again, that is kind of true in Jerusalem in general. Aside from events like Open Mike Nights at the hostel, and camel rides in the desert.

Yad Vashem has a Hall of Names, where it is attempted to identify and document all Holocaust victims, a continuing project. The domed room is covered with photos of victims, and there are files containing the documentation and empty files awaiting information. The History Museum which comprises the major part of the museum is in a building reminiscent of a bunker, angled so the visitor progresses through a series of galleries toward a skylight at the far end. The exhibit chronologically documents the horrors of the Holocaust, with many video screens containing the testimonies of survivors. At one point, a young woman behind me patted me on the shoulder, saying, it’s ok. I was startled, not realizing that I must have appeared distraught. I didn’t really respond to her, shaken and not knowing what to say. I looked for her later, finally saw her in the gift shop, and just nodded and smiled.

The museum was crowded, as I assume it always must be. The crowds were bolstered by the fact that there were what must have been several hundred young Israeli soldiers being guided through in a number of groups. Some seemed riveted, some seemed bored. Some of the guides were speaking in English, which puzzled me.

Yad Vashem, by the way, means “ A name and a place.” I just looked it up on

Coffee, anyone?

After we hiked through Ein Khoki and arrived at the falls, Alon took out a camping stove and brewed coffee for us. An Abraham hostel tradition, he said.

Shadows in the desert sand

It appears that I can add photos if I do so just one at a time. So here is one I am proud of. Just when I was despairing of how to get a photo of myself on the camel, I noticed the shadow in the desert sands.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A bus ride, a camel ride, a serenade from a Berklee student

Tuesday morning, onboard the bus to Nazareth:

Actually, the bus is headed to Tel Aviv, where I have to change for another bus to Nazareth. A rather circuitous route, if you look at the map. At first I thought it had something to do with going around the territories. But, in fact, there are direct busses to Nazareth, since I didn’t want to wait until late afternoon.

As I was writing the other night, from the lounge a couple of nights ago, a woman came up to sing. One of the guys had been trying to entice people to sing, with no success. He was very funny, offering things like free room and board, and drinks, but no takers. All of a sudden, a woman with long blonde hair was there, and said she’d like to sing. She did one song, and just wowed everyone, and especially the guys in the band, who were a couple of guitarists, a saxophonist, a drummer, and someone playing an instrument that looked like a combination of a harmonica, a keyboard, and a hookah, or narjileh, as they call them here.

They were all pretty good, but the woman, whose name was Emily, just put them to shame. Which didn’t keep them from playing with her, the bartender doing double duty to harmonize over her shoulder between pouring drinks. Emily kept trying to sit down, not wanting to monopolize the “open “ mike, which hadn’t really been too open before she arrived. Once, between songs, I asked her if she also wrote her own songs, and she does. Turns out, she is a Berklee student, and was pleased to find out I was from the area. I told her I want to come see her perform when she has a gig in the Boston area. We actually talked for quite awhile. And I googled her while she was singing! She’s recorded two albums, has a website, is on Wikipedia. (although it is dawning me that people probably write their own bios on wiki). She has the sweetest manner, yet belts out these songs in a husky voice that belies her demeanor.

Emily, according to her website, had just been performing in Tel Aviv, and was on her way to Ramallah and then Istanbul. But, she told me, she didn’t want to go back yet, and was hoping to change her ticket.

What a fortuitous event, for her and for all of us, her to arrive in Jerusalem, and walk straight into an opportunity to sing. When I left, after last call, and the last song, most of the musicians were kind of fawning over her, at the bar. Emily Elbert, check her out.

Yesterday, I went on a daylong excursion, from 7am to 7 pm, that took me and three Danish travellers, to several interesting sites. We had a driver, a wiry guy who reminded me of a young Joel Grey. He wasn’t actually as young as I thought at first, was actually in his late 30’s. He made it quite clear that he was a driver, not a licensed guide.. Not because he didn’t want us to ask him things, but because he didn’t want to be pretending he had more qualifications than he does.

In fact, though, Alon was a great “guide” although the trip was described as a “self-guided” tour. He joined us swimming in the Dead Sea, and hiked in with us to the waterfalls at Ein Khoki. He waited at the bottom while we went up the cable car and spent almost two hours wandering around the ruins. And again while we went on the camel ride. But that was all fine. I didn’t mind, at all, wandering around Masada on my own, except for the 15 or so minutes that felt like forever when I was lost in the ruins and couldn’t find my way out, and kept encountering different tour groups speaking French, Italian, Japanese, German, English of course, maybe even a Hebrew group or two.

