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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Emek HaElah

This is the valley ("emek" in Hebrew) where David and Goliath so fatefully met. Actually seeing the geography makes a huge difference in understanding the Torah. Samson lived not far from here, and seeing how this Dan territory was right on the frontier with the aggressive Iron-Age Philistines, the tribe's subsequent move to the far north is more understandable.

The Philistines controlled the southern city states on the plain: Gat, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron. One route to the heart of the hill country and Jerusalem was through Emek HaElah (Valley of the Terebinth, a kind of indigenous tree still growing here). The stream of the same name which irrigates this valley originates in the Hebron Hills and wanders westward, joined by other streams, until it reaches this valley. The stream takes a sharp turn northwards to round Tel Azeka then turns westward again and meanders towards the Mediterranean.

For the Philistines, an invading people of Mycenean origin, the route to Beth Lechem or Jerusalem was up this valley.

Tel Azeka is what remains of the fortress city of Azekah guarding the pass into Emek HaElah, and from its top one can see the former Philistine lands all the way to the Mediterranean. Azekah was one of the last cities to fall to the Babylonians (the other, more famously known, is Lachish). Since I can personally attest to how high and steep the tel is today, I can understand why the Babylonians might have found this fortified city somewhat of a challenge. After the Babylonian Captivity, this was one of the towns repopulated by the returnees. Today, it is in a national park. complete with picnic tables and barbecues, and covered with forest.

In the time of King Saul, the Philistines massed their army between Azekah and Socho, another hillside town upstream a few miles west of Azekah which commanded a wonderful view over the entire valley. There, below Socho, Goliath challenged the Israelites to personal combat and David stepped forth and into history.

Horbat (ruin) Socho today is a steep, nearly treeless hill containing some remains of ancient wells. It isn't even well marked on the highway, but fortunately my friend Sarah brought her friend Hannah Leah, a tour guide who knew exactly where to turn.

The hill redeems itself in the spring with one of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers in Israel. The valley itself is a verdant green; the kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh (the "35" named for the young men who went to resupply beseiged Kfar Etzion and were massacred by the Arab residents of Husan) lies just north of the tel, its almond groves in full blossom.From the top, we could look north and east across the valley. The kibbutz pond below us is a dammed up part of Nahal (stream) HaElah, and reportedly was marshy ground around the time of David's confrontation with Goliath.

What brought us here today was the kalanit, the red anemone which carpets the hills and vales of Israel at this time of year. As residents of Jerusalem, we are higher in elevation than the surrounding countryside, so spring comes a bit later to us. A trip 'downhill' to the Beit Shemesh region where Spring was already in full bloom seemed a great reason to get out of the city and see the kalaniyot and other spring flowers and blossoms of the Sephalah.

The trail was fairly steep, although passable. The most difficult part was my being wholly out of shape for an uphill slog: going to the gym every day is not the same thing as an uphill hike, I found. Hat and water bottle were mandatory--even in milder spring morning, the sun was blazing. No wonder just north of here the town was known as "Beit Shemesh" or House of the Sun.

We picnicked atop the tell, enjoyed the view and my friends tolerated my frequent pauses to take pictures. After Sokho, we visited the forest-crowned Tel Azeka and from there proceeded back towards Jerusalem. Hannah Leah was able to show us a wonderful trail in the forest between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.. The trail was cool and quiet, and the forest meadows carpeted in wildflowers. The most astounding item on this walk, though, was something that I initially thought was a log. It wasn't: it was the remains of an ancient Roman road marker, one of a series of pillers that counted off the distances between Jerusalem and Beit Guvrin to the southwest. There is something humbling about standing in front of the last remnant of a road so ancient and thinking of the millions of people who have passed this way before. It is heartening to see that some memory, some remnant of ancient commerce between people, Jewish, Canaanite, Hittite, Greek and Roman, testifies to us from the heart of the forest.

