There were two parades taking place on Friday in Tel Aviv. Just a few kilometers from the better exposed of the two, the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade, a smaller group was standing up for its right to make the world a better place in its own way.
Several hundred owners of 100% electric cars from the now-bankrupt, former high-flying hi-tech company Better Place were demonstrating their commitment to a vision of a future free from gas-powered vehicles. The event was both a chance for Better Place owners to draw strength for the fight to come and to send a message to the Knesset and the company’s liquidators who will be meeting later this week that electric powered transportation in Israel is far from dead.
The event was not sponsored by Better Place but by the newly formed Association for Electric Transportation Advancement. Word went out by Facebook and at 2:00 PM, some 150 all-electric Renault Fluence Z.E.’s had gathered at the (closed) Better Place showroom in Herzilya.
My wife and I were there, too – we bought our electric car last September, just days before founder Shai Agassi was ousted and the whole operation became a desperate cat and mouse game of buyers vs. burn rate. I’ve written about it extensively – here’s a link and another.
When Agassi was booted out, we considered canceling our order, but we really believed in the company’s promise. And as every Better Place owner will tell you, there is nothing quite like the smooth, powerful ride of an all-electric car. Was our decision a mistake in hindsight? The next few days will tell. After the Friday gathering, we were cautiously optimistic.
In 1984 I worked on an educational film produced by the Gesher Foundation. Titled “The Journey,” it told the story of a 13-year-old boy during World War II Russia who was being sent off by his aunt to stay safe with distant family. It was also his bar mitzvah, but the boy knew nothing about Jewish coming of age ceremonies. Fortunately, just as the boy is boarding the train, the aunt spots a very assimilated Jewish man from the States. She begs him to teach her son what it means to be bar mitzvah on the long journey. He protests, claiming even less knowledge than his traveling partner, but by the end of the trip, the two have fashioned a make shift bar mitzvah during a daring escape into a Russian forest. Both sides grow and the message on the importance of bar mitzvah is duly imparted, if not overly heavy handed.
Of course, we didn’t have the budget to travel to the former Soviet Union to film (actually, at the time, it wasn’t former yet), so we dressed up the Jerusalem train station with propaganda posters and Russian signage and peppered it with actors in Russian army uniforms. I have a video of the film, which I’ve posted to YouTube and you can see at this link. Watch the beginning few minutes for some 1984 station nostalgia.
So began my long and somewhat intimate link with Jerusalem’s Ottoman era train station. Originally opened in 1892 and closed in 1998, I was probably one of the few people who ever rode the train to Tel Aviv in its waning years. And two of my children went to a kindergarten located right along the tracks (shout out to Shimon!) where one of the daily highlights was the train passing by every morning (by that time, there were only two trips a day).
Following the station’s closing, it fell into serious disrepair, taken over by squatters, drug dealers and some of Jerusalem’s less talented graffiti artists. The track leading from the station was just as decrepit – a narrow line of weeds, mud and rubbish, mostly fenced off, and lined by cars making it the German Colony’s main free parking lot.
All that is a distant memory. Over the last two years, the train track has been transformed into what’s being called by some the most successful community-based urban renewal project in Israel’s history: a 6-km walking, biking and jogging path that leads from the train station itself into the hills outside Jerusalem where it hooks up with a 42-km bike path that circles the city. It’s hard to describe the impact it’s made on the neighborhoods around it – from an empty and dangerous dumping ground to a mixed use, beautifully landscaped space that is now so crowded with families out for a stroll on weekends and holidays that it’s almost defeated its own purpose of providing a refuge from the congestion of the city. But who’s complaining?
The last part of the urban renovation has been the train station itself, which held its formal grand opening last week, on Erev Shavuot. The workmanship is stunning. The station has been restored to its former glory – better, actually, than I ever remember it. The area where the trains once stood is now an enormous 3,000 square meter wooden deck, similar to the Tel Aviv Port, which contains several “stores” built as large glass railway cars along, along with temporary stands which will fill the space on market days: designer clothes, organic food and children’s activities.
The people behind what’s called the First Station are the same as the developers who renovated the train line’s matched pair near Jaffa. But that is considered in many ways a failure. Sure it’s beautiful, but there’s nothing to do other than shop and eat, the establishments there are all on the very high end and, as a result, other than the chic and hopping Vicki Christina bar, the “Tahana” is too often a ghost town devoid of locals.
