Are you happier than an Israeli?

12 Apr

The United Nations recently published its “2013 World Happiness Report.” Consider yourself lucky If you’re sitting in a Copenhagen cafe and sipping a latte, enjoying a Danish.  Denmark was ranked as No.1 in the Happiness Index.  The Danish people avoid conflict; they did not take sides during World War II, they value the environment and they help each other out.  Makes you want to throw them all into the Atlantic.

2013 United Nations "World Happiness Report"

2013 United Nations “World Happiness Report”

But if they’re No. 1, what about the rest of us?

First off, we must define “Happiness.”  I’m not a social psychologist, but the United Nations report attempted to evaluate people’s happiness on two levels: 1.  Emotion: “Were you happy yesterday?”  2.  Evaluation: “Are you happy with your life as a whole?”

Researchers recognize that Happiness has “changed” over time.  In the days of the Greek philosophers it had more to do with a person’s moral character and whether that person had “purpose,” “passion,” and “thrived.”  Since 1800, Happiness has shifted and has more to do with material conditions: income, money, and consumption.

I think it was billionaire Donald Trump who was once told that money can’t buy happiness.  His response?  “You just don’t know where to shop.”

So the United Nations went out and interviewed thousands in each of the 156 countries in the report.  People were asked if they felt good today and how they felt about their lives 5 years down the road.  Some “thrived,” some “struggled” and some “suffered” – all based on answers to questions on health, income, education, social support.

Jews in Israel complain, bitch & moan, kvetch.  So it’s a surprise that Israel came in at…number 11.happy face

Other than Northern European countries, Israel came out ahead of Mexico (16), USA (17), England (22), France (25), Germany (26), Spain (38), Italy (45), Russia (68), China (93), India (111).

So, why are Israelis happy?

One measure was longevity.  Israelis live longer.  Healthcare is decent and affordable.  Standard of living was another.  Although home prices are skyrocketing, homeownership is high.  But the number 1 contributor to happiness, according to the UN report, is “social support.”

The social support, the connectedness, are engrained in the Jewish and Israeli DNA.  They look out for one another.  I assume it has to do with history.  To survive, they always had to stick together.

Israelis complain, but hey, at least they complain together.

I teach English in Nazareth and in Zefat.  During a night class, the school security guard comes into class.  “Your car lights are fading off,” he says.  “You’re battery’s dead.”  The students immediately offer help and suggestions.  One woman student gets on her cell phone.  She’s calling her husband and from the tone of her voice it doesn’t appear he has a choice.  Five minutes later, in the parking lot, the student’s husband jump starts my car, and before long, he tells me his life’s story and plans.

In onion field with my dog Max

In onion field with my dog Max

Israelis connect with ease at home and overseas. I’m at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.  There’s a map of pre-war Europe on the wall.  A man next to me points at Germany.  Within minutes, we strike up a conversation, debate.  We’re no longer in a foreign land but rather at a street corner in Israel.

Don’t get me wrong.  All this “togetherness” has its price.  There are times that you do want some privacy, a chance to breathe, a moment without someone offering opinions, asked for or not.  You might be a renowned doctor and an Israeli plumber will tell you how to perform by-pass surgery.  You might be a great criminal lawyer, but an Israeli law student will tell you how to defend your client.

Israelis know better.

But at the end of the day, it’s familiar, like an old sweater.

I’m sitting at a cafe in Galilee, Israel.  I’m sipping Turkish coffee (77) and munching on a bar of Swiss chocolate (3).  Can’t be all bad.

Are you happy?

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

 

Jerusalem of Gold, Dollars, Euros

29 Mar

The year is 1971 and I’m on board a Greek ship sailing from New York to Israel.  The ship’s captain is throwing a dinner party in the ballroom.  The mood’s festive and gay.  Passengers dance, hold balloons by strings.  Israelis and other nationalities hold hands and circle the dance floor.  Age 16, I sit on a comfortable armchair and watch the spectacle.  Then, the music stops.  Dancers stop in mid-step.  A woman approaches the stage, taps the microphone a couple of times, casts her hand over her eyes to block the stage lights.

