Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sukkot 5773/2012 in Israel - A bit about our palm branch roof

We have been celebrating the holiday of Sukkot this week here in Israel.  Sukkot is really one of those holidays that was designed to be celebrated in Israel.  The festival, which lasts 8 days in Israel (including Simchat Torah) and 9 days outside of Israel, involves putting up a Sukkah and eating meals in the Sukkah for the duration of the holiday.  If the weather is 30 C during the day and still more than 20 C at night, you can have some wonderfully enjoyable Sukkot meals, particularly your evening meals.  These are the conditions that we are enjoying this year.  If you are in Canada and the weather drops down to 10C, you can start to see that the holiday of Sukkot may not be pefectly suited to Canadian weather.  (These are the reports I am getting from family members).

The roof of a Sukkah is supposed to be made out of branches and leaves (as a very general summary description) called schach.  Some people use a reusable bamboo branch roof.  We have one of these but it is not very authentic.  Probably the equivalent of a plastic Christmas tree for people celebrating Christmas.  We decided to build our schach roof this year out of palm branches and leaves, freshly trimmed from palm trees.  As I wrote about last year Sukkot 2011, the City of Ra'anana trims its palm trees each year just before Sukkot and posts information about where and when you can go to collect the freshly cut branches.  However, some "entrepreneurs" arrive early at these sites, collect the free branches and then turn around and sell them later for 10 N.I.S. a branch.  You could easily require 20 or 30 of these branches for a medium sized Sukkah - so this can get quite expensive and leave you feeling very ripped off since the City of Ra'anana was giving it away for free.  But if you don't arrive at the City distribution sites on time - or even before the appointed time - you cannot get the free schach.

So we travelled to the Rehovot area this year to collect some branches from very freshly trimmed palm trees.  Cutting and using fresh palm branches can be very risky business.  The lower parts of the branches have very sharp, pointy, thorns that can cause serious infections.  Some people are highly allergic and have been known to require urgent medical attention after losing a battle with a palm branch.  So the first step after trimming the branches - very carefully - is to cut away the thorns.  Here are some pictures of a palm branch with the thorns and after being trimmed.

Once you have cut away the thorns, you can carry the branches fairly easily without worrying about getting poked since upper leaves are not sharp at all.

To cover the roof of our Sukkah properly, we needed about 25-30 of these leaves.  So we gathered them in a pile and had to figure out how to get them from the Rehovot area to Ra'anana - about 50 km away (highway driving).

We loaded them up...on the roof of the car...(they are too long to fit in a trunk or inside the car) and drove back to Ra'anana.  This might look a bit strange but we were not the only ones on the road driving around with a car covered in schach since so many Israelis build Sukkot. 

Finally, back in Ra'anana, we were able to finish building the Sukkah and get our palm-branch schach onto the roof.  There should be enough schach so that there is more shade than sunlight and that you can see some stars.  But the schach must also allow rain to fall in the Sukkah if it rains during Sukkot.  In fact, it rained a bit the first night.  Here is a view of part of the roof from inside the Sukkah and another view from outside.  Having a freshly trimmed palm branch Sukkah has to be one of the most kosher type of Sukkah coverings.  It is very hard to get fresh palm branches in most places in North America.

The holiday of Sukkot includes a very central concept of "ushpizin" - entertaining guests in your Sukkah, particularly new guests who you have not regularly hosted.  We were very fortunate this year to have some wonderful guests, familiar and unfamiliar, join us in celebrating the holiday, having some wine and enjoying the smell and sight of the fresh palm branches, while sitting the Sukkah enjoying the summer-like termperatures.

Now the festival is almost over and we will have the task of getting rid of this huge collection of palm branches.  But the City of Ra'anana is prepared and will have extra pick ups of branches just after the holiday ends.

