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10 Sep 2011

Munich Day 3 – Friday, September 9, 2011

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(Written by Seth with edits by Deb)

On our third day in Munich, we again dropped into Haputbahnauf to grab some breakfast, and then hopped on the S-Bahn to visit the “model” concentration camp the Nazi regime had established in the suburb of Dachau. Originally an ammunition factory during the first World War, the camp was constructed in 1933 to house the political enemies of the National Socialist party, and was eventually turned over to the jurisdiction of the SS. The methods used at the camp were copied throughout the German occupied territories at the other camps. SS officers were sent to Dachau for training, and at one time the camp temporarily sent all of its prisoners away to free up space for more intensive officer training.

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Toward the end of the war, the population of the camp surged to more than ten times its capacity. Each barrack was supposed to house up to 200 prisoners, but eventually held over 2,000. Having been in one of the reconstructed barracks, it’s hard to fathom how 2,000 people could have squeezed in them, let alone “lived.”

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We used audio guides to take a self-directed tour through the camp. It was fairly informative and even included sound bites from camp survivors talking about their experiences. Still, I found most of the experience of touring through the camp somewhat sterile. The two remaining barracks were both reconstructed; the rest were just outlines of the original foundations. The whole scene was very orderly and structured with nothing out of place. That was until gunshots started ringing out. It took a few minutes to realize that the shots were coming from the adjoining section of the camp that the riot division of the Bavarian State Police now use for training grounds. However, in the moment, the rush of adrenaline and fear made me appreciate the interminable fear that the prisoners of the camp experienced every waking moment. As much as I’ve been exposed to the Holocaust, I still can’t wrap my head around what it must have felt like to be a victim of a concentration camp. For what it’s worth, Deb and I both agreed that it’s wildly inappropriate that the riot police 1) use the old camp at all and 2) actually fire weapons within earshot. It’s just dreadfully insensitive.

Other than the intrusion of gunshots into our visit, the most surprising aspect of seeing the camp in person was its close proximity to the residential neighborhoods of Dachau. The camp is VERY close to town – a road goes right by one of the fences on the side of the camp. Even if there had been natural borders between camp and town, the prisoners were often brought out of the camp to work on construction projects in the vicinity. Certainly, the people who lived in Dauchau must have noticed the train cars of prisoners coming in or the clouds of ash emanating from active ovens. Thankfully, we’ve never had to experience what that smells like, but from what we read, it’s quite a distinct and powerful smell.

But in interviews by Allied psychologists after the war, town residents consistently claimed that they had no idea what the camp was used for or the condition of the prisoners there. Even at the time, these psychologists concluded that there was no legitimate way the people there could profess ignorance. They may not have perceived the full extent of what was happening, but it required an active effort to pretend there wasn’t anything horrible happening. Realizing this was just as disturbing as seeing the original crematoriums in person. There was also an active convent at the back of the camp, and a number of tasteful religious memorials.

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Since touring the site took longer than we expected, we skipped plans to go to a museum and went straight to the Englischer Garten. New York’s Central Park quails in comparison, at least in square footage. We walked through maybe the bottom third of the park. Aside from the standard bikers, joggers and dog walkers, we also saw two women riding horses, sunbathers on the “nude beach,” (which was not a beach at all but just a grassy area near a small stream) and several young surfers practicing their skills on an artificial wave at the start of the river. We strolled through even more beautiful green space on the way to the train station – from a plaza garden to the manicured backyard of the Residenz palace.

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Dinner was low-key take-out from a “doner-kebab” shop near the hotel. Doners are basically schwarma sandwiches, and they’re almost as ubiquitous as bratwurst in Munich. Almost. I napped while Deb took a dip in the hotel pool and then we went out to explore the nightlife. We took the train to Kultfabrik, a huge complex of clubs to the East of the city center. It was like the Ybor City of Munich – fun but dirty and a bit sketchy. There was nothing to see in the short walk from the train to the clubs, just parking lots and people drinking on the curbs. It didn’t feel unsafe, it just didn’t have the charm of the downtown area. After circling around to check out all the offerings, we settled on a place that seemed to be playing good music. It took us a half an hour to realize that it might be a gay bar. Or maybe not. We’re still not exactly sure. It was a very ambiguous crowd, and certainly not the typical “meat market” scene you often find at dance clubs.  From there, we migrated to another club that could have easily been anywhere in the US aside from a few people dressed in traditional Bavarian outfits. It was truly a sight to see leiderhosen and drindels among glittery tank tops and jeans. But the music was distinctly American. I think we heard one song that was in German, everything else was American pop.


