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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Israel's "Mizrahi Music" - Some Selected Clips

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has enjoyed a wide range of Hebrew music.  Many Israeli musicians have become quite popular and some have even wound up touring in North America and other places around the world.

Over the years, the musical genres have varied widely.  Israel has had it share of crooners (like Yehoram Gaon), folk musicians (Chava Alberstein), contemporary pop/rock artists (Shlomo Artzi/ Rami Kleinstein), hard rock (Benzine, Shalom Hanoch) and many others, including, of course, religious music.  I am not about to trace the musical history of Israel, which certainly could not be done in a short blog.

But while many non-Israelis have heard of some of the better known mainstream Israeli artists - Chava Alberstein, David Broza and the late Ofra Haza, to name a few, most non-Israelis have little exposure to the majority of popular Israeli music.  There are many great Israeli musicians and it is much easier today to access the music in an internet age.

But I thought I would open a bit of a window into a genre of music that is among the most popular in Israel today - at least among certain segments of society - "Mizrahi music" or "Oriental music" as it is sometimes translated into English.  This music is heavily influenced by Arab culture and sometimes the music of Greece and other surrounding Mediterranean countries.  Mizrahi music is ubiquitous at Israeli weddings, on radio stations and at many different types of large public gatherings.  One well known Israeli Mizrahi artist, who happens to come from Kiryat Eqron, is Dudu Aharon who has been named Israel's "Artist of the Year" on a number of occasions.

A fascinating recent phenomenon is the growing popularity of a group called "פרויקט של רביבו" ("Ravivo's Project").  This group has released a number of disks and videos seeking to revive popular 70s and early 80s Yemenite music that was often sung at group gatherings and was based on traditional Yemenite melodies.  The emphasis, as illustrated by the words, the music and the facial expressions of the band members, is on having a great time.  The group has recorded a number of videos, filmed in group settings, with a variety of people chewing Qat drinking beer and whiskey, smoking Hookahs and smiling - while singing medleys of Mizrahi music.   This first video by the Project really captures the spirit of Mizrahi music.  If you haven't really been exposed to it - try it out - at least for the experience... (If you like it, I will try to get you invited to a Yemenite Hina - where you can hear a whole night's worth and maybe even chew some Qat - or you can find out where this group is playing next time you are in Israel...).  To give you an idea of the popularity of this video, as of the time of the writing of this blog, it had been watched more than seven million times...

While the music may be sung in Hebrew, it is certainly not "religious" music.  In fact, one of the common slights of Mizrahi music is that the lyrics are often repetitive, simplistic and even base.  Unlike some of the other Mizrahi artists, Ravivo's Project has put together medleys of different traditional Yemenite songs, with traditional lyrics.  This is part of an effort to "revive" some older, once popular music.  The lyrics are not as "common" as some of the more contemporary Mizrahi artists, whose lyrics often have nothing to do with traditional Mizrahi music.

At the same time, the group has paid homage to some of the religious roots of Yemenite music.  In this next video, the group leader Raviv, explains that the group was asked by many people to put together a medley of Shabbat (Sabbath) songs.  So here it is - a medley of traditional Shabbat songs - sung to Yemenite melodies.  Some of the songs that make up this medley -like "L'cha Dodi" might be more recognizable - even if the tunes are not.  The last song of the medley (starting about the 7' mark) is the very well known ("כי אשמר השבת...) ("Because I observe the Sabbath, G-d will watch over me...").  This video has been watched well over two million times as of the time of writing of this blog.

Since I mentioned Dudu Aharon - I should probably also add a link to one of his most popular songs - "Tagidu la" ("Tell her that there is a guy who is asking to be the closest one to her....").  These are not traditional Yemenite lyrics - and the music, while somewhat influenced by Mizrahi elements, is not really viewed as pure Mizrahi music.  But it is enormously popular in Israel, especially at weddings and parties.  Dudu was recently featured as the star on a year long reality program - Israel's version of "The Bachelor." 

Finally, I had to add at least one video of Israel's true king of Mizrahi music.  Eyal Golan, has been popular in Israel for quite a number of years.  But this next song has been astronomically well received.  It is now sung at weddings, at the Kotel on selichot nights by groups of people walking to and from the Kotel between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and at parties, clubs and all types of other occasions.  I have seen synagogues using it during hakafot on Simchat Torah (which shows how incredibly popular it has become in just a few years since its release).  The song "Mi she'maa'min lo mifached" - whoever believes, is not afraid, of losing faith, because we have G-d, the king of the world, to take care of us...") - is performed live here:

It is certainly a good thing that Eyal Golan professes such deep faith, since he is mired in a number of different scandals and has been forced to respond publicly to a variety of different allegations, none of which have been proven in court, and which I am not about to discuss in any detail.  

I have no plans to turn this into a musical blog...but the idea for this type of entry came to me as I attended a Mizrahi wedding on Wednesday night - and listened to this genre the whole evening.  I thought that it might be worthwhile sharing some of it with people who might not have had exposure.

If you already have a large collection of it, well - I guess you can skip over this post quickly.  But if you have never listened to it - you might find it interesting  to hear a type of music that you may not have heard before.

