Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So, I'm sure everyone knows someone who's gone on Birthright, the free trip for Jewish people to Israel. (I just came back from it.) They all take the same photos of a dusty, rocky, hilly landscape; everyone has a picture of the Western Wall; you usually see people either smeared in mud or bobbing unnaturally high in the Dead Sea. And that's all well and good, because you should have pictures of those things. They're unique, unlike anything you'll ever see anywhere else in the world.

Unfortunately, I'm a shit photographer. Mostly I just forget I have a camera (probably because up until I commandeered Danny's old one specifically for this trip, I never had one of my own, and to tell the truth it still feels like this one technically isn't mine and it's only on loan - a camera is a luxury I will buy when I have a real salary). The rest of the time, I'm not even thinking about artificially preserving what I see beyond my memory. Thinking about it messes it up, because then it's all about the composition, and the lighting, and the color, and the forms, and is there balance between vertical elements and horizontal elements, and why can't I turn off the damn auto-focus because I WANT the foreground to be blurry dammit, and how can I make this look interesting - like something someone would remember. And then, when I go home, I don't even really remember what I was looking at in the first place.

The bottom line is I suck at snapping pictures.

So I didn't take that many which makes me sad.

I especially didn't take very many of the things I personally enjoy - like the food - although I do have one of my and several of my tripmates' lunches. However, despite the lack of visual evidence, I can still verbally rave about the food.

First of all, can I just say that the simple fact that there IS agriculture on land that's alternately desert and swamp is just unbelievable? I'm not talking a plot here or there, I'm talking bananas, dates, litchis, cucumbers, prickly pears, tomatoes, grapes (for eating out of hand and really good wine), mangoes, olives, plums, all kinds of citrus, pears, and I'm sure plenty of other things I'm not aware of, all from someplace half the size of New Jersey... that is, as I said, half desert and half swamp.

If you put in a minute bit of effort, it seems like it's impossible to eat badly here because all the fruits and veggies are so fresh and tasty, there's hardly any reason to eat anything else, which brings me to the rest stop options. I have a lot of experience with Israeli rest stops because the only way to get a large group of people all over the country is by bus. Our bus didn't have a bathroom which was both good and bad. Good: the bus didn't smell like a bathroom. Bad: we had to stop for bathroom breaks.

Israeli rest stops:

- The actual toilets can make the ones in NJ rest stops look like the Four Seasons. Carry your own toilet paper, ladies and gentlemen.

- The food is - roughly speaking, of course - 9 million billion gazillion times better than US rest stops. You do have McDonald's and pizza, but why would you even bother when there's falafel in pita with everything and tons of complimentary salads to round it out??? I mean, really. one place we stopped had a random guy selling baklava and other syrupy delicious confections off a table. They were awesome. There's also Aroma, a coffee shop that sells borekas (crispy flaky dough with a vaariety of fillings) with egg, tomato, eggplant, and pickles inside along with sandwiches and really, really good coffee. It's no wonder Starbucks failed miserably in Israel.

Honestly, if every Pizza Hut or Wendy's or whatever was replaced with a falafel joint, think of (a) how much more awesome everything would be, (b) how much tastier everything would be, and (c) how much more vegetables the entire US population would eat.

I also had a chance to try some of the best shwarma I've ever had in Jerusalem, thanks to one of the Israelis who stayed with our group throughout the trip. Shwarma is slabs of meat (the best is lamb) skwered through the middle and layered on a spike. Then the whole thing is slowly rotated so everything is exposed to a vertically placed heat source. They shave off the outer cooked layers, leaving the raw meat exposed. Another concept I was hugely appreciative of - the half pita if you're only sort of hungry. Brilliant. You could order a half pita, a whole pita, or a laffa (large Iraqi variation on the pita). And there were all sorts of complimentary salads on the side you could help yourself to, roasted eggplant chunks (sooooooo good), carrot salad, various pickles, sauteed onions, roasted peppers, etc.

Another gastronomical high point is the dairy. I got a little pot of full fat yogurt, and I was full after two spoonfuls. It was like eating sour cream, super flavorful and rich. It tasted so good. True, I ate simply. Lots of fresh things very simply prepared. I didn't have a chance to go looking for developed cuisine beyond stop-and-eat joints, but I think taking it down to basics really shows off superior ingredients (or points to inferior ones). The bottom line? Everything was spectacular, from fresh squeezed orange juice after a sunrise hike up and down Masada, to the salads, falafel, and shwarma I ate everywhere. Israel is one country in which I highly recommend eating as much as possible.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Milk and Honey

Just got back from Israel, land of milk and honey.  More like land of awesome produce and hummus.
Oh man, jetlag.