9 Sep 2011

Munich Day 2 – Thursday, September 8th, 2011

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After finally catching up on sleep, we headed out of Wombats and across the street to Hauptpanauf station to pick up a croissant breakfast on-the-go. We made a quick u-turn back to the hostel to meet up with a ‘free tour’ of Munich. We’ve found that most cities now have these ‘free tours.’ Of course, they’re not really free, rather they collect tips at the end of the tour instead of charging a flat fee at the start. The premise is that you pay what you think the tour is worth and the guide has an incentive to do a better job.

Thus far we’ve had pretty good luck with them. Our Munich guide, Ozzy, was the son of a Jamaican father and a Bavarian mother. He grew up in Munich, but had lived around the world so his English was quite good.

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The tour took us around most of the historic landmarks of the city. We learned that while Munich’s architectural style makes it look old, in reality just about everything is new. After the city was largely destroyed in WWII, the people of Munich decided to rebuild it to look as close to the original as possible. When they could, they would restore an original exterior wall and simply build a new interior. The few buildings that survived the war could attribute their good fortune to being tall landmark, which made them useful reference points for the allies during air raid targeting.

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Ozzy also gave us a synopsis of the history of Bavarian beer and its integral role in the development of the city and Bavaria. Due to Munich’s central location, it was relatively easy to export beer to surrounding regions. During the Black Plague, there was great uncertainty around what transmitted the disease, so many people stopped consuming nearly any food they didn’t grow themselves. As a result, the economy ground to a halt. The local Duke eventually had the Bavarian beer makers take their beer out into the streets and drink it while singing and dancing. This ploy was to convince the locals of the beer’s safety–and it worked. People began drinking beer again and coming out of their homes. Thoroughly convinced that Bavarian beer didn’t cause the plague, exports resumed and the economy was back on track. This story is commemorated in the clock tower of the central square, where dancing beer makers come out twice a day to great fanfare.

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For lunch, Ozzy led us to a small shop in the Viktualienmarkt. Deb opted for only a pretzel since all the sausages were pork. The sausage sandwich was surprisingly better than the meat from last night, and I got to act like a true local by walking around with an open beer – which is legal in Munich.

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Some other notes we picked up from the tour were that building height restrictions have severely limited the available real estate in the city and thus driven prices way up. As a result, Munich is a very wealthy, very old city compared to Berlin. The culture and people do not change a lot, which is reflected in the fact that people still wear drindls and liederhosen in daily life. Liederhosen were meant for agricultural work, so wearing them today is more for dressing up.

When the tour concluded, we decided to take the U-Bahn to the site of the 1972 Olympic Games. We actually didn’t make it to the village area where Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but we did stroll around the park to peek in the various athletic facilities.

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We also stopped in the BMW Museum, located right at the entrance to the Olympic Village area. BMW also has corporate offices there. I was surprised to see a classic Mini driving around the museum – the English predecessor to the Mini Cooper that the company bought at least 10 years ago. Deb picked up a panini and I got a cappuccino from their little cafe, which was reasonably priced and had free WiFi.

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We headed back toward the city around dinnertime, checked into Hotel Maritim (a Priceline find just around the corner from our first hostel), and promptly went back out for dinner at Cafe Ignaz. The cafe was well off the beaten path, but Deb did an impressive job of navigating through dark, residential streets until we found the place. The service was slow but friendly. We each had gnocchi – mine was savory with banana, zucchini and cheese; Deb’s was sweet with raisins, dates and sweet potatoes. Both were excellent – and so filling that the waiter teased us for also ordering a heavy coconut shake with dinner. On our way out, we each got a large piece of cake for dessert which was included in the price of dinner – a bargain by European standards. Deb made a good choice in grabbing the chocolate cake while my poppyseed slice turned out to be a little too poppy-seedy.

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7 Sep 2011

Welcome to Munich – Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

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So our first adventure (barely) outside of the airport was figuring out what metro pass to purchase to get ourselves from the airport into the city. We walked up to the transportation desk, and told the no-nonsense lady at the counter what we were interested in doing. She immediately suggested a set of passes for us. Ten minutes of Deb-driven negotiations later, including various alternate permutations of passes, we walked away with exactly what the agent had originally suggested.