I even ran into a group of three, touring on their own, who headed me off in what they thought was the right direction (it wasn’t) but not before asking me if I was really was from the Bronx (I was wearing my Bronx t shirt, which I usually take on trips but had hardly worn on this one.) Because, of course, they were too! I might have stopped to talk longer, although I guess it was less of a coincidence in Israel than it might be in other places. But I was worried about finding my way out of the maze and down the cable car by the appointed meeting time. Which I did, but just in the nick of time, partly because the line to take the cable car back down was long, and filled mostly with large groups wearing matching baseball caps or matching yellow scarves or something of the like. I guess if I’d had one of those I wouldn’t have gotten lost.

Masada itself: it is in a spectacular setting, situated on the flat topped mesa overlooking the desert and the Dead Sea. It would be renowned, I imagine, just for its location. But the story that stirs the Israeli psyche is the perhaps true, perhaps somewhat apocryphal, story of the Jews who defended it against a much larger Roman army. Until, when it was clear that they couldn’t sustain it, they killed their own families, and then themselves, rather than submit to being slaves. There are some pottery shards discovered at the site that have names on them. The belief is that they were lots for the men to draw, to determine the order in which they would kill one another, until the last one left killed himself.

The tour usually goes to Masada first, but when we arrived there, the guard informed Alon that because of the strike, they were opening two hours late, at 10am, that day. We’d already heard about the strike, which involved temporary workers, who do not get benefits, when one of the Danish guys had asked about transport to the airport that night. They were leaving on a 4am flight after we got back to the hostel at 8pm. What strike? They asked, and I, overhearing the conversation, wondered the same. Alon, as it turned out, knew about the strike, as I imagine most Israelis did, but had assumed it didn’t involve national landmarks, or whatever Masada is considered. Wrong.

We later found out that the supposed all day strike, which included all kinds of workers including many at the airport, had been negotiated down to four hours, until 10am.

So he changed the plan, and we went to the Dead Sea, at a different spot than the tours usually go, so we didn’t have to backtrack as far. I don’t understand the physics of it, but like in the Salt Lake in Utah, one is incredibly buoyant. The water is supposed to cure all kinds of ailments. It is also very strong, burns if it gets in your eyes, and burns also if you taste it, and can burn your skin as well, especially if you have sores. Yet it's supposed to be very healing for your skin. We all floated around for a while, then headed back to Masada, still before the major onslaught of bus tours.

There are companies that take the mud from the sea and package it, and at other points, on the north side of the lake, you can cover yourself with mud right from the beach. There are hotels and spas at various points, and the waters are supposed to have all kinds of curative benefits. Besides the packaged mud, there are a host of other Dead Sea products, using the minerals from the water. There’s a company, I think the name is Ahava, whose manufacturing plant is right on the sea. Or it it like Perrier or Poland Springs water, whose water doesn’t come from those places at all anymore?

The Dead Sea is drying up, and has receded severely over just the last couple of decades. What was one continuous body of water is now divided in two, caused at least partly by the government having diverted the water to the large hotels, which jut out of the land startlingly, so that they would still be on or near the shore. The Dead Sea works, which I believe is a government owned business, has factories along the sea, mining salt and magnesium and who knows what else.

Well, onto the next adventure. We went to a spring fed stream in the middle of the desert, along which we hiked for maybe half a mile, in the water, coming out eventually at a series of waterfalls and shallow pools. It was fun, a pretty easy hike, And you know if I say easy, it’s easy! Along much of the way, the stream/trail was overhung with plants I wasn’t familiar with, and called to myself bullrushes, which they probably weren’t at all. You know, the Biblical setting. In any case, it was very aesthetic. And, when we arrived at the waterfalls, Alon opened his pack, took out a little propane burner, a coffee pot, and brewed us all little cups of coffee. An Abraham Tours tradition, he said.

Last stop of the day, the camel farm owned by a Jewish guy who lived with his family out in the middle of the desert. His name was Ariel, he’d lived there and had the business for about 20 years. The area was still inhabited by Bedouins, who were once nomadic, but aren’t any longer. I think he had about 20 camels. They live about 40 years, he said, with the good treatment they get there. I don’t know how long they live in other circumstances. Ariels’s wife makes camel milk soap, and of course I bought some.

