February 6, 2014

Shabbat Shalom!

I probably heard this many times than I can recall in Israel on a Friday.  I was in Jewish territory.  It was the day before Shabbat—day of rest.  In Israel, the weekend starts on Thursday and ends on Saturday.  On Saturday, people go to their different places of worship—Christians included.  Sunday begins the workweek.  There are so many days held sacred. There’s no separation of church and state.  Almost every holiday have a religious significance.  Notable is Yom Kippur—a day of Atonement—NO ONE drives.  Literally at sundown at Yom Kippur eve, if you find yourself on the highway, you have to stop the car and walk all the way home.  Be sure to have a healthful meal and sex because ya ain’t getting any on Yom Kippur!
I’m not sure about life as an Orthodox Jew, but there’s a lot of prayer—three times on a regular day, four times on a holiday and five times on Yom Kippur, which occurs annually on the seventh day of the tenth month on the Jewish calendar, I have to discipline myself to pray ONCE everyday—phew!  Shabbat (Sabbath) is like Thanksgiving held every week.  A Shabbat dinner's a big deal here, even the non-Jewish is invited.  It’s common to be asked where you’re going for Shabbat dinner, don’t be surprised to be invited.  There’s prayer, friends and families gather, there’s no work, most places of business are shut down.  

On any other day in an Israeli metropolis, there’s hardly any curfew, shops and restaurants stay open until wee hours of the morning, most restaurants only shut down when the last customer decides to leave—whenever that is, then they start all over at dawn.  I’m being told they take their customers very seriously here.  With a side of your meal is a beautiful smile and courteous service.  These folks are gorgeous!
I made it to the Western wall in Jerusalem the day before Shabbat.  The place was crowded.  Historically, this wall is supposedly the remnant of an old temple that King Solomon built.  The Jewish come here to pray and mourn, for the lost temple and so many other reasons.  This place is a highly regarded holy ground.  Not only was this place crowded, there was wailing, singing, jubilation and dancing, prayers, you’d think there was an impending calamity about to befall us.  It made me think of all the tales of human suffering I learnt from the bible.  The Jewish and tourists alike flocked to the place.  The tourists stood at some distance and observed as those of Jewish faith prayed.  A photographer’s out of luck as no cameras were allowed.  The fashion police was on high patrol—no skin is allowed, luckily I was dressed for the occasion.  

A stone’s throw from this site is a real tourist’s attraction.  It’s modern day Jerusalem, there’s busy Metro buses and railways, a visitors center, Jerusalem’s city hall, synagogues and mosques, a Christian information center, museum, shopping plaza with specialty retail and well-known designer shops (Gucci, Nine West, Mac cosmetics, you name it) with goods that’s sometimes twice the price than in the USA.  There’s an open market—Mahane Yehuda Market “The Shuk”  where you mingle with the locales that try to sell you everything, including what you don’t need.  You can get local produce as well as other raw materials, I Heart Israel T-shirts, costume jewelry, different accessories—reminds me of China Town, New York.  You can pay for a guided tour with a map around the city.  A locale assured to take me on the route Jesus walked around Jerusalem.  On a Friday, this market is crowded as people are shopping for Shabbat, supposedly shuts down by 3PM before sundown, but they were open well after 7PM.  There’s a particular acquired taste you might want to indulge in, a well-known Middle Eastern desert called Halva (sounds more like Hell-vah), it’s sweet with a pungent after-taste.  There are many restaurants and caf├ęs with free Wi-Fi.  There’s one Italian restaurant—Pasta Basta, a restaurant called Fish and Chips—serves exactly that, an espresso bar. Jerusalem is indeed a beautiful city.
An Israeli metropolis is just like any other.
A trip to Israel would not be complete without a trip to the Dead Sea—Sea of Salt.  Also known in ancient times as the Sea of the Arabah, it has a close proximity to a place used to be known as Sodom and Gomorrah.  I remember on our drive down the valley that reveals the Dead Sea, I saw a sign “Lot’s Wife” near one of the mountains.  Further digging revealed to me a stand alone pillar—the reason for the sign.  Close to the Dead sea is Ein Gedi—a place with caves David went to hide from King Saul.  Do you remember these people?  The famous Dead sea scrolls where found in the caves around here.  But enough of the history, today, the Dead sea is a tourist attraction, with luxury hotels, shops, restaurants and boutiques.  It is one of the saltiest lakes in the world, 9.6 times saltier than the seas and oceans.  This means, no fishing!  You’re out of luck.  However, the Dead sea mud and salt are well known for their health qualities.  Cosmetic boutiques all around there have some form of Dead Sea in a jar—soaps, creams, masks, you name it.  Regularly, tourists can be found there, floating in this hyper saline water, and buoy, you do float.  Some were taking mud baths, covering themselves all over.  This lake is however breathtaking, It’s so blue, the shore line is a mixture of sand and salt.
Tel Aviv and neighboring towns is just like any major concrete jungle and it’s suburbia.  It’s bustling with life. This is truly an international hub. The neighborhood’s diverse, there are many shades of Africans here in addition to the Persians, Arabs, the Jewish.  Most Africans or African Americans here play some kind of professional sport.  Tel Aviv is dubbed “the city that never sleeps” and the “party capital."  It has a 24-hr culture, bustling nightlife. It is known as the fifth most-visited city in the Middle East and the 31st most expensive city to live in the world The Metro here is busy, the architecture here is one of a kind, the shopping malls are huge, the beaches are beautiful.  I missed out on the historical museums due to time constraints, however, there are more museums here than anywhere in the world.  Close to the city is the Port of Jaffa (or Joppa), where Jonah set sail and was swallowed by a whale.  Today, the port is also a tourist attraction, the shorelines are made of rocks that pile up and make for perching spots for those that want to take in the beauty of the coastline.

