Archives for category: holidays

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!


So, what is Lag BaOmer? The Omer period, the 50 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot is a sacred time of year for religious Jews, in which many activities such as weddings are forbidden. It commemorates the 50 days the Israelites wandered in the desert before receiving the commandments.  Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day, is an exception, and it’s considered an especially auspicious date to get married, and to give your son his first haircut.

Lag BaOmer  commemorates the death of Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashi), one of the great rabbis of old.  Many religious people celebrate by visiting Mount Meron, to Bar Yochai’s tomb in the North of Israel. Other sources say it commemorates the failed Bar Kochba revolt against Rome.  This is the war of the Masada story, and the one that led the Romans to ban Jews from Jerusalem.

Noah told us a nice story he learned in school about Bar Kochba and a green donkey.  He decided, as an adult that he should learn Torah, but was afraid that people would laugh at a grown man in a school full of children.  His wife, who was very wise, told him to plaster grass all over a donkey.  They took the donkey to the market, and everyone laughed at it.  The next day they did it again, and only half the people laughed.  On the third day, they took the donkey to the market, and nobody laughed, so that’s how bar Kochba learned to get over his fear of mockery and go learn.  Noah told the story very well.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that Lag BaOmer is a day for bonfires.  Noah’s class organized a bonfire for 5pm on Saturday. Everyone had to sign up to bring something.  I didn’t notice the signup sheet until late, so all that was left was cucumbers, but it’s okay, because I know a place that sells them.

The other tradition, somewhat strangely, is archery.  This is either because (a) the Rashi was so holy that no rainbows appeared in his lifetime, rainbows, of course being a sign that the world’s people are being sinful and need punishing or (b) because the Jewish rebels used bows and arrows.

At the appointed hour, we brought our cucumbers to Noah’s bonfire on a scrubby vacant lot within walking distance of our apartment. It’s hard to get used to how much trust and independence five and six-year-olds are given here. People are much more laid back about letting children near a fire than in the US.  It took some self restraint to keep myself from taking on the role myself. The parents cooked potatoes in the fire, covered in foil and threaded onto a long piece of clothes-hanger wire.  Perhaps the wire was clean–the potatoes were tasty. There was corn and hotdogs, marshmallows for roasting, cake, and most of Noah’s class and their friendly parents.

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Sarah is hard at work on an NIH proposal and is having trouble keeping up the blog all by herself, so she’s asked me to come out of retirement and tell you about our Lag BaOmer.

Noah’s class had a bonfire for Lag BaOmer, so we needed to stay close to home Saturday. We decided to start the day with one final trip to Akko for a boat trip on the Mediterranean. Google said that there are boats that take twenty minute tours that leave whenever they fill up, so off we went.  As soon as we got to Akko harbor, there was a man with a megaphone pointing people to a rickety old wooden motorboat painted red and blue, 10 shekels a head, for a 20 minute cruise around the walls of the old city.   Well, the water was choppy, and Noah didn’t take it well and spent the ride in Sarah’s arms waiting to throw up over the edge.  In the end, 20 minutes is fast, and we got off before any damage was done. And doesn’t the word “tour” usually imply that someone is going to say something about what you’re seeing? Walking around the harbor, we saw that, perhaps, we got on that boat too fast.  There are at least two more licensed-looking boats that you can take, one about the same size as ours, and another that could hold a hundred or so people.  Next sabbatical…

However 10 shekels per person left us with enough money for a pony ride, from the boy walking around the town with a pony.

Fortunately, Noah does not get pony-sick

Did Jonah sail from Akko? Noah did.

Old Akko is still an Arab town, and walking around, you really feel like you’re in a foreign country as you never do when you’re in Jewish areas.  We ended at Uri Buri, one of Israel’s top seafood restaurants.  At first they turned us away for lack of a reservation, but as we were debating what to do, came out and said we could stay if we could be out in 90 minutes.  No problem, and so good.

Last week was a week of national holidays full of celebrations & remembrances: Yom HaZikaron (memorial day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day), and Yom Huledet shel Roy (Roy’s birthday).

As with other holidays, the city starts getting ready weeks in advance.

Decorations at the zoo...

along the highways,

and lit up on buildings.

These were taken around our neighborhood.

