Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving: The U.S., Canada and Israel

In a recent video, comedian Seth Rogen complained that he was deprived of celebrating Thanksgiving while growing up in Canada because he was Jewish:

There is actually some truth to this.  For the most part, Canadian Jews do not normally celebrate Thanksgiving.  But there are some reasons for this.  Canadian Thanksgiving differs from American Thanksgiving in at least two key respects. 

1.  Timing.  Timing can be everything.  Canadian Thanksgiving is much earlier in the year than American Thanksgiving.  It takes place in mid-October.  If you happen to be Jewish, that might create some problems.  Thanksgiving can fall on Yom Kippur, on Sukkot or on other Jewish Holy Days.  It might be Rosh Hashanah or it might be Simchat Torah.  So trying to celebrate an annual holiday of festive eating might be quite problematic if it frequently occurs on Yom Kippur, a fast day.  Jewish people are not the only one with the concerns.  October Thanksgiving can also coincide with the Hindu holiday of Diwali or even the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.  Since Diwali, like Jewish holidays, runs according to a solar-adjusted lunar calendar, Diwali is much more likely to fall on Thanksgiving.  Overall, having the holiday take place in mid-October is bound to create problems for some religious and cultural groups.

2.  Multi-Culturalism.  Canadian Thanksgiving has simply never reached the status of a universally celebrated holiday in the way that American Thanksgiving has.  Perhaps the fact that it is on a Monday rather than a Thursday influences its national status.  But I think it has much more to do with the fact that Canada is more of a multicultural society than a melting pot.  There is little sense that Thanksgiving is truly a "national" holiday as it is in the U.S.  There is no real sense, in Canada, that one must celebrate Thanksgiving to be "Canadian."   Seth Rogen jokingly complains in his video that his parents told him that Jews did not celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada.  He says that they "lied to him."  But his parents were probably right.  As he points out, he really only came to celebrate Thanksgiving when he moved to the U.S., where Thanksgiving is one of the two or three most universally celebrated national holidays.  While I know one or two Jewish Canadians who actually have a Thanksgiving dinner, the vast majority of Jewish people do not celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada.

What About Israel?

There is a significant expatriate American community in Israel and many of them are more than happy to celebrate Thanksgiving.  After all, there is something appealing about the notion of a family-oriented holiday that emphasizes giving thanks for all of the great things we are able to enjoy in our lives.  While living in Israel, we have been invited to a few Thanksgiving dinners in Israel, hosted by Americans - or at least couples with one American spouse.  Any time I have the opportunity to get together with friends and family and eat turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin soup (all kosher, of course) - while drinking some great wine - I am hard pressed to pass up that kind of evening.

Some Israelis I know are somewhat opposed to the idea.  If Thanksgiving represents the thanks, as they see it, for the great life in America, how can that be reconciled with the Zionist dream and the notion that Israel is the true homeland of the Jewish people?  Interesting question.  But let's face it - it is hard to deny that the United States is truly one of the greatest nations in the world.  The vibrancy of its democracy, the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the struggle to achieve greater equality are all values promoted by the United States and its ideals.  These are wonderful concepts that are worth celebrating.  Americans are lucky and blessed to be living in a free society.  I don't see a clash between Jewish values and the celebration of Thanksgiving.  As Seth Rogen points out in his video, people get together with their close friends and family, eat a lot and then complain.  What could be more Jewish?

Perhaps Canada will move its version of Thanksgiving to coincide with the American celebration. That would certainly make it more likely that it would be more widely celebrated in the Jewish community.  After all, Canadians also have much to celebrate with the opportunity to live in a truly free society.  But I'm not sure that Israelis will ever really embrace the idea.  We already have so many Jewish holidays.  In Israel, we can wait a few more weeks and start eating donuts and potato latkes while lighting candles and celebrating Chanukah.  Besides, good turkeys are much harder to come by in Israel.  (By the way, Thanksgiving actually took place on the first night of Chanukah last year, leading many American Jews to come up with Thanksgukah recipes....)

But for the closing word on Thanksgiving, I have to defer to potty-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman (2010 video), who has a different take on the holiday (You tube has apparently taken the video down - so here is a working link).  (It is worth watching...)

