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This is what an Israeli voting booth looks like.

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We vote for a political party, not a candidate, the ranks of which are chosen within the parties. Every party has an alphabet letter or letters (some symbolic or spelling out words or names, others seemingly random). These letters are printed on little slips of paper. You are given an envelope, you choose a piece of paper, insert it, seal the envelope, and drop it into a slot in a box. Easy.

Today I was presented with no less than 35 choices. It’s simple in a way, but a bit daunting to be presented with such a choice. Doesn’t it look like a board game? Or Scrabble? I’m told this was always the system. Avoids all the “hanging chad” and computerized voting machine problems. The only real way your vote can be voided is if you place more than one paper in the envelope. No pesky representatives from local, state, and national districts, no judges to choose, just one party, one paper. My choice: Meretz.

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The 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament) are then allocated according to the percentage breakdown of the votes. Then comes the dirty dirty wheeling and dealing between parties in order to form a ruling coalition, eg “bribing” religious parties with minister of transportation (no buses on the sabbath) and education, etc etc.

Luckily – we got a day off work! Something other countries should implement. Certainly affects the turnout. And what a lovely day we got – sunny, 25 degrees! If only we got a vacation in the middle of every week. Brunch is so much sweeter on holiday. I especially love to eat bacon unapologetically in Israel.

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I’m an American living in Israel, and today I watched the Presidential inauguration live on C-Span (weeping profusely at all the right moments, as I do), wondering why the hell I’m here.

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Tomorrow is election day in Israel.  It’s one of the most harrowing, uncertain elections in recent memory.  Unlike my firm Democratic roots stateside, I’m firmly undecided in Israel.  It’s a strange position to be in.  Being “liberal” or “conservative”

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doesn’t mean much when there are literally a dozen parties from which to choose, nobody will win a majority, and it will be up to the President to grant coalition-forming power to the party most able to form a working parliament (Knesset).  Let the cabinet-bargaining begin.  I’m wavering between Meretz and Labor.  If it were only a matter of voting my beliefs, it would be Meretz, the unwavering liberal party with human rights at its very core.  However, in Israel “making your vote count” OR “not throwing your vote away” often means to vote for the ideologically closest medium-to-large party, helping to put them in a position to get enough seats to form the ruling coalition.

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That party this time is Labor.  For a long time now it has been almost invisible in government, and now, it’s suddenly stronger, perhaps a real threat to (what used to be center-right) Likud (who now readily form coalitions with ultra right wingers and build new settlements and buy up East Jerusalem and openly threaten Iran).  I grew up in a Jewish Labor youth movement.  My problem isn’t Labor, most of its ideals are fabulous.  I’m just off religion, and would very much like a party that’s doing something about human rights in Israel.  The Arab issues, the territories, the settlements, Jerusalem, the immigrants, refugees (legal and illegal), asylum seekers, foreign workers, ignorance, prejudice, and hatred.  And of course a party that is not interested in starting WWIII.

It’s baffling.  Voting what you believe or voting to enable a party that could potentially topple Likud’s Bibi (Netanyahu).  I did the latter last time in 2009 when I voted for Kadima and its leader Tzipi Livni.  She didn’t win, and both Meretz and Labor lost major numbers in parliament because so many liberals ran center to Kadima to “make their vote count.”  Did it, with such a seat loss?

I think I’ll vote my conscience tomorrow.  Politics are best left undisclosed in polite circles.  I’ve learned far too much about fellow employees and friends of the family, things that disgust me.  Racism is so blatant it doesn’t shock most people.  Is it time to go home?  I still refer to America as home.  Do I miss it so much, see it through such rose colored glasses, because I’m not there?  Perhaps.  Probably.  But there is no beautiful national rhetoric here.  No togetherness.  No dreaming big dreams.  No building the future together.  I heard a woman yesterday saying, “I’ll vote for the opposite of what the Arabs want.  Anyone they’re for, I’ll be against.”  No “We the people.”

Is it possible to love one of your countries more than the other?  Is love even necessary?  Is absolute loyalty?  Is it even possible for a dual citizen?  I obviously came here for a reason.  Now, I can’t remember what that was.  Is that a sign to leave?  I’m far from elated at the prospect of tomorrow’s election.  I’m expecting disappointment.  Do I care enough to participate in the fight when there is no unified vision?  I feel most Israelis don’t even care about peace anymore, and for those that do, the realistic prospect of attaining it seems next to impossible.  How do we balance being good citizens, acting responsibly, giving of ourselves, with being good TO ourselves and trying to live happy lives?

I’m just going to focus on President Obama’s wonderful speech today, maybe watch some West Wing reruns, and daydream of better times.  Twiddling my thumbs uselessly, until tomorrow.  At least I get a nationally-sanctioned vacation day – something the USA could actually use.

