The Land of Milk and Honey, Work and Play, Religiosity and Secularity: A Year in Review

A little over a year ago, Doug and I left for Israel. We knew we were going to stay until January 2012, at least, but were hoping to find jobs and stay longer. Luckily, we did find jobs, allowing us to stay through June 2012.

When people hear we spent a year in Israel, they ask, “So… how was it?” They watch me eagerly, seeming to expect some sort of grand story. I usually just smile and say, “It was amazing.” What else can I say? It’s hard to sum up nine month’s worth of experiences succinctly, especially considering the wide range of experiences we had in Israel.  But at this point, I’d like to reflect on some of the most memorable moments.

Arrival

We landed in Ben Gurion Airport on September 8, 2011. We made our way to a sherut (taxi service) to Jerusalem, where we needed to go to join our Career Israel group orientation.  To say we were exhausted, hungry, and disoriented would be an understatement.  So when security officials began shepherding people away from the airport exits, we were incredibly confused and frustrated.  As we stood with our four suitcases and watched the security personnel doing their thing, we couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.

We eventually managed to hear the story:

As the doors of a train that runs through the airport were closing, someone had thrown a suitcase onto the platform.  A “suspicious package.” So, as we waited and chatted with fellow travelers (one Oregonian, who had admired my Powell’s Bookstore T-Shirt, managed to get a picture with a security guard despite the prohibition on taking pictures of them), security personnel brought over one of those bomb-deactivating robots and rendered the suitcase harmless.

The sherut “lines” were terrible after that. Masses of people rushed to get on one and there was no rhyme or reason to who got on which.  Whenever we told a driver where we were going, we were turned away.  We eventually boarded a sherut.  We spent the next few hours on the sherut as it drove to Jerusalem and then zigzagged its way across the city, dropping off passengers until we were the only remaining riders.

As we sat on the sherut, I looked over at Doug, for whom this was the first trip to the country, and said, “Welcome to Israel!”

Slichot Tour

The night before Yom Kippur, Career Israel took us to the kotel (also known as The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall).  People were packed so thick that we only managed to get within a quarter of a mile of the wall.  The group of us stood huddled together, listening to the Rabbi over the loudspeakers. With all the excitement, I almost forgot that we were at a religious, very solemn site.  Despite the fact that many of the people at the wall that night would soon be fasting for 25 hours, there was an atmosphere of glee.

Yom Kippur

We returned to Tel Aviv after our amazing slichot tour just in time to prepare a pre-fast meal (it ended up being a little saltier than it should have been, considering we were about to fast, but it turned out ok).  After eating and going to a local, overflowing Sephardic synagogue, we walked back to our apartment.  Since it’s illegal to drive on Yom Kippur, the streets were taken over by bikers, skaters, and pedestrians.  The holiday has unofficially become known as the national bike day.  We got back to our building and spent some time playing card games with friends.

Our strategy for getting through the fast as easily as possible was to stay up incredibly late and sleep in incredibly late—that way, when we woke up, there would only be a few hungry hours left.  So, in an effort to keep busy while staying awake, we took a late-night stroll with a friend.  We walked around the then-quiet streets of the city, awed by the silence that lay over Tel Aviv like a blanket.  We ended up by the Azrieli Towers, where Doug and I enjoyed a short dance in the middle of the intersection while the traffic lights changed colors to direct non-existent traffic.  Little did I know that I would soon be working for Playtech, whose offices were in the round tower.

Little did we know, as we danced in the middle of the intersection, that we would soon be working in the round tower.

We frolicked a little on the deserted Ayalon highway before peacefully strolling home, where we promptly fell asleep and stayed asleep through the late morning, just as we planned.

Goofing around on the Ayalon highway during Yom Kippur

Playtech

I went to Israel hoping that I would be able to work at the Praklitut (Tel Aviv’s district attorney’s office).  Getting through all the red tape involved in working for the Israeli government was a time-consuming process (/non-process), though, and time was one thing I did not have.

While I was waiting on some paperwork from the Praklitut, I ended up babysitting for an attorney who worked for Playtech, a high-tech company that does software development for online games. She passed my resume along to the legal department and, within a week, I was offered a full-time position.

My time at Playtech was amazing, despite sometimes-stressful conditions and frustrating encounters (i.e. providing technical support for officemates from home without internet access, having my office phone line stop working every other day, having my internet inexplicably die while at work).  I am incredibly thankful to have spent the year working in an office where my coworkers were wonderful, the environment was dynamic, and every day was different. As if that wasn’t rewarding enough, I loved that the company had fresh made waffles for us for New Years, threw an amazing Purim party, and distributed lovely presents for Passover.

New Year’s waffles!

Purim Party

Oh, did I mention we got fun souvenirs? Say hello to my Pink Panther flash drive.

Release of Gilad Shalit

On October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit was released after more than five years of being in captivity.  His abduction and imprisonment moved the nation.  People saw in him their own brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons.  For years, people prayed for his release; some protested in front of the Prime Minister’s house in an effort to get negotiations going. As I already wrote about his abduction and the exchange for his release (you can read it here if you’re interested), I’ll refrain from going into too much detail.

I will say that it was truly lovely to be in Israel when he was finally released, though. Netanyahu’s words to Shalit upon his return to Israel still ring in my head: “How good it is that you’ve come home.”

Bedouin

In 2007, I visited the Bedouin for the first time.  Through Birthright we stayed overnight in a large tent, hosted by local Bedouins.  It was a lovely experience (besides the less-than-spotless communal bathrooms and somewhat grimy sleeping bags), full of desert stories told over tea and good food.  In the morning, we took an early morning camel ride through the desert.  Unfortunately, our idyllic visit wasn’t representative of the actual Bedouin experience and lifestyle.

Our program arranged a visit to an unofficial Bedouin settlement.  The bus dropped us off a short ways away from the settlement since it wasn’t accessible by paved road.  A few minutes’ walk from the collection of lean-tos was their central “plumbing” area, if you will.  As the settlement isn’t connected to government infrastructure, they have to obtain water in an unconventional manner.  Somehow, they tap into the state water system and run rubber/plastic pipes to their homes.  But the pipes they use are all exposed, above ground, and without insulation.  This means that they are completely susceptible to breakage, leaking, and over-heating/freezing.  In the summer, the water is scalding; in the winter, the water is ice-cold.  Nevertheless, they record water usage using rudimentary meters.  One person in the settlement is responsible for recording each family’s water usage (the meters are located between the main road and the dwellings; each is covered by a little wooden box) and collecting payments.  Who they pay for the water is beyond me—it would seem odd if they paid the Israeli water supplier company, considering they were illegally taking the water, but I didn’t question it at the time.