Overlooking Jerusalem

Overlooking Jerusalem

She sings “Jerusalem of Gold:”

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells…..
Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Am I not a violin for all your songs.

 

When she’s finished, there isn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine.  Israelis, Europeans and Americans cheer and clap.

Four years earlier, following the 1967 Six-Day war, Israel, the underdog, wrested East Jerusalem from the Jordanians.   Euphoria was at its peak.

Jerusalem Apartment Building

Jerusalem Apartment Building

Fast forward more than 40 years, to 2014.  Jerusalem is no longer a sleepy town nestled in the Judean Hills.  Instead, it’s home to 800,000 residents, 10% of Israel’s total.  Its population is double that of Tel Aviv, it’s land area is greater than Paris.

And its challenges are greater than all of Israel’s cities.  A Forbes Magazine survey rated Tel Aviv as Israel’s No. 1 city.   Jerusalem was not even in the top 10.

Why?

Jerusalem’s population tells the story.  Depending on your political persuasion, Israel “annexed” “occupied” “liberated” “united” East Jerusalem in 1967.  That came with a price: Arabs and immigration from overseas.

1/3 of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab, mostly all in East Jerusalem.  The remaining 2/3 are split evenly between Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and Secular Jews.

Imagine you’re the Mayor of Jerusalem, Israel’s state capital.  Given the complexities, try running the city for a day.

Good luck.

Jerusalem apartment interior

Jerusalem apartment interior

My wife Pnina and I are in Jerusalem for a couple of days.  We’re staying at a quaint hotel, taking in the sights, enjoying the food and markets.  We’re also checking out the real estate.

Jerusalem is not Manhattan, but when it comes to home prices, it might as well be.  The prices are closer to God, than to mortals down on earth.

Two women real estate agents greet us at noon.  They’ve prepared a list of homes to view.  We pile into their car and off we go to Rehavia, the German Colony, Bak’a, Ein Kerem, Katamonim – some of Jerusalem’s choicest areas.

The shock is immediate and painful.  Small, cramped apartments in often tired buildings are beyond our pocketbook.  The average 100 sq. meters ( 1100 sq. feet) apartment is going for $1,000,000.  And it’s not even move-in ready.  It’s mostly a shell of a home.

Pnina outside Jerusalem hotel

Pnina outside Jerusalem hotel

Here’s of one the real estate agents talking: “The place has great potential.  You can knock down this wall here, redo the kitchen there, upgrade the bathroom over there and you’ve got yourself a gem.”

The “For Sale” flyer will show the home as having 4 rooms, but in Israel the living room is counted as one, so is the converted, enclosed balcony, and a small space behind the bathroom, fit more for birds and pigeons….

On to the next home, and the next, and the next.  The common denominator is that most apartments are empty.

“Who lives here?” I ask.

Turns out there’s an epidemic of absentee homeowners in Jerusalem.  Many of the apartments remain empty 10 months out of the year.  Rich Jews from Brooklyn, Paris, London frequent their Jerusalem home-away-from-home once or twice a year, mostly during Passover and Rosh Hashanah.  The rest of the time the apartment collects dust.

In highly desirable neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see 1/3 of the buildings empty of residents.  It’s a ghost town of sorts.

Who’s got a $1,000,000?

Jerusalem Gay Parade

Jerusalem Gay Parade

Definitely not your average Joseph or Moshe or Sara.  They’re struggling to make a living, barely getting by.  They can’t afford half that price.  Many are Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews with extended and expanded families.  Gays, squeezed from all sides, choose Tel-Aviv, instead.

That leaves the out-of-town investors from Europe and America to run the show.  Supply is low.  Demand is high.  It’s a market that’s ripe for a price hike.  The locals sell out and move.  For them, it’s as if they hit the Lotto.

