Missing Basketball? Try Israel!

(The deli counter at a grocery store in Hertzeliya on a Friday morning)
Butcher: (To me, in Hebrew) Do you play basketball?
Me: (in Hebrew) Sure, I used to play in the United States.
Butcher: (Question in Hebrew I didn’t understand)
Me: (Searching my Hebrew vocabulary) Uh…
Butcher: (Says something to the next person in line)
Other Customer: (To me, in English) He says you are an American basketball player and he wants to know what team you play for here. Netanya?

Sadly, I am not in Israel to play basketball, and the only fifteen-footers I will shoot will be on the court across the street from my office.  Still, it isn’t surprising to find Israelis on the lookout for Americans playing for teams in the holy land.  With NBA owners and players currently at loggerheads over how to divide the league’s $4 billion in annual revenues and the NBA season consequently on-hold, I call your attention to Ligat HaAl (the Israeli Basketball Super League) as a good place to get your hoops fix.

Ligat HaAl was founded in 1954.  The league’s teams also compete in the Euroleague and many of European basketball’s top tournaments.  Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv has won the most Ligat HaAl titles, with 49 to their name.   As evidence of Israel’s global basketball stature, Maccabi has also won five Euroleague titles, including back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.

While it is true that Israel’s number one sport – like almost every other country except America – is soccer (or “football” if you aren’t an American), the Jewish homeland has a long and storied history on the basketball court and its fanbase appears to be growing.  I remember watching Israelis Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld star for UConn in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, when shooting around in my driveway as a kid, I pretended I was Doron Sheffer hitting last minute shots.  Although he chose to return to Israel after playing at UConn, as a big guard with good ball handling and court vision, I have no doubt he could have played in the NBA.

Israel’s biggest basketball star, and current most visible athlete, is Omri Casspi.  After playing in the Israeli League from 2005 to 2009, Casspi played solidly for the Sacramento Kings for two seasons before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season.   As you can see below, he is famous enough to merit the Wheaties box treatment from Israeli cereals.

He isn't on the cottage cheese, but Omri Casspi wants to be a part of your balanced breakfast.

Although long established, Israel and America’s basketball ties have only recently received attention from many non-hardcore basketball fans.  While still in America, I read a few articles touting Israeli basketball clubs’ signings of various American players for this coming season, and it piqued my desire to watch a little basketball while in Israel.  The NBA lockout means more American players, especially those just out of college, are looking to teams overseas for playing opportunities.  Under the Law of Return, American players who have a Jewish parent or grandparent are immediately eligible for citizenship and thus can bypass Israeli league rules regarding the number of foreign players allowed on each team, making them particularly attractive signings (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/sports/seeking-route-to-the-nba-through-israel.html).

Israeli clubs didn’t sign any American superstars, but each team carries a few American players on their roster.  A moderate NBA fan or college basketball fan will be able to recognize many names from standout performances in the annual NCAA March Madness tournament or from the lists of journeyman roster-fillers who make the rounds of NBA teams each season. The roster for league powerhouse Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv lists six American players, including former college standouts like Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, Kansas’s Keith Langford, and Duke’s Jon Scheyer. (I wonder if being a Duke player inspires this much ridicule in Israel?)

Beyond these former NCAA stars, Maccabi Tel Aviv made the league’s most publicized offseason move when it signed guard Jordan Farmar, formerly of the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.  Farmar was a solid NBA player, but from the highlight reel Maccabi posted, I would have sworn he was a perennial All-Star.  Kidding aside, based on the level of attention Farmar’s signing brought to Israeli basketball, I believe it will have a positive impact on the game here.

Not only am I excited to watch a few games, but I’m also curious to see if increased interest in Israeli professional basketball will motivate more Israeli youths to pick up the sport.  So far, I’ve only seen kids playing soccer in the parks and on blacktops. Yet Ipicture Israel as a relatively untapped source of at least some basketball talent.
During my time in Israel, I’m excited to learn more about the history of Israeli basketball.  Maybe it will motivate me to get back out on the court for a little shooting, or even a few pickup games if I can find a few people who want to play.

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A Nation’s Joy and Fear in the Face of A Soldier’s Return Home After Over 5 Years in Captivity

“He who saves one soul, it is as though he saved an entire world.” – The Talmud

Every Israeli knows the name Gilad Shalit.  He has been mentioned at every graduation, every concert, and every public gathering since June 2006.  His image and name are emblazoned on T-shirts, walls, posters, and monuments.  His story has moved a nation.