For those celebrating the holiday, Chag Sameach!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yom Kippur in Israel 5773 - Early Clock Change - Early End to Fast

In Israel, we moved the clocks back one hour to daylight savings time Sunday the 23rd of September (early in the morning).  The move to DST was weeks ahead of many other countries around the world.  But with Yom Kippur approaching, the Israeli government was ensuring that the Yom Kippur fast would end at about 6:00 p.m. instead of 7:00 p.m.  Does the extra hour make that big of a difference?  Many believe that it is easier to start the fast earlier and finish it earlier.  It is still the same 26 hours in total, but it does seem easier to conclude the fast earlier in the day.

In any event, this is an illustration of the central role tht religion plays in Israel and, in particular, Yom Kippur.  Many secular Israelis were vocally opposed to this early clock change.  It meant that it would become dark in Israel by 6 p.m. and earlier in September and October.  These are months in which the temperature can still top 30 degrees Celsius and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are still quite inviting.  DST cuts out an hour of after-school or after-work enjoyment of some great outdoor activity weather.  The clock change is premature.  Debates have been held in the Knesset about this and will undoubtedly continue.  My thought is that as a compromise, we should move the clocks back after Simchat Torah for about a month.  In other words,  have DST temporarily for about 2 weeks for the Jewish holydays and then move them back until early November - and change with the rest of the world at that time.

But whether Israel is on DST or regular time, Yom Kippur in Israel is still an amazing holiday. The entire country really comes to a standstill for a 26 hour period.  Almost nothing is open anywhere.  Stores, restaurants, buses - everything is closed.  There are practically no cars on the road - as shown in this picture that I found on another site - other than emergency vehicles.

 Incredibly, even completely secular Israelis avoid using their cars on Yom Kippur.  Instead, the day has become somewhat of a national bike day - with kids and adults on their bikes everywhere across the country. Despite all of this bicycle activiity, according to a recent Gesher poll picked up by the Jerusalem Post, more than 60% of Israelis indicated that they intended to fast on Yom Kippur.  That percentage is of course much higher than the the percentage of Israelis who would define themselves as observant or religious.  So Yom Kippur still has a special pull, even for those who are otherwise not very observant.

For our part, we spent Erev Yom Kippur,  Tuesday night, at our shul in Kfar Saba, Hod v'Hadar.  We drove to the Synagogue before Yom Kippur  began and left our car in a parking spot on the street near the shul for the day.  Starting the fast at 5 p.m. (because of the clock change) means eating as early as 3 p.m. or so to make sure that you are on time for synagogue services.  We walked back from Kfar Saba to Ra'anana - about an hour long walk.  On the way, we crossed one of Israel's major highways.  There was not a car on the road other than two or three ambulances and a police vehicle.  With so many people using their bicycles, there are usually quite a number of bicycle accidents, some of them serious, so the ambulances still have to be ready.

In Ra'anana, there were thousands of people in the streets, walking up and down the centre of the city and enjoying the atmosphere.  Very little noise other then the sounds of peoples voices. No cars.  No commercial activity.  But lots of people, especially kids riding around on bikes.

We spent Yom Kippur day in Ra'anana at the house of one of the families from our shul.  For many years now they have been holding Yom Kippur services in their house for 60-80 people.  The service was very participatory, egalitarian and somewhat abbreviated.  Our family members participated by reading from the Torah in the morning.  Many of the people attending had some kind of role.  It was a terrific, spiritually meaningful way to spend Yom Kippur.  We all broke the fast together at about 6:20 p.m. with food that participants had prepared and delivered to the house the day before. 

For those of us who have lived our lives in North America or other places outside of Israel, we get accustomed to the idea that everything is still going on all around us while we are observing Yom Kippur.  We see the usual traffic and commercial activity  and might even be worried about our businesses that day.  It is really special to see the way Yom Kippur is observed in Israel.  To see a day on which everything comes to a stop - especially in today's fast paced world, where that seems increasingly unfathomable - is really quite something.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah

For many Jews around the world, Israel would be the best place to spend the holy days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which took place this year on September 17 and 18, 2012.  Whether at the Kotel (the Western Wall), some other synagogue in Jerusalem, or our own egalitarian Conservative shul in K'far Saba, Hod v'Hadar, there is a very special atmosphere in Israel this time of year.