The developers are going out of their way to ensure that the First Station in Jerusalem beats those blues. The day before the opening, I happened to meet entirely by coincidence Shuli Oded at a social event. Oded is building out the multimedia sound and lighting component of the station that will give it an interactive similar to the annual Old City Light Festival. He explained to me that the station will only succeed if it’s 50% shopping and eating and 50% “culture.”
To that end, on opening day last week, there was a large area set up for dance performances from local professional and student Hora Jerusalem group. A 160-meter art gallery featuring works from Bezalelstudents will be going in. Several shows from the upcoming Israel Festivalwill take place at the station. Public Pilates lessons, yoga and Zumba are all planned.
And on Friday afternoons during the summer, a pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat will be held, similar to the one that draws thousands at the Tel Aviv Port. Nava Tehila, the rock and roll Jewish Renewal congregation that my family is a member of (see my previous post), will be doing four of the summer’s eight Fridays; they started last week and drew a standing room only crowd of hundreds (note to organizers: move it to a larger space). The idea is for the First Station to become the new Jerusalem “town square.”
To be a town square means encouraging interaction, and the First Station will also be an ambitious experiment in coexistence, balancing between kosher and non-kosher, with about half of its establishments open and the other half closed on Shabbat and holidays. The upscale Adom French bistro has moved to the facility and is open on Shabbat, as is a branch of the Landwer coffee chain. But there is also a sign for a kosher “chef’s restaurant” coming soon, and the new Fresh Kitchen will be the country’s first kosher one. The branch of the Tel Aviv-basedVaniglia ice cream chain will serve up its frosty delights on weekends; the RE:Bar smoothie stand will not.
On the opening day last week, the place was packed with many thousands of visitors. The kids had plenty of activities; there were gourmet cheeses for sale and a stand that made popsicles out of real fruit (you chew don’t suck them). A farmer’s market, which will regularly appear on Thursdays and Fridays, sold plenty of fresh from the fields produce. There were artists hawking hand made knick-knacks and a designer clothing section. All these will alternate during the week; we were treated for a one-stop feast.
What else? There will be two bike shops, one for purchase and one for rentals – grab a cycle and head to the adjacent bike path into the woods. And most important – free bathrooms, open on Shabbat (never underestimate the drawing power of a toilet on a long hot stroll).
One glaring error I noticed, however, on a visit a few days before the opening, was a total lack of official signage in English – a strange omission if the site wants to cater to tourists, especially those who have few other places in town that are open on Shabbat. There are lovely descriptions and pictures of the station’s history but all in Hebrew. I brought this up when I met Oded; he informed the entrepreneurs who he said responded with a virtual gasp and pledged to look into the situation immediately.
But that’s just a small quibble. The First Station looks to have the right stuff to boldly thrust itself onto the cultural, culinary and travel circuit. It’s a fabulous addition to the city for those who have never been; for someone like me who has been watching the station for nearly 30 years, it’s nothing short of a Russian revolution…this time not on film.
It was Shavuot 1985. I had finished college and had come to Israel the year before, where I was in the flush of religious epiphany. Everything was new, exciting and, as I gushed to family and friends back home, true – my opinions still untarnished by politics, the wisdom that comes when you’ve got more than 23 years of experience and, god forbid, nuance.
In the midst of a profound roots discovery, which was rapidly displacing my secular upbringing, I imbibed everything Orthodox, the blacker the better. Shavuot – the holiday which commemorates the giving of theTorah at Mount Sinai and which begins this this year on Tuesday night, then, was the pinnacle of my wide-eyed rapture. And the scene at the Western Wall was its most sublime, with tens of thousands of Jerusalemites getting up in the middle of the night (if they slept at all) to walk and dance and sing through the streets order to arrive at the Wall as the sun rose to pray the morning service.
Although I couldn’t think of anything more glorious than Shavuot inJerusalem. I nevertheless left Israel a few years later to go back to the U.S., in order to continue my education. My wife and I got married, our first two kids were born and I launched a career. But I couldn’t get Israel out of my system and, to summarize seven years of deliberation in one sentence: we shocked everyone by actually making good on our threats to do the whole aliyah thing.
