Archive for March, 2012

A chicken in every pot, a doctor for every egg

March 21, 2012

Shakshouka, the specialty of Dr. Shakshouka in Jaffa, consists of sunny-side-up eggs in a tangy tomato sauce.

There was a time when every Jewish mother wanted to be able to brag about “My son, the doctor.” Even now, according to a report in the daily Ha’aretz, the profession most desired for their children by Israeli parents is medicine. In a recent survey by Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry, which included 528 subjects, 24 percent chose medicine and only 2 percent chose teaching.

Israel has found a clever way to satisfy the 24 percent without their having to put their children through medical school. Every specialist, especially outside the field of medicine, is a doctor. Many are associated with the culinary arts. Thus, we have in Jaffa (Tel Aviv’s southern half) the restaurant called Dr. Shakshouka, which specializes in Tripolitanian cuisine, and Dr. Lek (“lick”), an ice cream chain. There’s also a Dr. Hatzil (“eggplant”) not far away.

Elsewhere, there’s Dr. Baby, which sells “sophisticated” equipment for infants, and Dr. Gav (“back”), one of whose designs I’m using to support my vertebrae at this very moment. There’s also Dr. Or (“skin”), which, as you guessed, sells cosmetics, and Dr. Polish, which sells cleaning agents. There’s even a Dr. iPhone.

Now I do not have a son who is a doctor, but since one of my sons started teaching in a university I’ve been able to brag about “My son, the professor.”

Jerusalem Marathon ends; hail the spring-cleaning marathon

The 15,000 runners who took part in the second annual Jerusalem Marathon last week had to endure cold, rain, and even hail—in addition to the hilly terrain. But their ordeal is as nothing compared to the annual spring marathon in which almost the entire country participates.

Purim is the last hurrah for freedom. No sooner does that holiday end than the slavery of cleaning for Passover—the holiday marking our liberation from slavery—begins. In Israel, Passover cleaning goes far beyond the ritual removal of leavened bread (hametz, in Hebrew).

Every nook and cranny is vacuumed, scrubbed, and polished. Closets are emptied and cleaned, pockets turned out, shoes dusted. No speck is safe. And that’s not mentioning the people who go after their ovens with a blowtorch.

It’s the time of year when companies like Dr. Polish make a killing. So do newspapers, which carry pages and pages of ads for miracle cleaners (though none of them relieves the need for elbow grease).

A woman I know who has three little children and is expecting a fourth any minute asked me to recommend someone who could watch her children after the baby is born, while she and her husband clean for Passover.

My accountant, who has eight children, revealed her secret to me yesterday. Her children do the cleaning. But the trick, she informed me, is to train the young ones to do it, because the older ones marry and move out and have their own homes to clean.

Not having eight children, or even four, I restrict my efforts mainly to clearing the cobwebs out of my brain and the spam out of my laptop. That’s about as much hametz as I can handle.

Text and photo copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Requiem for an idea in Jaffa

March 13, 2012

Fishing boats lie at anchor in Jaffa's port, which claims to be the oldest fishing port in the world that is still in use.

Jaffa (the biblical Joppa from which Jonah set sail before ending up in the belly of the whale) claims to have the oldest fishing port in the world. Some things just don’t change; fishing boats still bob in the harbor and fishermen sit on the pier untangling and repairing their nets.

For centuries Jaffa was the Holy Land’s bustling portal through which every pilgrim and immigrant passed and where many decided to stay.
On the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, it was the largest Arab city in Palestine, with some 100,000 residents, only 30,000 of whom were Jews. Now it has about 40,000 residents, only about 17,000 of whom are Arabs. Since 1949 it has been joined administratively to Tel Aviv.

The fishermen are still a presence, but Jaffa is again changing rapidly. This is due partly to the city’s recent investment in infrastructure, after decades of neglect. Over the past ten years it has poured in some NIS 1 billion (about $250 million), according to Ami Katz, of the Governance of Jaffa, an administrative arm of the city.

Once a crime-ridden, forbidding area, Jaffa has become Tel Aviv’s southern playground. New restaurants and cafes have opened in several neighborhoods, but especially in the flea market, where the city had to limit the percentage of new businesses to preserve its character as a funky place for bargain-hunters.

Other new ventures include exhibition spaces for art and design. One of these was the Jaffa Salon of Palestinian Art, which opened early in 2010 in an old hangar in the port. Two Israelis, Amir Neuman Ahuvia and Yair Rothman undertook the ambitious project of showing the work of Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. And in March 2011 the New York Times reported that Palestinian art was the up-and-coming thing on Israel’s art scene.

The Jaffa Salon of Palestinian Art was meant to give Palestinian artists in the periphery a chance to exhibit in the center of the country.

The Jaffa salon “was something I thought would be unique,” Neuman Ahuvia explained yesterday. Most Palestinian artists “don’t have a fair chance to exhibit in the center of the country,” he said. “They live in the periphery and don’t have connections.”

