Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Chanukah and Co-existence

Despite what you’re probably hearing in the news, peace and co-existence is alive and well in many communities in Israel.  I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of conflict to go around, but I think that the many people who consciously choose paths towards peace and social justice deserve just as much attention. During the Chanukah break I traveled to Haifa and Akko.  Both are considered “mixed” cities, which is to say that there are a sizable number (compared to other Israeli towns) of both Jews and non-Jewish Arabs living there, mostly peacefully.  In Haifa, approximately 14% of the population is Christian, so it was odd to see so many Christmas decorations after spending the rest of December in places where Christmas holds no significance.  Haifa takes particular pride in its diverse demographics and each weekend in December hosts a festival called the “Holiday of Holidays” which was started by Beit Hagefen, an Arab Jewish Cultural Center, 21 years ago.  Utilizing the confluence of Christmas, Chanukah and Ramadan (the start date of which varies greatly on the Gregorian calendar but was in the winter the year the festival started) as inspiration, Beit Hagefen started the festival to “cultivate and advance tolerance and mutual respect through culture and art.” I walked around the festival and feasted on treats including ful (fava beans), rice and lentils, and roasted chestnuts. My eyes also feasted on many Arab sweets and pastries, which were plentiful.  If peace could be brokered through food alone, Israel and Palestine would both be more than adequately equipped. Eventually I found my way to the Beit Hagefen art gallery, which specifically features art and artists focused on co-existence and dialogue work.  There I viewed several rooms of drawings, paintings, and installations, and watched a short film that drew a comparison between the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Israel.

Another highlight of Haifa was the Bahá’í Gardens.   Founded in 19th century Persia, the Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion whose core teachings are (1) unity of god, (2) “unity of religion – that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same god”; and (3) unity of humanity – “that all humans have been created equal, and that diversity of race and culture are seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance” (Wikipedia).  More points for religious tolerance and peace in Haifa! The Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa are composed of 19 terraces surrounding a shrine to one of the religion’s founders and are a very beautiful site to visit. Wisely, the tour is arranged to start at the top and walk down.  

View from near the top of the gardens.
The shrine and gardens in the background.  The roundabout contains a chanukiah, christmas tree and Muslim crescent moon.

My favorite day of the trip was the one I spent in nearby Akko, a port city which is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world.  The “Old City” features tall city walls, narrow winding streets, and numerous historic sites.  It’s definitely a beautiful trip back in time.  On my way to the Old City I visited Or Torah Synagogue, also known as the Tunisian Synagogue.  Built in 1955, a project to cover the interior walls in beautiful mosaics made from locally produced tiles continues to this day. I met the founder and caretaker who explained to me in Hebrew where to look for the various mosaics, including the location of the sanctuary, the mosaics inside the ark, and the mosaics that continue up the stairway to the women’s section and then to the roof.  I’m sure he explained a lot more, but my Hebrew is still pretty limited, so I was just excited to understand as much as I did. It’s hard to do it justice in photographs, but I’ll share a few shots below. 
The floor of the sanctuary

Floor of the Beit Midrash (or maybe the entryway - I don't remember)

Stairwell in mosaic from floor to ceiling

Eventually I tore myself away from the beautiful mosaics to tour the Old City. Upon arriving in the Old City I headed straight for the shuk to look around and take my place in line at the “best hummus restaurant” in Akko.  It’s the sort of place where they only serve hummus (and ful), they close for the day whenever they run out, and you have to wait in a very packed line of people to get a seat at a table. It was a good chance to practice my Israeli line (amorphous blob) waiting skills, which is to say give up on any notion of personal space, don’t let yourself get pushed around too much, make it clear to anyone who tries to get in front of you that you were there first, and hope for the best. The hummus was delicious and after stuffing myself completely, I strolled down to a local spice and coffee shop I’d read about.  The shop itself is a site to see, as it is full of gourds, pottery sherds, old knives, photographs, and many other artifacts.  I would have taken a photo, but as I spoke with the owner, Hamudi, and watched other tourists bound in for a quick photo, I quickly deduced that he didn’t appreciate it, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.  Hamudi invited me to drink coffee with him before learning about his spices.  Normally I don’t love coffee but his Turkish-style coffee with fresh ground cardamom was delicious and I joined him for several cups while we talked about our respective travels (we both love Spain), Israel, and Akko. Eventually, he gave me a sensory tour of his spices (i.e. I got to smell everything and taste a few). He sources very high quality spices which he grinds himself and he makes several of his own Thai and Indian curry blends.  After more chatting, I bought some spices, observed the coffee making process which led to enjoying one last cup, and then headed out to wander around the Old City and take in the sunset over the bay. All in all it was a perfect travel day complete with beautiful sites and beautiful interactions with wonderful people.

View from outside of the Akko Old City

Minaret in the Old City

Friday, December 26, 2014

Mapping Ramat Eliyahu

As it has been pointed out to me by several people, it’s been a LONG time since my last post.  I arrived in Israel on September 28th and was a bit overwhelmed by the adjustment for a while, and then I just got out of the habit.  Recently in Yahel, we have been completing a community mapping activity as the first step of a year-long group project.  We’re mapping the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood on the periphery of Rishon LeZion where we live, volunteer, learn, and play.  The ten of us Yahelnikim were divided in to two groups to draw the maps and my group’s map was a mash up of literal neighborhood map and assets/challenges identification.  We mostly focused on the Ethiopian community within the neighborhood, as that is the population of focus in Yahel.  The actual map would be hard to post here but I thought I’d introduce you to where I’m living by way of describing our map.