When the next Shavuot rolled around, there was no question as to where I’d be. Instead of joining the sea of black hats in the men’s section, though, I decided to pray with the more modern Orthodox congregation I was then a member of that was meeting in the Western Wall plaza area, behind the women’s section. Sexes were segregated, no women were reading from the Torah, there were no women in men’s tallitot and no one was wearing Tefillin (it was the holiday after all), but we were in general proximity without a mehitza.
This did not go over well with the men in black.
The next part will be familiar to anyone who read the news this past Friday when the Women of the Wall group came to celebrate Rosh Hodesh at the Wall. As we tried to soak in the spirituality of the holiday, our group was met by a similar mob screaming epithets and throwing things – plastic bottles of water, chairs, garbage. I was horrified. I wasfrum, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t the reformim that the supposedly modest men (and some women) were calling us. And this wasn’t the Women of the Wall. Police separated the two groups, there was jostling, someone tossed a plastic diaper filled with poop. I wish I was exaggerating here, I really do.
When I walked home from the Wall that Shavuot, I felt changed. The whole kumbaya we’re-all-one-big-Jewish-family message I’d so faithfully adhered to all those years in the Diaspora had been shattered. The Western Wall belonged to someone else and I was not welcome.
I went back the next year and even the year after, but the scene remained the same until eventually the Robinson’s Arch area was opened to egalitarian and more modern forms of prayer without the fear of fecal stoning. I went a couple of times, but it always seemed to defeat the purpose. We’re all supposed to be together, I felt. Robinson’s Arch was nice, but it was like being invited to a wedding then seated in the overflow room with the teenagers and weird cousins.
The truth is, I haven’t been back to the Western Wall for Shavuot since.
It’s taken many years, but it seems that finally the rest of Israel has finally woken up to the hijacking of Judaism’s purportedly most holy site. After the repeated arrests of members of the Women of the Wall group in recent months, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky was tasked with coming up with a proposal that would keep everyone clean.
I won’t go into the full details of his plan – it’s been covered extensively in the Times of Israel and other Israeli news sites – but essentially it aims to join the Robinson’s Arch area with the main Western Wall area, so that you enter both from the same place and then split off into men’s, women’s and a much expanded modern/egalitarian area. It doesn’t change what’s been the status quo for the past decade plus, but it creates spatial parity. I think it’s pretty smart.
It might never get off the ground, of course. Despite Sharansky’s claim that it can be built and implemented in 10 months, it would require physical changes that will quickly turn into an international incident of “Judaizing” Jerusalem. It would require touching the Mughrabi Bridge, which has already been made a cause célèbre for Israel bashing throughout the anti-Zionist world. Israeli archaeologists aren’t too pleased either, since elevating the Robinson’s Arch area to be on the same level (physically if not spiritually) as the rest of the Western Wall plaza could potentially pave over priceless future finds. And the Women of the Wall are not an egalitarian group, they point out, so why shunt them away from the main women’s section?
But it has to be done. The delegitimization of Jews by Jews must be stopped and Sharansky’s proposal is a small but important step in the right direction.
For many reasons – and not just Shavuot – I’ve long since discovered that there is much more gray than black and white in the kind of Judaism I practice, and I no longer pine away for contact with the hypothetical stones of a distant deity. But for those who still do – and for my 23-year-old self, brimming with an enthusiasm crying out to be nurtured not squashed – perhaps next year (this year seems already too late), Shavuot at the Western Wall will embody togetherness not torment, unity and not underwear that should never have seen the early light of dawn.
Jacob’s Ladder is having a musical identity crisis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now in its 37th year, Jacob’s Ladder is best known as Israel’s preeminent folk, country, bluegrass and Irish music festival. Held twice a year at Kibbutz Ginosar north ofTiberius, the spring version just concluded this past weekend. And while there was ample evidence of the festival’s signature fiddle and banjo sounds, the true discoveries this year were the alt and indie singer-songwriters who have increasingly crept in over the past few shows.
Which is good news for fans like me who would never, at any other time, proactively part with their hard earned currency to hear a bluegrass band, but who just love the laid back vibe of the festival, that’s been going strong since 1978 when immigrants Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad realized they missed the folk festivals they left behind ten years earlier upon moving from their native England to Israel. Initially billed as an “Anglo” festival, there is now more Hebrew than English spoken as the children – and grandchildren – of the original 700 Jacob’s Ladder attendees have grown up at the place.
