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It's decided. I'm going to Israel.

Opportunity comes in the form of unemployment and crazy friends

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So here I am at the Newark airport with a 6 hour layover. Why not be productive and start my blog, right? This whole trip was a grand twist of chance. For those that don't know, I have a friend Steve Holzer who can't seem to stay in one place. This time he ended up in Israel. After moving there a few months ago, he's been pestering me to come over for a visit.

I kept thinking..."one day I'll make it"..."I'll need to think this through, when to go, what to see, etc."
Well, that one day came quick. After losing my job, which I dearly loved *choke, gag* {insert sarcasm here} Steve points out I now have plenty of time to visit Israel. No money coming in, but plenty of time. So I said, why not? But it was easier said than done. There were plenty of issues with timing.

First was my job searching. I was thinking of coming for Hanukah, but that would be in November/December timeframe. What do I tell my future employer if I get a job? "Thanks for the job. I'll be taking my vacation now." So maybe I would push it back to October. It's a great time to go, perfect weather, it's a cheap time to fly and there would be plenty of time to plan and get a flight.

One major problem...Steve was coming to the US in October for training. OK, so November and December might be too late and October doesn't work either. That leaves September. But wait...It's ALREADY September!!! What now?!? Maybe sometime like Jan or Feb of 2011 would be better. However, (referring to paragraph one of this entry:) "I have a friend Steve Holzer who can't seem to stay in one place." Chances are that he would be somewhere else if I waited until then. September it is.

So, on September 3rd I start planning. The dates are set, the Fodor’s Guide is bought and I an ready to see it all. Easy right? Well, I still had to buy a ticket. I figured this would be the easy part. Apparently lots of people fly to Israel on days with a "y" in them. I look at the major airlines going into Tel Aviv: Delta, Continental, El Al, Turkish Air and others. Best seat available is row 35 in a middle seat. NO THANKS! Crap! Am I going to have to fly for 11 hours in a middle seat?

Chaos and panic ensues. I call travel agents who all say "you need to fly when?" No help. Then I call the airlines. "We have several middle seats available (and space in our cargo hold) or one first class seat for $5,200" I relook at Continental who has a few aisle seats left, but only for elite rewards members. On September 9th, I resort to reasoning with Continental. "Do you really think that you can sell all those seats in the next four days? All I need is one."

Holy shamoley it worked!!! They sold me an isle seat 3 rows behind first class for the same price as the middle seat in row 59. The flight from Tampa left at 7am which meant I had to wake up at 3am. But who cares? I'm going to Israel!!!

After getting to the Tampa airport, I needed coffee. Who else but me wants coffee at 4:30 in the morning? Apparently nobody, because everything's closed! Finally at 5:30 Sam Sneads opens for breakfast and it was totally worth the wait. I had to post the pic because it's really the only one I have so far.

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After a wonderful breakfast, I left Tampa at 7:25 and landed in in Newark. So, here I am with only 4 more hours of layover. Thank you for reading episode one of Todd's Israel Adventure. Stay tuned for previews of tomorrows episode…

Announcer voice: Stay tuned as Todd lands in Tel Aviv, tries to rent a cell phone, navigates the Israeli train system, gets a cab and meets up with Steve and his girlfriend Reut.

Posted by thetodd 08:22 Archived in Israel Tagged planning continental airlines Comments (0)

Day 2 - Seeing Tel Aviv

My first full day in Israel

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After landing in Israel, I was ready for bed. However, I was trying to combat jet lag, so I decided it was important to stay up until at least 10pm. I really didn't plan well and it was more difficult than it needed to be. The night before my flight my thought was to stay up late so I would sleep on the plane. I only got 2 hours sleep before the Super Shuttle picked me up at 4am. Unfortunately, my plan was foiled. I could barely get any sleep on the flight. So when I got to Israel at 8am the next day it was 2am in Tampa. Now I needed to stay up until 10pm here and 4pm in Tampa. I was fading throughout the day but Steve and Reut kept me going. Thankfully we have a Wii here. It helped keep me active and awake until after 10. I slept for about 12 hours and felt great the next day.

For my first full day in Israel, we started with breakfast. We went to a local place that is known for their shakshuka (shock-shoe-kah.) It was very different than a Dennys Grand Slam. It is a stew, for lack of a better word, of tomatoes and chopped veggies. Then they cook in a few eggs. There were no options for a western omelet or eggs and bacon. Plus who would get that anyway? Shakshuka it is! It was a great first meal and a very traditional way to start my trip.

