A View of the World Through the Thoughts and Lens of Scott Kasper

Israel 2010

Got Bullets?

That’s what the Haganah, or Israeli Freedom Fighters, were asking back in the 1930’s and 40’s as they were fighting to defend themselves against the Arabs and secure independence for Israel. The problem – the British Mandate gave control over the land to the British and any activities aimed at securing independence of the Jewish Land of Israel would be illegal and possibly punishable by death. By 1947, this issue reached critical mass, as the Israeli War of Independence was underway. The solution – use the facade of a kibbutz to masquerade a factory for the production of 9 mm ammunition to supply the Haganah fighters.

That’s precisely what was done at the Kibbutizm Hill, now the Ayalon Institute outside Tel Aviv.  All they did was take a routine laundry facility….

…Hide a secret trap door beneath the large clothes washer….

Hide another secret stairway  beneath a gigantic oven in a bakery about 40 feet across a courtyard…

Smuggle machinery into Israel through the port of Beirut and construct an underground factory…

and start producing what amounted to be about 2.75 million 9mm bullets over a 3 year period . Easy, right??

Not exactly, but that’s essentially what 40 members of the kibbutz did in secret, risking the lives of everyone in the kibbutz in order to arm the freedom fighters. Officially, they were assigned to work in “field B” which was known to be remote, and therefore the workers would not be seen during the day by the other Kibbutz members who did not know about this factory. They has Israel’s first tanning booth within the factory so that they could each be exposed to UV light and remain tan, as they would be had they been working the fields outside. Many of them had spouses from who they successfully maintained this secret for 3 years. I could go on and on with the fascinating stories about these people and their efforts!!

On our last full day is Israel we visited this bullet factory and took a tour. It was fascinating to learn how these freedom fighters contributed to the success of their cause. At any moment they could have exploded from the gun powder. They could have been discovered by the British and killed on the spot. But they took the risk for what they believed in and they succeeded. One personal note of interest…at the visitor’s Center there is a plaque acknowledging a few key individuals who helped in the effort. On that plaque is the name of my great uncle Abe Feinberg, who, as my mother explained to me, was very active in supporting the Haganah in their fight for the creation of the independent State of Israel. Below are images I made of the brass sheet after the bullet blanks were stamped out and of a pile of tiny brass cups that get stretched out to become 9mm casings after the process is complete.

From there we continued to Tel Aviv. We followed the GPS exactly as it directed and about 20 minutes later we were “arriving at the destination on the left.” The problem was that we were some back road and the only thing on the left was an alley and and a dumpster. I’m thinking Garmin got it wrong!!! Turns out the pre-programmed hotel location was not the proper address, so when we re-programmed our destination location it guided us right in. We grabbed some lunch, rested for a while and then headed down to the beach for a walk. It was a bit hot and humid, but walking the Mediterranean Sea at sun set was the perfect ending to an awesome vacation!!

I would be remiss if I allowed the sun to set on our vacation without extending my sincerest appreciation to my parents-in-law Herb and Adrianne Schlesinger. To them I say, on behalf of all of us, thank you for your generosity, and for your company. You make traveling a true adventure and it has been our pleasure to enjoy Israel with you.

I have enjoyed writing this and hope that you have enjoyed traveling through Israel with me and my family. Though my trip through Israel has come to an end, I have every intent of using this blog to continue sharing my experiences and my photography. I hope you’ll continue to join me!!

Jerusalem, the final day (part 5)

August 5 would be our final day in Jerusalem. This has been an amazing experience in so many ways…religious, historical, etc. It has been action packed and educational. I think that in their own way the kids have been just as moved as I have by this experience and I think that Rachel and her parents have greatly enjoyed exposing us to this. On our last day we only have two things planned…somewhat out of desire, but also out of necessity. Most of us went to Yad Vashem, which is the Israeli National Memorial to the Holocaust, its victims and its survivors. I’m not going to spend to much time writing about this because frankly my words would not do justice to this place or what it commemorates.

That said, I will chose to take this opportunity to point out that there are countries that still deny that this happened. I’m not even talking about countries whose cultures may be anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.  I’m talking about countries like Great Brittain, where they no longer teach their children about this aspect of WW2 because they don’t want to upset or offend the significantly large Muslim population in England. To the Brittish and to anyone else who can deny that this happened to 6.5 million Jews and countless others, I say shame on you!! One thing that history shows us is that it has a pattern of repeating itself. Ignorance and denial are the best paths to take should we want this to happen again and I find it disgraceful that people would chose to take that path.

Anyway, one of the remarkable things about Yad Vashem is that they are dedicated to ensuring that every individual who died in the Holocaust is given a name, a face, and a story. At then end of the museum exhibits is the Hall of Names. In this room they have compiled profiles of more than 3.6 million people who were murdered by the Nazi’s in WW2. Those individuals have profile sheets that are contained in binders….4o0 profiles per binder…3.6 million profiles….3 million more to go…and they’re working hard every day to fill the remaining binders!