But for a growing number of Israelis and other Jews, especially Breslaver Hassids, Rosh Hashanah is the time to leave Israel and head for Uman, Ukraine.  This year, it is estimated that more than 30,000 people went to celebrate the Jewish New Year near the grave site of the late Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, the founder of Breslaver Hassidism.

Rabbi Nachman died in 1810.  But more recently, since the fall of communism, an increasingly large number of Breslaver Hassids and others have been travelling to the Ukraine on pilgrimages to Rabbi Nachman's grave on Rosh Hashanah.

The Breslaver movement charters hundreds of planes to fly directly from Israel to the Ukraine, where pilgrimage participants can then take a 3 hour bus ride to the grave site area,  which is located about 125 miles south of Kiev.  Almost all of the pilgrims are men, most of whom are married and have left their wives and families to come have a spiritual "cleansing" with thousands of other like minded folks.  One commentator called it a "milluim" ("army reserve duty") for the ultra-religious.

For some, it really  is a quintessentially religious experience - standing together in groups of hundreds, if not thousands of men, chanting Rosh Hashanah prayers and hymns and being moved by a unique spiritual journey.  Many of the devout Brelaver Hassidim, might well be in Uman, motivated solely by this genuine sense of religious belief.

For others, the religious side is combined with a very material, worldly experience.  According to some reports, there is no shortage of alcohol, drugs and even prostitutes, thought the estimates of how many people are participating in these activities varies wildly.  For these people, it is like a sort of Woodstock festival, with minimalist accomodations (maybe even tents) (or rented apartments from locals), late nights, music and a general party atomosphere.

In past years, some fights have broken out - and some arrests have been made.  There have even been anti-Semitic attacks on the pilgrims, culminating in some very nasty incidents in 2010 (some Hassidim were deported back to Israel), though this year, such incidents have apparently been virtually non-existent.

Pilgrims make their way to Pushkina Street, the main street in this small town, which now relies on Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages as its main industry.  Townsfolk rent out their places for the holiday for an estimated going rate of $250 per night and try to sell touristy knick-knacks.  Those who have attended say that the highlight of the pilgrimage is the Taschlich ceremony, attended by thousands on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.  After symbolically throwing their sins into a nearby body of water, participants sing and dance wildly.

The Breslev movemement is probably earning some significant profits from all of these chartered flights from Israel to Kiev.  The onslaught is so enormous that the Ukranian authorities have apparently instituted streamlined border procedures.  They check passports on the plane and then simply unload the luggage on the tarmac.

This annual event has attracted a certain mystique, even among secular Israelis and observant Jews who are not Hassidim.  More and more non-Breslev Israelis are booking these charter flights and attending the event.  I personally know at least three people who went this year  (without their wives...)who could hardly be classified as Hassidim

According to Breslev belief, Rabbi Nachman told his followers before he died that he would intercede on behalf of anyone who came to pray at his grave.  He specifically requested that he be buried in Uman.  So perhaps this promise of spiritual intercession is enough to convince those who are looking for a miracle that it is worth a try.  Or perhaps there are many Israelis who are simply looking for a great experience with 30,000 of their nearest and dearest friends.

No matter what the reason, thousands of Israelis are now deciding annually that they would rather spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine than in Israel.  From a strictly Jewish perspective, that just seems bizarre to me - but then again, I was too young to attend Woodstock .and I feel no spiritual connection to Uman, Ukraine

G'mar Hatima Tova.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marvel and Warner Bros Sue Kippa Man in Jerusalem for Copyright Infringement

At the speed of light, he arrives just in time...(That's Spiderman we're talking about - and those are words from the theme song of the Spiderman television show that ran from 1967 to 1970 but was replayed on television repeatedly throughout the 70s and 80s).

Well - it looks like Kippa Man is going to need some help from a legal superhero to avoid an injunction or a large award of damages.