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“One last look…” he said. There goes a man who knows the value of treasuring a moment. Linger he did.

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Today I went to the Dead Sea for work. I hopped in the car in Tel Aviv at 9 am, and by 11 am I was glimpsing the sparkling water through the haze with the Jordanian peaks behind.  Ten hours later, I was back.  Why I put such thought and detail to my Facebook status update before I left last night, I don’t know, but it summed my sentiments about this experience totally:

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m a grownup and they entrust things like automobiles, giant hunks of fast-moving metal, to me. Tomorrow I get to drive for around 6+ hours, through what look like alien planets’ deserts, through the land where the world’s most prominent religions were born, through to the lowest most desolate place on earth, and even though I’ve done it before, it terrifies me. I will counteract it with vast amounts of singing – silly pop, rock, jazz standards, musicals – and coffee and junk food. All of you in Europe and the Americas may think the image quite odd. I will actually be driving past camels and date trees and Bedouin camps. All in a day’s work.

And I somehow survived: sand dunes, soldiers, camels, cliffs, rocks, sink holes, and speeding mac trucks on a winding two-lane highway (it’s honestly not as dangerous as it sounds, for anyone thinking of visiting – though I suggest taking along an experienced driver).  I will not bore you potential readers with the mundane aspects of the wine training sessions I ran today (funny, as now that I think of it, wine tastings must seem like great fun to the rest of the world – not that they’re not – I just happen to do them on a basic level day in and day out – my bread and butter). I did, however, have some lovely “enlightened” thoughts, of the sort that come to me much more regularly when I’m not a stressed blind-sided zombie.  Thoughts that would make a good short story.

The thought: a reinterpretation of SODOM and GOMORRAH

(cue lightening bolt)

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Tatooine, from Star Wars

I camped on top of Mount Sodom once, and it wasn’t a bad experience.  It’s really white and crumbly.  And there are scorpions.  And gorgeous sunsets and sunrises.  It looks like the surface of another planet, like it could not reasonably belong anywhere on earth.  It resembles Luke Skywalker’s planet, Tatooine, more than a little bit, minus the second sun. And it rises a few millimeters every year.  Great view of the Dead Sea.  You’d be hard pressed to find a stranger place.  It was today’s inspiration.

The bible story goes something like this (entirely from memory, biblical scholars and bible readers who know far better than me, please pardon my relative ignorance).  Lot (Abraham’s nephew and “adopted” son until Isaac comes along) and his family come to town, an evil town with bad, bad sinful people – and God tells him he’s going to destroy it.  Lot urges God not to do it, and begs him to spare the town if he can find 10 good men.  God agrees, but of course Lot fails to find even one good man.  A couple men (angels in disguise) come to lodge with Lot and his family in Sodom, and the townspeople surround the house, demanding Lot to turn over the men so they can rape them.  Yup.  Rape them (origin of the word Sodomy, folks).  Lot offers his virgin daughters to the townsmen instead of giving up his guests.  Yeah.  They refuse.  The angels reveal themselves, protect the family, and then God proceeds to destroy the town, in full fire and brimstone fashion.  Lot’s wife looks back, against God’s orders, and she turns into a pillar of salt.  The story gets creepier still when later on, Lot commits incest with his daughters who believe themselves to be the last human beings on earth.  Someone’s got to repopulate, right?

My thought – doesn’t this kind of sound like a Western?  Picture this being in Utah (or similar), some 150 years ago.  What kind of settlements would you find there?  Teeny tiny backwater one-street towns, that’s what.  Sand, dust, tumbleweed, hot hot sun.  Disney’s done wonderful treatments.  Sound familiar?  Woman to man ratio?  Probably 1:20.  Of course I’m speculating – I’ve not done even the least bit of googling on this yet.  What if a holier-than-thou preacher type (from a yet unheard of “religion”) rolls into town with his wife and children one day, claiming they are followers of the one true god.  What would they find?  What would they think?  Bars and brothels would kind of freak them out, right?  More than a little bit.  Though I bet it would never in a million years be spoken of, I bet there was some “fraternization” going on among those cowpokes, given the lack of female companionship, (of course).  Yeah, yeah, I weep-wailing adored Brokeback Mountain like the rest of us all.  Just riffing here.  I’m just about the biggest gay rights advocate you’re likely meet.  I’m being writerly.  (Isn’t writerly such a writerly word?)

