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Monday, August 27, 2007

Station Break

Okay, folks, it's the week before school starts; school clothes need to be purchased; books and notebooks need to be purchased; my ulpan requires registration; all these things require standing in line.

And we're waiting for the Lift to arrive...any day now...

We're also shopping for flooring--you know, ceramic tile for the floor of the apartment. Now, the kablan will install tiles -- the cheapest he can get away with and still pass inspection. Better that we buy our own--however, this too involves shopping, the Husband's least favorite activity. Hunter-gatherer stuff like comparing prices and bargaining over 10 or 20 or even 30 percent off is my job--and I'm trying to get it all done before ulpan starts next week...

...hence the lack of copy on this page. Bear with me, please...back again soon.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's Here!

The Lift is coming! Yay!

The Lift is coming? Oy vey!

Yes, tomorrow I gallop off to Haifa to process whatever mysterious paperwork is wanted by the import company: passports (US and Israeli) Teudats zehut, teudat oleh (mine), apartment contract, packing lists and, of course----the checkbook.

Have you ever noticed that things don't happen one-thing-at-a-time? Bituach Leumi stuff overlapped house-selling/buying stuff; we're now renewing our lease with our landlord, who is being gracious and reasonable to date and in the midst of these negotiations, we get an email from the import company saying "call us--your stuff is arriving Friday."

Lots of notice, huh? Last I heard, they were going to email me when the ship left New York -- clearly THAT didn't happen.

I have a dear friend's daughter (also a dear friend) arriving Monday; I'm seeing Susie and going ceramic/kitchen/bathroom/air-conditioning-units hunting on Sunday; I have school clothes shopping yet to do next week (special ed schools do NOT strike, although this morning's radio broadcast made rumbles about the rest of the school system m a y b e striking (again) so the Boy will be starting on time and needs stuff that actually fits.) Somewhere in all of this I'm supposed to receive a lift and unpack it?!!

I'll manage. Somehow. I am Woman, Hear Me Shout (and whine and whimper and bellyache and pull my hair out by the roots....)

I should look on the bright side. I have furniture and books. Lots of the world has neither, nor a place to put them in. So, I should be grateful that I have such "problems."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Rumors of War

It is axiomatic that the news media is the last to know in Israel. From the time we arrived here, we have been told "the taxi drivers know." This could simply be urban legend, as I would very much like to believe, but recently I have been paying more attention as the taxi driver contingent in Jerusalem somehow gets wind of things ranging from sports to diplomacy to gossip and has oftentimes proved correct.

The news media is full of dire reports of Syrian units moving up to the Golan; of an Arab daily in London claiming Hezbollah's "surprise" for Israel is chemical and biological weapons; Nasrallah's boast that he is more and better armed than last summer; the upsurge in diplomatic Double-Talk about how no one wants war but everyone will respond to Other's "aggression," and so forth....

[Note: in Arabic, hit and run raids across Israel's borders are "resistance" but Israeli military responses to such raids are "Israeli aggression" -- you need to get the vocabulary down to understand the rhetoric.]

We have found out through friends that reserve duty obligations have been high all summer, and lengthier than in past years. War? Or lessons from Lebanon last year?

Today, out of the blue, Yossi turned to us and announced, "Thank G-d you sold your house -- there's going to be war in September."

Understand that we've asked him before about Syria, Hezbollah and the rest of the restive neighbors, and he has been noncommital to a fault. Today's announcement was a surprise. While not the Oracle of Delphi, in view of his past equivocation on this very subject, we were moved to ask "Why?"

It seems that the taxi drivers not only read the same papers we read, and have the same relatives and friends doing extended miluim (reserve duty) all summer, but they also transport people who have knowledge that doesn't make it into the paper -- and no, these passengers aren't droppping classified information, but when (for example) someone mentions his son with XX Corps is home on leave from the Golan, and the driver knows that XX Corps is a special unit that only becomes operational on the border when war is pending, the drivers put 2 + 2 together and come up with something that looks like 4.

Do this with 3,000+ taxi drivers in Jerusalem, all gathering incremental bits and pieces of information, and you have a rumor mill that seems to churn out distressinly accurate information quite a bit of the time.

For once, I hope and pray that the taxi drivers are wrong.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Dead Sea Trip

As you may have gathered, we are using the last couple of weeks of summer to convey the Boy to some of the highlights of Israel that he has not yet had the opportunity to see. Last summer was sort of a bust because Hezbollah sought a war; the rest of the year was school and ulpan; the first six weeks of summer was more ulpan. Now we have a short break.

As always, Yossi pitched in to help. It seems that somehow neither he nor his children have ever been to Masada, so this looked like the perfect opportunity for a Group Trip. Maybe its being sabras.....the tourist sites are always here, so why go?

I know I never would have seen Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay if I hadn't been taking out-of-town friends to see it.

I looked forward to the trip because while I can see Maaleh Adumim from Hadassah Hospital, I haven't yet been down Highway One in that direction. We took One down past A-Tur and Maaleh Adumim. A-Tur, a large Arab suburb of Jerusalem that flows out of the Jerusalem basin and down the eastern slope, is adjacent to Abu Dis, once touted as the future capital of the PA until Yasser Arafat changed his mind and demanded all of Jerusalem. Abu Dis is huge.