Kippa Man is a store on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem which sells all different types of Kippas (Yarmulkes or Skullcaps).  Some are crocheted in Israel or the Palestinian Territories, some are embroidered in China and some are printed in China.  You can get Kippas with logos of major sports franchises, cartoon characters and many other designs.

Apparently, a visiting Marvel Comics executive didn't like what he saw when he walked by Kippa Man in Jerusalem on July 30, 2012.  He bought himself a Spiderman kippa as "evidence."  On September 12, 2012, Marvel served Kippa Man and its owner Avi Binyamin with a 100,000 N.I.S. lawsuit (about $25,000) for copyright infringement.

News apparently travels fast in the superhero world, though it isn't clear whether Kippa Man had any Flash kippas.  Nevertheless, someone apparently called Commissioner Gordon.  Israeli newspaper Maariv reported today (September 19, 2012) that Warner Brothers has also filed a 100,000 N.I.S. lawsuit against Kippa Man and Binyamin alleging improper sale of Batman logoed Kippas (as well as unlicensed logos of other Warner Brothers' likenesses).

It appears that these companies have decided to use Kippa Man as the first example (a sort of test case) and have held off launching lawsuits against the many other purveyors of unlicensed kippas in this highly congested tourist area of Jerusalem, even though most of the other stores have continued to display and sell their Spiderman and Batman kippas.  For his part, Binyamin was quoted in Ma'ariv as explaining that he only buys the kippas from Chinese producers, like all of the other stores in the area. If they really wanted to stop the distribution of this unlicensed merchandise, he explained, they would go after the producers.

The Kippa Man story has emerged at a particularly reflective time.  Jews around the world are contemplating their various sins this week as Yom Kippur approaches.  We read, and ask forgiveness for, a whole list of sins on behalf of ourselves and our whole community.  Some of us may have to add "copyright infringement" to the list, particularly those of us who are at shul wearing an unlicensed Spiderman or Batman kippa.  

This may only be the beginning of the lawsuits.  Expect visits to Israel soon from NHL owners who have time on their hands (with the pending lockout and possible cancellation of the 2012-2013 season).  After all, the stores on Ben Yehuda also sell kippas with NHL logos (as well as team logos of other professional leagues).  Given the play over the past few years of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you don't tend to see very many Maple Leaf kippas and it may be difficult to find someone who has actuallly bought one.  But the NHL owners may still want to pile on this shot at protecting their intellectual property.

It wasn't yet clear whether Marvel Comics and Warner Brothers (and others) would try to get urgent injunction orders allowing them to confiscate kippas from synagogue attenders across Israel on Yom Kippur (next Wednesday, September 24, 2012).  But those who are worried about it may wish to stick to a plain white kippa and play it safe.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Israel, the U.S. and Iran - Rosh Hashanah 5773

As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Rosh Hashanah  - the Jewish New Year of 5773, it is probably fair to say that many of us have significant concerns about the coming year and in particular the situation that Israel is currently facing.

Events throughout the region over the past year have demonstrated yet again that Israel resides in a very unstable and dangerous neighbourhood.  The emergence of an Islamic government in Egypt, with its volatile and often hostile rhetoric has led to a heightened level of security on Israel’s southern border and accompanying sense of deep concern.

Events  unfolding in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East have all reinforced the idea that Israel really is an island of democracy and western values in a sea of dark, hostile regimes.  As Caroline Glick recently suggested in the Jerusalem Post, many liberals held the optimistic view that these regimes would be “liberated” and would choose freedom in their new transformed governing structures.  But this hope has not turned to reality.  In fact, even Turkey, a country that once was the example of a true Muslim democracy, seems headed in the other direction.  For all the talk of an “Arab Spring” in Egypt, there is no sign that Egypt will be emerging from winter weather any time soon even though summer and early fall temperatures may regularly pass 40 C.

Of course, above all else, the Israeli government, the Israeli press and much of the world media have been consumed with the ongoing threat posed by Iran and the best way for Israel to address it.

