Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aroma Here, Aroma There....

Aroma Espresso Bar - Israel
The Aroma Espresso Bar chain is Israel's largest chain of cafes.  With more than 125 locations in Israel, it sometimes feels like there is an Aroma everywhere.  These cafes are in shopping malls, hospitals, street corners and gas stations.  The coffee is quite good.  In my view, it probably tastes better than the offerings of most Canadian chains, other than Second Cup.  Of course, that is also probably true of most other Israeli coffee chains, some of which I mentioned in my blog post about coffee culture in Israel in January 2012. 

The difference between Aroma and many North American coffee chains is the emphasis on fresh food to go with the coffee.  Aroma features a variety of salads and sandwiches which are made on freshly baked bread.  In Israel, some of the Aroma locations are Kosher but most are not.  The non-Kosher locations add chicken, roast beef and other meats to the menu.  The Kosher locations are generally all dairy.

The main location in Ra'anana, on Ahuza Street, was a Kosher location.  However, it burnt down in a fire last year.  It has still not reopened.  The place is still boarded up, creating quite the eyesore on a very main Ra'anana thoroughfare.  So Ra'anana residents looking for an Aroma coffee need to drive over to the nearby mall or enjoy coffee from one of the many other fine cafes in the city.

Aroma - Fairview Mall, Toronto
The fascinating thing about Aroma has been its worldwide expansion.  In 2007, Aroma landed in Toronto.  It now has 18 locations in Toronto and seems to be faring quite well.  The menu is somewhat different from Israel.  None of the Toronto locations are Kosher.  But the emphasis on fresh salads and sandwiches is what gives Aroma a huge edge over its Canadian counterparts and U.S. chains.  None of the Canadian competitors in the espresso bar field (chain locations) offer fresh food and salads.  The food in Starbucks is generally pre-made and unappetizing.  Second Cup offers a very minimal selection.  Timothys is even worse.  This gap has probably contributed greatly to Aroma's Canadian success.

In Canada, Tim Hortons, a coffee chain, has locations across the country.  While Tim Hortons is known for a wide variety of food offerings at very reasonable prices, its coffee is not of the high end variety.  Tim Hortons appeals to an entirely different clientele than the various espresso cafes.  Interestingly, a chain like Tim Hortons might stand a chance in Israel.  There are few places, if any, in Israel where you can get a bagel and a coffee for $3 (10 Shekels) like you can in Tim Hortons.  Then again, although Israelis might like the cheap bagels, they would probably not enjoy drinking Tim Hortons coffee..

Starbucks made an effort to open in Israel.  But it was very pricey and Israelis did not enjoy the coffee.  As well, it did not serve quality food.  Its stay in Israel was short lived.

Aroma has been opening other locations around the world.  There are apparently four now in New York and a few in different countries in Europe.  Looking at the current situation in North America, Aroma should be poised to continue its growth and success.   The combination of high end coffee and fresh food still occupies a unique market segment.  In Canada, Second Cup, Timothys and Starbucks would all need to reinvent themselves to compete for that type of business.  Or they could simply try to continue counting on their own marketplace niche.

The success of Aroma may well provide other Israeli cafes with the impetus to try their luck in North America.   Arcaffe, Ilan's, and others also serve quality coffee and fresh food.  But they will probably need to hurry.  I can't imagine that it will take too long before existing North American coffee chains begin to catch on and realize something that Jews seem to have known for a very long time - quality food is important at any get together... 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem - Yossi Klein Halevi - Review

As a bit of a counterpoint to the book I last reviewed (My Promised Land by Ari Shavit), I made my way through Yossi Klein Halevi's latest book, Like Dreamers:  The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.

Halevi's book is a lengthy piece of Israeli history, primarily covering the period since 1967.  Halevi tells this story by looking at the personal lives of a group of seven elite Israeli paratroopers who were involved in liberating Jerusalem from Jordanian occupation in 1967 and their lives after this war.

The early parts of the book describe the backgrounds, personal lives and views of these different individuals.

The book then becomes quite intense with detailed descriptions of battle.  It is graphic and moving.  Halevi covers the 1967 war, the war of attrition between 1967 and 1973 and then the Yom Kippur war of 1973.  He describes a number of battles, details many of the lives of fallen soldiers as well as the wounded and gives some glimpse into the various political events that were also occurring.  The description of the events leading up to the Israeli capture of the Old City of Jerusalem and the arrival at the Kotel of the Israeli troops is particularly exciting.