Bedouin plumbing system

After a short walk, we arrived at the dwelling of a woman who agreed to have us over.  Our guide, who was studying the Bedouin, knew her.  In exchange for a small sum of money, she provided groups with tea and spoke with them.  She also graciously told us her story:

When she was a young girl, she went to school.  She never obtained her high school degree, though.  After marrying, she decided she wanted to continue her education.  She obtained her high school degree and was taking classes in Hebrew Literature part-time at a local university.  While she loved studying, she was frank about some of the difficulties she encountered.  Not owning a car, she would often need to get rides back home from university after classes ended as no public transportation serviced the route she needed.  But as a woman, she could only get rides with other women or her closest male relatives, lest someone accuse her of adultery.  She said that her husband had always been supportive of her, but that other people in her settlement were critical of her.  Her desire to be educated was looked down upon; women were meant to give birth to and care for children, home, and husband.

Despite this, the woman we spoke with said she was determined that her daughters obtain their degrees before marrying, a goal uncommon in the community.  When we asked if she would ever leave her community to live somewhere else, where equality between genders was greater, she replied with a resounding, “Never.”  Her community was her family and she had no desire to leave it.

Her story was simultaneously inspirational and upsetting.  This woman was clearly incredibly motivated, but the obstacles she encountered were great.  Despite everything, she had such an optimistic view of the world and had a wonderful sense of humor.  As a mother of several, including one set of triplets, she joked: “For my greatest enemies, I wish that they, too, have triplets.”

Tea with an inspiring Bedouin woman

Kibbutz Netzer Sereni

In January, Doug and I went to kibbutz Netzer Sereni with a small group of people in our program and our madricha (counselor), who was engaged to a kibbutz member.  We spent the day hearing about the kibbutz’s history and touring it on a tractor.

Our ride around the kibbutz

Our madricha’s fiancée told us how he moved out of his parent’s home and into kibbutz dorms when he began high school.  He relayed stories of evenings spent drinking in the kibbutz’s orange grove, explaining how they would squeeze fresh juice into their glasses of liquor.

Picking oranges at the kibbutz

As if we didn’t appreciate his kibbutz roots enough, he later gracefully scooped up an agitated calf that managed to escape its pen and plopped him back inside it, letting the calf suck on his thumb to calm him.

Scooping up the escaped cow

Depositing the escaped cow back in his pen

Letting the cow suckle on his thumb to calm him

Afterwards, he took us to his parents’ home, where we had tea and were able to amass lemons and limes to go along with the bushels of oranges we took from the grove.  The day was absolutely lovely, heavenly in the stereotypical way kibbutzim once were.

Yom HaZikaron Sirens & Yom HaAztmaut

I was sitting at my desk at work at 10am on Yom HaZikaron.  I had never spent it in Israel before so, while I expected a solemn mood, I didn’t quite expect to see the entire country stop for a minute of silence as a siren sounded.  I looked out my office window, down onto the busy commercial area below, and was shocked by the sense of solidarity I felt with the men and women who stood below.

Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the intersection and stood silently beside them.  Store merchants stopped working and customers stopped ordering.  People stood facing all different directions, scattered along a pedestrian walkway by Tel Aviv’s Savidor train station.  A shared history of loss united us as we remembered relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors, who were killed serving the country.

The view from my office window

As the siren wound down and people proceeded with their days, I understood the common thread Israelis shared, all religious and ethnic divides aside.

(The siren starts at 0:57)

It was also a privilege to be in Israel on Yom HaAztmaut (Independence Day). Weddings

Oh the weddings… What are weddings about, anyways? Love? Marriage? Family? The happy couple? Family? No; no; no; and maybe a little. Weddings are about eating, drinking, and dancing.  Luckily, Israelis have mastered those activities (particularly the first one).

The two weddings we went to were beautiful.  They were also incredibly different.

The first wedding we went to was one of a distant maternal relative who I had never met before.  The only people I knew were my late grandfather, his caretaker, an uncle I wasn’t close with growing up, and Doug.  Despite this, we had a wonderful time.  The location was beautiful, like a little orchard fairyland.  The food during the reception was amazing.  The meat was delicious, the fish was delectable, and the French fries were absolutely perfect!  We spent the hour bouncing between the stations and the bar, occasionally checking in with my grandfather.  The ceremony was blissfully sweet and was followed by dancing and good humor.  My 91-year-old grandfather even spent a little time on the dance floor.  By the end of the night, we were exhausted. But lo and behold, just as we ran out of energy, a “midnight snack” of fries, pickles, and mini burgers was brought out.  Smart folk, those newlyweds!

My late grandfather at the wedding

Looking out at the reception area from the dance floor

At the wedding

The second wedding we attended was also beautiful.  The venue was also outdoors, but less nature-y.  The pre-ceremony treats were arranged around a large circular area, making it easy to go from one to the next.  The food had an around-the-world theme, each station serving up something different (Israeli, Asian, Mexican, etc.).  We were able to socialize more at this wedding.  The groom was my grandmother’s cousin’s son—pretty distant, sure, but a lot of my dad’s family was there.  It was amazing to see some of my second cousins.  I reminisced with one in particular, who I remember watching the Aristocrats countless times with as a child.  As we finished reveling in nostalgia and I went to grab some more samosas, I ran into a co-worker who went to high school with the groom, my distant cousin.  Small world? I think so!

Holidays

Rosh Hashanah with my dad’s family

With my baby cousin on Rosh Hashanah

Sukkot

The dog is going for the abandoned food on the high chair… even she wants in on the delicious food we ate in the Sukkah!

Channukah

Channukah in Jerusalem

Shavuot, my favorite holiday!

———-

I’ve organized these gems of memories onto a virtual shelf in my brain.  This shelf holds dusty memories from before Israel, going back through my time at NYU, my experience studying abroad in Madrid and all of the traveling I did in those short months, my high school days, and my pre-NJ life in northeast Philadelphia.

My Israel memories are slowly but surely gathering their own layer of dust as I place new ones from law school beside them.

The 6-Day Trip (to Israel)

It’s been some time since Doug’s parents’ visit to Israel in January, but with the recent end of my own parents’ visit, I can’t help but reminisce.

It was their first trip to Israel.  We were excited to show them around, but were at a loss as to where to start.  Their trip was relatively short (only 6 days) and we had to work during their visit, so scheduling was very tight.

Thankfully, my organizational instincts kicked in quite quickly—I threw together an itinerary that covered most of Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods and had us in Jerusalem for a day.  I don’t know about Doug’s parents, but I was definitely exhausted by the end of the week!