There is no easy solution here.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pushing for a “red line” threat to be presented by the world to Iran, beyond which the world community would take military action to prevent Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions. 

On the one hand, Israel has every reason to be concerned.  Iranian leader Ahmadinejad has vowed to destroy Israel and has repeatedly called for its elimination.  He has called Israel “a cancer” on the body of the world that needs to be removed.  Iran has certainly shown in the past that it is not averse to suicidal missions that could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens if this is viewed as justifiable.  Should Israel simply dismiss his rhetoric as that of a madman?  This could be a very dangerous miscalculation, as history has shown.  This is a very real, existential issue for Israel.

On the other hand, it is not clear that Israel would be able to carry out a successful attack on all of Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time, even with U.S. help, if such help was forthcoming.  This does not appear to be the same type of situation that Israel faced in dealing with Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq in 1981 or the alleged attack by Israel on the Syrian nuclear project in September 2007.  Iran supposedly has many different sites, spread out throughout the country and hidden deep below the ground.  These sites have purportedly been designed to repel traditional air attacks.

Moreover, if Israel were successful, it is far from clear that such success would translate into a significant delay in Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Perhaps Israel would gain a year or two or more, but Iran might also redouble its efforts with increased aid from sympathetic countries.  As well, Israel could face massive reprisal attacks from a range of sources.  Israel had a very difficult time defending itself from rocket attacks in the 2006 war with Lebanon.  This time around, the attacks could be far more severe.   

Radio talk shows have filled the airwaves in Israel with discussions of possible consequences.  One radio show I was listening to was hosting former Israeli generals to discuss competing estimates of potential Israeli casualties in the event of an attack on Iran.  The estimates ranged from 300-400 Israelis killed in a “highly successful attack and defence strategy” to tens of thousands in a less successful operation.

Another radio show appealed to the black humour of the Israeli public which is often necessary for those of us living here.  Callers were asked to come up with an appropriate code name for the eventual military operation to be undertaken.  This show was a few months ago, just after the holiday of Purim (which is said to have taken place in ancient Persia (i.e. Iran).  Callers were suggesting names like “Operation Avenge Esther,” “Operation Crush the Hamentaschen” or “Operation Ra’ashan” (a noise maker used on Purim to blot out the name of the evil villain of the story, Haman).  Even though the callers were trying to be humourous, one could still sense the readily apparent level of unease.

More recently, much has been made of the apparent rift between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and U.S. President Obama, particularly over the very issue of whether to proceed with an attack on Iran.  Many have suggested that Netanyahu is openly interfering with the current U.S. election campaign by attempting to call attention to President Obama’s failure to give Israel a green light (at least publicly) to proceed with an operation against Iran.  Indeed, Netanyahu often seems to be echoing the sentiments of Republican candidate Mitt Romney who claimed that President Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”

But President Obama’s record  vis a vis Israel is not nearly as negative as one might believe from listening to the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu or Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  In many respects, U.S.-Israeli cooperation in military, economic and technological spheres is the strongest it has ever been.   While it is somewhat disconcerting that President Obama has not visited Israel during his first term in office (even while visiting Egypt), it is far from clear that the U.S. President must be seen as supporting every policy of the current Israeli Prime Minister to be viewed as a close friend and ally.  In fact, quite a number of Israelis do not agree with many of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies.  Many Israelis feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone out of his way to try embarrass President Obama and to push for the election of Romney.

While some Israelis might accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assessment of President Obama’s views of Israel, it appears that American Jews are remaining supportive of President Obama.  According to a Gallup poll released this week, some 70% of American Jews are expected to vote for President Obama in the upcoming elections.  While this may signify the fact that American Jews overwhelmingly support more liberal positions on a range of social issues – and these are the issues that dominate an American presidential election campaign, it may also indicate that American Jews still believe that Obama will be fine for Israel in the long run.  Many Israelis (and American Jews) would count Democratic President Bill Clinton as one of the best friends that Israel ever had in the White House.  On the other hand, Republican President Ronald Reagan was a tremendous friend of the Saudi Arabian regime, perhaps more so than with Israel.  It is far from clear that President Bush’s policies (either one of the two presidents) left Israel in a safer, more secure or more stable situation in the Middle East. 