I have no comment on whether chewing Qat will make this music more enjoyable. This might be difficult in North America, where I believe it is a restricted or banned substance, even though it is generally not considered to be a narcotic.  Is is much easier to find in Israel and very common in Yemen and Sudan.

I can say that some nice single malt scotch would probably help, though I suspect that is not what the Ravivo Project guys are drinking in the video.  As for the Hookahs - and what they might be smoking in them - well - at this point, I will probably defer to a Toronto expert - the current Mayor Rob Ford - who seems to have quite a good handle on what to smoke at a party (or in a car, at City Hall, or just about anywhere else...). 

For now, one way or another - enjoy the music....

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Induction Day to the IDF...

וילכו שתיהן יחדיו...
It was an emotional day today as our eldest child, our daughter entered the IDF (the Israeli Defence Forces or צה"ל).  In Israel, there is universal mandatory conscription for 18 year olds, both men and women.  While some Israelis are exempt from military service, the vast majority serve for at least two to three years.

The  IDF is one of the more organized institutions in Israel, out of necessity, since Israel faces so many different types of threats.  High school students are tested, interviewed and screened for a whole range of positions.  Some of the more coveted positions can involve multiple interviews, physical and academic testing and even role-playing exercises.  Ultimately, many conscripts have a significant say in the type of service that they would like to peform.  Many recruits will learn a range of valuable and highly marketable skills during their service, some in sophisticated scientific, technical or computer related areas.  Many also develop a range of important leadership skills, especially those who become officers. 

Many Israelis take a year off to travel after comleting their military duty and then look at options for entering university, college or looking at other career opportunities.  But this is all down the road...

On induction day (יומ הגיוס), the conscripts are asked to show up at one of the IDF conscription centres.  The hundreds of 18 year olds entering the army are accompanied by family and friends to one of these large IDF bases.  Names are called out and the conscripts are asked to board a bus which will take them to the actual induction facility.  The newly inducted soldiers will then proceed to some type of "basic training," which can vary in length depending on the unit in which they will ultimately be serving.  Typically, basic training may last anyone from one to three months.  After basic training, the soldiers are dispersed to their assigned bases.

It is certainly difficult to see your 18 year old child entering the army.  But, sadly, it is a reality of life in Israel that the country requires a strong, capable and ready military, that is based on civilian involvement.  That is the price of living in the only Jewish country in the world - and being able to spend most of the time in relative peace, even while surrounded by hostile neighbours.  It is these young conscripts. along with Israel's full-time military personnel, who contribute so much to making that possible. 

Israelis are hoping for the day when such a strong and active military will not be required.  But that day seems like a long way off now.  For now, we are forced to wish our kids an "easy induction" - a "גיוס קל" which is an all too common Israeli greeting.

We hope that our daughter's service will be rewarding and successful for her.  We also hope that over the course of her service, Israel and its neighbours will come that much closer to a more peaceful coexistence.  While there are few signs that this is likely, it would simply be too depressing to give up all hope.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Stay at Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv

We recently had the unfortunate opportunity of having to get to know the Israeli medical system much closer than we might have liked.  I don't say "unfortunate" with any negativity towards the system - we had no complaints about the care that was provided - simply that we would have, of course, preferred not to have faced this type of occurrence.

I'm not going to write about the details of the medical situation that our family member faced.  But I thought I would provide a few points that you might find interesting.

Ichilov Hospital - Dana Children's Center
We spent 8 days getting to know the workings of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv - at the Dana Children's Hospital.  Ichilov is Israel's 3rd largest hospital complex.  It incorporates three hospitals with a total area of more than 150,000 square metres.  It also houses a bomb-proof emergency facility, that can supposedly withstand convenential, chemical or biological attacks.  Fortunately, the hospital was not put to a test of these features while we were there.

Certainly, from our experience on this occasion, the care was top notch.  The physicians were knowledgeable and experienced and made use of current technology to provide efficient and professional care. The nurses and attendants were attentive and diligent. We are thankful for this.

I found it interesting that the hospital complex includes a full shopping mall that is connected to the hospital - and located on hospital grounds.  It is also connected to a large outdoor complex.  This means that patients who are able to do so can leave their rooms  and take a stroll through (or be pushed on a wheelchair through) the connected mall or the other grounds.  The mall includes an Aroma Coffee Bar, among other places.  So you see a number of patients, in their hospital gowns, sitting in the Aroma (inside or outside, depending on the weather) with their visitors or wandering around in other parts of the mall.  While many patients would obviously not be well enough to take advantage of this, for others, this can be quite the breath of fresh air.

Ichilov Hospital Complex
A drawback for visitors (and immediate family members of patients) is that the hospital is located right in the middle of Tel-Aviv. The hospital therefore charges full downtown Tel-Aviv parking rates, which can get up to the full $30 daily maximum in no time at all.  Although we live in Ra'anana, we decided to go to Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv, rather than the nearest hospital - which is Meir Hospital in K'far Saba.  This was based on recommendations from first line physicians and others who were reluctant to recommend Meir. 

