Sunday, April 27, 2008

This year in Jerusalem

Pesach in Israel is a completely different food landscape from the US. The whole concept of going to a restaurant on Pesach seems strange to me, but in Israel, even McDonald's (some of them, anyway) goes kosher for Pesach!

Ice cream and shakes are sold at a separate counter:

Some of the Pesach business are total scams. For example:

Anyone can make matzah pizza at home for a fraction of the price! Here's another:

If you look carefully at the word crossed out, you can see that this place used to be the proverbial glatt kosher bakery before they realized their error:

The chameitz law is ridiculous on a number of levels, but particularly because bagels are for sale in a very public place frequented this week by Jewish and non-Jewish tourists from around the world, just inside Jaffa Gate:

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that ice cream was categorically not kosher for Pesach, so it was shocking to see kosher-for-Pesach ice cream everywhere! And it's not your typical kosher-for-Pesach products that are imitations of the real thing (cf. pasta); the issue is simply that Americans put corn syrup in everything! Since Israel doesn't have the Iowa caucus, they don't have to.

Another difference between the US and Israel is the large number of products labeled "kasher l'Pesach l'ochlei kitniyot". Though I don't eat kitniyot during Pesach, this made it easier to eat at home during the days before Pesach (when the kitchen was already kashered), and just to make a point, I ate kitniyot on Erev Pesach after the time to stop eating chameitz. And after Pesach began, I went by ingredients for "l'ochlei kitniyot" products and ate them if they didn't contain actual kitniyot (I don't care if they were made on equipment that also processes kitniyot).

Some Americans who otherwise don't eat kitniyot during Pesach found themselves eating kitniyot this year in Israel, in part because Israel has much more of a kitniyot culture. I had the opposite experience this year. I don't eat kitniyot during Pesach, and didn't this year, and if anything, this year pushed me further away from ever eating kitniyot in the future. Pesach in my family (in the US) is very carnivorous, and I used to say "If I ever become fully vegetarian, I'll eat kitniyot." This year I live in a vegetarian apartment, and ate a mostly vegetarian diet during Pesach and didn't eat kitniyot, and I did just fine, so now I know it's possible. So now the goalposts are pushed even further back to "If I ever become vegan." Not likely any time soon.

For me, not eating kitniyot is a minhag that I uphold completely irrationally, even though I think it's silly, simply because I have a minhag. (There aren't many things that I do that for.) This means that I can't be swayed, either l'kula or l'chumra, by any teshuvot or rational arguments. If you claim that it doesn't make sense for X (peanuts, corn, wild rice, etc.) to be considered kitniyot, because it's biologically unrelated to grains/legumes or because it wasn't known in medieval Europe, I'm not convinced, because the whole kitniyot apparatus already doesn't make any sense, so what's one more layer of nonsense? On the other hand, I'm also not going to be swayed by the kitniyotization of quinoa, since I have eaten quinoa during Pesach for several years, and have never had a minhag not to. Sesame seeds are another example. One can make a logical argument for why sesame seeds aren't kitniyot, but as far as I'm concerned, kitniyot has nothing to do with logic. BUT I distinctly recall having kosher-for-Pesach sesame candies as a kid, and therefore, as far as I'm concerned, they're ok, regardless of whether the OU or the rabbanut has changed its mind since then. They're not my authority. So the other night, when I was at an ochlei kitniyot restaurant (!) and was the only kitniyot non-eater in the group, I ate the techina. Like I said, this approach is uncharacteristic for me.

Anyway, it's over now. Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem!


Today I, along with everyone in Israel (except for some foreign tourists and, I hear, Chabad of Eilat), Reform Jews around the world, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews whose communities have exercised the 1-day-yom-tov option (though I'm not sure whether there are any such Conservative communities in reality), Israelis around the world who have retained their Israeli customs (albeit in private for some of them), and independent-minded Jews who think 1-day yom tov makes more sense, am eating bread.