Memorial Day has a completely different feel here than in the US. Since almost everyone has served in the military here, its an important part of their life stories and most people know someone who served in a war, or who was killed, either in war or terrorist attacks. In the US its easier to ignore the meaning of Memorial Day because its only a small proportion of the population who currently serve and whose friends & families are directly affected. Here most of the population has shared in the responsibility of defending the country, whereas at home, the demands placed on non-military citizens are minimal; certainly real sacrifices are made only by a few.

Noah’s school held a tekes (ceremony) on Sunday which we attended.

All of the children wore blue & white...

the building was decorated...

each class presented an art project, there was singing...

and Israeli dancing!

There was only a half day of school on Monday and no school/work at all on Tuesday so that people could participate in and attend the various ceremonies and special events held all over the country. We went to a small memorial service Monday afternoon a couple of neighborhoods over that the mayor of Haifa was participating in. There were some prayers and a reading of the people from that neighborhood who had died. We didn’t stay for the whole thing because we didn’t understand everything that was going on and Noah was getting antsy, but we wanted him to understand why he had an early day and show him what was going on throughout the country. Noah’s teacher told him that he could see soldiers on TV, so we let him watch a bit. Most channels had no programming at all out of respect and throughout the day the state channel broadcast profiles of soldiers who had died. In the evening there is a ceremony broadcast nationally from Har Herzl in Jerusalem that is a transition from the solemn Yom HaZikron to the festive Yom HaAtzmaut. We were told that everyone watches it & then goes outside to celebrate. In Haifa, there were music festivals in several neighborhoods & fireworks, so as soon as the show was over we ran outside & saw a fireworks show right above our heads. One of the music stages was at the bottom of the hill where our neighborhood is, so all we had to do was go to the edge and look down & we could watch the whole thing.

And it was Roy's birthday! Maybe those fireworks were actually for him.

Noah decided that we needed to bake Roy a chocolate cake with strawberries, so "we" did.

The next day we had the whole day off and there were so many things going on.

First, we went to the Haifa port, where the navy had ships on display.

Then we went down to Tel Aviv and caught part of the flotilla that sailed down the coast.

We went to the Namal (the old port), which is now a boardwalk lined with shops & restaurants.

There was a pottery activity - Noah made a candlestick on the wheel.

And a juggling/acrobatic act which Noah thought was fantastic.

Another pleasantly re-imagined former working waterfront!

Did you know that during Pesach in Israel it is almost impossible to buy chametz? Bakeries close down for the week and grocery stores cover their chametz aisles. I believe this is usually the cereal aisle:

You know how in America people fill their shopping carts with soda & pop tarts when there is a threat of a blizzard? Here, the non-observant fill their carts with loaves of bread in anticipation of Pesach. Interestingly, even non-religious Israeli Jews tend to keep Pesach, even if they don’t keep other hollidays, so its mostly non-Jews (and non-Israeli Jews) who are stocking up.

Also, the musak in the grocery stores plays almost exclusively Pesach songs. So, while you are buying your matzoh, matzoh meal, prunes, apples, and wine, you can hum along to “Chad Gadya”, “Echad Mi Yodea?”, and “Avadim Hainu”.

After our dip in Yam HaMelach, we left the area and drove up into the breathtaking Judean mountains

where we were to spend the night in a Bedouin tent. This one was more interesting than the one where we had stayed in the Negev. We had a private sukkah this time

but a shared outdoor living space. Those "lumps" on the ground are the edges of a pit where we sat with cushions. We were able to hang out there & talk while Noah slept in our hut.

There was a beautiful dining room where we sat at low tables on the floor on cushions. A special Passover menu was served and there were baskets of matzoh available. How accommodating of the Bedouin!

Another cool outdoor living-room area.

We stayed at the Bedouin tent complex the night before so we could get up early the next morning and go to Masada. This is the view from the western approach up to Masada looking across the hills back towards the Dead Sea. All that land used to be underwater...

We made it to the top!

Ruins from what was once one of Herod's palaces.

View from what was once the 3rd floor of the palace looking down onto two lower floors. The palace was built right into the side of the mountain.