Imagine us transplanting the biblical story to this more “modern” setting, at least one in our relatively recent past.  In all seriousness, let’s put as realistic a spin on it as possible.  Poor Reverend Lot, showing up in his covered wagon, dead set on trying to convert the beastly sinners.  Nothing works.  His family is harassed, and he’s constantly on the lookout trying to protect them.  He tells himself that if he can convert 10, or even 1, it will have been worth it.  Alas, he has no luck.  Some important visitors come, the head of his sect here to judge him, there is a scuffle, a showdown, a fight, something… something… something… Lot “hears God’s voice” and knows the town must be destroyed.  He is conflicted.  Will there be a miraculous lightening storm?  A tornado?  Or maybe he facilitates the destruction himself, unbeknownst to him, a la Oedipus.  I’m seeing a fire in the granary.  Or an arson attempt on the watering hole going wrong, alcohol bottles exploding every which way.  Etc.  Etc.  Maybe Mrs. Lot dies as she runs back to save someone from a burning building.  Maybe that’s Lot’s punishment for offering up his daughters.  I could go on.  And on.  And on.

To make a long story short – to the victor go the spoils, and in this case, the winner gets the copyright to the book.  Well, “Lot’s” version of the story gets passed down for generations until it gets written.  Growing up, this story really seemed to be talking about truly evil people, and God’s brutal eradication of them for not changing their ways.  Old Testament at it’s very best.  However, behind a story that is nearly 3,000 years old, there must be some truth, and also myriad other “sides” to the story.  How large could a “town” or “city” be back then?  And have you seen the Dead Sea region?  How much more inhospitable a place could you get?  To this day it can get truly “hellish.”  Mount Sodom is literally made almost entirely out of salt. (Aside: the words Sodom and Sodium aren’t so different…connection?).  Of course there would be “evil” men, trying to survive, coping by doing whatever they could to distract themselves.  It was a warlike time.  Rape and pillage and murder and all that goody bag of stuff.  Doesn’t sound like geographically it would have been a nice place for an ordinary thriving community, anyway.  No agriculture.  Little water.  Of course there weren’t very many women.  Logic, people.  It was the Wild West.

I resolve to write a story.  All excellent fodder.  If you steal the story, I will know…

Non sequitur – while googling Sodom, the first entry was surprising: Sodom Mountain Campground in Massachusetts.  Who on earth names a place Sodom in the New World?  Who would go camping there?  Satanists?  Occultists?  Is this where the witches of Salem came to find refuge?  It boasts being the nearest campground to Six Flags New England, and sports free wi-fi, a swimming pool, and organized activities.  Do people just ignore the name?  Are the people who stay there Sodomites?  A particularly pleased guest wrote in the comments section:

“The Pig Roast dinner was excellent.  Continued success for the next 25 years.  The bear sighting was an added surprise.”

Beelzebub and his employees must be doing an exceedingly good job. Kudos!

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My book of the week: talk about blasphemy!

Not great. My list seems so much more ambitious than I thought.  Some things I’ve done:

  • Because of a cold, for almost a week I drank endless cups and pots of herbal teas and infusions, meaning, I got plenty of water.  Now, not so much.
  • Sleep – still averaging 5-ish hours. Not good at all.  The discovery of late-night Star Trek TNG on this odd Christian cable TV channel has me mesmerized.  I love the show, it’s never on here, and I find it so incredibly strange that it’s METV that airs it.  I’m sure it’s a “recruiting tactic” – they’re also the only channel broadcasting American football, and quite a lot of it – rare and popular pastimes for certain populations.  I wonder if they actually know what they’re broadcasting – the futuristic Star Trek world is yes, quite an optimistic one, but the show regularly presents messages of tolerance (thinly veiled themes on gay rights and euthanasia come to mind) – basic respect for acceptance of the traditions and values of other cultures, whether or not we agree with them.  Things I feel that evangelicals clearly oppose.  It’s a very liberal show.  Squeezed between shows like the 700 Club, Harvest, and Christian rock shows, it’s so entirely bizarre for me, a firm and unwavering atheist, to watch.  This channel has these shows where a Christian “psychic” talks to spirits of dead family members in front of a studio audience.  There’s even a show geared to converting Jews, with a host who is a formerly-Jewish, now devout Christian evangelical, spinning the gospel for the “chosen people.”  Anthropology.  All I can say.  I’m happy for TNG.  Not sure it’s OK that I’m patronizing them.

    This kiss between Riker and the self-identified female “degenerate mutant” from a gender-less species.