While we Herb, Matt and I were walking through Yad Vashem, Rachel and Adrianne took Ryan and Jake to plant a tree. Planting a tree in Israel has become a tradition to help improve the environment here as well as raise money for Jewish National Fund. Rachel took Herb’s camera and took a few shots. She said that the boys took this very seriously and are very proud of the contribution that they made to Erezt Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

After Yad Vashem, we had lunch at a great restaurant called Tikko House and then hit the road back to Yavne’el. We will be there one more night before we head to Tel Aviv for a night and then fly home. That means only one more blog post to come…stay tuned.

The Med, the Red, and now the Dead (Jerusalem Part 4)

Well, we have completed the circuit and have now swam in the Red Sea (while in Eilat), the Mediterranean Sea (while in Ceasarea), and now the Dead Sea!! I’ll float that story by you in a few moments….let’s go in chronological order. We left Jerusalem today  to drive to an Oasis called En Gedy, Mount Masada, and the Dead Sea. Each amazing in their own respects.

En Gedy is truly an oasis in the Judean desert. About an hour and a half from Jerusalem, there is a sign for the oasis and a long, narrow road to the entrance of the National Park. From there, there is a short but steep and HOT hike into the desert mountains. After about 1o minutes walking, the vegetation along the path is clearly indicative of water. It changes from small scrub brush and desert trees, to lush greenery with the sound of flowing water in the background. Then, all of a sudden, the pools and waterfalls of En Gedy come to view.

It was so hot that as soon as we arrived at the pools it too no time before we were all in the water…well, I waited just a few more moments so that I could get some photos.

After about 30 minutes of swimming in the cold refreshing water, it was time to head back down so that we could make it to our next destination before the sun got to it high point. Along the way we ran into a brilliantly colored little bird called the Bee Eater. Being that my father-in-law is a huge bird enthusiast, I’ll post the shot I got of the little guy and hope that it lives up to the quality of his birding guide photo.

From En Gedy, it was off to Masada. If you want details about this amazing mountain you can click this link, as I am only going to write about a few things. First, Masada is a huge, tall plateau that stands in the middle of the desert overlooking the dead sea. We took a cable car from the bottom to the top, and I would draw your attention to the bus parking lot to the left side of the cables in order to give you some scale.

Masada was built in the first centery BC by King Herod the Great. Initially, it was built as a Desert resort for the King and his entourage to visit in the winter. It doubled as a fortress overlooking the dead sea and into Jordanian Desert to the East. Fast forward to about 70 CE, and it was the location of the final siege by the Roman Army against a population of Jews who had revolted against the Emperor.

These were Jews who remained faithful to their beliefs and would not subscribe to the Roman worship of the Emperor and the Idol gods. The Jewish rebels live on Mount Masada for three years until their story came to a tragic ending. Realizing that the Romans were about the take the fortress, and not wanting to surrender, the rebels decided to commit mass murder/suicide. The head of each family would be responsible for taking the lives of their wife and children. They then identified 1o men who would be responsible for killing the remaining men. They did this by drawing lots…the names of all the men were placed into a vessel and 10 of those names were drawn. Finally, the name of one man was drawn. He would be responsible for killing the last 10 and would then commit suicide. You may wonder how historians know this, if when the Romans finally entered, everyone was dead. Me too!!

We were told that according to a Roman historian, there was one woman and her children who hid in the cisterns atop Masada and relayed this information to her captors. In addition, one of the most interesting finds on the mountain were the small chards of pottery with the names of men on them that were found in one location. This helps to corroborate the story that was told. This is a photo of a photo that is on display outside the room in which these were found.

Anyway, once we started walking around the plateau, it was remarkable. The boys and Rachel walked with Yaniv, while Herb and I climbed down the steep (and kinda scary) stairs to the lower levels of the Herodean Palace. The views were spectacular and the ruins that have been preserved are simply astounding.

I will point out that on Masada all of the ruins have a black line painted at the level that restoration took place. Everything below the line is original and everything above the line has been restored. Where there is no line, or it is too high to have made the photo, it is all original. Obviously having been cleaned, etc, but all you see in this image is as it was in the first century CE. Amazing!!

As we walked back up from this lower palace, Herb described to me the several weeks that he and Adrianne spent here in 1963. They were among the volunteers who came to to assist with the excavation. He told me that Adrianne was working as they uncovered the rows of stadium style seats in the synagogue, believed to be among the oldest in Israel. He also told me that we was working along the outer walls on the east side of the mountain. Here is is overlooking the work that he did more than 40 years ago.