Of course, our apartments were the first places we drew on the map.  Five of us live in each apartment, just a few minutes walk from each other.  Our Yahel neighborhood coordinator lives in the same building as the other Yahel apartment (“other” defined as the one where I don’t live), as does the Kes (Ethiopian religious leader – Ethiopian Judaism is pre-rabbinic).  Down the street is the Matnas (community center) where we take Ulpan (Hebrew) classes, conduct most of our Yahel learning sessions, some people volunteer in the youth open space and learning center, and most importantly, where I go to swim in the early morning hours. Across the street from the Matnas are the Chainayot (small shops) where we and everyone else in the neighborhood buy their fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts, grains, beans and other groceries. Ramat Eliyahu is definitely not a food desert and this might be the most centralized area in the neighborhood.  Almost everyone shops there whether they are young or old, religious or secular, Ethiopian or Russian or Moroccan. There is a grocery store on the edge of the neighborhood, but for many people the Chainayot area is closer.   For the first few weeks of living here, the radius around these four locations made up our primary living zone.

Pedestrian street connecting several of the
residential streets, including mine.

My apartment complex
The Matnas (Community Center) that remains one of the
primary centers of our lives in Ramat Eliyahu.
One of the produce stores, busy with pre-Shabbat shoppers. This intersection
also features one of the only traffic lights in the neighborhood.

Fortunately, little by little we expanded our radius.  Additional assets on our map include the Dome youth center, a satellite of the Matnas open space, where a couple of my housemates and I volunteer.  We’ve also had some challenges at this site as the younger kids seem to be under-stimulated by the space and constantly fight over the one pool table.  We’re hoping to work with the staff to develop some structured activities this year.  Another asset on our map is Project Aztmaut, a key Yahel partner serving Ethiopian families who need a little extra support in education, employment, and family matters, such as navigating the Israeli school system.  On Monday nights we all teach English to children whose families participate in Atzmaut.  Near Atzmaut, the community garden also held a place of honor on our map.  The garden is mostly utilized by older Ethiopians, the majority men. It has helped them reconnect to agricultural traditions which were their livelihood in Ethiopia. For the men who are often underemployed in Israel, it is a venue through which they can provide food for their families, thereby reinstating a sense of pride.  Additional community assets on our map: streets are well-lit at night for safety, the road and sidewalk infrastructure is decent, there are tons of little pocket parks and playgrounds, a fair number of pre-schools, many synagogues including two serving the Ethiopian community, a health clinic (disagreement ensued among the locals about whether or not it provides sufficient services) and a neighborhood pharmacy.

Some of the challenges we identified: there are few pedestrian crossing lights at intersections and no bicycle infrastructure; there are some lottery and gambling establishments mixed among the shops; there’s a fair amount of trash in the neighborhood; and some adults often drink outside the apartment buildings at night.  We identified the Moked Klita (Ethiopian absorption center) as a challenge and asset.  While it provides support services to the Ethiopian community in their neighborhood, it also segregates these services from those received by other immigrant groups, typically at the municipality offices, and therefore does not build the Ethiopian community’s knowledge and capacity to access other governmental resources and services. In our readings and learning, Moked Klitas prove a bit controversial, so we’re still trying to better understand how the one in Ramat Eliyahu impacts the community.  Israel largely struggled with the absorption of the Ethiopian community, which is evidenced today in higher poverty rates, lower employment rates and other socioeconomic indicators.  That topic is rich enough for its own post at a later date. After completing our maps, we also identified a long list of questions, demonstrating that after 2.5 months in the neighborhood, we still have a lot to learn. The Monday before last we presented our maps to the staff of Project Atzmaut and received positive feedback on our maps as well as suggestions of other challenges and assets in the community. Next up for the group project: needs assessment.  Next up for this blog: you’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Paradise, also known as Llanes

I’ve discovered paradise, and its name is Llanes (as long as you’re not a vegetarian, but I’ll get to that in my next post).  The Asturian coast of Spain is incredibly beautiful and I found myself completely spellbound by the town of Llanes.  This post was going to be part of a larger description of my travels through northern Spain, but it demands its own post for the photos alone. To start with, here is the view from the window of my very low budget pension in the historic city center:

Can't beat this view!
View at sunrise
After a brief stroll around the historic part of town and the port, I head off to a local park where there is a paseo (walking trail).  It starts off as a public park with benches and viewpoints and I assume it will just go the length of town.  Then it gets a little more rugged as it continues to hug the coast line which is a never ending series of dramatic jagged cliffs.  At some point I decide to look up the Paseo de San Pedro on my phone and realize that the trail is 15 kilometers (30 km roundtrip) which is a bit much to complete all in one evening. Each view is more stunning than the next though, so I continue on for a while, finding blackberries along the way of course. Part of what makes this hike so amazing is that there is a dramatic coastline on one side of me and a perfect view of the Picos de Europa mountain range on the other.  The two photos below were taken no more than 25 feet apart, facing opposing directions!