We had about an hour long camel ride, with all the camels tied to the one in front, and Ariel leading the four of us. The only somewhat hairy part was getting on and off. Not because of the height, but because the camels stand and sit in two stages, and when they are halfway up or down, you are on quite an angle and have to hold tight.. I was trying to figure out how to get a pictures of myself on the camel.. They were too far apart for me to hand the camera to anyone. And Ariel kept reminding us, anyway, to keep both hands on the handle of the saddle .And then, noticing the shadows of all of us on the desert ground, it came to me. So I’ve got what I think are some pretty neat pictures of a shadow camel caravan.

Along the way, Ariel made a lot of jokes. His English was heavily accented, and I’m not sure the Danes got all or any of the jokes. At least, I was laughing a lot more than they were. At the end of the ride I told him it was a great comedy routine and camel ride. I don’t know if you can call it stand up if someone is sitting on a camel, but he was at any rate a very funny Jewish camel ranch owner.

Along the way, he described the caravans that used to travel on these ancient paths, and pointed out caves, now abandoned, in which the Bedouins used to store supplies to use along the route.

Last event, also at the ranch, was a delicious Bedouin dinner, with many courses, as in most Arab meals. There was a vegetable stew, lentils, rice, olives, a delicious bread similar to, but not, pita. And more. And of course more than we could eat.

We’d made quite a circuit of the middle to southern part of the country. The entire day was quite enjoyable, due not in small part to our driver cum guide Alon. He was not obliged to accompany us on any of these adventures, but did, and also shared a lot of information with us along the way. He has his own van and driving company, and it seems as though Abraham Tours has been giving him a lot of business. I can see why.

I am not usually one for group tours, but this one was a delight. I hadn’t planned to do the long event including the camel ride, which sounded a bit hokey. But this was the only one that went to Masada and the Dead Sea that day. And the ride, even if a bit hokey, was, especially combined with the dinner, was a lot of fun. A good value, too, with the Abraham Hostel 10% discount, was quite reasonable, I think, just over $100.

Oh, just for the record, this was not the first time I rode a camel. I am an experienced camel rider. The last, and only other time was at the Bronx Zoo, more than 50 years ago. I distinctly remember a saddle with room for four small people, two facing out on each side. And a platform from which to mount. Or was that an elephant?

Don’t forget two J. museums

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Kich = Quiche, not Knish

My sojourn in Tel Aviv began on an unexpected note, as so many things here seem to have done. I heard that Said and Lilli were heading into Tel Aviv for a meeting on Thursday. Since I’d been planning to leave on Friday, by bus, I asked if I could catch a ride with them. No problem. Except that Said, as it turned out, had “double booked” himself, which also, according to Lilli, he often does! So, there was a police group, that meets regularly at the gallery, for some sensitivity training, I guess, which conflicted with our being in Tel Aviv. We therefore left late, and clearly were going to be late to Tel Aviv. The plan was for myself and Lilli to go part way in her car, and then meet Said and leave her car, to avoid taking two cars and also so Lilli didn’t have to go all the way back to Umm el Fahem on her way back. We arrived, and after 5 minutes, no Said, even though we’d left simultaneously. Lilli called, and found out that Said, as she’d suspected, couldn’t go empty handed, and had stopped at a bakery.

On the way, I discovered where we were going. It actually was in Herzliya, a wealthy community north of Tel Aviv. Lilli apologized and explained they’d have to drop me off at the train into the city after their meeting, since they were so late. I knew it was a meeting to strategize about fund raising for the Museum, and figured it might be interesting, anyway.

And it was. I heard the name Gilben, the name of the director of GoEco, the organization that had arranged my placement at the gallery. And I knew that his parents were good friends of Said. So, it was to the Gilbens that we were going. And the meeting, although the discussion was mostly in Hebrew, was nevertheless very interesting. A friend of Mrs. Gilben was visiting from London, and Mrs. Gilben introduced her as the first female auctioneer at Christie’s. Mrs. Gilben translated periodically for us. She was clearly quite knowledgeable about the art world, and had lots of good advice for Said about how to approach forming the American Friends of the Umm el Fahem Museum Board.

I found out later, from Michal, the fundraising consultant for the gallery, whom I’d met a couple of days previously, that Mrs. Gilben was the head of Sotheby’s in Israel, and had worked for them in New York previously.