Hopefully, despite all of the posturing by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli-U.S. relationship will continue to be a close, strategic relationship between friends, irrespective of who wins the White House in November.  And hopefully, these friends will continue to work together on an urgent basis to come up with the best way of preventing Iran from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions.  It may well be that military leaders have a detailed plan for a pending attack that will meet all of its objectives successfully.  Or perhaps, there will be other ways to achieve this result.

That’s a lot to hope for at Rosh Hashanah, along with our hopes for peace throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.  But I do believe that we have to be optimistic, even while being realistic and being prepared for a whole range of possible scenarios. 

A happy and healthy New Year to all.  Shana Tova.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yemen Blues - Toronto - September 2, 2012

Israeli musical group Yemen Blues performed at the Harbourfront Westjet concert stage in Toronto on Sunday September 2, 2012 to a standing room only crowd of more than 2,000.  The concert was presented as part of the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto, though there is very little that is "ashkenaz" about this group.

Yemen Blues is a unique musical experience that combines Yemenite/African and eastern musical styles with contemporary jazz, funk and blues.  The band is made up of musicians playing a variety of different instruments including a cello, violin, trombone, trumpet, flute, guitar, percussion/lute, and standard drum kit. Lead singer Ravid Khalani fronts the band and also plays an eastern version of a bass. 

Khalani sings most of the group's songs in Yemenite (a dialect of Arabic).  Influenced by the Yemenite chants that he learned as a child in his local Synagogue in Israel, Khalani has taken this Yemenite-traditional musical base and mixed it up with a range of other African and eastern influences.

For the uninitiated, Khalani's voice can be rough at times.  For part of the performance, he can alternate between trance-like Yemenite chants in a gravelly voice, mixed with shrieks, and various exuberant calls.  At other times, he veers to falsetto and other vocal styles.  With a little bit of Hebrew thrown in and perhaps some other languages, the singing is mainly Yemenite.  For Yemen Blues, this can mean wide ranging appeal in many places where traditional Israeli groups would be quite unwelcome.  Apparently, Yemen Blues, has a following among many Arab and Muslim listeners.

Of course, this would best suit the spirit and objective of Khalani's music.  Near the end of the concert, he explained to the audience that the music is intended to cross religious, ethnic and cultural boundaries.  "It doesn't matter whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or from some other religious or cultural background - our goal is to bring everyone together through music," he explained.

The audience responded, particularly towards the end of the 75 minute show, as Khalani took off his jacket and implored everyone to get up, clap and dance along.  Khalani himself is quite a spectacle on stage.  He works himself into a frenzied dance, moving along the stage with an obvious passion and infectious enthusiasm.

Overall, the band was fascinating.  The high calibre musicians were well rehearsed and moved into extended jazz interludes that could have fit into any world class blues/jazz festival.  Then they veered back into Yemenite/eastern music that were reminiscent of the sounds of an Israeli/Yemenite Hina (a pre-wedding celebration).

It is exciting and remarkable that such an eclectic sounding ethnic musical group from Israel would develop such a large following in so many places.  Yemen Blues have been peforming around the world and have attracted audiences in Scandanavia, Eastern Europe, the U.S. and of course their home country.  In Toronto, the audience size and welcoming reaction made a case for a larger venue for Yemen Blues' next Canadian peformance.   

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cell Phone Service in Israel - A Visit to Cellcom

Thinking of arranging for cell phone service in Israel?  You should plan on spending quite a while in the cell phone store.  As you can see from this picture of a  Cellcom location, Cellcom locations often have a couch, water machine, coffee machine, washrooms and other facilities.  Nice to have all of these things if you have to be there for a while - but not a great sign for those hoping to get in and out quickly.