This year, attendance topped well over 3,000 (the parking lot filled up especially early) as the festival has evolved from a single stage in an olive grove on the ground of Kibbutz Mahanayim, where revelers once had to dig their own toilets, to a 3-day extravaganza with multiple simultaneous performances, high-end eco-friendly porta-potties (and showers), and a full food court with roasted chickens for only NIS 45 (the ice coffee wasn’t bad either).
Jacob’s Ladder is also one of the only smoking-free festivals in Israel – the fact that people actually follow the rules is a testament to the positive atmosphere that prevails. Among other people-friendly policies: no high plastic chairs are allowed in the middle of the main performance area. When someone near us dared to try, blocking the views of everyone behind them, my wife asked them to move…and they did.
My friends think I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to preparing for Jacob’s Ladder: I go through the schedule far in advance and listen to YouTube and MySpace clips of all the performers, in order to decide which of the dozens of acts to catch. I was psyched to hear Red Sun Project, the harder-edged version of my break out band from last year, then known just as “Jenny & Gilad.” They did not disappoint, and have just released their first CD (which I bought…one’s got to support the struggling artist, right?). Erez Singer and Tal Cohen Shalev, who I singled out last year as among the festival’s top indie performers, returned with strong sets, too.
But my star billing for 2013 goes to two women who both used an electronic device called a “loop station” to create a virtual orchestra out of a solo (or near solo) performance. A loop station basically records what you sing and starts repeating it. The performer “plays” it like an instrument, turning it on and off and adding layers of sound – a guitar riff, a bit of percussion, a repeated chant – and then sings along to it. At Jacob’s Ladder, Carlie Fairburn (an Australian who performs with her Israeli husband Yosi Chopen) and Tamar Capsouto both mastered the device. Even without it, their gorgeous voices and powerful lyrics would have captured my attention. In Carlie’s case, Yosi also adds a delicious didgeridoo to the mix.
Jacob’s Ladder’s indie pop direction can also be seen in the decision to bring back the Abrams Brothers for the fourth time. When the Canadian country/bluegrass band first appeared in 2007, the emphasis was heavy on the kind of music that wouldn’t be out of place at the Grand Ole Opry. In the last two years, though, the Abrams Brothers (actually two brothers, one just out of his teens, and a cousin) have transformed themselves into a three-piece “boy band” that sounds more like the Eagles than Willie Nelson, with hooks that would play well on any good indie pop radio station. And their cover of Coldplay’s “Vida la Vida” (with its chorus about “Jerusalem Bells”) continues to kill.
There was one more addition this year that made Jacob’s Ladder even more special, for me at least: rock and roll “liturgical” music from Nava Tehila, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Jerusalem that uses acoustic instruments (guitar, cello, harp, darbuka) in prayer and writes all its own music. They were invited to lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Full disclosure: my family is a member of Nava Tehila, so I was already familiar with the tunes, but on stage at Jacob’s Ladder, the Nava Tehila band really got its electrified groove on. It didn’t hurt that one of the tunes they’d previously composed for Lecha Dodi (and that is in regular “rotation” on Friday nights in Jerusalem) is a hee-haw swing-your-partner country number; it could have fit in perfectly in an Abrams Brothers set. It’s not every day you see hundreds of people do-si-do’ing to welcome theSabbath Bride.
Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad would undoubtedly say that there’s no identity crisis at Jacob’s Ladder – that the eclectic musical diversity was part of the patent from day one. And I’ve left out mention of some of the quirkier world music bands like Friday night’s La Vache Qui Rit. I won’t quibble on semantics; Jacob’s Ladder remains my favorite weekend of the year. Its musical evolution – if you know where to look – towards the kind of music I listen to at home simply makes it that much more enjoyable. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Red Sun Project CD to play.
I’m not sure if the oddly wafting odor of mold, or was that mildew, emanating from the walls of Racha, a funky restaurant in the center of Jerusalem specializing in Georgian food (the country, not the U.S. state), was intended to be part of the experience.
Perhaps the smell was meant to evoke memories of the kind of small town inn one finds nestled in the foothills of the country’s Caucasus Mountain Range. More likely, it’s a remnant of the building in which Racha has settled, a mash-up of two former storerooms dating from the British Mandate period. Which is OK if the owners’ lack of scrubbing bubbles is intentional; a means of enhancing the establishment’s authenticity in contrast to casual carelessness, which would suggest a very different calculus.