Fresh lafa at Machaneh Yehudah last night:

I remember on this day in 2001 (two times ago that Pesach started on Saturday night and ended on Saturday or Sunday night) I was in college and having Sunday brunch in my house dining hall eating a waffle or a bagel or something else leavened, and someone at the next table was eating matzah. Someone else was walking across the upper level and saw her friend, the matzah-eater, down below, and struck up a conversation yelling back and forth between the two levels of the dining hall.


Anyway, the postscript to this story is that Israelis clearly aren't lazy; you should have seen how fast the purveyors of chameitz sprung into action last night.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


And so it begins!

But I'm not going to be blogging the omer every day this year; I think I've exhausted my contribution to the genre for now.

This year the omer is also effectively a countdown for my remaining time in Israel; I'm leaving on day 52.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Room of Requirement

This matzah bakery in Jerusalem opens just one night a year, and that night was tonight! The rest of the year, it's just a nondescript boarded-up building. And the only way to know about it is by word of mouth; I didn't find out its precise location until this afternoon, after lots of asking around. Its distinctive feature is that their matzot are soft like pita, in a traditional Mizrachi style, rather than hard like the matzot that are available almost everywhere else. They're made exactly the same way as other matzot (the whole process has to be over in 18 minutes, etc.), but they're thicker, which makes them stay soft. I've tasted soft matzah before, and don't get your hopes up too much, it still tastes like matzah (not surprising, since it's the same recipe), but it's still cool.

It is believed that this is what the original matzah was like. This means that the original "Hillel sandwich" was basically shwarma b'lafa: lamb roasted on a spit (pesach) on soft flat bread (matzah) with spices (maror). How the mighty have fallen.

If you're in Jerusalem and want to grab your soft matzah, it's not too late -- they'll be open until 2 pm tomorrow (Friday). (At least that's what we assume they mean. The sign says 2 pm on Erev Pesach, but that can't possibly be right. But this appears to be the same sign they put out every year, which you can tell from the old 6-digit cell phone number.) It's at the corner of Ussishkin and Rafaeli, one block from Bezalel. Be warned, it's not cheap: a set of 3 matzot is 80 shekels. Still, our seder will have 16 people, so the experience is definitely worth 5 shekels/person.

Sociological question: The matzah bakers were all men (the only woman inside was the cashier), and all the customers waiting in line (outside of our party) were men. We came up with a few explanations, but do you, reader, have any?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Also north 8: Pizza Rashbi

After all that, we weren't going to leave the north without finding Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So we drove to Mt. Meron (much faster than hiking). Having seen numerous graves in the area, we were under the naive impression that this one would be basically the same: a small monument at the side of the road, albeit one that gets huge crowds once a year on Lag Ba'omer.

Yes, naive indeed. Little did we known that the grave is a massive complex, at the epicenter of a whole industry.

Rashbi Pizza is open 24 hours:

I'm confused. Is this a photograph of Rebbe Nachman himself, or an actor? And if it's an actor, is that sort of thing common?

The Breslovers seem to be dominant, but they're not the only ones there. B'nei Akiva also has a presence:

"Please know (f.s.)! That immodest dress causes pain to the soul of the tzaddik, harms the holiness of the camp of Israel, and disturbs the acceptance of prayers - chas veshalom. PLEASE ENTER (f.s.) THE HOLY PLACE WITH MODEST DRESS."

Ok, I have to say that on behalf of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, I'm insulted. Even among rabbis of the Talmud (who were all larger than life), dude was pretty badass. He evaded the most powerful empire on earth for 13 years, and then went around zapping people with his eyes. If you really think that, after all that, he's going to be harmed in the least by immodest dress, you must not hold him in such high esteem. (And besides, he's no stranger to immodest dress: the whole time that he and his son were in the cave studying medieval Spanish and writing the Zohar, they were NAKED!)

Ah yes, I should have anticipated this:

An eruv map. Apparently people stay over for Shabbat.

An opportunity to perform the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sponsored by an institute dedicated to that purpose.