On June 25, 2006, Hamas militants abducted Gilad during a cross-border raid.  He was 19 years old at the time.  Gilad has since been held captive somewhere in the Gaza Strip, denied all human rights due to captured soldiers, including visits from the Red Cross and communication with family members.

More than five years after Gilad’s abduction, an agreement has been reached between the Israeli government and Hamas for his release.  The deal holds that 1,027 Palestinian prisoners will be released in phases in exchange for Gilad’s liberation.  Among the prisoners being released are 280 who were serving life sentences, many as a result of their roles in terrorist attacks.  Still other prisoners set to be released are amongst the founders of Hamas’s military wing.

From my understanding, the majority of the Israeli and Jewish population, in Israel and abroad, support the deal.  Many would have supported any deal that would have returned Gilad home.  Others, notably those whose families have been torn apart by the Palestinian terrorists set to be released, oppose the agreement.

The arguments supporting the agreement are numerous and complex, stemming from a mentality inherent to Israelis.  Over the course of the five and a half years of Gilad’s imprisonment, the young soldier has become a national icon.  He is not just son to his parents and brother to his siblings, but he is part of every Israeli family.  In a country where all Jewish youths are enlisted in the army at age 18 (barring those who opt out for various health or religious reasons), he is perceived by every mother and father as a son, by every boy and girl as a brother, and by every youth as a fellow soldier protecting his homeland.  There isn’t an Israeli soul who doesn’t want Gilad Shalit to return home.

Yet while everyone wants Gilad to be freed, there are those who believe his homecoming shouldn’t come at such a great price.  Some of the arguments against the agreement include:

  • Israel should not negotiate with terrorists.
  • Israel should not release incarcerated Palestinian killers.
  • The release of known terrorists is a security risk.  Statistics show that 60% of released prisoners return to terrorist activity.
  • Such negotiations set a precedent that provides terrorists with a greater incentive to capture additional Israeli soldiers in the interest of obtaining the release of Palestinian prisoners.

I am sure there are many more, but these seem to be the most cited reasons.

In discussing the issue of whether the return of a captive soldier is worth the release of hundreds of cold-blooded, murderous terrorists, a particular statement in favor of the exchange stood out at me.

The imprisonment of Palestinian terrorists will not bring back the dead.  But their release can bring back the living.

It is partly the high price Israel is paying in exchange for Gilad’s release that has affirmed for many the fact that he is alive.  Historically, Israel has exchanged prisoners for bodies of killed soldiers.  In January of 2004, an agreement between the Israeli government and Hezbollah entailed the return of the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, captured during an attack in October 2000, in exchange for the release of approximately 500 Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab prisoners.  After the Second Lebanon War, Israel and Hezbollah agreed that Israel would return 5 Lebanese militants and the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Unfortunately, as Gilad’s grandfather pointed out, no one knows what Gilad is being returned to Israel.  The Gilad once known by family and friends may no longer exist after over five years of imprisonment.

From my perspective, the most problematic element of the exchange is the precedent it will set.  Terrorists have a clear incentive to kidnap Israeli soldiers.  One terrorist has already said that they must kidnap another five Israeli soldiers to free the remaining five thousand imprisoned terrorists.  Unfortunately but thankfully, they have reason to keep Israeli soldiers alive as well, in the interest of having a stronger bargaining chip.  The ends to which Israel would go to bring home a soldier, whether alive or dead, are unparalleled.  All we can do at this critical moment is hope the exchange proceeds smoothly and that no additional soldiers or families must endure what Gilad Shalit and his relatives suffered.

Note: “Gilad” means “eternal joy,” “monument,” and “hill of testimony.” 

The Best Pasta I’ve Ever Had

Piccola Pasta
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Italian, Pasta
Not Kosher
53 Ben Yehuda
03-620-3257
Monday-Saturday (18:00-00:30)
Sunday (Closed)

Doug and I wanted our first dinner outing in Tel Aviv to be special not only because it would be our first outing, but also because we were celebrating our anniversary. Having arrived in Israel only a couple of weeks before, we sought all the suggestions and feedback we could get. We checked restaurant review sites, websites, and blogs; we looked at menus as we explored the city; we asked family and friends. Thankfully, our efforts paid off. We ended up at Piccola Pasta, a charming little restaurant on Ben Yehuda Street.

