It’s Worth the 12 Hour Flight to “Montreal” to Visit Extended Family

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Israel is a long way from Toronto. If you fly direct, the flight takes about 12 hours. We travel this distance as often as we can to visit with our extended family. While there are so many wonderful things to do, places to visit and food to eat in Israel, the main reason we come is to see brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. I often joke that it’s my 12-hour flight to Montreal. And it’s worth it.

David and I both have extended family in Israel. Most of the family we visit with are David’s relatives, including his mother, sister and brother, but I have a few cousins too. We see these people once, maybe twice each year, and we savour every moment that we are with them.

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A delicious dinner at David’s sister’s house

I will admit that concentrated time with family can be a bit stressful for all, and tempers get heated sometimes. Okay, often. Yes, there are blow-ups. But isn’t that normal when extended family come together and live under one roof for any period of time?

We just enjoyed a wonderful few days in the desert with David’s extended family. His mother, Barbara, generously treated us to the field school experience in Ein Gedi, which we all enjoyed. It gave us an opportunity to be together and recharge our batteries in the most relaxing of settings.

A night hike in the desert, a trek to a waterfall, a visit to the ancient fortress of Masada and a swim in the Dead Sea were all done with extended family. We relaxed outside under a full moon in the evening and caught up with old friends. What a way to spend a vacation inside a vacation.

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Family lunch at Tel Be’er Sheva on the way to Ein Gedi
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Getting ready to go up the cable car at Masada

After we left Ein Gedi some of us traveled north, first through the desert, then through the heart of Israel and into the Galilee, to see my extended family. I have relatives in Israel who I only met in the last ten years. Over 100 years ago my great-grandfather traveled to Canada from Ukraine. Not all of his siblings joined him, and one brother stayed behind and eventually moved to Argentina.

The family stayed in touch for a while but eventually, over the years, were separated. My great grandfather’s descendants stayed in Canada, and some my great-grandfather’s brother’s descendants stayed in Argentina while others moved to Israel. To make a long story short, about a decade ago we found each other. And now we always get together when I come to Israel.

Not only do I love the beauty and serenity of the desert, but I also adore the magnificence and lush landscape of the Galilee. With fertile valleys surrounded by mountains, how could you not love Northern Israel? And since this contingent of my extended family lives in a small community in the Galilee, I always get the opportunity to go there.

My extended family lives on a Moshav. There is no direct English translation for this term as this kind of community is very unique to Israel. It’s a cooperative agricultural community. Everyone owns their own home and property and for the most part have careers and commute to a job every day. But at its heart it is still a tight cooperative farm.

We love to spend the day with our cousins, at their home, walking around the Moshav and touring the dairy cows on the farm. The kids went on a tractor ride and fed a few cows, some born just a few days ago. Matthew even asked if he could take one home.

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Julia had fun in the grass with the neighbour’s dog
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Matthew enjoyed a tractor ride with his cousin Tomer
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Julia had a knack for giving the cows the tastiest hay

Our trip is not over yet, and when it is we will have a solid 12 hours of flying ahead, to get back to Toronto. We still have a few more days to soak up with our extended family, and we relish every moment. It’s a long, 12-hour flight to “Montreal,” but it’s so worth it.

The Personalities of a Field School

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When you travel, you meet all kinds of people along the way. It’s part of the fun of being in a new place. It’s not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the locals. People watching I call it. Some people you come across share similar characteristics while others are rather eccentric.  Where we are staying now, in Ein Gedi, in the desert, beside the Dead Sea, at a Field School run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, there are many different personalities.

There are many places just like this one all over Israel. With simple but spacious accommodations, a field school is a wonderful way to see Israel. During holiday times the field school attracts hundreds, if not thousands of families. It provides a good home base for hiking, sight-seeing and just relaxing.

It’s where you meet real Israelis. The challenge for me when I travel is that I want to get a flavour of the real culture of where I am visiting. How do locals live and what do they eat? How do they spend their free time? In Israel, the field school is where local families go on vacation. And here, I get a true mix of local personalities.

Bohemian Religious Man

I saw this man in line at dinner the other night. Dressed in what I could only describe as pink nurse’s scrubs and sandals, he had a long grey beard, long curly grey hair to match, and of course a kippah on his head too. He was surrounded by a large family, spoke a mix of Hebrew and English and had a friendly, Santa Claus look on his face.

