Several of my friends have told me lately that ‘funny/weird/exciting things just seem to happen’ to me. But I would disagree. Not about the funny/weird/exciting part — that is definitely true. Ask me about my Mississippi story sometime, it’s a doozy. But the ‘seem to happen’ part doesn’t sit right with me. I think, and I say this with utmost modesty, I have a hand in coaxing along the adventures in which I constantly find myself. And here’s the key: I ask questions. A lot of questions. I ask for directions. I ask if I can try your food. I ask where the nearest bar with good beer specials is. It doesn’t matter what I ask, but I do — and the resulting conversations have often led to some of my craziest adventures. Here’s a quick one about meat, and a long one about cheese. But not together; that wouldn’t be kosher. 1. Meat A few of my coworkers and I decided that the Wednesday of Pesach would be beach day — we didn’t have work, along with the entire population of Israel, the weather was going to be hot and, honestly, nothing sounds better than a few beers next to the beach. We picked up said beers (not kosher for Pesach, admittedly) at one of the many Russian/Non-Jewish owned makolets (corner markets) in Bat Yam, which are exceedingly useful when you want to buy something on Shabbat, and scouted a place on the largely empty beach. I set up my tiny, pink nargilah (or hookah, if you live in America) with some apple-flavored tobacco in the sand. But I had a problem: wind. It was nearly impossible to light the coal with the wind whipping off the water. I quickly remembered that we’d passed a group of Arab teenage boys setting up grills with shipudim (shishkebabs) just off the beach. I’m usually, sometimes unconsciously, aware of who around me is cooking meat products, what said meat products are and how delicious I expect them to be. There was also an older couple nearby cooking chicken. I can’t help it. I approached the boys and asked them to light my coal on their grill. We spoke back and forth a bit about what I was doing (“No, no. I’m not on vacation,” the usual banter), they lit my coal and all was said and done. But, no! One of the boys asked if I wanted a shipud. And, aw shucks, who was I to say no? The steak was delicious, and I thanked them, returning to my tiny, pink nargilah and regular sized friends on the beach. I won’t lie and say this was a surprise. I’ve found that, in Israel, engaging in conversation with people who are cooking food usually ends in me eating something delicious. Once a family cooked me an entire dinner on the spot in their sukkah because I asked for a bite. I had a feeling the kids would offer — I just needed my question to ask. The nargilah lit and a juicy shipud in my stomach, I thanked the lord for the delicious tidbit I had just enjoyed, and for the beautiful day that I continued to enjoy. But, then, something great happened. Something really, really great. Not five minutes later, the same Arab boy came over to our encampment. And he brought gifts! In his hands were two full plates of meat — literally, still smoking — and offered them to us. Bits of steak, shipudim, chicken wings; all hot and barbecued and juicy and utterly, completely delicious. In gracious disbelief, I thanked the kid. He asked us for some foil for their nargilah, the meat and foil changed hands, and he rejoined his friends.
My two compatriots being vegetarians, I was now overloaded with beautiful, succulent fire-cooked meat. More than I could even eat — I ended up taking home enough chicken wings for that night’s dinner. Whoever says Arabs and Jews can’t get along should spend a day at the beach with a grill. Lessons learned: Arab kids make great chicken; Always ask questions (not learned… just reenforced.) 2. Cheese. This one’s longer, so consider this a heads up. To celebrate my good buddy Sam’s birthday this weekend, he wanted to go hiking. There are very few things I regularly say no to, and hiking is certainly not one of them. I was excited — the hike he chose is one we attempted this winter, but early sundown and cold weather kept us from the trail. I met Sam and his lady Loren at one of my favorite bars late Friday night to celebrate with a group of Sam’s friends, and was quickly wrapped into a conversation about Internet start-ups and search engine optimization and other tech stuff like that. I couldn’t wait to get into nature. We left the bar around 2 a.m., drove to my apartment, picked up some gear and headed to Loren’s house in Mevasseret-Zion, just outside Jerusalem. Loren and I fell asleep nearly instantaneously, leaving the birthday boy himself to drive us home sober. I’m so glad we didn’t die. We were in Mevasseret by 4 a.m., and I was asleep in Loren’s guest room by 4:02. I woke up oddly laying diagonal in the bed around 11:30 — a wee bit late for our hike. No bother; we ate some breakfast and headed outside the city towards Har Eitan, a beautiful, rugged mountain of olive trees and centuries-old stone walls poking out from the brush. The hike began like any other. Namely, we started walking. The weather was perfect; warm, but not smoldering, sunlight and clear skies, allowing us to see the wild variety of tiny towns and villages on the tree-covered Judaean hills outside Jerusalem. After just four kilometers, Sam and Loren had something cool to show me: An ancient cistern still filled with water. Just off the main trail, we walked to a hole in the ground. No more than 4 feet wide, the hole opened up vastly just below the rocky earth to reveal a huge, water-filled chamber. Steps, carved out long before my grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents were born, led down to the water. A few ropes tied to a tree laid on the ground nearby. As Israel just started to heat up in the past weeks, we knew the water would be cold. We didn’t know it would be painfully cold.