Alongside this trail lay the restored remains of a Byzantine-era oil press. The oil press is one of the most common ruins found in Israel, proof of the regions long-term and wide-spread dependence on the olive tree. Forest has grown up around it now but it stands as a mute memorial to the most ancient of agricultural practices in Israel The march of history surrounds us in our land--today in a matter of hours, we saw remnants from the period of Kings and their Philistine enemies; from the times of the Romans and also their Byzantine inheritors. Yet here we are, still in our land, building, planting, foresting, raising families, toiling and living the Promise G-d made to Avraham at the dawn of time.

* Photos are my own, for a change; trip courtesy of Sarah and history courtesy of Hannah Leah although I take full responsibility for any errors in recounting.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Time To Mourn

These are the dead:

Yohai Lifshitz, 18, of Jerusalem

Yehonatan Yitzhak Alder, 16, of Shilo

Yehonadav Haim Hirshfeld, 19, of Kochav Hashahar

Neria Cohen, 15, of Jerusalem

Roy Rot, 18, of Elkana

Segev Peniel Avihail, 15, of Neveh Daniel

Avraham David Mozes, 16, of Efrat

Doron Mahareta, 26, of Ashdod

My child is 17. He could have been at this yeshiva. He could be dead or wounded or maimed, also.

Thank G-d, he isn't. Thank G-d.

I can still look forward to high school graduation, to seeing his life evolve as he gets older. I can hope for grandchildren, for a happy marriage, for a wife who loves him, for a career that satisfies him, for friends to hang out with.

I didn't have to get up this morning and go to his funeral.

We knew, the Husband and Boy and I, that Something Was Happening last night when we heard the sirens. It's not unusual, just off Derech Hebron, to hear an ambulance on this major traffic artery.

It's not usual, however, to hear a fleet of them racing for city center. This was the soundtrack of the Second Intifada that we used to hear from abroad, on CNN, on Fox, on BBC. Now we're hearing it live.

The murderer was an Arab who lived literally around the corner from us. He lived in Jebel Mukaber, a suburb immediately adjacent to Armon HaNatsiv. If I were to walk to the Tayelet, across the promenade towards the UN-occupied Government House, below that ridge is Jebel Mukaber. The Arabs there shop in our local stores, send their children to the high school in Armon HaNatsiv, and say "shalom" to me when we pass on the Promenade. Their children often ask to pet our dog and oftentimes are encouraged to do so by their parents, once we assure them that she doesn't bite.

His family home was demolished this morning. His parents have set up a 'mourning tent' to commemorate their 'martyred' son who was just a bit older than most of his victims. He was 20 years old. He probably knew his victims: he worked at the yeshiva as a driver. His appearance on the grounds of the school would have raised no suspicions since the students knew him.

He was arrested four months ago by "Israeli authorities," although which branch isn't stated in the news. He was then released two months ago. Someone knew he was a terrorist-in-training but he was released anyway.

The current government's policy of placating the Palestinians by releasing the murderers and their terror-oriented aiders and abettors among them from jail has to stop.

We're stunned by sadness. Death isn't anything new in this land beseiged by Arabs intent on genocide, but somehow this kind of attack, the deliberate murder of the young, numbs the brain and hurts the hearts of all of us. Like Sbarro Pizza, where the mass murderer deliberately sought women and children, this carnage in a school library sickens the strongest of us.

But don't mistake that for weakness. That's the great mistake of Arab policy: these attacks only strengthen our resolve because they foreshadow what waits for all of us if we ever get too tired to fight to our right to live in the freedom of our own rule.

We've seen how the "Palestinians" glorify the deaths of mothers and children (Sbarro Pizza) and now the deaths of students in their school library.We see your children dancing for joy at the murders committed in your name.

Olmert may blather on but most of Israel no longer has the patience for Arab-committed mass murder. There will come a moment, and this is perilously close to it, where we, so long condemned by the diatribes of Arab and Left-wing propagandists, decide that we no longer care what anyone thinks, and our very survival demands a One-State Solution -- called Israel.