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After breakfast, Reut went to work to leave me and Steve sightseeing in Jaffa. Tel Aviv and Jaffa are in the same area (like Tampa and St Pete) but very different. Jaffa is an ancient city built approximately 7000 years ago. It has thick stone walls remaining from the old city and many tunnels and winding architecture. Tel Aviv however is only as old as Israel (63 years.) Also, Jaffa is very much an Arab/Muslim city and Tel Aviv is more modern and Jewish.

We walked around and saw the main sites: The old city, a wishing bridge, an open market, St Peter's Cathedral and Mahmoudia Mosque.

The old city was really a unique experience. In the past it was mostly residential. Now it has been converted into some business offices, but mostly a bunch of art galleries and jewelry shops.

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It has a massive outer wall with a few gates of entry. Inside you weave around corridors and can imagine what it may have been like so long ago.
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Also it is right on the Mediterranean Sea which adds to its flavor.

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We walked up and down through the city, taking in all the history and scenery. I read about a few rocks in the ocean just off the coast that. We saw these right away. One of the rocks is called Andromeda Rock. Andromeda was a princess from Greek mythology who, as divine punishment for her mother's bragging, was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved from death by Perseus, who swept in on Pegasus and carried her to safety.

We also saw Mahmoudia Mosque, built in 1812 and in very good condition.
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It is also about 100 feet from the beach. From anywhere within a few miles you can hear loudspeakers belt out the daily call of prayer to the Muslim community.

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Nearby is St Peter’s Church.
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It is a Franciscan church and hospice built in 1895 on the remains of a Crusaders fortress; I was surprised that it’s very close to the Mahmoudia Mosque. For a country with religious strife, it was interesting to see a mosque and a church within a few hundred feet of each other.

After our mini-tour of Jaffa, we needed to pick up food for the bbq. The plan was to make chicken kabobs. Easy right? You would think it takes 10 minutes in a grocery store to pick up some chicken, veggies and bread. Well, there really aren’t a lot of supermarkets, so we had a few extra stops.

First we stopped at the butcher. I was thinking it was odd to get the meat first since it would be a while until getting home. So, Steve says we want chicken for our shish kabobs. The butcher without asking us anything else says "20 minutes." That seemed a long time to get a few pounds of chicken. Apparently the butcher doesn’t just sell the chicken, he was cutting it into kabob sized bits and putting it on skewers at no extra charge. I guess kabobs are a common request. That might be tough to get at Publix or Safeway.

Next is the farmers market to get red peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes.

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Most things in Israel are very expensive, however they are known for great produce at reasonable prices. This makes sense…because when I think about a country that’s mostly desert…I think good produce.

Ya cant have an Israeli bbq without pita bread, right? On to the local bakery.
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Steve, in relatively good Hebrew, orders 30 pitas. After a few minutes, Steve hands me a bag of pitas still warm from the oven. Again, tough to get at Publix or Safeway.
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Finally we go to back to the butcher to pick up our chicken kabobs. After we get back and slice up the veggies, we have our kabobs ready for the grill. Steve invited a group of people over for dinner that are in his Hebrew class for significant others. It's a class full of people who moved here because of their boy/girlfriend. Interestingly, half of his class is also German. So at the house there were a lot of Hebrew and German conversations. One guy, however, was from the US. Before moving to Israel, he lived about 10 miles from me in St Petersburg, FL. Go figure.

We spent the rest of the night eating and playing games. Tomorrow evening is the beginning of Yom Kippur and the fast, so I will need to eat and rest well.

Posted by thetodd 17:52 Archived in Israel Tagged buildings food history tel aviv Comments (0)

Day 3-4 Yom Kippur

The holiest day of the year and I was in Israel...nice.

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For those of you that may not know about Yom Kippur, here’s a quick review. Yom Kippur (aka, the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the year for Jews. It’s a day of atonement and repentance. This holiday is probably best known for long services at a synagogue and a 25-hour period of fasting, which is a good part of it. Yom Kippur is about correcting yourself to both God and the people you may have effected through your actions. It also completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days. To sum it up … Pray. Don’t eat. Get forgiven.

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So that’s the basics. For me it was a memorable experience on many levels. Spiritually it is a significant act to observe Yom Kippur. But to do it in Israel added an entirely new meaning. Physically it was a struggle. I had nothing to eat or drink for 25 hours. I also had some leftover jetlag. In addition, you are supposed to prepare yourself by eating well and drinking lots of liquids the night before, which I could have done better. Finally, it was a worldly experience to see the people of a nation shut down almost completely and share one thing in common.

