We woke up early, still full of duck-boogie and doc-galbee, but obviously ready to start eating more weird Korean food. We started with some… pastries? Yep, there was a “Paris Baguette” cafe next to our hotel, so we basically ate bagels and coffee every morning. Very authentic.
Our first full day in Korea was to be spent walking. Literally, my favorite thing to do when traveling – just walking around and seeing things. Our first stop was to be a gigantic palace complex in middle of Seoul, close to city hall, called Gyeongbokgung. Say it with me now – g-yong (breath) buck (breath) gung. Great job! You now speak Korean. What’s amazing about this palace area is that it is both absolutely massive and fits perfectly into the middle of a bustling metropolis, so much so that when inside, you almost forget that there are skyscrapers outside every wall. Like many of the palaces we’d eventually see, Gyeongbokgung was packed with people, but the complex had so many giant plazas and small nooks that you could get lost for hours.
Through every massive gate like this, there was another open plaza, another palace building, or a stream, or a park, and almost always a group of a few dozen old Korean women and/or young boys. Every gate, every wall was impossibly detailed, and the colors were incredibly vivid. Continue reading
Tal and I booked tickets to Thailand this afternoon. An hour later, I’m sitting here a bit in awe. If you would’ve told me two years ago — when I was in the middle of my fifth year or so living in Pittsburgh — that I’d be traveling to Asia, or through Europe, or even just up and down this tiny strip of Mediterranean coast where I live, whenever I wanted, I think I would’ve punched you in the shoulder for teasing me. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t meant to be gloating. I just can’t believe I started to really do something I’d always talked about and never got up and did. It’s a good feeling, and makes me laugh at how boxed in I used to feel — even though I made a point to drive all over the States. And certainly, I haven’t spent the last two years backpacking around India. I wish I had; my traveling hasn’t been as extensive as I want it to be. But it’s a huge step from where I was.
Regardless, this post isn’t about Thailand. That’s a few months away. This post is the first of several about The Jacobs Family Trip to Korea: 2013. Let me start by saying that not in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to see my mother Randi, father Steve and brother Philbo wandering around Seoul like a pack of baby squirrels (really, though: Phil has always looked a bit like a baby mole, my parents move around nervously like squirrels, and I’ve always kinda lumbered like a bulldog. We’re all pretty low to the ground). But, shit, somehow in January of this year, the decision was made that we’d all get together in East Asia. Really, it made sense. Phil’s been teaching 5-year old Korean marbles English outside of Seoul, I live in Tel Aviv and Randi and Steve live back in that hotbed of urban culture, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At least two parties would have to travel in order for us all to be together; the whole family’s been in Israel and Lancaster is just too much wild, urban intensity in one place to call it a vacation. Korea was the only viable option. Continue reading
I’m a strong believer that a layover is an opportunity, not a burden. Granted, I’m sure I would take that sentiment back if I was in a rush somewhere, but thus far most of my travel has been for pleasure, not business, and I’m happy to drag it out. Last summer, Tal and I turned two layovers in London into a trip decent enough that I can say with some degree of certainty that we don’t need to go back (everything closed early, enough said). And if I’d have had my way in the past, my layovers in cities like Frankfurt and Zurich would’ve been mini-trips as well (instead, I just know that the Frankfurt airport smells like hotdogs and the Zurich airport has $8 cups of coffee).
Thankfully, then, there aren’t too many direct flights from Tel Aviv to Seoul. My booking seemed perfect: leave Israel Thursday afternoon, land in Turkey with exactly six hours to kill and make it back on a plane to Korea by midnight for a red eye, arriving the next day for a week visiting my brother in Seoul. I had the plan down to every detail of the commute; I even booked a seat in front of the plane so I could run off the plane and make the most of my short stay in Turkey. Continue reading
Depending on who you ask, Israel has either an African refugee problem or an African refugee situation. Neither description is exceedingly positive. You won’t find too many people who say we’ve got an African refugee blessing, or even an African refugee opportunity, and definitely not an African refugee extravaganza or African refugee disco supreme dance party. In Tel Aviv especially, it’s increasingly obvious that, yes, we’ve got a flood of refugees and asylum seekers and migrants on our hands. And they’re not going anywhere soon.
Because I like anything that seems foreign or weird to my Western sensibilities, I love exploring the hub of the African refugee explosion in Tel Aviv: Ne’ve Sha’anan, a neighborhood in South Tel Aviv that has, over the past few years, been almost completely saturated with refugees and asylum seekers.