I visited the salon twice. I found the works to be of very uneven quality, but there were some I liked very much, such as small the iron-and-wood sculpture by Ahmad Canaan, curator of the exhibition, titled “Refugees”: an ancient boat whose sails are house keys.

Ahmad Canaan's sculpture titled 'Refugees' has both specific and universal meaning.

The theme is simultaneously specific to the Palestinians and universal. The sculpture touched me especially because my parents were refugees from Nazi Europe, and because it reminded me of what Jews had told me in Thessaloniki (Salonika):

When King Juan Carlos of Spain came to visit Salonika’s Jewish community in May 1998—thus becoming the first Spanish monarch to do so since the Jews’ expulsion from Spain more than 500 years before—community head Andreas Sefiha gave him a silver box engraved with an old key. It was a reminder that Jewish families had kept the keys to their homes in Spain, handing them down from generation to generation, in the secret hope that they would return someday.

Even Borges wrote about the keys of Spanish Jews: “Abarbanel, Faris, or Pinedo, exiled from Spain—unholy persecution—still keep the key of the house they … had in Toledo. Free now from hope or fear, they stare at the key, as the day slowly fades; the bronze contains the yesterdays, that remained there, a tired gleam and a silent suffering.” (translated by Nikos Kondos)

It almost seemed that if you had that understanding about your own people, you could understand the pain of others who had undergone similar suffering.

But despite the sanguine report in the New York Times on the flowering of Palestinian art, and although the salon was successful in bringing the memories and dreams of Palestinians to the attention of Israelis who aren’t necessarily museum-goers or art-lovers, it turned out not to be commercially viable, Neuman Ahuvia said. Now it is called simply the Jaffa Salon of Art, and it shows the work of twenty-five young local artists, only five of whom are Palestinians.

I’m sorry the old salon did not survive, but I wish the new one luck.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

What Odysseus and the Nile god said

March 10, 2012

While many Israelis took advantage of the beautiful weather to see wildflowers (and clog the roads), I took myself to the Israel Museum, a 25-minute dawdle from my house.

The shortest route passes the fortress-like Monastery of the Cross, built on the site of the tree that, according to tradition, served as the cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery is surrounded by olive trees, and today the ground was covered by a profusion of red poppies, lavender cyclamen, and assorted yellow flowers. A couple sat under a tree playing chess; others picnicked or just strolled, some leashed to their pets.

The Israel Museum, the country’s largest, sits on a hill above the monastery and across from the Knesset (our parliament). The land on which the museum and the Knesset stand, like much of the land in central Jerusalem, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, which has leased it to Israel.

I came to the museum with the intention of seeing just one smallish exhibition, a didactic history of design, and indeed I did see it, but long before I got to it my attention was caught by other things at the entrance. The museum reopened in 2010 after a three-year makeover and expansion, designed by James Carpenter with Tel Aviv-based Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. When I reported on the reopening, I wrote that some people thought the new enclosed entry passage was more suited to an airport.

Now, however, a few pieces of sculpture and mosaics enliven (somewhat) that gray passage. The three mosaics are parts of a large carpet mosaic from a sixth-century CE Jewish public building in Beth She’an, in the north of the country. One part depicts Odysseus bound to the mast to save him from the Sirens, and another depicts the god of the Nile River. The third part has an inscription in Greek.

The explanatory note states that “the use of pagan figurative images and mythological stories to decorate a Jewish public building reflects the persistence of the Hellenistic culture in Beth She’an, even during periods in which most of its inhabitants were already Christian, Jewish or Samaritan.”

It’s an important point, because today we often hear claims that in the past “all Jews did X” or “all Jews believed Y,” and especially that Jews eschewed figurative art. In fact, such unanimity never existed, and Jews did use figurative art, even in synagogues, and that is apparent from the rich trove of mosaics found in the Holy Land, which I wrote about in detail in Hadassah magazine last year.

At the end of the entry passage is Olafur Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” a 44-foot-wide rainbow of narrow painted panels representing the progression of colors in the spectrum visible to the human eye. It is one of two works commissioned for the reopening. When I first saw it, I didn’t find it very exciting, but today I noticed what I hadn’t seen before. The painting is reflected on the burnished floor in front of it, but that reflection recedes as you approach, just as real rainbows do. Suddenly the brilliance of this site-specific work was revealed to me. Click here to see it.

And on my way to the design exhibition, I stopped to see a new acquisition, a three-screen video by Hiraki Sawa, “Going Places Sitting Down,” which takes viewers on an enchanted trip of the imagination. Indeed one can go many places sitting down.

As I again passed all the wildflowers and relaxed people on my way home, my face hurt. I had been smiling for two hours straight.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Spring is a quick-change artist

March 6, 2012

The fearsome critters made menacing faces and brandished swords.