After completing our walk around Masada, we drove further south to En Bokek on the Dead Sea where we had lunch at one of the resorts and took advantage of their swimming pool and beach facilities. Okay, we swam and floated in the Dead Sea. It was hot…not the air temperature, the water. Hotter than I usually like for a bath never mind a natural body of water…HOT! It also left an odd feeling on your skin…almost slimy. We all did our requisite plunge up to the waist and then sitting into the water. It really was truly amazing how you just float. The salinity in the water continues to climb…through water from flash floods, etc the water level in the Dead Sea rises 6 feet per year. However, due to evaporation, etc the water level falls by 9 feet per year. Net loss of 3 feet per year…that’s huge. Anyway, it gets saltier and therefore people are more buoyant.

About swimming in the Dead Sea…here’s what I’ll leave you with. When asked about his days as a school boy, Mar Twain once said something that I think applies here:

“I’m glad I did it. Partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I’ll never have to do it again.”

Jerusalem (Part 3)

Tuesday Aug 3: First and foremost, we’re all safe!!! I say this because I am not sure if you got yesterday’s (Aug 2) news from Israel….it was a little startling to wake up to this morning. Apparently there was a rocket attack that originated from Egypt (Sinai Peninsula) and was intended for Eilat Israel yesterday.  As you know, we just left there on Saturday. From what I understand it was an Islamic fundamentalist group from World Jihad that was responsible, and they intentionally launched from Egypt in order to disrupt the current peace between Israel and Egypt. The missiles ultimately overshot Eilat and stuck a resort on the Red Sea in Jordan. Its kind of strange to read this stuff in a newspaper but also see that absolutely nobody here is upset or concerned….just a day in the life. When we met with our guide, Yaniv, this morning he told us that this is just what they have come to expect, as evidenced by the headline in the Jerusalem news paper this morning, “Heat worse than missile attack.”

Anyway, once we met up with Yaniv, it was off to see the sites. We started by heading to the Temple Mount. Today the Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock, which outside Mecca is the holiest place in the Islamic religion. It is the site on which the Prophet Mohamed is said to have ascended to heaven, heard the word of Allah, and returned to his earthly existence to spread the word of true Islam.

According to history, this is also the location of both the first Jewish Temple built by Solomon and the Second Temple of Herod the Great, and is also the holiest place in the Jewish religion (I’ll address this a bit more when I talk about the Kotel later). Over the centuries and millennia the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and replaced by the mosque that has become the Dome of the Rock. Because of this, the Temple Mount is currently under Muslim control. Jews are not permitted inside any of the Islamic buildings. Neither Jewish nor Christian religious paraphernalia are permitted on the Temple Mount. Audible discussion about the location of the Jewish Temple is not permitted. In fact, there are Muslim men who will wander around the temple mount and sit listening to your conversation and will have you removed if they don’t approve of your conversation. Even though the Temple Mount is under Muslim control, it remains part of Jerusalem and is legally under the authority of the Israeli police. While we were there, several orthodox Jewish guys were escorted off the Temple Mount by a combination of the Muslim guards and Israeli Police.

There is a fragile balance there, and any disruption of that balance will result in an outbreak of violence. That is why the Israeli police comply with the wished of the Islamic leadership as it relates to the Temple Mount.

I wanted to explore more. Frankly, I wanted to go inside…for two reasons…first because I am truly interested in what lies inside. I am truly interested in the culture of those who worship within the building, and I am truly interested in the fact that at some point, centuries ago, it was the location of the Jewish Temple. Second, I wanted to go inside simply because they say I can’t.

That said, we could not stay all day, and being an equal opportunity vacation we left the Temple Mount and headed to one of, if not perhaps the most holy places in Christianity, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In order to get there we walked through the Muslim shuk, or marketplace. This one was much cleaner and a lot less scary than the one in Akko.

Admittedly, I know very little about Christianity. What I do know, however, is that Jesus was crucified by the Romans here in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected on the exact site on which Jesus was believed to have been crucified. It is also the location where his body was taken down from the cross and lay to rest for the days following his death. Within the Church one can touch the very limestone slab on which his body was believed to have been placed. This is considered one of the 15 Stations of the Cross, the last 5 of which are all located here in this Church.

Clearly this is a place of importance for many people. It was crowded with pilgrims for all over the world. It was moving to see how being in this place impacted them. Even the collection plate had money placed in the orientation of a cross…intentional or coincidence…one will never know.

We grabbed some lunch and headed to the King David Museum…the views of the Old City and its surroundings from the top of one of the guard towers was simply amazing. Yaniv gave a quick tour of the most important aspects of the museum, and we were off to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. I should have mentioned that the Old City is divided into 4 Quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. From the Tower of King David’s Citadel there is an amazing panoramic view of the Old City. In this view almost all of the most sacred sites of each religion can be seen….brownie points to anyone who can identify them!!

While in the Jewish Quarter we explored many locations and walked to an enormous synagogue that has recently been rebuilt after having been destroyed during the 1948 war. Then we shopped!!

Ryan, who is now 11 and will have his Bar Mitzvah in August of 2012, found a Tallit that he fell in love with. Though he will not wear it for another 2 years, we bought it for him. I think the fact that it was found here in Jerusalem will give it a special meaning for Ryan’s entire life.