Facing the sea.  Wait, am I in Ireland or Spain?
Same spot facing the mountains.
The valley between the coast and the mountains is dotted by little towns and farms where cows and sheep graze.  At one point, I am treated to a chorus of cow (or maybe sheep) bells in the distance that is truly musical. Eventually I reach a side trail to a little beach cove and walk down to the beach to cool off.  The low angle of the sun in the sky is the only motivation I have to turn around.  Finally as the sun drops behind one of the cliffs protecting the beach I can’t put it off any longer and I turn back to Llanes. I’m just as delighted by the views on the way back, which are all new when viewed from the opposite direction.

Happy cows.
The following day I head off on another paseo along the river.  In any other town, I would probably have found this walk charming, but after yesterday’s hike I find it boring, and quickly abandon it for a different paseo along the coastline in the opposite direction of the Paseo de San Pedro. This one is shorter, but importantly leads to the prettiest of the three Llanes town beaches.  Along the way I find this overlook and after climbing out to it am delighted to watch several schools of fish down below.  The water is blue/green and so clear that I can see everything. I think I actually witnessed a school of large fish in a feeding frenzy amongst a very large school of small fish.  They were all getting pretty jostled around by the surf against the cliff wall though, so it was hard to tell. 

Don't worry mom, this natural bridge was not nearly as high as the one in Sedona.
And like the one in Sedona, it was wider than it looks.

One fish, two fish. Hungry fish, happy fish. 
After hanging out at the beautiful Playa de Toro for a little while, I backtrack to one of the other beaches where the surf is gentler to take a dip.  I have never swum in an ocean beach with water this clear!  This beach is alive and I can watch all matter of sea life as I swim around.  There are little crabs scrambling around on the rocks and several varieties of seaweed and small fish swimming below me.  The water is just a beautifully blue/green up close. Interestingly, the entire region is also infused with a subtle floral scent. It was persistent on my hike the day before and even while I’m swimming in the water, I smell the flowers rather the usual salty/fishy smell.  Everything about this town just makes me happy and grateful to be here.

Playa del Toro

My swimming spot. It got a bit cloudy so it doesn't look as blue as it was.
I had only planned for two days in Llanes, and I’m tempted to extend my stay.  However, for once I’ve actually planned out my schedule for the next couple of weeks and have a reservation for a cave visit in Ribadesella on Sunday, so I decide not to rearrange my plans. Between the coastline and the Picos de Europa, which I won’t even enter on this trip, Asturias deserves its own dedicated trip.  I’ll definitely be returning to Llanes to hike the full 15 kilometer Paseo de San Pedro in the future.  Only next time, I’m coming with other people so we can rent an apartment with a kitchen!

View from the port

Friday, September 19, 2014

Medieval Magic (Segovia)

I left Malaga reluctantly, but was soon glad that I did.  If I hadn’t continued on my travels through Spain, I never would have discovered Segovia, which is my new favorite place in Spain.  I planned to stay for three days and ended up staying for five! Segovia, in the Castilla y Leon region northwest of Madrid is a world (ok, just a few hundred kilometers) away from Malaga.  The heart of life in Segovia still takes places in and directly around the old city walls.  A beautiful roman aqueduct, thousands of years old, runs right through the historic center. Beautiful old churches and monasteries abound.  The Alcazar (castle) is said to have been Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Beauty and the Beast castle. Beautiful green mountains are visible in the distance. All of this gives Segovia a sense of both magic and mystery. It’s a small city (pop. 50,000) so it’s very tranquil and surrounded by green spaces and two rivers.  Also, the people are really friendly!

In front of the aqueduct

When I arrived at my hostel, Blanca, who runs the hostel along with her friend Guillermo, gave me a map and pointed out all the highlights of the city.  She mentioned the location of a community garden and when I expressed interest in seeing it, she told me she and her friends have a plot, and I was welcome walk there with her if I wanted.  And so my time in Segovia began with a couple hours spent harvesting tomatoes and weeding garden beds in the most beautifully situated community garden I’ve ever seen, below the old city walls and irrigated by natural springs. Blanca pointed out to me an edible weed and asked if I knew it, and I realized it was purslane, which thanks to Martha in Silver City, I know is delicious.  Apparently I was the only one interested in eating it, so I created my own little purslane pile separate from the weeds.  Sauteed with onion and scrambled eggs, it made a great meal the following day! After gardening, I walked with Blanca and her friend Maria to a local bar en route to bring their veggies to the hostel, carrying a bag overflowing with tomatoes on one arm and a stalk of basil in my other hand. They told me I looked like a local and now I just needed to learn one phrase to sound like one too – “¿Que paja (paha), maja (maha)?”  Apparently Segovians says their “s” as a “j,” which in Spanish sounds like the English “h.” So this phrase is actually “¿Que pasa, maja?” to anyone outside of Segovia and basically translates to “how’s it going, friend?”  Armed with the magic words, I waived my basil wand and POOF, Rachel transformed to Raquel, from Segovia.

Segovia community garden (foreground) beneath the
old city walls.
Another day I took a long walk around the city, stopping every 20-30 minutes to pick blackberries from the abundant bushes.  If anyone every questions whether or not blackberries are an invasive plant, I invite you to visit Segovia, where blackberry branches climb up and over entire trees! When I left Germany I thought I had said goodbye to berries for the season, so although the Spanish berries are smaller and less juicy due to drought, this discovery was exciting. By the end of my afternoon-long stroll, I’d gathered enough blackberries to munch on for breakfast for the rest of the week. I also discovered on this walk, that the Alcazar is best enjoyed by circling the city.  I’d visited it the day before and been unimpressed by the interior and even the view from the front, but you just can’t beat this view from down below.