Highway One runs below A-Tur which is both behind and to the south of the road, and across the highway is another Arab settlement being flung up to ensure that Israel's connection to Maaleh Adumim is severed. This is the region that the US State Department and Condi Rice insist must not be built upon by Israel---yet Arab building is proceeding apace.

A little bit further along Highway One, Maaleh Adumim and its sister-suburbs come into view. You can tell that you're entering into Jewish-held suburbs because the streets are paved and there are trees on the hills and flowers in the gardens. Arab suburbs, on the other hand, almost always seem to think trees and gardens are unnecessary, and if Allah wanted such frivolities, He would put them there Himself.

Maalah Adumim sits on a bluff with Jerusalem to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. The drop from the town to the floor of the rift valley is reminiscent of the drop from Tahoe to Reno--ear-poppingly steep, with sheered walls rising above the valley floor. Anyone from the American West's earthquake country would recognize this geography immediately.

The suburb takes it's name from the Book of Joshua which describes a border area between Judah and Benjamin containing a route rising from the valley floor through the rocky reddish-brown cliffs to Jerusalem. It sounds better in Hebrew, but the name means "Red Ascent."

Maaleh Adumim itself is pretty green. The trees and gardens and parks make a suburban oasis in the midst of otherwise overgrazed rocky hills. Over 32,000 people live here, so its hardly a candidate for forced evacuation like Gaza. It's sister suburbs, Kfar Adumim, Mishmar Adumim, Nofei Prat and Vered Yericho, strung along Highway One's hilltops and sides like beads on a string, look equally prosperous and green from the road.

The entire region is largely deserted except for these suburbs -- the sole exception being the Bedouin encampments spotted deep in the wadis running away from the highway. The Bedouin encampments are a study in rural poverty -- shacks, corrals, tents, goats, donkeys and camels in a hodgepodge arrangement; no water or electricity; rarely a motor vehicle; obviously no sanitary facilities. These are not the elegant tents of Biblical imagination, either -- these are black tents strung up over a framework, baking in the heat, and oftentimes the encampment numbers more pathetic tin shacks than tents. Think Hoovertowns. With goats.

When the Boy asked me why they lived here, Yossi answered before I could: "They like living this way," he told the Boy. I was extremely dubious, thinking this was Israeli chauvinism. I ventured a disagreement, and Yossi was adamant. "No, you must talk to them. Wait until we come to the camel," he told me. "They think they are free, living this way, and they pity us for living in cities. Really. I know them!" he insisted.

And he does.....we stopped at the marker along Highway One showing where Sea Level is--everything after that is below sea level. Sure enough, there was a camel tethered there, saddled and available to the tourists for ten shekels per ride. Yossi knows the owner--and has known him since Yossi himself was young. The owner, fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English (and maybe other languages for all I know) was happy to give our kids rides on the camel. I found out that the owner wouldn't dream of trading this life for the 8-to-5 grind of working for some boss and being bogged down with a mortgage and taxes, and pitied us poor fools for doing so. I also found out that a camel eats about 200 shekels a day worth of hay and dried garbanzo beans, so his owner needs either a lot of riders or really good tips or both.

After the boys took turns riding the camel, we continued down the pass until we reached the floor of the rift valley. In ancient times, from Devorah to the Byzantine emperors, this was rich agricultural land. So rich, in fact, that at times the lands around Jericho were "imperial lands" reserved for the emperor who made a bundle off of the date industry and other crops grown nearly year-round in this, HaShem's hothouse. Evidence of its richness is returning in the wake of Jewish efforts to renew the date plantations and farm in remote sites like Vered Yericho, Beit Ha'Arava and Almog.

We got our first glimpse of the Dead Sea at Lido Junction: it was a beautiful shade of sky blue, flat and calm, cradled in the arms of the rift. The mountains arose on the east and west, colors changing as the light changed, from red to brown to gold. We drove along the cliffs and date plantations beside the Sea, passing Qumran (ancient) and the Ahava factory (modern) at Mitspeh Shalem.

Hint: the prices are no cheaper at the factory.

We finally saw the ship-rock figure of Masada rising out of the desert

Summer is NOT the ideal time to see Masada. The upside is that its not terribly crowded (mostly Taglit-Birthright groups and some Christian tour groups). The water in the Dead Sea was exceptionally clear; the sky was a gorgeous blue; the mountains of the rift valley stood out in bold contrast against the sky and seemingly changed colors by the hour.

The down side is that it was HOT. Forty degrees centigrade.(That's 104 for those of you still on Fahrenheit.) Even the sabra part of the contingent was hot and expressing discomfort. We took LOTS of water. Five bottles of frozen water which stayed cold for about an hour. Even warm, it tasted delicious. We drank ALL the water while on top of Masada and then got more once we came down from the mountain.