Before leaving the Jewish Quarter we stopped at the Kotel, or Wailing Wall. Jews from around the globe come to pray here, and consider this to be the holiest place in Judaism because of its proximity to the location where the great Temple once stood.

In fact, the most religious Jews will not go atop the Temple Mount because they believe that if they step on a location that the Temple once stood before its destruction, it would be defiling the Temple and considered to be sacrilegious. So we pray at the Western Wall.

Even Yankee fans come here to pray…this guy was leaning against the wall for at least 15 minutes. Either he was praying for some important personal reasons, or Red Sox fans have a great deal to be concerned about!!!

For generations people have come here to pray and have left hand written prayers in the cracks of the wall. Each of us wrote our prayer before we left the hotel, and we each found a spot to stick ours…here’s to hoping that our prayers are answered. The funny thing is that Jake wrote his and folded the paper very small. He would not say what he wrote and made me promise not to look. Though I carried it in my pocket the entire day, I honored his request and did not look. I gave him the folded paper when we arrived at the wall, I watched him stuff it in a cranny toward the bottom of the wall, and we walked away. Perhaps I will never know what he wrote…though I think I have a good guess…

After we left the Wall, Adam, Judy, Ari, Noah and Rachel left to head to Tel Aviv. Herb and I took the boys into the water tunnel…this is a remarkable feat of engineering. Men carved a tunnel through the bedrock under the City of David. This tunnel was used to carry water from the spring source outside the City’s walls into the City for its inhabitants. Today water still runs through the tunnel….it’s freaking cold and about knee high. It’s also pitch black, so we brought our headlamps and took the 20-minute water hike. It was a very cool experience…no photos, though, as there was water all the way and I was afraid that if I slipped my camera would be done for!!

So comes to an end of day three in Jerusalem. Day four will include a road trip to Mount Masada, the En Gedy Oasis and a swim in the Dead Sea…stay tuned!

Jerusalem (Part 2, The Bar Mitzvah)

Monday Aug 2: Today was an amazing day. Two of my sons have now accomplished something that I never have…they each read Torah in Jerusalem next to the Western Wall. I am awestruck. I am awestruck by this place and its significance. I am not a particularly religious person in my day-to-day existence. However being in this place and standing in front of what remains of King Solomon’s Temple, I can’t help but feel more connected to Judaism, its past and its future. Wars have been fought over the ground on which we stood this morning, and regardless of which side you are on, that ground over which those wars have been fought is the holiest of holy ground. How can one not feel a deeper connection? The stones in the walls and the walkways are thousands of years old. King David, King Solomon, Herod the Great and so many more people in our history (not just Jews) have stepped on these very stones and leaned against these very walls. The place is inspiring, but more than the physical place, its meaning and its significance to so many people leaves me awestruck!

Even beyond that, I am awestruck by my sons’ inextricable connection to both that past and that future. Having now davenned in the holiest place that Judaism has to offer, they will always have a connection to their heritage that will hopefully maintain a special and significant place in their heads and in their hearts. To say that Rachel and I were proud of their accomplishment today would be a gross understatement….wait…what exactly did they accomplish?

The morning started out waiting for the Rabbi by the Dung Gate. Common folklore states that this is the gate named so because the City’s garbage was removed through this gate. I am told this morning that this in untrue and it has to do with other ancient translations of that word. Anyway, we waited by the Dung Gate until the Rabbi arrived.

Many people were passing by, but the gates to the Western Wall do not open at 0700, which is the time at which we arrived…that is unless you hire a Rabbi who has a connection with the gatekeeper who let us in well in advance of the general public. We essentially had the place to ourselves.

DISCLAIMER: I took 246 photos during this ceremony. There are only a few of them posted here. It will take me a great deal of time to process all of them, so these are just to give you the flavor of what we experienced.

The Bar Mitzvah itself was a typical Monday morning Torah service.

As the Grandfather of the two boys Herb did the honor of the first aliyah. The first torah reading, or parsha, was shared between my nephew Ari and Ryan….that’s right, Ryan read from the torah for the very first time right here in Jerusalem!!! He did amazing!!!

For the honor of his Bar Mitzvah, Rachel (Judy’s daughter, not my wife) shared the parsha with my nephew Noah. His Bar Mitzvah in the US is coming up in October. If he does nearly as well then as he did here, we will nail it as well!

Last, but certainly not least, Matt chanted the final parsha.

Having just completed his Bar Mitzvah at home, this was fresh for him, so I think that made it a bit easier than it would have otherwise been. That said, he did this essentially on his own. Adam had made a recording for him, but I think he only used it to check himself. Rachel helped him with the Hebrew just a bit, because he really just did not need it.  Words cannot describe how proud I was of both of the boys, and the rest of the family as well…like I said…awe inspiring!