Who’s left in Jerusalem?  Mainly it’s the Super rich with their dollars and euros.  And the Super poor with their shekels.  The secular Jews, the middle-class, college-educated, unable to afford a home, are moving to the suburbs of Tel Aviv, taking with them vitality and know-how that’s deeply needed by an overly Orthodox Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Machne Yehuda Market

Jerusalem Machne Yehuda Market

And the city is showing its wear and tear.  The fabric is becoming undone.  I don’t know if the claim is verified, but many say the Arabs (East Jerusalem) and the Orthodox don’t pay their fair share of property tax.  They get government exemptions and subsidies for having large families.  They don’t pay, or they under-pay.  Either way, the neglect in the streets is apparent.

Trash piles up.  Ugly billboards, legal or not, are posted on walls, lamp posts.  Schools underperform.  City services suffer.

Dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant

Dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant

And yet, there’s something “golden” about the city, inexplicable, intangible, holy, captivating.

Olives in Machne Yehuda Market

Olives in Machne Yehuda Market

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, said during Israel’s War of Independence: “Jerusalem can do without Israel but Israel cannot do without Jerusalem.”

It’s the end of the day.  The sun glistens on the stone-covered buildings.  We say good-bye to the real estate agents and head to Machne Yehuda open-air market.  We settle for freshly baked bread, dates, olives, sit down to dinner and order grilled vegetables, wine.

The price?  Less than a million.

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springtime in Galilee

16 Mar

If I were a tour guide I would tell vacationers to come to Israel during April-May, the height of the spring season. Second choice would be September-October when the heat dies down.

Lower Galilee seen from Nazareth

Lower Galilee seen from Nazareth

Summer is brutal, mentioned in a prior blog. Winter in Galilee is often wet and bone-chilling.

Our house in Galilee is in the middle of Israel’s farmland, the country’s breadbasket.

Homegrown straberries in our garden

Homegrown straberries in our garden

The earth is deep brown, red, fertile.  Given water, anything grows.

Soon to be cut green wheat, barley and turned into hay

Soon to be cut green wheat, barley and turned into hay

Anything.

During spring the sun hangs in the sky longer, itching for summer.

Farmers roll by on tractors to tend to their crops.

The hired help – Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese men – follow behind the Israeli farmers on trucks.

Homegrown Lettuce

Homegrown Lettuce

Vine leaves taking hold

Vine leaves taking hold

There’s a buzz in the air.  You can smell it, feel it, taste it.

Bees had just pollinated hundreds of almond trees near our house.

Butterflies scatter.Spring 12

Winter birds who’d come from as far as Europe fly overhead.Spring 4

Dogs pull at leashes, wanting to stretch little used limbs.

Stray cats come out from their hiding spots and tempt the sleepy dogs.

Women roll up shutters and blinds from mud-splutteredSpring 8 windows.

Men climb on ladders and wipe off the winter streaks from the glass.

Kids brush off the dust from their skateboards.Spring 3

Boys pedal on creaky bikes.

Almonds

Almonds

Old men linger near orange blossoms on their way to and from temple on Sabbath.

There’s talk of Passover in the air.

Everyone’s got something to do, somewhere to go.

When are you coming to visit?

Scroll down to see more of Galilee’s bounty.

 

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

He (ain’t) Heavy – He’s my brother?

2 Mar

Fact: Military duty in Israel is mandatory for men and women.

As these words are written, there’s a major demonstration brewing at the entrance to Jerusalem.  By the latest count, hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews are protesting Israel’s supreme court latest decision: to draft them into the military. The move to enlist them is one of the campaign promises made during the last general election.  Everyone  - Secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Arabs – are told to share the country’s burden, to pitch in, to carry their own weight.

Orthodox Jews

Orthodox Jews
credit:reuters.com

The load is heavy on the non-orthodox, secular Jews.  For the most part, they make up the middle class.  They pay the most taxes, they and their children enlist in the military.

The devout Jews do not enlist in the army, at least not in any meaningful numbers.  Instead, they study the Torah (bible) in seminaries.  Their learning, room and board are largely financed by the government.  Donations from abroad make up the rest.  When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, there were 400 such scholars.  The country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, let them be.  He rationalized exempting them from the military on the grounds that they were few, that they carried the torch of the Jewish faith, and that they couldn’t shoot a gun anyway.

