Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kochav Ya'akov's Fence

Arriving in Kochav Ya'akov, we meet Rabbi Feld (from my previous trip here.) Kochav Ya'akov is surrounded by a fence of a different sort. Unlike the massive concrete panels of the federal government-sponsored wall surrounding Pisgat Ze'ev (and the rest of Israel,) this fence was built with approval from the settlement in cooperation with the army.

A local settlement fence with motion sensors. Behind the fence lies the sprawling Arab village of Deir Dibwan.

Every fence that Israel erects comes with philosophical and emotional baggage. For most Israelis, the construction of the massive wall is strictly a life-saving security consideration. But as a religious settlement, with inhabitants from every Jewish group from the National Religious to the Hareidi (ultra orthodox,) the residents of Kochav Ya'akov have to weigh the Jewish arguments of fence building as well. On the one hand, it is a basic point of Torah that one must protect one's own life at most (but not all) costs. Motion sensors and barbed wire certainly delay the potential infiltrator, possibly long enough to get a security team on the scene to finish him off. Of course, even during the intifada, there was not a single attempted infiltration here, but that's not to say that it couldn't happen.

But what about the biblical injunction to settle the land of Israel? While the municipal jurisdiction of Kochav Ya'akov extends for miles, a fence surrounding the entire land area would break the army's budget. Therefore, the fence had to be built short and tight, surrounding only the existing houses, with most of Kochav Ya'akov's land outside. This sends the psychological message to the neighboring Arabs that the Jews have given up. Building and land ownership laws throughout Israel, and especially in Judea and Samaria, are only enforced against Jews. Government fears of "making a scene" for CNN with demolition of illegal structures, a left-wing infantilizing pity towards the Arabs powerful enough to pardon all crimes, and a general post-Zionist apathy amongst middle-of-the-road Israelis has infected the nation's decision-makers. With a fence marking the new, truncated limits of the settlements, no law enforcement, a legal shield and publicity from Peace Now and other advocacy groups, the surrounding villagers are free to take as much land as they please.

Empty, ownerless lands beyond the fence in danger of being consumed by Deir Dibwan.

This is not to mention the psychological victory fence-building grants Israel's adversaries. True that a fence may stop a terrorist, but it also sends a signal of victory. A fence broadcasts fear to the potential killers, and the sadistic infliction of fear and pain is the life-blood of terrorism. Building fences may actually inspire more attacks than the they thwarts.

Next: moving beyond the fence.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Ramalla Bypass

Ahead of us lies a traffic circle. Looking around, I can't help but smile at the Jewish desire to beautify our tiny patch of land. Here we are, past the wall, driving into an area where most Israelis fear to tread, and whoever it was that built this road has taken the time to add a manicured garden to the center of the roundabout, complete with Jerusalem stone paving, olive tree, and grass.

The Traffic Circle

Arriving at the traffic circle, we have now entered the Ramallah Bypass, Unlike the planned and orderly planing one finds in Israel, the layout of Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) follows a more chaotic layout. The original road which ran the north-south axis of Judea and Samaria, from Ganim (Jenin) in the north through Beit El (Ramallah), Jerusalem, Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), down to Chevron (Hebron) in the south, was simply built over the Ottoman road, which was built over the Byzantine road, which was built over the Roman road, which was built over the Greek road, which was built over the Jewish road, which was built over the Canaanite road, which was built over the "Road of the Patriarchs," the road travelled by the Jewish forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Torah.

Route 60, the "Road of the Patriarchs"

Rather than run near towns like a modern highway, the road simply passed straight through them, becoming the main street of each one. A century ago, when the Holy Land was a dead land, virtually empty of settled people, the Road of the Patriarchs was sufficient. But as cities like Schem (then Nablus) grew from tiny villages of a few hundred under the Ottoman Empire to sprawling cities of thousands under the British, and later tens of thousands under the Jordanian occupation, roads that were once sufficient for a wagon became clogged with vehicles, squeezing through the chaotic, uncontrolled cities between high-rise buildings. When the first Jewish settlers began returning to Judea and Samaria after 1967, they used the same roads, driving straight through what had become major Arab cities.

A map of the Ramallah bypass.

During the eruption of the first Intifada from 1987 to 1991, the congested streets running through suddenly hostile neighborhoods became the ideal locales for ambush. The army lost control of the security situation, unable to unleash the necessary force to supress the insurrection without incurring international wrath. As casualties mounted, a solution had to be found, and the Israelis called upon their skill of avoiding unsolvable problems by sidestepping them, in this case literally. Along the Road of the Patriarchs, numbered, labeled, and categorized by the Israeli civil administration as Route 60, the government constructed a series of bypass roads, looping around the major Arab cities through the empty hills nearby. It was as if the words of Deborah the Prophetess, referring to the years opression of Israel by the Canaanite King Samgar, were being lived again, "Higway travel ceased, and those who traveled on paths went by circuitous roads. They stopped living in unwalled towns in Israel." Shotim (Judges) 5:6. The construction of bypass roads, which began during the first Intifadah (1987-1991) intensified during the peace process, including the building of the Ramallah bypass.