Remains of a mosaic'd Byzantine church on Masada

Noah really liked standing in the ruins of the fortress pretending to be a soldier firing arrows on all of the enemies (other tourists climbing Masada) below. We hiked back down and ate the end of our matzoh granola. Thus, ended our Pesach vacation in the Judean desert – from the lowest place on earth to the top of Masada and everything in between. We hopped in the car & began heading back to Haifa. We were a little worried about whether we’d be able to find a place for lunch because it was the last day of Pesach and even the grocery stores were closed. We did see one place open in Arad, the last town in the desert before heading north into a kind of no-man’s land north of Beersheva, but Pizza Tokio did not sound appealing, so we decided to take our chances and skip it.

Good thing we did because a little while later on the side of the highway, I spotted a handwritten sign saying גבינת עיזים (goat cheese) followed by another sign for mahlabi, so we pulled off and saw an old man with a flag waving us to turn left under an overpass through a very narrow bridge.

As we drove through that little tunnel, we saw the herd that would be providing our lunch.

We had stumbled upon an oasis-an outdoor restaurant serving saj, malahbi, labaneh, olives, hummus, etc.

right there under the trees in the olive grove!

What a spectacular & serendipitous way to end our vacation!

When we were planning our Pesach travels, we knew that our trip would be around Deborah’s due date, so we wanted to go somewhere where we could get to Jerusalem easily if necessary. Excellent planning because we woke up the next morning and went to Jerusalem for a bris! Warning: indulgent amount of family photos ahead…

Introducing Shlomo Yehuda Labe! Baruch Haba!


Doesn't Deborah look great?

Big sister!

Noah was so excited to hold the new baby.

Yitzchak whispered to the baby, "Don't cry, baby. Let me see how you cry, baby. Don't cry, baby."

When the Worenkleins headed back to their Pesach resort, we returned to Ein Gedi. This time we wanted to hike the less-traveled canyon, Nachal Arugot. Apparently it is not as well-known as Nachal David, which was actually preferable for us because it was less crowded and less “trampled.” Turned out to be one of the best hikes we’d been on this year!

The stream of Nachal Arugot comes down from the Hebron Mts. in the Judean Hills

The trail runs through the canyons

and at times narrows so that we were hiking just at the edge of a gorge the stream cut at the bottom of the canyon.

Parts of the trail run through the stream itself - sometimes we were hiking in knee-deep water, which felt great.

"Arugot" means "garden beds" because of the plant life supported by the stream. Here the trail cuts through reeds.

After our hike, it was late afternoon and we were ready for one last adventure of the day. We went to the northern section of Yam HaMelach to take a dip in the sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth (423 m. below sea level) and the highway descending from Jerusalem has markers showing how far below sea level you are at that moment. The previous day we had gone to Ein Fashehah nature reserve which is a collection of natural springs that have been turned into wading pools, mostly for children. When we arrived, Noah complained that his new sandals hurt him, so he took them off & Roy carried him to the park. Somehow the new sandals, which were all of 5 days old, got lost in the shuffle. When Noah stepped into Yam HaMelach, he jumped back out again because the salt stung too badly where the sandals had rubbed. The sea is about 33% salt (about 8 times saltier than the ocean) and used to cover much of the Judean Hills, which is why they have such stunning formations – they used to be the sea floor.

Floating in Yam HaMelach

Roy's turn...

On Fri. morning we said our good-byes to our guests as they continued on their travels to see Sina’s family and we continued our Pesach holiday travels (along with most of the rest of the country).

Our morning started out ominously as we waited out a hail storm before beginning our drive.

Luckily (we thought), we were leaving stormy Haifa for Yam HaMelach (the Salt Sea, aka the Dead Sea, aka the Stink Sea in Arabic from the sulfur), where there is minimal rain, < 2-4 inches/year. Well, imagine our surprise when we arrived at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to find out that it was closed for threatening weather conditions.

Its true, those skies were ominous...

As we were leaving the park, the ibex started to come out for their late afternoon snack.

The babies are so cute and they don't seem to be afraid of people.

When it started drizzling, we decided to go by one of the Dead Sea cosmetics factories, which was the only indoor activity we could think of in the area. On the way there, the skies opened up and cars were pulled over to the side of the road all up & down the highway with people taking pictures of…

an amazing and spontaneous waterfall! This is so rare that people were lined up to document it!

We stayed in a zimmer in Neve Zohar, which was billed as a resort, but was pretty run down. Its just down the road from Ein Bokek, which really is the resort with all of the hotels with Dead Sea spas. The best thing about the room was that it had a little kitchenette & a big outdoor porch where we were able to eat our dinner of leftover matzoh pie that we brought from home. The worst thing about the room is that when we were eating outdoors we ended up surrounded by about 5 cats looking for some handouts of matzoh pie.