Today the devout faction has grown to 60,000.  And they’re refusing army enlistment.  Many are a thorn in the side of “regular,” secular Jews.  The orthodox don’t mix with the rest of Israeli society; they have their own neighborhoods and cities, their own bus lines, schools, grocery stores.  They dress in black, speak Yiddish and Hebrew; they respond to a higher calling.

Boxer Muhammad Ali

Boxer Muhammad Ali
‘Flies like a Butterfly, Stings like a Bee,” but dodges the draft to the U.S Army

Avoiding the draft is nothing new and it’s not unique to Israel.  Up until 1973, in the United States, the draft was mandatory. Young American men ran off to Canada to avoid being sent to Vietnam.  Even Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion, refused to enlist and was sentenced to jail.

And would you believe that during Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948, when the young country was fighting for its survival against the Arab nations – even then – Jews deserted from the Army.

1948 - Searching for deserters in Tel Aviv

1948 – Searching for deserters in Tel Aviv

During “Operation Betzer” squads of enlisters combed the beaches and cafes of Tel Aviv, the largest city at the time, to round-up men to go and fight.  They knocked on doors, raided homes, arrested almost three thousand able men and women.

Scouts in Tel Aviv, 1948, on break

Scouts in Tel Aviv, 1948, on break

Under the new proposed law, more orthodox Jews will be enlisted, 3800 in 2014, 4500 in 2015, and 5200 in 2016. To many, that’s a drop in the bucket.  And they will serve half the term: 18 month vs. 36 months.  Also, they will not enlist at the standard age of 18.  Many will be allowed to postpone their tour of duty until age 24.  By then many of the orthodox men are married with children. Required to support their families, their military salary will be ten times more that of the “regular” secular soldier. And there’s talk that “custom” barracks or bases will need to be built for them.

Sharing the load?

I can’t help but end this post on a personal note.  The year was 1973, the Yom Kippur War, the year I turned 18.  I was thrilled to enlist.  Not because I was brave.  It’s because it was the thing to do.  No one questioned it.  It was a given: elementary school, high school, army.

Like any would-be soldier I underwent medical exams.  At the time I was fit, athletic, faster than most of my classmates.  But that wasn’t enough.  After a routine check-up, later followed by hospital tests, I was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.

I was told I was not good enough to enlist.  I was let go.  I cried for days.  Nothing consoled me.  How was it that “schmendricks” who were flabby and near-sighted could fight in the army?  And I, who could do 50 push-ups without breaking a sweat, was told to stay home.  Every time I saw my friends come home on leave, with their green army uniform and rifles, my (irregular) heart twitched with envy.

So, religious orthodox Jews – rather than rebel, shout, and denounce the State of Israel that defends, protects and pays your way – pick up a shovel and go work in the fields, volunteer to help the sick and needy in hospitals, feed the hungry, teach.

Help your brother.  He ain’t heavy.  Isn’t that the ultimate Mitzvah?

“You’re in the Army Now” by STATUS QUO

“He ain’t heavy – He’s my brother” by THE HOLLIES

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

Uncivilized Civilians

15 Feb

Civic Studies ( אזרחות ) is a mandatory subject in Israeli high schools.  Without it, the student can’t graduate.  And that’s the way it should be.  Much is discussed in Civic Studies: the role of the state, sovereignty, the rights and duties of citizens, the court system, and much more.  The idea is to introduce the real world to youngsters, my daughters included.

The Other is Me Campaign

The Other is Me Campaign

Only lately, it’s become too real.

One such case involves Adam Verta, a Civic Studies teacher near Galilee.  During a lesson, he questioned the morals of the Israeli military.  A girl student opposed his views and later complained to the school.  The teacher was brought before a disciplinary hearing and his job was placed in jeopardy.  The classroom incident ignited a fireball in the media, each camp claiming the high road.  People supporting the student (mostly right-wing) said the teacher acted recklessly, that he incited against the State, discouraged young men and women from enlisting, and demoralized soldiers in uniform.  People supporting the teacher (mostly left-wing) cited freedom of speech.