Remember what Ronald Reagan said when told by his State Department that the United States needed to continue it's long-term policy of 'containment' of the USSR? "I have a better plan," he announced. "Let's win."

It's time, Israel. Let's win.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Our Adventure in Hebrew Bank Documents

I barely get by in broken Hebrew. (I will go back to ulpan, I will, I will, as soon as this adventure in real estate is finished!) The Husband speaks fairly decent kibbutz Hebrew, and certainly enough to get by in his job at the police department, but he's no whiz at reading it either. After all, we're not dealing with the alphabet here.

You try reading words that are totally different letters and from which the vowels are dropped (vowels are for children--adult words don't have them).

The child reads: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The adult reads: Thqck brwn fx jmps vr thlzy dg.

Now put this into legalese.....

We never go anywhere or deal with anything contractual without Yossi. I don't trust our attorney generally because she now has a track record of poor lawyering, in my own attorney-opinion. Nor do I trust her with the re-issued bank documents on the mortgage which she has hustled up, since she has a conflict of interest: her goal is to get us to sign these documents as fast as possible and get her out from under a potential malpractice suit.

We go the Bank Leumi's Head Guy In Charge Of Problems With Mortgages. You have to get by security to see this guy. He has the new contract all prepared, as our attorney promised.

He asked for our identifications, which we provide. He next pushed the entire contract, several inches of paper, towards us, and directs us to sign the first page. This will take some time: if you've never seen a bank contract in Israel, even for something as simple as opening a checking account, you'd be surprised. Several trees died to make this contract.

"What am I signing?" I asked.

He looked taken aback. First, there were two men present and the female was talking. Obviously it surprised him that I was asking the question instead of my husband or Yossi.

"She's an attorney in the United States," Yossi explained.

Bank Guy pursed his lips, looked pained, and told me its the mortgage. Yes, I know that but WHAT am I signing and where is the payment schedule.

"We'll get to that," he tells me.

Wrong answer, buster. I picked up the entire sheaf of paper and began paging through it. My husband, accustomed to my attitude towards contracts, simply waits. Yossi, who doesn't want me to tick off the bank, tries to assure me it's okay. I keep leafing through the contract, looking for shekel amounts.

We go ahead and start signing the boilerplate stuff but I'm still leafing through the rest of the contract looking for some sign that money is involved. Finally, I find a page with two separate amounts on it.

"What's this say?" I asked Yossi, pushing it over to him.

He reads it, frowns, then asks Bank Guy a question, listens to the answer, tells Bank Guy its not correct, gets disagreement from Bank Guy...then Yossi says, "STOP! Don't sign another thing."

Even I could follow this Hebrew.

"They have to sign it," Bank Guy tells Yossi.

"No, they don't. You need to fix this," Yossi responds.

"This is the way it is. They have to sign, or they have a problem." Bank Guy counters.

"THEY don't have any problem," Yossi fires back. "YOU have the problem, the attorney has the problem, the Buyer has the problem and his attorney has the problem -- but THEY don't have a problem. They don't have to be here doing this for anyone. They're doing this because they're honest and YOU need to fix this!" he adds, pointing to the shekel amounts.

"I don't have the permission. I'd have to call Tel Aviv and see if they'll give me permission. It's not usual." Bank Guy counters.

Yossi stands up, picks up his keys, and calmly tells him, "They'll give you permission. Believe this. Tel Aviv wants this mess fixed. They'll agree when you tell them that these people aren't signing anything until this is fixed."

Bank Guy shrugs. "I'll ask for permission. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what Tel Aviv says."

"B'seder, I appreciate it. I'll expect a call tomorrow, then," Yossi tells him.

Yeah, we weren't signing it. In the last post, I explained that we took a little tiny mortgage. The bank, happy with our income and expense proofs and our credit rating, was delighted to extend to us an enormous line of credit. Very flattering, thank you very much, but we don't need all that....we're only taking this little bit, okay?

