Wednesday, May 23, 2007


One thing which we have been experiencing this spring that we hardly saw last year is dust storms (bet you thought I was going to say "rockets" again, hmm?). They are called hamsin (pronounced "hom-seen"), which is Arabic for "50". Nobody really knows for sure what the connection between hamsin and "50" is, so I won't begin to speculate.

Here are a couple of pictures of a hamsin that just hit the Israeli Negev from Sinai at a speed of about 60 kph (40 mph). These photos were taken from an altitude of 8,000 ft. the sand wall was about 4,000 ft high moving from the west to the east.

We have had several already, to say the least. I don't know all of the details of how it works, but basically it is hot air blowing dust in from the desert. Usually the wind blows in from the ocean, but during a hamsin can blow the opposite way. The sky turns cloudy and orange and can last up to several days. When it is over there is a layer of fine, brown dust on everything. If you are away and leave a window open when a hamsin comes through, expect a mess inside your house when you get back.

(Our car after a rather mild dust storm)

Photos courtesy of The Augean Stables

Feelin' the Love

As the trouble continues to brew not far from us, I have just learned that I am a "Zionist settler" (ha!). According to Hamas' website, that's not a compliment.

...the armed wing of Hamas Movement, has threatened that its rockets will reach the Zionist settlers in the 1948-occupied coastal city of Asqlan [Ashkelon] and areas beyond...
And we have been hearing the "love" everyday. Fortunately, the "gifts" have been falling short of the residential parts of the city, although the sounds remind us that we "Zionist settlers" are being thought of.

(Rockets from Gaza)

In light of this, we decided to celebrate our newly designated status by taking a family picnic. And since the kids are out of school for Shavu'ot, we set out for a couple of uncharted picnic sites. We soon discovered that all were memorial sites from Israel's War of Independence back in 1948. Grim reminders they were, but then again why not? Everything here is a reminder of some battle of some sort at some time, so we decided war memorial it is! The first place overlooked Ashkelon but we didn't stay because a) there was no shade, and b) apparently this is the place where all of the flies in Israel have come to spawn this spring. It did have a good view of the city, though.

(Ashkelon on the horizon)

Where we ended up was called "Hill 69" near Ashdod.

(View of Ashdod)

According to the memorial, we were there two days exactly after the 59th anniversary of the big battle (according to the Jewish calendar), which explains the fresh flower wreaths.

Here's the sign in English describing the battle (click to enlarge for those interested in what happened):

In the end, Hill 69 is a good place to have a picnic. It is quiet, out of the way, good view, lots of shade, and plenty of big ants for the kids to stomp. What more could a family possibly ask for?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Passing Away

Today was my first Jewish Israeli funeral and, well, I won't say that I've been traumatized by it, but I think I'm still trying to process the whole thing. Let's just say it's, um, different than what I'm used to.

The lady who passed away is the mother of someone we know in our congregation. We did not know her very well but I thought I'd go because of our friend. We thought it would be best for Rima to stay with the kids (good move, as you will see) so I headed out by myself. Here, if someone dies they are buried that same day or the next (at the very latest). There is a saying here about mothers of soldiers who lose sons in battle, that on that fateful day: In the morning they have a son, and in the evening they have a grave. Everything is so sudden and abrupt, it seems.

Fighting traffic, I drove east across the country and arrived at the cemetery on time (which turns out to be pretty early here). The few that were there were huddled under a makeshift tent-covering as the sparse raindrops dotted the rocky hills around us. Nobody really knew what was going on as we waited for everyone else to arrive. Soon, hearing cries from the parking lot, we knew that the families had arrived. For a while there was a lot of loud crying and a lot of hugging. Then a small van backed up to the covering. People began to gather around and concentrate their grief in this area.

Again, I hardly knew the deceased, but seeing grown adults (most all of whom were older than me) crying openly, unrestrained, and yelling "Mommy, mommy" and "My love" to the van is hard to see without breaking your heart. I don't know much about the culture here, but it seems that letting out one's emotions of sorrow is to be done here at funerals. Israelis are well known for being rather aggressive and showing a strong demeanor at all times, but one is reminded in times like these that they are very much human and hurt deeply like everyone else.

The two men who came in the van were orthodox Jews and were apparently in charge of these sorts of things. When the time came, they opened the back of the van and pulled out a gurney with the deceased covered with a black cloth, right there in front of us. The immediate family, all with torn shirts, gathered around and expressed their grief by crying, talking, or reading Psalms. A couple of them read a sort-of "goodbye letter" to their mother. Then one of the orthodox fellows, the cantor, sang some Psalms and said some prayers before the "pallbearers" lifted the deceased by the handles of a rubber stretcher off of the gurney and everyone followed them to the gravesite.

Once there, more crying and prayers. One of the granddaughters was slightly unhinged by everything and was screaming and crying uncontrollably "Grandmother, why are you leaving me?!", which didn't help calm things down. The next thing I knew, the two orthodox guys took the deceased, set her in the bottom of the grave, removed the black cloth, placed small concrete slabs over the vault, filled the hole with dirt, and put a small sign with her name on top of the new grave. That's it. Over. Done.

Some of the family read a couple of Psalms, sat next to the fresh grave, squeezed the dirt with their fingers, and then guests slowly filed by and each placed a small stone on top. Then our friend passed out cold. They took her to the side and, with about a dozen people arguing over what to do, she finally came to. That, along with the cold raindrops returning, pretty much sent everyone back to their cars and away. As for me, apart from the deep sadness I couldn't help but feel, I was a bit dazed at everything that just happened. My drive back home was a bit of a blur.

I'm very glad I went and would definitely do it again, even knowing how difficult it is. I will say that I did notice that during the funeral I was feeling a lot of agony inside, which was just a little overwhelming at times (even though everything was in Hebrew), but as soon as the last of the dirt was put on the grave the pain just sort of went away. Maybe for an outsider like me it was like getting a form of closure, in some small way.

Major life events such as these are meant to be shared with those close to us. Also, as they say, we can begin to understand better how different cultures handle these situations. It is like a small window into the inner workings of their minds, if that is possible. It made me very aware of how differently we do funerals back in the States, and how healthy it seemed for people to just let their feelings out and not hold anything in. Someone there told me that Israeli funerals are not usually like that, but mainly because the family was originally from the Arabian Peninsula that it was a bit more animated. Maybe so.

If anyone is so inclined, please remember this family in their grief.