Wednesday, March 6, 2019

When the almond trees flower

The almond blossoms have a special place in the hearts of Israelis

We are right at the entrance of spring now in Israel. Luckily we had a lot of rain this winter and everywhere is clean and green.

We are already enjoying the spring flowers but one cannot talk (okay write..☺) about spring flowers without mentioning almond blossoms.

These trees always bloom the first in Israel and is a wonderful reminder that the winter is about to come to an end. One has to really pay attention to see the almond blossoms though. They blossom only for a short time. One blink and they are gone until next year.

The almond blossoms always bloom the first

Even as I am writing this post, I know that the glorious white/pink flowers have already disappeared and the almond trees are already covered in fresh new leaves. Soon the small baby almonds will grow into the nuts that I love to snack on.

The almond tree, just like other indigenous plants and trees of Israel, are often mentioned in the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament).

When Yaakob sent his sons with choice products to Egypt, almonds were on the list.

Then their father Israel said to them, "If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man as a present, a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds. Genesis 43:11

Apparently even today Israel’s almond nuts are of the largest and tastiest to be found.

When God wanted Jeremiah to wake up and get going already, he asked him to look at the almond trees.

“The word of the Lord came to me: What do you see, Jeremiah? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree. The Lord said to me: You have seen right, for I am watchful to bring My word to pass.” (Jeremiah 1:11)

Since the almond trees are the first to flower in Israel, they are sometimes a symbol of getting up early and doing your thing.

Be like the almond tree and start early!

This early flowering of the almond tree is also the reason why it is connected with Tu b'shvat, the Jewish holiday that celebrates trees yearly birthday's. It takes place around late winter, or very early spring. Though each year are a bit different. This year, with our long and rainy winter, it felt as though Tu b'shvat came too early.

And yes here in Israel we have a special date to mark the passing of the year for trees. Though nobody bakes a birthday cake for the trees or anything...:(  You can read here a bit more about Tu b'shevat.

The old Jewish rabbis decided on Tu b'shvat as the date for marking trees birthdays because that is when the 'sap rises back into the trees' after the winter.

The almond tree is definitely a visual representation of the sap rising back into the trees because if flowers before all the other trees. The flowers also appears before the tree's new leaves. Seeing these amazing white and light pink trees dotting the fields during early spring makes everyone snap-happy and if you have any Israeli friends on Facebook or Instagram, you must have seen photos of the Israeli "sakura".

Another mention in the Bible of the almond trees are in Ecclesiastes.

Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street.
Ecclesiastes 12:5

It is a bit contradicting that this beautiful EARLY flowering tree also have this connection with death. Apparently is it because old age appears so much earlier than you expect.

I have also read that there is this connection between the almond blossoms and old age because the delicate white flowers covering the trees look like the white hair that covers an old person’s head.

The "white" heads of the almond trees stick out during early spring in Israel

I like it that the almond trees represent beginnings and endings. You get up early and do your thing, making the best product that you can. And when the time comes, you go out in a show of beauty.

Goodbye almond tree blossoms. I will look again for you next year.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

1001 objects from Israel - The Suspicious Object

Introducing the "1001 objects from Israel" project!

As a push to get myself to write more on my blog, I am trying to make my monthly (cough...actually every once and awhile) newsletter a bit more interesting and content rich for my readers.

More readers = more writing on my part because I would be too ashamed to send out boring newsletters!

I usually add links to the blog posts that I have written the previous month plus a few more personal notes and photos.

Anyone signing up are definitely helping me to flex my writing muscle!

To make my newsletters a bit more interesting, I have started to add a section to my every-once-in-while newsletters called  “1001 Objects From Israel”.

It is inspired by the BBC series called 100 objects from around the world.  Quite a few of the objects mentioned in the radio series originated from Israel but I still felt that the entire large scope-ness of Israeli objects have not been explored thoroughly. Luckily I enjoy challenges and have decided to do my small part in highlighting interesting stuff from Israel..馃槉

Israel is an ancient country and a lot of things happened here, so we have tons of fascinating stuff in museums and scattered all over the place but I also want to write about modern day items. Some of them will be unique to Israel while others were invented here and are known now throughout the world.

Since I like to write about the trees and plants and flowers of Israel anyway in my blog, the  objects mentioned in the “1001 objects from Israel” project will be nearly be 100% inorganic.