Our family member was required to stay over a Friday night.  So we had to decide what to do for a Friday night dinner.  Fortunately, two families of close friends insisted on preparing a full Friday night meal for us. They thought of everything - from the grape juice and wine to the Challah, soup, chicken and dessert.  So we took the meal and went to the deserted food court in the mall that adjoins the hospital.  We sat around some food court tables with our ready-to-eat Friday night dinner - and made Kiddush and enjoyed our meal.  It was a strange experience - eating in an empty mall on a Friday night -but we lucky to have such wonderful and considerate friends. 

Things are almost back to normal and everything seems to have gone well.  It is certainly comforting to know that there is very high level medical care near by and that we can count on such supportive and helpful friends and family members. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Trip to Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem

Mahane Yehuda
The weather was beautiful yesterday so we decided to visit Mahane Yehuda, the bustling outdoor market in Jerusalem.  It takes about an hour by car to get there from Ra'anana but we had to make some special deliveries anyways, so we  thought it would be nice to take a walk through and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables.

Visiting on a Tuesday, it seemed that it was quite a bit quieter than it might be on some other days.  The market was still hopping, filled with sounds of marchants calling out their daily produce specials and crammed with shoppers making their way through the winding stalls.  But it wasn't quite "wall to wall" as it has been on other occasions.

Mahane Yehuda Jerusalem - Pomellas
One of the interesting contrasts about shopping for produce in Israel is the seasonality.  Unlike Canada and the U.S., most Israeli produce is seasonal.  This means that the fruits and vegetables, that are in season, are very fresh, usually local and reasonably priced.  You will generally not find watermelon in November, strawberries in August,  or fresh figs in April.  But the strawberries that I have eaten  in Israel during strawberry season (between November and April) are among the juiciest, sweetest strawberries that I have ever eaten.  The same applies to the watermelon, fresh figs, and melons.  Tomatoes are more readily available but are generally much fresher and tastier than the tomatoes available in most places in North America.

As we were walking through the market yesterday, we coudn't help but notice that it was Pomella season.  Many of the vendors were featuring huge juicy green pomellas.  There were also many different types of apples, some remaining figs, some oranges and a variety of vegetables. 
Mahane Yehuda Pineapples
The cherry tomatoes looked particularly appetizing.  A few vendors were also selling locally grown pineapples.  But unlike the pineapples from Mexico, the Dominican or Hawaii, these Israeli pineapples are tiny - almost bit-sized, and are very expensive.

We then decided we would visit Itchikidana, the well known, Kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant in the Machane Yehuda area.  Unfortunately, as a news article last year had suggested, the restaurant wound up in a battle with the Kashrut authorities over the certification of the various vegetables that it was using in its recipes and wound up closing. This was a real shame.  I had never actually eaten there, though I had heard much about it and I was anxious to try the food.  The opportunities to get Kosher Indian food in Israel are quite limited.
Ichikidana - Last Look...

Later it was time to drive back to Ra'anana.  But it was close to rush hour and we knew traffic would be horrendous.  So we flipped on Waze, an Israeli invented traffic program that combines maps, GPS and up to date traffic monitoring based on peer usage.  It took us on a winding path, through a number of different side streets - and then to Hwy 431 instead of exiting Jerusalem through the main route - highway #1.  We bypassed much of the traffic and managed to make it back to Ra'anana in about the same amount of time as it had taken us earlier, despite the much heavier traffic conditions.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Municipal Elections in Israel 2013: Some Interesting Tidbits...

Municipal elections, no matter where they are held, in my experience, tend to attract more apathy than interest.  Some suggest that is part of a trend of more generalized voter disaffection.  But, it just may be that people simply don't feel it makes a difference who the mayor happens to be, much less the local councilors.  In any case, Israel is no exception from other democracies in this regard.  Voter turnout in Israel's municipal elections on October 22, 2013, according to Haaretz, hit a national average of 32.7%.  The turnout in Tel-Aviv was only 21%.  Contrast that with the 2013 Israeli national elections in which the voter turn out was close to 68%.  Still not a sparkling number, but not nearly as pathetic as the municipal numbers.

As much voter indifference as there may be, municipal elections are probably even less interesting to outsiders.  So to a non-Israeli, in this case, whether a Labour candidate or a Likud candidate happened to be elected in a particular city to oversee garbage collection and local education just does not seem too riveting.  After all, someone's arnona (Israeli property tax) might increase dramatically but as long as it does not affect your property taxes, do you really care?

Nevertheless, since there were municipal elections all across Israel, there had to be some interesting stories.  I thought you would enjoy a few interesting tidbits that emerged from Tuesday's election, some of which are rather amusing, in my view anyways.

1.  Jerusalem

This was probably the most interesting mayoral race.  Moshe Leon was the candidate favoured by the religious parties, backed by Avigdor Lieberman (leader of Yisrael Beitenu) (who is currently awaiting the verdict in a corruption trial) and by Aryeh Deri (a political leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, who was actually convicted of corruption and served his time).  Leon, who is not even a Jerusalem resident, was parachuted into the race to run against secular candidate and incumbent mayor Nir Barkat.  Well, don't we have to say "Thank G-d!" that Barkat won?   For many Jerusalem residents, it must have been a reverse endorsement for Moshe Leon to be backed by such esteemed public officials as Lieberman and Deri.  The race was not a landslide but Barkat managed to win, much to the chagrin of many of the ultra-orthodox.

