Monthly Archives: August 2012

My schedule

Because I know you want to know everything about my day, here’s my weekday (Sun – Thurs) schedule:

7:20 a.m.: Shacharis (morning prayer service) at Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah (5 minute walk from our apartment)

8:15-ish a.m.: Breakfast at home

9:10 a.m.: Mussar (Torah-based character development) class at the yeshiva

9:40 a.m.: Begin chavrusa (study partner) learning; start with a daf (front & back of page) of Mishnah Bereruah, followed by gemara (Meseches Kesuvos, in which we’re learning a daf per week, including the commentators Rashi, Tosafos, and the Maharsha)

1:10 p.m.: Mincha (afternoon prayer service) at the yeshiva

1:40-ish p.m.: Lunch at home, often followed or preceded by errands

3:00 p.m.: Vaad (sort of a group workshop) at the yeshiva, to work on implementing concepts from mussar class

3:20 p.m.: Resume chavrusa learning

5:15 p.m.: Class on part of the gemara we have been learning

6:30-ish p.m.: Return home for dinner, etc.

I haven’t yet scheduled my evenings, though I’m considering finding a (modern) Hebrew tutor. Other alternatives would include getting another chavrusa to learn something else with me, or choosing something to learn on my own. I’m trying to take “sitting on my tush, blogging” off the menu.

Living in the Rova

Hey it’s Debbie making my blog debut. We’ve been here two weeks now. This does not qualify me as an expert on life in the Rova, but I can give my first impressions.

Surreal. It is a real community in a small town kind of way, a tourist destination, an ancient city with deep spiritual roots. It took awhile for me to realize that even though everybody was a stranger to me, they all knew each other and I was the stranger. Fortunately, it is a very kind and generous community. Which is good since we live on top of each other. No joke. It is the most densely populated area I have ever lived in. We have a small patio space (a mirpeset) in the back that is completely enclosed by our neighbors. There are no windows that I know of that do not open up onto someone’s mirpeset. Living in a warm climate as we do, the windows are often open and we can always hear the hustle and bustle of our neighbors.

The small town feel also comes from the fact that we are a bit isolated from the rest of Jerusalem. It takes about 10-15 minutes to walk out of the Old City. There is a bus and we can take cabs, but the traffic can make it a long way as well. Most of the Old City is not accessible by car (though a few come in and out sporadically, and there are a fair number of motorcycles/scooters) so getting goods in and out is tricky. Still there are several makolets (better than a convenience store but not quite a full grocery store), produce markets, and other shops. And like any good Orthodox neighborhood, enterprising families run businesses out of their homes from a grocery to a stationery shop. Many people also have meat, groceries, and produce delivered into the Rova.

The Rova is also a major tourist destination. It’s sort of like living in the middle of Disneyland. While I am out picking up some veggies for lunch I have to navigate around tour groups and other itinerant travelers. I am often asked the way to the Kotel (the Western or Wailing Wall) or change my route since the way is blocked by a tour listening to their guide expound upon some historical feature. I love the people watching. Nuns in light blue dresses, muslim women covered from head to toe, groups from Brazil, Italy, the U.S. and everywhere else. Teenagers on an adventure, families vacationing, seekers searching. It is totally fascinating. And wondrous – one small spot that can draw so many people.

And why do they come? That’s the third layer of living here. As an American it is mind blowing how old the city is. Layer upon layer of history. Modern – the courtyard in front of Yitzi’s school has a sign describing the role this neighborhood played in the Israeli War of Independence. Ancient – every day I pass above the Cardo, ruins from Roman times, and farther below are tunnels revealing earlier eras. Dan is getting a tour from an Israeli neighbor and can speak to the historical aspect of the Old City better than I can.

Of course it’s not just the history that draws people. This is a spiritual center for three major religions. There can be so much distraction from the tourists and the hustle and bustle, but very quietly pulses a deep spirituality. Hiding outside the limelight of the everyday tourists are the folks who come to connect to God. I have been so busy getting us set up, ready for school, and tending to an infant, that I haven’t been able to dig to deeply into this aspect of the Rova. But I am sure that will come in due time.

Our first 1.5 weeks

I was very pleased with myself that I already knew my way around the Rova (Jewish Quarter = “Rova Yehudi” = “Rova” for short) pretty well when we got here. Having had virtually no sleep in a full day prior to our late night arrival, it didn’t take too long to get over jet lag, either. We spent the time before the beginning of the zman (school term) buying housewares, setting up services like cell phones and home broadband, and otherwise getting settled.

If you know how to set the time on these, please contact me ASAP!

