Israel, Shalom!

Cathy Tuttle and David Notkin (c) 1997

During our last sabbatical in Japan, we wrote a number of stories about our experiences in a different culture (Here). A lot of people have asked us if we were going to write some stories about this sabbatical. And we're going to try.

(If you don't want to get these, just let us know by email, and we'll take you off the list. We'll also put them on David's web site. And feel free to distribute them to friends, ask us to add people to the distribution list, etc.)

We are a little more harried this time around. In Japan, it was just the two of us afloat in a new place. Now, our family consists of Cathy and David (that's us), Emma, our five year-old daughter, and Akiva, our infant son (born on October 5th, 1997). We left our home in Seattle in early November, overnighting in Copenhagen, and landed in Israel the day Akiva turned one month old. We'll be in Israel through the end of April 1998 and then we'll spend about two months back in Japan.

Our flight from Copenhagen to Tel Aviv was uneventful but interesting. The most visible contingent was Christian pilgrims coming to visit the Holy Land. The couple sitting next to us was from Sweden; the wife was reading about Jesus and Nazareth in Swedish, and a large group of Americans behind us were holding a revival meeting. One of them cornered David, waiting in line for the bathroom. She was from Omaha and had heard about Seattle coffee. She said with awe, "I understand you even have some coffee shops with couches!"

We had been warned many times about the inefficiency and rudeness we'd encounter in Israel, beginning with passport control, but our immigration official was nice and helpful. And the guy at customs wasn't interested in the IBM Thinkpad we carrying but only about whether the big Apple Macintosh box had a computer in it; since it didn't, he waved us right through (nobody respects IBM computers anymore!). Even picking up the van from Thrifty was pretty easy, although the van was big enough to hold the Christian group we met on the plane (we were upgraded from a mini-van, to our dismay). And there were only seatbelts in front, so Cathy jury-rigged some bungee cords for Akiva's carseat, Emma was belted in front, and Cathy took her chances.

We left the airport in Tel Aviv around 10PM, arriving completely exhausted at our rental flat in Haifa around 11:30PM. Our landlady, Esthie, met us to let us in, show us the basics, etc. She had bought some groceries for us, based in part on a list we had FAXed earlier in the week. She added some Israeli junk food for Emma, but unfortunately, no local Maccabee beer for us. However, there was the biggest cheesecake we had ever seen, at least a foot in diameter. This was left by some relatives of a friend who live in Haifa who David had met once. We ate cheesecake every night for a week.

Starting in the middle of the night (jet-lag, of course) we began to realize that we really didn't know how any of the appliances in our new home worked. Most importantly, we couldn't figure out how to get hot water (we're still not so good at this, showering at the local swimming pool is often easier). In our experience, this is par for the course for sabbaticals. The clothes still get clean, we aren't so dirty ourselves, but it'd be nice to know what some of the buttons on the stove actually mean. By now we have learned how to use the oven without blowing all the electrical circuits in the house and can now proudly boil water.

We traded in the giant van for a tiny car from Shlomo Rent-A-Car, a proud Thrifty associate in Haifa. We got to know Shlomo quite well during the following week as our battery died and the car gave off the smell of burnt rubber. We finally got a nice, reliable Fiat Punto, courtesy of IBM Tel Aviv. In case we have trouble with the car, tell the guys from Car Talk that it's blue.

Our first trip grocery shopping brought a whole new set of experiences. In Israel lots of stuff in supermarkets is in open bins: olives, pickles, cookies, etc. Cathy saw a woman stuff her face with every variety of cookie that was out. Not surprisingly, lots of cookies (and some olives) in the bins have small bite marks, presumably from random sampling. Everybody in Israel tells us that you can get anything you want in Israel. This may or may not be true, but a few things we wanted were kind of pricey. Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce for $8; we haven't found organic produce or non-fat dairy products; and Cathy bought tofu at a health food store for $4. But there's lots of hummus, olives, pita, and other local foods like pickled herring and halvah that you can get many varieties of for reasonable prices. The supermarkets also have great produce. Local mangoes, avocados, kiwis and star fruit are in season now. One thing we haven't found yet is a good bagel. We've found bread with holes, but somebody must be hiding the bagels from us.

The weekday here is Sunday through Thursday, with Friday being preparation for Shabbat (the Sabbath). Most businesses are closed from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not even the buses run on Shabbat, but they do in Haifa. If you do need to shop on the weekend, we've heard that you can get what you need in the Arab quarter.