  • I have, however, been seeing friends – twice per week is realistic, and as it’s emotionally quite pressing, it seems to be a high priority for me.
  • I went on a date. I thought it went very well, but I may have received the brush off.  Waiting.  It’s OK, life goes on.  The effort is important.
  • I read a whole novel in excellent speed – fantastic feeling. Though not really my cup of tea, I’d been putting off reading the cult-classic, Good Omens.  Was a nice way to pass the weekend.
  • Creativity and culture – I have made a concerted effort to stop and notice the art displayed in the windows of the galleries in my area, and I did actually attend a group exhibition opening a couple weeks ago.  I’ve been thinking about pulling out my clarinet – back in high school I wasn’t a bad player, and I did bring my excellent Buffet Festival with me when I moved to Israel.  AND I DID PAINT! Last week I got out a bunch of expensive Italian ink I purchased years ago, made lovingly with things like real gold flake, and I found a box of old thick “panda” oil pastels of my grandfather’s, a prominent Israeli artist until his death 11 years ago.  All shades of his favorite color – blue.  Here are some of the results, taken on a crappy camera phone.

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    A sort of water-soaked inky gouache, and a pointillism landscape made with an incomplete set of crayola markers, inspired by the “International Naive and Primitive Art Gallery” near me. You can’t see the gold flake on the left, but it’s pretty cool up close. And yes, the inks came complete with a quill – very difficult to use, hence I abandoned it.

  • Bills – not being paid. Weird.  I have the money.  I can’t open the mail – it’s overwhelming. It’s quite urgent. And pressing on me.  Psychological oddity with me, also keeps me from cleaning my room for months.  Though I make a decent effort on the house, the kitchen, public things, some other tasks are near impossible to internalize.
  • I’ve been pretty successful at shutting the computer at night and not thinking of work, so I’m proud of myself in that respect.  I do need to move forward on expanding my professional goals.

So there is the update.  A rather mundane blog entry, but as I felt I needed to keep up the writing momentum, here it is in all its glorious dullness.

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Stating the obvious: I have not blogged in a long while.  Life caught up with me.  You know how they say that if you’re so busy trying to record your life, you’re missing it?  I certainly can understand that sentiment.  On the contrary, writing down thoughts, impressions, memories, contributes wholeheartedly to living  of an examined life (a la Socrates: “the life which is unexamined is not worth living”).  So, I’m in both camps.  I’ve been living a lot – not that it has been overly exciting, some very bad spots, some quite interesting and good – and it felt good most of the time not running to record every moment.  That said, there were some moments when I wished I had my camera, when I was dying to share.  All in moderation.  As always.  Sometimes it’s good to keep a diary, and sometimes it gets in the way.

Here are some photo highlights of the last months.  Enjoy!

New wine bar in my neighborhood. Cute, huh?

Yemenite restaurant in the HaTikva neighborhood shuk (market). That is lachoch (yes, throat clearing sound times two), a Yemeni-style bread which resembles a crumpet; the other bread with the egg on top is malawach, flaky, crisp, oodles of layers of goodness and fat; and the two sauces are chilbeh (yes, clear your throat) – a dip made mainly from fresh Fenugreek, and then raw tomato (tradtionally eaten with malawach).

My first cup of Kopi Luwak. Yup, most expensive cup of coffee I’ve ever had. Worth it to say I drank coffee that was eaten and excreted by a civet. Lovely and smooth.

It’s not a good photo, but this is the impressive, beautiful barrel aging room at the Domaine du Castel winery – one of Israel’s oldest and best boutique wineries.

Cured beef, horseradish, and Rioja at a happening joint just outside the shuk on market day.

Chateau Lynch Bages – a Bordeaux – shared by the participants at a wine seminar I was at. The Irish have a strange history in Bordeaux – worth looking up…

Sushi, Sashimi, and Nigiri at the “Al HaMayim” restaurant in Herzliya, right on the beach. Amazing place. Phenomenal sushi – and not just for Israel. Fish comes in fresh every day, and is thrown out if not used by the end of the day. Simply done, beautifully cut. The most creative one was an eel with scallop nigiri covered with a small slab of foie gras.

A photo of me taking a photo. On a Jerusalem Hills winery-hopping day. We visited Clos de Gat, Flam, and Domaine du Castel.

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Being a long-term expat gives a person a unique perspective, as you well may imagine – an outside eye with insider access – and in the case of these bloggers, the ability to be ambassadors to the world at large.  It’s been a while since I focused on food myself, and I want to highlight to whoever may be reading, a review of some incredible blogs – AND – their very special qualities.  I’ve chosen and linked some specific posts to shed a light on the diversity of boutique dairies and cheeses, markets, spices, comfort foods, and out-of-the-way corners/villages/eateries that guidebooks would never even know to mention.  Enjoy!

Milk, Dairies, and Cheese

Israelis love their cheeses, eaten (much to my chagrin, actually) very fresh.  For fresh cheeses, however, they’re extraordinary.  A huge variety of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses are produced by the largest and smallest boutique dairies all over the country.  Baroness Tapuzina told us about her visit to the Ein Kamonim goat far recently.  Sarah Melamed of Food Bridge posted about a comparison between camel, cow, goat, and buffalo milk, oh my!  To add my recommendations on Israeli cheese, I adore the Markovitch Dairy – run by a sweet couple, on their own, with their goats, near Petach Tikvah – they make a cheese very similar to Camembert, with a blue center – during events they cater, they stuff big majoul dates with a softer goat cheese – to die for.  A bigger better-known artisanal cheese-maker is the Jacobs Farm – they make a hard cheese with pimento and caraway seed that is so incredibly different – it took me a while to like it, but I adore it now.