Tuesday

Doug’s parents arrived in the afternoon, so Doug made his way to the airport to pick them up.  He took them to their hotel, where I later met them.  We walked along the tayelet for a short time before making our way to dinner at Piccola Pasta (a restaurant absolutely worth checking out! Read about the food here).  It was close to their hotel and we figured it was a safe bet for their first night.  We had an early dinner and took them back to their hotel, where I think they promptly fell asleep.  Mission: retrieve parents from airport and ferry them to sleep late enough to avoid jet lag = success!

We had a lovely dinner at Piccola Pasta

Wednesday

We originally planned to spend Wednesday in Tel Aviv and go to Jerusalem on Thursday, but the weather forecast for Thursday indicated rain all day.  In the interest of not spending a day soaked and unhappy in Jerusalem, we switched our schedule around a little.  We met up bright and early and made our way to the Central Bus Station, where we hopped on a sherut to Jerusalem.

For those who don’t know what a sherut is, it’s basically a taxi van.  Prices are comparable to buses.

  • Cons: Depending on the time of day, you may have to wait a bit for it to leave. They wait until they’re full before heading off to their destination.  They also don’t offer any monthly/weekly pass, as far as I know.
  • Pros: They can be quicker than buses since they only stop to drop people off (or pick people up, when they have empty seats). They also run on Shabbat.

We made it to Jerusalem with enough time to stop in at an Aroma and grab something warm to drink before making our way to the Old City.  In the interest of seeing as much of Jerusalem as possible in a short time, we took them to the Old City via Mamilla Mall.

Mamilla Mall is a modern construction built very close to the Old City.  A pedestrian walkway cuts through its center, allowing you to stroll along while looking in at the posh stores and contemporary sculptures than line the walkway.

Although not from our trip to Jerusalem with Doug's parents, here's a picture of Mamilla Mall on the eve before Yom Kippur

Another picture of Mamilla Mall on the eve before Yom Kippur

At long last, we came upon the Old City.  While we planned to enter through Dung Gate since it was closest to the Kotel (also known as the Western Wall and the Wailing Wall), we ended up going through Yafo Gate.  Initially, I was pretty worried that I wouldn’t be able to navigate the narrow, winding, indistinguishable streets of the Old City.  We had tickets for Minarot HaKotel, a tour that takes you into the tunnels under the Old City by the Kotel.  I looked at our map and craned my neck left and right, trying to find the street signs tacked onto the sides of walls.  I quickly grew frustrated by the complete lack of any side streets on my map.  As I did so, though, I realized I didn’t need the map.

While my memory usually fails me, it was astonishingly impressive in getting us to the Kotel.  I couldn’t tell you what turns to take, what stores to look for, what streets to go down—but somehow I just remembered where to go.  Within moments, we were by the entrance to the tunnels, with a few minutes to spare.  Doug’s parents finally had a moment to look around and take in the splendor of the Old City.  The cobblestone streets, secret doorways, and little stairwells charmed them.  The Kotel itself, the likes of which they had never seen before, impressed them.

Minarot HaKotel impressed them further, providing a wealth of historical information about Jerusalem and the Kotel that put things into a contextual perspective.  It emphasized just how remarkable the second temple was, of which the Western Wall was only a fraction of a much larger piece that only served as its architectural base.  We emerged from the tunnels on Via Dolorosa, each of us a pound heavier from the incredibly educational tour.

We tried to follow the Stations of the Cross (the path Jesus took, carrying the cross, from the place of his trial and condemnation by Pontius Pilate to the site of his crucifixion and burial) for a little bit, using Fodor as our guide.  Unfortunately, even the 7th edition of Fodor’s doesn’t have a built-in GPS, so we ended up giving up somewhere between where Jesus addresses the women in the crowd and where he is stripped of his garments.

Luckily, Jesus’s final path took us right through the Arab Market, which we planned to check out anyways.  There’s really nothing like it—vendors smoking in their tiny shops, hookahs laying out left and right, lemonade and pomegranate juice being purchased by thirsty tourists, all immersed amidst countless Jerusalem-themed souvenirs for people of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths.

The Arab Market in Jerusalem

By 11:30, we were hungry from the day’s walking and sightseeing.  We went to eat at Abu Shukri, a famed hummus restaurant in the Muslim Quarter.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as delicious as we’d heard, but the restaurant itself was pretty cool (it felt cave-like, in a way) and it was energizing enough (check out my post about Abu Shukri’s food).

Lunching at Abu Shukri in Jerusalem's Old City

From there, we went back to the Kotel.  We spent a few minutes at the wall, saying our private prayers.

The Kotel

People's notes are scattered all around on the ground--there are simply too many to fit in the wall's cracks

We then made our way to our next tour: Sharsheret HaDorot.  It took more than 5000 years of Jewish history and condensed it into an itty-bitty 45-minute audiotape tour.  If that wasn’t impressive enough, the varyingly-constructed glass pillars that were representative of the many chains of Jewish history definitely were.

Glass pillars representing the first generations of Jews at Sharsheret HaDorot

The pillar of glass with missing pieces represents the loss of millions of Jews during the Holocaust at Sharsheret HaDorot

After the tour, we left the Old City through Dung Gate.  We made our way on foot to Mount Zion, where King David’s Tomb and the site of the last supper are located.  I don’t know about Doug or his parents, but I was shocked by the lack of large masses of tourists. I actually had trouble finding the right building (they’re in the same place) because it was so deserted. For now I’ll chalk it up to drizzly weather, which reared its cold and unavoidable head.

King David’s Tomb was tucked away in a small synagogue.  Whether King David’s remains truly lie there is debated; even so, it drew a small crowd of pious individuals who hoped to pray by the great king’s resting spot.

The half of King David's tomb in the women's part of the synagogue

With King David

Just a hop, skip, and jump to a room upstairs and we were in the room where Jesus supposedly ate his last meal.  To be honest, what intrigued me most about the room were the cats that took residence there.  One sat stoically by a golden tree sculpture while another huddled atop a light on the floor, seemingly trying to keep warm and dry despite the weather.

The room where Jesus supposedly had his last meal

A (blurry) picture of a cat sitting stoically by a golden tree sculpture in the room where Jesus supposedly ate his final meal

A cat huddled above a light in an effort to keep warm in the room where Jesus supposedly had his last meal

I was soon to envy those cats, dry (if not warm) under a roof.  Our next stop on the itinerary was Shuk Machane Yehuda, which meant we needed to take a cab, which meant we needed to go outside to hail one.  Unfortunately, many people were hailing cabs, given the terrible weather.  By the time we got one, I was uncomfortably dampened.  Tired from the day’s sightseeing so far and cold from the rain, I enjoyed the ride in a catatonic state.

We got out of the cab and made our way into the heart of the shuk, stopping at the famed bakery Marzipan on our way.  We grabbed a few rugelach before heading over to Melech HaHalva on Eitz Chaim Street.