The contract which Bank Guy shoved in front of us showed two amounts, one of which was the entire line of credit. In part of the conversation with Yossi which I didn't completely follow, Bank Guy assured Yossi that we'd only be responsible for that which we actually borrowed, but Yossi very correctly pointed out that that's NOT what the contract actually said. Bank Guy said something about a schedule of payments being attached later reflecting the true amount borrowed, etc but Yossi wasn't buying it.

He told Bank Guy that the mortgage contract was to state the exact shekel amount to be repaid and nothing else.

"You don't want to try to straighten this out ten years from now when someone from Tel Aviv looks at your file and decides you signed an agreement to repay the LOC amount and not what you really borrowed," he told us when we left the bank. "The way the contract is written, it's not clear, it's....." he searched for a word.

"Ambiguous," I offered.

"What's this, am-bi-gwas?" Yossi asked.

"A big word for 'not clear'," the Husband interjected drily. "But you're right," he told Yossi. "I don't want to be trying to prove the facts of this ten years from now with fading memories and no paper trail and ambiguous, unclear papers."

"Bidyuch!" Yossi agreed fervently. "I told him to make new papers with the correct amount, and he told me he needs the permission from Tel Aviv. He tells me you have a problem with this mortgage, and I say to him, no problem! They have all the money in their bank account. YOU have the problem, you and the lawyers. Make this right and no one has a problem." He smiled. "He'll get the permission, never worry," he told us.

48 hours later we were back at Bank Leumi signing corrected documents that reflected exactly what Yossi told Bank Guy to put in -- the amount borrowed, not the LOC amount.

"Y'know," the Husband pointed out, "Yossi hasn't had a thing to eat all day. What do you say we take you out to lunch, Yossi?"

"Sure, what you want," he agreed easily. "But you don't have to if you have other things to do."

The Husband smiled. "I think a lunch is in order, my friend. At least a lunch. You caught that 'bank error' and potentially just saved us about $200,000."

How We (Almost) Got A Free House

Good thing that we're honest people.....

We sold the Modi'in cottage. As many of you know already, there is no such thing as a Title Company here in The Land. Lawyers do that work. Never never never never do anything without a lawyer we were told.

With good reason, it turns out...

House selling is on the installment plan. We sold our place and between us, the buyers and our respective attorneys, we worked out a schedule of payments. There were to be four payments: one at the contract signing, another in 60 days, the BIG installment payment upon getting notice that the Builder will turn over the "04" (a form indicating he's done and we're the new owners), which arrives about 30 days before construction is finished, and a final payment that should sit with the attorney in escrow until all the taxes are untangled and paid.

The final two payments, once we (read: Yossi) wrung them out of the Buyer, go into our attorney's trust account. She transfers all but a small amount for the taxes to our account. While the wrangling over the payments, the scheduling of such, and the kinds of checks (bank or personal) wear on, the money nonetheless makes its way into our account.

I asked my attorney several times during this process about paying off the small mortgage we have at Bank Leumi. While we could have paid cash for the cottage, we decided a small mortgage was more advantageous as it left us cash to work with. No problem, she told me breezily--when we get to that point, I'll take care of it.


I'm still not clear on how this works, so I put the question to the bank officer I've been working with. "Oh, its pretty much automatic," she tells me cheerily. "We just transfer the mortgage from the cottage to the penthouse."


Nevermind. This is what I have an attorney for, I tell myself.

Two weeks ago, I got tired of being brushed off by all concerned, because another pressing problem is that when one takes out a mortgage, the bank very reasonably insists on life insurance to cover that mortgage. In a country beset by war, terrorism and rocket attacks, this is not unreasonable, however galling it may be. My concern is that my paperwork all shows that the insurance is for the cottage in Modi'in and not for our new place in Jerusalem.

My attorney is, as usual, too busy to talk to me and never returns my calls, so I go to the bank officer instead.

She looks at my paperwork. "Did you sell the cottage?" she asks, a frown forming.

Last November, I tell her.