Cool Boarder Nature Guide

We had the opportunity to take an incredible hike at night organized by our field school, through a dried-up wadi (river) near Masada. We were led, in the darkness, by two experienced, 19-year-old guides who were a wealth of knowledge of astrology, the local area and its geological history. One of the guides was a brown-haired, curly-haired guy with a big smile. The Canadians in us quickly discovered that he likes to snowboard but really, he is in to surfing and skateboarding.

Children, so many children

One can find gangs of children all over the field school. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere. The children speak in rapid Hebrew (that I can’t understand) and run around the place like wild animals. They wake up early in the morning, and with their loud voices and rapid footsteps, they are a great alarm clock.

Generations

Something that intrigues me about the field school is that one often sees three generations from one family all here together. Our group is a great example of that, but we are not unique. It is not uncommon to see a grandparent chasing a two-year-old down the path or a man explaining the various food options at dinner to his father. It’s actually kind of sweet that the field school is a place for multiple generations of one family to congregate together.

Gold Chain Wearing Man in a Wife Beater Shirt

There are always a few of these, here with their families. This is one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t have the guts to take a photo of one of these men. He’s typically tall, has dark hair, has on a tight shirt with some jewelry and speaks in loud, rapid Hebrew. He thinks he’s cooler than life itself and boasts to all around him how great he is. And oh, is it ever entertaining to listen and watch him.

Friendly, Quieter Religious Women

Israel is a place with a wondrous mixture of people, including many religious Jews. They travel and experience the country in the same way as other locals, including visits to a field school. Many (but not all) of the religious women cover their hair and dress in a modest manner. Sometimes they are followed by a brood of children of all ages. And they are a staple of the field school experience, often sitting at the same table as the gold chain wearing man in his wife beater shirt.

Overweight Head Cook in the Dining Hall

Not only does one get a family-style accommodation at a field school, but for a reasonable fee, breakfast and lunch are included. It’s not five-star dining, but there is a good variety of food, including tons of fresh vegetables, fresh dairy at breakfast and meat at dinner. There is a hard-working team of cooks preparing the food. Each field school I stay at the team is always led by a slightly overweight cook, who only speaks Hebrew and has a permanent frown on his face. He is probably harassed every day by annoying people like me asking if there is plain yoghurt or more fruit in the back. He appears at some point during every meal and quickly runs and hides in the kitchen before another guest whines or complains to him.

I could go on and on describing the various personalities one comes across at a field school. To really understand the unique nature of this place you have to experience it for yourself. You get great views, the most beautiful scenery and of course the most interesting personalities.

**Disclaimer: that’s my mother-in-law, Barbara, and my father, Barry, in the feature photo. While they are not the typical personalities one finds at a field school, they are both an important part of my experience! And in this photo they are sitting in front of our rooms, with a view over the Dead Sea.

It must have been Hot when they Wandered the Desert

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I am at one of the lowest points on Earth. Well below sea level. I am surrounded by mountains, rocks and the deadest piece of water you can ever find. As I write, the sun has set, the moon is rising and there is a warm breeze outside. I’m in the desert. And it’s beautiful. And during the day, wow, it’s hot.

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Sunset over the Dead Sea and Mountains of Moab

People often ask me, when they hear that I blog or when they start to follow my posts, “Where do you think of all those ideas?” It’s easy. This blog is about my musings. Everywhere I go I get inspired by the people I meet and by my surroundings. Sometimes someone says something to me, and I have to stop and take note so that I can write about it later.

That happened to me today, in the desert in Southern Israel, when I visited a fantastic historic site called Tel Be’er Sheva. This is the ancient site of the city of Be’er Sheva. The modern city sits west of this small national park, where layers of civilization from a few thousand years ago remain.

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Some information on the ancient ruins I visited

It was a hot day, with blue skies and a blazing sun above us. As we walked towards the ruins of this ancient walled city, my mother joked, “It must have been hot when they wandered the desert.” And boom, my blog post came into being. Just a comment, a thought, a sight or a random meeting can inspire me.