As part of this announcement, I have added one of the objects story below. But remember that this is only for this one time ☺. The other 1001 objects from Israel will only be published via the monthly (I am going to try my best) newsletter.

Just fill in your email in to top right corner and click the button to sign up. And thank you for helping me to become more consistent with my writing!

And now, without any further talk, here is the story of one of the 1001 objects from Israel.

The suspicious object

The suspicious object, "讞驻抓砖 讞砖讜讚" in Hebrew, can be any type of handbag, briefcase or backpack left unattended.

What makes the bags suspicious are that they are usually left 'forgotten' behind in a crowded public space. 
Don't forget your bag behind!

Unscrupulous people, okay terrorists, used to pack these bags with explosives and detonate them in crowded areas.

I know that is a bit grim tale to tell but one of the facts of life here in Israel is that people are taught from a young age to be on alert for suspicious objects.

Just like everyone knows that wildflowers are protected and should not be picked (link), so do they know that theses bags should be reported to security personnel ASAP.

I have never been in a situation, or have heard of friends or family, were a forgotten bag exploded. I have also not heard or read of something like this mentioned in the news for a long time.

But still everyone stays vigilant. People often ask each other if the bags and suitcases near them belongs to them. One day traveling in the train, I overheard one passenger tell another how his briefcase, that he forgotten on the platform, was exploded by a remote controlled robot.

A copy of a sign that I saw cautioning people to report suspicious objects. The Hebrew work for a bag is "tik" - so there is a play of words with a count-down timer going "tick-tock".

The next day when he asked about it in the Lost and Found, they returned it to him with the lock broken and all the papers inside wet. I am pretty sure that he never left anything behind again!

If you ever come and visit us here in Israel, remember that young and old have been taught to be vigilant. Don't forget your bags. An unattended bag is a suspicious object!

The next object that I will be writing about  (in my newsletter) is the small and humble Israeli shekel that have such a rich past.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas in Israel

The Arab Christians in Haifa take their Christmas decorations very seriously!

It feels a bit strange to write about Christmas in Israel because the majority of the population here do not celebrate it. For most of us, it is just another working day. 

It is actually quite easy to forget that so many people in the world celebrate Christmas. Especially if you do not switch on the television or go on social media. As a matter of fact, I was a bit surprised this year when I tried to make an appointment with a company in the USA. Their calendar was unexpected blocked off for two days! It was only later that I realized why.

But this does not mean that nobody celebrates Christmas here in the Holy Land. We do not have small trees decorating our take-away coffee or non-stop jingles playing in the malls. But don’t forget that the Christians in Israel have probably been celebrating Christmas long before the rest of the world.

If you want to really experience Christmas in Israel, you will have to go to the place where it all started. There are large communities of Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth as well as other large cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa (Tel-Aviv).

You can read a bit more about the festivities that place in these cities at this link: Celebrating Christmas in Israel.

Hanukka, Christmas (and sometimes Ramadan too) are usually celebrated together in Haifa
Most of the Christians living today in Israel are either Christian Arabs, mixed family immigrants from the old Soviet block and Maronite Christians who fled from South Lebanon. They all practice a version of some type of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Even though there are some English-speaking Protestant churches here, they are definitely in the minority.

Ages ago, when I worked as an Au Pair in Israel, some acquaintances at a hostel in Jerusalem suggested that we attend the Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. The Ministry of Transport provides free bus rides between these two cities on Christmas Eve.

I will never forget that feeling of thundering in an ancient grey bus, circa 1950, late in the evening towards Bethlehem. Our bus driver was extremely grumpy but he lightened up a bit when some of the Swedish passengers started to sing Christmas carols.

Two Irish girls on the bus told us that their parish priest back home managed to get them seats inside the church where the Midnight Mass was to be held. The rest of us, they said, will just have to do with looking at the mass on the large screen that will be placed at the Manger Square. Since the most of us were just there for the ride, that was quite fine with us.

The Manger Square was packed with people from all over the world who came to take part in the mass. And the area surrounding the square was packed with locals who came to look at the festivities. My friend and I had a jolly time drinking coffee with them, talking politics and just taking in the atmosphere. 

On the bus back to the hostel, some of the tourists said that they did not really understood much because the entire service was in Arabic. So keep that in mind if you ever think of attending this mass in Bethlehem.