At the conclusion of the bar mitzvah, we returned to the hotel for breakfast. We met our guide Yaniv once again, and he took us to the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the book. This is the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Photographs were not allowed there, so I don’t have much to share as far as that goes.

Lunch was in a small vegetarian restaurant that overlooked the walls of the Old City. I wasn’t crazy about it, and frankly I would have rather grabbed a falafel along the way and continued seeing the sights. One could spend a month here and still not see all there is to see.

After lunch some of the group was tired and wanted to head back to rest. Others headed out on foot through the Old City. Then there was Jake and me. Initially, Jake wanted to walk, so off we went with the group. We got through the Jaffa Gate, one of the eight gates of the city, and about one block and he had his late afternoon melt down. It was nearly 5, we had been up since 0600 and he is, after all, only 7.  So onto my shoulders he went and we started the long trek back to the hotel.

Wow….what a long, wonderful day!!! So ends the second entry of the journey to Jerusalem. Today, when the rest of  the clan wakes up, we will be exploring the old city, the western wall and its tunnels, and the Temple Mount. You may not hear from me for a few more days, as I do not have access to the internet easily and may not be able to post again until we get back to Yavne’el on Thursday night.

In the mean time, I hope you are all well!! Shalom!

Jerusalem (Part 1)

Quick update from Jerusalem…we have very limited internet access again, so I had to search out a public wi-fi zone to post this update!!

Sunday Aug. 1: As you know we have been based in Yavne’el, and have been touring using a Toyota Corolla that we rented when we first arrived. Before we got here we were advised that having a car in Jerusalem was a huge mistake….too much traffic and not enough parking….sounds kinda like Boston or Philly. Because of that, my father-in-law hired a minibus with a driver for the few days that we will be touring here. It beats having to hail several cabs any time we need to go some place, and it certainly beats having the cars.

Anyway, David and the mini-bus arrived at the house at 0930…right on time. To be honest, we thought he was going to be there at 10, and for the first time EVER we were all packed a ready to go early!!! So we packed up the bus and hit the road for Jerusalem.

There was one place that we had not seen yet in the Galilee, and it happened to be along the way so we took a slight detour and stopped at a Crusader castle called Belvoir Castle (that’s French….it’s Kohav HaYarden in Hebrew) that was built in 1168 by the Crusaders to protect the lower Galilee against the Muslims. In 1189, after a siege that lasted for more than a year, the fortress was surrendered to Muslim control. The ruins of this castle are in remarkably good shape. It was stunning to see some of the rooms that were left in tact, the protective moat, etc.

After walking the ruins in the blazing sun for about 30 minutes, we hit the road again. Just like our trip to Eilat, we took highway 90 through the West Bank again. One noteworthy event that took place is that we came upon a horrible crash along the way. Based on what I was able to size up as we drove past is that it was a head-on collision with at least 4 victims. The driver of the car that sustained the most damage was still in what was left of the driver’s seat and appeared to have his head still in the windshield. Other victims had been removed from the car and were lying on the roadside being attended to by the dozens of passers by who stopped to help.

This brings up some interesting logistical and moral issues. First, why did we not stop to help? There are several reasons. First, this was in the West Bank, and travel advisories indicate that, for safety reasons, stopping is a bad idea. Second, but the time I was able to see what had happened and then tell our driver that I could perhaps lend some assistance we were past the incident. Finally, there were literally dozens of people already crowding into the small vehicle and surrounding the others. For me to stop and say, “hey, I’m a paramedic. Can I help” in English would not have likely been entirely successful. As it turns out the ambulance were not far behind.

This brings up some other issues. This took place on highway 90 in the West Bank. The roadway is controlled by the Israelis (and in fact there were Israeli police at the scene), but all of the communities are Palestinian controlled, and the ambulances that responded were Palestinian, not Israeli. The nearest Israeli hospital was more than an hour away. So how would this all play out? Would the Palestinians take good care of Israelis? Would they take them to Israeli hospitals? What would happen? These are all questions to which I must obtain answers. But again, there is cautious optimism that an Arab will render good medical care to an Israeli Jew in need of help. What could be the larger, big world impact of situations like this?

Sorry for the long diversion. We made our way through the West Bank and to Jerusalem. Along the way we passed many Bedouin villages that look like sprawling shantytowns built in the hillsides along the highway. The goats and camels (see bottom left of photo below) were free roaming. I have no idea what these folks do for trade, to earn a living, for food or water…I am told that they travel to the near-by cities and roam the streets begging and picking pockets. I’m not judging…just reporting what I am told by others.