Markets and Places

Pita with zatar

My friend Liz, of Cafe Liz fame, is truly a market connoisseur.  Actually, most of these bloggers probably are, but I as know Liz well and we hang out in Tel Aviv quite a bit – she has been my personal ambassador to some gems.  Here, she tells us about Ramle, an out-of-the-way melting pot of a little town near the airport with an incredible history.  Here, a foray into the Levinsky Street market, undoubtedly the best place to buy spices in Tel Aviv – a bizarre 2-3 blocks of storefront if you’ve ever seen one.  And in a post I highly recommend, Where to Buy Food in Tel AvivLiz compared the prices of several basic food items at the shuk (market), and several commercial and organic stores around town – with very interesting findings for the consumer.

Sarah has a whole page devoted to shuks (markets), that you should really check out.  She’s written about Nazareth on a couple of occasions, somewhere most of us urban-folk would never venture.  The food scene is incredible there, and the New York Times recently featured it in an article, “Nazareth as an Eating Destination.”  A great pictorial is Spice Up Your Life in Nazareth, and a more complete anecdote is Nazareth Shuk: A Kaleidoscope for the Senses.  Another great post is by Miriam Kresh, the veteran blogger of Israeli Kitchen, also littered with fabulous photographs.  Miriam’s knowledge of the natural foods around us and the making of such basic (yet to us, complex) processes such as wine-making, soap-making, lotion-making, olive-pickling, and much more is astounding.

Comfort Food Around Us

Stuffed peppers

The new Jerusalemite among us is Ariella, of Ari Cooks.  A trained pâtissière, I love reading through her recipes.  A recent post of hers focuses on soups, Soups for Thought, and it was so so so good. So apt for the winter, so cold this year, making up for last year’s heat wave.  She links to several other soup recipes, so it’s an excellent resource.  Miriam has a great post on pickling olives at home, a local staple, olives are.  Sarah is hands down the kubbeh expert among us, and if you don’t know what these lovely semolina dumplings stuffed with meat are, do click her link.  Here is also Sarah’s excellent, beautiful, and brief journey through Israeli foods, including the ubiquitous falafel, foreigners so know us by.

I have skipped so much and focused on too few blogs — the amount of recipes, the innovation of this cooking, this east-meets-west, foreign-domestic, old-new, always fresh outlook displayed by the food bloggers of Israel is inspiring.  If you live here, I hope you choose to eat well and eat interestingly.  If you don’t live here, when you visit, make food a priority.  It’s so special and vibrant and fresh here.

Have a great week, all!  Here’s to getting through the winter!

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LOOT! The extreme smörgåsbord brought to me by my father on his current visit. An odd variety of smoked salmon, gourmet pancake & scone mixes, and a "limited edition" Christmas pudding from Harrod's, made with vintage Port and contained in a velvet box - it cost more than many of my monthly bills

Today, the last day of 2011, is a Saturday.  What a year.  I’ve not blogged in a while, as has been the recent trend, not that I’ve not been collecting material.  So, it’s a great time to share a review of recent, and not so recent events, as some of them are quite awesome.  As for the year to come?  Well… that’s for another post, but I suspect I’ll be reading more classic literature, traveling more, and studying for a wine certification…I hope.  Enjoy the photos!

March - June: Alkalai Wine Bar, I lived in Bourgogne-wine-land every day

WINE: I transformed my career, somehow, with luck, with some concrete planning, with hard work. I went from an online marketing/editing/PR drifter and hopeless fiction writer, who worked part-time doing wine tastings, to a wine bar sommelier and cook, to an invitee representing the winery in a French exhibition, to a full-fledged winery employee.  I’m proud of myself for going for something I wanted and succeeding.  You never know what was entirely based on chance, but I know that whatever had happened, I would be working full-time in wine at this moment, whether at the winery or a restaurant or a hotel.  I learned how to leave a job I hated, work hard, ask for help (which was not easy), and ask for what I wanted (which may have been even harder).  I love my new job.

Christmas Day: Katzrin, Israel. Visit to the winery. I'm pouring our Yarden Heights Wine 2009, a Gewurtztraminer ice-wine-style dessert wine. Yummy.

Christmas: Yonatan vineyard, Golan Heights. Organic Cabernet Sauv.

