Saturday, December 19, 2009

Old Central Bus Station

No, not Gaza or Mogadishu, but south Tel Aviv, Neve Sha'anan, this morning. This is old Central Bus Station area. Once the alighting point for anyone arriving in Tel Aviv by bus, which, up until the 70s, was just about everyone. Now, it is the dumping ground for foreign workers, both legal and illegal, from scores of countriesas well as refugees from Sudan, poor Ethiopian Israelis and others at the bottom of the heap.

The shops  that used to sell kitschy paintings and cheap chocolates have been turned into peep shows and brothels.

Gospel -like music emanated from the open door of the 'Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries, Tel Aviv' just a few doors away, apparently offering a more wholesome experience.

The old platforms have been dismantled to make way for a new tower project. Looking at this picture , it is hard to imagine the heaving, pulsing, sweating mass of humanity that once lined up here for the un-airconditioned hard-edged buses to transport them all over the country. Poverty,or at least austerity, had at least the advantage of bringing everyone together in such places: soldiers and professors and cleaning ladies and government offcials, new immigrants from a hundred countries with, seemingly, as many tongues - a Station of Babel.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday with friends

A Friday spent with friends in the Galil celebrating the newly achieved PhD of Dr. M.

Friends who go back 30 years: all of us showing signs of wear and tear, some more serious than others. Memories rekindled and maybe some old animosities forgiven and forgotten.

On the drive home, the ever changing sky and birds flying south for the winter. Nature taking its eternal course.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Mid Life Crisis has been rehearsing hard for this upcoming gig - Tuesday, December 8 at 8.30 p.m at Sublime - Rehov Salame 53. We managed to put together three new songs (one of them even a politically correct environment song) to add to the roster of favourites. We will be rocking! Hope that you can join us.

To hear Mid Life Crisis:

Sunday, November 1, 2009


The view from my hotel window of dawn rising over the Atlas mountains is a censored one. Had I pointed the camera down a fraction the first rays of the sun would have caught the empty street below my hotel room. This was punctuated by large holes in the asphalt made for some unknown purpose and now forgotten. On the other side of the road you would have seen a row of shuttered, empty shop fronts and in the mid-distance the ochre turrets and minarets of the Disneyesque new hotel area that is being flung up to accomodate the stream of tourists mainly from Spain, France and the UK.

I wondered whether the style of these hotels, with their acres of mosaic tiles, arches and intricate latticework wooden panels reflected what the Moroccan architects wanted or what they thought the tourists wanted.

A nerve wracking, seatbeltless taxi ride gets you the Medina (walled old city) which is where the real action is. Magnificent gates like the one in this picture open out into dusty, unpaved alleyways. Not all the gates are this magnificent.

To say that the Medina is where the old mingles with the new is a cliche so instead I'll just ask you to note the Crocks on this boy.

There seem to be two main types of souk. Those that cater for tourists and those that cater for the locals. Parts of the former category are an explosion of colours. The brain struggles to take in the flood of carpets, fabrics, intricately decorated wood products, lamps, jewellery, pottery, furniture and much, much more. Here, an artisan is using a foot lathe to carve skewers, probably an old tradition but his work is now designed for western tourists. There's still plenty of 'real' life though. Next door, you'd find a butcher or a hairdresser or a tailor which serve the local residents of the crowded Medina. In the second category - the souks for the locals only - you'll find a much greater preponderance of designer ripoffs, flashy watches and cheap shoes. In other words while the souk for the tourists is dubiously "eastern", the souk for the locals is definitely western.

It's late afternoon in the Jema'a el Fna, the massive square that leads into Marrakech's many souks. The mobile open air restaurants are setting up for business and Marrakech's female impersonators are warming up the crowd. As darkness falls they are joined by snake charmers, monkeys on chains, tea vendors wearing Moroccan sombreros, bands of musicians (banjos are popular), storytellers and turban-swathed crones selling false teeth, ostrich eggs and all manner of unctions and ointments.

One thing I like about this noisy, smoky, tumultuous chaos is that the crowd is largely made up of locals, out for a cheap night on the square. Many of the tourists prefer to watch from a safe distance on the observation balconies of the restaurants lining the square. I also found it intriguing that so many young Moroccan people in the crowd seem to be enchanted by the long-winded tales of the story tellers and the bawdy humour of the actors/clowns. At home, even if it's a simple one, they can flick on their TVs and see much more sophisticated fare but they don't seem to have lost their taste for a simpler type of entertainment.

The nightly party on the square predates tourists, is partly fed by tourists but doesn't seem to depend on tourism for its vitality.

More Marrakech photos here

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Just seen the hard-hitting Israeli film Ajami, named after a neighbourhood in Yaffo a few minutes drive from the rooftop. Ajami tackles the plight of young Arabs, like those in the photo above, caught up in a tangled mess of crime gangs bound to an Arab honour system all intertwined with social exclusion from Jewish society, the occupation, the differences separating 'Israeli Arabs' from Palestinians over the Green Line and even the sharp class and religious differences between Christian and Moslem Arabs in Israel. All this is wrapped up in a rivetting and complex drama that leaves the viewer stunned.


