Friday, July 10, 2020

The quiet summer

The weather may be hot but it is not really SUMMER in Israel.

Summers in Israel always used to be special for me.

The entire country feels as though it has entered vacation mode even though most of us are still working. This is the time when new ice cream flavours are announced - you can never eat enough ice cream to cool off properly in our summer heat! 

I am always amused at how fond Israelis are of watermelon flavoured ice cream because Israelis eat real watermelon nearly as much as they drink water in the summer.

Israelis who wear flip-flops year round invest in a new summer pair and the rest of us join this extreme casual look. Daily more and more people abandon their sport shoes and proper sandals and flip-flop everywhere. 

We sign up at the local swimming pool for the summer and count the days until the @$%÷/ jellyfish leave our beaches. Israel is a small and skinny country and the coast is not that far away for most of us. 

The Israelis might not swim as much as South Africans (I was surprised that school children here are not taught to swim through a school program) but they are definitely beach goers. 

They have mastered the art of going to the beach here in Israel. It seems that every single family own:

  • a streamlined designed modern "Bedouin tent" for shade
  • a "machzelet" (a straw picnic blanket)
  • coolers packed with a four course meal for a family of twenty 
  • various other beach paraphernalia such as a plastic kiddie pool for those who do not want to swim in the sea, a backgammon board and a set of matkot to play a casual beach tennis game
  • a special plastic container filled with pre-cut watermelon pieces. It is a sacrilege not to eat watermelon when you go to the beach in Israel.

Two professional Israeli beach goers

Every city and most of the towns have some type of summer festival or musical event going on. In previous years, the municipality of Zichron Yaakov invited street musicians once a week to entertain the rest of us in the center of town. 

We may have sweated profusely in the hot and humid evenings as we sat outside coffee shops and restaurants to listen to the music. But it was nice to leave our air conditioned homes and meet up with friends and family for a beer or a serving of cold watermelon served with the local made Bulgarian cheese.

Children, with their two month long summer vacation are signed up for every type of summer school/course that you can think of. From dancing to learning to surf or just hanging out with your friends making crafts and swimming in the local pool.

I may complain about the constant heat of the Israeli summers but it is still my favourite time of the year in Israel. 

Everyone is relaxed and tanned and taking life easy. The days are long and languid and we all wait for the heat of the day to break so that we can dress up in summer dresses and go out in the evenings. 

And no matter who you are, or what you are doing, we all gorge ourselves on watermelon. The sweet taste of watermelon continuously runs through our summer days and connects one summer to next for an entire Israeli lifetime.

But everything is different now.

I have not seen any summer events or festivals advertised. The local municipal pools were opened and then closed again because our coronavirus numbers spiked again.

No tourists are visiting Israel and upping to the vacation mode feeling of the summers.

I am quite sure that the summer schools will not be as packed this year because many parents are still not working and others are worried about their children's safety.

The beaches are less crowded and the restaurants are half empty. It is not easy covering your mouth and nose with a mask in this suffocating heat.

The summer of 2020 does not feel at all like summer. We are still staying mostly at home, trying to dodge the virus. It feels as though the only difference is that now we had to  lower the number on the aircon's thermostat.

And we have watermelon! 

At least we still have watermelon this summer...😁.
Some more Israeli summer stories: The time of the jellyfish How to survive the Israeli summer Hiking from Nachsolim beach to HaBonim beach

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Blood of the Maccabees flower

That is correct, we have a small wildflower here in Israel called the Blood of the Maccabees. I agree that this is quite a macabre name for such a cute little flower. However there is a long history behind this local wildflower and its unusual name. 

Which actual sums up nearly anything of interest in Israel - the ancient history of this land continually soaks into our everyday lives.

Apart from its unusual look, like I can totally get the ‘drops of blood’ thing, this Israeli wildflower has another claim to fame. It is the symbol of our annual Memorial Day. On this day we cry for all the fallen soldiers in all of the wars and also for the victims of terror attacks.

The symbol of the Israeli Memorial Day

During the Israeli Memorial Day places of entertainment are closed and flags are lowered half-mast. Nearly every municipality has a wreath-laying ceremony where it is customary to wear white clothes. Small stickers are handed out at these ceremonies with a picture of a small red flower and the words “I will remember.”

Every year the Defense Ministry's Commemoration Division gives out about four million stickers with a drawing of the Blood of the Maccabees flower. Like most of the wildflowers in Israel, this plant is protected by law and cannot be picked. 

This small flower with its unusual petals is called the Blood of the Maccabees flower, in Hebrew it is known as דם המכבים (Dam haMaccabim). It’s Latin name is Helichrysum sanguineum and apparently it is known in English as the red everlasting flower. Though I have never heard or read of anybody referring to this wildflower by this name.

It blooms here in the springtime, just like most of the other wildflowers in Israel. As coincidence would have it, or maybe it is not coincidence, this is also the time that we have our annual Memorial Day. 

A flower of our own

The Blood of the Maccabees flower officially became the symbol of Memorial Day in 1955. This was definitely inspired by the Remembrance Poppy that was sold to raise funds for the families of fallen veterans in the Commonwealth countries. The red colour of the poppy is a symbol of the blood of the British soldiers who fell on the Flanders Fields during World War I.

However a new symbol, or flower, was needed in Israel. Something that is not associated with the previous British rulers but rather represents the connection to ancient Jewish life in Israel.