Learning to use our appliances has been a humbling experience. E.g., we discovered that we do have a dishwasher, which we plan to use sparingly, but I’m embarrassed to say how long it took us to figure out where to put the detergent. Not to mention how long it took to figure out which product at the makolet (sort of a mini-mart; somewhere between a convenience store & a real grocery store) was dishwasher detergent. We still don’t know how to use the ovens. Other surprises:

  • The lighted switch near the front hall turns on & off our doorbell.
  • The older Shabbos water urn leaks… big time!
  • Our stoves have a weird safety mechanism that made it impossible to light them until our neighbor showed us how.
  • Our shower head needed to be soaked in vinegar to clear out the calcium deposits from the very hard water here.
  • There’s a Shabbos timer for most of the common area lights built into the circuit breaker.

Shhhhh! Don’t tell the Iranians, but Israel has secret, advanced Muppet Chicken Rocket technology.

Going around town shopping for housewares is… how shall I put this? … not the kids’ favorite thing in the world to do. Dragging them from mall to shuk to storefront was not the most fun thing we’ve ever done as a family. We tried bribery, like the cheesy rides at the mall and treats of all kinds. On our trip to the shuk (market) at Machane Yehuda, Debbie had the excellent idea to put on a scavenger hunt. She made a list of things to find there, of which the boys could take digital pics. The plan backfired when it devolved into crying fits over the composition of teams, and who was taking some sort of unfair competitive advantage.

Another thing you don’t see at home: a synagogue inside the mall. With a 400-year-old Italian Ark, to boot.

We eventually accumulated pretty much everything we need. A few observations along the way:

  • The stuff here is typically not as nice as in the U.S. On the other hand, it is generally cheaper.
  • There’s a massive difference in quality when it comes to paper, plastic, and textile items. The disposable plastic plates here you can see through. Paper napkins are actually hard to find in U.S.-style quantities, and they are markedly thinner and more expensive. Plastic cups are small and flimsy – the ubiquitous red Solo cup of American party fame is nowhere to be found here.
  • Many local kitchen towels do not actually absorb liquid. This seems like an odd quality for a towel to lack.

    They’re transparent, but at least they’re kosher for Pesach.

  • We have yet to find any American-style sponges or washcloths.
  • When it comes to customer service, e.g.dealing with the phone company, I’ve found it to be surprisingly personable, but often incompetent — sometimes astonishingly so — and maddeningly inconsistent. For example, I spent a long time at the Orange store setting up our cell phones. The people there couldn’t have been nicer, and worked extensively with me to get my service set up. But when I walked out, I discovered that the data plans on our phones had not been activated. I went back and got that taken care of, only to discover later that international calls on our phones were blocked (despite having purchased all-inclusive plans with free international calls). I later called Orange to have my voicemail system language changed to English (thanks to a tip from a neighbor that this could be done), and the super-friendly English-speaking rep did it for me instantly. When I called back later to get Debbie’s done, I was told by a different rep that she could not do it, and Debbie would have to call a different number from her phone. The Bezeq (phone company) rep called me when she was supposed to in order to set up our home internet; she already had my name, knew I spoke only English, and even gave me her personal cell phone number. But I had to tell her multiple times that the address they had for us was wrong, and only later discovered that there were a number of previously-undisclosed additional steps that had to be done to effectuate service.

    Debbie spices

    Debbie shopping for spices at the Machane Yehuda shuk.

  • Cell phone service is way cheaper here. We’re paying about $35 per phone to get unlimited minutes, texts, international calls (!), and 1G of data per month (and once you hit the limit, it neither stops nor charges you extra – the download speed just slows down).

Another treat of shopping — felafel for lunch.

There’s always more stuff to get, but the major shopping is done, and we hope we can focus on the reasons we’re here. With so much to do, it is easy to get the idea that getting settled is our principal focus, and to forget the real mission. Time to aim a little higher.

The trip, Stage 3: London to Jerusalem

The thing about flying El Al is that, once you board, you feel like you’re in Israel already. The staff has that paradoxical surly-but-kind manner, everything’s in Hebrew with often unintentionally hilarious English translations, and you’re surrounded by an eclectic mix of fellow Jews. Our plane had the typical assortment: chassidim and other “black hat” Orthodox men and families, classically underdressed secular Israelis, American 20-somethings on a group trip, and some Israeli kids who looked way too young to be traveling alone. Not to be found: the notion of any public comportment. When it’s just us, we climb on the seats, argue with the flight attendants (and everyone else), talk loudly across the plane, complain about where we’re seated, share food, and generally act like the plane is our collective living room. Welcome home.