TRAVEL: Hmm… where did I go…  Bordeaux, Paris, Giverny (in Normandie), Chicago, Kauai… I changed planes in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles – though those aren’t supposed to count… and that’s it.  Fantastic adventures…but not as far and wide a selection of places as in years past.  I was very privileged in these, however.  They really were incredible trips.  Wine, food, laughter, hard work, hard play, art, beautiful weather – always – and especially the interesting people that I traveled with and met along the way. (on an interesting side note – after having been featured on an American Travel Channel television show, I was recognized all over the world, by random people, some of who plotzed and took photos with me and my sister).

June: the legendary Shakespeare & Co bookshop, Paris. Incredible book reading, and I met and spoke with author Nathan Englander, who graciously signed my book, in Hebrew and English. Extraordinary last day in Paris

April & June, Tel Aviv & Bordeaux: OYSTERS! Huitres!

FOOD: I cooked less this year, but ate just as heartily.  Perhaps too heartily.  The most typical New Year’s resolution may be in order for me this year.  From scrummy wine bar fare like prosciutto & Parmesan, fatty French cheese platters, and freshly steamed Thai dumplings; to oysters, foie gras, chestnut creme crepes,  Armagnac ice cream, crisp lemon squid, a simple Chateaubriand steak I’ll remember for a long time, more hearty soups than I can remember, and much much more.

March: squashing tomatoes with my bare hands for shakshuka at the wine bar

KAYAKING: an odd adventure sport I picked up and stuck with.  I suppose I needed some more exotic expensive exercise-induced adrenaline in my life.  Begun as a crazy lark in Hawaii (the Na Pali coast is rated the #2 adventure to take part in by National Geographic), I was thrilled and proud I survived the craziness, I decided to roll with the momentum and immediately join a kayak club in Tel Aviv.  It’s been interesting, and terribly challenging.  It has added another dimension to this ever-changing life.  It has also added  painful dark bruises to my legs and arms every week, and taken a large chunk out of my paycheck for water-tight clothing.  Oh well.  Life.  Better to go for it than to sit on the sidelines.

August: Kauai, Hawaii - kayaking the Na Pali coast

December: Rosh HaNikra, Israel - border of Lebanon - inside the deep caves

December: my kayak club with the Israeli navy

AND let’s end the year with some videos!  Going along with the title of this post, Tom Lehrer wrote some excellent songs that still ring true today.  In honor of all of the revolutions this year, in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya. In remembering all of the precarious situations that remain, Iran, North Korea, the Euro-zone crisis, the upcoming American elections, the environment going to hell, flu, honeybees dying out, and Israel practically becoming a misogynist theocracy, and of course the future of my physical, mental, and especially social fitness.  Let us hope, but more importantly, let us work hard for a better year and a safer, happier world.  And here’s some laughs and satire for us all.

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Homemade pumpkin pie!

 Thanksgiving: my favorite holiday

In my invitation, this is how I described Thanksgiving to my Israeli friends:

For those not especially familiar, Thanksgiving is a secular American holiday celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.  We take a moment out of our lives and give thanks for all we have – and eat massive amounts of American food (hope you like green bean casserole and pumpkin-marshmallow bake).  In theory, we mark the date of the “first Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims shared with the Indians in Massachusetts in 1621 after having survived the first difficult year in the New World.  For a good overview of the history of Thanksgiving see: http://history1900s.about.com/od/1930s/a/thanksgiving.htm.  It’s like Passover, but for everyone and anyone.  I think it should be an international holiday.

They don’t quite get it, but it’s still important for me to do.  As for the meal, I never cease to be amazed at how disgusted everyday Israelis are of pumpkin pie.  I basically made a quintuple recipe – two double-stuff pies (one pictured above) and 2 dozen pie-cupcakes.  Three-quarters of one pie got eaten, along with a small handful of mini-pies.  Half of our twenty or so guests were American, so you can see how little and unadventurous the palates were.  The apple pie went over a bit better – the prettiest apple pie I’ve ever made, actually – and most people don’t seem to know it’s easy to make.  Well, almost all pies are easy, depending on the filling.  Just mix up whatever you want to cook and pour into the crust.  Apple pie, being made entirely of apple, is usually just made up of apple slices, a bit of sugar, and cinnamon.  Pumpkin pie, so easy to make in the US with canned pumpkin, is infinitely more difficult when you have to go out and buy your own pumpkin, core it, cut off the rind, boil large chunks, and then press and blend the cooked meat – all before mixing in the actual pie ingredients.  I will use the word homemade here quite frequently, because it truly was – nothing canned.

Surprisingly enough, my homemade sweet potato marshmallow casserole was a big hit, although they did not understand why it wasn’t in the dessert category.  I suppose nobody can say no to a dish covered in marshmallows.  The child in us all simply jumps out of our skins.  My family’s recipe calls for the sweet potato mash to be mixed with a large can of pineapple chunks (syrup removed first) and sprinkled heavily with cinnamon, before being topped by our preservative-packed confection.