"What!!?" she almost shrieks. The frown deepens, and the formerly cheery bank officer gives me a look I'm quite certain she reserves for money launderers.

"Where's the money?" she demands.

"In the bank," I said, a bit taken aback by her hostility.

"WHAT bank?" she almost shouted.

"OUR bank, in our account," I answered, still bewildered. "It's okay, it's 'locked up' for the penthouse payments," I tried to reassure her. Here there is an option to "lock" up a certain amount of money in one's checking account for a period of time with a fixed interest rate, like a CD--and of course, that rate is negotiable.

"How did this happen?!" she demanded.

"How did WHAT happen?" I'm now completely lost. Rapid fire Hebrew ensued between her, her fellow bank officer who was perusing the computer and talking excitedly to her, and Yossi, who fortunately had come with me. Finally Yossi tells the computer guy to give him a list. Computer guy gives him a list of five items, Yossi thanks him and says, "Come, Sarah."

"What happened? Where are we going?" I ask. "What happened back there?"

"Altidagi, motek," he says with a 'calm down' gesture. We're going over to your attorney's office," he adds. Fortunately the law office is only two blocks away.

When we arrive, it is like arriving in an overturned anthill. I see our attorney in the front secretarial bay, a cellphone in one hand, a paper in the other, shouting, "Call Sarah. If you can't reach her, call Yossi! No, call Yossi anyway!"

Yossi calls out, "We're here." He hands her the note from the bank officer. The attorney who never had time to come to the phone or return phone calls suddenly cancels the day's appointments and wisks us into a conference room. I am suddenly The Most Important Client, and the focus of complete attention.

It seems my attorney, along with the Buyer's attorney, neglected to take care of the small mortgage on the Modi'in cottage. In one of the quirks of Israeli law (descended from Turkish and British law) that loan is affixed like a leach to the property in Modi'in until it is paid off!

All this money flowed from Buyer to Buyer's attorney to Seller's attorney to Seller without either attorney checking to make sure the mortgage was cleared and Buyer could take clear title.

The bank is hysterical because the bank (no doubt correctly) foresees both attorneys mounting a defense to their own malfeasance and refusing to pay off this mortgage; the Buyer is going to sue everyone if he doesn't kill the attorneys first.

Even my attorney tries a wiggle. "You never told me you had a mortgage on this property, did you?" is the question, with a broad smile.

With a crocodilian smile back, I assured my advocate that not only had I said I had a mortgage, but on several occasions since the sales contract was signed, I had asked precisely what was the procedure for dealing with the cottage mortgage and how would I 'transfer' it to the penthouse; and as recently as early February (I would have to check my notes to be sure of the exact date) you told me not to worry, you would take care of it. Toothy smiles all around. My smile said, I'm not taking the fall for your screw up.

In short, we got all the money. We don't need no stinking mortgage. What mortgage there was is no longer technically ours since it's attached to a property we don't own and the new owner needs to thrash out exactly who is going to pay for this mess between the bank and the two attorneys. Lawsuits and cross-suits were about to break out like weeds.

No wonder I was the Client of the Day.

Ahem. This is why it's a good thing we're honest people. Yossi explained after we ironed all this out that half the people in Israel would've said, "Wheeee! Bank error in MY favor! All the money is in our account, so all of you suckers figure out which of you is going to pay the piper for this mistake!"

Instead, I said, "Then why don't you simply call the bank, have them draft a new mortgage in the same amount for the penthouse, and then we'll still be liable for the amount, and the bank can clear the Buyer's title and everyone will be satisfied?"

Stunned silence. Right. My attorney is suddenly busy with a flurry of phone calls to bank officers all the way up to the VP of Something Special in Tel Aviv and sure enough, those papers will be ready for us to sign tomorrow! (Presumably before the Buyer finds out he almost got screwed.)

We signed the papers. The formal clearing of title will take about a month, but I think I heard sighs of relief from two law offices and about 14 bank officials after we signed.

Signing was another story, and once more, Yossi saved our collective olim tushes....

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