No, this is not a movie set backdrop - it really does
look this amazing.
Other highlights included a visit to a monastery, the massive palace gardens in a nearby town, a little museum about local cuisine, and a guided tour of a local photography exhibit in which I was the only non-native Spanish speaker, and I understood almost all of it! The old pre-Inquisition Jewish cemetery is somewhat preserved and the historic Jewish neighborhood still stands, although there’s little Jewish about it today other than the names of a few restaurants.  One restaurant, the Judería, serves Indian food tapas, and they’re actually not bad!  How’s that for cultural fusion? A tiny two-room museum about Sephardi Jews was unimpressive and not that informative unless you know nothing about Judaism, but I’m looking forward to my visit to the synagogue and museum in Toledo at the end of my trip. Magically, in a region known for its grilled meat, I found several vegetarian-friendly menus that also fit all my current dietary restrictions, despite the fact that the actual vegetarian restaurant in town was closed because the owners were on vacation. The aspect of Toledo I enjoyed the most was the people.  I had many nice conversations with Blanca and Guillermo and their friends, as well as shop and restaurant owners.  At the end of my time in Segovia, Blanca and Guillermo provided many suggestions for my travels in northern Spain and even printed out a map of the narrow gauge railroad line running across the northern coast.  They invited me to return for a longer stay and gave me my first night’s stay free for helping in the garden plot, which was a rather unexpected and nice surprise. I’ll definitely be returning there at the first opportunity I get.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Malaga, My Spanish Home

Note: I'm a bit behind on posts - so I was actually in Malaga at the end of August/beginning of September

I travel from southern Germany to Malaga, Spain at the end of August, via a trip which took as long as it would have to fly from NY.  One tram, three trains, two flights, and two bus rides later, I arrive at the door of the apartment where I lived for several months in college, seven years ago.  And I am home, sort of.  My host mother, Esperanza, is awesome as always and I appreciate being able to reconnect with her.  Her apartment is just as I remembered it and as I enter she tells me “you know where your room is.”  It feels great to be speaking Spanish again, especially after a month in Germany, where communication was sometimes challenging. Certain sensory memories are very vivid, like the smell of the kitchen and the sweet intoxicating floral smell on the beautiful terrace, which I have always associated with summer in Malaga and which I finally learn is the smell of jasmine in bloom. Please note, that someday when I settle down into a stable home again, I’d like a jasmine plant as a housewarming gift.  And depending on where I live, maybe a greenhouse to keep it alive. Oddly though, the neighborhood is busier and a little dirtier than I remember, and there are far more shops and businesses on Esperanza’s street than I initially recall.  The plaza near the house is not what I remember, although I soon discover the plaza I picture in my head is just a bit farther down the road.  I think it’s likely that over the last seven years, I’ve changed more than the city has, and certainly the plaza didn’t move, just that my memories restructured over time.  It’s so strange that this happens!  Compared to New York City, Malaga is still clean and quiet and that was probably my main point of comparison at the time I lived there. As I walk around the neighborhood and the nearby downtown “El Centro” over the next week, I start to remember more streets, businesses and other sites, including the businesses on the street where I lived, and I can’t figure out if memories begin coming back to me as I take the time to notice each storefront and plaza or I just form new ones that overwrite the originals. Probably a little of both

Over the first few days, I spend most of my time hanging out with Esperanza, her parents and her sister’s family.  Her sister Cristi’s kids who were 3, 5, and 7 at the time I lived here are now teens and pre-teens, and I get to meet sweet Alejandra, born the year after I left.  We go to the beach and have big family meals, where I completely lose track of the multiple conversations taking place in rapid fire Spanish buried under thick Malagueño accents in which entire syllables are dropped from words. I receive cooking lessons from Esperanza once again and delight in preparing gazpacho, veggie paella and farinata (this last one is Italian, not Spanish).  It’s extremely hot and air conditioning is scarce. Because it’s so refreshing one day I actually drink Gazpacho with breakfast, lunch, and dinner!  I’m more hooked on Gazpacho now than I ever was when I lived here.

One other highlight for me was a visit to La Concepcion botanical garden which I never visited when I lived in Malaga.  Esperanza’s father Miguel is the president of the local “Friends of La Concepcion” association so I get my own personal guided tour and learn the history of the garden and all its secrets like the gazebo where your voice reverberates if you stand dead center and the curved bench where you can whisper back and forth with someone if you talk into the far corners.

Miguel, me, and Esperanza outside the La Concepcion garden.