Once in Jerusalem, we met Rachel’s brother, Adam, and his family for lunch. They had just arrived from Newark. My nephew Noah will be joining Matt for a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall on Monday. We had lunch, the boys swam and practiced their Torah readings. Swimming was remarkable for two reasons. First, the pool is on the 8th floor and a fairly cool view of the old city. Second, and I will say in advance that I will not dwell on this because it will just get my blood boiling, is that Matt jumped in the pool along with his brand new continuous glucose monitor…NOT waterproof…not warranteed for water damage…UGH!!!!! After swimming it was off to Adom for dinner. Adom was a kosher meat restaurant that had been recommended. Adam was thrilled; as it is not often that he gets to enjoy meat when dining out…so he picked the kosher beef bones clean!!

It was a late dinner, the kids were all tired and we had to wake at 0600 to start our journey to the Western Wall for the Monday morning Bnai Mitzvot…so it was off to bed in anticipation of the simcha to come in the morning.

Vacation within a vacation (Part 3)

Yesterday, July 31, was our final day in Eilat and a special day it was!! This is a view of the City of Eilat from my hotel:

We woke up early, had breakfast, and headed down to the Dolphin Cove for a snorkeling experience that Matt and Ryan will never forget. Unfortunately Jake was too young, but the two older boys and I donned our wet suits, diving masks, snorkels and fins and joined our Israeli guide in a 30 minute swim with eight bottle nose dolphins, a giant green sea turtle, numerous sting rays, and lots of other sea life. It was obviously the dolphins that were the highlight of this experience, and thanks to my trusty photography assistant Rachel, I have proof that I was here and did this.

For me, it brought back memories of my experiences working with two dolphins at the Waikiki Beach Aquarium for part of a summer along with my brother Paul, and working all night along the beaches of St. Croix protecting nesting leather back turtles with my brother Doug. Like those experiences, this was real….wild life in their homes, on their terms.

The eight dolphins used to be completely free roaming. They had a water fence in the cove, but  they were free to roam in and out. Back in 2006, the water gate was closed because they found that people were abusing the dolphins (beer in the blow holes, feeding crazy foods, hitting them with oars and paddles, etc). It was then decided that for their own protection, the sea gate would remain closed and access to the dolphins would remain limited to those who came through the refuge. I think the boys were awestruck by the experience and will never forget it! Jake and Rachel spent the time taking photos and meeting the dolphins who approached the floating walk way.

All too soon, it was over and we were back on the road to Yavne’el….another 5+ hours in the car. Rather than take the same route home that we took down, we decided to take Road 40 most of the way. This took us right through the heart of the Negev and through the Ramon Crater (Mitzpeh Ramon).

Just like the ride to Eilat, we were impressed with the landscape. Barren, but in a very ugly way it was beautiful! The kids even picked their heads up from the game boys when we entered a stretch of road that was bounded on both sides by live firing ranges used by IDF tank squadrons. Remember, this is not on an army base….this is right along one of the main roads in Israel.

After several hundred kilometers of this barren landscape, after seeing one Bedouin village after another, after dozens of “Use Caution – Camels” signs, we were back in northern Israel and the familiar territory of the Kinneret.  Once again the boys did remarkably well with the time in the car. Once we hit home I quickly jumped on the internet to load the first two of the vacation within a vacation updates, and then helped to make dinner.

Several loads of laundry (and no scorpions) later, we were once again packing for the next excursion. Our guide will rejoin us and we will head to Jerusalem this morning, where we will be for the next four nights. Later this afternoon we will meet Adam and Judy, along with Ari, Noah and Rachel. Tomorrow, Monday Aug 2, Matt and his cousin Noah will have their Bnai Mitzvot at the Western Wall. I have been looking forward to this for months and can’t wait!!! This will be the coolest Bar Mitzvah I will likely ever have the chance to photograph (from a Dad’s perspective, of course!).

Our five days and four nights in Jerusalem will be action packed….the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and it’s ancient tunnels, Masada, the Dead Sea, and so much more. Once again, I am not sure what my internet access will be, but I will try to maintain this daily update as best I can.

Until then, I hope you are well and waiting for my next update with eager anticipation! Shalom!

Vacation within the vacation (Part 2)

This is the second installment of our adventure to Eilat.

Friday July 30: Breakfast at the hotel was a veritable smorgasbord of both western and middle-eastern cuisine. For the first time on our vacation the boys enjoyed pancakes for breakfast…and when I say enjoyed I mean it. Imagine a couple of diabetic kids who get to have pancakes in a land where it is common to drizzle hot, melted chocolate on the pancakes!!! Yes, they had maple syrup, but who cares about that when you can essentially have a breakfast sundae!!

Our day began at the Eilat Underwater Observatory Nature Park. This was not your every day, ordinary aquarium where there is a big tank in which the fish swim and are watched by the people. Much to the contrary, this was a big tank in which the people stood and were watched by the fish from the ocean!! The underwater observatory takes you beneath the Red Sea directly in the middle of the coral reef. The reef and its inhabitants are right there, live, in their natural environment. There was nothing man made about this, and both Ryan and Jake commented about how much more humane it was to have the people in the tank rather than the animals.

The spire in the distance, in the photo below, is the above water portion of the observatory.