The knock on the door didn’t sound threatening. But when I opened it, in stomped two fearsome creatures armed to the teeth. One was a Mutant Ninja Turtle and the other was a garden-variety warrior, and both were making menacing faces (as much as I could see behind their armor).

Officially, Purim hasn’t begun yet, but in Israel it is a week-long celebration. After all, how will the nursery schools, kindergartens, and schools celebrate the holiday unless they start early? The kids are on vacation on the holiday itself.

Most years, the kids are disappointed on Purim, because the weather is uncooperative. It usually rains; sometimes it even snows. But this year the sun has come back to us in full force, providing perfect light for outdoor photos.

The Purim story, clearly cribbed from a Persian source (after all, there was no Hebrew word for satraps before the Scroll of Esther was added to the canon), is full of sex, lies, and reversals. It’s a perfect story for heralding the coming of spring, a time of sudden changes. Just two days ago it seemed as though it would never stop raining and the sun would never shine again.

Now instead of using all my brain cells to figure out how to keep warm, I can think about the costume I’ll wear to the reading of the Scroll of Esther. Something with seven veils, perhaps.


An almond tree had snowed petals on our friends' lawn.

Wild mustard grows above the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath.

No sooner is there a sunny day in February than Israelis go out in droves to see the wildflowers, especially the poppies that color the fields red. But because most people go out on Saturday, the roads are clogged and the outings are not much fun.

My husband and I are not tied to regular school or work schedules, so we’ve made Sunday (a work day here) our day for outings. And we go with another couple who, like us, are happy just to get out of the house.

Before we left our friends’ house last week (they live about one hour southwest of Jerusalem), I took a picture of the almond tree that was snowing petals in their garden. Then we headed for the Valley of Elah, half the way back to Jerusalem, where David slew Goliath. Though it was a gray day, the sight was amazing, partly because of its biblical significance, but mainly because of the profusion of greenery and wildflowers, mainly wild mustard. It was so different from the sere and parched fields we are used to seeing throughout the long summer months.

Spring that brings the joy and hope of renewal, also heralds the coming of our hot summer. We escape being trapped in the cycle only by savoring its best moments.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

That white stuff in the air

March 3, 2012


For a few minutes we could pretend it was Boston in Jerusalem.

The kids couldn’t sleep. Adults stock-piled food and heating fuel as if preparing for World War III. While many dozens of Syrians were being massacred daily some 235 miles to the north, the only talk in Jerusalem was of snow.

“Will it snow?” “Will it stay on the ground?” “Will the buses run?” “Will the schools close?” (It takes no more than a couple of centimeters to bring the city to a halt.)

I’ll relieve your suspense. There was a little snow Friday morning, as is obvious from the photo above, and parents were asked to pick up their kids from school, but five minutes after the photo was taken, the sun came out and melted it all. So for a short while we had the thrill of a blizzard, something that happens here only once in a few years, but there was nothing, at least on our side of town, to ski or sled on. (It did, however, rain in biblical profusion for four days; whoever predicted a dry winter must be chewing on felt or straw right now.)

In my mind, snow and Jerusalem are connected because of a photo that turned me on to a bizarre aspect of local graffiti. The winter of 1921 was particularly brutal, and two British soldiers posed knee-deep in snow for a photograph at the Western Wall. Clearly visible in the picture, on a massive stone just above their heads, are Hebrew names painted in square black letters.

You might have thought that reverence for the Wall would have kept Jews from defacing it. But although the Wall was still free of graffiti state in an 1880 photo, half a dozen black-and-white photos taken between 1900 and 1935 (part of the collection of the Elia Photo Shop in the Old City’s Christian Quarter) show name after name painted on the stones, always in square letters. By 1900, Joseph Moshe Aminoff had left his mark; Shalom Joseph Cohen Arazi had left his by 1910. By 1935, new names had covered the faded older ones.

In 2006, a new book titled Holy Land Scenes 1906, showed the names in color, in natural pigments of red and dark brown. According to author Yoel Amir, those names were like the notes stuffed into crevices in the Wall today; that is, pilgrims were among the earliest graffiti writers in modern Jerusalem

How many Ethiopians do you know with the surname Nevada? Our Government Press Office, which sends me regular updates on matters of potential interest (mostly photo ops of interest only to the politicians being photographed and their mothers), notified me this week that our Foreign Affairs Ministry had appointed an Ethiopian woman as ambassador to Ethiopia. Her name? Belaynesh Nevada.

And my name is Esther Arkansas.
Her real name, as shown in the accompanying press release from the ministry: Belaynesh Zevadia.

Sighted at a bus stop in Katamon:
A lost-and-found notice with the words “Boomerang found.” I hope the owner is not in Australia waiting for it to return.

Text and photograph copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photograph may be used without written permission of the author.