The Other is Me Campaign

The Other is Me Campaign

My opinion?  If the teacher brought up his views in class and did not preach and coerce, and if he opened up the discussion and allowed other views – I’m all for it.  It’s not a physics or chemistry class where everything’s formulaic and exact. It’s a civics class.  Nothing’s clear-cut.  Life is messy.  It involves human beings.  Classrooms are where opinions and views should be heard.  In not there, then where?

Right-wing settlers in the West Bank believe the land there is God-given to them.  And when Israeli soldiers are called to settle disputes, the settlers spit on the Israeli soldiers, insult them, throw paint on their faces.  It that not demoralizing?

The teacher was allowed back in the class.  He still has a job.  No one’s happy, least of all the teacher.

Five Broken Cameras Film Poster

Five Broken Cameras Film Poster

Here’s another civics lesson, this one involving the film “5 Broken Cameras.”  Nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-film category last year, it tells of the life of a Palestinian in the West Bank during the time Israel built the Security Fence to block terrorists from infiltrating and killing innocent Israelis.  He filmed the daily hardships of being trapped from behind the tall concrete fence, movement restricted, life forever changed, for him and his children.

This year, the Israeli Ministry of Education allowed the film to be shown to high school juniors and seniors, as part of the “cultural curriculum.”  I applaud such action and bravery.  17 and 18 year-olds, a year before military duty are old enough to view the film, discuss it in class and draw their own conclusions.

Maybe both Arabs and Jews will become more civilized.  But I doubt it.  In my daughters’ school, Israeli Jews say horrible things about Arabs when they’re not around to hear it.  I’m sure Arabs say equally horrible things about Jews.

So much mistrust.

And this all takes place in a year which the Ministry of Education rolled out a campaign titled: “The Other is Me.”   It loosely means that we are all similar and let’s learn about the other within, and in turn, learn about ourselves.  But that’s hard to do when most Arab Israelis know Hebrew but very few Jewish Israelis know Arabic.  Arabic is a mandatory “foreign” language in high school, as is English.  Yet few take Arabic seriously, many drop out or do the minimum.

Peace, In Hebrew

Peace, In Hebrew

This year the Ministry is dropping Arabic, making it an elective.  That’s wrong.  Like it or not, Israel is in the Middle East.  Yes, the Arabs boycott Israel.  Left with no choice, Israel plays soccer and basketball against England and France, and not Saudi Arabia.  It ships its oranges to Berlin, its knowhow to Wall Street.  But Israelis can’t swim or walk away from the Middle East or from itself because 20% of its population is Arab.  The Arabs here live in a Jewish state.  They learn Hebrew from a young age.  Why shouldn’t the Jewish Israelis learn Arabic?  I’m not talking about the high-brow, literary complex Arabic that even the educated Arabs can’t follow.  I’m talking about spoken, conversational, everyday Arabic.

Peace, in Arabic

Peace, in Arabic

If this will not break the ice, then let’s at least break pita bread together.  And that’s my civics lesson for today.

The bell is ringing.

Go and play, Arabs and Jews.

——————————————————————————————————————————Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

A Teacher from Galilee

1 Feb

No, I don’t heal blind men; I don’t preach; I don’t walk on water, and my name doesn’t start with the letter “J.”  But after I spend time in the limestone hills and mountains of Galilee, see sheep graze the valley floor, breathe the scented air — it’s just a matter of time before I remove my Nike shoes and slip on biblical sandals.

Almost.

Zefat Academic College

Zefat Academic College

This rugged, ancient landscape is part of my twice-weekly 1 hour drive to Zefat Academic College in Upper Galilee. I’ve been teaching English there for several months.  30 students are enrolled in preparatory English.  Ideally, by summer, they will acquire enough English vocabulary and skills to tackle English textbooks in social work, nursing, law.zefat1

Zefat, a mountaintop town, is on the fringe of the fringe.

