Noah is a great boy in many ways. In addition to his obvious good looks and smarts, he is very funny.  Often, in order to get him to pose “regular,” we have to indulge him in a silly pose of his choosing. (Thank goodness digital cameras have reduced the marginal cost of opening the shutter.)  The Ramon crater insufficiently magnificent?  Not to worry, here’s a little goofball in front of it. And what photograph can’t be improved by holding up a stick?  Sometimes, we get into the act, too, especially when he’s the photographer.

Here are some of the best examples from our year in Israel:

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In addition to Noah’s graduation, we spent our last week in Haifa on a farewell tour saying good-bye to our favorite people, places, and food.

We started out the week going on a short hike on Mt. Carmel between picking Noah up from school and meeting Yaffa’s family for dinner in Usfiya – one of the Druze villages just past the university at the top of the mountain.

the trail follows a narrow wadi (gorge) through dense woods

it involved a lot of scrambling over rock, which Noah enjoys "more than a playground".

Sarah & Yaffa & a table laden with Druze salads

Our friend Mikael threw us a farwell bbq at his place with a group of other Technion-ites and our friend Osnat made us a farewell Shabbat dinner, including a dish that she recreated from notes taken at a special dinner in Athens to commemorate our trip together in May.

When we hiked earlier in the week, Noah was pretty tired after a full day at school, so we didn’t get far. We decided to go again while he was in school Fri. morning and we made it through the wadi and up to an area of Mt. Carmel called “Little Switzerland” with stunning views of the wadi below and the sea to the east, and more salamanders and lizards than we’d ever seen in one 4-hour period. This part of the hike also took us into the heart of where the forest fire burned in December. It was encouraging and amazing to see all of the new growth and still awesome to see the scope of the damage. Sorry no pictures this time, but we ran out of the house quickly so that we’d have enough time while Noah was in gan.

The night before we left, we had had some final closure to our year by having a picnic dinner on the beach with several friends, including the same family we had dinner with on the same beach our first week in Haifa.

Sarah, Julia & Ron

Noah & Ella

One of the symbols of Israel is the rimon (pomegranate). It is mentioned in the Torah as one of the seven species of Israel and, in a region that can be horticulturally challenging, grows naturally in abundance. As such, it is seen everywhere from ancient mosaics to modern art, a symbol of fertility.

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To end the school year, Noah’s class had a mesibat siyyum, a big party to celebrate their graduation. They performed songs and choreography to show off all they had learned this year about modern Hebrew.

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This was the event where it sunk in that we were leaving Israel. We had been in denial for the couple of weeks leading up to our departure. When we saw how much Noah had learned this year and how much he loved his friends and they loved him (after the show all the girls wanted to take their picture with Noah), well, the tears just wouldn’t stop. Roy didn’t really cry, but he couldn’t form a complete sentence either.

There are several differences between kindergarten in Israel and in the US.

  • Schedule – School is 5 1/2 days per week here. The school day goes from 8-4, Sunday-Thursday, and 8-1 on Friday. We do pay a little extra for him to stay until 4, and we rarely get him to school by 8.
  • Food – every day Noah’s class is served breakfast and lunch. The children are served the same dishes that adults would eat, not coddled with a special “kids menu.” A typical breakfast might include eggs, tomatoes & cucumbers, sardines, bread and gvina levana (a creamy white cheese, reminiscent of sour cream or yogurt, but its cheese). At lunch the children get soup every day, and a typical meal might also include falafel or fish balls, cooked vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, rice or pasta. The school is kosher, so no meat dishes.
  • Extra-curriculars – at the beginning of the school year, the parents vote on which outside teachers will be hired to teach the chugim, or electives in the afternoon. We pay a small extra fee to have a sports teacher, music teacher, and math teacher come in once a week each.
  • Government  – in US schools it is not uncommon to have a picture of the President and to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but I don’t remember doing much more than that in kindergarten regarding government. In Noah’s classroom, they raise the flag each Sunday and sing HaTikvah, the national anthem. On one of the bulletin boards are pictures of the Prime Minister, President, and IDF Chief of Staff. When Benny Gantz was recently approved as Israel’s new army chief, the children were asked to bring in a picture of him from the newspaper.
  • Independence – Children are given much more responsibility. For example, they help move the chairs around the room for different activities and help with set up & clean up (including sweeping and washing down the tables). This is done voluntarily. At any given time, some children are playing, while others are helping run the classroom. They don’t see it as a chore, but take pride in taking care of their space.

A couple of days after our Jordan trip was Noah’s birthday! All of Noah’s previous birthday parties have been very low-key, either in our apartment or big picnics in the park. But we didn’t think that was going to fly this year. For one thing, of all the parties Noah went to this year, only one was in the family’s home. Birthday parties in Haifa were almost all at amusement parks, bowling alleys, museums, etc. For another thing, our Hebrew wasn’t good enough to wrangle 40 kids – we knew we needed help. So, we turned to the University of Haifa Hecht Museum for an Archaeology Party! Noah also got an additional party in his classroom, which was quite an elaborate affair. With 35 kids, each class party is shared. If each kid had their own party, they’d never get any other learning done.