I now live with my family in the northern part of Israel. Haifa, a large harbour city, is about 20 minutes’ drive from our town. One of my friends in my pilates class mentioned that the Christmas lights were really amazing this year and that I should go and have a look. 

The top of the huge Christmas tree in the middle of the German colony in Haifa

And that is exactly what we did. Together with thousands of other Israelis! We were really lucky that we even managed to find a parking spot. Everyone (Jews, Christians and Muslims) come every year to see the lights, have something to eat and enjoy the stalls and street performances.

One may not feel that it is Christmas here in our regular day-to-day life, but the Christians here are definitely given the space and respect to celebrate their religion. 

And if you life in Jerusalem, the municipality will give you a free Christmas tree!

I hope you had a merry Christmas and a happy Hanukka!

Season’s greetings to everyone! May 2019 be a wonderful year for you!!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Simchat Torah - Dancing with Bibles

By Roylindman - Template:Roy Lindman, CC BY-SA 3.0

We have just reached the very end of a long list of Jewish holidays. We went through RoshHaShana (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur, Sukkot (the holiday of the huts) and now finally we have reached Simchat Torah.

Simhat Torah literally means to “Rejoice in the Torah”. The Torah is the first five books in the Jewish Bible. It is sometimes called the Pentateuch by Christians which means “five scrolls”.

The rest of the Jewish Bible is made out of the stories of the prophets (Nevi'im) and the writings (Ketuvim). The T of Torah, N of Nevi'im and the K of Ketuvim give us the Tanakh. The Tanakh is known to Christians as the Old Testament.

But this is all about the Torah, so let’s go back to the beginning...

The five books of the Torah - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known in Hebrew by the first word in every book.

Genesis is called “In the beginning” - 讘ְּ专ֵ讗砖ִׁ讬转
Exodus is called “Names” - 砖ְׁ诪讜ֹ转
Leviticus is called “Vayikra” that means "And He called" in Hebrew - 讜ַ讬ִּ拽ְ专ָ讗
Numbers is called “BaMidbar” in the desert - 讘ְּ诪ִ讚ְ讘ַּ专
Deuteronomy is called “Devarim” (words) - 讚ְּ讘ָ专ִ讬诐

It is believed that Moses wrote these five books but lately different authors have been suggested.

What is special about  the Torah is that these five books are still written today in the form of a scroll. An experienced scribe copies the words by hand with a quill on the parchment of a kosher animal.

Writing a new Torah scroll is quite an undertaking. The scribe has to know how to write ancient calligraphy, make the special ink and quill, prepare the parchments and then do the actual writing, without making even one mistake.

The photo below shows a section from the Aleppo Codex of the bible book Joshua 1:1.
Just look at how straight the letters are written!

Once all the parchments have been written, they are the stitched together with thread made of animal veins and attached to wooden rollers. These amazing scrolls are usually housed in a synagogue in a special ornamental cupboard known as an ark. The ark is placed on the wall that faces Jerusalem.

On a usual week, the Torah is taken from the ark and read out loud on Monday, Thursday, and twice on Shabbat.

The five books of the Torah are divided up in 54 segments called ‘parshiot”. Every week a different portion, or parshah is read until the entire scroll is read through throughout the year.  Some portions are read together in the years that are not a leap year. The size of the sections are not equal, they can be anything between 30 to 150 verses long.

Jews all over the world read the same parsha every week. So it doesn’t matter if you are in Tel Aviv,  Madrid or Australia, you will know exactly which portion should be read.

Today, on Simchat Torah day, the last verses of Deuteronomy is read and then immediately the first verses of Genesis are read.

It is a huge celebration when the readings of the year is completed. People are dancing and singing, eating and drinking. As many people as possible are given the Torah to hold and dance with. (Not women or children though).

I once asked a religious Jewish woman why women are not allowed to dance with the Torah. Until today I am not 100% sure if I agree with her answer.

She said that it is enough for women to see men dancing with the Torah. Given the heavy weight of the scroll and the repercussion of letting it fall - I am personally okay with only letting the men dance with the scroll.

What I really like about Simhat Torah is that the connects the body and mind. The happiness of coming to the end of a long year of reading and study spills out into joyous dancing.

We do not just live in our minds but also in our bodies.