2.  Ra'anana

Zeev Bielski
Of course I have to write about Ra'anana.  In Ra'anana, Mayor Nahum Hofri was one of the few incumbent mayors, across Israel, to lose an election.  But unlike some other mayors and mayoral candidates (many of whom were facing corruption charges or embroiled in different scandals), nothing of the sort was levelled against Hofri.  Rather, he found himself running against Ze'ev Bielski who had previously been a popular four-term mayor in Ra'anana.  Bielski had left to try his hand, unsuccessfully, in national politics.  Now he returned to Ra'anana politics and picked up 73% of the vote, a ringing endorsement for a returning former mayor.

3.  Beersheva
Ruvik Danilovich

I couldn't help but notice that the incumbent mayor Ruvik Danilovich won 92% of the vote.  Wow!  Either the candidate was immensely popular - or there was some funny water in the well somewhere....This is an incredible margin of victory in a contemporary democracy.  Okay, I guess it helped that he presented voters with a popular 10 year plan to turn Beersheva into a major Israeli metropolis...It is currently Israel's seventh largest city, with a population of just over 200,000.

4.  Kiryat Eqron

I have to mention the mayoral race in Kiryat Eqron, the small town located just outside of Rehovot (population 9,800).  Here, no one won.  That's right, there was no winner.  The incumbent, Arik Hadad, garnered just over 25% of the vote.  But there were a number of other other candidates with more than 10% each.  Sounds like there were almost as many candidates as voters!  So there will be a run-off election in Kiryat Eqron.  This is not surprising given that Kiryat Eqron, a small town, has more than 48 separate synagogues.  In some cases, there are two such shuls, right next to each other, on the same street, with different members of the same family attending different shuls.  With that type of community structure in place, it is not surprising that there would be large number of candidates.  We will eagerly await the results...

5.  Messy Bet Shemesh

Oops, I almost forgot Bet Shemesh.  How could I?  Incumbent ultra-orthodox mayor Moshe Abutbul apparently won the election in Bet Shemesh by less than 1,000 votes.  The problem is that, according to the Jerusalem Post, more than 800 ballots were declared "invalid."  As well, on election day, police raided two apartments owned by ultra-orthodox residents and confiscated more than 200 I.D. cards.  Let's see...800 plus 200...

Challenger Eli Cohen has indicated that he is considering a legal challenge to the results based on reports of possible electoral fraud and "irregularities."  According to the Post, more than 4,000 Bet Shemesh residents have signed a petition demanding that the results be suspended until a proper investigation is conducted.

6.   Corruption? Pshaw.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that corruption charges were no barrier to re-election in Israel.  This is illustrated by the results in Bat-Yam, Ramat Hasharon and Upper Nazareth all of which re-elected mayors facing corruption allegations or charges.  Only in the city of Hadera, voters ousted a candidate who had been accused of taking bribes.  In other jurisdictions these types of allegations seem to have enhanced electability or at least not impeded it.

None of the candidates, to my knowledge, were photographed smoking crack, talking on their cell phones while driving or accused of pinching other candidates in the buttocks at public events.  These are all accusations that have been leveled against the current incumbent mayor of Toronto, Canada - Rob Ford.  However, some of the allegations facing the Israeli mayoral candidates, some of whom were elected, - included bribery, corruption and racism.  These charges were on par with the Toronto municipal scene and were no impediment to re-election in Israel. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sukkoth 2013 - 5774

Spending Sukkoth in Israel is really a great privilege.  It is probably the best time to be in Israel.  The weather is still great, there are festivals all over the country and many people are off work.  Unlike Passover, there are no onerous food restrictions.  So during the intermediate days (Hol Hamoed), many Israelis are travelling, hosting each other (often in Sukkoth) and enjoying festivals, outdoor concerts and other events.

Panorama View of Our Family Sukkah
We enjoyed a large family dinner on the first night of Sukkoth and hosted friends in our sukkah the next day.  Great start to the holiday though it seems to get more and more difficult each year to find the time right after Yom Kippur ends to put up the sukkah in timely fashion.  Especially since we are usually putting up two - one at my in-laws - a huge 4x5 metre sukkah and one at our place.  We have customarily put up the large sukkah right after Yom Kippur ends.  But this year, Yom Kippur was in mid- September and Israel did not change its clocks for the first time in quite a number of years.  Very hard to put up a big sukkah starting only at 9:30/10:00 p.m. after a day of fasting. 

2013-09-22 22.31.26
View of a Tzolk'in Board at Games Day
Sunday Sep 22, we attended the annual Jerusalem board games festival.  You might think that sounds rather boring.  Okay, for some it might be.  But for those who enjoy challenging board games, especially "Euro-games" that have been growing in popularity since 1995 or so (with the emergence of Settlers of Catan), this kind of festival is lots of fun.  We had the chance to play Puerto Rico and Tzolk`in, two terrific games.  At its peak, there were about 40 people attending, playing a wide range of board games with breaks for eating lunch and dinner in the sukkah.