The famed rugelach at Marzipan in Jerusalem

Doug’s mom, Patty, had been looking for a suitable, non-denominational present to bring home.  Of course, an edible gift is almost always welcomed, so she loved the idea of getting halva, a sesame-based dessert. In fact, she loved the idea so much that she bought a kilo of halva… a KILO of halva.  For anyone who’s wondering, the chunk she bought was about the size of a cantaloupe.  I’m pretty sure that’s more halva than my entire family consumes in a year.  But on the bright side, it meant she didn’t have to gift shop for anyone for the rest of the trip.

Halva options at Melech HaHalva

Our kilo of halva in tow, we went to our second Aroma for the day to grab something warm to drink while recapping on the day’s activities.  We munched on our rugelach and some cookies while pouring over various maps of the city and reading little pieces out of the guidebook about things we saw during the day.

Relaxing and regrouping over coffee at the Aroma in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem

Somewhat re-energized, somewhat exhausted, we made our way to Ima’s for dinner.  We initially planned to eat at Machneyuda, but our reservation was for 11pm and we knew our internal batteries weren’t going to last until then (if only we were the Energizer Bunny!)  Had we been able to stay busy and go to the Night Spectacular Show at the King David Tower after the shuk, maybe we would have been able to make it to a later dinner.  But unfortunately, the show was canceled because of bad weather. So, instead, we had a lovely dinner at the Kurdish/Iraqi-themed restaurant (check out my post about Ima for more details about the food), before making our way to the Central Bus Station, hopping on an intra-city bus, and heading back to Tel Aviv.

Thursday & Friday

Stay tuned and check out Doug’s upcoming post about exploring Yafo, Shuk HaCarmel, Nachalat Binyamin, Namal Tel Aviv, and Neve Tzedek!

Saturday

Saturdays in Israel can be tough if you don’t have a car.  While we could have taken a sherut somewhere, we would have probably needed to take a cab at some point… and the majority of things are closed regardless.  How lame would it be to take a sherut to Jerusalem only to see empty streets?  Or getting to Haifa just to find out that you can’t tour the Baha’i gardens on Saturday?

So I decided to keep things local and stay in Tel Aviv.  HaTachana (literally “The Station”) was open on Saturday, so I figured it’d be a good opportunity to check it out.  Doug and I had never been, but were curious about it: it was a 49-acre compound just a mile away from us, after all, and we hardly even remembered hearing about it in passing.

HaTachana was once the terminus of the railway line that traveled between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Its use was discontinued in 1948 and the station fell into disrepair.  In 2005, the renovation process began; by 2010, it had been restored to its former glory.  While there is still an old-school train car outside the station and another one just behind it that you can watch a short, informational show about the station on, HaTachana is no longer in operation as a train station.  Instead, it is a shopping complex full of fun stores to roam about in aimlessly.

Upon arriving, we went straight into what I imagine used to be the main building at the station.  It was restored and converted into a café/souvenir shop and had an array of Tel Aviv souvenirs.

The entrance building at HaTachana which now serves as a souvenir shop

Another model train at HaTachana in Tel Aviv

Once we finished perusing the gift shop, we entered the shopping complex area.  It was smaller than expected (definitely not 49 acres, although I’m thinking not all of it is a shopping complex and we may not have seen it all), but was incredibly quaint.  Stone paths led to posh stores with glass-front windows, which sat across from stores tucked away into stone edifices.  It almost felt like we were in a small, medieval village gone modern.

My favorite store was what I now call the Dumb-Dumb store.  Why, you ask? Because it makes you feel dumb.  The store carries countless puzzles and mind-exercising games and gadgets.  Upon entering, they give you puzzles to solve. While at first you may think there’s no way two pieces of wood that combine into a pyramid could stump you, you soon realize you’re not as smart as you thought.  I could probably have spent hours trying out all the different puzzles… but unfortunately, time was short (and, as I later discovered on a separate visit there, the staff doesn’t take well to people trying the puzzles just for fun—if you aren’t going to buy anything, they won’t let you loiter long).

We had brunch planned at Manta Ray, a restaurant along the tayelet that Doug and I often ran by.  I’m not sure if it was the obviously amazing view, the renown of the restaurant, or the achingly delicious smell we inhaled every time we ran by, but we knew we wanted to take Doug’s parents there (check out my post about Manta Ray for more details about the food).

Manta Ray in Tel Aviv

After a meal enjoyed overlooking the tumultuous Mediterranean Sea on an overcast day, we strolled north along the tayelet.  Doug’s dad had some leftover seafood from his meal, which we took to go in the hopes of feeding stray cats.  We told Doug’s parents about the monster cat countless times during their short trip and were hoping they would be able to see him.  Unfortunately, the monster cat was not in his usual area (he was probably busy ordering his henchmen to off disloyal cats).

Nevertheless, we weren’t disappointed.  Cats crawled out of every crevice and nook along the tayelet once they smelled the food.  They descending on Doug before he even managed to open the leftovers box and dump the contents on the ground.  While several cats went for the food once it hit the ground, one of the monster cat’s henchmen (black and white like the monster cat, but smaller) batted them away.  He feasted alone while the other cats watched anxiously.  Three black cats ringed him, waiting for their turn, while the rest of the cat colony sat further away.  Once the henchman cat had his fill, the three black cats had their turn (I like to think of them as the second most powerful clan in the colony, often challenging the monster cat’s clan).

The cats of the Tel Aviv tayelet colony were racing to get a taste of the seafood leftovers

With our new perspective on cat dynamics, we continued our walk along the tayelet.  We stopped for a cup of tea at a café along the beach.   While there, we replanned our evening.  We initially planned to eat dinner at Raphael’s, but we decided that our big breakfast, followed shortly after by Manta Ray, left us far too full for a big sit-down dinner.  We decided to grab pizza for dinner instead.  Doug and I promptly concluded that HaPizza would be an excellent place for a light pizza dinner, so we began our stroll down Bograshov.  We enjoyed a nice, quite dinner while reminiscing over the previous days’ events and lamenting that their stay was so short—Sunday was going to be their last day in Israel.  We couldn’t believe how quickly the time flew by.

After dinner, Doug’s mom was hankering for dessert.  Remembering that a well-known ice cream store was just down the block, on the way to Doug’s parents’ hotel, made ice cream the natural conclusion.

We walked over to Vaniglia and enjoyed a fair number of samples before picking our sweet treats.  It was a lovely way to end our last full evening together in Tel Aviv.

Sunday

Check out Doug’s upcoming post about the visit to the Rabin Memorial and the Eretz Yisrael Museum, the final destinations his parents visited before returning to Ben Gurion Airport for their flight home!