From 1973 forward, a great deal of the book is a discussion of the emergence of Gush Emunim, the settler movement.  Halevi chronicles some of the key personalities involved in establishing Israel's West Bank settlements (Judea and Samaria) and the political battles that they fought.  Much attention is given to Ofra and to Gush Etzion.  Halevi also covers the growth of religious Zionism in Israel, often quite sympathetically.  He traces the rise of right-left political tensions in Israel, particularly over the issue of settlement development.  He deals with a wide range of events including the election of Menachem Begin, the Sadat visit to Israel, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin the failure of the Clinton-brokered peace process.

The book is plodding at times.  Unlike Shavit's book, it is not particularly poetic, nor is it consumed with moral dilemmas.  Halevi provides a much more sombre view of history, even though he certainly describes some moving and gut wrenching events.

Despite the title of his book, Halevi raises fewer questions and offers much milder criticism of Israeli policy and of various historical events than Shavit.  In fact, even Halevi's account of Baruch Goldstein's murderous mosque attack seems somewhat sympathetic.

Where Shavit's idyllic Zionism is the cultural-historical Zionism created by secular, even anti-religious pioneers, Halevi describes a Zionism in which Judaism and Jewish culture occupy a much bigger place at the heart of the Jewish state. There is more content to Halevi's version, which is obvious and evident from his choice of Jerusalem as the central starting point for his book.

At the same time, Halevi's history is in many ways a much narrower one which overlooks the Palestinian viewpoint that Shavit tries to address empathetically.  That is not necessarily a deficiency of Halevi's book, which is quite a different type of history.  But Halevi's book lacks a certain breadth or sense of completeness, even within the more limited period that it covers.

Friday, December 27, 2013

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel - Ari Shavit - Review

With a bit of extra time this week, I had the chance to read My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.  I really enjoyed it.

This book is not an academic history of Israel.  Rather, it is a collection of historical moments and a discussion of selected socio-economic and cultural issues.  It is woven together in a very personal way, through a compilation of interviews, family anecdotes, and some historical and philosophical musings.  The writing is beautiful.  At times, the book is captivating, and at other times, challenging and graphic.  But overall, it offers a great deal of discussion points over the future of Israel, of Zionism and of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Shavit travels through time, selecting historical events that he views as essential landmarks in his conception of Israel's history.  Along the way, he takes readers through, in great detail, stories of Zionist community building in pre-Israel Palestine, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian violence, the 1967and 1973 wars, the development of Israel's nuclear program, the creation of the first post-1967 settlements in Judea and Samaria and numerous other events.

Shavit spends time discussing Israel and the project of Zionism with a wide range of people, in a manner that it is somewhat reminiscent of Amos Oz's great 1993 book, In The Land of Israel. Unlike Oz, most of Shavit's subjects are "movers and shakers" rather than everyday people who the writer might happen to come across.  As Shavit describes it, he might be meeting up with some of these people in a high end Tel-Aviv condominium or on a yacht somewhere.  Nevertheless, I found his treatment of most of these people to be quite fair, including those who he disagrees with wildly.  He presents interviews of leaders of the settlement movement, Israeli business tycoons, an ultra-Orthodox political leader, former Israeli military heroes and former leaders of the Israeli left.  He also visits with, for example, the owner of a hedonistic Tel-Aviv night club, the scientists involved in Israel's nuclear project and an Israeli-Arab judge, to name a few.  Sure, any book like this is bound to be extremely selective.  But that is the nature of this type of work.  Overall, it is a reasonably wide collection.

One criticism that has been offered is that there are very few, if any, women interviewed or even mentioned throughout the work.  Another is that perhaps the Palestinian representatives with whom he meets are presented too one-dimensionally.  Some on the left oppose what they perceive to be Shavit's ultimately apologetic tone towards historical Israeli military excesses, particularly in the founding of the State and in the post 1967 years.  Some on the right portray Shavit as naive and unacceptably harsh towards the settler movement and Israel's religious Zionists.  There may be some validity to some of these concerns.

More substantively, in my view, the book does not really include a serious discussion of the secular-religious tensions and issues in Israeli society or the topic of religious pluralism.  While there is a discussion of Aryeh Deri and the Shas party, which seems to be relatively sympathetic overall, Shavit does not delve into the religious underpinnings of Zionism, other than to dismiss religious Zionism as a post-1967 construct of the settlement movement.  The reader is left with little sense of the basis for Shavit's Zionism, other than a form of post-Holocaust nationalism - or perhaps prophetic nascent pre-Holocaust Jewish nationalism as well (rooted as a response to pre-war European anti-Semitism).  But Shavit offers no compelling reason why today's youth, about which he raises serious concerns, should adopt the old style Zionist outlook other than as an existential defence mechanism.