But let’s back up just a moment, because there are certainly some important questions to address. If you’re in America, it’s likely that the closest notion you have to a refugee first hand is either: 1) The proper, Christian name of popular 1990′s rap trio The Fugees, 2) A badass song by Tom Petty, or 3) a Mexican. The first two are apt, but the gardener who your mom flirts with isn’t a refugee. Come on, dude. None of these really cover the situation here in Israel.
This country has always been made of refugees. The first floods of Jews to come here, when Israel wasn’t Israel but was a British territory generally known as Palestine, arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia, having run scared after waves of pogroms and lynchings threatened their lives. I’d say good decision; any sensible person would pick fleeing over imminent death, and the weather’s better here than Romania. Over the next 100+ years, you’ve got wave after wave of refugees: pre- and post-Holocaust European Jews, Jews who escaped persecution in Communist Russia; Jews who were evacuated from desperate situations in Ethiopia. All these waves have made for an Israeli population that’s very varied in culture and color, and mostly quite thankful to be here. Life might be expensive and hectic and sometimes filled with rocket attacks, but at least you’re not dead. That’s called optimism. Continue reading
I write a lot in this blog about funny stories and weird occurrences in Israel. And sure, I’ve had my fair share of odd shit go down, usually completely independent of my actions. Crazy situations just tend to unfold in front of me, and I follow them because why not? But my day to day life here is pretty tame. I wake up early, I go to work in Jerusalem, I return in the afternoon, navigating through the completely hellish Jerusalem bus station and I’m back in Tel Aviv by early evening. Tal and I go to the gym, make dinner, see some friends, watch 30 Rock and go to bed. Simple.
But there is one place I go every week, once a week, that still manages to blow my mind every time. And it’s where I go grocery shopping. Now, in the States, most people buy food in a grocery store. For some, it’s a chore. For others, it’s a blast. I was always the latter. Tal and I used to love heading to Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh every other week, filling up our cart with pseudo-healthy stuff, walking up and down each aisle and blowing a ton of money. But grocery stores, or at least ones as big as Giant Eagle or Kroegers or Stouffers or whatever, don’t really exist here. If you live in Tel Aviv, at least, you do your shopping at smaller specialty stores — most people have their fruit guy, their corner store for milk and cheese and cereal, a bakery for bread. It’s a more hand-to-mouth society; many people actually pay for their weekly groceries in installments — half now, half later.
But the mecca of this boutique shopping mentality is the shuk. Most major cities have one, and each has its own flavor. In Jerusalem, Shuk Mahane Yehuda is a complex maze, bright and lively. In Beersheva, the shuk looks much like the city — dusty and filled with Arabs and dirt-caked Jewish kids. In Yafo, Shuk Hapishpeshim is packed with crap… antiques, fake antiques, stolen bikes, any type of clothing, 8-track tapes, shoes, jewelry. I’ve seen full mannequins for sale there. There’s also a guy who just sells tube socks.
My favorite of all shuks, though, is also probably the most universally reviled. It’s Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. It’s my favorite, of course, because I live 200 yards away from it. It’s where I do every ounce of my food shopping, once a week, every week. More if possible. Why reviled? It’s set up terribly. Shuk HaCarmel is literally one long alley, packed tight with vendors on either side and store fronts behind them, and overstuffed with shoppers most hours of the day. That’s the Shuk on Friday afternoon in the photo above. Awful, right? Continue reading
Here’s a story about flying to Budapest for the weekend without missing a minute of work or spending very much money.
But first, an aside: I haven’t written anything here in a long time. Just over three months. Wow, what a jerk, I know. Even the story in this post is over a month old. I promise not to be gone for another three months after this one. Pinky swear.
On to Hungary. For as long as I can remember, Hungary didn’t mean much to me. I knew next to nothing about it — it was somewhere in Eastern Europe, it was probably cold and when I was young I wrote a poem about being “Hungary, so I went to Turkey,” and thinking that was just hilarious. I also wrote a poem about a hungry fat boy who went to school in a three-piece suit made entirely of candy — bet you can guess the ending! Regardless, the biggest, most important void in my knowledge was about how half my family came from Hungary. That’s as far as I knew – not where in Hungary, or when, or what they did. And that is a damn shame. I say this as a reformed ignorant person — learn about where you came from; it’ll make your trip there even more rewarding. I’ll come back to this later.