When we got out of the car at their home, Said asked me to hold a package wrapped in bubble wrap, saying it wasn’t heavy. It was a piece from the gallery that the Gilbens had purchased. When they opened it, I saw that it was one of Fatima’s works, of just a black and while scarf, that had been hanging in the exhibit. Lilli explained that since the exhibit had been originally scheduled to end on October 31st, the people who’d purchased pieces wanted them. Said had a couple of others in the car, which I guess he delivered. So I suppose there will be some spaces on the wall when I get back.

When Mr. Gilben unwrapped the painting, I saw that tucked in the back was the actual scarf, the one that had been hanging in the niche, that had suddenly fallen when I was looking at it a few weeks back. When the meeting was over, I told Mr. Gilben that story, as well as how Halima had the children play with the scarves when they visited the exhibit. He seemed to appreciate both stories. He asked me what kind of experience I’d had with GoEco, his son’s organization, and I told him, truthfully, that I had been very positively impressed.

Michal, an American who has emmigrated to Israel, or, ‘made aliyah,” drove me into Tel Aviv, and dropped me off at the bus station, where I took a bus to Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s port, formerly a separate city, now part of Tel Aviv proper. She works for a fundraising organization that works with many non profit social organizations, including the Jewish-Arab school that Lilli’s son attends.

Did I already mention that the funky Old Jaffa Hostel is located right within the flea market? Where do you think I headed as soon as I’d checked in? It’s a mix of flea market items, junk, upscale furniture, and also some high fashion shops. I browsed for the hour or two it remained open, then just hung out at the hostel.

Next day, onto the Crafts Market, which takes place Tuesdays and Fridays. I walked up through Jaffa and into Tel Aviv, through some interesting neighborhoods. Most interesting to me was the juxtaposition of old buildings and modern towers behind. Neither was particularly aesthetic. I have to say I haven’t been terribly impressed with what I’ve seen of Israeli architecture. I eventually came into the Carmel Market, where Suzi and I had spent time on our earlier foray into Tel Aviv, when Said, Lilli, and Michal had been at a previous meeting. As I walked,the sky suddenly got very dark, the wind picked up, and it began to pour. Everyone took cover as they could, and the market quickly flooded. But it stopped as quickly as it started. I continued on to the crafts market, and within a short time the sun was out again.

The crafts market was on a large street closed off to traffic. I was surprised that guards were checking packs. It didn’t seem to me the kind of place that would be a target. Maybe it had been in the past. The crafts were a real mix of very tacky and fine. I bought a few things for gifts, but can’t describe them because the people they are for might be reading this.

I walked back along the coast to Jaffa. The surf was pretty rough. It was a bit nippy for beach weather. There were, however, tons of surfers. I had seen one young man walking with his surfboard down a city street earlier in the day. It looked odd, until I realized that the beach was only a few blocks away.

I walked a long way along the promenade, which I believe was built just in the last few years. Part of my mission was to try and find a restaurant I’d seen advertised, and also written up in the guidebook. What caught my attention in the ad was that it was a kosher dairy restaurant, which conjured up memories of Ratner’s and Rappaport’s, on the Lower East Side, and of kasha and knishes and blintzes and latkes. I only later realized that this was the same place whose description in the guidebook had intrigued me. I knew the chances of my finding it before it closed, at 4 pm because it was Friday, Shabbat, were slim, but it was worth a try.

Here’s what made the place so intriguing: they have a café, where the servers are all deaf. And a restaurant, where the waiters are blind, and where you are served and eat in total darkness. It was the café I was going for, the idea of eating in the dark would probably be an interesting experience, but wasn’t something I was particularly in the mood for, especially on my own. I am actually not sure what I think of the whole idea, it seems gimmicky and I am not sure just what the point is.

But, of course, I didn’t get there in time. It was just a couple of minutes after 4pm when I arrived. But they closed at 3pm, not 4 as in said in the ad. There were several men and women signing, who I am guessing were the waiters. I began to talk to one woman, who understood me perfectly, and answered with no detectable language impairment. I asked if she was deaf, and she said yes, she was reading my lips. So here she was, reading my lips in English, not her first language. I asked how many languages she spoke, she said Hebrew, English, and Russian, her first language. And she also knew the three sign languages. So I consider that six languages.