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Update: Each set of parents got to say something special about the birthday boy in front of the class. I’m adding our little speech here. We said it in both English & Hebrew.

“Dear Noah,
We are so proud of you.  It is not easy to come to a new school, in a new country, and in a language you don’t know.  It has been wonderful to see you learn so much and to make so many great friends. We are very lucky parents to have a boy like you, who likes to go on so many adventures with us, who is always so happy and telling us such funny jokes and stories, and translate Hebrew for us when we don’t understand.

Noach HaYakar,
Anachnu colcach ge’im bcha. Ze bichlal lo cal lehagia l’eretz chadasha, gan chadash, she’atah lo mekir et asafa.
Ze nifla lir’ot she lamadeta colkach harbeh v’she yesh l’cha harbeh chaverim chadashim.
Yesh lanu mazal gadol she atah ha ben shelanu, she ne’hene latzet hitanu l’harpatkaot chadashot, she tamid kolkach meushar, v’shemesaper lanu bedichot matzchrikot v’sipurim me’sha’asheim, v’metargem lanu l’anglit kshe’anzchnu lo mevinim.”

We stayed in Petra until after 6pm.  There was so much to see and we could have lingered a lot longer, but we were tired, especially the boy, and Petra gets really empty after all the tour buses pull out.  A few blocks outside of Petra, our bags were waiting for us in the office of the tour company.  We got there and sat down, and after 30-45 minutes, they got around to driving us to our hotel, which was, at most a five minute drive, so that was nice.

We stayed at a lovely hotel in Wadi Mousa, Jordan. Three local touches stand out.  The first two are explained in these photos.

What do the hotels in Eagle River, WI, charge for this?

Classy, but what are they trying to say?

The third thing that was very local to Jordan was the big metal vessel of foul (fava beans) on the breakfast buffet. Unfortunately, all the tour buses got up earlier than we did, so it was, in fact, a big metal vessel lacking foul.

The next morning the tour company sent a driver to take us to Wadi Rum, the largest Wadi in Jordan.  He was polite and calm, but his driving had one quirk, best illustrated here:

The magenta line is the path he took on about every curve. Sarah was in the back and didn’t notice. The roads took a very windy path through the desert mountains: Noah threw up, but Sarah managed to catch it all in a grocery bag.  Speaking of grocery bags, I have never seen a landscape more littered with plastic bags and trash.  The bedouins have adopted the culture of disposability without one crucial element: trash cans!

Several Bedouin tribes currently live in Wadi Rum. Our driver found us a Bedouin guide for a “Jeep Tour,” in a pickup truck with padded benches built in to its bed. My impression is that the tour company was out to get the best price, and their profit would be determined by how little they spent.  We ended up with a guide in his teens. He drove us around to a few of the major spots and recited a line or two about each spot, and we got out of the truck to explore each for a few minutes.  They were spectacular, and would have benefitted from a professional guide.

View from the pickup truck

Wadi Rum is a beautiful canyon cut into granite & sandstone rock.

Its geologically similar to the Judean & Negev deserts (which are adjacent), but strikingly redder.

The tree marks the entrance to Khaz’ali Canyon, where we saw petroglyphs carved into the walls.

The canyon is a narrow passageway between two rocks, possibly another consequence of an earthquake.

Noah liked to study the walls of the canyon.

Sarah hiking a sand dune.

Roy and Noah couldn’t climb it because the hot sand got into their sandals and was really painful.

Also fun, swirling swirling sandstorms that get in your face and eyes.

The tour we signed up was billed as a 1.5 day tour of Petra and Wadi Rum.  What we got was a very good tour of Petra, with a cursory tour of Wadi Rum.  As we went around the Wadi, we saw a lot of similar tours, and nothing a lot different, although some of the tour guides seemed more engaged.  If more professional tours of Wadi Rum exist, I didn’t see much evidence for them.  If you make this trip, ask a lot of questions before signing up.

After we finished our too-short drive around Wadi Rum, we were driven back to the border crossing. When we left Israel for Jordan, the border control agent refused to understand that our long-term visas allowed re-entry, despite Sarah’s trouble-free re-entry from Greece. She decided they needed to cancel our academic visas, and give us new tourist visas when we returned.  When we returned, of course, they were suspicious of this scheme, and again gave us a hard time. There is no central computer where they can look this stuff up. Today. In 2011. In a country saturated with high-tech startups.  We had time for lunch overlooking the beach in Eilat. We walked from the beach to the airport, which is, somehow, in the middle of town, and were home before dark, where we washed the red sand of Wadi Rum off our legs and down the bathtub drain.

For the trip to Jordan, we went through an organized tour because time was too short to do all the planning ourselves. They picked us up first thing in the morning at our Eilat hotel, drove us to the border crossing, and handled all of the visa/passport paperwork.