Anyway, lineage isn’t what led Tal and I to Hungary. Cheap tickets were! I’d been itching to get out of the city and/or country for awhile, as my trip to the states last summer was feeling increasingly distant the longer the winter months crawled on. One Tuesday afternoon in January, I allowed that itch to take over and I scanned some flights while sitting at my desk at work. I soon learned that a Hungarian cheap-ass airline had just begun operating a Budapest-Tel Aviv flight, and it cost less than a beer. Not exactly, but close — for under $180, I could fly round trip to a city that sounded like ‘Buddha.’ That was enough for me. Continue reading
Like so many people in this bike-friendly city, I love to ride around Tel Aviv. Everything is colorful and interesting to look at, and chances are the quickest way to get somewhere is to ride along the sea – not a bad view there. But while riding to Ulpan or a friend’s apartment is a fun 10-minute jaunt, I often long for much longer rides, giving me the sense that I’m not just going somewhere, I’m really traveling.
Earlier this summer, along with some friends, I biked from Tel Aviv to Netanya – about 20 miles north, right up the coast. We ended up criss-crossing the highway, walking our bikes along too-sandy trails and getting lost in an industrial zone. All told, it wasn’t a bad ride, but it certainly wasn’t a direct one.
So with Tal in the states for Hannukah, I wanted to fill my Shabbat with another epic ride. This time, I figured, I’d head south. For a few days prior, I scanned Google Maps for a good destination. Holon: too close. Rishon Le’Tzion: too boring. Jerusalem: too ambitious. Eilat: Ha! No way. And then there it was: Palmachim. A straight shot down the beach seemed possible, but a huge mystery patch of open land was hard to decipher. It could’ve been dirt roads relating to the power plant nearby, or it could’ve been a military firing zone. I hoped for the former, but planned on the latter. With some creative mapping, I could make it to this beautiful beach and village in about 30 kilometers, swinging through a handful of suburbs, always angling south. Continue reading
When I wrote that last post from my living room two nights ago, the frontline of the current (soon to be) war between Israel and Hamas was squarely in the south, both on the borders of the Gaza strip and the Israeli cities and towns where rockets had landed: Kiryat Malachi, where three Israelis were killed, Beersheva, Ofakim, Ashdod, Ashkelon and others.
But then, just about 30 minutes after I posted that short piece, everything changed.
Tal had just gotten home from work; she was on edge about the news. We opened our huge living room window and enjoyed the cool breeze, as we do every night. I’d been playing some loud Swedish heavy metal before she came home, and like she tends to do, she asked me to turn it down. It was a good move. A few minutes later, we heard the alarm. It starts low, sounding impossibly far away. But then it rises, increases volume, starts to whip through the city. You pause for a moment, asking yourself if it’s real, if the red alarm, meaning a rocket is on its way, could actually be sounding in Tel Aviv. The city hasn’t heard an alarm like this since the Gulf War in 1991. But then you snap out of it, you realize that yes, this is real, and you snap back into the real world.
Tal and I looked at each other and immediately started moving. I threw on a pair of shoes; she grabbed our emergency bag, packed with insulin, food and our gas masks. In 10 seconds we were in the stairwell, collected with our neighbors. The alarm was still sounding outside, but gathered in the center of our large apartment building, we felt protected inside a shell. Tal was shaking in my arms. One neighbor was smoking a joint. Two were half-dressed; they’d jumped out of bed. We heard a boom, a big, wide, far-off thud, and it was over. Everyone in the stairwell stayed quiet, waiting for another sound. It didn’t come.
A few minutes later, several of us were back in our apartment. Dan, a friend living in the Kerem (in our old apartment, actually) called to ask if he could come over; he felt his neighborhood wasn’t safe enough, the buildings crumbling, offering no real cover. The answer, of course, was “Of course.”
Our apartment quickly turned into a very pedestrian command center. Everyone sat on their phone or computer, scanning the news and getting in touch with friends and sending endless “R U Ok?” texts. The phone lines were often down; too many people were making the very same calls.
Within minutes, news started posting. Nothing specific, but a rocket had been fired at Tel Aviv. This wasn’t a test. We each read a different news website, constantly scanning for something new. Rocket in the south intercepted by Iron Dome protection. Refresh. Rocket aimed for Tel Aviv may have landed out to sea near Jaffa. Refresh. Israeli minister warns that it will likely “not be a quiet night.” Refresh. Refresh. Dan left to buy a radio, thinking Israeli military stations would offer even more up-to-date news than the Internet. We opened a bottle of wine, drinking to the end of the world. Tal didn’t stop shaking. Everyone threw out their best guesses as to what would happen next. Emails piled in. “What the fuck is happening in Tel Aviv?” “Are you ok? Is everything fine?” It was too soon to answer, though. The alarm still rang in our ears.