The Ramallah Bypass road. Top left is the outer fence protecting the massive wall. TO the right is another fence to prevent pedestrians? Sheep? Stone throwers? Who knows.
Driving past the now fenced and fortified Rami Levi in the Sha'ar Binyamin Industrial Area.

On the Ramallah bypass, moving towards Kochav Ya'akov, perched is up on the hill above, with the Sha'ar Binyamin Industrial Area to the right.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Beyond the Wall

The following series of posts are based on a tour I took of the security fence with Yavneh Olami. The original intent was to hear the army's explanation of how the fence works, and then to spend a second day visiting some settlements outside the fence to see what effects it has on life beyond. Unfortunately, due to "security concerns," the army had to cancel our tour, but we were still able to do the settlements portion anyway.

I woke up early and schlepped all the way downtown to meet the group. Of course, the bus was late. We ended up going back through the supercheckpoint in my very own Pisgat Ze'ev. D'oh! If I had known we were coming back this way, I could have slept in and hitched from here.

Look to the right and you'll see my very own Pisgat Ze'ev. Turn our head 90 degrees forwared and you'll see the Hizma supercheckpoint (which I've shown many times before on this blog.)

Just as the alabaster columns and Roman-style domes of Washington D.C. architecture are designed to impress upon the viewer the grandeur and power of the United States, and as the space needle pricking the Seattle skyline projects a optomistic, upward-looking, future-thinking mindset, so the drab concrete panels and bullet-shielded pillboxes of the security wall make their own statement. This is to be the dividing line between Israel and the Arabs, between civilization and barbarism. You don't erect forty-foot concrete walls unless you're worried about King Kong lurking on the other side.

Exiting the gate is the last stop for hitchhikers.

We pick up our own hitchhiker, Yishai Fleisher of Israel National Radio, who will be guiding the tour. And here is his ear.

"One thing to understand about region is how the whole face of the middle east is rearranged in a day, and then it's like it's been that way forever." It's critical to understand, myself remembering my time here back five years ago, when building a massive wall like this would have been politically impossible.

An interesting shot. Ahead of us, the wall. In the rear view mirror, soldiers checking vehicles.

The turmoil and heat of war, in this case the Second Intifadah, has a way of making events, concepts, and ideals fluid. What was impossible yesterday becomes critical today, and driving along a wall that was unthinkable half a decade ago is now like second nature. The same logic of fluidity through warfare applies to Israel's capture of the region in 1967, the settlement enterprise, the Palestinian Authority's successful ethnic cleansing campaign against the Arab Christians of Judea and Samaria over the last five years, and more.

Up next: The Origins of the Ramalla Bypass Road

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Decision

“It’s a hard choice, what car to get,” Ranni told me. “How are you supposed to know?”
After all, you don’t know which cars are lemons and which last forever until ten or twenty years down the road. And with prices in Israel roughly double those in the states, and operating costs (taxes, licensing, etc) probably triple, it really ups the ante. “You should ask about it when you’re davening [praying].” Good advice

So, while doing my morning shacharit davening, I asked.
“Ephraim,” the reply came in a booming mental voice, “I want you to get something sporty. The Mazda 3 is big enough to be safe on the roads with these crazy Israeli drivers, but small enough to drive in the city, and it’s good on fuel. It also has ABS and handles well. Plus, it’s Japanese, and you remember how great the rust rocket held up back in the Old Country. And make sure it's the one with the big engine.”
So, with divine assistance, the decision was made. But, whereas in the Old Country, good old Walnut Creek, you can walk into a dealership, take a test drive, and walk out with the car, here, it’s a bit more involved. Just getting the test drive, as I soon learned, can take months.
Meanwhile, for the next couple of weeks, it was back to the jerking, lurching vomit express, the number six bus, to get to yeshivah. Taking my test drive on Jerusalem Day, screeching through Har Homah and East Jerusalem at warp speed, I started putting the pieces together.
“Why did it take so long to get a test drive?” I asked the sales lady sitting in the passenger seat next to me.
“The waiting list was very long.”
“Let me guess,” I asked her, “there’s only one Mazda 3 for test drives in all of Israel, and it gets moved from one dealership to the next.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
”So if I wanted to buy one, when could I get it?”
Back in the sales office, she clicks away on her computer.
“If you put down a 2,000 shekel deposit now, we can have it for you in a little over a month. But there’s only one spot left on the boat, so you have to get it RIGHT NOW.”
I snorted, suppressing a laugh. The other dealers all gave me the same hustle.
What the heck, I grabbed it. After all, God told me to get a Mazda 3. So now, the wait is on, with June 10th the day that my life is expected to get a whole lot better. But the way things work in this country, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Shabbat is Coming

Well, shabbat is descending over our fair city of Pisgat Ze'ev. I have to apologize to my throngs of readers, all 20 or so of them, for my lack of posting lately, as I've been busy with Shavuot and work, and juggling yeshivah studies and work. But there are exciting posts coming, and I've been editing pictures for posting from my recent adventures around the country.