We found our way down to the “S Bahn” and hopped on. Munich has two metro systems the S and U Bahns. Shockingly, the U-Bahn is the underground subway. The S-Bahn is their regional rail system. About 40 minutes on the S-Bahn and we arrived right at the central transportation hub of Munich, Hauptbahnhof Station. One or two conversations with some locals later had us heading right to our hostel, Wombat’s. In reality it was about 200 feet from the station…we had just gotten a little turned around.

We piled into our first hostel room which was a 6 person dorm. It seemed like the room was empty when we got there, but while we were unpacking a few new folks popped in. We met John, a 20 year old from Modesto, California, and Francesca, a 20-something from near Bologna, Italy. We promptly passed out for a 3 hour nap since I couldn’t fathom going site seeing in my state. By the time we woke up a mid-twenties New Zealander couple, Kaylee and David had arrived. Their accents were really awesome.

We headed on down to the hostel’s bar and cashed in our free drink coupons. Deb got a wine and I got a beer. Then we spent some time catching up on email and Internet reading. Once we were done, we wound up heading out with our roommates for dinner to the Hofhaus, a historic beer house. We later learned that this particular beer house is largely filled with tourists these days, but was a favorite haunt of Hilter and his Nazi friends back in the day. In fact, it was the site of the pivotal Beer Hall Putsch.

Deb was actually nervous heading there, not because of its history, but because she feared the menu would consist entirely of sausage and beer. Turns out she was able to order a very tasty potato casserole. It tasted like a potato lasagne. I ordered a liter of beer (just like 90% of the rest of the people there), some sausages and a pretzel. The beer was good, but nothing spectacular. What was more impressive was how the waitress was able to carry 8 of the full one liter beer-stein’s at a time. It made her pretty scary…particularly when we apparently failed to follow protocol and order all of our food at once. We had a very good time with the gang, and the general scene was a caricature of what you would imagine with a bunch of hostel-ers in a beer house to be. The live traditional music completed the scene.

After dinner we took a stroll back toward the hostel with a pitstop to see the hotel we’d be spending the next two nights at. The establishments adjoining our prospective hotel provided some entertainment for the crew (if you’re curious, check out Google Street View for our hotel), and then we walked the one block back to Wombat’s and crashed for the night.

6 Sep 2011

Honeymoon!!! (two years later)

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So we’ve been married for over two years now (8/9/09), and yeah, sure we went to Mexico for about a week right afterward, but we had always wanted to go backpacking in Europe for our real honeymoon. It only took two years of planning!

Speaking of planning, packing for four weeks of travel is quite a chore. With some recommendations from the Internet and our friend Elena, we were able to figure it out though. I threatened to only bring 3 pairs of underwear, but Deb retaliated with some threats of her own which resulted in me bringing a solid 7 pairs. Essentially we each packed a week’s worth of clothing with the intent of doing laundry when necessary.

Deb borrowed Elena’s well traveled backpack and I bought a spiffy new one from REI. Our final packing performance evaluation occurred at the airport check in desk where Deb’s pack weighed a respectable 18.5 pounds and I scored a win with a mere 12 pound bag!

We got pretty lucky with the flight, since we were on a 767-200 which has a 2-3-2 seating configuration. After some eye-batting with the ticket agent, Deb and I were able to score a couple seats on the side so we didn’t have to deal with a middle seat at all. Of course the only problem with having no strangers is that it limited Deb’s ability to pimp Philly Dance Fitness on the plane.

We both tried really hard to sleep so that we could get going right when we landed in Munich. We had limited success, and probably each got about 3-4 hours worth of sleep. We actually entered the European Union at Brussels where we had a connection from our US Airways flight to a Lufthansa flight into Munich. That wouldn’t have been a problem except for the 3 hour layover. I was pretty zonkered and tried with limited success to nap in the terminal. It turned out that the flight was quite empty and we each had a row to ourselves on the Airbus A319. It would’ve been great to nap a bit more, but we were barely in the air for an hour before landing.