I enjoyed it tremendously. First, this was not a long, lingering tour in this kind of heat--it's really amazing how fast you can hit all the high points when you're being beaten by the sun on an anvil of rock. The boys saw the remains of the Roman camp; the breaching point in the wall; the STUPENDOUS view from the eastern rim across the Dead Sea; the palace ruins; the columbarium; the frescoed walls....I wanted to go over to where the lots were found, but at this point the group's momentum was towards the tram and in favor of air conditioning.

To me, the highlight this time (I've been once before) was the view and the birds. There's something exciting about standing at the eastern ledge and watching the birds flying by BELOW you as you gaze across at the pale blue sea and dimly backlit Mountains of Moab.

At an excavation near the staircase of the palace, I saw birds which I'd seen nowhere else in Israel clinging to the rocks. They were a glossy black punctuated with beautiful reddish-brown patches on the wings. I checked our bird book later and found these are Tristam's Grackles, which, at least according to the book, don't roost this low. They are indigenous to Israel, Jordan and part of Arabia, according to the Israel Bird Book.

However, the Oman website differs, claiming this bird as its own native:

onychognathus tristramii

Size: 25cm from bill to tail, with a wingspan of 40cm.

Status: An abundant breeding resident in the southern mountains of Dhofar. Vagrant elsewhere.

Identification: A medium-sized bird belonging to the starling family. The male is glossy black and the female dark brown. Both have orange flight feathers that are very conspicuous when seen in flight.

Voice: A mixture of loud, harsh calls and whistles.

Behaviour: Seen in pairs during the breeding season and at other times in small family parties or large flocks. Frequently perched on wires and some may be seen sitting on camels where they find food for themselves and at the same time relieve the camel of parasites.

Breeding: Nest in crevices amongst rocks. In the beginning of the breeding cycle the male can be seen in courtship display feeding the female.

Where to look: Anywhere in the Dhofar mountains and in towns along the southern coast. One of the most common and conspicuous birds in the south of Oman.

Distribution: Tristram’s grackles are limited to the western and southern Arabian peninsula.

I suspect we have another case of Arab triumphalism--no self-respecting bird would nest in the Zionist Entity, would it? Grackles were all over the place, so Oman's claim to the contrary, it is a very Israeli bird.

As we rested on the shady benches above the northern palace ruins, I pattered on about Herod, his building campaign and the dislike he engendered in his people. I touched on the Idumeans, their role in trade with the Nabateans and other neighbors, their conquest and forced conversion by the Hasmoean dynasty and peoples' distrust of Herod because of that ancestry and his cozy relations with Rome.

"How do you know all this?" Yossi asked me at one point, taking a break from translating for his kids.

"I hate television," I told him, frankly. "I'd rather read a book -- so I'm a font of pretty much useless historical trivia."

We refueled the children with ice cream after getting off the tram and went in search of a beach. Lunch at En Boqeq sounded just great. I had visions of air-conditioned comfort overlooking the Dead Sea from a nice hotel restaurant.

Silly me. We stopped at one of the less glitzy restaurants and found out that they wanted 157 NIS per person....and while the Boy will eat like a normal 17-year-old, the other two kids eat like birds.

We found a great pizza spot instead, and settled down for soft drinks, beer and pizza then wandered over to the beach. The beach is shaded by wooden rafters which is where the Boy (recovering from a Very Bad Sunburn a week ago), Yossi and myself elected to sit and watch the water. The other two kids plunged into the water and splashed around for about 45 minutes. The Boy started building a sand castle, which brought his buddies out of the water, and this construction project started to get very elaborate, with tunnels and moats and so forth. The youngest boy decided that engineering was not in his future and went back to the water to hunt for rocks.

There are a LOT of rocks in the Dead Sea. This is a hot sand and rocky-bottom kind of beach. Just because I was there, I took off my shoes, streaked across the hot sand and walked ankle deep into the water. Gingerly. The water was warm and the bottom rocky. However, it relieved my sore toes, burned by the sands. Then I streaked back to the shade and stayed there.

Yossi laughed at me. "Now you are truly Israeli," he commented, having watched my token steps into the Dead Sea.

The heat is very dry. It is not debilitating but it sucks the moisture out of your skin and the energy out of your body. Even sitting in the shade, lassitude crept over us. Had I been in a chaise lounge instead of a chair, I think I would have fallen asleep. We hung out until the kids finally tired, and then headed back to Jerusalem. We stocked up on frozen water bottles (sold that way by the markets at En Boqeq)and took our time cruising back alongside the now-deep blue Sea beneath its red-gold mountain borders, listening to Mizrachi music at full volumn.

I loved every minute of it, but more importantly, so did the Boy.

Ma'aleh Adumim pictures and history courtesy of Jacob Richman, without whom the olim of Israel would be much, much poorer -- http://www.jr.co.il/

Monday, August 13, 2007

Paying It Forward

For she considers a field and buys it, and from her earnings she plants a vinyard...

In a world whose daily headlines scream despair, pain, and imminent annihilation; wherein families are sundered by accident, divorce, illness or abuse; where peace seems to be receding faster than the speed of light, and war drums are beating more quickly on almost every continent...

I am blessed with great friends.