It all started about at 5:00PM. I found a service at Beit Daniel. It was listed as a good place for visitors to Israel. Since it was Yom Kippur, no busses or cars were allowed on the road after 5:00. That meant walking there and walking back. It’s about a 40 minute walk, so I got an early start.

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In the US, I would normally dress up for a high holiday service. However, in Tel Aviv, jeans and sneakers were acceptable. It’s a good thing too since I would be walking about 4km. When I got to the synagogue, there were over 100 people waiting to be seated. They were all from out of town and waiting for the main congregation to get their seats first. So I waited with the rest of out-of-towners and ended up talking with someone from South Africa.

The congregation was finally seated and the rest of us poured in. I knew to get a good seat, both for viewing and leaving early if it was a long service. The service began with a few words from the rabbi in Hebrew and the service began with the Kol Nidre. I wont bore you with the details of the service, but I will let you know it felt almost familiar. Many of the melodies were different and there was a lot I didn’t understand, but I followed along pretty well.

I wish I had more pictures for you to look at, but there’s nothing to show and you can’t take pictures in the temple. So thank you if you are still reading. This is where it gets good.

Services end two and a half hours later and yes I stayed the whole time. When I went outside it was amazing. There were thousands of people in the street.

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Some were biking…some were walking…some were just sitting and talking. (Did that sound like Dr Seuss?)
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Every bicycle in Tel Aviv was present and accounted for. Thousands I tell you!

After a few minutes of taking this in, I start the long walk home. It’s dark, there are no cars, no busses, no planes flying overhead. Just the sound of people. During the entire walk back I saw celebrations on the car and busless streets.

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All of this was doing a good job at distracting me from the thought of no food and water for 22 more hours. I got back a little before 10:00 and headed to bed soon after.

In Israel, it’s a tradition to walk or bike along the highway on the morning of Yom Kippur. When else do you get to play in the road? Steve is not religious, but this was still a fun experience for him. We left his place to walk down Ayalon (pronounced Eye-Alone) Highway. The plan was to walk down one ramp, along the highway and up the next exit ramp.

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We walked along the main roads to get to the highway. We saw a lonely military girl on guard duty. She was the only one we saw working. The best part was taking the highway exit ramp on foot. Once down the ramp, we saw this enormous road emerge…completely empty. Ayalon was all alone. Haha.

It had kind of a Twilight Zone last-men-on-earth feel.
Soon we see the bikers, joggers and roller bladers join in the fun. It was so strange to see this massive highway carry only bikes and pedestrians.

Some decided to just hang out in the right lane.
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The two were just standing in the middle of the road.
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After 45 minutes of walking, we got to the exit ramp.
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This is when I hit the wall. I quickly learned a new math formula… walking + heat + lack of water = stupidity. Steve kept me going and I made it back without any major health issues. The stairs to his place almost killed me though. If you remember, he lives on the 4th floor and there is no elevator. Home at last. I think I’m going to…ZZZZZZZ

After a “short” two-hour cat nap, I awoke feeling a little better but really hungry and thirsty… Ug, two more hours to go. I needed a distraction. Reut, no surprise, suggested playing Wii. Video games are a great distraction, but one that makes you move and jump around was a bit ironic. The time passes and the distractions work.

6:20. DING! Holy High Holidays Batman, I did it! Give me something…Anything!!! First was draining what was left of my water bottle. Next was food. I devoured some cheese and crackers! I wanted to have a nice dinner to celebrate. The snack held me over until the restaurants reopen.

Steve and I walked down Ibn Gvirol Blvd and tried a few places. Most were opening at 8:30. Drat! We finally found Indira, an Indian restaurant, that was open at 7:45. We had a nice meal and I was finally full. Indian Curry was kind of an odd way to end a Jewish holiday, but there are no rules about where to eat.

Posted by thetodd 16:09 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Day 5 Chillin' in Tel Aviv