I continued on towards the hostel, looking for anything not international, ie. Italian, French, etc. to eat. My ideal was still Lower East Side Jewish. The predominant street and inexpensive food here seems to be felafel, hummus, schwarma, and all those salads. All great, but that is what I’ve been eating for the past month. I found one place that had “kish” but had to turn it down when I found out that was quiche, not knish. Too bad, it had a great view over the water. Finally came across a restaurant that had fish, along with the whole salad thing, and, hungry and tired, decided to eat there. The fish was delicious, the salads too, one was shredded radishes in some sauce, something I hadn’t had before. One was reminiscent of tzakidi, the Greek cucumber yogurt salad. As I had noticed some pictures of Santorini on the wall, which I was trying to ignore, craving an authentic Israeli experience, I made the correct assumption that the owner was Greek, and indeed he was.

So I am still in search of Eastern European Jewish Israeli food, which must exist, but which I have a feeling I am not going to find.

Right now, I am sitting in the lounge in the Abraham Hostel, where my Israeli adventure began a month or so ago. It is filled with all kinds of folks, all ages, many nationalities, although I have not run into any Americans. There are plenty of Americans, of course, in the city, but this hostel doesn’t seem to be one of their haunts.

And, right now, what is happening is an Open Mike. There are several guys playing guitar, harmonica, drum.The most vocal is singing the blues with a distinctly American accent, although when he came over earlier and suggested I move back , he sounded as Israeli as can be. Their last song was Hit the Road, Jack. Before that they did La Bamba, which somehow morphed into a Beatles song, which one I can’t recollect.

I was exhausted earlier after my return from two museums, the Museum on the Seam and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. More about those later. But now, revived after dinner, writing, and music, I have much more energy. But, as tomorrow I am going to Masada and the Dead Sea, a camel ranch and a Bedouin dinner, I should rest up. Especially since there was a note on my door earlier saying we were leaving at 7am rather than 8am.

Oh, one more thing to recount, though. Do you think I went by the shuttle bus yesterday from Tel Aviv to here, Jerusalem? Of course not. As I was heading out of the hostel, a very nice man offered to carry my ever heavier suitcase down the stairs. He was waiting for a woman that he was driving to the airport. He asked if I’d be interested in his driving me to Jerusalem, and pointed out that I’d be taking a taxi to the shuttle bus and then a taxi again on the Jerusalem end, which was true. And he offered what seemed a reasonable price. So I took him up on the offer.

On the way, he asked if I liked wine. There was a winery along the way, which happens to be owned by his wife’s family. So we stopped, I had a couple of tastes, he introduced me to about half a dozen of his brothers in law, and I bought a couple of soaps and sponges. The place is very popular, especially with Russians, he says. They like the wine. His family has harvested the land for a long time, there are olive trees as well as grape vines.The winery is on the grounds of a Franciscan monestary. I never did find out the connection, who owns the land, etc.

Although all of this may sound like a scheme, it didn’t feel that way at all. It was all pretty low-key, no pressure, and he was a very nice person. His family is Christian, they live in Jaffa, where I’d just spent the last couple of days. His wife is a teacher, and they have two kids.

The town where the winery is located is Ladrun. Last night, in the book I am reading, Ladrun was mentioned. The book ,The Lemon Tree, is a true story about two families, an Arab family, and subsequently a Jewish family, who lived in the same house. The Jewish family moved in after the Israeli government ousted the Arabs after the war in 1948. Ladrun was one of the villages. We also drove past Ramla, where the house actually is. Or was.

A charming ambiance


I am writing today from Tel Aviv, which I am actually about to depart, heading back to Jerusalem, and the Abraham Hostel, for another few days. Today, Saturday, is Shabbat, and I read yesterday, in the guidebook, that there are no busses, or trains, running in the country, from sundown last night until sundown tonight. I knew that was true when I was in Jerusalem at the beginning of this trip, but thought at the time it was because of Yom Kipppur. I had no idea that it was a weekly occurrence. I can’t think of another place I’ve been where public transportation stops for a day on a weekly basis.

So, I asked the person at the front desk after confirming that it was indeed true, how do I get to Jerusalem? Thinking it was a rhetorical question. But, as it turns out, there is a shuttle bus, that goes frequently. Glad I asked. I enjoyed Tel Aviv, but wasn’t looking forward to killing the day here, until sunset, especially as everything is closed. And I thought Tel Aviv was the most secular city here.