Another feature unique to the Observatory was the Coral 2000. The Coral 2000 is like a combination of a glass bottom boat and a submarine. In actuality, the glass on the Coral 2000 is on the walls, which are submerged beneath the ocean. After boarding the boat, and climbing down the spiral staircase, one takes a seat along the wall of windows. As the boat navigates through the reef, the views are just spectacular.

Seeing the reef through all these windows was just not satisfying enough. So after the boat ride ended we drove down the beach about a kilometer until we found Coral Reef National Park and Nature Reserve.  After outfitting the boys with snorkel equipment, we hit the water. This was awesome!!!! There we were swimming with the Parrot Fish (the females are yellow and the males are brightly colored with yellow, blue, red, orange), Clown Fish (Jake was psyched to see Nemo!!!), Trigger Fish, Sting Rays (the babies had bright blue spots!!), Brain Coral, Fire Coral (that’s the stuff that stings if you brush up against it), and so much more!! The boys could not get enough of it. Rachel and I took turns snorkeling with them.

At first, the boys were nervous. It took a while for them to get used to swimming with their heads constantly in the water. Once they got used to it, they snorkeled like pros and we spent the entire afternoon with the fish! There were two piers that were about 300 yards apart and connected by long lines of buoys. The easiest way to go was to simply use the buoys as guides. We must have made three or four separate trips from one pier to the other.

By late afternoon we were totally wiped out!! I forget how much exercise ocean swimming is! We returned to the hotel, and it was just about Shabbat. The boys were intrigued by the Shabbat elevator. For those who are not aware, Shabbat is a day of rest, and even the work of pushing the elevator buttons is prohibited in the world of the strictly religious and observant. Therefore, there is an elevator that is pre-programmed to continue running constantly. It stops on every floor on the way up and every floor on the way down. This continues from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday.

Anyway, we showered, grabbed dinner and some ice cream, and then went to bed…Saturday morning would entail more snorkeling, but this time with the dolphins, so we needed our rest! Rest?? That’s a wild dream in our house….by 2 am both boys continuous glucose monitors were alarming and both were almost 500…that’s after having been corrected twice. That only means one thing….pump set changes…at 0200 hours. Jake’s was easy…he practically did not stir. Matt – a different story, but we got it done and got back to sleep….for 90 minutes or so until it was time to recheck…by the time I got back to sleep after that, it was nearly dawn….time to get up. Like I said a few days ago, that’s just how we roll!!

Tune in tomorrow for a summary of our marine mammal adventure.

Vacation within the vacation (Part 1)

Sorry for the gap in entries over the past few days….as I anticipated, I did not have internet access in the hotel in Eilat. So let’s catch up…before I do, however, I want to extend a Happy Birthday to my brothers!!! I hope you enjoyed however you celebrated!

Thursday July 29: We made our way from Yavne’el, by the Sea of Galilee in northeastern Israel, to resort city of Eilat, on the Red Sea in southernmost Israel.  Those of you from work may appreciate the first photo of the day… just after we left the house and stopped to grab a few things from the store, I had the opportunity to chat with a local paramedic…this is his vehicle:

After stocking up for the ride, we were off! With a few stops for food and bathrooms we made the 500 km journey in just less than 5 hours. It really wasn’t that bad and the kids were remarkably well behaved thanks for fresh charges on the game boys, portable play stations, and iPods!

The first half hour of the drive was totally uneventful. At about the 30-minute mark we arrived at the checkpoint blockade. Huh??? Checkpoint?? Blockade?? We decided to make our way to Eilat by traveling Highway 90. This is clearly not the Mass Pike or New York State Throughway. Road 90 is a 2 lane road that makes its way from the northern most town on the Lebanon boarder all the way to Eilat, the southern most city in Israel. To complete that route, however, it travels directly through the Palestinian controlled West Bank….also known here in Eretz Yisrael as Area C.

Funny thing about Area C. As soon as you pass through the blockade at the boarder, the GPS device stops navigating and alerts you that you are now traveling in Area C. It continues to indicated that the car is traveling Road 90, but does not display and turn by turn navigation and does not display any of the surrounding road ways. I took this as a sign that this good Jewish American family should stay right on Road 90 and not stop for anything until we pass through the southern checkpoint (pictured below) and back in the safety of Israel. Not only did we do just that, but Rachel called her mother just to let her know that we were no longer in the West Bank….what a mensch!!!

I must say that I was a tiny but nervous driving this area, but more so I was excited to have done it. I think that Rachel thought the same. It gave us an opportunity to talk to the kids about politics, religion, and the clashed that result from the conflicts between the two. We talked about history and current events, including the recent Israeli boarding of the “humanitarian aid” boats off the coast of Gaza. It’s one thing to read and watch news about this stuff when in the US. It’s quite another thing altogether to discuss this stuff here, in the heart of it, where it’s real every day. I think the kids have learned some interesting and less sheltered perspective about these issues, and that’s a good thing!