In one scene inthe film, one of the Arab characters who has a Jewish girlfriend, says he is going to move in with her in Neve Tzedek. But Neve Tzedek is out of reach and he ends up overdosing.

Flea market Yaffo

The version we saw was in Hebrew influenced Arabic with Hebrew subtitles but I'm sure it'll come out in an English version abroad.

Go and see it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tabernacles and the city

A succah on the balcony of an old house on Rehov Lilienblum, a spit away from the rooftop. In the background one of the luxury residential towers still under construction.

Succot. In Tel Aviv, as all over Israel, religious and not so religious people, erect a succah or booth or 'tabernacle' in their back gardens or on their balconies and spend time there during the week long Succot festival.

The custom derives directly from the bible.

"In Leviticus, God told Moses to command the people: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev. 23:40), and “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43).

Why God should want future generations to know that he made his people live in booths remains a mystery. Nevertheless, the experience of spending some time in a succah, under the stars, or in Tel Aviv's case, under the street lights, does remind you of the transitory nature of human existence.

Succah covering the entrance of a kosher restaurant, Lilienblum.

How to Build a Succah. First, you need to erect the basic frame out of planks. Second, you need to cover it with green branches, otherwise known as schach. In religious neighbourhoods, this is distributed by the municipality. Then you need to decorate your succah with hanging fruit, rolls of tissue paper, pictures and anything else that comes to hand. Nowadays though, the sound of sawing planks and hammering nails has been replaced with the grunts of succah-builders twisting the pipes of their 'succah lenetzah' (permanent or eternal succah) that comes as a ready made kit.

If you're religious, you'll eat all your meals and even sleep in your succah, invite neighbours in for a nibble and visit the succah of others.

If you're not religious, you've probably made your succah because of your kids. For kids, living in a succah is a bit like living in a tent. A young couple, from the old building next door, not having a balcony or a back garden, built their succah in an unused corner of the parking lot behind their house. Their little boy squealed with delight as the succah took shape.

and at night it went electric

All you need for a succah is three walls and a green roof. Neighbours on Rehov Stein tied plastic bags together to make the walls and hung a few branches on top.

'succah kshera lemadrin' (a 100% kosher succah) a passing man in a hat commented to me as I was taking this photo.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Italy 2 - eye of the beholder

Synagogue, Pitigliano, three Jews left

When visiting a place as rich in history as Italy, the tourist (the photographer) can follow his/her own religious or cultural inclinations and take a personal trail. On Rosh Hashana we shared apple, honey and songs at 'home' in a converted farm cottage in Montefesciano. Christians might look for churches, Moslems for mosques, we tend to look out for synagogues. In the Tuscan hilltop village of Pitigliano we found one, part of a sort of Jewish heritage centre in what was once known as "La Piccola Gerusalemme"

Here it was sobering to recall that 'ghetto' is not only an Italian word but an Italian invention. The Jewish community of 500 that shared the complex of synagogue, bakery, slaughterhouse, mikve etc were confined to these narrow quarters from the middle of the 16th century until 1871 when Italian unification also brought emancipation to the Jews.
There are shops nearby professing to sell Jewish food, consisting mainly of hard, round matzas. One shop carried this mysterious sign having to do with slow food but including the word 'goym' (translations welcome)

Mysterious sign

In the old photo below, Jewish women baking bread, or maybe those round matzas.

And so the pleasure derived from the scenery, the friendly people, the quaint old houses etc. becomes diluted somewhat by knowledge of history, especially when it impinges on your particular group.

And, suckers for punishment that we are, was it just by coincidence that we happened to book a B&B in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome over Rosh Hashana? Here the security was tight as the small community spilled out of the great synagogue in a hubbub of expansive Roman chatter.

According to Jewish Italy ,about 15,000 Jews live in Rome today. Neither Sephardim or Ashkenazim, they are called 'Romanim', tracing their Roman roots back to the second century B.C.E., well before the larger Jewish Diaspora. This makes them the oldest Jewish community in Europe. They have their own language, a mixture of Hebrew and Italian, and their own culture. Like Jewish communities all over Europe today, they and their institutions are also in need of security 24/7. We hung out with the locals along the Jewish strip of shops, cafes and restaurants understanding little but enjoying the proximity to a warm lively, friendly community.

By coincidence, Saed Kashua, the satirical Arab-Israel writer who writes in Hebrew and publishes a weekly column in Ha'aretz, wrote about the same phenomenon of being lulled into an Italian fantasy before being jolted into reality this week - only from the Muslim perspective (worth a read).

For more photos of Italy click here

Italy 1 - Differences

It's easy for someone coming from a Mediterranean country like Israel to immediately feel at home in Italy. The landscape resembles the Galilee, the Mediterranean menu suits our palate, the people are open and friendly. Given the outward similarities, the real points of interest are to be found in the differences. These images from a recent trip to central Italy (Lazio, Tuscana, Umbria) and Rome sparked some thoughts on how different we are but also on the howItalians appear to live in their towns and what, if anything, we might learn from them.