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After my Yom Kippur experience, it was nice to have a day to just take it easy. I had no specific plans but to sleep well and enjoy Tel Aviv. In the morning we had a simple breakfast and sat around relaxing and playing with the pets. Reut and Steve have a dog named Gaia and a cat named Simba. They are very playful, so if there’s nothing else to do, they will be happy to keep you entertained.
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Later that day I walked around the city and got some luch. As I was walking I saw my first heavily armed citizen. Since then it is a common occurrence, but then it seemed out of place to see someone carrying an assaualt rifle while walking across the street.
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I started looking for a nice restaurant. This one looked good and it was very affordable. They also had a great area for outdor seating. Their sign (below) caught my eye.
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After studying it a little more closely I realized I had been here before.
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Finally I ended up at a Brazilian sushi café. Three things made me eat there: it looked good, it was busy and they had air conditioned seating. The “sushi” they serve is not what you think. It looks like a sushi roll when they are making it,
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but it’s the size of a wrap you would get at a Pita Pit. Once they are done, they use a blow torch to finish it off. It was like a sushi wrap. Delicious!
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Afterward I met up with Steve and we walked around in the Dizengof Center, which is an enormous mall. You could say it has five floors, but it’s designed in a spiral. So if you start at a store on the fifth level and keep walking, eventually you will wind down until the first floor. It’s a smart way of keeping shoppers moving.
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It may look like an American mall, but there are a lot of differences. First, there are no large anchor stores like a Macy’s. Also, there is no central food court. There are just cafes and restaurants all around on all levels. Most of them are very good. There was one store I found amusing.
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After killing some time at Dizzengof, we had about an hour until meeting up with some of Steve’s Hebrew language classmates. We were still trying to decide where to go and the concensus was…drum roll please…

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sushi!

Well, I just had sushi for lunch, but when in Rome... (er, Israel.) It was a cool location for the restaurant. It was literally in the median between the road. In Tel Aviv, they use the space between roads well. There is usually a grassy park area or benches or a playground or even a coy pond.
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In this case, it was a sushi bar. Since there was limited space, the restaurant has no indoor seating; kind of like a Sonic. You can either sit at the bar or one of the picnic tables nearby.

Sushi was good and we sat there talking for a while. During dinner, Steve gets a call from Ranan (who *spoiler alert!* I will go camping with later.) Steve met him through one of his classmates. He invited us to a poker game at his friend Eyal’s. Steve knew he didn’t have to ask me if I wanted to play. So we told Ranan we would both be there.

We show up to Eyal’s apartment where the table is already set up. The initial buyin is NIS 50 (a.k.a. New Israel Sheckle,) but you can buy more later. One player, Paz, was very aggressive and lost about NIS 600. But I won NIS 100 (about $25.) Poker was a lot of fun, but it was also an education experience. I learned all the Hebrew numbers needed to play poker in Israel. You don’t want to get raised “shmonim” because that means 80. I learned that the hard way.

Posted by thetodd 15:19 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

DAY 6 – Tel Aviv University and Diaspora Museum

Time for some culture

Tel Aviv University gives free tours every day. On Monday at 11:00 they were giving an archaeological tour. I wanted to learn a little more about the topic, so I decided to go. They also just renovated their Diaspora Museum, which could be good too.

The university is a good ride away from where I was staying and Steve had his last day of Hebrew class. Looks like I’m taking the bus. After reading an unnecessarily complicated bus map, I figured out which bus to take and started walking. On the way there I decided to stop at one of Tel Aviv’s famous cafes for some breakfast and get…what else…shakshuka.

So after a long “I-hope-I’m-going-the-right-way” bus ride, I finally get to Tel Aviv University. The website said to meet at the museum. I ask the guard at the gate and he has no idea. So I enter the University after getting pat down and having my bag searched (a very common occurrence.)

I found a student walking by who pointed me in the direction of the museum. As I approached, I saw a sukkah display, which I can only assume had something to do with the Art department.
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You can see the museum behind this picture.
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Sukkot was starting soon and you don’t want to be sukkahless for the holiday. Most were complete.
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Some not so much
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Some designs were a little out-of-the-box.
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The architectural tour was good. I learned that Tel Aviv was build up in bursts over time and you can see the different styles of buildings during each boom period. Most of the early buildings are 99.5 percent functional and 0.5 percent aesthetic.

Construction began in the 1930’s when there was no air conditioning. In this period, buildings usually had windows only on the Northern and Southern exposures because of the intense sun in the East and West. Some later construction use sun baffles one East/West walls to block direct sun but still allow a view. If a building has windows on all four walls, it was probably built after 1960 when good windows and air conditioning were available.

On the tour we saw the campus synagogue that was designed by some famous architect I can’t remember the name of.
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It was designed with light as a theme. Light is coming in from designs in the roof and light comes from behind the ark.
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After the tour, I headed over to the Diaspora Museum. This museum tracked the geography of the Jewish people for thousands of years.
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It was interesting to see how different empires affected the Jewish people. Everyone from the Egyptians to the Romans to WWII Germans were accounted for. Most recently there was a mass migration to Miami and New York. :o)

Posted by thetodd 12:32 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

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