Although her video is crude at parts, Sarah Silverman manages to touch on some very important topics including cruelty to animals, vegetarianism and the American historical treatment of America's Native communities.  These are issues that resonate for many Americans as they celebrate the holiday.  But although Thanksgiving is becoming overrun with Black Friday hype and shopping craziness, there is still much to be said for a holiday that causes people to think about the many things in life for which they are or should be grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those who are celebrating it - in the U.S., Canada, Israel - and anywhere else.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam on KLM - Part 2 With Whisky Tasting Notes

For the sake of completeness, I thought I'd add a note about my flight on KLM from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam.  The blog for the route the other way is here.

Like most other European flights, KLM leaves Tel-Aviv for Amsterdam at about 5:20 a.m.  This means getting to the airport at about 2:30 a.m.  It's a nasty start to any trip.  I suppose it works well for Israelis with short term business in Europe who would like to arrive in the morning.  But for travellers back to North America, it is quite painful and tiring.

The lines can be long at Ben Gurion Airport (particularly for these early morning flights to Europe) but they move along reasonably quickly.  Although the line-up looked quite daunting when I arrived at the airport at about 2:45 a.m., I moved through it in less than 15 minutes. 
The flight from Tel-Aviv to Amsterdam is between 4 1/2 and 5 hours, depending on tail winds.  The KLM planes are quite cramped with no video or other entertainment.  A breakfast of sorts was served.  I opted for the vegetarian meal and received something that vaguely resembled an omelet.  The seats were very tight.  However, I was extremely lucky and wound up with a vacant seat beside me.  This was pretty incredible given that the flight was otherwise completely packed.  Even with the extra room, the seat was still cramped but it was much more endurable.  The flight attendants were quite friendly, helpful and accommodating.  They came around often offering drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  They were cheerful and polite.  They spoke English well though I don't think I heard any of them speaking Hebrew (even Air Canada has some Hebrew speaking flight attendants for flights to Israel).  I wound up assisting with some translation services for some Haredim whose language skills were limited to Hebrew, Yiddish and perhaps Aramaic.

We arrived in Amsterdam ahead of schedule, just before 9:30 a.m.  I then had a four hour wait until the flight to Toronto.  That scheduling is not nearly as convenient for flying to Toronto as some other European cities, but, then again, Schipol airport is huge and has lots to do.  There are some great places to eat, many different shops and lots of places to relax.  

I wandered around for a while in the different duty free shops including a chocolate shop, a cheese shop and a book store.  Then I found the perfect place - "The Exquisite Whisky Shop" located near lounge 2.   It features a huge tasting menu and many whiskies for sale.  I had a few hours, so I figured I might as well do some sampling.  

I sat down and thumbed through the menu booklet which included various whisky "flights" - groups of three that had been put together as suggested combinations - as well as single options.  The prices ranged wildly.  You could sample something fairly common for as little as 5 Euros.  Or you could try the Louis XIII Cognac for 100 Euros a shot. 

I settled on a "flight tasting" of three peated whiskies that looked interesting.  The cost was 15 Euros (about $21 Cdn). These are the single malts that I sampled:

1.  Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 11 - I was told that it was not widely available but that it was very popular and sells out quickly.  Only 12000 bottles were released.  It was about 120 Euros a bottle.  It was smoky - yet it had a very interesting range of tastes to it.  Overall, I quite liked it even though I generally tend to prefer smoother whiskies.  It was a cask strength Scotch - 59.5% alcohol.  I enjoyed it straight up as well as with a bit of water. 

2.  Talisker "Dark Storm" - This was somewhat more smoky - supposedly aged in "charred barrels" - yet still with a fairly interesting taste to it.  It is apparently the smokiest whisky that Talisker has every sold. I enjoyed it but not as much as the first glass that I had tasted.

3.  Bruichladdich Octomore - This was super smoky, described as "super heavily peated."  It was too much smoke for me - a peat rating of 167, which is apparently off the charts....

All of that was 15 Euros - (for a "flight) but my server was generous with the servings. I guess she liked me (or hoped I would spend a lot of money) so she offered me some Cragganmore 19 (on the house) - a special edition carried exclusively by duty free shops.  It was okay but nothing too exciting.  It was not very smoky but had some interesting fruity tastes.