The Cats (and Dogs) of Israel

Cats : Israel   ::   Squirrels : Northeastern America

Cats. Are. Everywhere.  Why, you ask? Because the British thought that bringing a boatload of cats into Palestine during the Mandate was a wise means by which to eliminate the rodent infestation that plagued the area.  It worked, sure, but it created a new problem: a cat infestation.

The stray cat colony of the Tel Aviv tayelet

Stray cats are incredibly common in Israel.  They can be seen grooming, feeding, fighting, nursing, hissing, and scratching all day, every day.  As a lover of small, furry things, I can’t say that I’m whole-heartedly complaining.  I love seeing a litter of kittens frolicking about, playing with a random piece of litter.  It’s tragic, of course—there’s the litter, which is just unfortunate considering trash cans are almost as common as cats, and the kittens, who grow up malnourished in insanitary conditions.  According to the Israeli Ministry, a stray cat’s lifespan is 3 years, less than a third of the 10-year life span of a house cat.  But given the lack of a humanitarian solution, the cat infestation continues.

It looks like this cat fed on some other strays in the cat colony of the Tel Aviv tayelet. I like to call him the "Monster Cat"

The monster cat (the same one as in the picture above, but on a different day) must be the king of the cat colony of the Tel Aviv tayelet

The monster cat is surprisingly nimble and seems to have no problem grooming himself

The monster cat is taking a break from his hard day as the cat godfather

It shocked us to see the monster cat sitting--we didn't think his legs could hold up his body

After the monster cat let me pet him, I started to wonder if he was just a misunderstood, lonely kitty

Doug kept his distance from the monster cat

Standoff between one of the monster cat's henchmen and a black cat on the Tel Aviv tayelet. The henchman won

The monster cat's henchman feeds on a crab while the other cats in the colony wait patiently for their turn

The monster cat's henchman feeds on a crab while the other cats in the colony wait patiently for their turn

The strays of Neve Tzedek

A stray kitten by the Kinneret

Stray kittens by the Kinneret, drinking from their own personal water bowl (AKA a leaking sprinkler line)

Some people embrace their local strays, providing them with food and a place to lounge

A house cat just kickin' back and relaxing on his balcony

A sunbathing kitten

Ridin' dirty

The tourist industry has taken advantage of the association of cats with Israel.

Cardboard cat construction

Cat bookends

While we’re talking about cute, furry creatures, I’d like to briefly discuss Israeli dogs.  Unspayed, unneutered, and largely unleashed, Israeli dogs seem absurdly well behaved (as a side note, we recently learned that fixing an animal goes against religious law. Despite individual’s levels of secularity, maybe that’s why so many Israeli pets aren’t fixed?)

I can’t imagine how many runners would get chased down by dogs in New York if as many dogs were unleashed along the Hudson River as are on the Tel Aviv tayelet.  Somehow, Israeli dogs just seem better behaved.  An explanation eludes me.

Israeli dogs, snoozin' on the sidewalk

For my fellow animal lovers in Tel Aviv, a local shelter sets up an adoption stand every Friday morning in front of Gan Meir (Meir Park) on King George Street.  They always have a good number of dogs available for adoption, often even having puppies and kittens as well.  They even allow people to take dogs home for just a week; so if you’re not sure if you’re ready to have a pet, you can give it a trial run first.  But beware, it’s actually hard to leave without a puppy: they’re so cute that Doug had to actually drag me away on multiple occasions.

Holding one of the puppies available for adoption

One of the puppies available for adoption

Dogs available for adoption

One of the puppies available for adoption

Dogs available for adoption

Dogs available for adoption

Puppies available for adoption

One of the puppies available for adoption

Hummus Worth Waiting For

Abu Hassan (Ali-Karavan)
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Hummus, Ful
Not kosher
1 HaDolphin Street, Yafo
14 Shivtei Israel Street, Yafo
18 Shivtei Israel Street, Yafo
03-628-0387
Sunday-Friday (7:45 – 2:45)

For the past four months, legends of Abu Hassan’s hummus have haunted us.  It was appealing after people claimed the restaurant had the best hummus in Tel Aviv.  Its allure only grew when we heard that it had the best hummus in Israel.  When we started to hear people say they had the best hummus ever, Doug and I almost started to get worried.

Let’s be practical here.  Hummus is a chickpea paste, at its most basic.  Consistency, seasoning, flavor, and texture vary widely and can certainly influence the quality of the hummus, but honestly, how notable can hummus get?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had good hummus and bad hummus, amazing hummus and forgettable hummus, warm hummus and cold hummus, homemade hummus and store-bought hummus, restaurant hummus and catering hummus.  I’m very well aware that different national groups take incredible pride in their hummus-making (we won’t get into the origins of hummus, for the sake of avoiding what’s actually a heated debate).

So what is it that makes the best hummus? One Friday morning, Doug, a couple friends, and I took the short journey down to Yafo to find out.

For those interested in trying Abu Hassan, here are some tips:

  • Go early.  Apparently, the restaurant only makes a certain amount of hummus every day.  Once they run out, they close shop.
  • If there’s a long line at one of the Shivtei Israel Street branches, look across the street.  The other branch may have a shorter line.  For those who go to the Dolphin Street branch first, you can take a short walk to Shivtei Israel Street for what may ultimately be a shorter wait.
  • If you’ve never been to Abu Hassan before and don’t know what to order, look around and check out what other people are eating.  Odds are you’ll see something you like.  Once you find your hummus-dish match, ask its lucky consumer what it is.

Unfortunately, we only followed the second of these tips.  We didn’t get there very early for a variety of reasons, but it didn’t turn out to be a problem (we got hummus, after all!).  We were panicked enough about the restaurant closing for lack of hummus that we took a cab, though.  Despite all claims to the contrary, our driver was convinced that there was only one Abu Hassan and took us directly to the Dolphin Street branch.  We stayed long enough to realize that the mass of people overtaking the storefront formed anything but a line—it was simply chaos.  It looked like the New York Stock Exchange does in the movies: people yelling while waving their arms around with pieces of paper in hand (money, probably), men running around determinedly (the workers, of course), everyone looking like they’re the most important person in the world with the most significant purpose imaginable (cause eating hummus is obviously an urgent matter).

Needless to say, we thought checking out the other branches wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  So we walked along Yehuda Hayamit Street until we hit Shivtei Israel.  From there, it wasn’t hard to figure out where Abu Hassan was.  Two lines, one on each side of the street, marked the restaurant branches’ locations.  Luckily, these were actually lines rather than hungry, jumbled masses.  We hopped into one and waited, nervously crossing our fingers and hoping Abu Hassan (or whoever actually makes the renown hummus) made enough hummus for the day that we would get our share.