"The shrine of the divine tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai."

Much of the structure on the men's side is a synagogue, which had at least 4 minyanim going on simultaneously. Yes, it was about 10 AM, seemingly late for weekday shacharit, but these were Chasidim. I don't know whether it's this crowded every day or whether people go especially for Rosh Chodesh Nisan. But it was fun to see the different groups all at different points in the Rosh Chodesh service: in one corner they're doing hagbah, in one corner they're doing hallel, in one corner they're all taking off their tefillin at the same time, etc.

A much more typical tannaitic grave, part of the same complex:

In retrospect it's probably a good thing that we didn't show up all dirty in our hiking clothes.

Also north 7: The hunt for Rashbi

One thing we know about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is that he's good at hiding. We thought it would be interesting to visit his sites, but this wasn't so simple. We drove around Peki'in for a while, looking for the cave where he and his son are said to have hid for 13 years, but were unsuccessful. Which I guess makes sense, since the whole point of the cave was that it would be hard to find. If even the Roman Empire couldn't find them, why would we expect to?

We also thought that Rashbi's famous grave on Mount Meron would be a fun hiking destination -- according to the hiking map, it was just a short jog up the Shvil Yisrael from where we were staying. We neglected to consider the difficulty of getting to the Shvil Yisrael, which involved getting from the top of Har Mitzpeh Yamim (elevation 700 m) down into Nachal Amud. It looked short on the map, but that's because it was mostly vertical -- this is what contours are for. We'll know for next time.

By the time we got to the Shvil Yisrael itself, there was no way we were going to make it all the way to Rashbi's grave. On the other hand, there was also no way we could go back up the way we had gone down. Fortunately we ran into an SPNI group that was doing the same hike down the mountain, and were able to follow them out to civilization.

Anyway, it was a scenic hike. But Rashbi escaped once more.

What's the deal with these trees?

The tomb of a sheikh, at Ein Koves.

"Trail for advanced hikers. Supply yourself with drinking water." We wish we had known ahead of time about the former, though we were well stocked with the latter.

Tzfat from a distance.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Also north 6: The Golan

[UPDATE: In my haste to get the pictures up, I forgot to post the video and the description of the "Talmudic Experience". See below.]

Crossing the Jordan. It's much more substantial here (above the Kinneret) than at the Allenby Bridge.

The "Talmudic village" in Katzrin. Like Beit She'an, Katzrin was destroyed in the earthquake of 749. Unlike Beit She'an, it was a Jewish town, and not everything in the archaeological park is real -- some of it is a reconstruction.

As it happened, there was a wedding going on. The actual ceremony had taken place in ancient Katzrin's synagogue.

UPDATE: A video capturing the scene:

Some of these artifacts have questionable authenticity.

[UPDATE: In addition to the archaeological remains and reconstructions, ancient Katzrin also boasts the "Talmudic Experience", which is a movie shown on 6 screens! The 6 screens are all around the room, so from anywhere you sit, you can see 3 screens at once. I think there are only 3 different images shown at a time, and the other 3 screens duplicate those. There were two options for movies: "The Oven of Akhnai" and "Rabbi Meir and Aheir". But we didn't get to choose - we got the latter.

Since we were the only people there at the time and our native language was English, they showed us the version dubbed into English, which also had English text flashing dramatically across the screen. The translation was laughable at times, and only made sense to us because we knew the Hebrew behind it, e.g. "The Signing of the Mishnah" (חתימת המשנה) and "Just a statement of Rabbi Meir" (סתם משנה רבי מאיר).

Still, the movie was fun. It was a dramatization of the story, with period costumes and all the rest. And it was clearly intended for today's Israeli audience. When Elisha ben Avuyah showed up to Rabbi Meir's beit midrash on horseback on Shabbat, everyone involved (we hear the story from one of Rabbi Meir's students) is absolutely shocked. And then Rabbi Meir goes off to talk with Elisha, with Rabbi Meir walking and Elisha riding his horse. This scene fades into a modern scene with a supposedly secular Israeli man (with sunglasses) driving a car (very very slowly) and a man with a black hat and tallit walking next to him. "Can you imagine this kind of interaction between religious and secular Jews today? AND, the one in the car is the teacher, and the one walking is the student, still learning from his teacher!" It's a good point. Not so likely to happen today.]