Our Jordanian guide met us on the other side and we hopped on a bus for the two-hour drive to Petra. Along the way we stopped at a scenic rest stop for breakfast and soon we arrived at the ancient Nabatean city of Petra.

Some of the 26 djin blocks carved out of the rock. These are tombs and the source of the "genie" of Arab folklore.

To get to the heart of Petra, you have to walk through the siq, the narrow passageway between 2 rocks. It may or may not be the result of an earthquake that split a mountain in two. Depends on who you ask.

Along the siq are carved out places where idols used to be. Noah doing his best idol impersonation.

One of the "wonders" of Petra - the treasury. It was carved out of the red sandstone mountain 2000 years ago.

We rode donkeys up 850 carved-out-of-the-mountain steps

to see the monastery at the top. It was worth the perilous journey.

Roy asked his donkey driver where he lived. He said “here.” Roy said, “you mean Wadi Mousa?” (the town that Petra is in). “No,” he replied, “Here, in a cave.” Many Bedouin still live at the Petra site, even though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Jordanian archaeological park. According to our guide & all of the official Petra literature, the tribes, nomadic & otherwise, were moved off of the park site in the 1960’s & 1980’s, depending on the tribe. Maybe the kids say they still live there to entertain the tourists, or maybe there really are people still living there unofficially.

At the end of a long day, we caught a horse & cart at the plaza in front of the treasury

and rode back through the siq.

We took advantage of Noah’s last school vacation for one last trip before our time here is over. We took a long weekend to Eilat & Jordan, via the Akaba border crossing. We flew Israir from Haifa to Eilat Thurs. morning, and we were at our hotel by 10am. Otherwise it would have been a 6 hr drive. Eilat reminded us a little of Cancun and a little of Las Vegas, in the sense that it is a resort town seemingly sprung out of nothing in the middle of nowhere. But without the gambling or the alcoholics.

The Red Sea, the city of Eilat, the mountains of the Negev all in one stunning view.

The main attractions of Haifa revolve around the water, which meant that many things were not an option for us since Noah doesn’t swim yet. Instead we took a tour of the coral reefs in the Red Sea in a glass bottom boat, which is one good option if snorkeling is out.

Coral reef, Red Sea, Eilat, Israel

School of fish, Red Sea, Eilat, Israel

Keep in mind that these pictures were taken through a window and you get a sense of how remarkably clear the water was.

We ended our day with a swim at the hotel and got ready for an early start to the next day.

Last week Noah had 3 days off of school for Shavuot, a harvest festival and celebration of when the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. One of the traditions associated with Shavuot is eating dairy foods. Cheesecake and cheese bourekas proliferate here this time of year and all of the commercials for milk & cheese start taking on a Shavuot theme, which was excellent. After a lifetime of having Christmas shoved down our throats, it was a simple pleasure to see the commercialization of Shavuot. Other traditions include reading the book of Ruth (takes place during the harvest) and having an all-night Torah study session.

A uniquely Israeli way to celebrate Shavuot is to spend time on a moshav or kibbutz where the idea of the harvest is still central to everyday life. Fortunately, we were able to do this and experience Shavuot like we would never be able to do in America.

We started our Shavuot celebration with a tekes (ceremony) in Noah’s class.

The children sang and danced,

wore flower crowns,

and used many props to celebrate the harvest festival.

The tekes also was a celebration of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), which was the prior week.

Two days later, we continued our celebration with a long-awaited bread workshop at our friends’ Anat & Menachem’s place. As you may know, Roy is a baker, and Anat & Menachem had requested a tutorial after a couple of meals together that included Roy’s bread (more precisely Jim Lahey’s bread as popularized by Mark Bittman). They live on Moshav HaBonim, near our favorite beach.

In the spirit of harvesting the wheat, we baked the bread.

Feeding the cows on the moshav. Thanks for all of the dairy!

Menachem is an architect/industrial designer and he was working with another moshav helping them design & build a new dairy. They told him that Moshav HaBonim cows have a reputation for having the best quality milk. Something about the quality of the hay that the moshav grows is extra-special because of its location at the junction between the sea and the mountains. It was an honor to meet those special cows!

Roy planned the workshop like a cooking show. One batch of dough ready to go in the oven to have with our dinner and then another batch that got mixed up there. We stayed overnight and the next batch went in in the morning.

Boker tov! In the front yard, the beach in the background.

We went to the beach in the morning, but just stayed until lunch because we had to get to our next Shavuot celebration. This one was on Moshav Kfar Yehoshua in the Jezreel Valley. We were invited to join Sarah’s friend Galia & her family at their moshav’s big tekes.

We rode from Galia's house out to the fields on the back of a tractor

and joined a parade of tractors on their way to the tekes.

We sat up on the top of the hill looking down on the fields where the events took place.

There were performances by the children of the moshav,

horse choreography,

a parade of all of the babies born in the past year,

and all kinds of farming related competitions & demonstrations, like hay bale races, tug-of-war, a parade/choreography of tractors, and the very near fly-over of a crop duster.

Afterwards, we went to dinner with Galia’s family – pizza, of course. The more dairy, the better!

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