Given the diverse groups in Israel, the people of Haifa seem pretty tolerant. The Jews and the Arabs live in completely different areas, but there doesn't seem to be much tension between them. (Our friend Oren says he doesn't even think that there is an Arab qyarter in Tel Aviv, a much larger city.) The Orthodox Jews, who in Jerusalem are aggressive towards people breaking the Sabbath, seem to stay in their own communities and not impose their traditions on others (The very orthodox Jews are called "blacks" in Israel, because of their black frocks and hats). Cathy and Emma were walking one day in one of the orthodox neighborhoods and saw a wig store and lots of women in wigs, which is traditional for orthodox women. Now Emma is on the lookout for whether women are wearing their own hair or not.

There is a large Ethiopian Jewish population in Haifa. They were airlifted from Ethiopia several years ago; many thousands of them were flown in to Israel in just a couple of days. From our house we can see the barracks of one of their major refugee camps. They were built in an incredibly short time, just a couple of days or a week, as temporary housing; although some look abandoned, many of them are still inhabited.

The Arabic part of town is clearly a ghetto, with a bombed out look (from years ago, Haifa has had little or no recent terrorism). The dark alleys and lack of views and of trees contrasts with much of the rest of Haifa, which is a beautiful city with views of the Mediterranean. (Our house has a panoramic view of the Mediterranean, with a great balcony where we can entertain.) Even after being in Haifa for almost three weeks, neither of us has had an interaction with an Arab. The service personnel we run into (clerks in the supermarket, our cleaning lady, etc.) are often Russian Jews. Haifa is also the most holy city of the Bahai people. At the local swimming pool, Cathy met a Bahai woman from Kentucky and her daughter who, like many people around the world who practice the religion, had come to study in Haifa for five years before returning home.

Haifa has three sections: the downtown, close to the water and the port, which is industrial and contains the Arab quarter; Hadar, part way up the hill with many of the older shops in town, where most of the Orthodox Jews live; and Carmel, which is on the top plateau of the mountain that forms Haifa. In part because it's on a mountain, and in part because it's very old, the layout of streets in Haifa is awesomely confusing. We've navigated Pittsburgh and Tokyo, but this seems way harder so far. (Of course, we never drove in Tokyo.) The winding streets and hills, combined with aggressive drivers and double-parking, make driving in Haifa quite a thrill.

A cool thing about Haifa is the street names. We live on Albert Schweitzer Street. Also in our neighborhood are Freud, Raoul Wallenberg, Marc Chagall, and the Gibor Ghetto of Warsaw Streets. Around town are streets named Rabbi Akiva (not named after our son), Albert Einstein, Shalom Aleichem, Hubert Humphrey, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Disraeli, and the Spinoza Steps (quite a few streets are stairs, complicating map-reading).

Our neighborhood, Ramat Eshkol, is quite new. About seven years ago it was a nature reserve with (of all things) a small airstrip. Now it's several hundred buildings each with five or ten flats. It's clearly upper-middle-class. Many of the residents work at Matam, the high technology park that is a couple of miles down the hill, right next to the beach. If it wasn't for the Hebrew, you'd think that the neighborhood was right out of Leave it to Beaver. Lots of big families, kids running around the neighborhood on bikes and roller blades, a well-kept playground, Dad's who all leave at 8AM for work and Mom's who deliver their kids to kindergarten two blocks away by car. (You can tell when everybody is leaving for work, since the cars all have electronic door openers that beep, every morning making the street sound like a forest full of two-noted birds.) There seems to be a building code since every house in our neighborhood is white-washed abode-looking with red clay roofs (complete with solar panels and hot water storage tanks). There is still a lot of construction, with bulldozers and cranes changing the face of the neighborhood even in the few weeks we've been here. In addition to new building, since we've arrived Ramat Eshkol has gotten speed bumps, new paving, complete repainting of the lines on the roads (including big X marks for every driveway). One neighbor thinks that the road work is because of an upcoming municipal election. We hardly recognize the place!

A few things seem out of character with the upper-class nature of the neighborhood. An incredible number of loose dogs and cats leading to quantities of dog poop on the sidewalks brings back memories of the days before the U.S. had pooper-scooper laws. The dogs and cats seem to get into the garbage areas, which are a few garbage cans rotected by small gates. And, after living in Seattle, it's been a shock coming to a place with absolutely no recycling. Bottles, cans, newspapers, food waste---it all goes into the garbage. Cathy asked somebody about recycling and composting and was told, "Ewww, why would you do that?" Maybe it is like Leave it to Beaver, and we're just back to the 50's again.