The two of the many places I visited and will never forget are Soho—a Japanese sushi and grill bar and G Spot club.  Soho serves up some really good looking Sushi.  At the bar, I watched the chefs at work, rolling sushi before me. The kitchen was quite busy.  The wait staff and bar attenders, mostly some fine looking ladies all dressed in black had no dull moment. The ambience—dark, intimate; Hip Hop tunes from the likes of Li’l Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Rick Ross and Tupac, played in the background with music videos on the central big screen.   Soho is not just for sushi, it serves up a menu that keeps customers flocking to the location every night.  From appetizers to different entrees catering to meat lovers and vegetarians alike, to the deserts that are simply mouth watering. You’ve got to try some of the lamb and veal.  The food is a mix of Asian, Persian, some Italian cuisine.  It’s hard to find parking there on the weekend, give yourself a good 30 minutes.  You’d see folks standing over open parking spots, hugging  ‘em, I had to laugh when I observed one particular guy standing over one spot for close to 10 minutes on his iPhone looking busy.  We rounded the parking lot a few times and prayed that a non-hugged spot opens up and finally, we found an open spot right in front of the restaurant, the flow of traffic in Soho’s parking lot is nothing short of the game of musical chairs.  
Cities of Rishon, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Once upon a time at the Western wall, it was against the law to separate the males and the females.  Third from bottom: Dorit with Maya and Shay. Some of the various halva varieties (fifth from bottom). A particular Friday night at G-Spot club is a blended crowd jamming to the latest mainstream Hip Hop.
The G-Spot club is popular for it’s Hip Hop and Rap tunes.  The DJ on deck kept the crowd pumped, the crowd "dropped it like it’s hot.”  It was just like any club where I come from with a major difference—smoke, it permeated the room.  Cigarettes, cigars, grass, I smelled it (phew!).  At first, I hit it like a wall once I made it through the door.  It was hard to breathe.  These folks are all used to it.  You’d find a majority of Africans and African Americans and Israelis mingling.  Notable are the Ethiopians—naturally tall and lanky beauties, they all speak Hebrew.  They were everywhere. They weren’t shy for my camera once they caught a glimpse of me.    

Outside of all the religious observances and restrictions, people know how to take the time and enjoy life in Israel.  There are so many young people, they treat a trip to the supermarket like a trip to the disco. Everyone’s all dressed up. Black must be a signature color. The young women in short skirts don’t bare skin, look closely, they have on nude tights.  I think Israel gives the U.S a run for their money.  There were so many H&Ms, Zaras in every shopping center.  Imagine my amazement when I looked up on the highway and lo and behold, the familiar architecture of Ikea stood in the horizon, replicating the branch on New Jersey Turnpike on exit 13A.  There’s McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Dominos (that’s right). 