The hostel here, an interesting place called the Old Jaffa Hostel, serves breakfast, supposedly from 8 am to 10 am. But by nine, there was no sign of any breakfast. Not that the breakfast here is anything to write home about, even though that is exactly what I am doing! Several other people up on the roof, where breakfast is served, had concluded that breakfast also wasn’t served on Saturday, when along came a woman and her young son to set things up. It was about 9 am. So, I suppose Jewish Israeli time may run on the off-again on-again schedule as in Umm el Fahem. Or, she was just late. The breakfast wasn’t terrific, anyway, in fact it may have been the worst breakfast I have ever had. It was instant coffee, white bread, the icky sweetest jam I have ever come across, and nutella, which I am sorry to say I don’t much like. Ah, but today’s breakfast, when it finally appeared, included peanut butter, too. I was tempted to try pb and nutella, which I am sure has been done before, but didn’t want to waste if I didn’t like it.

Lots of people had their own supplies, hummus and cereal and other stuff, but all of them seemed to be greatly craving coffee, until the woman arrived.

The hostel is an interesting place. Lonely Planet describes it as the best place in its price range, ie budget. Tel Aviv hotel prices are very high, on a par with Boston, maybe even NY. The middle range prices hover around $200. My private room is about $50, a little lower than the others, she said on the phone, because the window looked out on…..(something I didn’t catch.) But since online their site had indicated no rooms, I was happy to find out they did when I called. The dorm rooms are about $25 each. My window, by the way, opened onto an interior corridor on the floor below, which would have been fine, except the window didn’t close and so it was kind of noisy. The room itself, and the whole place, is kind of funky. It’s an old mansion from the Ottoman period, with old photos, sculpture, etc. all around, including the bedrooms. And old tile, and modern mosaics, , all around. It has, shall we say, a charming ambiance.

My room, amusingly, is called the TV room, a tile sign at the entry says that, and so does the key. I assume it once was a tv room. All the other rooms have numbers. There was indeed a tv there, but darned if I could find a way to turn it on. No matter. It didn’t have its own bathroom, that and the showers were down a half flight and down the hall. And up a half flight is the wonderful roof garden, where the breakfast is served. There is also a fantastic panoramic view of the city, including the skyscrapers and the older buildings of the city, and the ocean, which I am embarrassed to say I didn’t even notice the first time I was up there. So even though the breakfast was awful, as well as late in coming, it was a delightful place to spend time, in the morning sun, and also at night.

The roof is also where the washing machine (and dryer, non working) is, so I washed and hung my laundry along with many others and all the sheets and towels from the guests. It was almost all dry, when I removed most of it in the afternoon, but then this morning what was left was drenched. It had poured overnight, and in my interior room, I hadn’t even known.

While I was writing this, a hosteller came over to another, said goodbye and good luck with the film. I asked what they were filming, and he explained it was a documentary about Israel, without going into the politics. They were from Belgium. I immediately told them about the gallery and gave him contact info. Later, I could hear him talking to one of his team, and mention Umm el Fahem. Who knows?

Well, it’s getting close to check out time, without my having yet related my Tel Aviv experiences. Time to pack up and head out. Perhaps on the shuttle bus to Jerusalem I’ll have time to catch up.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thank you for coming!

It seems as though hardly a day goes by without an interesting visitor or group. Yesterday, there was a young writer from the United States who is doing a piece on art and politics in the Middle East. She apparently writing for the NY Times. I am impressed, she seems hardly out of college. But she seems quite astute. She mentions that she is from the Boston area! Turns out, she went to U. Mass. Amherst and to Brown. She has been travelling and interviewing all kinds of people in Israel and the territories, expects her story to appear in a couple of weeks. I am a little surprised, because the Times did a story about collecting Arab art that featured the gallery quite prominently, just a few months ago, in March. That will be great, if there is another story in the Times that mentions the gallery, especially as they are getting ready to launch the American "Friends of " the gallery organization, in NYC, next year.

My time feels like it is starting to wind down. Tomorrow starts a major Muslim holiday, and the gallery will be closed for the entire week. I am heading off tomorrow for the week, travelling to Tel Aviv (I decided it merits another chance, when I heard about their Friday crafts market and flea market!) I actually have a couple of invitations to get together with people there, don’t know if I will have the time to do so. Then, back to Jerusalem for a few days. After that, Nazareth, then Haifa, then back here to Umm el Fahem.

I will only have six more days when I return here. In addition from the English tutoring, I have been working on writing a web page for the galley on the permanent exhibit here, Memories of Place. And I’ve been working with Mohammed on his English/tour guide skills. Which has been great for both of us. He took a group of young American adults through the other day and did a great job.