I have debts long-outstanding, and this week, I "paid them forward" as the book says...

I can never adequately thank or do anything for those people in my life who have done so much for me, and I want them to know that what we do is due to their past kindnesses to me or us.

To Grandma Ruth, who taught me the full measure of love, and accountability to HaShem;

To Andee, who walked to work for three months so I could use her car to commute a farther distance to my job;

To Judy, who among countless kindnesses, never embarassed me with my undergrad or post-graduate poverty, but always had an open door, a full tank of gas, and one poverty-stricken winter, even a new pair of skis for Hanukkah so I wouldn't be the only one left out of the ski trip;

To Gail and Kate and Tali and Malca, who among others, showed me Holland and how to love living there;

To Bonnie, who showed us how to save our son's sight;

To Cheryl, who has taught me the real meaning of courage and grace and never stinted in love and friendship despite her own family's demands on her;

To Jilly, who has kept my spirits up with love and laughter;

To my colleagues on both sides of the courtroom who have taught me about justice and compassion;

To Hillel and Chana, and Israel and Gittel, who helped my soul find its way back home;

To Yisroel and Penina, and Lori and Reuven, who gave us a community, a warm welcome and great meals, no matter the circumstances;

To George and Harriet, who have fed and sheltered me more times than I can count;

To Virginia, who taught me how to be a mother, how to love and to accept love in return;

To Steve, who has given my husband the brother he never had;

To Michelle, the sister of my heart who has given me trust and family;

To Lani and Adina and Marv and Miriam, who showed me what "family" really means;

To Basya's mom, who taught me that independence isn't necessarily a virtue and that its okay to ask for and receive help;

and to the hundreds of other people who have crossed my path, and given me a gift of time or help or service that I can never repay and can't even adequately catalogue here (the man who gave me a ride so I wouldn't have to hitch-hike "because its dangerous" and he remembered being hustled when he hitched; the mechanic who fixed the minor problem in the engine and told me "no charge" because, really, it was nothing, and others like these)....

and the men and women of the military who stand post far from home, in the cold and dark and danger, so we can sleep a little more safely at night....

For all of these people who are part of my life, and those who have touched it only briefly, I am grateful. I cannot repay them, but the Husband and I have taken steps that will pay these debts forward, with interest. We hope we are planting some of the future. Selah.

Thank you, all. Don't think for a moment I didn't notice.

A Day At The Zoo

Also known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, short-handed to The Biblical Zoo by many, and even more informally, the Jerusalem Zoo.

I've been to a lot of zoos as a result of being a military brat who moved a lot. Each new region brought me to a new zoo. The all-time favorite zoo of mine has always been the San Diego Zoo, although I have to admit that I came lately to prefer their Wild Animal Park in Escondido....there was something very refreshing about watching the animals run free while the humans observed from the enclosed cars of the passing tram.

I love aquariums also, but that's another post.

As an animal afficionda, I have to admit that the Jerusalem Zoo far surpassed my expectations. It's worth a trip, really! In fact, I'll be going again.

I'm aware that many people hate zoos because they take animals out of captivity. On the other hand, I saw a lot of species that are hovering on the brink of extinction in this zoo and others, so I have to disagree with PETA and their ilk about zoo'ing animals. Life in captivity, with conjugal visits and room service, has to beat extinction.

The zoo is just on the edge of Jerusalem, just beyond the Malcha Mall. It looks more like a park than a zoo, with broad grassy areas, lots of seating, many lakes and ample trash cans in which to toss your wrappers and empty cups or bottles (hint, hint).

While I saw animals that were not all that unusual or remarkable (we have Mallard ducks on the creek near my former home in California) it was wonderful to see animals that I have only read about or seen on the National Geographic channel. For example, I've read about Syrian bears....but I pictured something like a mini-brown-bear or panda. Yesterday, I finally saw one -- think "miniature Grizzly" because that's exactly what it looks like.

Wikipedia says: The Syrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos syriacus) is the smallest subspecies of Brown Bear. [Note: I saw these guys up close, and they're NOT all that small, folks.] They are omnivorous, eating almost any type of food, including meat, grass, and fruits. This subspecies occupies a large area in western Asia, but their population is declining due to habitat destruction, poaching, and fragmentation of population. Syrian brown bears were historically found in Anatolia (Turkey), Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Iran, and parts of Afghanistan...It is suggested that this species of bear is the one God sent to maul the 42 youths that insulted Elisha in the Second Book of Kings of The Bible

The adults are big enough, and temperamental enough, to scare off any Yosemite brown bear. The Syrian bears were hunted to extinction in the lands west of the Jordan around 1917. It was nice to see a clan thriving in the zoo.

Another exhibit made me grin -- the prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are ubiquitious in some parts of the American Midwest, and while I know they are threatened by farmers and ranchers, somehow they always struck me as too pedestrian for a zoo exhibit.....but the Israeli kids were enchanted by them and their antics.

I wonder if South Africans are as blase about meerkats, whom I could watch for hours?