I spent considerable time in Rishon on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv.  I observed the Hapoel Rishon Le-Zion women’s basketball team. They practice daily for at least 2 hours, sometimes two times a day.  The team work hard and play hard.  They certainly made it look like fun.  Notable about this team was how amiable they were.  From the time I stepped into their practice court, they were all smiles, a good sport for my camera whenever they came up for air (or a drink)  Catching them in conversation in their downtime, do you think they were talking basketball?  No ma’am!  The same subject most womenkind battle with at a point in time in their lives—Relationships.  They asked significant questions that’s inevitably part of the discussion these days:

  1. In a committed relationship—man/woman, woman/woman; when the woman decides it's time for an offspring and the other isn’t, would it be right for the woman to trick her partner and get pregnant anyway?
  2. In the case of the man—tricked into using a punctured condom, or collecting his semen to make the pregnancy happen through the help of medicine, should the man be responsible for the end result—child?  What if he doesn’t want to?
  3. In the case of the woman, her partner decides to use donor sperm to get pregnant through the help of medicine without the her consent, should she be responsible for the end result—child?  Is she now obligated?
It was certainly interesting listening to both sides of the fence of this conversation.  The one thing that struck out to me was the fact the all womenkind regardless of heritage have the same challenges in life, the language of womanhood is universal.
Breathtaking view of Jaffa port
I met the team’s manager Dorit, former basketball player herself, mother of two adorable children Shay and Mya.  Mya makes crazy eights—intricately crafted assortment of colorful rubber bands that make a bracelet.  She made so many color variations and styles—stuff I can easily find on Etsy.  I’m told her generation are all into making these over there, however, I think the color arrangement and design make her a talented one.

I realized on this particular visit just how popular basketball was next to soccer.  The women’s alone is eleven leagues, in men’s you have twelve. I went to an equivalent of and NBA game there between Ironi Nes Ziona and Hapoel Tel Aviv. The scene was packed, fanatics roared and cheered the teams along.  

I made an interesting observation on this trip.  When I fly an American or British flight, there’s only one language.  It is assumed everyone on board speaks English. Pilots and flight attendants speak only English.  When you board a Dutch or French flight, it isn’t assumed everyone speaks French or Dutch, the pilots and flight attendants must translate every word they speak (assuming I believe that none the less).  In other words, they have their work cut out for them.  Every road/street sign in Israel is wider to accommodate all the translations in Hebrew, Arabic and English.  English is the established standard language everywhere.  You might argue this, but read on.

I’m in an Israeli neighborhood store ordering spices, a gorgeous young store clerk is attending to me.  There’s an obvious language barrier between us, he looks down in embarrassment as his “English is not very good”  (More interesting if you hear his Hebrew accent.)  I empathize with him and wonder in amazement why in his own country, he has to be embarrassed about a language not commonly used on his day-to-day.  I never have to apologize for not knowing Hebrew.  I learned a few Hebrew words though, I totally felt cool and hip amongst the Jewish, most smiled at my attempts to butcher their precious language.  To avoid being at a disadvantage, a child has to be taught English early to be able to interact with people like me.  Some children are afforded private English tutors.  I met an American whose been there for the past twenty years.  Her Hebrew is impeccable (although she would disagree).  I was thrown when she switched languages on me, helping me translate.  Originally from Chicago, she married an Israeli, moved some twenty years ago and has been there ever since. 

Israeli folks are super nice, even when they detained me and ransacked my luggage like I’m a terrorist, they did it with smiles on their faces.  They are super polite!  Frankly, I’m not used to that as an American. Another thing I learned: give yourself up to four hours to check in at the airport.  You will be detained and throughly searched.  I watched in horror as my perfectly packed luggage was dismantled, they turned it upside down.  I almost missed my flight in their detention.  You will be screened upon entry at the airport before check-in, you will be screened again at security checkpoint before your departure gate.  You will not get away with anything here, so don’t even think it!  I did not find it funny when my cheap curling iron was retained for extra screening because it was an indicator (what a bomb?!)  Since I was on the verge of missing my flight, they politely offered to mail it within three business days after it’s properly checked and cleared to my final destination, meaning, I have to make another trip, on another day to the airport to pick it up.  Guess what my response to that was?

Well, it’s certainly been an adventure, I need to travel more. 

Thanks for reading.
I appreciate you.

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