Archive for April, 2011

Almost everyone was celebrating in the Old City

April 25, 2011

The birthday boy solemnly holds aloft a sign saying he is three years old.

Easter eggs make a colorful appearance in the Old City bazaar.

A model of the Dome of the Rock tops a 'mountain' of hyssop in a spice shop.

Hyssop mountains and Easter eggs

Yesterday, on the occasion of our grandson’s third birthday, the family went on an outing to Jerusalem’s Old City. It was the sixth day of Passover, so there were many Israelis and tourists, including Orthodox Jews, soaking up the exotic atmosphere of the bazaar on their way to the Western Wall.

This year both the eastern and western churches celebrated Easter on the same day, so there were also Christians of all denominations. Christian shop owners were dressed in their holiday best, and candy stores had were decorated with baskets of Easter eggs.

For Muslims it was a regular business day on which spice shops displayed pyramidal “mountains” of hyssop and other brightly colored herbs; in one shop the mountain was topped by a model of the Dome of the Rock.

It was a warm, almost idyllic day in Jerusalem. Yet a young resident of the Old City, trying to ride his bicycle on the narrow streets thronged by visitors, was a token of the frustrations lying just beneath the placid surface.

Dread of dentists, and a dentist’s dread

Israelis have an image in the world of being tough, so it may be hard to imagine that many of them are terrified of going to the dentist. They’ll sit down in a dentist’s chair only when the pain from an infected tooth is greater than their fear.

But what fears do Israeli dentists harbor?

When the dentist I’d been going to for at least three decades announced recently that he was retiring, I asked him why.

“I’ve always been terrified of making a mistake,” said the dentist, who is also a teacher in Jerusalem’s only dental school. “You need knowledge, and you need skillful hands because you’re holding a high-speed drill and one small slip could damage a nerve,” he added. “I would rather retire five years early than retire one week too late.”

Remembering an architect who remembered others

Though architect Myra Warhaftig (1930–2008) was born in Israel, she lived and worked in Berlin for most of her adult life. Keenly aware of the fate of the hundreds of German-Jewish architects who were persecuted, deported, even murdered by the Nazis after 1933, she devoted herself to chronicling those architects, many of whom would otherwise have been forgotten.

She curated an exhibition showing the work, from 1918 to 1948, of 60 of those architects who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, most of whose buildings were in the International Style. Among the architects were Erich Mendelsohn, Richard Kaufmann, Lotte Cohen, and Alfred Mansfeld. The exhibition was shown in Israel, Germany, and the United States, and a volume titled They Laid the Foundation: Lives and Works of German-Speaking Jewish Architects
in Palestine 1918–1948
appeared in English.

Warhaftig published the monumental Deutsche jüdische Architekten vor und nach 1933 – Das Lexikon: 500 Biographien (German Jewish Architects Before and After 1933: The Lexicon) and she founded a society in Berlin for the study of the life and work of German-speaking Jewish architects.

May 3—Holocaust and Martyrs Remembrance Day, in Israel—is the date set for the Berlin unveiling of a plaque memorializing Warhaftig on a building that she designed.

Capital to have a new national library—in 2016

A $200 million project is under way to provide a new national library in Jerusalem, near the Knesset. The existing national library has long since outgrown its home on the nearby Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. The new library is to have a huge digital database that will be available to the general public via the Internet.

Now one can only hope that the stated completion date is more real than the one originally set for the city’s light rail system, which was to have been completed years ago and which is still only doing trial runs.

From salty water shall sweet tomatoes spring

April 15, 2011

Green tomatoes grown in clusters on brackish water ripen simultaneously.

Sweet cherry tomatoes, luscious wine grapes, and tasty olives flourish in the Negev, the desert region that accounts for nearly two-thirds of Israel’s land. Even fish—barramundi and bass—thrive there.

The small amount of rain (2 to 4 inches a year) and the desert soil, much of it sandy, would hardly seem conducive to farming. Even the discovery of a huge aquifer under the Negev, part of a regional aquifer under the Sinai Desert, would not seem to be much help, because its water is brackish (saltier than fresh water but less salty than seawater).

But Israeli scientists have discovered ways of using both the Negev soil and the brackish water to grow crops that are even better than those grown in seemingly more favorable conditions.

True, seeds and young plants need fresh water, but then brackish water can be introduced gradually.

“The secret is the [precise] mix of fresh and brackish water,” said Raz Arbel, tourism manager of the Ramat-Negev Regional Council, who recently showed journalists the area’s research institute and local farms.

Once scientists at the Ramat-Negev AgroResearch Center developed the appropriate mix of fresh and brackish water, they created a computer program that would provide it automatically.

Cherry tomatoes pollinated by bees account for 90 percent of the crops in the area. Rooted in sand in above-ground Styrofoam boxes, they yield about 100 tons per acre (which seems to be more than five times the average yield of tomatoes in the US). They fetch about $4 a pound in European markets.

In a seeming paradox, the “torture” of being irrigated with brackish water gives the tomatoes a longer shelf life and makes them three times as sweet as tomatoes grown on fresh water. The trick now is to get all the tomatoes in a cluster to ripen at the same time, Arbel said. One solution is to grow green tomatoes.

Chives, too, thrive on brackish water, and when it is used at its natural temperature (104° F), their flavor is more pronounced.

Not all fruits and vegetables have succeeded on brackish water. Sweet potatoes and watermelons, for example, were indeed sweet, but lacked their characteristic color and thus were unattractive to consumers. Several varieties of strawberries have not been successful because they require a large percentage of fresh water, but two varieties look promising, according to Arbel.

It is cheaper to desalinate brackish water for irrigation than to bring fresh water from the Sea of Galilee in the north, but it creates the problem of what to do with the extracted salt. Scientists are working on this, too. So far they have discovered that Salicoma, a tiny asparagus, thrives on the added salt, as does Med. Saltbush, whose leaves are a tasty addition to salads. Both are in demand in the European market.

The research center was founded by Yoel DeMalach, an immigrant from Italy, who devoted 50 years to developing plants that could grow on brackish water in Negev soils. Now the farming methods are being taught to students from China, Vietnam, and Myanmar, who work in the Ramat-Negev farms.

The center offers daily guided tours for groups and individuals, and local farms provide a variety of accommodations and attractions, including wine-tasting.

Photo and text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the photo or text may be used without written permission of the author.