It’s disconnected from the rest of Israel by space and time. It’s a 3 1/2 hour drive from Tel Aviv, the country’s main hub. It’s home to Orthodox Jews, seminaries, all-girls boarding schools, Kabbalah Centers —  a mixture of old world and New Age; Jews who’d lived here for generations, Jews who’d arrived from Brooklyn, Israeli young men and women who attend college and the School of Medicine, art-lovers and those who wish to lose themselves.

Zefat College has several buildings scattered about town.  I teach at an all-stone three-level building that in the 1930s housed the British Command Post.

Students come from far and wide; Arabs and Druze from the Golan Heights near the Syrian border.  Jews travel from neighboring towns or from their rented apartments in Zefat.  The ratio in class is 50% Arab, 50% Jews.  Years ago, you could tell who’s who after one glance.  The divide in appearance, dress, mannerism was obvious.

That’s changing.zefat2

The Israeli Arabs are becoming more “Israeli.”  They speak Hebrew fluently.  They get stuck on a word here and there, and once in a while I hear myself say: “Can someone translate this word to Arabic?”

The Arab Israeli women dress conservatively but fashionably: boots, jewelry, make-up, the works.  And the latest cell phone.  The Israeli Arab men sport funky hairstyles, blue jeans, and Marlboro cigarettes.

The Jewish Israeli women, many of them from an all-girls schools, dress modestly, some with head covers.  Their English skills are well below average, the result of studying the bible at the expense of the sciences.  Some had married before 18.  The Israeli Jewish men attend Zefat college after their military service and after they dropped off the face of the earth trekking in Thailand, or South America, and returned to “civilization” to get their degree.

zefat3

Arabs or Jews, much of their education is subsidized by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Defense in the hope of narrowing the educational divide between the Fringe and Tel Aviv.

As their teacher and as the “American Embassador” who’d lived in California for decades, I’m the go-to guy with all things American.  They love Hollywood. Big cars.  Music.  And YouTube.  Whenever I see their heads dropping, I know it’s time to play songs from Beyonce, Cold Play, Adele, Rihanna.

All together now: “Shine Bright Like a Diamond.”zefat4

You might ask, Arabs and Jews together in the same class?  So far I haven’t witnessed one incident of friction between them. Some topics are off-limits: religion, politics.  Otherwise, the atmosphere is laid back.  It’s as if everyone’s taking a hit from a joint, swirling the smoke in their lungs and mouths and exhaling serenity into the air.

Relax, man, it’s Zefat.

Semester one of two ended last week.  I asked, “Why don’t we have a potluck lunch party?”

Hands went up.  “Yes!  Yes!  Yes.”

Within minutes we drew up the menu on the board, who was to bring what.  The following week we feasted on Hummus, Tabouleh, Grape Leaves, goat cheese, and a host of deserts.

Now, return to your seats everyone.  English class is about to begin.  But not before we listen to music, this time from students Elias and Jeries, twin brothers, Christian Arabs.  They play the traditional drums, the “Darbuka.”

Here’s a clip from one of their performances at Arab weddings:

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

Israel – the Land of High-Priced Milk… and Honey

18 Jan

From my rooftop balcony in Kfar Tavor, Galilee, I see the smoke stacks of Tnuva Industries.  It’s the largest dairy plant in the Middle East.  Every day, hundreds of trucks bring in the raw milk for processing.Food2

For most Israelis, lunch is the heavy meal of the day.  It includes chicken or beef, and rarely fish although the Mediterranean is a stone throw away.  Dinner is the “light” meal of the day: typically scrambled eggs, dices tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and lots and lots of dairy products: milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt.

One of the reasons for leaving Los Angeles was the belief that the cost of living is lower in Israel, that food prices are cheaper.

False!

It’s not even a contest.  Consider that Israelis, on average,  earn 1/2 of their American counterparts and the food price comparison becomes obscene.food1

Take a quart of milk, for example.  In Israel it costs $1.85 a quart or $7.50 per gallon.  And since you’re making half, it’s as if it cost $15 in the U.S.