Me, Esperanza (mother), Esperanza (daughter) in the garden.
A few days after I arrive, Esperanza leaves for a month-long trip to Budapest, to consult on the opening of a Spanish restaurant by a group of investors there.  I fall into a very slow-paced rhythm.  Sometimes I go to the Mercado Central for vegetables and I chat with the vendors in Spanish.  One night I go to a language exchange at a nearby bar where I practice my Spanish with locals and they practice their English with me.  I go to the beach almost every evening, once the crowds have left and the sun is less intense. It’s one of the only times of day in which I’m not unbearably hot and a dip in the Mediterranean completely revives me.  I’m excited that the city where I’ll be living in Israel is also coastal, as I’d forgotten how much I missed it after six years in a landlocked desert.  I visit Alcazaba, the fortress/palace built in the 9th century and rebuilt continuously thereafter, which plays a prominent role in both Malaga’s history and its landscape.  It’s visible from Esperanza’s terrace and I walk past it daily to get to the beach, so for me it is quintessential Malaga.  On the evenings I’m home, I practically live on the terrace where the air is cooler and the jasmine scent surrounds me.  I feel the need to mention here that for the people who actually live here, life is not a perpetual vacation – they have responsibilities just like the rest of the world.  And, crushing unemployment combined with the slashing of public services in an attempt to stem the bleeding of a poor economy have seriously reduced the quality of life for many Spaniards, a topic on which Esperanza gives me her perspective one night over dinner.  But for me, during my brief visit, life is pretty good in Malaga.

Street view of Alcazaba
Alcazaba inner garden

As I start to plan the next leg of my trip, I realize I really don’t want to leave Malaga!  It’s familiar, relaxed, I have this wonderful apartment to myself with a kitchen, and a terrace, and my own bedroom, and the beach is within a twenty minute walk. On the other hand, I set out on this trip to see parts of Spain that I hadn’t visited seven years ago, and I’m pretty lazy in Malaga. Plus, my daily interactions seem to be decreasing the longer I stayed, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to practicing Spanish.  Still, I panic a little at the idea of leaving.  Fortunately, the next day I go to visit a great exhibit by a Spanish impressionist painter, Darío de Regoyos (side benefit – art museums have air conditioning!).  Regoyos was from País Vasco in north-central Spain and the northern landscape is the subject of many of his paintings.  They are beautiful and like nothing I’ve ever seen before in Spain.  This helps a little in convincing myself that unless I leave Malaga to travel around, I might never know the other Spanish towns that I will love.  So, still a bit ambivalent, I board a train to the north!
Street in Malaga city center (El Centro)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Prague and Judaism

I actually wrote most of this post while I was in Prague, in early/mid-August but my thoughts about the Jewish museum and my other Jewish experiences there spilled out into a four page post, so I managed to consolidate it a little.

I spent three very full days in Prague, and would have been happy to stay for twice that time, at least. Prague is a very beautiful city, which I hope to visit again.  Because it was not bombed (except for one apparent U.S. Air Force navigation mistake in 1945 – thanks Wikipedia!) during World War II, it has an incredible amount of old gothic, renaissance, and other beautiful styles of pre-communism architecture. Below are a couple of examples, but if you tried to take a photo of every beautiful building, you’d never actually get anywhere.  Additionally, it has a large number of parks and green spaces, making it easy to escape the city noise and check out a great view of the city. Overall the three main activities of my Prague experience were parks, music and Judaism.
Scenic Overlook
Fancy Architecture in the Old Town Square
Parks – On day one I went on a long walk through one park to another, where the Prague castle is located.  I found the exterior of the castle pretty boring, but the gothic church located within the complex is beautiful.  On day two, I visited Vysehrad castle, which is an ancient fortification on a hill over the river.  There is evidence there of habitation back to the 10th century and it was built upon over and other through the gothic and renaissance periods until the 19th century. More recently, a national cemetery of important figures in Czech society was created.  I saw Dvorak’s grave and then listened to some of his music played that night! I also took a nearly vertical tram ride to Mala Strana, where there are ruins of an old fortication, rose gardens, an observatory, and some other historic features. On the way down I found an old orchard!  I couldn’t resist picking a few apples for snacking, but didn’t load my bag up like in Werder.  Being in the orchard made me so happy – I think there’s a food harvesting theme to my happiest travel discoveries.
Fancy Architecture and a Park!

Music – There’s an unusual number of music concerts in Prague each night.  I suspect this is mostly due to the large number of tourists and the very affordable tickets, but the musicians are excellent and the tourism is probably a lot less dependable outside of the summer months, so it still must be a high priority in the city. On Saturday night I attended a string ensemble concert in yet another beautiful historic building and then on my way back across the Charles Bridge, was delighted to find a cello quartet, who appeared to be students at the local music academy. The following night I considered going to a free concert given by conservatory students, but in the end opted to go swimming at a local swimming area instead.  I needed some relief from the heat!

View from the Charles Bridge gothic gate
Judaism – When I arrived in Prague on Friday I decided that I really wanted to attend a Shabbat service to see what a Czech service is like. I did found a couple of liberal congregations and ended up at a tiny congregation near the Jewish quarter. A couple days later at the Jerusalem Synagogue I discovered that this congregation, Beit Simcha, was the first liberal congregation in Prague started over 25 years ago. They happily welcomed me to their service and their siddurs were in Hebrew, Czech and English. Interestingly, the service was almost entirely in Hebrew, which made it easier to follow along.  However, the transliteration was based on Czech phonetics and almost completely foreign to me, so I got a good refresher on actually reading Hebrew – mine was a little rusty after 6 years in Silver City.  After the service I stuck around for the Oneg and got to chat with the rabbi a little more as well as a congregant who was a Hungarian-Austrian Jew whose family fled to Bulgaria where they had business contacts during the Holocaust, whose grandparents are from Boston, and who has lived in Prague for 30 years. He had some interesting stories to tell! We also had an interesting conversation about the experience of survivor’s guilt in his family.