Back to the journey…Shortly before leaving the West Bank we hit water!! We had arrived at the Dead Sea (photo below). It was remarkable in color, but even more remarkable in how far it has receded! The plains that were clearly once the bottom of the Sea are now vast in size and completed desolate. I am guessing this is recent as none of the vegetation that grows along the older shores have invaded this new land yet.

The scenery in the Negev (Israeli Desert) was like a lunar landscape, but at the same time was beautiful!!! The geology changed along the way, but the one constant was a complete lack of plant life…nothing…only rocks, gravel, dirt, and sand…for hundreds of kilometers.

Then, all of a sudden, through the barren landscape appeared an oasis…in the distance was Eilat. We had arrived and it looked beautiful.  It was interesting to see more villages on the Jordan side of the boarder (first photo below) as we got closer to the sea. Arriving in Eilat was, in some respects, like arriving in Las Vegas…out of the desert pops a cluster of hotels with a singular purpose, which in the case of Eilat is a focus on aquatics of the Red Sea.

We checked into our hotel and simply spent the remainder of the day by the pool (photo above). It was hot, but there was a breeze. Unfortunately it was not a cool breeze and I can now imagine what it feels like to be inside of a convection oven. After swimming and a quick shower it was off to dinner then to bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will come after dinner in a few hours….I hope….if I don’t collapse from exhaustion first.

Optimism Diminished (just a little bit)

July 28, 2010

Our adventure in the holy land continued today with a visit to Nazareth. The day started out slow….I think I mentioned yesterday that Ryan seemed to have caught some type of stomach bug. His fever was lower in the morning, but we wanted to make sure he was okay before heading out. We let the kids all sleep in and even after waking we let them just hang, playing the various electronic devices for which we needed an entire separate suite case. In the mean time, I went to the store to stock up on a few supplies. Herb and Adrianne decided that they would head out on their own today, and they also set out for Nazareth while I was at the store.

When I returned it was decided that we would all go. Ryan seemed good! So, we had a quick lunch, packed the day packs, applied sunscreen, filled water bottles, programmed the GPS and off we went.

It was an easy drive (part of the reason we chose to go there) to the City. Once we got there, however, finding a place to park posed a bit more of a challenge. We are resourceful travelers, however, and by paying just a bit more than market value for a six pack of water landed us an awesome, off-street space right next to the shop keepers pick up truck. We were very confident that one of two things would result: either our car would be there safe and sound upon our return or it will have made its way through an Israeli chop shop….I guess when in a holy city like Nazareth, one needs to have a little faith…it was right where we left it when we got back!

Faith? Is that what I said? And yesterday, did I express some optimism about peaceful coexistence (If you did not read yesterday’s blog, here’s a hyperlink to help you get there)? Our destination in Nazareth was the Basilica of the Annunciation.

This is a huge church that was built in 1969. The site on which it was erected contained a centuries old shrine (picture below) at the location of the grotto (cave) where Mary lived before she married to Joseph….I’ll get back to that. Well, as we approached this holy place, there in the courtyard, in the shadows of the dome of t he basilica was a sign!! Not a holy sign….no burning bush, or dove with an olive branch, or any of the typical “signs” one may associate with God, the bible, or a religious landmark. Nope, it was this sign:

Now, I have nothing against Islam, Muslims, or the Koran. But come on folks….right in the court yard of a holy Christian like this? This is not a good example of peaceful coexistence….though I would point out that a similar sign espousing the teachings of the New Testiment or the Talmud would clearly not be tolerated outside of a mosque in any of the Islamic controlled countries. Israel, however, is a democracy in which this expression is tolerated. Optimism abandoned….not at all, but I will admit it was diminished slightly. Oh, and by the way, I refuse to believe that I am among the losers!!!

We entered the church at the tail end of a mass that we being held for a group of Mexican pilgrims. The timing was perfect, ad that afforded us the opportunity to tag along and the Franciscan friar allowed the group through the chains that blocked the way to Mary’s grotto. It was quite an experience watching the group pay their respects to this holy place.

That last image is one looking straight up into the dome. I have to share that when Matt saw this he said that it was interesting the way the architecture all points up to the light….kinda like when someone dies and the head toward the light….hmmmm….I had not noticed it in that respect. I always marvel at how kids see things that we adults easily over look….I was marveling more at the architecture and geometry of it all.

Anyway, once we were done looking, it was time to head home so Ryan would not over do it. On our way back to the car we actually ran into Herb and Adrianne sitting at a side-walk cafe. We joined them for a quick bit to eat….more amazing middle eastern cuisine for me and Rachel, and some ice cream for the kids.

Not much more to report….as I said, we took it easy. Eilat will be our next destination. We will head out on the 5+ hour drive early so that we can hit the Red Sea shortly after lunch. Not sure about connectivity from there, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me….I’ll be back in touch soon