The line outside Abu Hassan

As we waited, we tried to figure out how the line and seating worked.  Every so often, people arbitrarily (or so it seemed) walked in and sat down.  Turns out it is self-seating, in a way.  The dining area has communal seating—essentially, there are just a bunch of tables with various numbers of chairs that anyone can sit at.  When seats open up, people just seat themselves.  When there aren’t enough seats for the next group of people in line and there’s a lag in self-seating, an employee will usually come up and yell out the available number of seats—whoever responds first sits.

So after waiting for about twenty minutes, we finally saw an opening at a table where all of us could sit together.  We sat down and our friend, still afraid that they might run out of hummus before we got our dishes, immediately ordered four hummus masabacha.  While I wish I had the opportunity to pick what type of hummus I ordered (if only to know what other hummus dishes they had for future visits), I certainly didn’t mind eating the hummus masabacha.

Never-ending line...!

Our meals arrived—four bowls of warm hummus with four little bowls filled with a green-tinted oil-based relish of sorts.  Seeing as I’d never tried hummus masabacha before (heck, I’d never even heard of it), I wasn’t entirely sure how I was supposed to eat my dish.  Our friend knowledgably poured the liquid in the bowl over his hummus, so we followed suit.  Mind you, I don’t think it was the right way to eat the dish.  Despite this, the hummus was amazing.

Relish-y liquid

I’m not sure if it was the warm hummus with whole, tender chickpeas that just melted in my mouth or the delicious lemony tang from the relish, but the hummus was truly fantastic.  It was surprisingly liquidy, but I attribute this partly to our misuse of the relish.  Even so, I couldn’t get enough.  I’m not sure what exactly it was, but there was some unknown spice in the hummus that really, truly set it apart.  After much discussion, we decided it had to be cocaine.  Nothing else could possibly be so euphorically delicious without a distinct, identifiable flavor.

Hummus masabacha

My only other theory as to how Abu Hassan’s hummus can be so notably delicious? Well, after a panicked cab ride to Yafo, a rushed walk to Shivtei Israel Street, and an edgy twenty-minute wait, any hummus is bound to taste fantastic.

And the hard boiled-egg (read: cherry) on top of it all? It only costs 16 shekels a dish.  The hummus and the prices just can’t get any better.

Eight Nights, Thirteen Suvganiot: My First Channukah in Israel

This is the first year I’ve been in Israel for Channukah.  The biggest difference is the atmosphere surrounding it.  In the United States, it’s all lights and decorations as Christmas is usually on the horizon, as well.  In Israel, decorations are relatively limited, comprising a few large channukiyot in city squares and a few light displays against large buildings.  There are no holiday lights strung along buildings and trees, no huge pre-holiday sales, and no color-themed attire or decorations.

From my perspective, Channukah is largely a holiday that just happens.  There is little build-up to it outside of ensuring you have a channukiyah that can hold candles and buying enough candles for the eight days of the holiday.  There is no big meal (unless it’s Shabbat, when there’s a big meal by default), no dietary restrictions, and generally no change to one’s everyday schedule.

Channukah is known for four primary things outside of its historical story and lighting the channukiyah: dreidels, gelt, latkes, and suvganiot.  Having only ever had Dunkin Donuts jelly donuts as suvganiot in the past, I gladly spent this first Channukah in Israel sampling every possible suvganiah I could find.  I thought that some would be better than others and that there would be some that weren’t as tasty, but boy was I wrong.  Each suvganiah was undeniably delicious in its own right.

(Before reading on and thinking I’m an overly indulgent, sweets obsessed food vacuum, please note that these were eaten over the course of the eight-day holiday and were often shared with friends during suvganiot tastings).

My first suvganiah of the holiday set everything off to the perfect start.  The chocolate bianco suvganiah was filled with a custard-like Italian cream and topped with a Belgian chocolate ganache with a white chocolate swirl.  It was topped with crispy dark and white chocolate crumbles, giving each bite a nice crunch.  The suvganiah also had a “chaser” of hazelnut chocolate that you injected into it before eating—it infused the doughy parts with a delicious flavor that complimented the chocolate and Italian cream wonderfully.

Chocolate bianco suvganiah from Roladin

Chocolate bianco suvganiah from Roladin

I followed this suvganiah up with the vodka double espresso one.  This Belgian chocolate-covered, cocoa crumble-topped suvganiah obtained its name for the vodka espresso chaser that came with it.  If you think that the vodka flavor was weak, you’re in for a surprise.  The flavor of vodka was potent in the parts of the suvganiah that absorbed the chaser.  It gave a decadent flavor to the suvganiah, whose rich chocolate and refreshing cream tasted wonderful, especially with the texturally contrasting cocoa crumbles.

Vodka double espresso suvganiah from Roladin

Vodka double espresso suvganiah from Roladin

Taking a break from chocolate, the next suvganiah was the halva kadaif. This sweet treat was filled with a halva ganache and topped with white chocolate sprinkled with pieces of kadaif (strands of pastry dough) and pistachio.  The suvganiah was delicious, but definitely had a high sugar content.  Like its chocolate-y counterparts, it had a great textural contrast between the soft dough, creamy center, and crunchy toppings.

Halva kadaif suvganiah from Roladin

Halva kadaif suvganiah from Roladin

Our next indulgence was the alfajors suvganiah (which is apparently a dulce de leche-esque treat).  Filled with a French coconut vanilla cream and topped with dulce de leche, a dollop of whipped cream, and cake crumbles, this suvganiah is intensely sweet in a wonderful way.  Something about its amazing caramel-like flavor and spongy dough truly captured the essence of Channukah.

Alfajors suvganiah from Roladin

Alfajors suvganiah from Roladin

What better to follow than the ultimate classic: filled with a simply strawberry jelly and dusted with powder sugar, the traditional Channukah suvganiah did not disappoint.  Simple, but delicious and traditional in a way that can’t be beat.

Classic strawberry jelly suvganiah from Roladin

Classic strawberry jelly suvganiah from Roladin

At this point, we were ready to return to chocolatey goodness.  The pistachio suvganiah was filled with a white chocolate pistachio ganache (how this is made is beyond me) and topped with Belgian chocolate and pistachio pieces.  The pistachio cream had a surprisingly and refreshingly gentle flavor that complemented the dark chocolate well.  The suvganiah was rich without being overly sweet, perfect for those looking for a treat that isn’t too indulgent.

Pistachio suvganiah from Roladin

Pistachio suvganiah from Roladin

The whipped cream suvganiah was similarly well balanced.  It was also covered in Belgian chocolate but had a delicious, refreshing whipped cream filling that was not at all as sugary as expected.  The interplay between the chocolate and cream was simply divine.