The generous attendant suggested that I try the Old Pulteney 21 for another 7 Euros.  Apparently this one was rated as the best whisky in Jim Murray's 2012 Whisky Bible.  I had a look at my watch.  Lots of time until the next flight.  I looked around a bit at the other offerings.  Ultimately, I said "what the heck" and plunked down another 7.5 Euros.  Since I was wavering, she provided me with a very generous serving.  This offering was fruity and interesting - not smoky at all.  It was apparently aged in both a bourbon cask and an oloroso cask.  So it had a very sweet finish.

At this point, I thought I was pretty much done (in more ways than one).  But the very helpful Scotch pro decided to really spoil me.  She brought out a glass of Laphroaig 25 year - that she explained costs 400 Euros a bottle.  She quietly told me "not to tell the manager" - and hid the bottle quickly....(though I am quite sure this is all part of the promotion and sales in the place). I have to say that this one was quite nice, even sublime.  It was not nearly as smoky as some of the less expensive Laphroaigs that I have had.  It had a range of interesting tastes and only a relatively mild peaty taste.  It is a cask strength whisky with an alcohol content of 59.5%. 

So I guess that adds up to about 6 healthy shots...Finishing the tasting with that last dram was somewhat like the encore at a good concert.  It brought everything to a nice conclusion and left me with lots of time to make my way over to the gate for the next flight.  Overall, I can't say that the prices at this shop were amazing - but the selection was nice - and the people at the tasting shop were quite friendly, helpful and generous....For whisky lovers, it is a great way to spend some time at the Amsterdam airport without necessarily spending a huge amount of money.

I made my way over to the gate and I still had about two hours to go.  So I found a comfortable chair and rested for a while.  There is free internet at the airport with a sign-in, for 1/2 an hour.  

Each gate has its own security machines, including full body X-ray machines.  I didn't pay too much attention to the gate lineup until about an hour and twenty minutes before the flight.  At that point, I went to wait in line - and it was painful.  It was an incredibly long and slow moving line-up.  They were processing one or two people at a time.  With a line-up of more than 200 people, all winding around through the gate, this meant standing in line for close to an hour and moving along at a creeping speed.  Ouch.  It was probably about the worst security line up I have been in, other than the line-up at JFK (or maybe the Boston airport).  

Nothing new to report on the seating once I was in the plane.  It was still extremely cramped and the video system was still ancient, low resolution and poor sound.  That being said, I managed to watch a few enjoyable movies.  I didn't sleep much between Amsterdam and Toronto since it was a daytime flight.  Miracle of miracles, I wound up with an empty seat next to me for the second straight flight.  That was very fortunate given the width of the seats. 

But once again, the flight attendants were cheerful, helpful and constantly available.  The Asian vegetarian meal that I had ordered was fine (some curried chic peas and tofu).  The house wine was decent.  It was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  The cabin crew were also offering VSOP Cognac.  I grudgingly accepted, several times.   

Overall, it is a brutally uncomfortable way to fly but the flight attendants do their best to take your mind off the physical discomfort. The flight itself was uneventful and we arrived about 15 minutes early, despite a 1/2 hour delay in leaving.

When I arrived in Toronto I couldn't resist taking this picture of two planes, side by side...

One of the airlines is El Al.  And right next to it....I believe that is Pakistan Airlines.  I wonder if the respective crews had the chance to mingle and get to know each other a bit.  Since Israel and Pakistan do not have diplomatic relations, there are probably few opportunities for this type of exchange.

In any event, that side bit has nothing to do with flying KLM between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  Once again, as I have said before, it is worth considering if the price is right.  You can spend a day in Amsterdam from Toronto to Tel-Aviv and spend a few hours in the whisky shop from Tel-Aviv to Toronto.  If you have no interest in whisky or Amsterdam, well, you might need to consider another airline or bring along several books.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Olive Oil at Eretz Gshur and Tamar Bakfar

Eretz Gshur Entrance
We had a very special visitor this week so we decided to try and find something to do that was a bit different.  After all, our visitor had been to Israel many times and had seen the most common sites on many occasions. 

We decided to drive up to the north of Israel and visit an olive oil manufacturing plant. Eretz Gshur is an olive oil production facility, located in the southern Golan Heights, in Kibbutz Gshur.  The facility is a bit more than two hours away from Ra'anana but we decided that we would include the plant as part of  an all-day outing.