Yesterday was Eiman’s birthday. She is the most modest and conservatively dressed of all the staff the most serious (except when singing children's songs at the day care center.. She is engaged, and yesterday Mohammed, her fiancé (a different Mohammed) gave her a diamond ring. She was beaming and showing it off. I asked if it was an engagement ring, and she said, no, he had already given her an engagement ring, this was a birthday ring. He also had given her a huge basket of mostly purple flowers.I had asked earlier if Eiman and Layla wanted to do English that day, fully expecting them to say no. But when I came into the office in the afternoon, they were both folding scarves, the ones Halima uses with the children. They looked very appealing in the basket, and they invited me to join them. So the three of us sat on the floor, folding scarves and putting them in a basket, and talking. Folding the scarves had been Layla’s idea, and a good one. Before then, they had just all been stuffed into a couple of plastic bags.

I decided that this was my chance to bring up my curiousity about wearing the hijab. Their first answer was the standard “it’s an individual choice.” But I prodded a little further, saying I understood that, but I didn’t understand what made someone choose to wear or not wear one. I was hoping they’d talk a bit from a personal perspective. I think we have a very good relationship at this point, and felt comfortable asking. And it seemed an appropriate time, while we were folding the scarves.

I mentioned my interest in knowing that Halima just started wearing one a few years ago. And I said one thing that puzzled me was that some women wore the hijab but also wore lots of makeup, which seemed to me to be a contradiction. At that, both young women got quite animated, saying they didn’t understand, either, how people could do that, it was just wrong. Both Eiman and Layla, who doesn’t wear a headscarf, were quite in agreement about that. But it goes beyond makeup. Lots of women wear fancy scarves, and some use special fancy pins to anchor them. I would just love the opportunity to sit down with someone or several women and discuss what wearing the headscarf means to them. Generally, married women wear them, and unmarried women have the choice.

Before I came here, I asked Lilli if short skirts and sleevesless blouses were appropriate, guessing that she would say no. But in fact she said that she wore sleeveless blouses frequently, and that skirts to the knee were fine. She told Suzi, though, that sleeves blouses were not appropriate (?!) And I don't think I've seen her wear anything but long pants. And somehow, I didn't notice until a couple of days ago, after three weeks here, that it doesn’t seem like anyone wears clothes that don’t cover their arms and legs. No matter whether they wear the hijab or not, it’s long pants, long skirts, long sleeves.So now I am feeling a bit self conscious. I only have two pairs of pants, and one long dress, and even that has slits on the sides.

Today I went to the post office to mail a postcard. The space was filled with rows of chairs, perhaps 40 or50. I took my number from a supermarket deli-like dispenser, and tried to estimate how long it might take. It reminded me of the DMV office. Meanwhile, I was very aware of a good number of eyes upon me. I guess it was because everyone was waiting, for quite a while, that I really stuck out. In the elevator, a bit later, a woman said thank you to me. I wasn’t clear what she was thanking me for. Another woman, who spoke a little English, said she was thanking me for coming to Umm el Fahem.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Of alliances, and philanthropy, and banquet leftovers !

Monday evening

Suzi left this afternoon, after a very interesting meeting that she’d especially planned to stay for. More on that below. So she left on a high note, although very sad to go.

I am now alone in the apartment, and alone in the gallery. I miss Suzi, and will continue to miss her, as this sojourn enters another phase. A number of people have asked me if I feel okay about staying here alone. I do, at least so far. Don’t feel spooked or anything.

I actually was invited to stay over at a family’s tonight, the same one that invited me before, when I had to return because we were heading to Tel Aviv early in the a.m. But, as you can probably guess, that didn’t work out. I waited an hour, first with Layla until her sister came to pick her up, then another ½ hour outside. Finally I called Kamle, since I didn’t have Samira’s number, and she doesn’t speak any English. Kamle called her, and then called me back. What I understood from Kamle was that Samira’s father was very sick. The rest was unclear. I think Kamle forgot to let me know, and then forgot about the whole thing when I called her!

In the meantime, I had a very nice conversation with a man who was waiting for his wife, who was buying hairdresser supplies for her hairdresser business, in a shop just next to the gallery. He spoke fairly good English, and we discussed the Israeli situation, the difficult role Israeli Arabs are in, caught between two cultures, and how he felt the Jews and Arabs shared common roots and needed to learn to live together. He said most people here, in Umm el Fahem, are of the same view. Everything I have seen and heard here definitely corroborates that. He said he’d never been to the gallery. Although he certainly knew of Said. I encouraged him to come (Suzi, I am taking over your role!) and I hope he does, with his wife and daughters. One of whom shyly said hello to me, with her father’s prompting.