And sometimes, when you are really happy, you just have to DANCE!!

If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walking on aquaducts

The old Roman aquaduct near Caesarea

I sometimes get jealous when I see what cool stuff people from other countries get to do.
They can easily visit world famous museums, ski in the snow every winter or climb really
high mountains.

Or there are these amazing trails such as the Appalachian trail or the Camino de Santiago
were you can just lose yourself in nature. (In Israel we lose ourselves on the couches under
the air conditioning.)
But you know what they do not have?

Ancient crumbling down aquaducts!

Well maybe they do have an old aquaduct or two crumbing away somewhere in the middle of


But is the general public allowed to walk on them?  Not that your general Israeli actually ask if

they are allowed to walk anywhere…we just clamber on top and look at the view.

If you stand still for long enough you do not just see the old rocks held together with Roman

invented mortar. You start to zoom back into the past and actually feel the ancient history of
this ancient country.
In Israel we have quite a few ancient aquaducts built during the Roman empire. They are dotted all over the place but the aquaduct in Caesarea is the one that I walked on. It runs parallel to the beach and its arches give shade and shelter to the beachgoers, nargilla smokers and other partygoers.

The way to the beach is through the arches

One often forgets that Israel is such an ancient place because it has such a progressive, startup-y vibe. But then you find yourself swimming in the Mediterranean sea and notice a strange squarish-looking rock. Only to realize a bit later that you are actually swimming in a small ancient harbour. The weird rock is actually an ancient building stone.

Or you can find yourself on top of an ancient aquaduct looking down at the swimmers in the sea on the one side, and a group of Arab guys hanging out and smoking the nargilla on the other side.
Chilling out next to the aquaduct and making long shadows

Everyday Israel has a 'new' feel to it. There is constant building everywhere and skyscrapers are mushrooming all over the place. It is nothing at all like that ‘medieval’ feeling that what one experiences in the old Europeans cites.

I might be really wrong but I personally think that at least 70% of the buildings here in
Israel have been built during the last 70 years. Since Israel gained independence in 1948.

BUT...and this is a really HUGE BBUUUTTTTT, there is a huge proportion of ancient architecture in Israel.

These are all still in use today:

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is 2000+ years old

The Armenian quarter in Jerusalem. The earliest churches there were built during the 5th century and the rest of the place around the 12th century, so they have been around for nearly 2000 years.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchere in Jerusalem was built around 326 AD, making it 1,692

years old.
The Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount was built around 705 AD, making it 1,313 years old.

The Ashkenazi Ari synagogue in Tsfat was built in the late 16th century, making it around
500 years old.
The Al-Jazzar mosque in Akko was built around 1781, making it 237 years old.

This is just a small list, and it is not taking in account all the other historical ruins that is found all over Israel such as the fortress at Masada and the ancient ports of Caesarea and Yaffa, Megiddo, Zippori etc. etc. Wow, there are so many, I think I should write another blog post about the famous ruins in Israel...

A LOT of the ruins found here in Israel were buildings originally built by the Romans during the time period of 63 BC to 313 AC when they were the current power in charge.They were
great engineers and one can still see a lot of their architecture that was built nearly 2000 years ago here in Israel.

The Jews and the Romans did not get along and everything blew up in 70 AD. The Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were killed or sold into the slavery. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and Judea was renamed Palaestinia.

And now here we are in 2018 and the Jews are restoring and preserving the architecture of their old enemies. How times have changed, hey?
Flowers growing on top of the aquaduct

One has an amazing view from the top of an aquaduct. On the one side you see people swimming in the setting sun in the Mediterranean and on the other side is the parking lot. And some Arabs chilling out on a picnic blanket...

And then there is the ancient view back into the past. It is more of a feeling actually. The feeling that you get when you realize that the stones under your feet where placed with extreme accuracy by a builder more than a thousand years ago.

A builder who most probably also had a family that he loved. Friends who he liked to hang out with. I am sure that he must have enjoyed the sea breeze in the late afternoon just I did. 

Sun going down over the Mediterranean

As I stood there quietly in the breeze looking over the Mediterranean, a mother and young boy suddenly called me from below and asked how they could get up too. I pointed them in the right direction and then started to make my way down.

The view is great from the top of an aquaduct and it was time to give someone else a turn.


If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.