On my last day in Prague I went to the Jewish Museum, which is actually composed of several sites in the old Jewish ghetto, each focusing on a different aspect of Prague Jewish history.  These included synagogues, a ceremonial hall which now contains a display about Jewish burial societies, and the Jewish cemetery. My favorite synagogue was the Old-New (Staronová) Synagogue, which is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe, built in the 13th century.  The floor level is sunken below street level, so it feels as if you are entering a secret passage as you pass through the doorway.  It’s less ornate then some of the others but still awe-inspiring in its gothic gables and large ark and bimah. Also, this synagogue is the center of the Golam of Prague legend, adding to the sense of mystery. This synagogue is currently used by a Prague Orthodox congregation and an interesting though occurred to me as a I sat in the sanctuary appreciating that I was sitting in a spot where Jews have sat and prayed and learned for over 700 years.  If I had attended a service at this synagogue (probably even today as it appears to be used by an Orthodox congregation), I would not be able to sit and appreciate the simple beauty of this historical sanctuary – I would have been relegated to the women’s sections located on the perimeter with plain, unadorned walls, hard cement benches and completely separated except for small slits in the wall that enable the women to hear the service. Odd that as a tourist I can appreciate this beautiful site, but as a Jewish woman I would not be permitted. 

            The most powerful site for me was the Pinkas Synagogue which serves as a memorial to Bohemian and Moravian Jews killed in the Holocaust.  It is not currently used as a synagogue, but instead all of its walls in the sanctuary are covered with the names and dates of birth and death of all of the victims, organized by community. The other part of the Pinkas Synagogue is a display of artwork by children living in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) internment camp from 1942-1944.  While most of the children died, we are given a glimpse of their interpretation of life in the camp, everyday activities, and their hopes for the future.  As I continue to visit Jewish and Holocaust sites on my travels through Europe I am constantly reminded of the incredible number of Jews murdered and how this represented ~67% of all European Jews, and up to 90% in countries like Poland and Germany.  Even after so many years of reading about various aspects of the Holocaust, I’m still struck by the sheer volume. What a different experience it would be to travel as a Jew in Europe today if the Holocaust had never happened.  At some moments during my travels in Germany and Prague I find myself getting angry about this, which surprised me since I’ve been aware of these horrible events and statistics most of my life. Because the war in Gaza is also at its height during my time in Germany, as I learn more about the events of the holocaust in specific communities and sites, I struggle about my decision to live in Israel this year.  While I certainly don’t support the actions of Hamas, I also don’t understand how a government, claiming to represent the Jewish people who have lost so much, can turn around and destroy the lives of so many innocent, oppressed Palestinian civilians. Of course, we are seeing this violence and genocide across many countries right now including Syria, Iraq, Nigeria to name just a few.  Also during this time, unarmed Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, MO and as riots break out I am reminded of the incredible disparities and violence experienced by communities of color in the U.S. as well.  I’m frustrated as I take all this in, and not sure how to further articulate my thought right now, but I look forward to exploring these topics more in the social justice-focused program in which I will be participating in Israel.

            The Jewish Museum is one of the most visited sights and Prague, and completely packed with tourists during my visit. While some synagogues strike a balance between functional synagogue and exhibits, others are purely a museum, despite the fact that there are congregations in Prague that could be using them.  For background, it is said that so many synagogues and artifacts of Jewish history were preserved in Prague because the Nazis planned to create a museum in Prague of the “annihilated race.”  And in some of the sights, it really does feel like people are flocking from all over the world to learn about a people who no longer exist.  I find in both Prague and Germany that most Jewish sights focus so much on the Holocaust that they do a poor job of educating the public about the living Jewish community today.  The final site I visited in Prague was the Jerusalem Synagogue which is not part of the Jewish Museum and therefore was thankfully nearly free of tourists.  My favorite part of this synagogue, which is still in use, was an exhibit discussing events in the Jewish community in Prague and the Czech Republic from 1945 to the present.  Czech Jews, as well as Jews who fled to the Czech Republic from Poland, still faced quite a bit of anti-semitism from the Communist regime.  However, there are numerous stories of survival and perseverance.  I appreciated this exhibit because while the Jewish communities in much of Europe today are relatively small, I still have been seeking information about what those communities are like today.  Plus, I think it’s an important part of the story that should be told to the general public, that Jewish culture and practice continue in Europe today.  At the same time that we mourn the catastrophic losses from the Holocaust, I want to celebrate living Jewish communities, especially through a social justice lens.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Werder, fruitopia

I find I’ve been having a hard time sitting down to write these blog posts.  Initially train rides presented a good opportunity, but lately I’ve been socializing with my fellow passengers. On my last trip back from Wismar, a Baltic Sea town in northern Germany, I found myself sitting with a group of Spaniards studying nursing in Germany.  I had a great time speaking in Spanish with them, and they were excited as they speak little German or English, so I think this was a rare encounter for them.  They taught me a couple of games using a special Spanish deck of cards, which they gifted to me at the end of our train ride.  Now I’ve got to find people to teach me some more games with the cards when I head to Spain in September.