The flight from Heathrow to Ben Gurion kind of tracked the first leg, except we had less space (no bulkhead, no bassinet, and only 4 seats across in the middle section). The boys quickly fell asleep, but then Shalom soon woke up with his same punitive crying routine. A movie on Debbie’s iPad made it bearable, but we arrived at Tel Aviv exhausted and with frayed nerves. On the other hand, we were really excited to be there.

As an aside, I initially forgot my duty-free bag on the plane — I nearly lost my scotch! Fortunately, I remembered and high-tailed it back in time. They let me get back on the plane to retrieve it. The notable thing was that I got to see the cleaning crew in action. I might have guessed how massive it was had I taken the time to think about it, but it was truly impressive how many people come on to clean up and prep the plane for its next flight.

One last leg remained for our voyage in: to get ourselves and our massive baggage load into the Old City and into our apartment. We’d arranged a driver in advance (if you need one, let me know — he’s a really good guy) to pick us up. But we had taken two SUVs to get to the airport in Chicago with all of us and our stuff and — though I’d emailed the driver several times to warn him about the large baggage load — I was getting worried that we wouldn’t be able to fit everything. There was also the fact that you can only get so far into the Old City by car, and that I only sort of knew where our place was.

After getting all of our bags loaded onto two groaning carts, we headed for the exit area where the driver was to meet us. Before we got there, he spotted us and went to go get the car. He pulled up in a minivan-ish thing, and I was sure it would never happen. Sure enough, our bags quickly ate up all of the trunk space with lots more to be packed. But somehow, with stuff at our feet, in our sides, and on our laps, it all went in. I have to tell you this was nothing short of an open miracle. Welcome to the Holy Land.

We got some more much-needed Divine assistance when we got to the Old City. First, the parking lot attendant let us pull in to unload the car. Okay, that didn’t really qualify as miraculous, but convincing a grumpy Israeli security guard of anything in the middle of the night seemed unlikely. The next step was more crucial. I went ahead to scout, and pretty quickly found the address, about where I believed it would be. The problem was that the landlord had told me there was no separate apartment number, making me think our place was the only one at the address. But when I got to Ma’amadot Yisrael 7, there was an entranceway leading to 3 apartments. Worse, all had nameplates, none of which matched my landlord’s name. It was well after midnight, and I had no working cell phone.

Ma’amadot Yisrael 7

I did know that our place was accessed via a “Shabbos lock” (a built-in combination lock), which only one of the apartments had. But I was apprehensive about trying the code on that lock, to say the least. If it was the wrong place, the resident was going to think someone was trying to break in to his home in the middle of the night. It also bears mentioning that many Israelis are well armed.

Anyway, I decided to quickly and quietly try the code. It worked perfectly, and I stepped into the apartment, looking exactly as it had in the video our friend Isser shot for us. Having seen that video so many times (as we showed it to friends and family), it was dizzying to walk into it, actually. I turned on some lights and headed back to help ferry baggage. What I would only realize later was how unlikely it was for the code to have worked perfectly the first time. As it turns out, the lock sticks, and you almost always have to punch the last number a bunch of times, or start over, in order to get it to work. But, had the code not worked perfectly that first time, I would have assumed it was not the right place, and wouldn’t have known what to do.

In fact, when I came back with the first load of bags, I tried to enter the code and it didn’t work. I tried re-entering it a few times, with no avail. Now, I assumed that I’d somehow accidentally locked the bottom lock when I’d closed the door, and believed we were stranded outside — again, late at night and with no cell phone. Just then, the neighbor from the apartment next door came by. He’s handy, thoroughly familiar with our place, and knew the code. Oh, and he’s from the States, so there’s no language issue. I told him our predicament and he said no, the lock just sticks, and promptly opened it. Once again, had this neighbor not happened to have been around, at nearly 1:00 a.m., I don’t know what I would’ve done.

We finally got all of our stuff inside, tipped our driver heavily, and went to bed. But first I thanked G-d for the “small” favors, which made such a huge difference. Again, welcome to the Holy Land.

The trip, Stage 2: London – Heathrow

Had it not been for the Olympics being in town, and that we were hauling three kids around, we would have considered running into London for lunch. But it turned out there was plenty to do in the airport. Scotch is very expensive in Israel, so I picked up a supply at a duty-free shop: Ardbeg Corryvreckan (114 proof: powerful but delicious) and my standby, Laphroaig 10-year. There’s something about buying scotch in pounds sterling…

We packed kosher cup-of-soups for our Heathrow lunch, because you can never get enough sodium when you’re traveling. The trick was to get some hot water. I scored some at a coffee shop. They were really nice, and didn’t even charge us. The fellow chap did poke fun at my use of “to go” instead of “to take away.” Good show. But the hot water they had was from the espresso machine, so it was incredibly hot. I think the metric system also allows them to get the temp of the water above boiling.