Our festive day was cut short with news of the tragic death of a cousin in an early morning car accident. We left Jerusalem and attended the funeral in B'nai Ayish.  The funeral of our 27 year old cousin was only days after Yom Kippur.  I couldn't help but think of the High Holy Day liturgy that we had been reading, from the famous prayer Unetaneh Tokef - ..כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף  Man is likened to a "broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."  The words felt so real in the face of this type of horrible loss, of a cousin whose wedding we had attended so recently.  To hear the whole version of Unetaneh Tokef, try this link to an IDF version or this version, written by Yair Rosenblum

Despite the sombre mood, we still had to commemorate the holiday.  Simchat Torah, as usual, was a holiday highlight at Hod ve'Hadar.  This year, one Hakafah really stuck out for me.  ("Hakafoth" are rounds of singing and dancing in celebration of completing the annual cyle of reading the Torah.  Often accompanied by alcohol...).  For the third Hakafah, the congregation invited all those present who could not dance for physical reasons to come to the centre of the shul and sit in a circle.  Some were given Torahs to hold.  The congregants danced in a circle around this group of, mainly, elderly and disabled congregants.  It was such a beautiful, inclusive Hakafah, and the type of activity that captures the spirit and heart of Hod vHadar.  As I participated, I thought to myself that every shul should do this.   Yet in all of my years of celebrating Simchat Torah, I do not remember seeing it.   Once again, I thought of a verse from the High Holy Day liturgy, this time אל תשליכני לעת זקנה- "Do not cast me way in my old age - when my strength fails me."  For a moving musical version, try this link to Michel Cohen or this version by Avihu Medina.  This special Hakafah was an example of our shul taking this verse to heart and honouring its elderly.

I had to leave Israel after Simchat Torah to head back to Toronto, after a month or so in Israel.  I took a late night flight on United Airlines through Newark, since Air Canada only flies during the day and the prices sky rocket for a few days after the holidays end. 

I arrived in Toronto at about 8:30 a.m. on Friday September 27, 2013.  For me, the holiday had officially ended but for the Jewish community outside of Israel, it was still Simchat Torah.  So I decided to celebrate Simchat Torah twice, as I have done two or three times in the past.  I showed up at shul in time to share a Torah reading table and join the Hazzan for Musaf.  We finished the service with a version of Adon Olam sang to "Rock Around the Clock" which was quite fun.  Of course, it was simply not the same as being able to celebrate with my family the previous day but it just did not seem right to go to the office, even though the holy day had officially ended for Israelis.

In Israel, there are many songs and colloquialisms that refer to "Acharei HaHagim" - "after the holidays."  Everything will be done "after the holidays."  In fact, one person at shul in K'far Saba said to us on Thursday - "do you know what day it is tomorrow? - it's after the holidays..."  So now it is after the holidays for another year.  It is time to complete this period of reflection, introspection and celebration and get back to work.  It would probably also be a good idea to try losing some weight after all of those festive holiday meals.

Shana Tova and Shavua Tov.  Here's hoping for a peaceful, fulfilling and joyous year.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Davidson Center Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jerusalem - Changes to the Area

Earlier this year, in August 2013, the Israeli government made changes to the Davidson Center at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  For those unfamiliar with the Center, I wrote a blog article about hosting a bar or bat-mitzvah here.  It has been one of the most widely read articles on this site.  I felt reasonably qualified to write it, as a veteran planner and parent of two b'nai mitzvot at the Center.

There has been a great deal of controversy over access to the Kotel itself over the past few years.  It is widely known that the Western Wall itself, the Kotel, is treated as an Orthodox synagogue.  This means that there is a big wall running down the middle, a Mechitza, separating the mens' side from the womens' side of the wall.  Morever, the Orthodox rabbis running the site, with the force of Israeli law behind them for the most part, have prohibited women from praying out loud, reading from a Torah, wearing a Tallith or wearing Tefillin on the women's side of the Kotel.  There has been a push for reform of this state of affairs to improve equality of access for everyone to the site, even to those who might not wish to conform to Orthodox prayer standards.

This past year, Natan Sharansky led a commission to try to find a solution to this challenge.  His proposal, apparently, was a significant improvement to the Davidson Center in a way that would make it appear to be an extension (at the same level) of the Kotel.  Sharansky's plan would have created, effectively, three sections at the Kotel - men, women and mixed.  However, due to some Archaeological resistance and some resistance by Orthodox rabbis, the plan was put on indefinite hold, even though, as a compromise plan, it was approved by a number of different stakeholders.
Davidson Center - New Platform with Tables

After icing Sharansky's plan, powerful cabinet minister Naftali Bennett implemented an alternate solution.  A platform was built at the Southern Wall ( the Davidson Center) and a number of tables were set up.  The Israeli government indicated that the site would now be open 24/7 and would be free and accessible to all for non-Orthodox prayer.  This was Bennett's effort to thwart Sharansky's plan.  The plan, which was implemented on August 27, 2013, is described in the Jewish Week.

This did not solve the problem for some groups.  For example, Women of the Wall, a group which has been denied the ability to pray on the women's side of the Kotel out loud and with a Torah scroll.  Morever, the site is still difficult to access, out of the way and with limited ability for participants to actually touch the wall itself (unlike at the main Kotel).