The turkey was divine!  Again, Israelis are stunned and impressed at the buying and cooking of a whole turkey.  Now, Israelis, you must understand, eat a lot of turkey.  More than most countries.  But the form it takes is almost exclusively in cold cuts and schwarma, if you can believe it.  Even huge cuts of meat for roasting are pretty rare.  I’ve never seen a roast in Israel.  The closest is goulash with big chunks of meat.  So you can imagine the oddity of a whole bird.  I brined mine for about 15 hours (it was about a 16-17 pound bird) in homemade brine I improvised around an Alton Brown recipe.  My brine-broth contained crystallized ginger among other exotic things.  If you’ve never brined a bird – DO – it makes a huge difference in the juiciness, tenderness, and intensity of flavor.  Of course butter helps enormously too, and herbs under the skin along with it.  The stuffing was as usual Martha Stewart’s chestnut stuffing, a recipe my sister and I have favored for years.  Lots of butter, sage, cups and cups of chopped chestnut, and high quality bread.  I’m still eating the leftovers quite happily.

In any case, in any case.  Thanksgiving was a hit at our home – my sister and I are very proud of 2011’s feast.


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I am sometimes privileged enough to get to participate in days and evenings that many people would die to experience, or have a hidden camera along with them.  As a writer, I don’t need one.  And believe me, I’d be a fool not to use my experiences as fodder for something extraordinary one day.  I won’t disclose direct details and names are omitted (don’t worry, nothing as sordid as you’d think).  The last 3 days of my life have simply been surreal – nothing short of it at all.  Billed as a combination “giving back and coming together,” the winery created a three-day program for every single worker – yes, we shut down for three days.  Included in this adventure:

  •  Community service – I spent most of the day breathing in ungodly amounts of sawdust and varnish fumes in an enclosed greenhouse for about 6 hours for the benefit of a community center for the mentally challenged – the folks came down to help us, and I ended up getting sprayed by said varnish for several minutes.  Ah well.  All for good.  I did get to commune with donkeys, ducks, and chickens that day in their petting zoo – always a plus in my book – and it was amazing to see what 6 hours’ hard work by 100+ people actually can accomplish.  It was great – although the sawdust ring and piles of sediment in the bathtub that night (I kid you not) were a cause of some concern to me.
  • A romantic tour of the old city of Jerusalem.  Great fun.  Churches, ramparts, architecture.  I’ve done it at least half a dozen times, and even led unofficial versions of it for friends.  But I loved it.  Towards the end I got tired, and when we got to the incredible Austrian Hospice, I simply disappeared into the cafe-garden with a lovely creamy Meinl cappuccino while the group went up to the roof for another half-hour of pointing-at-buildings.  It’s a rose garden, quiet, and two foreign gentlemen smoked cigars next to me.  At that moment I was happy.  I loved my employer, my colleagues, the retreat, the weather, the location.  It was a great day.
  • Ridiculous performances — I hate using ridiculous to describe performance art, as artists try hard and need to earn a living.  There just happens to be a lot I cannot tolerate, and I was subjected to some extremely…well…difficult work.  Folksy mediocre sort of stuff — the fact that many, perhaps not most, but not a few, of my work colleagues enjoyed some if not all of the two evenings’ entertainment, puzzled me.  But let me leave it at that. To each his own.  A fantastic exercise in anthropology, one could say.
  • A scavenger hunt.  A big fat three-hour frantic massive-list hunt, 21st-century-style (all evidence photographed, video’ed, and internet research often required).  We were broken up into groups and I knew almost nobody in mine.  Running all over Jerusalem, climbing the YMCA tower (450 steps up) to count carillon bells, taking photographs while sitting inside random people’s cars, teaching tourists to speak a sentence in Hebrew about our company, archery in the park, and on and on.  It was exhausting.  We didn’t win, but now I have 7 new friends at the winery, most of whom I never would have met, approached, or sat with at a meal.  The fact that I enjoyed this is a huge credit to the HR people at the winery.  They know their stuff.  It could have been cheesy-city, but almost every group participated with gusto.  It was great.
  • Raucous late-night adventures in the shuk — my favorite part of the trip — reminded me of my adventures in Bordeaux.  A small group (12 or so) of people from almost every walk of life (department) of the winery decided to head out for some post-cheesy-art living it up on the town.  We found ourselves at the Casino de Paris – a hip new bar-eatery in the middle of Machaneh Yehuda shuk (market).  Yes, hidden among the vegetable stalls is quite a chic place, bright, friendly, excellent booze, people spilling out the door on a Monday night.  We drank, ate, drank, told stories, drank, made merry, and drank under the stars beside the covered stalls outside the warm little bar.  Then we made our way to the famous Machaneh Yehuda restaurant a couple blocks away.  We drank, ate, drank, and made merry all over again, to a much higher and stranger degree.  With stranger foods (shellfish after midnight).  Stranger objects (wearing tea towels somehow became part of this segment of the evening). Stranger liquors (we started the evening with high-end Cognac and single malt Scotch, and somehow ended up finishing it off with cheap Arak).  So it goes.  Interesting taxi-back-to-hotel arrangements.  And lots and lots of ibuprofen.  I’m quite proud of myself, really.  I can really hold my liquor, or so it seems to me.  I didn’t tell any bad sex jokes, I didn’t vomit, I didn’t fall down, and I hardly cried at all.  I think it was a well-maintained buzz through and through.  In the course of 6 hours (with food) I think I consumed 3 glasses of wine, 2 whiskys, three sips of beer (one ale, two stout – a knowledgeable person told me to try stout with whisky and it was an excellent combination), one tiny sip of Arak, and a glass of bubbly.  It was a fantastic evening.  Had it occurred at the American Colony as I’d wanted, it would have been better.  It’ll have to wait for the next adventure.  But it was very good as it was.