The neighbors started to leave. Tal and I debated our next move. I wanted to stay put. Hell, I wanted to go get a drink. I was scared, but I let logic take over my brain, as I usually do: 250 rockets had fallen on Israel since the IDF took out Al-Jabari. Of those, almost none made contact, and three Israelis were killed. I felt like the odds were in my favor that I’d be safe in a neighborhood bar. But, like most mid-20′s males, I am an idiot. You don’t make these decisions based on logic. You make them based on your gut. And Tal’s gut said to leave the city, to stay with family. I deferred to my better half, and a few minutes later we were packed to head to Petakh Tikva, just outside Tel Aviv.
We said goodbye to Dan and hopped a cab. The streets were emptier than normal on a Thursday night at 9 p.m., and our cab moved quickly. Until, that is, we hit a protest downtown. Gazan sympathizers to one side, extreme, right wing “Kill ‘em all” Israelis on the other. Apparently politicians were among the bunch. We crept through the crowded street, the police calling to our driver, “Move along! Move along,” and him yelling back, “There’s a bus stopped in front of me! What do you want me to do?”
Once out of that blood clot, the veins of Tel Aviv were easier to navigate. Our driver asked where we were from, how long we’d bee in Israel. “Philadelphia. And a year and a half.”
He laughed, a big, hearty laugh. “Welcome to Israel!” he smiled. That humor towards a terrible situation is commonplace. A bus blows up, you hear “Welcome to Israel!” If you can’t change it, you can’t live in fear. Welcome, indeed.
Petakh Tikva was quiet, like it always is. No drastic hush lay over the suburb, and in Tal’s cousin’s apartment we felt safe. We ordered a pizza, finally ate some dinner. I called my mother, who cried over the phone. I assured her we were safe, but knew I couldn’t offer any real guarantee. We followed the news through the night; Tal couldn’t sleep for longer than an hour at a time.
In the morning, we returned to Tel Aviv. I had a doctor’s appointment, and the night’s quiet helped me convince Tal to return with me. That afternoon, we left our apartment for some lunch. A walk, some air. Anything. We sat down at table outside at a cafe on Dizengoff. Tal felt hungry for the first time since that siren the night before. She ordered breakfast; a salad for me. People were on the streets. The art vendors sold their work. Cafes were packed. Our food arrived around 1:30. Then the second alarm did, too.
Again, that low rumble, rushing through the streets as it rose in volume. Every person sitting at every table in every cafe stood up; the same split second of “Is this real” filled the street. It was, again. I grabbed Tal’s hand and pulled her into the restaurant. The waiters ushered everyone into the kitchen, into the bathrooms. The siren wailed. Tal and I ducked under the restaurant’s bar. I pulled her close to me; she shook again, harder than before. Two young father’s tried to calm their son. He screamed and cried behind the bar, holding his ears. One father fought tears, the other crouched down firmly, his son completely enveloped within his large frame. Then the boom, far off. Then silence.
Then it was over. “HaKol Beseder, culom, hakol beseder,” cried the waiter, relieved. “Everything is alright, everyone, everything is fine.”
I finished my salad. Tal couldn’t eat. We walked home quickly. In our apartment, Tal took a nap. She was exhausted; every sound outside, every plane overhead, snapped her awake. We checked the news. A rocket targeted Jerusalem Friday evening, just before Shabbat. At the same time, Israeli airstrikes continued to level parts of Gaza. The death toll rose, and injuries increased. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had called for 30,000 reserve troops to mobilize; then the number was blown to 75,000. Through Shabbat, it seemed this wasn’t going to get better. Ground troops means death on the ground, not just from the sky in targeted attacks. Hamas released a video online threatening to resort to suicide bombings. 2002 all over again.
Now, it’s Saturday afternoon. A friend stayed with us last night, nervous to sleep in her apartment alone. The situation continues to unfold. In Tel Aviv, we live in what’s called “The Bubble.” We rarely feel the violence that plagues so much of the South and Gaza. But this weekend, we were brought into the fold. We get it. And it’s a terrible feeling. I pray, we all do, that this ends soon.
I’ve been thinking a lot about safety, and intention and truth and life lately. You know, the things you ponder when everyone surrounding you is contemplating whether the country will plummet into another war but is too afraid, or afraid of upsetting others, to discuss it.