Nevertheless, for those interested in conducting a religious service at the Kotel for a bar or bat mitzvah that is egalitarian and not separated, the Davidson Center is really the only alternative.  It is now somewhat more accessible than it was previously.  Certainly the hours are much better - and admission is free.  Although it is something of an improvement over the previous state of affairs, I can't help but think that this is a stepping stone towards a much more egalitarian, accessible solution even though that type of dramatic change may take some time to implement.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Toronto-Tel-Aviv Via Warsaw (Part 2)

I flew back to Tel-Aviv from Toronto via Warsaw on Lot Polish Airlines.  I wrote a review of the first leg of my flight a few weeks ago here.  I thought I would add some comments, since this time I stopped in Poland for a longer time.

The connection, travelling from Toronto to Tel-Aviv, is less than ideal.  You leave Toronto at 8:30 p.m. (we were delayed about an hour, but that could happen on any airline...) and you arrive in Warsaw at 10:30 a.m.  The flight from Warsaw to Tel-Aviv leaves Warsaw at 10:55 p.m.  There are no earlier connecting flights.

So if you take this route, you have to make a decision.  Either you leave the airport and spend the 10 hours or so that you have free in Warsaw - or you sit in the airport for about 12 hours.  You have to decide when you first arrive since  you are either sent to a "connecting flights area" or the passport control/ arrivals area.  If you first go to the connecting flights area and then change your mind and decide to go and see Warsaw (that's what I did), it is a bit complicated to get out of the airport.

The flight itself, from Toronto to Warsaw was fine.  Lot uses the new Dreamliner 787s for this route.  The planes are very quiet and very smooth.  You barely feel that you are taking off.  This time I was seated in economy class.  Lot has personal screens but many of the movies, TV shows and music require payment of an additional fee.  The free selection is very limited.  Even the paid selection did not look very enticing.  The flight is just over 8 1/2 hours and it was quite uneventful.  I watched a movie that I had on my own device ("Sarah's Key" which was quite a suitable selection for this trip).

When I arrived in Warsaw, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to travel to the city or stay in the airport.

I stopped off at the lounge (which is available for Star Alliance members).  It is a decent lounge with clean washrooms, showers, drinks, coffee (including a funky cappuccino machine) and some other light food offerings.  The lounge also has Kosher sandwiches which are under the supervision of the local Polish Kashrut council.

Right across from the lounge, there was a duty free shop with terrific prices.  The interesting thing is that the Chopin Airport in Warsaw has several duty free shops, all with varying prices.  The main shops, upstairs, are quite pricey.  The duty free shop downstairs (across from the lounge) was about 20-30% cheaper than upstairs.  So I managed to pick up a bottle of Scotch whiskey to contribute to our upcoming Simchat Torah festivities at our shul...(a Jura 16 year, in case you are wondering...at less than $35 - about 40% of the price at the LCBO in Ontario).

Nożyk Synagogue

I decided to head out and see a bit of Warsaw.  I had looked up some sites of Jewish interest and decided I would start with those.  I took a cab from the airport to the only operating Orthodox synagogue in Warsaw, the Nozyk Synagogue.  This beautiful shul was built in approximately 1900.  It was apparently the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war and it is now the only active Orthodox shul in Warsaw.  I wandered around and had a look.  Just outside the shul, there was a small, Kosher falafel shop, run by an Israeli.  I decided to patronize it, even though I wasn't too crazy about having a falafel.  It certainly wasn't the freshest or the best tasting falafel I have had but it was worth the experience.  The cab ride from the airport to the synagogue was about 45 Zloty - or about $13 (Cdn).  I had taken some money out of an ATM in the Polish airport.  Considering that this was about a 20 minute ride, the cab fare seemed quite reasonable.  I think a similar distance in Israel would easily cost  5 or 6 times that amount.

Museum of Jewish History- Warsaw
From the synagogue, I grabbed another cab and went over to the site of the new Polish Museum of Jewish History.  The museum is not open yet and will only open in early to mid-2014.  It promises to include an enormous collection of information and exhibits relating to the history of the Jewish community in Poland.  For now - you can see the building and the monument that has been erected but you cannot go into the building for a tour. 

From the Museum, I decided to walk over to the Old City - the historic parts of Warsaw - which feature cobblestone streets and old buildings, many of which have been renovated after being destroyed during the war.  I walked for about 20 minutes using my phone GPS (I had pre-loaded a full map of Warsaw from Google onto my phone) over to the old section of Warsaw and wandered around in that area for a while.

Old Warsaw
There were many historical sites and it was an interesting area to visit.  I couldn't help but wondering how the city must have looked in the 1930s or earlier.  After all, pre-war Warsaw had a Jewish population of close to 400,000.  It rivalled New York at the time, as one of the cities with the largest Jewish populations in the world.  The Jewish community comprised close to 1/3 of the entire population of Warsaw.  Now, wandering around Warsaw, a handful of Jews live in the city.  Most of the population was, of  course, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.  There is a little evidence that this was once a vibrant, thriving Jewish community with hundreds of synagogues, Jewish schools, shops, theatres and other important community landmarks.  While there are certainly some remaining sites of Jewish interest in Warsaw, the overwhelming feeling is one of amazement and sadness at the annihilation and disappearance of an entire community.

Nevertheless, I stopped for a latte and then continued wandering through old Warsaw before taking a cab back to the airport.
I took a panorama shot but this blog has only saved it as a jpg file - for some reason, so you have to imagine that this is one continuous photo...