To preface any discussion of my experience at Piccola Pasta, let me just say that I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my lifetime. As I only eat kosher meat and seafood, eating out is usually a vegetarian-style affair. When going out to eat, veggie-friendly pasta dishes, of which there are many, always appealed to me. Italian restaurants, with their myriad of non-meaty dishes, became the default when looking for a place to eat out. I’m also quite content with my impossible-to-accomplish goal of finding the best homemade pasta in New York.

Beyond that, pasta is easy to prepare and incredibly versatile, making it a natural go-to dish when I lived abroad in Madrid in an apartment equipped with only a microwave and two hot plates (which now seems luxurious, given that I currently have a single hot plate). Back in New York, I loved making baked pasta dishes with various cheesy sauces. Aside from the usual pesto and tomato-based sauces, I also experimented with avocado-based sauces and even made a creamy smoked salmon sauce once. I’d have to say my most successful pasta creation was probably homemade goat cheese-asparagus ravioli with lemon pesto sauce. But even that delectable dish was nothing compared to the pasta I ate at Piccola Pasta.

Asparagus goat cheese filling in the making

Making ravioli

Ravioli with lemon pesto sauce

It was difficult to select what I wanted from the menu full of delicious-sounding pasta dishes. Dishes with mushrooms, anchovies, sundried tomatoes, cheeses, and fresh basil all sang my name in unison. But one option stood out more than the others: pasta with hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, asparagus, and garlic, in a cream sauce with parmesan cheese on top. I was eager to order, but had to wait while Doug battled to choose between similarly appealing options.  He decided to go with a classic: pasta with garlic and fresh basil in tomato sauce, topped with parmesan cheese.

Doug and I placed our order with a very friendly waitress with a cute accent (we later learned that she had made aliyah to Israel from France). As we waited for our order to arrive, we agreed to share our meals, a habit we’ve taken to so that we could each sample as many dishes as possible. But sharing was the last thing I wanted to do once I tasted my meal.

Luckily, a photo of my dish was taken before I completely devoured it

Delectable, delicious, scrumptious, palatable… none of these words do justice to the pasta I had placed before me. “Heavenly” seems most appropriate. The flavors of asparagus slathered in garlicky cream sauce, alongside tender artichoke hearts and juicy hearts of palm, with perfectly cooked penne and just a touch of parmesan cheese, were all combined into one magical dish. I couldn’t help but feel greedy. As my plate emptied, I wished I had more. I allowed Doug to try a couple pieces of my pasta, but refused to allow him to eat much more. It was simply too good to share.

I enjoyed my dish so much that I even asked the waitress if I could have a small piece of bread to wipe my bowl clean with. While she tried to get one for me, she ultimately informed me that the kitchen could not give me a small piece of bread and that I would have to order garlic bread if I wanted some. I tried not to let my disappointment show too much and got to work scooping up as much of the sauce as I could with my fork. By the time I finished, there was no doubt in my mind: this was the best pasta I had ever eaten.

Doug’s pasta, meanwhile, was not nearly as tasty as mine. The dish, called the Piccola Pasta, seemed like it should have been the restaurant’s best signature dish, as it was named for the establishment preparing it. It was certainly good, but it ultimately left something to be desired.

Doug's dish

Of course, I had to try the dessert at the restaurant that prepared the best pasta I had ever eaten. We ordered panna cotta and spent the time waiting for it discussing how utterly amazing my pasta dish was. Our dessert arrived beautifully arranged with cinnamon and a few dried cherries on top, all drizzled with honey. While it was good, it wouldn’t be worth over-stuffing yourself for. But if you believe that there is a separate part of the stomach for dessert, as I do, then order away!

Panna cotta

Thinking back on the meal, I can’t help but want to return to Piccola Pasta a second time. But I’m afraid of getting the same dish and missing out on trying something new and similarly heavenly. Alternatively, I’m worried that I would get something different and be underwhelmed. But most of all, I’m afraid there are too many amazing restaurants in Tel Aviv for me to return to the same one so soon…

So in the meantime, I’m going to recommend it to anyone and everyone I possibly can, hoping to live vicariously through them as they delight in eating the best pasta they’ve ever had.

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Also posted on the Taste TLV blog: http://tastetlv.blogspot.com/2011/10/best-pasta-ive-ever-had.html