Anyway, rewinding back in time a couple of weeks, I’d been feeling overwhelmed by urban Berlin, so Nikki suggested I take a day trip to Werder, a small town near Potsdam, reachable with public transit. The old town is technically an island in the River Havel. It was my perfect sight-seeing day! Unfortunately, I was there on the only day in which the museum and windmill are closed, but I checked out some of the historic buildings in the old town area and the town square.  I walked a path along the Havel River for a little while.  The path dead-ended at a community of garden houses.  Basically, they are a block of allotments, dominated by gardens, but each also contains a little house for short-term stays.  This concept began in the mid-1800s as industrialization brought more people to the cities, but the poor suffered from malnutrition, so cities began to let them grow their own garden plots.  Over time it evolved into more of a social/nature movement and then again focused on food security during both World Wars.  Now they seem to mostly offer an escape from urban life, although many are still used to grow food as well.  Saskia and Andrew had told me about one of these communities in which Saskia’s aunt and uncle live in Amsterdam, but I was disappointed not to actually see it.  Turns out that I didn’t need to be disappointed, because these allotments are all over Germany – I’ve seen them from train and bus windows and walking around communities. According to Wikipedia, there are 1.4 million garden allotments across Germany.  However, the community in Werder was the first I saw up close, so I was still excited.
Market Square, and oldest urban center on the island.
The right to hold markets here was granted in 1459.

A picturesque view along the Havel River.
Doesn't it make you want to live there?

One of the best features of Werder (from my local agriculture-oriented view of the world) is that it is a traditional fruit-growing region for Germany.  Recently, the community developed Panoramaweg, a path interconnecting many of the fruit growing locations so that visitors can walk or bike between them, visit the growers, and sample the produce.  This seems like a great cultural and economic development.  
A cute and interactive bus stop mural celebrating
Werder's history of fruit cultivation.
I only visited a couple of these sites on the path, because I chose to take the portion of the path that goes to Petzow.  Petzow is referred to as a castle, partly because the manor house has turrets, but it is basically a historic estate that has been turned into a park. It’s a bit of a distance from Werder, so I began to wish I had a bicycle, which was clearly a highly used form of transportation among the locals who whizzed by me. On my way to Petzow I picked wild blackberries until my fingers and tongue were purple, and found an interesting garden/restaurant/store complexes with greenhouses and a farm nearby. I detoured to the store to check out the local wares and ended up buying dried Sanddorn (Sea-buckthorn in English) berries which were grown nearby. They’re touted to be high in Vitamin C and other nutritients, but quite sour, so I’ve had to mix them in with other foods.

I finally reached Petzow and began to explore the park and structures. A couple of the structures, such as the church are still in use.  The washhouse was restored and now houses as small museum.  However, most of the buildings have been restored but stand empty, with small descriptive signs in front for visitors. 
Historic Petzow Church completed in 1842.

Former fire engine house.
They are interconnected by walking paths and surrounded by big trees and views of the river. The manor house was inhabited by the family until 1945 and then used for “training and recreational purposes until 1990.”  I assume this is East German occupation code for something, but I don’t quite know what.  It was then a hotel and restaurant, which seems to have been vacated within the last couple of years.  Now the manor house is starting to show signs of neglect.  It is surrounded by fruit trees, mostly apple and plum, which also appear to be neglected.  Not wanting the trees to feel too neglected, and missing my normal Silver City fruit harvest tradition, I couldn’t help but pick some apples.  I ended up walking back towards Werder to catch the bus to Potsdam with a backpack full of no less than 24 apples.  It was a slightly heavier walk and uphill, but well worth the effort.  I walked back feeling fully relaxed and content to be walking in the countryside, having enjoyed my own little fruit harvest - my version of a perfect sight-seeing day!

My generous apple tree, with a portion of the abandoned
manor house in the background.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nederland, the beautiful land

After a few uneventful weeks in New York/Florida, my travel adventure began in earnest last week in the Netherlands. Saskia and Andrew met me at Schipol airport in Amsterdam at the conclusion of their two month cycling trip. We took a whirlwind walking and tram tour of the city the following day.  I had the pleasure of observing Amsterdam’s extensive bicycle and tram infrastructure.  It’s a relatively quiet and pleasant smelling large city as a result.  We checked out a turn of the century (20th) public housing project, Het Schip, which was notable because of the sense of social responsibility and value with which it was created. Architecturally it is very unique, both beautiful and funky with odd little curves, carvings and towers. At the time of construction, the public was shocked and outraged by the architect’s use of bricks and stone facing the “wrong” direction and roofing tiles used on vertical walls.  Each of the buildings was given unique features and all were constructed using extremely expensive materials because the housing association believed that the poor deserved good housing as well.  It was suggested by a tour guide who we briefly hovered near that the railroad owners also feared a socialist uprising and revolution and therefore invested a large sum in the project.  In any case, the beautiful national historic sites are still reserved for low-income housing today, evidence of the country’s continued commitment to social equity.

Het Schip
 I had visited the Anne Frank House and Jewish History museum on a previous visit, so I spent a few hours in the Versetz (Resistance) Museum learning about the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII.  The Dutch were none too happy to be invaded by Germany, so their resistance was more general to the occupation and not always specific to Nazi discrimination and war crimes. Despite extensive efforts to keep Jews and resistance workers in hiding and a very active industry counterfeiting documents, of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands prior to the war, only approximately 30,000 survived and of those, 8,000 were sterilized. And that was in a country in which the vast majority of citizens did not support the Nazi party.