The meeting: It was with a woman named Sana Shatsel, head of a Washington D.C. based organization called the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) whom Said had met in Washington on his recent trip to the U.S. Said had offered to host the meeting, to which representatives from area social service agencies were invited. ALLMEP works with Congress to obtain AID funding for Middle East projects promoting peace. They have about 85 member organizations. On the list was one I know well, Friends Forever. That organization was founded by a man we know, Bob Raiche, and brings groups of Jewish and Palestinian teens to spend a couple of weeks together in a neutral environment, in the U.S.

Sana explained that the coalition aims to work on a grassroots level, because treaties are only pieces of paper without the support of the people directly involved. They have worked hard to encourage AID to offer smaller grants, (ie. $100,00 and less!) with a less complicated proposal form. Applicants do not need to be coalition members, although they are of course happy to have organizations join. They are also working on a concept for a much larger fund, based on the model of the Irish Catholic-Protestant plan that poured “billions and billions” of dollars into Ireland, from government, philanthropist, European Union and other sources. Sounds pretty ambitious, and it also sounds like Sana is a one woman operation. I was very impressed and need to look further into the organization .I can see why Sana and Said felt immediately like kindred spirits. They both seem to be visionaries with the energy to carry their dreams forward.

Equally impressive was the work of all the participants in the meeting, who each spoke about their programs. One woman was translating, mostly from Arabic, to Hebrew and to English, but also in all the other directions. It was quite a multilingual task. There waa a social worker who worked with the disabled, and stressed that services are severly lacking, that people are not accepted in society, sometimes cloistered away. One woman was the director of two day care centers, that she’,d been at for 16 years, She mentioned that her centers included program for special needs children from birth to three. One woman headed a religious based woman empowerment program. One man lived at the Moshav just outside Um el Fahem, theJewish community Said and Siham had driven us to, where the guard said we should come back during the day. I mentioned that we’d tried to visit. He gave me his card, said I should call and he’d bring me there.t. He had grown up in Tel Aviv, but left there for here, about 40 years ago, and has been there ever since, raised his kids there, has grandchildren who live there as well.

Last to speak was a woman named Edna Fast, who described herself as a returned Israeli. She and her husband had lived for 30 years in the U.S., then decided several years ago to come back to Israel, much to the dismay of her children.

She was a lawyer, now has retired and begun a new career by creating a private fund that sponsors and encourages Arab and Jewish art in Israel. This certainly sounds like a perfect fit with the gallery. I hope she thinks so. She and her husband are art collectors, and have been shifting the focus of their collection to contemporary Israeli art, as she told me later. They’ve had to let go of some of their collection to make room for their new pieces. She also mentioned that her son was a well known artist, although she didn’t mention his name.

Edna described several components of her fund. One is a program that supports high school age Arab students to give them the skills to apply to and succeed in art school. They’ve had a three year pilot program that they are now expanding to other areas of the country. They have sponsored an exhibit called Jaffa Mosaic that is now touring communities in the U.S. And, she has organized Jewish tour groups that bring folks into the Galilee to meet artisans doing traditional crafts. “Sign me up!” I said. But I don’t think she’s got one happening in the next two weeks!

I’m going to wind down now. On the agenda for tomorrow: tutoring Halima, the art teacher who guides the school groups, and who takes the tutoring pretty seriously. I hope I get going in time to join the school group visit itself, love to see them bringing the kids through the gallery, have them dance to traditional music, play with veils, etc. I also am scheduled to meet with Mohammed, to practice his English skills in the Memories of Place exhibit. That has been going extremely well, I will write more about that soon. And, I have my on again/off again staff group after that. Which is now down to just Eiman and Layla, since Mohammed and I have been meeting separately, and Rawan is gone. I think there might be more chance of it working with just the two of them and me. Except that Layla just told me earlier tonite that tomorrow is Eiman’s birthday..

By the way, after today’s meeting, there was an especially elaborate spread for lunch, including chicken, liver, salads, rice, breads, pastries, fruit. And lots of leftovers, some of which staff took home, and some, of course, which is now in my fridge, has provided supper for me tonight, and probably for another day or two.