It doesn’t often occur to people that they live interesting lives — but on this particular occasion, it occurred to me that I do.  I don’t make wine, but I get to work with people who do.  People who make world-class amazing wine.  And that counts for something.  It’s amazing when you know you’re working with and for good people, for a good cause.  Wine is a luxury product, I suppose, but it’s far more essential than a Lexus or foie gras or an Xbox, I think.  It’s a connection to land, to history, to religion, to people, to experience.  What’s a wedding without wine?  New Years?  Anniversaries?  Birthdays? Beuf Bourgignon? Coq au Vin?  I’m back to stressed out life — and even if it doesn’t seem charmed 99% of the time — it is a charmed existence in many ways.  There’s always that after-work glass of wine waiting.

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Fabulous clothing and shoes, wine stains and crushed toes.  So the game goes.

Talking to wine writers at the Golan Heights Winery stand at Sommelier 2011

Israel and wine, newsworthy topics both, best when paired.

The Sommelier Exhibition 2011 has come and gone, and it was fast, busy, exciting, exhausting, and over as soon as it began.  We at the Golan Heights Winery featured the 2008 Vintage – including 3 new single vineyard wines that were released this week, timed with the event: the Merlot from the Kela vineyard; the Syrah from the Tel Phares vineyard; and the Cabernet Sauvignon from the famed El Rom vineyard.  We also introduced the Gamla Syrah 2009 (English),  the newest addition to the Gamla series, a long time in the works – brilliant magenta color, vibrant fruity aroma bordering on the confectionary (and I mean in the best possible way), and such a fun wine it is.   The jazzy new 2008 Yarden 2T, a blend of two Portuguese varietals Turiga Nacional and Tinta Cao, was also a huge hit – lighter bodied yet complex, something we Israelis are not used to… and should be a great pleasure to get to know.

In other fascinating wine news, I read this interesting piece on 8 Budget-Friendly Destination for Wine Lovers. Ever thought of going to Thailand for a tour of wine country?  Umm… never.  But for $50 a tour, $5 a bottle, and a hotel for $15, your plane ticket is your largest expenditure (which frankly, is not small potatoes, but we’ll ignore that).  Apparently it’s brilliant fun to see Thailand’s 3 wine-growing regions that are able to harvest twice annually because of the wet and hot climate.  All the others I’d heard of and have actually considered.  Hungary (Tokaj – now why in the world wouldn’t I?) and Cyprus (fascinated by Greek-Turkish wines – millenia-old traditions) especially.

OK – on the bizarre, awesome, I-never-would-have-thunk-it, front, a Japanese comic book (the genre is known as Manga), all about wine – “Drops of God.”  First published in 2004, it’s been translated into English, and it’s brilliant and fascinating.  Wine Manga.  Wow.  It was a smash hit in France, a sensation in South Korea, and it introduced wine culture to large parts of Asia.  Check out the article and the Wikipedia page.  I’m buying this.

Otherwise – I’ve been working and kayaking and that’s about it.  Mostly working.  And consuming junk food, cucumbers, and tuna fish sandwiches.  Ah life.  And wine, don’t forget the wine.  My teeth turned an absurd shade of nasty smeared blackish purple over the past two days at the exhibition (not because I drank, god forbid while I work, at least not much) but because I was designated taster for most of the time – testing for oxidized and corked wines.  Thank goodness for baking soda.

And to close, a beautiful Ernest Hemingway quotation I stumbled upon today:

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.

 

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