The drama began once we got to the baggage claim in the Munich airport. Since the flight was empty, and our rows were at the front of the plane, we were at the baggage claim really quickly. Germany wasted no time in showing off it’s efficiency since our flight’s bags were ALREADY ON THE BELT. Naturally neither of our bags were there. After some hunting we found Deb’s backpack in the “irregular luggage” area. No comment needed. However, my bag was still AWOL. An initial trip to the baggage service desk informed us my bag “was definitely here.” That was ponderous, since we’d checked every baggage belt multiple times to no avail. Some subsequent harassment of the baggage desk uncovered that my bag got delayed because it got stuck somewhere on the belt system. So we lost 45 minutes and aside from the various notes by my lovely wife that “I should have packed underwear in my carry on,” there wasn’t much pain. Off to Munich!

2 Apr 2011

Exploring Desert History

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Thursday, March 31, 2011 – Mitzpe Ramon and Avdat

Speaking of spectacular views, just about 15 minutes from the canyon in Sede Boqer is another natural beauty – Maktesh Ramon, or the Crater of Mitzpe Ramon. This I do remember from my high school trip, though we may have seen Maktesh Gadol, “The Big Crater,” which is actually smaller than Maktesh Ramon according to my local friend.

We had a chance to appreciate the site over breakfast at the new Be’resheit hotel that’s being built right on the edge of it. Apparently, BGU had hoped to put us up there but construction took longer than expected. That was clear from the bustle of workers scrambling to finish paving driveways, installing lights and landscaping.

View from the balcony of the main building

The scene from the window of a second floor standard room

A public relations representative said they’re aiming to have at least some of the rooms open by Passover.  They have quite a task ahead, but certainly it will be a magnificent place once everything’s finished. Even the standard rooms have balconies overlooking the crater, and some ground floor rooms have private pools similar to what you might find at a Caribbean resort.

Unlike the past couple of days, today’s focus was history instead of science. We met up with Prof. Hendrik Bruins at the ruins of Avdat, originally a seasonal camping ground for Nabataean caravans travelling along the early Petra – Gaza road between the first and seventh centuries BCE.  In addition to Nabataeans, the ancient city was inhabited by Romans and Byzantines.

A religious altar

From there, we headed to a nearby Bedouin village for the perfunctory camel ride. Riding in a row of camels tethered together and led by a Bedouin on foot reminded me of those kiddie pony rides in the zoo. It was neat to see the landscape from that perspective, though I can say now that after riding a camel twice I really don’t have any need to do it again.

The meal that followed was amazing, as expected. It’s so similar to many things I’ve found at restaurants in the states, but there must be something about the way it’s prepared there that makes it taste so much better. I’m sure it’s not just the setting.

Before sending the group back to the airport, BGU gave us another much-appreciated break at the Neve Midbar spa. I spent two and a half hours alternating between the hot and less-hot pools.

Back at the airport, half the group headed for planes home while the rest of us went of to trains or car rentals for a few days of sightseeing on our own. I barely made it on the next train to Tel Aviv, where I met up with two friends from Charlotte, N.C. – Crystal, who I mentioned meeting on the flight to Israel in a previous post, and Sarah, who I’m staying with over the weekend. We had a quick, but tasty dinner at one of Sarah’s favorite cafes before Crystal headed back to her relatives. Then it was on to folk dancing for me at one of the largest groups in Israel. Apparently, the Thursday evening sessions run by choreographer Gadi Bitton at Tel Aviv University can sometimes attract upwards of 1,000 people. The crowd was “thinner” than usual because Gadi was off in China along with a group of dancers – maybe only 800 people, my first partner guessed. Only.

Once again, I ran into a familiar face, which is so nice in a foreign country. This time it was a woman I used to dance with when I was at Northwestern in Chicago – Irit Stein. I’m glad she noticed me and said something because I left the city before she did and had no idea she had even moved back to Israel.

Former Chicago folk dancers Irit, Chagai and Deborah

Aside from the size, it was certainly a more advanced group than I’m used to dancing with. Oh, and much more fashionable. I guess I didn’t get the message that I should bring my plether pants, cowboy boots and sparkly belt. AND, you can’t forget the leggings. I saw at least three pairs. If 80s are the new retro, I am so there. And so old…

Leggings!

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1 Apr 2011

Surviving in the Desert Rose

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011 – Sede Boqer

In Sede Boqer, there’s an odd sort of mirage shimmering behind the kibbutz: silvery light reflected off rows of 300-square-foot solar panels, all tilted up to capture the sun. As if the desert wasn’t hot enough already, here the students aim to generate even more heat by harnessing the one thing, other than sand, that every desert has in abundance. For Prof. David Faiman, it’s not a question of whether the solar panels work, but how to gather enough supporting evidence to get buy-in from policymakers.