Sam and I undressed and made our way into the earth, first to dip an extremity in the water. In just under 10 seconds, my foot was numb. This was not a good sign as to our ability to go swimming. And yet, shit, how often can I jump into an ancient well? My very ancestors could have, once upon a time, drawn water from this very well to nourish their thirsty families. Without this well, I may never have been born. I owed it to myself, and my heritage, to go swimming.
Allowing ourselves a few minutes back in the sun, Sam and I lowered ourselves down. First a foot, then our legs. When the ice water hit my waist, I instantly became unsure if I would ever be able to have children. I’ll keep you updated on that one. Once the water passed my waste, I got on with it and dropped the rest of my body in the water. I swam around the chamber for about a minute, then bobbed away from the hole; away from the sunlight. With only a foot between the water and chamber’s rock ceiling, I reminisced over the many scenes in my favorite action movies where the hero is trapped in a room filling up with water and he’s forced to take his last breath before diving down to find some escape. The notion didn’t make me feel as cool as I expected. Rather, the thought of putting my head under water — the one remaining dry part of my body — sounded terrible. I swam to circle of sunlight shining down into the cistern and quickly pulled myself out. I scratched my arm and I didn’t feel a thing. So that was great.
We air dried, and the warming sunlight turned things around completely — in minutes, I felt incredible, like the day couldn’t possibly get better. Tal’s in the states, but a few good friends, a beautiful hike and a retrospectively refreshing dip was the next best thing. We probably could’ve sat, basking in the hot sun all day. But we had a trail to finish, and more adventures to be had. The next few kilometers were tough — all uphill just as the sun blazed the hottest. Reaching the top of a long trail winding up the side of Har Eitan, I saw a goat. He was a goat just like any other goat; that is to say, extraordinarily funny looking. But then I saw another goat. And another. And then about 150 more, all clip-clopping down the hillside, stopping to eat some leaves, (oddly) sneezing all the time and continuing their downward descent. Before we knew it, we were in the midst of an entire herd of goats, complete with beautiful herd dogs keeping the strays with the pack. The moment reminded me of last year’s Yom Kippur, when I goat herded with a Bedouin kid. Except this time, the herder was a hippie Israeli.
And then came the questions, of course. “Where are you going?” Easy enough, right? We chatted with our new friend for just a few moments, but he had to keep moving to keep with his herd. “Follow us down the hill; we’re going to the farm,” he called out in Hebrew. “And you can try our goat cheese.” My mouth dropped. Cheese, like everything else in Israel, is expensive. And good cheese is very expensive. So hell yes, I wanted to eat this complete stranger’s cheese. And down the hill we went, playing with goats the whole descent. We even got these great pictures of us pretending to be goats!
Fifteen minutes later, we saw a tin roof. The farm was completely enveloped in trees — something we never could have seen from the trail, or the highway, or anywhere, really. This was a surprise we’d stumbled upon completely by chance. And it was about to get awesome. The roof belonged to the goat stable, where the herder loaded his goats. The other buildings were harder to see from above, because they were literally carved into the mountainside — inside (probably) Crusader-era aquaduct archways, a few tables were set up, where several couples sat and feasted on cheeses and wines.
“Come, try some.” We followed him to the cheese counter, where a family was in the middle of a tasting. Before I could say “camambert,” I was eating the most delicious goat cheese; I’ve no idea how many different kinds. I was too elated to do things like count or ask, “Now, would this go best with a white or red?” The cheeses were all named after the goats whose milk was used. We tried the Hanna, then the Tamar. Between cheeses, we tried the farm’s olives, soft and dark and sweet with a fruity finish. I kept glancing at Sam and Loren with the “I can’t believe how awesome this is!” look that they shared as well. “This cheese; this one is two and a half years old. It is made with grappas,” said the cheeseman behind the counter. If that cheese was a person, it would be riding a tricycle already. And it tasted outstanding — sharp, sweet and layered with incredible flavor. Not exactly the type of cheese you munch on when you come home drunk at 3 a.m. — these were some high class goat products.