Did you ever wonder where those העם עם הגולן bumper stickers come from? Now we know the answer: the Golan propaganda office is a storefront in "downtown" Katzrin (which is basically one small street).

My view on the Golan is very different from my view on the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has annexed the Golan (so that Israeli law is in effect there), and (regardless of the circumstances that led to this) there is no disenfranchised local population lacking self-determination. Therefore, the Golan is just land. Land can change hands as a result of wars (war sucks, but it happens; Germany lost a lot of land to Poland in World War II) or peace negotiations. Holding onto the Golan isn't destroying Israel, the way the West Bank and Gaza are. (The issue with the West Bank and Gaza, as I see it, isn't the land, but the 3 million disenfranchised Palestinians.) So I don't think it's problematic for Israel to be currently controlling the Golan, and Israel may or may not give the Golan back in future peace negotiations with Syria, if the citizens of Israel (through their elected leaders) weigh the costs and benefits and decide that it's a good idea.

So I can understand how posters like this would be intended to convince people like me that it's not a good idea:

But on the other hand, I can't see what the following poster is trying to show. Either Israel's claim on the Golan is legitimate, or it isn't. If it isn't, then it doesn't matter what percent of Syria's total area the Golan is -- it's still wrong for Israel to be there. (If you shoplift $100 from Wal-Mart, you're not going to get off in court by saying it's a tiny percentage of Wal-Mart's total assets.) And if it is (which I think it is, insofar as anything in war is legitimate), then it also doesn't matter -- the Syrians (who aren't reading this poster) are the ones who should determine how valuable the Golan is to them, and the Israelis can do likewise for themselves, and then (bimheirah v'yameinu) enter into negotiations based on this.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Also north 5: It might have been an etching on a marker of a grave

Maybe you will see it as you're passing by alone
Below the moss forgotten where some words adorn a stone...

All over northern Israel, but particularly in the greater Tzfat area, are "graves" of various tannaim and amoraim, and even the prophet Habakkuk. Some are just at the side of the highway, while others are further in, but are also marked with signs on the main road. If anyone knows the origin of these sites, I'd be very interested to know. I mean, it's highly unlikely that these are the actual graves of the people whose names are on them, but are they 100 years old or 500 years old or what?

More anti-littering signs, this time taking a more spiritual tack:

"Moshe Rabbeinu's cow"? I don't get it.

The donors who made it possible, from Queens NY and London:

If the light goes out, call this number:

Now you'll have to keep your browser on this page forever! (I don't think this inscription is meant to indicate who is buried there.)

The other two tzaddikim remain unnamed.

Rabbi Tarfon, a much bigger name:

"The father of all Israel"!

I once wrote, "The city of Tzfat was founded in the sixteenth century as an extension of the Jerusalem Syndrome ward at Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital." This remains as true as ever, of both Tzfat itself and the surrounding hills. Thus, the scene below, next to Rabbi Tarfon's grave on Friday morning. Several groups of apparently secular Israelis were touring the site; one group had children, and another group had all-terrain golf carts. The man below was speaking to one of the groups; it's not clear whether he was connected to them in any way or whether they had just met. He identified himself as "Dan ha-Mesapeir" (Dan the Storyteller) and said that he tells stories to children and adults. The book in his hands is a haggadah, and he read the story of the 5 rabbis in Benei Berak (including Rabbi Tarfon!) and then started giving Chasidic-style perspectives about Pesach.

Dan ha-Mesapeir began singing a song for Shabbat that he said was written right there in Tzfat, and some people sang and clapped along, while others didn't. This video captures the scene.