The book covers a great deal of ground.  It looks at the experiences of many different Holocaust survivors and considers how that type of background shaped so much of Israeli society, as well as the manner in which Israel treated Holocaust survivors in Israel's early years.  It looks at the tragedy that befell so many Palestinian families as the State of Israel was established, though Shavit tries to take a balanced approach to some of these historical events.  It looks at some changes in Israeli political cultural, though there is very little discussion of the huge impact that Menachem Begin had in changing the Israeli political landscape.  It looks at the growing Israeli-Arab population and the issues that Israeli faces in finding the appropriate way to treat a minority population in a Jewish democratic state.

Ultimately, Shavit raises questions that reflect a number of schisms that Israel faces internally and externally.  These different challenges - Israeli/Palestinian, Ashkenazi/Oriental (as Shavit puts it), Ultra-Orthodox/Secular, Settlement movement/leftists, are all discussed through the lens of certain personalities and Shavit's own outlook.  To spoil the conclusion, Shavit does not really offer a prescription. He presents these various urgent challenges and concludes by wondering whether Israel will succeed in overcoming them.  There is some optimism but the challenges are daunting and the future is painted as cloudy, probably heading for a major storm.

Most of the discussions are rational and well argued and most of the conclusions make sense.  But many questions remain and perhaps that is what makes the book such a worthwhile reading experience. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Major Israeli Storm December 2013

Israel is in the midst of a major storm.  Jerusalem has accumulated more than 30 centimetres of snow since yesterday.  That is a respectable amount even by Canadian standards.  Unfortunately, Jerusalemites and, Israelis in general, are not nearly as well equipped to deal with snow as Canadians.  Many Israelis took their families on car trips to Jerusalem to see the snow.  En route, the snow was so heavy that traffic ground to a standstill and cars became stuck in the snow.  Police and fire crews have indicated that they have rescued more than 1,500 people from stranded cars. 

Schools are closed in Jerusalem and many houses are not heated properly.  There have been power failures across the city and many gas stations are closed, as well as all kinds of other businesses.  Apparently, it's the largest snow storm Israel has had in more than 50 years.  A stalwart few have continued to pray at the Kotel despite the weather conditions...

Meanwhile, there has been snow in other parts of Israel including the Golan Heights.  But most of the rest of the country has been dealing with a major rain and wind storm.

In Ra'anana, the temperatures have hovered around 6-8 degrees, while we have been dealing with a major thunderstorm and blowing winds.  Last night and early this morning, there was sleet but so far, no snow.
After raining on and off for a few days, the rain has continued constantly since last night. 

Even by Canadian standards, this would be a significant storm.  But the major difference is that homes and businesses are simply not set up to deal with it.  For example, we stopped at the supermarket this morning.  There was no heating.  People were dressed in sweaters, jackets and gloves.  The cashiers were wearing gloves and hats.  We asked the customer service manager - who told us that you can't heat a supermarket - it would affect too many of the items in the store, he said.  Just after we paid, the store suffered a power failure and announced (though its emergency back up system) that it would only be accepting cash and no credit cards until the power returned.

Two nearby gas stations were closed due to the spreading power failure and some of the nearby intersections were running on flashing yellow lights.

The storm is expected to last another day or two.  The good news is that once the storm is over, temperatures will probably rise fairly quickly and things will get back to normal for a country not used to dealing with these types of storms. The other good news is that Israel is always happy to accumulate as much rain water as possible, which will hopefully cause the Kinneret, Israel's only fresh water lake, to rise from its low levels.

It looks like we will be eating Shabbat dinner with sweaters - and maybe gloves....but keeping dry inside.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Menachem Begin Heritage Center

Former Israeli P.M., Menachem Begin
Where to take important guests who are visiting Israel during rainy season?  Well - we decided to head over to the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.  We had read some very good reviews of the museum and we were not disappointed.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a fascinating historical figure.  His biography is filled with tremendous accomplishments.  From his imprisonment in Europe for having been a Z|ionist to his leadership of the Irgun group in pre-Israel Palestine, Begin faced countless life and death challenges.  After the establishment of the State of Israel, he served in the Knesset in the opposition for close to 30 years before becoming Prime Minister of Israel in 1977.  He is best known throughout the world for signing a peace treaty with Egypt under the leadership of Anwar Sadat.  He is also known for authorizing the Israeli destruction of Iraq's Osaka nuclear reactor in 1982.  But the musem also deals, quite fairly, with Begin's unravelling, following the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War.