There were a fair number of Olympians going through Heathrow. We were hanging out in a central lounge-ish place with comfy chairs/benches, a TV, charging stations, etc. A group of athletes were sitting near us and graciously agreed to the below photo. They’re wrestlers. For Iran.

Taken just before I launched a surprise strike on their “nuclear facilities.”

Seeing their warmups, and that they were sitting right by us (note Deb in the background), I hemmed and hawed, and finally decided I wasn’t likely to get this chance again. I went up and asked what their sport was. These guys didn’t speak English, but a guy with them did. He told me they were wrestlers and, pointing at the guy to my left (right side of the pic), said “he just won the gold medal… for Iran.” He said the last part in a sort of apologetic tone, like I wouldn’t be too excited about that. But I smiled wide and congratulated him, shook both their hands, and asked if they minded taking a picture with me. They were happy to do it.

It looks like the guy on my left is Ghasem Gholamreza Rezaei. Stereotypically, the gold medal winner was more stoic, though friendly (too friendly? note his hand on my leg!), while the other guy was more effusive. I don’t know who the other guy is, but he looked like a movie star, with perfectly coiffed hair and a brilliant white smile.

Apparently, word of my goodwill photography got out, and some other guy copied my shtick. Dude, taking pictures with Iranian wrestlers is so last Wednesday…

Some of our luck ran out with our bags, as the El Al agent forced us to pay for the three extra ones — though he still did not weigh them, thank G-d. And the boys were very much on edge, Shalom especially. But, all in all, Heathrow was pretty good to us.

 

The trip, Stage 1: Chicago to London (UPDATED)

The last stretch of packing and prepping the house for our departure & renters was pretty hectic and stressful. It made it hard to focus on where we were going, and on not killing my family.

In the end, we had 8 large suitcases, each packed right up to (okay, maybe a bit over) the 50-pound limit. I am forever grateful to the AA skycap who put the bags through without weighing them.

“Hey, the service here is pretty good for coach.”

Things went pretty well on the first leg of the trip. Not only did we have the super-helpful skycap, but there was the nice gate crew who killed time by asking Olympic trivia over the intercom (when I correctly answered that Nancy Kerrigan was the Olympian who had 7 bodyguards at the 1994 Winter Olympics, I won a discount coupon that I had to give away — only good through October — and a silver medal, just like Nancy Kerrigan!). They also helpfully moved us to the bulkhead seats with a bassinet for Baby Mo. I’d planned to get to the airport extra early just for that (those are first-come, first-serve), but they even preserved my scamulous move of leaving the empty middle seat in our new row.

Yitzi has his takeoff candy tucked under his chin… for safety.

There are 5 seats in the middle, and we had 4 tickets, so I reserved like this: XXOXX. That middle seat will be the last one on the plane taken and, even if it is, the inhabitant will jump at the chance to trade for an aisle. No risk! Anyway, when the gate agent moved us, she kept the configuration, which meant no one sat there, and we had all 5 seats (plus bassinet) to ourselves. Score!

The melatonin kicked in quickly.

I was dreading the trip, because Shalom (our 4-year-old) is not famous for flying well long distance. He doesn’t sleep, then takes it out on the rest of the plane. So, this time, we decided to take the common advice we got: drug the children. Many suggested Benadryl, but there are kosher concerns, so we decided to go with melatonin, which many also swear by. At first, it seemed we had hit the jackpot. Fast-acting!

Unfortunately, we should have chosen Long-Lasting. After not-long-enough, Shalom was awake and possessed. Crying and unresponsive to logic, bribes, and threats. He did eventually snap out of it when we revealed the existence of his personal TV screen (hidden in the bulkhead seats of a 777 until you pop it up) and put on The Pirates! Band of Misfits. But he remained short-fused the rest of the way — not surprising, given that he had maybe 2 hours of sleep. Yitzi slept much better and Mordechai was, as predicted, the easiest passenger.

Between Shalom’s issues and the fact that an hour delay and an eastward flight gave me a quick window for shacharis (morning prayers), I got very little sleep myself. Nevertheless, we arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport tired but happy at about 9:30 a.m. local time.

 

Only women and transvestites may change diapers here.

Update: I forgot to include American Airlines’ blatantly sexist baby changing instructions in the bathroom. Check out the depiction of the diaper changer. Of course, I construed this as a statement of official policy and refused to change any diapers on the plane, to avoid getting tazed by a sky marshal.