The zoo is wheelchair accessible on the pathways. I have to admit, to my shame, I did not notice whether the entrances to the enclosed buildings easily allow wheelchairs or not. Sorry. The zoo's website (hit the link in the title and go to "English", above) states that all of the exhibits are wheelchair and baby stroller accessible, and that visitors can borrow a wheelchair if they wish. To borrow the wheelchair, you must leave your ID. This amenity is first-come, first-serve, so if a member of your family needs a wheelchair, you might call first and make sure they have enough. The pathways are gradual, but there is a definite uphill when going to the upper levels, although it is not strenuous.

If you are disinclined to walk or wheel, there is a train! But you have to pay for the train, can only disembark at certain places and the tour in is Hebrew.

The exhibits themselves are well marked for the most part, with signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, as well as each animal's scientific name in Latin.

The zoo wasn't always this big, or in this part of Jerusalem. I shamelessly stole some of its history from the zoo website:

The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was originally established in 1928 as a tiny little children's zoo on Harav Kook Street in central Jerusalem. The zoo was founded and established by the late Prof. Aharon Shulov, one of the pioneers in the field of zoology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1941, a somewhat larger zoo was established on Shmuel Hanavi Street in Jerusalem. This one covered an area of 4.5 dunams (0.45 hectares, or just over one acre). In 1947 the zoo was moved to Mt. Scopus, where the Hebrew University had a plot of land set aside for it. As a result of the evident suffering of the animals during and after Israel's War of Independence in 1948, a decision was made to transfer the zoo once again, this time to a new and larger area of 60 dunams (6 hectares, or just under 15 acres) in Givat Komuna, adjacent to the neighbourhood of Romema. The zoo remained here for 41 years, from 1950 to 1991. During this time it gradually developed into a well-known and beloved attraction. The old zoo closed in 1991, and the process of moving to the new location was begun.

My neighbor tells me that when her children were little, the zoo was a wonderful attraction and easy to get to in downtown Jerusalem. However, I cannot imagine the poor beasties in the central city with all the noise, the crowding and the pollution...I have trouble enough imagining people living in the crowded neighborhoods of city center.

The zoo reopened in its current location near the southwestern Jerusalem neighbourhood of Manahat (formerly Malkha) in 1993. It was now The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem - The Biblical Zoo.
Today, the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, as it is still unofficially known, stretches across an area of 250 dunams (25 hectares or 62 acres) in a lovely valley surrounded by green hills and new neighbourhoods. The zoo encircles a small lake situated near the main gate. The lake is fed by a series of pools and waterfalls that flow one into the other. Spacious lawns and shady beauty spots surround the lake and pools. The water system is artificial, and relies on recycled water. The zoo is built on two main levels that house most of the animal exhibits. One main, circular route extends the length of both levels and connects most of the sites on the zoo grounds. Additional side paths also connect the two levels, and exhibits are situated along these paths as well.

I don't know the Tisch Family, but since Yossi's family and mine spent a very nice day wandering around the zoo and enjoying what their contribution to Life-In-Jerusalem has wrought, I would like to say "thank you" from the heart. Said thanks also go to the many families who have contributed individual exhibits for the pleasure of children and those adults among us who still find animals wonderful.

More thanks go to the volunteers. Over 50 people volunteer every week to help the zoo staff care for the animals.

I learned a couple of things on this first trip to the zoo here. One nice discovery is that in hot weather, the zoo not only cools the animals, its cools the visiting people. If you don't want to get wet, you can sit on a bench under a canopy; if you are like me and don't fuss about such things, you can stand along the railings of the open enclosures and get "misted" by overhead mini-showers. It was HOT yesterday--I found it refreshing, as did the kids, and we all dried off in minutes.

The zoo gets a lot of visitors in the summer, naturally. It's especially popular with chareidi families as an outing, although there was an ample mix of people from all walks of Israeli life. Just be prepared for LOTS of baby strollers if you visit late morning to early afternoon, as we did.

When we go again, we are opting for evening. A couple of hours before sunset and the heat of the day has cooled so the day-sleepers (lions, leapards, etc.) are a bit more active. Also, Jerusalem generally has a westerly breeze in the evenings which makes it a little easier for the wandering visitor hiking about the exhibits.

Go. Enjoy. Take the kids. Or take a date--it's really a nice place to stroll around.

photo courtesy of the The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens website


The Modi'in house sold! Last week, actually, but I've been too worn out to post anything!

Do NOT think that because you have a willing buyer and a willing seller and a verbally agreed-upon price, that the haggling is over. The final stages of house buying/selling negotiation go like this:

Following the discussion of whether or not the sale will be in dollars or shekels (the Buyer wants shekels, we want dollars) we met to discuss what rate of dollars to shekels.

The Buyer proposed freezing the dollar/shekel rate at 4.35. I am immediately agreeable to this because I am the only one at the table reading the financial news and watching the sub-prime market in the States wobbling....but no one else on our negotiating team wants to do this for fear that the dollar will rise some more to 4.4 or 4.5. We discuss possibly letting the rate float, but I want to talk to our attorney afterwards.