No matter – the mold was entirely secondary to the food, which my wife and I ordered during a lunch visit to the restaurant this week – food which was both familiar and inventive, to at least this non-Georgian carnivore.
And carnivore you’d better be: the main courses, except for a skewered spring chicken, which my non-red meat eating partner chose, consist of beef and more beef. There are beef patties and beef stew; a couple of lamb entrees round out the cholesterol-busting menu.
The only place meat was banished: the opening salads. There the choices were eggplant, beets, and more eggplant. We started – what we choice did we have, really? – with an eggplant dish called adzhachili which was surprising both in that the promised eggplant strips were actually outnumbered by grilled onions and in the strong spice – perhaps this was the “chili” in the adzaha? We were compelled to order some crusty shutespuri, the Georgian house bread (worth the money in any case), to counter the sting.
Our second starter, beets mixed with nuts and herbs, was if anything even stronger; it would have done a fine job impersonating Yeminite schug in a falafel. If it seems like I’m complaining, you’ve read me wrong: I like my food strong and the insertion of a little heat into these dishes kept them from straying too close to the standard Israeli starter selection.
The business lunch menu is divided into options by price: NIS 79, NIS 89 and NIS 118; each includes different dishes but always with an appetizer, main course, juice, tea and Georgian cookies at the end. For an extra NIS 15, you can get one of the fried meat pastries. On recommendation of both the waiter and David Brinn, who reviewed Racha recently for The Jerusalem Post, we ordered one portion of chibureki – David described it as “fried crescents filled with spicy ground beef.” The dish is reminiscent of the pastilles you can find at Darna, a Moroccan restaurant, nearby in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound neighborhood. The combination of sugary fried dough and more red meat was my favorite part of the meal, in fact.
For main courses, my wife went with the above-mentioned spring chicken, while I chose something called shechamadi which was akin to a beef stew, with fairly fatty cholent-style beef chunks mixed with a casserole of vegetables in a sour, tomato sauce. I added my side of rice into the bowl and came away with a dish that could have come from my mother’s table but had enough ethnic twists to be something else entirely. Ditto on the chicken: shipudim are standard Israeli fare, but the spices in the Racha version were just unusual enough to keep us interested.
Which brings me back to the mold. Racha doesn’t blast your taste buds with an utterly un-Israeli dining experience, as you might have if you went out for, say, Ethiopian food. The spices were subtle but hold your attention, which was important in pushing the building’s ever-present odor aside…at least until the final tea, which our waiter said sheepishly was somehow Georgian but, if I’d demanded entry to the kitchen, would probably have found a box of ordinary Wissotsky black tea hidden in a cupboard.
Still, the combination of olfactory stimulation and a playful turn with the interior design – a medley of antique furniture, old world carpets, chandeliers and, improbably, a collection of shofars – make Racha a place to be visited during an extended trip to Jerusalem.
Ovadia Ched died recently. Most residents of southern Jerusalem have felt his impact – even if they never met the man himself – in their stomachs. Ched was the owner of the eponymous felafel stand that has stood on Bethlehem Road in Baka for nearly 40 years. Ched was 82 when he died after a [...]
The run up to this year’s Pesach Seder included a remarkable – and decidedly disturbing – discovery: no one in our family really likes Pesach. No, it was worse. Some of us really hatePesach. The preparation, the cleaning, even the Seder itself doesn’t rank highly on our list of peak Jewish experiences. How could this be? [...]
I hate grocery shopping in Israel. I might hate it in the Old Country too, but I don’t remember it so well. But here, I have no problem recalling my recoil. The aisles are too narrow, the lines are ridiculously long and slow, the store (in winter) has no heating, and whoever heard of a [...]
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was in the news last month after she announced that the company she heads will no longer support telecommuting. Starting June 1, employees who work from home, all or part of the time, will be asked to report to the office. If they don’t, too bad. The company is even discouraging [...]
My alma mater was all over the Jewish news last week, but not for good reasons. Oberlin College, which I attended as an undergraduate some 30 years ago, has inexplicably seen a number of racist and anti-Semitic incidents in the past month. On February 15, students found a note reading “Whites only” tacked above a [...]