Whipped cream suvganiah from Roladin

Whipped cream suvganiah from Roladin

We next had another classic jelly suvganiah, but this one was homemade.  During a Career Israel trip to the Negev, we visited a Moroccan woman’s house for dinner.  The dinner was absolutely amazing, as were the suvganiot she made for dessert.  It was filled with an unidentified fruit’s jelly and was perfectly (I can’t even stress just how perfect) spongy and light.  This homemade wonder made our already extraordinary Moroccan dinner that much more memorable.

Homemade jelly suvganiah

Homemade jelly suvganiah

Our next suvganiah was the pavlova (a meringue-based dessert named for the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova).  Something about its white chocolate frosting and white and pink French meringue crumble topping made it look like it would be incredibly sweet, almost overly so.  However, one bite made it clear that there was more to this suvganiah than meets the eye.  It was filled with a mild and refreshing cheese that had the consistency of whipped cream.  With its raspberry chaser (which had a touch of vodka), it tasted like a mini cheesecake.  The French meringue pieces on top were satisfyingly crunchy, a great contrast to the creamy center.  All in all, this one turned out to be one of our favorites.

Pavlova suvganiah from Roladin

Pavlova suvganiah from Roladin

To follow up our wonderful experience with the pavlova was our first and only suvganiah consumed in Jerusalem.  During a trip to the Old City to view all the lit channukiyahs (in terribly cold, windy, and rainy conditions, mind you), we lit channukiyot and had dinner at Jeff Seidel’s (a very generous and hospitable philanthropist).  For dessert, we had an amazing caramel suvganiah.  The dough was so incredibly soft and fluffy and the caramel filling was so smooth and creamy that the suvganiah was just a pleasure to bite into.  If only we had found out where the suvganiah was from…

Caramel suvganiah from Jerusalem

Our final suvganiot were sampled at work—luckily, our company knows how to keep its employees happy.  The first was quite plain-looking—just a little bit of caramel sticking out of the top of a suvganiah lightly coated in sugar.  It was mostly doughy, but still good.

Caramel-y suvganiah from work

Caramel-y suvganiah from work

We followed it up with a suvganiah that was coated in dark chocolate and drizzled with caramel.  It was filled with a custard-like cream.  It was like an éclair, but with the added perk of caramel flavor and incredibly delicious chocolate frosting.

Eclair-esque suvganiah from work

Eclair-esque suvganiah from work

And finally, we had a pavlova-esque suvganiah.  With white chocolate frosting, a chaser of raspberry, and meringue pieces on top, it was pretty much the pavlova but not quite as fancy.  While I can’t be certain, I think these final three suvganiot were from Roladin, the bakery where we got most of our other suvganiot.  I have the sense that they continued making slightly modified suvganiot as the holiday went on and they ran out of ingredients.  Either way, though, they came out quite tasty.

Pavlova-esque suvganiah from work

Pavlova-esque suvganiah from work

And so, eight nights of Channukah and thirteen suvganiot later, the holiday known as the Festival of Lights ended.  With no final large meal, no distinct blessings, and no rituals outside of cleaning dried wax and burnt candlewicks out of our used channukiyah, Channukah concluded as surreptitiously as it began.

Our channukiyah on the last night of Channukah

Thinking ahead to next Channukah, when I will be in law school back in New York, I can’t help but already mourn the lack of creative and exciting suvganiot.  But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that there may be a second miracle of Channukah: that New York bakeries catch on and start making some innovative and delicious suvganiot.

Sderot

Over the past years, I’d heard about Sderot on the news, at NYU’s Bronfman Center, and from my family.  My cousin, only a few months older than I, was doing social work in Sderot as part of her military service.  Needless to say, it was frightening to think about.

Sderot is a town that sits about a mile away from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.  Its 20,000 civilian residents have been victim to continuous rocket fire over the past decade.  Thousands of Qassam rockets have hit the town.

Some of the many Qassam rockets that have hit Sderot

Needless to say, I was a little edgy during our visit.  As one of our lecturers mentioned how he drove in his car with no music playing and his seatbelt off, just in case there was a code red, I nervously eyed the doors and windows I sat by.  Despite all efforts to remain level and realistic, I wished we sat on the other end of the room, away from the doors and windows.  I looked down at my flip flop, which lay on the floor, and contemplated how many of the fifteen seconds between hearing a code red alarm and the falling of a rocket I would lose in trying to put it back on before running.  Later, as we stood on a small hill looking at Gaza, with instructions to run to the other side of the hill in the eventuality that there was a code red, I thought about how unwise it was for me to wear flip flops at all as they did not provide ideal running conditions.

Overlooking the Gaza Strip

Amidst my paranoid thought-processes came the realization that my thoughts existed in the thousands among each resident of Sderot.  I could only imagine how a parent would feel each time they heard the code red.  I bemoaned the thought that little children have to run for shelter in the middle of recess, only to sing songs as the code red count down concluded so as to drown out the sound of the rocket falling.  I was overwhelmed by the stories of those who died from the rocket fire while standing on a street corner, on the way to school, and sitting at home…

Miraculously, despite the thousands of rockets that have hit Sderot, the death toll has remained low; sadly, this has proved to be a mixed blessing.  The international community is largely ignorant to Sderot’s sad predicament.

As most people are unfamiliar with Sderot’s story, here’s some background.  The 2nd intifada began in September 2000.  Jews in the Gaza Strip were attacked and nearby Jewish communities became targets for rockets.  Sderot, being so close to Gaza, became the primary target for mortars and rockets.  In 2004, the Israeli government adopted a disengagement plan.  It was supported by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a retired general who led the right-wing conservative Likud Party.  In light of opposition within Likud, he created a centrist party called Kadima (“forward”) in order to ensure Knesset approval of the disengagement plan.

The government’s reasons for the disengagement included a hope for peace as well as a practical realization that the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip cost Israel a large amount of military manpower and resources for little to no real benefit.

A Jewish community that thrived off of agriculture once existed atop the sandy area in the distance in this picture. It is now part of the Gaza Strip

The disengagement plan tore the nation apart.  There were those with religious arguments, claiming the land comprising Israel should never be given away.  Others took a political tact, saying that the Gaza Strip was as legitimately as part of Israel as were Tel Aviv or Haifa.  From a humanitarian perspective, there were those who said the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their homes was a violation of human rights.  Above all were security concerns.  While the disengagement was conducted in the hopes that peace would follow, there were those who felt that disengagement would facilitate an increase in rocket attacks, as prevention would become nearly impossible.  Beyond that, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip placed a larger part of Israeli territory within rocket range.

In August of 2005, the disengagement plan was enacted. Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip.  The move was unilateral—Israel asked for nothing in return.  The IDF forcibly removed approximately 15,000 Jewish residents from the land and left no military forces in the territory.  No one could claim that the Gaza Strip was occupied anymore.