Olive sorting process
Olive oil production season has just begun so we would be able to see the plant in full operation.  At Eretz Gshur, all of the olives are harvested mechanically.  During October and November, everything is in full swing as it is harvest time.  Truck fulls of freshly picked olives arrive at the facility continuously.

After arriving at the plant, we were invited to watch a short film about olive making and the history of the Eretz Gshur company.  The film is available in a number of different languages (we watched the English version).  There was no admission charge.

We were then invited into the shop/tasting room to taste the full range of olive oils that are produced in this plant.  Eretz Gshur prides itself on using very high quality olives and making every effort to pay attention to the smallest details in the growing, harvesting and production processes.  Our guide explained that they view the production of olive oil as similar to the production of wine.  The higher the quality of the olives, she noted, the better the oil.

We tasted a range of oils from two very light tasting oils to some very full bodied, slightly bitter, spicy oils.  All of the tastes come from the olive varieties rather than from the addition of any other ingredients.  Here is the chart of the different oils.

They were quite delicious.  I personally preferred some of the more "full-bodied" oils but I tried a whole range.  You don't necessarily even think of the notion that olive oils can have a such a variety of tastes.  But when you sit down and sample a range of oils, you can smell, taste and appreciate the differences.  The oils are all sold at the same price - about 50 N.I.S. (Sheqels) for a 750 ml bottle, which is about $15 Cdn.  The gift shop sells a variety of sizes, including some huge jugs.  We bought one of each of a few different types of oil.

Olive Oil Machine
We were then given an additional opportunity to wander around and look at some of the other machines used in olive oil production. Perhaps, not surprisingly, most of the machines were made in Italy. 

There were three or four different processing stations but I am not going to write about the details of olive oil production.  I will say, however, that it seems a lot more complicated than what one might have expected.

Once we were finished our visit, we had to decide what comes next.  We were up in the southeastern part of the Golan Heights.  We were considering a winery - and actually had in mind Ramot Naftali.  But our GPS (Waze) told us that it was about an hour away.  So we decided to drive back to T'veria (Tiberias) and wander around there for a bit.

We first drove over to the Tamar Bakfar store at Kibbutz Kinneret.  This is a wonderful store for foodies.  The store specialty is a wide range of different types of dates, all harvested from the many palm trees in the area.   But the store also features spices, olive oils, wines, jarred date spreads and sauces, as well as many other interesting items.  We picked up a few different boxes of dates, some mixed date sauces (sweet and sour, sweet and spicy...) and some delicious date spreads (date and chocolate, date and Halawa - sesame paste).  We are able to taste about eight different types of fresh dates and ten or twelve different spreads and sauces.  The prices are reasonable and the products are touted as preservative free as well as free of any additional/ artificial flavours and colours.  Most of the products are kosher.  This has always been one of our favourite places to visit when we are in the area.

The Tamar Bakfar shop is located right near the famous Jordan River baptism site.  So busloads of Christian pilgrims and other tourists regularly visit this area.  Most wind up spending their time in the gift shop that abuts the baptism location rather than Tamar Bakfar which is a bit out of the way.  The gift shop sells Christian religious items, art, postcards, and other souvenirs as well as some wine and other Israeli products.  It carries some Jewish religious items as well.  It is a very different type of store than Tamar Bakfar (and quite a bit more expensive).  Tamar Bakfar is more suited to Israelis or to those who are interested in doing some cooking and home-based eating while they are in Israel.  You can certainly travel with dates and wine but Tamar Bakfar is not a tourist shop.

Once loaded up with fresh dates, date spreads, date sauces and a few other items, we took a 10 minute drive to T'veria, parked the car and wandered around for a while in the heart of the city.  It was a quiet day since it was early November and it was a Sunday.  People were at work, kids were in school and it was not really tourist season.  But the weather cooperated and we were able to enjoy the lovely views of the Kinneret as well as a reasonably tasty local Shawarma sandwhich. 

From there, it was about a two hour drive back to Ra'anana.

It was not the most ambitious day of travelling around, but it seemed to suit our special guest just fine.  He might have preferred to stop at a winery along the way back to complete the day but time considerations prevented that. 

I would not say that the prices at the Eretz Gshur site were anything spectacular.  They were probably similar to store prices in Ra'anana for the same products.  There were no great sales, but they offered us a 5% discount.  Nevertheless, it was interesting seeing this type of facility and it is always fun visiting the Golan Heights region, even if it is only the lower parts.