Afterwards, I tell our attorney I want to fix the dollar/shekel exchange rate at 4.35 and my reasons. She argues vehemently against this but finally accedes, but puts in a proviso I didn't think about: the exchange rate will be 4.35 as of the signing but will float with the Treasury rate upwards but never go below 4.35 even if the dollar takes a dive.

Our Buyer's attorney rejects this. We're back to discussing shekels, dollars and exchange rates, although technically we are agreed in principle to a certain dollar figure.

After phone calls back and forth, our attorney to their attorney, their attorney to the Buyer, the Buyer to Yossi, Yossi to our attorney, our attorney to Yossi, our attorney to us, I finally said, "MASPEAK! I'm NOT doing this anymore -- this is the price in shekels and want the contract signed on Sunday or we're going to take the back-up offer!"

The Buyer wants the house--the price is excellent, its close to all of his adult kids and grandchildren, and its in the Buchman section of Modi'in, so it's a hot property at the moment, especially now that the train is in and running to Tel Aviv.

Our attorney puts the shekel price in the contract, forwards the contract to the Buyer's attorney, and the Buyer calls and tells us everything is fine and we're on to sign the contract.

Then we negotiate which day is the right day we can ALL be present for the signing. The best part of this discussion is that the Buyers agree to come, with attorneys, to Jerusalem so we're not tramping down to Tel Aviv.

We agree on a date. The night before, the Buyer's attorney calls and suddenly the price isn't correct. Our attorney tells him that this is the price the Seller set last week, it's been in the contract, your client wanted it in shekels in the first place, and wanted a fixed price if in dollars. This was the shekel price as of last Yom Chamishi (Thursday) based on the dollar/shekel exchange rate of that date.

Ah, but now the dollar/shekel exchange rate has dropped, Buyer's Attorney argues.

Our attorney calls me. "What do you want to do? He wants today's exchange rate," she tells me.

No way. I am not renegotiating this price; I put it in shekels (which the Buyer wanted originally) at the exact exchange rate he proposed last week (which our lawyers said we shouldn't do) without a float attached to the interest rate.

No way am I getting any more s%#$@ed than I already am -- "That's the price," I told our attorney. "Take it or leave it."

The Buyer knows we have two back-up offers. He takes it.

But, in the Jerusalem office, before signing, he asked to speak to us alone, without the attorneys, and pleaded with us to use the current dollar/shekel exchange rate....or at least split the difference.

I felt bad. The Husband felt bad. The Buyer is a nice guy and I like him and his wife. But....this is business and the real estate agent was their personal friend, advocating for them instead of getting us a better price; we'd already come down on the asking price in order to get a quick sale......We said "No." The price in shekels is a fair price, we told them....

....and then their Attorney opened his big mouth when he came in and told our attorney that it was really a hardship for the Buyers because now they would have to take out a mortgage!

Excuse me??!!

Yeah, they sold their house up in Karmiel for a bundle and have cash for this Modi'in house--and, contrary to the real estate agent's representation, they could easily have afforded the original asking price, BUT they wanted to pay cash and not have a mortgage.

Wouldn't we all?

Any sympathy I had for the Buyer went right out the window after that announcement. So now he'll have to take a piddling little mortgage and pay a little bit more because the shekel/dollar exchange rate got pegged at the rate he asked for and the price was fixed in shekels as he originally asked for......and then he tries to s@#$# us when the exchange rate drops.

I've made some financial mistakes in this country since coming here, as I'm sure most olim chadashim have, but I'm not about to make more than I have to.....

We're walking away with the price that was better than I expected, and at approximately the price I wanted to end with originally.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

To Volunteer or Not....

Much discussion has been had in Israel over the past several weeks about draft-dodging. This is a nation, like Switzerland, where all able-bodied males constitute the national army. Unlike Switzerland, women also have a service obligation, albeit almost never in combat positions. Men do (and women are able to) continue serving in the reserves for years after their initial army service.

This summer's revelation of the number of kids who DON'T serve is raising alarm bells in various quarters. Some of the numbers are suspect; some of the numbers quoted are reasonable (the IDF doesn't really want you to join and get a gun if you are mentally ill, for example). Political and religious figures have jumped on this particular bandwagon to lament that some sector of society which they don't represent is betraying the ideals of the country, is a sign of moral rot, is an indicator of protest of government policies, is an indication of the chareidi-ization of society, etc. yadda, yadda, yadda.....

Please......these are teenagers, the one segment of humanity who is both totally egocentric but capable also of heroic self-sacrifice. My father once pointed out that's why armies draft their kids at this age: if you tell an 18-year-old, "Go take that fortified hilltop with the .50 caliber machine gun nests in order to save your squad," he'll do it, or die trying. Tell that to a 45-year-old, and he'll tell you, "You first."

This is why the IDF works -- it is full of the 18-to-21 year olds, but it is also seasoned in times of crisis and reserve duty training with their fathers, uncles, older brothers and adult neighbors who hopefully lend some common sense to their younger, less experienced counterparts who are serving for the first time.