A student checks on the mechanics of a desert solar panel

While the desert might be useful for generating energy, other professors and students here are concentrating on what it lacks: water. To deal with that problem, Israelis have been desalinating ocean water for years. At the campus water institute, researchers continue to look for new and better ways to refine that process. Professor Jack Gilron, for example, has developed a system that uses sensors to detect when the minerals in the water that’s being purified are about to turn into solids (aka brine, etc.) At that point, valves reverse the flow of the filtration, which delays the formation of the solid deposits. I’m sure there’s a better way to explain this. Bottom line – it gives treatment plants more time to extract a higher percentage of clean water. Gilron said the mechanism could have widespread uses for many industrial processes. Another current project will take them to Nablus to help a Jordanian University desalinate the local water supply.

Food completes the last leg of the triangle of survival in the desert. For that, BGU has a host of students studying dryland agriculture. It’s quite a contrast to the Wisconsin cow farms I’m familiar with. Here, students examine what it is that allows certain plants to survive in such a hostile environment and then attempt to cross-breed those characteristics. My brother used to do something similar with cranberries. There, the aim was to breed a variety that would repel insects. Pests aren’t as much of a problem in the desert because they don’t like the hot climate either.

Shimon Milevich uses hand gestures to illustrate the layered root system he’s been studying in a common desert plant

Just before the sun set, Professor Evyatar Erell gave us a tour of the small neighborhood that’s formed near the campus. Though plans for it date back to 1988, Erell claims it was the first attempt to apply “green” building concepts to a neighborhood as a whole. I’m not sure I could handle living in such a small community, but you certainly can’t complain about the canyon views.

Erell, standing in front of the canyon that his home faces

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30 Mar 2011

Robots, wineries, Ben Gurion and more

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Monday and Tuesday, March 28 and 29, 2011

I’m not sure BGU could have crammed anything else into our Monday. We started at a “human factors” lab used to study the effects of fatigue, alcohol, marijuana, distraction and so forth on drivers. Researchers are also testing devices that use vibrations or other tactile signals to help pilots respond to emergency alerts.

Industrial engineering professor Tal Oron-Gilad explains how a sophisticated dome-shaped screen and control center create a virtual testing area for experiments on pedestrian and pilot behavior.

 

Next, more fun gadgets, like prototypes for robots that would spray pesticides, pick fruit and serve food. I was impressed by the number of women in the engineering and robotics departments. That’s apparently not so unusual in Israel, but it’s a stark contrast to what you see in the States.

Sigal Berman, head of computer intelligence, talks about her work developing computer programs that recognize human gestures

I won’t go into detail about the rest of the day, which included meetings with at least a half dozen faculty and doctoral students. But I will highlight dinner, which we shared with three students who are involved in university efforts to improve the city. In fact, the restaurant where we ate was part of that: a handful of BGU leaders opened it a couple of years ago and hired at-risk high schoolers to help them run it. The neighborhood hardly looks like a slum – no vacant buildings or graffiti like you would see in Philadelphia. But our guides say it’s much more obvious inside the cramped apartment buildings. Of course, the neighborhood has also cleaned up quite a bit since students began living there, rent-free, in exchange for weekly community service.

Wait staff at Ringlebloom Café got creative with our dessert.

The night also ended on a high note for me. With the help of a BGU geology professor, I found a folk dance session within a 10-minute walk of our hotel. I didn’t recognize a soul there, but luckily I did recognize most of the dances. Or at least I faked them well enough for a couple of people to ask me where I learned “all the dances” and whether I would come back next week.

Jet lag was still wearing on most of us Tuesday morning, It was hard to stay focused on Prof. Zeev Weisman’s two-hour presentation on extracting energy from olive oil byproducts, even though I’m actually very interested in the subject. Weisman’s lab has been able to turn the water and solid waste left over from the oil production into useful products like biofuel; now the challenge is coming up with an efficient, cost-effective way to do that on a large scale.

Zeev Weisman holds out a jar of biodiesel fuel that he and his students made.