After our day in Amsterdam we headed to Oosterbeek for a long weekend at Saskia’s Aunt Mirjam and Uncle Henk’s house. On Friday we enjoyed an all day barbecue with the large van Hecke clan.  The following day we borrowed bikes and rode to the Open Air museum in nearby Arnhem, up one of the country’s only “mountains.”  The Open Air museum was incredible because the creators took historic buildings from all around the Netherlands to educate the public about history and culture throughout the country and across time periods.  There are also demonstrations of many old techniques including paper milling, cooking oil milling/pressing, printing, cheesemaking, sawmilling, etc.  A highlight of this museum for me was watching a windmill being turned into the wind and the sails tied out to catch the wind.  The entire windmill was on a wheel track and was turned by attaching a cable to a post and tightening the cable by two people hand-turning a winch around which the cable is wound to turn the building.  The process is repeated until it is in the desired position.  In larger windmills, only the top portion of the building is turned.

The following day Henk and Mirjam led us on an all day walking tour of the region, through gardens, creeks, and flood plains to the Rijn (Rhine) River.  There we viewed a sluice used to control the river flow and all the related canals in order to both control flooding and ensure sufficient flow for boat travel on all canals during the drier season. Between this system and the drainage system of canals to dry agricultural land, originally achieved using windmills and now with electric pumps, the Netherlands has truly mastered water engineering while still balancing environmental conservation with human use. We continued on to a local castle and then headed back to house through the forest where we were able to view the roads and remnants of several historic estates. Now (Monday) I’m on a train to Berlin where I can’t wait to see more Silver City friends!

In conclusion, the Netherlands is an amazing country and I will definitely be visiting it again for a longer stay.  Also, if you want to be a water engineer or a transit planner, go study in the Netherlands.  They’re kilometers ahead of anyone else.

Route 66...and a bunch of other Routes

Due to my travel preparations and other distractions, I neglected to post this entry, mostly written on my way to NY a month ago.  But now I’ve got all the time in the world thanks to 6 hour train rides.

On my drive to New Mexico five and a half years ago, I was amazed by the number of trucks on the road, as I hadn’t previously spent a lot of time on east-west highways.  I was also interested in the cliché sightings such as oil drills and cowboys in Texas.  These things were no longer of note this time around, thanks to the time I’ve spent living in the southwest and extensive driving in both directions on I-10 to get to an airport.  So here are a selection of things that I learned on this road trip:

  •        Dr. Seuss must have spent time in NM – I’ve long thought that Dr. Seuss must have been inspired by NM flora in his illustrations.  I submit for evidence this photo of a century plant in bloom.  For those unaware, these things throw up thick stalks that look like giant asparagus and literally grow several inches, maybe even a foot, per day.  The below photo is admittedly from Silver City, so not technically part of the road trip:

Agave/Century plant
  • Then, in northeastern New Mexico, I drove past a town named Zuzax, which seems to be straight out of Seuss.
  •   Farmers need their own dating service.  In a Motel 6, I decided to turn on the TV, a novelty since I don’t own one.  I saw a commercial for FarmersOnly.Com, a dating service for “ranchers, farmers, and” country dwellers, featuring actors dressed from the 90s, dogs and cows “talking” about how the humans will never find someone on the farm, with a closing line of “city folks just don’t get it.” I suppose a farming-specific dating service actually makes sense, but nonetheless this commercial seemed ridiculous.  It was actually the only entertaining thing on TV that night, but maybe you had to see it.
  • Oklahoma is windy.  And humid.
  • The City Museum in St. Louis, MO is amazing.  It’s an old warehouse that has been turned into a giant playscape built with recycled industrial materials including slides, caverns, “trees”, etc.  The best views of the city may be from the rooftop ferris wheel.  Go see it. St. Louis is also humid.
  • Cincinnati is full of fun activities.  My aunt and uncle and cousins and all their friends would like me to tell you this, as they kept emphasizing it on my visit.  It’s actually true though, despite the humidity.
  • New York charges an arm and a leg for the pleasure of sitting in hours of traffic to enter the southern portion of the state, where you get to sit in more traffic.  Here the humidity is intermittent.  
     Glad the driving part of my journey is over.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


My multi-week southwest backpacking trip with friends turned into a roller coaster 4-day excursion, and then a week back in Silver City. We did manage a brief visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and a hike to Humphrey's Peak - the tallest in Arizona, as well as some smaller hikes. See photographic evidence.

At the North Rim of the Grant Canyon
Dwarfed by an Aspen Grove
Ali, Ben, and I on Humphrey's Peak.  There was still some snow
near the peak despite the AZ sun and June heat.

I returned to Silver City which feels like home, but since I already gave up my apartment, I didn't technically have a house.  I stayed in my friend Amber's guest room and trying to earn my keep by doing dishes, cooking dinner, and putting all the clean dishes away in all the wrong places so that my visit won't soon be forgotten.

On the upside, this change in plans gave me a bit more time to actually plan my drive across the country to New York, take my time on the drive, and say more thorough goodbyes to the people and places I love in southwest New Mexico. I'm currently in Ohio visiting family, so I'll write a post on the entire road trip once I complete it.

A couple of people asked about how to receive blog posts by e-mail.  I've added a feature for this on the right hand side of the page.  Just enter your e-mail address and hit submit and my posts will arrive directly to your inbox.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A beginning

Welcome to my new blog!  I hope you'll tune in as my adventures take me across the globe.  I'm not exactly sure where my travels will ultimately lead me, hence the title of the blog.  However, for the next year I'm focused on culture, good food, social justice, and learning.