Going back into history

This sweet little innocent flower was named in 1923 in Israel by Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni because it looks like small drops of blood. This was long before the Holocaust, Israel’s declaration of independence and the all wars fought to keep this independence.

The reason, I think, that they called this flower the Blood of the Maccabees and not the Blood of the Hebrews or anyone else was because the Maccabees fought so hard for self-rule.

The Maccabees were a group of Jews who organized a successful rebellion against the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV and reconsecrated the defiled Temple of Jerusalem. In 174 BC Israel was then part of the Syrian-Greek Empire. It’s ruler Antiochus wanted to unify the entire kingdom via a common religion and culture and punished the noncompliant Jews by forbidding the practice of Jewish law.

After several years and many lives lost, the small Jewish army managed to beat the much larger, and professional Greek army. Apparently there is a legend that says that a small flower instantly grew and bloomed wherever a Maccabee warrior’s blood was spilled.

It is no surprise that these round small flowers with its deep-red color are associated with drops of blood. 

Jews ruled over the land of Israel again for the next 80 years...until the Romans showed up in 63 BC.

Though the Maccabees did not rule for that long, they fought hard to bring the spirit of freedom and independence to the people of Israel. Their steadfast determination and strength is still celebrated until this day.

A small and tough flower for a small and tough country

The small Blood of the Maccabees flower may look skinny and delicate but don’t let its looks deceive you. I found it growing happily on a rocky hilltop.

Israel is a tough country for all its inhabitants, also for the flora of this land. Our summers are hot and cruel and half of the country is a desert. It often does not rain enough in the winter. And if it does rain, the rain can be relentless and severe - not a civilized drizzle. 

I think that this tough and pretty little flower is the perfect symbol to remember the people who have died defending this harsh land.

I found these flowers growing on a rocky hilltop between the rocks and weeds. 

Here are a few other blog posts about the flowers of Israel:

Ten tips for photographing wildflowers in Israel

The yearly pilgrimage to Cyclamen mountain

The wild mustard flowers of Israel

If you are looking for any photos of the Blood of Maccabees flower, you can have a look at these photos that I have uploaded to

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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Remembering the Holocaust during a pandemic

Every year in Israel, exactly one week before we celebrate Independence Day, we remember all the people who have died in the Holocaust.

From sunset the previous day until the first three stars show up in the sky the next day, the entire country is in mourning. Restaurants, theatres and coffee shops are closed. Most of the television channels are paused while the others play Holocaust documentaries or movies such as Schindler's List.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Ten things that I hate about life in Israel

I wish that public smoking would be banned already

If you have read any of my blog posts, you must have realized that this South African has learned to love the land of Israel and all the crazy Israelis inside it.

It took awhile, probably because it took me so long to learn Hebrew, but it has become a place I call home. A tourist may think that the locals are kinda rude, I think that they just have a tendency to speak their minds

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Special things Israelis say in specific situations

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

What happens in your country when a waiter drops a tray in a packed restaurant and everything on the tray shatters to pieces?

Is there an awkward silence? Does everyone avert their eyes from the embarrassed waiter as he quickly sweeps up all the broken pieces? Maybe there are a few softly muttered curses from him or the floor manager..?

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The tumuli field of Ramat haNadiv

Ramat haNadiv is a small nature reserve nestling close to my town, Zichron Yaakov, in the northern-ish part of Israel.

The reserve was established in 1965, and is actually a burial place for the Baron Edmund Rothschild and his wife Ada. The baron supported the early settlers in the area with money and advice from the leading scientists of the day. 

That is also why the park is called Ramat haNadiv, it means more or less 'Benefactor Heights'. The tomb, that you can visit during the weekdays, is surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The amazing clock collection in Jerusalem

In the attractive and characteristic neighbourhood of Rehavia in Jerusalem, not far from the president's residence, there is this a small museum called the Museum of Islamic Art

It is a gorgeous museum filled with amazing artifacts. Personally though I think that the museum should be called the Museum of Eastern Art. Most of the artifacts pre-date Islam and/or originate from non-Arab speaking countries such as Turkey, India and Iran. 

It is very likely that this watch was part of the loot of one of the greatest robberies in the art world.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The subtle art of standing in a queue in Israel - a survivor guide

This is NOT queue in Israel, it is waay to calm and orderly

If you visit Israel as a tourist, or are a new immigrant you may get the conclusion that Israelis do not have the queue-standing gene.

They just seem to stand around in a bunch and then use their elbows to move forward when the train or bus arrives or when going through a building's security entrance.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Praying for rain

As a South African living in Israel, I cannot help but constantly compare the two countries. Of course there are many differences but one of the major similarities is our dependence on rain water. 

And since most of South Africa (though not the Cape area) gets its rain during the summer months and Israel gets its rain during the winter months, we are waiting for the rainy season at the same time. More or less during the month of October. It is then autumn in Israel and springtime in South Africa.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Timeline of a 'situation' in Israel

The word 'situation' has a special meaning in Israel. It is usually used when talking about the security situation in Israel but actually compass quite a wide range of things. Such as the situation that Israel is surrounded by not too friendly neighbours. Or the situation that there are a network of sirens throughout the country to warn us about incoming missiles.

Two weeks ago another type of situation unfolded in Israel and this blogpost describes my own personal experience.