On entering the museum, guests are provided with headphones so that they can tour the museum in languages other than Hebrew.  The Center tour is divided into sections of Begin's life.  It includes videos, photographs, articles and other media forms.  We made sure to phone in advance and book an English language tour (our guests were English speakers).  We were put with a group of about 30 others for the 1 1/2 hour tour.

Throughout the first part of the presentation, I wondered if the museum would deal with some of the more controversial aspects of Begin's life.  After all, hearing the story of Begin's early years, from his struggles in Europe to his immigration to Israel and his leadership of the Irgun group, one cannot help but be impressed by the history of a real Jewish hero. 

This theme continued throughout the years of Begin's service in the opposition in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and even through his first governmental mandate. 

But the Center does not shy away from the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, the Sabra-Shatilla Massacre by the Christian Phalangists and the subsequent inquiry into the Begin Government's role in permitting or failing to prevent that massacre.  The Center, by tracing Begin's speeches and commentaries, also raises some very central questions about Begin's belief in the "territorial integrity" of the Land of Israel.  Some of the commentaries suggest that Begin used the Egyptian Peace Treaty as a means of retaining control, for Israel, over Judea, Shomron (the "West Bank"), Gaza and the Golan Heights.  You can't help but wonder whether an alternative arrangement, a broader peace deal, would have served Israel better - or whether such a deal would have even been possible at the time.

The fallout over the Israel-Lebanon war, the large number of Israeli soldiers killed in the war, the failure of the army to accomplish its war aims and the controversy over events in Lebanon all led to the demise of the Begin government and to Begin's retreat from public life into a state of recluse. 

Like with many other Jewish historical figures, including our Biblical ancestors, we are reminded that human beings, even great ones, often make mistakes.

We all enjoyed the tour of this museum and left with plenty of material for discussion - and maybe even heated argument...

Fortunately, following the tour, we weren't too far from downtown Jerusalem, so we were able to stop off at one of our favourite Shawarma places, Moshiko, before heading back to Ra'anana.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Beit Aaronsohn and Zichron Ya'akov

It was an overcast, slightly chilly December day yesterday.  But we had some very important visitors from Toronto so we had to find something interesting to do.  We decided to travel up to Zichron Ya'akov and visit the Beit Aaronsohn museum.  The museum tells the story of the Aaronsohn family - who were involved in setting up a secret spy ring - the "N.I.L.I." group to help the British oust the Turkish Ottomon Empire from its control over what was then Palestine during the World War I time period.  The museum also provides detailed information about the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks including copies of original historical documents that chronicled the number of Armenians who were massacred and the locations from which they came.  The Armenian genocide spurred the Aaronsohns to try to help the Jewish people avoid a similar fate at the hands of the Turks.

The museum tour includes a short movie about the history of the Aaronsohn family and then a guided tour through the family home and adjoining buildings.  It was a a moving and worthwhile experience for all of us.

After touring the museum, we took a short walk through the streets of picturesque Zichron.

We then took a short drive over to the Tishbi Winery.  Tishbi has an inviting visitors' centre with an adjoining restaurant, a wine tasting area and a huge selection of chocolate for tasting or for purchase.  The chocolate is Valrhona chocolate, imported from France.  It is quite pricey though Tishbi has a huge selection of many different types made from cocoa beans from all over the world.

The wine itself - well...from what we tasted - it is nothing fantastic.  The medium level wines - the "Estate" series were potable - but certainly not exceptional.  The next level up were the "Reserve" series - at 95 N.I.S.  per bottle - or about $28 Cdn.  While all of these wines are Kosher but generally not Mevushal, we were not particularly impressed by what we tasted.  However, the winery also sells wine from the keg - "fill your own style."  We bought a 2 Litre glass jar and filled with some of the 2012 Cabernet-Shiraz that was available.  We couldn't resist at the bargain price of 16 N.I.S. per litre (roughly $4.70) for drinkable wine and a  nice souvenir bottle.  The wine was certainly not nearly as bad as some of the stuff that I have tasted from Ontario wineries - but it was certainly not Napa Valley Cabernet...Nevertheless, since we were there and it was so cheap, it seemed worthwhile to grab a jug of it.

On our drive back to Ra'anana - which is about an hour away from Tishbi, we passed by one more winery - Binyamina - which I have written about previously.

While I can't say that the Tishbi winery was a huge hit, we did pick up some very tasty chocolate and some of the novelty jars of wine jelly that Tishbi also sells - to go with the 2 litres of plonk.  But Zichron Ya'akov was certainly worthwhile.  So overall, it was a fun and interesting day.