The next day was back to being warm & sunny. Our first stop was the salt flats. There are 2 parts to Yam HaMelach: the northern part is the sea, the water levels of which are dropping. The southern part is owned by factories that “mine” the sea for minerals. The water level of this part is actually rising and threatening to flood the resorts. While it was spectacular to walk out onto the salt flats, it actually does not bode well for the future of the sea.

We returned to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve which has 4 rain-fed springs: Ein David, Ein Shulamit, Ein Gedi, & Ein Arugot. Ein Gedi is an oasis in the desert and is known for where David fled when he was hiding from King Saul.

We hiked up Nachal David overlooking Yam HaMelach & Jordan on the other side

along with the rest of the country who was on Pesach vacation!

A Sodom apple tree - the "fruit" is actually hollow and holds bitter seeds attached to filaments like milkweed. Beware - poison!

We cooled off in one of the many pools created by Ein David that are found in the canyon

and continued our hike through the canyon

including through a tunnel of reeds

and up, up, up to David's waterfall!

The ferns alongside the waterfall are called Sa’arot Shulamit (Shulamit’s hair). The legend goes that David saw Shulamit at the edge of a cliff and instantly fell in love. But, tragically, she slipped and fell to her death below. Now David’s tears from his broken heart form the waterfall and all that remains of Shulamit is her gorgeous hair.

Pesach is vacation time for the whole country, so we all had off of school/work for the entire week. We spent the 1st 3 days of Hol Hamoed (the middle days of Pesach) at one beach or another.

The first day we went just south of Haifa to the Carmel coast which has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. We went through Kibbutz Nachsholim to Nachsholim beach, which is part of a nature reserve. We built sand castles, hiked, and visited Tel Dor, archeological ruins that are currently being excavated. Dor is known for the production of the purple dye mentioned in the Bible as the color required for tallit. The dye comes from the gland of sea snails.

On day 2, we stayed closer to home and went to one of the Haifa beaches because we were expecting guests – the newlyweds Julie (Roy’s sister) & Sina. They arrived that evening and we served a matzoh pie for dinner – more delicious than you might expect.

On day 3, back to the beach! We went to the same nature reserve from 2 days prior, but a different part – this time to Dor HaBonim, just north of Dor & Nachsholim. After relaxing on the beach & a bit of hiking, we went to Zichron Yaakov, a town on the Carmel, just south of Haifa. Zichron is special because it was built by the Rothschilds and is the home of several Israeli wineries. There happened to be a Pesach festival going on that day, which we didn’t know about, but which we were happy to find. Music in the streets, flea market, etc. Most of the restaurants had special Passover menus, which was another nice surprise, so we were able to have a nice dinner out & get a break from matzoh pie.

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From Nimrod’s Fortress, we went to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, which is a collection of hiking trails along the Dan River. The Dan is the largest of the 3 tributaries feeding the Jordan (we visited the other two, the Senir & Banias at Sukkot). The Dan is fed by the largest karstic spring in the Middle East & there are springs & streams all throughout the reserve. Even though it was in the upper 80’s F. that day, the trees thrive so well along the water source, that the trails were shaded & cool.

After this hike, we headed home and just 10 minutes from home Noah threw up in the car. What perfect timing to wait to get sick until after our trip. He had insisted all day that he wasn’t hungry and we thought that he just wanted to play instead of eat, but when we were walking through the reserve, Roy said, “Noah is so good – he really doesn’t refuse to eat unless he’s sick.” Sure enough, a few hrs. later . . . But what a trooper to hike all day without complaining.

The next day was finally Pesach! Noah had wanted to do the search for chametz, which should have been done the night before, but since he was sick, we agreed to let him do it in the morning.

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Later that evening, we went to the seder at my friend Julia’s in-laws here in Haifa. Julia’s husband is from Haifa, so they have a big family in town. It was very festive with lots of kids & lots of singing. In Israel, only one seder is held, instead of two as in the diaspora. Much of our descriptions of the holidays in Israel have focused on the differences between here & the US,  but the seder was surprisingly familiar. It was still going around the table, taking turns reading, people offering stories & commentaries & alternative song tunes when they had a chance. One important difference: the salads were better than usual.