Despite the evacuation of all Jews and IDF forces from the Gaza Strip, Gazans claim that the Israeli occupation of the territory persists.  While Israel no longer has a presence in Gaza, it maintains a naval blockade in order to keep out of Gaza weapons that could be used to fight against Israel.  Certain items are not permitted into Gaza, including cement and piping, without the sponsorship of an international NGO (because the materials could be used in fighting against Israel and in preparing Qassam rockets).  Israel’s actions are entirely legal under international law.  Despite this, Hamas manages to obtain weapons and materials used to construct rockets through underground tunnels that reach from Egyptian Sinai to the Gaza Strip.  Rather than live peacefully and demonstrate a preparation to leave serenely side-by-side with Israel, Gazan terrorists have opted to take an offensive tact, continuing to launch rockets at civilian towns within range.

The area around the Y-shaped building is said to be one an origin of many Qassam rockets fired into Israel

When the rocket fire reached a frequency of more than 20 rockets in a day in 2008, the Israeli government decided to take action and launched Operation Cast Lead in December of that year.  Sderot’s story became an integral part of headlines worldwide; even so, popular opinion was against Israel.  People claimed that Israel’s military actions in Gaza were a disproportionate reaction to the rocket fire that plagued Israeli civilians for a decade.  The international community cited the low death rate of Israeli civilians.  Israel’s success in protecting its citizens thus became a detriment.

Since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, rocket fire has decreased.  Unfortunately, it has not ceased entirely.  Consequently, Israel has invested millions of dollars in fortifying Sderot against rocket attacks: there is a bomb shelter at every bus stop, multiple-floor bomb shelters are being attached to old apartment buildings, schools have countless bomb shelters dotting their recreational grounds, new constructions are built under different codes, playground equipment doubles as play spaces and bomb shelters.

The bomb shelter at a bus stop

A bomb shelter near a synagogue

A playground where the equipment doubles as a bomb shelter

The inside of a caterpillar construction in a playground

Each house has a bomb shelter attached. It usually serves as children's bedroom

A schoolyard dotted with bomb shelters

The most amazing thing about Sderot’s tragic situation? People aren’t leaving.  Sderot’s residents are largely staying put.  While some cannot leave for practical or economic reasons, for many it’s ideological.  They refuse to be pushed out of their homes by terrorists’ rocket fire.

Even the cats in Sderot seem more rugged

Sadly, the story of Sderot is becoming the story of other Israeli towns.  As Qassam rockets evolve and their range increase, more and more Israeli civilians are within reach of rocket fire.  The attacks on Sderot are actually lessening as Gazan terrorists aim for larger population centers like Ashkelon (population: 112,900), Ashdod (206,400), and Beer Sheva (194,300).  It is estimated that 1,000,000 people are currently within range of Qassam fire from Gaza.

It is particularly interesting to consider Sderot’s predicament (and, increasingly, Ashkelon’s, Ashdod’s, and Beer Sheva’s) at a time when talk of a two-state solution involves Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, which would expose other areas of the country to rocket attacks.

Unfortunately, peace does not seem to be on the horizon.  The best thing we can do is to spread the word: share Sderot’s story with friends and family.  Become part of Israel’s second front line—the one that defends the country in the media, in the classrooms, even in the restaurants and bars.  Unfortunately, the battle in those fields, the one where rhetoric, language, perception, and popular opinion reign, is currently being lost.  For the sake of every civilian within range of the continuously-launched rockets from Gaza, join that battle and fight.

The Fair Odelia!

Odelia
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Middle Eastern, Meat, North African
Kosher
89 Ben Yehuda
03-528-1153
Sunday-Thursday (10:30 – 24:00)
Friday (10:00 – An hour before Shabbat begins)
Saturday (Closed)

Odelia is a secret treasure of Tel Aviv. It’s the type of restaurant you feel proud of discovering and the kind of experience you want to share with everyone you know. And to be honest, the sensation wasn’t inspired by the restaurant’s food, which was certainly good, but not the best I’ve ever had.

We went to Odelia in search of kosher, but cheap, meat. And boy, did we find it. The main dishes were 30 shekels (they also had 40 shekel, larger servings of some of the meals) and there was no lack of options. The food was largely North African, with hummus dishes as appetizers and a variety of meat dishes as mains. Sides consisted of majadera (rice with lentils and onions), rice, couscous with roasted vegetables, salad, and French fries.

We ordered hummus with a lemon-garlic drizzle, which came with an incredibly spicy skhug-like dip (but far spicier than the skhug I usually eat, which is made from hot red or green peppers seasoned with coriander, garlic, and a variety of other spices). We ended up wishing we had saved the hummus and pita for later so that we could have made pitas stuffed with our meat entrees. We didn’t fret over it too much, though, already figuring that it wouldn’t be our only visit to Odelia.

Our hummus and shkug appetizer

For my main dish, I struggled between the merguez and the chorizo and ultimately settled on the merguez, after asking the waiter what he recommended and concluding that the spicier merguez would better satiate my appetite. Beyond being excited for the tasty-sounding meat, I was excited for the two sides that came with it. Naturally, I chose French fries as one of my sides. The waiter recommended the couscous as my second side; I figured he knew what was best, so I listened to his advice and ordered the couscous.

Spicy merguez with couscous and fries

Meanwhile, Doug ordered mafrum, which is cinnamon-flavored ground beef wrapped in eggplant or potatoes (Doug got the eggplant version) atop a bed of couscous and roasted vegetables.

Mafrum on a bed of couscous

Upon receiving my meal, I couldn’t help but wish I had ordered the 40 shekel version of it rather than the 30 shekel one. While there was absolutely no lack of food on my plate, I only received two merguez sausages, and they were good. They were wonderfully spiced, with just enough chili and garlic flavoring to make me want to finish them off before touching my fries or couscous. The couscous, meanwhile, was well-seasoned and tasty. I wasn’t a huge fan of the roasted vegetables that accompanied the couscous, but that may be attributable to my dislike of onions, which were prevalent. The fries, meanwhile, definitely hit the right spot. They were the perfect side for the spicy merguez (but then again, I suppose I’d consider fries the perfect side for any meal…)

Doug’s entrée was also good, but was unfortunately a little cold upon arrival. He loved the couscous and vegetables and was quite happy to help me finish mine.

After our waiter whisked away our cleaned plates, a different server came to ask if we would like some tea “on them.” Once we clarified that the tea was actually complimentary, we gladly accepted and spent another half hour or so lingering at the restaurant over the warm nana tea (tea with fresh mint leaves). We spent a few of those minutes discussing excitedly how incredibly affordable (more accurately: incredibly cheap) the dinner was, especially by Tel Aviv standards. We eventually left quite satisfied with our meal and experience, determined to return once more.

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Also posted on the Taste TLV blog: http://tastetlv.blogspot.com/2011/10/odelia.html