I had thought of trying to make it to some more important Polish historical sites, but the camps were more of a distance and would have required a longer time period.  It would probably also be more suitable to get to those sites with a group.

Nevertheless, if you are travelling to Tel-Aviv through Warsaw (which could be hundreds of dollars cheaper than some other flights), you may want to try to see some of the city.  It is inexpensive, interesting and it seemed to be reasonably safe. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shirat Machar - Latest Video - Akum L'Shorer

Shirat Machar - Israeli show choir
 Shirat Machar released a new video yesterday and it is really outstanding!  Here is the link to it:  Akum L'Shorer - Video.  I think it is one of the best songs that the group has released.  Of course, I'm biased...

Shirat Machar has also included a link where you can support the group by purchasing a download of the song (a digital version in mp3 or flac) of this latest offering.  The link Akum L'Shoer also includes information about the song itself and the complete lyrics in Hebrew and English.

I won't repeat all of what is one the site, but  the timing is particularly relevant.  Released just days before Rosh Hashana, which is next week, the piyut, translated as "I will rise to write poetry" is a 16th century piyut that appears in the High Holyday Machzor.   The theme is especially poignant and connected to the ימים נוראים themes of repentence and justice.  Here is the translation of the last few lines - taken from the Shirat Machar site:

Take mercy with your grace, turn to your servant,
and grant him pity
God, for your sake, I will stand innocent in your court,
and you will forgive the guilty.
When I call, "Answer me, God of justice, Hear my prayer"

To top it all off, the music is quite well done - and very catchy.  I hope you enjoy it!

Shana Tova!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Air Canada "E-Upgrades"...More Costs For Non-Super Elite Travellers

Well the "free ride" is just about over...or at least the free upgrade ride.  In a warm and fuzzy email earlier this week - Air Canada announced that starting on March 1, 2014, it will charge "e-upgrade add-ons" for passengers looking to upgrade into the executive cabin from economy class on all flights other than those within North America.  For this year, at least, Super Elite members (now called "Altitude 100k") will be exempt from these charges.  But for all other travellers, it will cost $500 plus a pile of e-upgrade points to move up into the executive cabin.

The deterioration of benefits for non-super elite passengers over the past couple of years has been significant.  Last year, Air Canada introduced its "Altitude" program and effectively reduced the status of benefits for most Aeroplan members, other than previously named "Super Elite."  These changes made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for non-super elite passengers to be upgraded into executive first.

Now with the latest change, passengers hoping to upgrade from a cheap fare into executive first will have to pay $500 unless they are Superelite 100K.  That's $500 in addition to the exorbitant number of e-upgrade points that they will need- which have become harder and harder to collect.

There is now a greater and greater discrepancy between the value of Air Canada's highest level status, Altitude 100K and all other levels.

For those travelling back and forth between Israel and Canada, this will reduce the benefit of flying Air Canada for anyone travelling less than 8 1/2 times a year. Air Canada still offers a direct flight, with AC power outlets, personal entertainment screens and complementary alcohol (to name a few of the benefits).  But the loss of the ability to get a free upgrade, even once in a while, is a major change and it is certainly not a positive one.

The flip side is that anyone who is close to Altitude 100K status by the end of December will need to consider the value of taking an extra flight just to meet the required threshold.  The value of having 100K status will now include free upgrades (with e-upgrade points), double Aeroplan miles on Air Canada and United flights, and the ability to use Aeroplan points for priority bookings, even when most reward seats are no longer available.

For passengers on the Tel-Aviv-Toronto route, this will affect, most significantly, those passengers who might be flying 4 to 7 times a year.  Only two or three years ago, passengers in that category would have enjoyed regular upgrades to executive first at no additional charge.  Now they will be lucky to be eligible and when they are, it may cost more than half of the price of the ticket (during low season).

So if you are an Altitude member, but not 100K, the time to enjoy the free upgrades is now - or between now and March 1, 2014.  After that, well, luxury will have its price...

Here is the link to the Air Canada announcement:  Air Canada Add Ons

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lot Polish Airlines Review - Tel-Aviv - Toronto

I was expecting  that this would be one of my harshest reviews of airline service.  Given the high season airfares between Israel and North America in the summer, I booked my August trip from Tel Aviv to Toronto on Lot Polish Airlines. ("Lot")  The fare was close to $1,000 less than the available Air Canada fare and I could still get full Aeroplan points.  I could also get the other benefits of flying on a Star Alliance partner - including lounge access, extra baggage allowance and priority boarding.  Of course, it would also mean several hours of layover time in Warsaw which was less than enticing.  Nevertheless I decided to try it, despite the many stories that I had heard about Lot. 

Like the other Star Alliance flights out of Tel Aviv, Lot leaves Israel at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.  This means check- in at 3 a.m. and of course no sleep.  Check-in at Ben Gurion Airport was a zoo, though I suppose that is always the case leaving Israel unless you are flying Air Canada which seems to have the 1 p.m. time slot all to itself.