So yes, it must have been hot when they wandered the desert. It’s hot in the desert. But I am amazed by the desert. When I see a small shrub growing out of dry rock and sand or a small stream of water making its way through the ruins of an ancient city I am astonished by the beauty of the nature around me. The desert is truly beautiful.

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Shades of deep green, lime green and brown, with camels, on the edge of the desert
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Look carefully at the beautiful delicate flower my daughter picked, in the middle of the desert.

And when the desert blooms, it’s even more beautiful. After we left Tel Be’er Sheva we drove along a windy road, with big signs saying dangerous curves ahead and descended hundreds of feet, deep into the desert. The landscape turned from deep green to lime green to brown, and each kilometer became more and more beautiful.

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500 feet above sea level. We have a long way to go.
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100 feet above sea level. Going down!
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Sea Level!
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100 feet below sea level and still descending!

And then suddenly, before our eyes, was the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth. It is a body of water with such a high salt content that nothing can live in it. It’s pretty much, well, dead. We continued to drive until we reached our destination: Ein Gedi. This is an oasis in the desert. It’s not some kind of strange mirage that you see in the distance in a cartoon. It is a place of beauty, with palm trees, grass and flowers, surrounded by a brown desert.

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My first glimpse of the Dead Sea

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Our group is fortunate to be staying at the Ein Gedi Field School – run by an organization called, in Hebrew, Haganat Hateva, and in English, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. We are high on a hill, with spectacular views of mountains and the Dead Sea. It makes you forget that you are in the middle of the desert. When I walk outside and soak in the beauty around me I understand why, even though it was hot, people have been wandering in the desert for thousands of years. Not only am I at the lowest point on Earth, I may be at the most beautiful one as well.

The 20th Maccabiah – Let the Games Begin

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I am not a great athlete, but if I were I believe my dream would have been to compete at the Maccabiah Games. Many of you reading this post will know exactly what I am talking about and many of you are thinking to yourself, um, what is she talking about?

Maccabiah, known sometimes as the “Jewish Olympics,” is the world’s largest Jewish athletic competition. It takes place every four years in Israel, going all the way back to 1932. Self-described as a competition that emphasizes the “centrality of the State of Israel in the life of the Jewish people,” it is the largest event undertaken by the Maccabi World Union.

This year’s Maccabiah games are happening NOW in Israel, from July 4-18. The 2017 edition is the biggest one ever, with about 10,000 athletes participating from over 80 countries. Athletes, coaches, volunteers and fans are not just there for the competition but also to create new relationships and find common ground in their love of Israel and the Jewish People.

I only attended one Maccabiah Games, back in 2005, with a group of Canadian journalists. The opening ceremonies were vibrant and memorable, and our group saved our biggest cheers for the Canadian delegation. The stadium was packed with thousands of supporters and the energy was electric.  I am sure that twelve years later the feeling is the same.

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The one picture I took in 2005 at the opening ceremonies

The actual Maccabiah Games are structured like any other international multi-sport competition, with venues around the country, over a period of two weeks.  There is everything from track and field and gymnastics to softball and even ice hockey.  There are four competitive groups. The Junior section is for athletes aged 15-18; the Masters is divided into various age categories for older competitors; the Open division is for all ages with different sports following their own governing rules; finally, there are the Paralympics.

The athletes compete by delegation, so if I participated I would be part of the Canadian team. This is the 18th Maccabiah for Canada, who first participated in the 1950 Games.

The Canadian Junior team arrived in Israel last week and spent the first few days touring the country and getting to know the land and its people. The rest of the Canadian delegation arrived a few days later, and they are all now together in Israel competing.

The Canadian squad quickly got in the win column playing ice hockey, and the athletes are working hard in other sports this week, including tennis, baseball, soccer and golf. Follow Maccabi Canada HERE or check out results HERE for all delegations and all sports.

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Canadian men’s open soccer team (photo thanks to Maccabi Canada)
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Men’s softball team photo (thanks to Dan Berlin back row on the left)

The opening ceremonies are happening right now at the Jerusalem Teddy Stadium, as I write this, and I am about to click HERE to watch the event live.

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Canadian Men’s Softball team at the opening ceremonies (photo thanks to Dan Berlin)

I wish the best of luck to all athletes participating in the 20th Maccabiah Games, and of course, go Team Canada!