A tour of the green features added to the campus, mostly over the past three years, helped us all wake up a bit more. In addition to a new, state-of-the-art nanotech building, the university has refined a solar-powered system to heat rooftop water tanks and may have a patent for it in the works.

A BGU staff member with the new rooftop system that harnesses solar energy to heat water used in student dorms

After lunch, we began our trip south to Sede Boqer, where the university’s newest campus is located. We stopped first at Nahal Boqer farm to sample wine that farmer Moshe Zohar produced from his combination vineyard and bed and breakfast. You know, when I think of an Israeli entrepreneur, I often picture a young MBA grad with a high-tech start-up. But Zohar was truly a jack-of-all-trades businessman. Aside from farming, he constructed every structure on his property, from the barrel-shaped shop to the B&B cabins to the ecologically friendly bathrooms. He’s also growing a number of varieties of olives and pomegranates for Weisman’s research.

Zohar, in front of one of the cabins he built above his vineyard

The main shop and wine tasting room at the farm

From there, we continued to the home and then the grave of David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister. I thought I had seen both of these sites before but I must have confused that with something else. We watched the sun set over the breathtaking canyon that his grave overlooked as a BGU professor painted a brief picture of his life.

Once it was dark, we were off to the hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, the closest city, or perhaps village might be a better word. Like Be’er Sheva, we had our choice of one hotel, though both cities may have a few independent inns that are just too small for our group. A new luxury hotel overlooking the Mitzpe crater is scheduled to open later this year.

While the hotel left a little to be desired (like free wiFi, or even affordable wi-fi) the food has never disappointed. We stuffed ourselves with a family-style dinner of fresh salads, pasta, fish, beef (slow-cooked for 48 hours). Still starved for Internet, half the table spent part of the meal taking advantage of at least one place that had free wiFi.

The stunning canyon that Ben Gurion’s grave overlooks

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30 Mar 2011

From Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva

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Saturday, March 25 and Sunday, March 26, 2011

After arriving Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I met up with half the other reporters on the media mission and we headed off to a hotel near the beach. We walked around the neighborhood until the rest of the group arrived. Altogether there are eight of us from a mix of Jewish and environmental publications, plus our contact from a private public relations firm and a Friends of Ben Gurion representative.

Our group of reporters and BGU reps

We introduced ourselves at a cafe overlooking the water. While everyone else went off to catch up on jet lag, I went out with another old friend from North Carolina – Sarah Fisher – who made aliyah three years ago. I’ll spend more time with her after the mission, but she stopped by early on to lend me an extra local cell phone. We chatted for a while at a nearby Irish pub. I was very impressed to see that you can, indeed, get shepard’s pie in the Mediterranean.

Sunday morning we were off to Be’er Sheva for an anthropological take on the local market and a jeep tour of research on the Negev’s disappearing sand dunes.

First, we met up with Faye Bittker, director of media relations and publications at BGU, who made a point of complimenting our group for not backing out of the trip in the wake of the recent missile attacks on the city. It was the first time the city had been targeted in more than two years. During those attacks in January 2009, the university actually shut down for two weeks as the city suffered repeated air raids.

By comparison, the university held classes as normal Wednesday after the early morning attack (only two days before our flights) and at least based on my rusty Hebrew, there didn’t seem to be much buzz about it on campus. As Bittker put it, “yes, it’s stressful, but we make jokes.” You have to have a sense of humor about it, she continued, or it’s impossible to live there.

Students are used to it, added 25-year-old Barak Herscowitz, a political science major who’ll graduate this spring. If they weren’t in the Negev in 2009, he said, they got practice diving for cover in the army or living in Tel Aviv at times when “buses exploded every other day.”

I don’t have those experiences, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around that nonchalance. But it was certainly easy to put aside safety concerns as we went on with our business, surrounded by everyone else going on with their business.

“There is no fear here,” said BGU cultural anthropologist Nir Avieli as he took us through the city market.

The rows of produce, dried goods and clothing stalls reminded me of the mercados I used to frequent while living in Mexico, only much smaller. Several peddlers were eager to show off their wares – including one butcher who held out a long string of entrails for a photo opp.  Others looked at us with suspicion or asked not to be photographed. Nirieli pointed out the separation between Arab, Jewish and Bedouin vendors; as well as the card game area where ethnic boundaries seemed to fade away.