If this were to happen in the U.S., there would be blood, I mean, milk in the streets.

But here, people complain and groan and continue to drink.  Why?  Tnuva Industries is a monopoly, controlling 85% of the dairy market.  Which is why it can charge the U.S. equivalent of $3.50 for a small container of cottage cheese, and $9.50 for 10 ounces of “Swiss” cheese.

I love beer.  But at $12.85 for a six-pack of Goldstar (think double, remember? $25.70), I measure my consumption of the lovely beverage.

The price of bread is outrageous.  A sliced loaf will cost you $5.00 (think $10).

Apples?  $2.10 per pound (think $4.20/pound).

A bag of frozen peas?  $3.80/pound (think $7.60).  Why so much? Are there little people with little fingers counting those little green pease before they put them in the little bag?  Or is the cost of ice?

How about some cereal with your expensive milk?  Then empty your wallet of $6.50 ($13).Food3

Want lunch with chicken breast?  $3.75/pound (think $7.50)

Even fruits and vegetables, the main staple of the Israeli diet, is not within the reach of many.  What’s irritating is that top-quality produce is flown daily to grocery stores in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, yet here, in Israel, second-grade produce costs more.

That’s a lot of fertilizer on your face.

Elite-Strauss is a giant food cartel.  They monopolize everything on the supermarket shelf, from chocolate to coffee, to snacks, to cheeses, to ice cream.  Osem Industries, another food powerhouse, control pastas, rice, sugar, flour. Telma controls cereals, soups, canned goods.

Unlike countries in Europe, Israel imports less food.  There’s no competition.  And if there are imports to be had, guess who the European exporters partner with?  You got it: Osem, Elite and Tnuva.  They have s small army of lawyers who are able to decipher the red tape, the cost, the paperwork, the crazy documentation needed to import food into Israel.Food4

What’s absurd is that Israeli-grown food costs double here than it does in England.  Raisins cost double in Tel Aviv than in London.  Same for dried apples. Walnuts costs more.  And the list goes on.

A recent survey found Israeli food to be 30% more expensive than European.  Germans and French earn more, so do the math.

There are multiple reasons for the high prices but none are convincing.  The giant food companies say that the Israeli market is too small, fewer consumers, therefore, it has more operating costs, hence the higher price.  Belgium and Portugal have similar population size as Israel’s and their prices are much lower.

Kosher laws add to cost, food producers explain.  It’s not a reason, but an excuse to raise prices, to pin it on the “fall guy.”

To keep their market share, these big companies control the supermarkets.  They dictate the prices, give incentives for displaying their products on the shelves, and penalize them for introducing a competitor.

Supermarkets are tacit allies.  They can’t afford not to cooperate.  Products will be pulled off.  A small importer wanted to introduce the famous Cadbury chocolate.  Suggested retail price?  Half.  Elite squashed them.

So how do we get by?fruit

We buy imported beer when they’re on sale.  We stock up.  We gave up milk for health reasons; we use just a little to splash our morning coffee.  Instead, we grind almonds, throw in soft dates, and hit “blend.”  The result? A refreshing light almond milk drink.

We hardly eat cheeses.

Bread?  My wife bakes, instead.  Or we buy great tasting whole-wheat pita bread from the Arab villages.

In 2011, thousands of Israelis flocked to the streets in protest.  A grassroots movement came into being.  Tents were pitched on fashionable Rothchild Blvd in Tel-Aviv.  Television crews came and went.  Debates were held on TV and radio.  It was called the “Cottage Cheese Protest.”

The Big Companies said they’re listening to their consumers.  They promised change.  In time, prices came down. Very little.

The tents in Rothchild folded.  People went home.beer

It’s back to business as usual.

I’m going to take a break now.  Pour myself a frothy beer.  Watch the golden color.  Sip.  Then dip our homemade bread in olive oil, and watch the world turn.

The Big Guys get all the breaks.

Cheers!

___________________________________________________________________

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

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