Sunday, November 28, 2010

Air Canada or El Al?

Over the past year or so, I have flown a number of times between Toronto and Israel on both Air Canada and El Al - the only two airlines that currently fly direct between these two cities.

While there are positives and negatives about each - here are a few comments.

Aeroplan (Air Canada's loyalty program)is a huge plus in favour of Air Canada. You can collect more than 10,500 points on a round trip flight - 2/3 of the way to a short haul ticket. After just about 3 flights in a year - you get upgraded to Elite Status - and you wind up with a range of benefits - including being able to take 3 bags instead of 2, bypassing most line ups, and getting some upgrade certificates. Many of these benefits can be used with any Star Alliance airline - not just Air Canada. El Al's loyalty plan, "Matmid" is much more limited, has fewer partners, and generally requires you to fly much more often to obtain the benefits of the program. You even have to pay to join it!

Air Canada has personal video/tv screens on its Toronto-Tel Aviv route - with a wide selection of movies and audio entertainment. The seats feel more comfortable and the overall experience is somewhat more easy going. El Al has a few portable units available for rent on each flight - but most passengers are stuck trying to watch the communal movie.

El Al currently has much better flight times. You can leave Israel late at night - just before or just after midnight, depending on the time of year - and sleep for most of the 12 1/2 - 13 hour flight. Flying from Toronto to Israel, you can also fly in the early or late evening. This is a huge plus for El Al - since the flight times also affect how easily you can adjust between time zones. Air Canada recently changed its flight times to travel at 12:45 p.m from Israel for all of its flights. This means a 13 hour, daytime flight. It makes for a very long day.

El Al has its own security system, which is generally more sensible, thorough and comforting than that of any other airline. Recently, Air Canada added in supplementary security for flights leaving Toronto to Tel Aviv - but the advantage here goes to El Al.

Pricewise - they are usually about the same - though occasionally you can find a better deal with one or the other which can make a difference of as much as $500.

With El Al, all the food is Kosher. So if you are interested in a Kosher meal, the food is more likely to be fresh, properly cooked and properly thawed - than Air Canada - where you usually wind up with frozen fruit pieces for breakfast.

In the area of "intangibles" - well it's Canadian service versus Israeli. Air Canada would probably be more attentive and polite; El Al - less formal - and sometimes friendlier - though often much less attentive.

One other option (aside from the various flights available with transfers in Europe and New York) is to fly through Philadelphia with US Air. You can still get the Aeroplan points - but you can get the evening flight back from Tel Aviv. The hassle is dealing with U.S. customs - including checking back through in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Museum of Yemenite Culture in Old Jaffa

Museum of Yemenite Culture in Old Jaffa – Worth the Trip

Although Israel already has many fine museums, this past Thursday marked the addition of a small but fascinating collection in the old city of Jaffa. Ben-Zion David, an eighth generation silversmith, opened a museum of Yemenite culture and silversmith work. The museum is housed as an adjunct to Ben-Zion’s gallery, which has been a landmark in Old Jaffa for more than 25 years.

At the gala opening on October 28, 2010, guests were treated to an array of Yemenite delicacies including Jahnun, Hawaij infused coffee, homemade Arak, and of course, a Gat punch. They were entertained by the Kiryat Eqron based “Heritage Band of North Yemen Jews,” which provided a Hina-like atmosphere for the festivities. Groups of traditionally dressed Yemenites danced on stage. A special handcrafted silver filigree Mezuzah was affixed to the gallery entrance. But most importantly, the invited guests were given the first opportunity to view the collection.

The museum features original video footage of the Jewish community in Yemen and its mass Aliyah, through Operation Magic Carpet to Israel in 1949. It also exhibits a collection of photographs taken from the Israel National Treasury. The scenes portrayed include Yemenite women involved in traditional food preparation and religious study for the young boys and men. There are pictures of Ben-Zion’s parents and other family members at work. Detailed information and tool samples relating to the process of producing handmade filigree jewellery from one wire are the display highlights. The exhibits show how generations of silversmiths, with a very limited range of basic tools, were able to produce beautiful and intricate jewellery. The work is time consuming and painstakingly difficult. But Ben-Zion proudly claims that learned all about the benefits of hard work from his family.

Ben-Zion explained at the gala opening that it was a privilege for him to have been able to learn the art of silversmithing from his late father, Shlomo David z”l, who passed away just over a year ago. From a young age, Ben-Zion would sit for hours with his father, learning how to use the various tools to melt, mould and process raw silver into valuable pieces of jewellery. Though Ben-Zion initially completed an engineering degree and considered working in that field, the jewellery making that he had learned from his father tugged at his heart. Shortly after becoming an engineer, Ben-Zion opted to try to make a living as a silversmith.

Over the course of his 25 year career, which began with a small gallery in Old Jaffa, Ben-Zion has sold pieces from his collection throughout the world. He has attended exhibitions and festivals in Israel and continues to attend regularly at exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. His jewellery has even won two design competitions from Accent Magazine. This past summer, Ben-Zion travelled around the world displaying his designs. He was featured for his detailed demonstrations at a renaissance festival of Jewish culture and heritage in Krakow, Poland as well as an exhibition in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the International Folk Art Festival.

One of Ben-Zion’s personal career highlights was having a pair of his candlesticks chosen by President Shimon Peres to be presented as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II after she granted the President knighthood in Buckingham Palace.

Yet despite Ben-Zion’s personal success, he notes that there are only a handful of Yemenite silversmiths in Israel continuing to carry on these traditions. His motivation in creating the museum was to preserve the art of Yemenite filigree, an art which is slowly fading away. The museum, according to Ben-Zion, is designed to explain the history of this work and the cultural lens through which it was created. It provides visitors with a snapshot of Yemenite life as it was in Yemen before the Aliyah – and as it continued in its early days as the community was transplanted to Israel. It is also intended to inspire others to pass along the artistry to the next generation. On a personal level, Ben-Zion hopes that this inspiration may even reach one or more of his three children.

The adjoining gallery includes Judaica pieces, some of which have been specially commissioned and are presented for display only. Some of the pieces that Ben-Zion has designed are on display in museums in Israel and other parts of the world. After viewing his museum, visitors develop a much deeper understanding of the history and process of the type of work that can be seen in the gallery – as well as an understanding of the cultural milieu which helped define the art.

The museum will feature interactive displays with opportunities for children to help create their own unique pieces. Ben-Zion is also available by reservation to demonstrate the art of Yemenite filigree where participants can witness the magic of the creation of a piece of jewellery made from one wire before their very eyes. There is a coffee bar serving Yemenite coffee and Jahnun. The museum, workshop and the adjunct gallery can be toured in less than an hour and are centrally located on Mazal Dagim Street in Old Jaffa. The museum is free of charge and is open Sunday to Thursday 9 to 9. It is open on Fridays up to Shabbat and one hour after Shabbat. 3 Mazal Dagim Street. 03-6812503.