Meanwhile, I've been busy with work and trying to find a date, and I'm noticing some parallels between both. I hate to say it, but dating can really be a drag sometimes. You get your hopes all high, and then she's not interested, and not returning your phonecalls. I always make a point to call back within 24 hours (or, if the date is on Shabbat, then immediately after.) I also have a policy of only going out with one girl at a time, to the point that I don't entertain offers until I'm sure I'm single again. My third policy is to go out at least twice, and try for three, before continuing on. The problem is, if she's not interested, she usually doesn't call back for at least 24 hours. So all the while, I'm stuck in limbo. If, after 24 hours, I haven't heard back, then I call again, and, if I get a message, I just say something along the lines of, "Hi, this is Ephraim again, given that you haven't returned my call, I'm gonna have to assume you're not interested. If I'm wrong, then please let me know," and end it at that.

Sometimes it can be a lot of work. And like work, when I'm in the thick of it, I sometimes want to take a little break. But as soon as I start my break, I go for about five minutes before realizing that I'm just wasting my time. It's strange, to sit here dreaming of all the things I need do once I'm done with work. Clean up, finish my taxes, research car insurance, etc. But then, once I'm out of work, I'm so freaked out to be without work, wondering how on earth I'm going to find a car, that I start calling around and asking for more right away. Same goes for dating. When I'm in the thick of it, I want some relief from the stress. But once it's over, I'm like, "Man, I better get it together because I'm totally without shidduch."

Hey, wait a minute... did I just go off on a stream-of-consciousness tangent in that last paragraph? Why, that's just like the way girls talk on dates. Wow, it's really rubbing off.

Well, now I've got 3 minutes till Shabbat, so I can leave all those worries for the weekday.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Well, Shavuot, the holiday which comes after 49 days of counting the omer, 50 days after Pesach (Passover,) celebrating the giving of the Torah has come and gone.

A peculiar minhag for Shavuot seems to have developed in the holy land. Like bonfires on Lag B'Omer and costumes on Purim, so on Shavuot, children engage in raging water fights. For now, it's just kids having fun on a hot day, but something tells me in another century or so that we'll be hearing that, "Since the word, 'Torah' has the same Gematria (numerical substitution value) as the word 'Water,' so there is a strong minhag to engage in water fights to commemorate the giving of the Torah." or something along those lines.

As for the adults, the customs are a bit more painful. Because the night before the giving of the Torah, all of the Jews except the tribe of Levi fell asleep rather than waiting in a sense of sleepless awe and trepidation, so we are today required to study Torah the entire night. Now normally, I would learn until one or two in the morning, then "go for a walk," and somehow end up waking up in my own bed the next morning. But not this time! I sat down with a cousin who'se visiting from Canada, opened up Sefer Shoftim (the Book of Judges, which comes after the Book of Joshua,) and we hammered away at it for hour after hour. So, for the first time, I made it all the way, and was able to get to bed at 7:30 AM.

Here's the trick I learned for staying up all night shavuot: learn with a chevruta (study partner.) If you go to lectures, it's very easy to zone out, and pretty soon you're falling asleep. But if you learn with a partner, you're engaged in the learning, and also there's the element of "chicken," i.e., nobody wants to be the first one to wimp out. Try it, it works!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Brit Milah

I had a good day of learning in yeshivah today, and managed to get through three classes, plus Minchah (afternoon prayers.) I've been single for the last 48 hours, but I received a lead from the mother of Steven in Pisgat Ze'ev. Between classes I managed to get a hold of the potential shidduch lead she had give me.
"Well," she told me, "I started out as National Religious but now I'm Chabad."
"Funny, I started out Chabad but now I'm more national religious. I don't see myself wearing a black hat and a beard."
"Well, then it's probably not a good idea for us to go out."
Darn. But it's better to know now than waste a bunch of time on it.

After Minchah, everybody started grabbing chairs and tables to clear up space. Some of the madrichim (guides/older long-term guys) pulled out fragrant spices and wine. Looks like one of the students had a son, so it was time for a Brit Mila! (circumcision.)

The father puts on his tallit (prayer shawl)

The father arrives.
The Mohel (circumciser) readies his instruments.
The baby has arrived. Everything is in place!