Later that day, we headed out to explore the desert surrounding the university with ecology professor Yaron Ziv and two of his students as our guides. Dry, brown sand stretched out for miles. Close to the Egyptian border, we charged off-road for an up-close look at their current experiments. According to Ziv, with fewer large mammals roaming the area now (many of them killed by Bedouins), what used to be shifting sand dunes is now covered by a hardened soil crust. Aside from missing out on the beauty of that landscape, Ziv said, the biodiversity of the area has also suffered. His students set out traps to study what wildlife still exists, and whether tilling the crust in one area will attract more animals.

 

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27 Mar 2011

Back to “Is-ra-ayl”

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The last time I was in Israel, I was surrounded by 40 other Jewish teenagers on a jam-packed, month long summer tour. We dug up shards of pottery dating back 2,200 years, listened to Orthodox Jews chanting Shabbat prayers, peed in the desert (actually quite an accomplishment for me) and swam in practically every body of water in or adjoining the country. It was one of the most amazing and memorable experiences of my life.

This week, I headed back to the country for the sixth annual Murry Fromson press tour highlighting the latest and greatest research at Ben Gurion University.

I wondered whether it had been so long that I wouldn’t even notice any changes as I stood in line to go through a second security screening into an enclosed pre-boarding area. The woman behind me interrupted my thoughts.

“Are you going to the Holy Land too?”

Holy Land? I paused, taking a moment to digest the odd juxtaposition of this clearly non-Jewish woman and the two Israelis speaking Hebrew in front of me, not to mention the absurdity of the question. Of course I’m going to Israel, why else would I be standing in a security line for a flight to Tel Aviv? I just really get a kick out of taking off my shoes?

For the sake of being nice I struck up a conversation. Oh, yes, she said, it’s her first visit. And you? 1998? But you’re so young! Yes, I agreed, I look young, It’ll be awesome when I’m 50.

Once past the screening, I’m confused. Where are the agents to grill us about the nature of our trip, or whether we packed our own bags? This was not what I remembered. Likewise, I’m intrigued by the mix of people packed into the small area. There’s an older Asian woman with a hairdo that my grandmother’s friends would admire, a teenager sporting a gangster-worthy gold Jewish star, a horde of priests, Israelis chatting in Hebrew and dozens of elderly couples wearing tour group name tags.

Of course, there aren’t any Orthodox families. I expected that – no flying on Shabbat. Still, it was weird to see SO many Christian passengers. Just before the plane door shut, it was impossible not to overhear the woman in the row behind me on a last minute call.

“See how good Jesus is?” she said in a thick Eastern European accent. “He sent us an angel.”

It got weirder when the priest next to her walked up to the loudspeaker and urged everyone on board to join him in praying for a safe flight to “Is-ra-ayl.”

“Where’s the rabbi?” someone murmured behind me.

“There’s no rabbi,” someone else responded.

Right, that whole Shabbat thing. So off we went, sans rabbi.

For me, though, the most unexpected twist was yet to come. Just about an hour before the flight landed, I saw a woman walking back from the bathroom who looked very much like an old friend of mine from Charlotte, North Carolina. I dismissed the coincidence – after all, if this was her, she would have been with her husband and three adorable children.

Unable to shake my curiosity, I walked back toward her seat and feigned a stretch to get a better view.  It was her all right.  We climbed over other passengers to get to each other and spent the rest of the flight catching up. I couldn’t have asked for a more serendipitous welcome to the “Holy Land.”

Para-surfer on the beach in Tel Aviv

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27 Dec 2010

A column and a profile

Posted by Deborah. No Comments

Just to expound on what’s occupying my time these days….

I mentioned that I took a job at the Exponent. I’ve been mostly writing features and education pieces, as well as managing the Facebook/Twitter accounts. Recently, I wrote a column about the role Jewish media has played in my family and how social media is figuring into that for me. In case you’re interested, here it is.

On the dance fitness end, this has been a slow two weeks due to holidays but Seth and I have put together a full schedule for 2011 including a new “Frisky Fridays” program. If you’re curious, it’s all online here and the Zumba classes are also detailed on my “Zumba Instructor Network” profile. I joined the ZIN recently since Zumba has proven to be my most accessible and popular class offering.

Best of all, we’re in the process of converting the basement into a dance studio. It’s mostly for me to use as a practice space, but I may eventually hold some regular classes there. The tile is already in. I’ll post some photos once the removable dance floor is installed!