When we first arrived in Israel three years ago, we spent about 4 hours in an  Orange location arranging cell phone service.  Why did it take so long?  It was something like buying a car.  The sales representative would offer new and cheaper plans each time we tried to negotiate. Then she brought out the manager to offer us the "really good plan."  At the time, that meant the plan for people who had switched from using another cell phone provider.  Of course the plan was only good for a limited time period.  So after a while, we wound up switching over to Cellcom which was significantly cheaper.

Having a cell phone was crucial since cell phone use in Israel is so high.  Children from the age of 9/10 have cell phones (sometimes younger) and people use them all day long, even at their places of work.  Teachers give out their numbers, sales representitives (for almost anything) give them out and there is just a general expectation that you will be reachable on your cell phone at almost any time. 

With all of this heavy use, the good news is that, over time, cell phone rates in Israel have dropped quite a bit.  One recent contributing factor is that in May 2012, two upstart companies entered the fray -  Golan Telecom  and Hot Mobile.  Both have been offering all inclusive plans at fixed rates, which has put significant pressure on Israel's pre-existing cell phone providers.  As a result, we decided to visit Cellcom and see if they were adjusting to the competition.

We arrved at about 10 a.m. on a random weekday (not a Friday) and we took a number.  We got number 110 and they were on number 92.  How bad could that be?  Fortunately, they had a few IPad stations set up - so we played some computer scrabble, watched baseball highlights, news and did a few other things.  But by 11:15 a.m., it was still not our turn...It took until 11:45 a.m. until it was finally our turn. We didn't even get to use one of the couches (of the type that you can see in the photo above).  Too many other people waiting for long periods of time.  I suppose we could have just left - but from past experience, it wouldn't necessarily be any better the next time around.

The good news was that Cellcom has reacted quite a bit to changing market conditions.  We were offered a variety of new plans.  For the heavier users in our family (I'm not naming any names...), Cellcom was offering plans at either 129 N.I.S. including taxes (about $34 Cdn/US) (with 2 GB of data per month) or 119 N.I.S. without the data.  Both plans included unlimited minutes, texts, and MMS messages.  Both plans also included 200 minutes of international calling.  These plans are commitment-free - but they do not include a device.  Israel has instituted consumer legislation that bars cell phone and other telecommunications companies from locking in consumers without an easy out.  So on the usage side, it is fair to say that these plans are significantly better than Canadian plans (not necessarily American plans) from a variety of angles.  We were also offered lower rate plans for the "lighter users..."  For 59 N.I.S. ($15.50 Cdn), we could get 310 minutes or texts any time.  Fortunately, that is more than enough monthly usage for some of us.

On the flip side, the device costs are quite expensive.  Here, Israeli companies can lock consumers in to three year plans - though the only real "penalty" is that the phone has to be paid off in full if you leave the cell provider before the time period.  This is where these companies seem to be earning a fair chunk of their profits.  So far example, a new Samsung Galaxy III would cost about 4,500 N.I.S. spread out over three years.  That's close to $1,200 Cdn (including taxes) for a phone that you could buy in North America for closer to $550-$600.  An IPhone 4S is in the same price range.  Of course you can continue to use a phone you already have or get a phone with fewer new features. 

Ultimately, it looks like the cheapest way to go in the long run is to pick up the new device from another source (ebay? zap?) and then sign up for a commitment free plan with one of these Israeli providers that will meet your needs.  Just make sure that the phone is unlocked and compatible with Israeli networks.  Of course, the phones are often quite expensive.  Many people would prefer to pay a higher overall price for the phone by paying for it monthly in exchange for the convenience of not having to pay for the whole thing up front.  After all, paying 4,000 N.I.S. for a new IPhone (or even $800 on ebay) is quite an expense for a cell phone.

I haven't yet visited the other providers and we are still commitment-free for now (cell-phone wise).  It looks like it will be worthwhile investment of time to investigate other options.  But the good news is that Cellcom and others have dropped their prices substantially (our bill was cut almost in half overall) and that seems like a trend that is bound to continue.