The ladies' gallery is full. Uh... anybody up there looking for shidduch? I happen to know someone who's single.

The baby is brought to the Mohel.
"Hey guys. Where am I?"

"Hey, watch it. Tour fingers are cold. And what's that long shiny thing in your hand?"

I can't bear to watch. That's right guys, sing REEEAL hard.

After: "Didn't hurt."
"Wait a minute, why are we all smelling fragrant herbs and spices. Am I Sephardi or something?"

After the Brit, I headed down to the Machaneh Yehuda and bought two pairs of "Levis" Jeans for 100 shekels. That's about $25. Ever heard of a deal that's too good to be true? Well, let's just say, never buy supposedly name brand items at the shuk, you're in for a ride. I got them home, and they didn't fit, and of course the fabric was way, way off from what I've come to expect, even from Chinese copyright-infringement knockoff Levis.

I tried to catch the bus back to Pisgat Ze'ev, but it took a full hour just to get on one, and another full hour to get all the way home. It's not that there weren't busses, but they were all stuffed beyond design capacity, so they didn't even bother stopping, they just zoomed by with faces and limbs crushed against the windows. I just had to keep telling myself, "It will make having a car all that much sweeter."

Called cousin Galila and arranged for her to look into another shidduch possibility for me. Hope springs eternal!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Above Tsfat

Before Shabbat, I hiked up to the summit overlooking the city of Tsfat.

Flowers, excavations, and a memorial to the Haganah (independence war) fighters who defended the city.
The Palmach logo on the memorial obelisk.
Looking back at the old British Tagert Fort.
The hilltop has been planted and manicured, complete with paths and park benches.
Looking through the pines towards Mount Meron (the largest mountain in the Galilee.)
A closer-up of Mount Meron. Note the twin radar domes at the top. Some sort of army installation, I suppose.
Ruins of a Cohanite (priestly) village from Tanachic times, recently excavated.
Closer up to the Cohanite village.
More of the Cohanite Village.
Yet another photograph of the Cohanite ruins.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Beit Jann
Part 2: The Troubled Growth of Beit Jann
Part 3: Hiking Nahal Ktziv

(also spelled Zefat, Safet Tzfat, or Tsfas,) clings to a hill opposite Mount Meron. The city itself is considered Judaism's fourth holiest, after Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) as the holiest, Chevron (Hebron) the second holiest, and Tiberius (Tveryah) as the third. The main street in the city actually winds around the mountain, so it's not uncommon to go strolling down main street only to find, to your great surprise, that you are right back where you started out. It gives the feeling of having stepped through a wormhole, or as they called in on Star Trek, "A Crack in the space-time continuum."

While records date back to the 2nd century CE, the city achieved its holy status by merit the revelations of divine wisdom and mystical teachings which occurred here during the 15th and 16th centuries CE. After 1491 CE, as the great luminaries of Spain, having been expelled by the Spanish Inquisition, returned to the Jewish homeland, many found their way up to this then-remote hilltop and settled here.

The huge Chassidic population, mostly Lubavitchers and Breslovers gives it a reputation as Israel's foremost kabbalistic (mystical) city. This also makes it a magnet for hippies, dreamers, and drifters. The green, breezy, setting with breathtaking vistas in all directions, from the Kinnerret (Sea of Galilee) to Mount Meron, and into Lebanon, give it a relaxing, if somewhat removed feel.

All right, this blog entry is starting to sound like I'm reading the label off a bottle of champagne. Here are the photos:

Boker tov! Good morning! Looking out my window first thing.

The Taggart fort.

Built by the British during the later period of their occupation of the Land of Israel, as a sort of last gasp, taggart forts dot the landscape. This one, in Tsfat, has been covered with Jerusalem stone, the watchtower turned into a clocktower, and the building transformed into a community center.

There is an additonal taggart fort in Latrun, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which now serves as a museum for the Israel Armored Corps. There are also Tagart Forts inherited by the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah and Jericho, which serve as "police" stations for the ruling warlords.

Tsfat's only overpass. It's a pretty sleepy little town.
Making some last purchases before Shabbat.
The Davidka, an improvised mortar which saved the city from the Arab invasion in 1948. A wreath is laid about it's barrel from Independence Day.

Some Yeshivah boys hanging out and smoking before Shabbat.

Don't take my picture!
Lubavitch Chassidim putting tefillin (prayer box thingees that Jews are obligated to put on once a day) on passers by who might not ordinarily have the opportunity.

The streets empty of cars as Shabbat (sabbath) approaches.
More yeshivah boys, flopped over a war memorial.
The Tsfat College. This was one of the original buildings of the city, constructed as a hospital with donations from the Rothschilds.
The door the inn where I stayed.

More pictures from the top of the hill coming soon...