To most of you reading this, the headlines of the last two days were the first you heard about a ‘new Israeli offensive.’ Though that upsets me for reasons I’ll soon discuss, I can’t fault any of you. Any headlines about the days and weeks leading up to yesterday’s assault in Gaza were buried, or nonexistent. But please, let me assure you, the story did not start yesterday. Rather, yesterday, I suppose, is when things got interesting enough for the rest of the world to give a shit.
In Israel, when a rocket flies from Gaza and hits a school or lands in an open field, when an alarm sounds and everyone has precisely 15 seconds to reach cover, when the Iron Dome blasts a bomb in the sky before it can reach civilians, we go on as normal. We probably don’t even discuss it. And that, well, that is a sad reality. In any other country in the world, life would not simply go on. If a rocket hit a mall in Maine, lobbed over the border by Canada, I can assure you life would not go as normal.
A quick aside: Obviously, no example I can provide would actually draw relevant parallels to the borders I speak of now, between Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. This situation is far more complicated than one sovereign nation bombing another sovereign nation, and I know that. I only make the case as a point of reference.
Anyway. This is the reality I’ve lived with since arriving here over a year ago, just around the time that a public bus exploded on its way to Eilat. And yet, something is different about this week. When we began hearing of rocket volleys coming into southern Israeli towns on a daily, then hourly basis, something struck a chord. A rocket, or a bombing once in awhile is a hiccup in your day. But a constant barrage stops you in your tracks. Your kids don’t go to school, because school was cancelled. You don’t go grocery shopping. You don’t visit with friends. You stay home, near your bomb shelter, and you just live.
That is the mood of the country right now, and has been increasingly for the weeks leading up to yesterday’s attack. Yesterday was not the beginning, but it was the start of Israel saying, “Alright. That’s enough this time around.” I won’t make some sweeping comment about how the media will handle it, now that they are handling it. Some outlets I’ve read will only reference the Israeli attack on Gazan terror cells with a small mention of the prior attacks coming from Gaza. Some will play it fairer, and paint a fuller contextual story. You’ll read things that are anti-Israel and anti-Gaza. But, at least after yesterday, you will read about it.
As I type this, a rocket reportedly fell in Rishon Le’Tzion, a moderately-sized city just outside Tel Aviv. My heart jumped when I read that. I’m listening to a new album by a new band, and one song blasted the sound of a siren. I jumped to turn it off, fearing that my neighbors would think a bomb was falling. I’m jumping a lot today. I jumped when I read that three civilians in Kiryat Malachi were killed when a rocket tore through the sky. The first three Israeli deaths in the conflicts of these weeks. I rode my bus to work today and held my breath.
You will all come to conclusions based on what you read and what you hear, and your political leanings will dictate most of those feelings. But know this. Fear is a weapon. There will undoubtedly be more Gazan casualties in this conflict than Israeli. It’s an obvious fact; Israel has the better weapons, and Gazan Hamas operatives are well known to hide among civilians. More Gazan deaths is in a simply unavoidable truth. But when Israel is dropping pamphlets warning civilians of incoming attacks, to allow them time to leave so Israel can take out terrorists, and I’m sitting here waiting for a rocket to blow up in my civilian neighborhood, aimed there with all intention of killing men, women and children, aimed to kill me, then you tell me who is in the wrong.
Full disclosure: This one is way, way overdue. The story you are about to read actually happened, in every detail, but it happened back in June. None of the character’s names have been changed to protect them.
So when Mike, one of my closest friends from college, announced that he was going to visit Israel in early summer, I was thrilled. Sam (who you may remember from this story) and I were excited to welcome our buddy to what was now our home and take him out drinking, gallivanting and causing general debauchery, just like the old days (you know, college), but moreso, we wanted to go on a trip. A camping trip! One with hiking! And hopefully animals and a campfire and beers aplenty! The good kind of camping.
Sam took care of transportation arrangements, and I handled supplies. In a pleasant turn of events, my friend Aaron, from my days at overnight camp in the Poconos, was wrapping his Birthright trip the night before, and would be joining us on the journey. Three was good; four was great.
The plan was pretty loose: head from Tel Aviv up north, pass the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to a great hiking spot called Yehudiah, which, we had heard, was packed with waterfalls and beautiful views and treasure and dinosaurs. From there, we planned to find a good spot to camp; somewhere, anywhere in the north of Israel. Then, we planned to drive home the next morning and stop for falafel. One trip, three components, none of which went as planned. Obviously. Continue reading