Archive | March, 2014

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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