But first and foremost, the draft-age kids of Israel are teens. What do teens want? Mostly, they want to do whatever it is they want to do. Mostly they want to NOT be told what to do while receiving as many adult perks as possible. Some want to study at the London School of Economics and dodge the draft so as not to lose the slot in next year's class. Some are idealistic and feel they should follow in our founder's footsteps and give up three years of their lives to serve their country. Some are sick or physically incapacitated or mentally ill and shouldn't be required to serve in any capacity. Some are Arab-Israeli and hold a moral objection to being in a position where they might kill other Arabs: this ranges from being passionately anti-Israel and closet-Hamas to a more constructive sense of citizenship such as that of Abu Gosh , an Arab town whose men decided to don the IDF uniform as part of an excellent search and rescue team.

Others are products of a chareidi anti-State environment which holds that army service corrupts their young and exposes them to non-chareidi lifestyles and takes them away from Torah study. Of course, they have no problem with Other People's Children fighting and dying to protect their right to study and to live on the welfare stipends Other People's taxes are paying for......

Others are products of the Post-Zionist New Left Tel Aviv glitteratti, who while despising the chareidim ( and anybody else who shows an inclination to go to a synagogue), seek to emulate them in also spitting on the State that protects them, loudly proclaiming their political opposition to military service on various transparent grounds. Certainly the PZNL cafe habitue may have an issue with "the Occupation" but so do many Middle Israelis....the problem is that too many of us remember the Second Intifada and its near-daily regime of exploding buses and pizza parlors which was brought about by the IDF's withdrawal from the territories per the Oslo Accords. The PZNL-types are simply regurgitating what their parents tell them and use this insipid rhetoric as a handy excuse to get out of something unpleasant and not fun: getting their hair cut, living with rules and a curfew, wearing a uniform and following orders. In other words, they don't get the extended adolescence the rest of the western world's kids get by going off to college, smoking weed, drinking until falling-down-drunk and sneaking into your girlfriend's dorm room. But if they find a way to dodge army service, they can go on being adolescents until 22 or 23 and let Other People's Children give up three years of their lives to protect them.

I'm not overly concerned. My son reported the other day for the first step of his induction, which is a physical and filling out paperwork. The place was full of young teens, male and female, sometimes with a parent in tow but more often in the company of same-age friends who are also reporting for duty. I came because I'm one of the parents; Yossi came because he knows the system and speaks the language. The soldiers on guard duty at the front of this old and tiny building in Geula gave us a choice: ONE adult could go with Josh but not both. Yossi went, of course. I'm perfectly useless in explaining anything in Hebrew adequately. Besides, this is a guy-type of thing -- what self-respecting 17-year-old wants to be seen in a crowd of peers with his mommy in tow? The Boy was more than happy to go inside with Yossi.

They weren't inside for very long. The Boy had his medical records (short version) with him and we had already mailed the longer version of neurological, physical, and vision reports. Thanks, anyway, the IDF said, but we won't be drafting someone with CP and vision problems.....BUT after his schooling is finished and his Hebrew is better, if he wants, he can volunteer.

On the way back to the car, the Boy said he was relieved he wasn't going to get drafted (the teen response to being told what to do) but that "if he felt like it" maybe he would volunteer after school is done. I told him he had a choice of volunteering for the army or for National Service. "If I feel like it, Imma," he retorted.

"Whether or not you 'feel like it' kiddo," I said quietly. "Everyone serves except the very sick and the terminally self-centered. We didn't raise you to live for yourself alone -- so you have a choice not about whether or not you volunteer. Volunteer you must. Your choice is National Service or the military."

He digested this for a moment, then brightened up considerably. "I think I'd like to volunteer for the military," he announced. "The army had LOTS of really cute girls there today."

Spoken like a true patriot. (sigh)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Everything Is Negotiable

It doesn't matter if it's a new piece of furniture, a sheshbesh game in the souk, a new apartment or peace in the Middle East.......Everything is negotiable here!

Having learned from our mentor, Yossi, how to bargain for a new apartment, new furniture, appliances, and ice cream cones, I now understand why all those idiots from the US State Department as well as the EU and UN can't make peace.

One cannot "make" peace in the Middle East. Arriving at Peace is a journey fraught with negotiation and ploys. Treaties cannot be reached with the likes of Arafat not just because he was a thug and a warlord, but because he was a Middle Eastern thug and warlord.

It's the "Middle Eastern" part that's important.

This is how you buy ice cream in the mall in Israel. You go up to the counter and ask the guy, how much for two scoops? He tells you it's ten shekels for two scoops. You look astounded and a bit offended and ask him, "What? Do I look like a tourist? I'll give you five shekels for two scoops."

"No way," he tells you. "The price is ten shekels for two scoops."

"I don't need YOUR ice cream. There's other shops here that sell ice cream, too."

"You won't get it for less than five shekels a scoop," he says, sounding bored and annoyed but not hiding the gleam in his eye.

"Watch me."

Go upstairs to the next ice cream shop where the counter guy tells you it's five shekels per scoop.

"No way! Listen, I'll give you seven shekels for two scoops, how about that?"

"Okay," he says, scooping two generous heaps of ice cream on to the cone.

