Friday, January 6, 2012

Israeli Interlude

Who would have thought that I’d get the reaction that I did to my initial blog Kokoda?  With over 3500 people reading my blog over the course of the two months it was quite surprising really.  I’ve had such an overwhelming number of you write and email encouraging me to keep writing so I’ve decided to continue with my blog, albeit shift gears a little and share with you some of my other adventures, so with your indulgence here goes.   Enjoy! 
Zach at the foot of Masada - yep, we climbed it!
I just got back from Israel earlier today….   Interesting place to go for Christmas and New Year I hear you thinking to yourself – why Israel?   Well my son Zach is turning 13 and its Bar Mitzvah time for him, that coming of age milestone in the Jewish faith that tends to be a defining moment, so we decided on a low key affair – just immediate family to celebrate it in Israel, not just anywhere in Israel but at the top of Masada, so much more meaningful don’t you think?   Jodie had been to Israel with her parents about 15 years ago, but as for me and the kids this was to be our first visit. So with expectations high and a sense of adventure in the air we set out on Christmas day…..strange coincidence don’t you think.
The full on Israel experience starts from the moment you get in the line at the airport to pre-check in (yes, still in your own country and not quite in the actual check in line at this point).  The El Al agent is extremely sweet, but with a series of questions that ends up feeling more like an interrogation that a check in, or should I say “pre-check in” cos we’re still nowhere near the actual check in counter just yet.  
Ours went a little like this – May I see you boarding passes and passports….  Welcome Mr. & Mrs. Wallis.  What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?   (We’re going to Israel for our son’s Bar Mitzvah), wonderful – what congregation to you belong?  (Oh, we don’t belong to a congregation)   Perhaps you attend a synagogue on the high holidays?  (No, not really)   Well, which Hebrew school do your children attend?  (Oh our children don’t attend Hebrew school), Well, then who taught your son in preparation for the Bar Mitzvah?  (I did says my wife - Jodie)    If you’re not part of a congregation, and your children don’t go to Hebrew school how did you know what to teach him?  (I’m Jewish my wife says)    Forty questions later, and a rather exasperated pre-check in complete we were now permitted to go to the actual check in.   Now would be an appropriate time to use one of my favorite sayings – Oi vay mate!
It was particularly interesting for the non-religious Terence I can tell you; just to be in a country that is so united yet so divided within, to be so religious and yet not so all at the same time - full of contrasts and contradictions like nowhere I’ve ever been before.   Israel reminds me of a warrior like chameleon (if there’s such a thing?) - Ready to take you out one minute with the attitude of an angry pit-bull, the next, a hyper sensitive “little old lady from Pasadena” (to borrow a line from the 1964 hit by Jan and Dean).   Confusing to say the least!    
Now don’t get me wrong, Israel of all countries needs to be vigilant and have tight security which they do in spades but it’s the contrasts and extremes that made me curious.

Zach with Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem
This was no more evident that when I was walking in the markets, there is the constant cacophony of sounds, smells and sights I wasn’t used to living in North America.  However the most confronting image is the ever present and vigilant soldiers that you see in groups of two or three with loaded Negev assault weapons slung across their chests – day or night, no matter where you were they were there too, even at the Western (Wailing) Wall.  In one sense it gave you piece of mind that there was security where ever you went, but it also contrasted the danger of living in this part of the world and more than a little difficult to adjust to.  Metal detectors became the norm, including going into shops to browse – emptying your pockets, bag searches…. 
On one occasion my son Zach and I had a few minutes to kill (figuratively speaking) after spending some time in a museum we decided to go back in to look at one more display that had caught his attention.   Not so fast mister – the soldier on the door wanted to see my passport (which I wasn’t carrying), eyeing me suspiciously he asked for photo ID (which I did have thankfully) he took it and after a somewhat heated discussion in Hebrew with his commander in an adjacent office (I learned that this was just their normal communication style not anger per see).  At the same time four soldiers moved closer to us and formed a semi circle around us, hands on weapons, eyes fixed on the two of us – there Zach and I stood feeling smaller by the moment…..and after a minute or so we were allowed to re-enter, albeit rather reluctantly.

Zach & TW planting trees in Israel

Another day we were headed out to plant trees to commemorate Zach’s coming of age at a newly forested area about 30 minutes outside Jerusalem, as the bus drove along the road villages were strung out on every hilltop, some surrounded by barbed wire, others not so.  I asked our tour guide about it and she explained that the towns with barbed wire were Arab villages in the West Bank and that the only way in or out was via checkpoint, a demilitarized zone and then another checkpoint and for those that worked outside the village they couldn’t drive out directly.  They could take a bus, or taxi to and from the checkpoints but had to walk across the demilitarized zone on foot – could this be anymore different than we’re used to?

Each morning I’d read the Jerusalem Post just get a feel for the city, and each morning I was astounded to read about the local infighting within the local communities.  In particular the one that caught my eye was the recent problem in the community of Beit Shemesh, you could feel the religious tension between the various Jewish secular groups griping the city.  Strange isn’t it that in a country so uniformly set against the world that surrounds it, within there is such deep divisions.  Perhaps that just the way Jerusalem is – ancient ground with ancient conflict in its bones.  

Tel Aviv's trendy inner city with its Bauhaus architecture

Drive about an hour and half (traffic is a bear!) west to the city of Tel Aviv and you’ll quickly realize that you’ve been transported to a totally different country.  Tel Aviv is the ubiquitous home of the west with its high rise condos, beaches, swank shopping districts and its ultra nouveau nightlife. In fact, Tel Aviv could easily be thought of as the Los Angeles of the Middle East, with its bustling cosmopolitan feel and the surf culture lapping at its fringe – such a small country with so many differences, similarities and eccentricities it was hard to come to grips with in just 12 days.
I guess I’ll just have to go back…..

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