The deal was, as we learned, that the farm was family run with a few hired hands (our herdman). The cheese is all made on-site, and not sold in stores. Somehow, word has spread just enough that each weekend’s customers support keeps the whole operation afloat. We said our thank you’s, and made our way back to the trail, down the dirt road that lead to the farm. When we hit the main trail, we saw a sign — one of just two in the entirety of Har Eitan, that could direct cheese-searchers to the farm. “G’vinot Ezim, 1 kilometer.” (Goat cheese)
That’s it! No name, no big fancy ads. The place was basically called ‘goat cheese, this way.’ In America, I thought, this would have some kitschy name and take out ads in the weekend section. In Israel, it was a blissful discovery. (Full disclosure, I’ve since found some more information: Shai Seltzer Cheese and Goats has reached the 21st century). We wrapped up the mostly uphill remainder of the hike out of breath, exhausted and amazed. We imagined the Jerusalem of hundreds of years ago, where such a random discovery would’ve been just as welcome, and maybe even life-saving. Through the terraced walls strewn across the hilly landscape, it’s impossible to escape the history of the region. Each wall seems to have a different story, some mysterious, secret purpose and cause that we could never now. Was it to keep soil in place for farming, or to keep the Crusaders at bay? Either way, it’s fascinating. The Jerusalem region always kept me rapt, and the hike, with it’s hidden goat-led treasures just reinforced my obsession. We finished up Har Eitan around 5, drove into Abu Ghosh (an Arab village outside Jerusalem famous for it’s high volume and quality of hummus restaurants), grabbed a kilo of that fine, delicious, creamy stuff from Abu Shukri (one of the anchor restaurants) and headed back to Loren’s for dinner outside, leaving me ever-so-thankful that Sam was born that day 24 years earlier. Lessons learned: Goat cheese tastes best in the woods; always ask questions. 3. BONUS STORY! Let’s call it “Thread.” So I’ve been using Tal’s older brother’s kindergarten backpack all year. It’s tiny, red and totally awesome. Hipsters buy shit like this for $30, and I got it for free, complete with sentimental value, despite not being mine. But lately, the strap had been coming loose. Thread by thread, it was going to fall off. I needed help. After asking several of my crafty female friends to help me out, I figured it’d be smarter and more timely just to find a tailor. Oh, hey! There was a shoe-repair guy just outside my office! Called a ‘sandlar,’ the shop was full of shoes and sewing machines. I asked in Hebrew if he could help. “Ken, betach. Aval, regah. Atah y’chol li’kro b’Englit?” (Yes, of course. But, wait. Can you read English?) Sure, I answered. And out came his iPhone. My new friend spoke absolutely no English, and he faced a huge problem. See, he wanted to download an iPhone app that would allow him to cure cancer, but he couldn’t read it! Kidding. He wanted to download a painting app, so he could draw rainbows while bored at work. But to download, the almighty iPhone required that he enter his email, as well as provide answers to three security questions. Herein lay the trouble: he had no idea what the hell he was doing. And so we navigated together. I read the first question: What was your first car? I translated the question into Hebrew, and he thought for a moment. “Ani choshev Mazda. Ken, ahavti ha’michonit. Gam ani…” (I think a Mazda. Yes, I loved that car. And I…) I cut him off, typing M-A-Z-D-A into his phone. He then copied my English letters, ever so carefully, and translated the whole thing back into Hebrew so he could remember. We repeated the process twice more — “What is the name of your best friend?” translated for my friend, then his answer, “Oren,” then into the phone it went. Then, “What was your least favorite job?” translated for him. “Sponga!” he laughed. The man used to be a janitor, and he just didn’t like it. With the three security questions answered, written in his phone and his notes, then the questions translated into Hebrew and scrawled on the surface of his worktable for some reason, our work was complete. I pressed “Go,” and, lo and behold, the app downloaded! He shook my hand and just about went in for the hug, before smiling wildly and grabbing my little, red backpack. As he repaired it, we spoke about work, his homeland (Tajikistan. What!?) and how much he loves Tel Aviv. He asked if I wanted black or white thread. And just minutes later, it was better than new — and done for free. Trading iPhone help for goods and services. If I had access to all the Russians and Tajikistanis in Israel, I could make a killing — free salted fish and vodka for life! We parted ways both utterly satisfied. Lessons learned: Tajikistan is a real country. And that’s why I always ask people questions.