Walk downstairs again, stroll past the first ice cream counter and grin at the guy. "Two scoops for seven shekels," you tell him, smug grin in place.

Likewise, if you buy a home here, DON'T pay the asking price. Like lane lines, the asking price is just a suggestion. It's actually the contractor's dream sheet. NO Israeli pays the asking price because they know it is entirely fictitious.

We didn't know that. In California, housing prices are more or less negotiable, but usually not by tens of thousands of dollars.

We just sold a cottage in Modi'in (well, we think we sold it--all the parties are in agreement and we're waiting for the lawyers to put together a meet for the signing). Yossi asked us what we paid for the cottage. We told him, because he is now a member of the family. "Well, what was the asking price?" he inquired. We told him that, too. The asking price was the same as what we paid.

You cannot feel more inept or stupid than when an Israeli friend looks at you with the "I can't believe you did that" look, accompanied by a roll of the eyes.

"You two are not allowed to buy a bottle of water in this country unless I am with you," he muttered ominously, exposed to yet more proof that we are in need of adult Israeli supervision.

It's okay, though. We're not losing money on the deal, although as Tevya might put it, it's not going to make us a fortune either.

We've decided to stay in Jerusalem, so we went looking for an apartment. Smaller than a cottage, true, but we're down to one kid and cleaning one story sounds a lot better to me than cleaning three stories anyway....

BUT, we took Yossi with us to look at apartments. He can talk to all the kablanim in Hebrew; he is a native and not a sucker, oops, new immigrant from America; and he knows how to bargain and he's a tough customer when it comes to spending money.

After looking at a number of apartments in the area, Yossi found one that exactly fit our needs--then started bargaining with the kablan (contractor). First, he established that the asking price was fictional and in reality, the kablan would settle for $65,000 less than that fictional amount. Second, he established a payment schedule that fit OUR needs and not that of the contractor. This is a big plus for us--most contractors want 15% down, then installments every few months so that 80-90% is in their pocket before the apartment is completed. Yossi got the kablan to agree to 15% down, another 10% in a month and the BALANCE upon completion. Now he's taking us to kitchen stores, appliance stores and flooring stores to look at the items needed to finish the home and I expect that with him as our agent, we'll get it wholesale.

He also successfully browbeat our real estate agent into taking a smaller percentage for the sale of the Modi'in home. What did we know? Yossi knew that the going price is 2% plus tax; we didn't. So Yossi told our agent that he robbed us and we were going to pay 2% plus tax and if the agent didn't like it, No Sale. Since the agent, who was supposed to represent our interests, chose to sell the cottage to personal friends and bargained for them on their behalf, I was not at all upset at Yossi's in-your-face fee reduction in light of the agent's breach of fiduciary duty to us.

No one pays full price for furniture or appliances, either. If you go to the Hashmal store, you can get it cheap. If you go to any dealer, you can always bargain for cheaper. One of my women friends went to buy a twin mattress for her new daughter-in-law. Her son already had a mattress, and they needed a matching mattress. She found it in Talpiot, bargained with the owner for a price she was satisfied with, and told the owner it was a wedding present for her new daughter-in-law.

"Mazel tov!" the owner cried. "I'll throw in a free mattress cover for her," he offered.

"What do you mean, 'a free mattress cover'?" my friend asked. "I need TWO mattress covers! They're a couple now!"

She got both of the mattress covers. Free.

This takes time. This takes patience. This takes really knowing the territory. This takes throwing all of your western, free-market, capitalist or socialist or quasi-both notions of what agreements ought to be right out the window.

If the Quartet REALLY, seriously wants to "make peace in the Middle East," then they need to send their Harvard and Sorbonne diplomats to go work in the souk for a couple of years. THEN maybe they will have people in their diplomatic corps who really have a clue about how To Make A Deal in the Middle East. Sending more guns, more aid, more promises won't accomplish a thing. The Israelis have their agenda; the Palestinians have their agenda; the Iranians, Saudis and al Qaeda have their agenda.

The wheeling and dealing and negotiating and breaking off negotiations and talking and meeting and all the other smoke and mirrors will NOT stop until the Israelis realize that they won't get a better offer from the Palestinians (and that hasn't come close to happening yet) and the Palestinians realize that they won't get a better offer from the Israelis (which Arafat blew at Camp David, thinking like a souk dealer that he could intifada his way into a better deal), and Everyone Else gets firmly shut out.

We're a long way from peace, methinks. The wheeling and dealing is still going on, but its in flux and being handled by two very inept leaders of compromised governments.

Know what's funny? New cars are NOT negotiable. The sticker price IS the price. Go figure!

Comments Broken

Every now and then, Blogger goes haywire for 12-24 hours and people can't comment.

Right now, I'm ready to scream because the comments section has been broken for at least two days.

Jack--I found WBM and I'm sure you've seen her new post. And thanks for your comment because its nice to know I'm NOT nuts and this behavior drives other people crazy also...

So, bloggers who read this: is it just me? Or my computer? Or my ISP? Or is Blogger really going nuts and everyone's comments are unpostable? (I know Jack posted, but I can't reply--can anyone else post?)


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