The plane itself, for this first leg of the trip, was a base version of a Boeing 737.  The seats looked like they were the original seats. There were no TV screens or music devices - no entertainment of any kind.  As we were making our way towards the runway, the plane was making some awfully peculiar noises.  For the first time in quite a number of flights, I began to appreciate the need that some feel to recite "tefillat haderech" the traveller's prayer... This was reinforced for me by the high level of exuberence shown by the cabin crew as they demonstrated the safety equipment and procedures.  Perhaps this all explained why the passengers clapped so enthusiastically when we eventually arrived in Warsaw.

I did not have to worry about Kosher food as there was no meal service at all.  At one point, the flight attendants distributed chocolate bars...and they came a few times with water.  But no other beverages, were served on this flight.  They did not even serve coffee.  Although the flight was just under 4 hours, there was no meal service at all.  That was surprising.  Even Austrian Airlines serves food, however disgusting it might be.

On arrival in Warsaw, we had to take a bus to the terminal.  At the terminal, we were required to pass through full personal security, even though the bus stayed behind security at all times.  There was one security station for the whole plane.  It was tediously slow and poorly organized, especially compared to arrival in other European cities.  I was in that line for close to an hour and I was only somewhere in the middle.

To this point in my trip, it would be fair to say that Lot had met my original expectations. 

Chopin Airport in Warsaw is a modest airport.  There were  a couple of duty free stores and the prices were reasonable (if you know the exchange rates for a zloty..).  The Star Alliance lounge was quite decent.  It had coffee, alcoholic beverages, fresh juices and even stale kosher sandwhiches (dairy and meat versions, separately packaged of course.). The staff members were friendly and there was free unlimited WiFi.   They even lent me an adaptor plug piece.  The lounge had some nice showers as well, though I did not use these facilities.  Nevertheless, I had more than five hours to check out the lounge and the airport before my connecting flight.

Then it came time to check in to Toronto.  Check-in was a zoo, just like israel, although although unlike El-Al, there was still some semblance of boarding order.  

But here is where it gets unfair...I was pulled aside and upgraded to business "premium" class.  Was it because they knew my grandfather z"l had faced horrible anti-semitism in Poland and had been forced to flee the Polish army in 1917?  Or in consideration of my many family members killed in Poland during the Holocaust?  I don't think so.  I was simply the nearest Star Alliance Gold member...so I suppose that counts for something sometimes.

So I found myself placed in 6f, a window seat, in a new 787 Dreamliner.  I"ll have to review economy on my way back.   I was seated in the "Premium Business Class" section, which is one step below the business first section.  I can only really compare this to Air Canada's business class service, since I don't generally fly business class.

On this Lot plane, in the premium business section, the seats were nice and wide but did not have cubicles like Air Canada.  There were USB plugs, dual europe-north america outlets and personal screens. at every seat.

But unlike many other airlines, even at the economy class level, the Lot screens were showing a choice of about 12 movies (not hundreds like on United or US Air economy service).  For music, there were also a very small number of choices.

As well, as far as business seats go, these were quite crowded.  You cannot easily get out the seat if you are seated in the window seat.  You have to ask the other person to get up and move aside. And even then, you actually have to climb over the seat.

Also, suprisingly, there are no washrooms in the premium business class section so you have to leave the "protected area" and venture back to the middle if the plane...

Overall, I'm not complaining too much.  I"m thankful to have been upgraded.  I"ll have to add a note about economy on my way back.  However, they did announce at the beginning of the flight that for economy class, personal entertainment systems were available for rent.  So that didn't sound good.

The meals were fairly small.  The first meal was served an hour or so after the flight.  My vegetarian "meal" looked like about 4 or 5 fettuccini noodles cut in half and served with three mushrooms....needless to say, I was still hungry.  

Nevertheless, if Lot was hoping that I would say better things about this airline if it upgraded me, it worked...
Even for economy, these 787s seemed to be much better than the planes used by Austrian, or El Al...but I will have to reserve some of my assessment and add more after my return leg.  This may work out well for myself and for Lot ...maybe they"ll even upgrade me again to ensure a positive review...

But I also wanted to add a word or two, in general, about the 787 Dreamliner.

This huge new plane is impressive, despite the well-publicized difficulties in getting it off the ground (or back onto the ground).  It was very quiet and remarkably smooth.  The windows are described as one of the special new features.  They do not have pull down plastic shades. Instead there are five shading controls that work like increasingly strong sunglasses. 

But for all of the planning that must have gone into these planes, the plane does not have enough washrooms, causing congestion in the middle and at the back.  Most planes have a set of washrooms at the front of the business section and a set just after the business section.  This one does not.

I was in "premium" class which was not full-scale first class.  But "dinner" was a few pieces of lox, some kiwi, orange and cheese slices.  Like the lunch, it was minimalist.  And this was the enhanced meal..!  So i was fairly hungry on this 8 hour plus flight, even after being upgraded. 

Overall, this whole trip turned out much better than I had feared.  Flying in a Dreamliner (787) between Warsaw and Toronto was a neat experience.  This type of itinerary (Tel-Aviv to Toronto on Lot), in my view, would be at least as good as flying on Austrian, Lufthansa, Brussels Air or El Al.   Still not nearly as good as flying Air Canada direct, United or US Air (with a stopover).  But overall, if the price is right, I might even try this again, especially when compared to other options.