For example, the scene above (actually some sort of church statue shrouded in black cloth sharing the back of a van with some flowers) would not normally be encountered on the streets of Tel Aviv.

In Montefiascone, a town of about 13,000, a lady, dressed to kill, strides across a mediaeval piazza. In the background is an older less fashion-conscious local lady, and behind her, Il Caffe is a supertrendy, streamlined custom designed cafe-bar. Old-fashioned and high-fashion seem to coexist seamlessly even in this undistinguished provincial town, as in all the small towns we visited. This is a phemonenon one might find in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem but not in a town in the 'periphery' like Migdal Ha-Emek or Dimona. In Israel the Tel Aviv effect radiates only so far.

Locals congregate outside a bar in Pitigliano. The coffee/bar is an important community centre where old people can share a laugh, share the gossip - be part of things. Older Italians seem to take better care of themselves, and take greater pride in their appearance (although not in this photo) and to be more fully integrated into family and community than most older Israelis.

They appear to be good neighbours too. In the photo below a snazzily dressed gentleman of about 80 chats with a lady neighbour. Of course there are close neighbourly relations in Israel too but, as in much of the developed world, we are also increasingly closing in on ourselves and away from our neighbours and surrounding communities.

Lucky Italians, they have so much water, it flows liberally and constantly from their elegant fountains, their landscape is magnificent, their cultural heritage is rich and deep, their food a joy, their interpersonal relations a model. Unlike us Middle Easteners, they enjoy peace and tranquility. What more could they possibly need? (and why did God give it all to them?)

Lake Bolsena

Etruscan water fountain

But are they happy? No they're not.

A fairly recent Pew Research showed that the Italians are the most pessimistic people in Europe. Old people are those most dissatisfied with their lives, the economy is lagging and they are deeply concerned about corruption, crime and immigration. Only in the cultural field do they feel that the are superior. Go figure...

The eye of the tourist/photographer, is attracted by the patina, drawn to the picturesque but for the locals this is just the ordinary picture. Deeper currents pass unnoticed by the lens.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Workers rebuilding the tiled roof of the old house next to the rooftop. August.

Back to blogging, after another long break. Thanks to A for reminding me that I'm meant to be "archiving the city" and even for dangling the possibility of a mention in an important academic publication. I've also been taking a few more photos recently so here's a quick foray before we fly off the rooftop for a holiday.

Soviet/early Zionist style street art on Herzl this morning. September is art month in Tel Aviv and the ART TLV Biennale opened on Thursday. This wasn't one of the exhibits. We started by cycling down Rothschild Blvrd, one of several boulevards hung with hundreds of banners containing painting and photographs of Tel Aviv(for some reason can't find them now) . Then headed for the Betzalel gallery on Salame 60 where there was an excellent exhibition and we could wander into some of the studios of the resident artists.

One of the ARTTLV exhibition spaces was the cluster of Templer buildings at the foot of the mighty Neve Tzedek Tower. The theme had to do with urbanism (see site for details) and the totem pole like object in the foreground of the photo and the streams of tape hanging from the cassettes on the wall behind it (making a cityscape) are two of the exhibits. (guess you had to be there).

These old buildings have finally been restored as part of the deal that made the developers of the tower very rich. Under the original plans these three buildings were supposed to be for public use (such as the exhibition) but I hear that there are plans to rent them out as private cafes and galleries - we'll see.

This is what the entrance to one of the buildings looked like (taken from the inside). A few years ago we held a roudy, private Purim party in this same building (a friend connected with the project had the key).

Here's the couryard with the Templer building in the background and something artistic in the centre.

In Neve Tzek proper, the fight continues , the latest episode being another hearing of the District Committee , scheduled for Mondayto hear objections against devoting the planned Lieber building entirely to residential use without proper infrastructure. (See details below for Hebrew readers)

הזמנה לדיון בועדה המחוזית - מיגדל ליבר בואו להפגין ולהראות נוכחות בישיבת הועדה המחוזית, יום שני ה-14 בספטמבר בשעה 9:00 דרך מנחם בגין, קרית הממשלה, קומה 13 ת"א

Wall tile, Neve Tzedek, taken at twilight.

Last but not least, the wraps have come off no 6, upon which the rooftoop gazes, to reveal the first layers of plaster on this magnificent building. The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gay community hits the square and a new resolution

Gay Pride, Rabin Square, August 8, 2009

After a long break - for which the lethargy induced by a Tel Aviv summer is only partly responsible - I'm back. It took a dramatic event and a fractionally less humid day to force me to return to blogging. But I also return with a resolution - only to blog when I have at least one of my own photos to display. The rest - whether it's the Israeli Palestinian conflict, religious vis. secular, planning disputes in Tel Aviv, Iranian missiles or what to do with refugees- you can explore yourself. If I'm to develop more skills, I need to concentrate on photography and let the words flow from the images, So, from now on, no pix - no blog.

The dramatic event was last week's murderous attack by a black-clad assassin a week ago at a club for gay youth on Nahmani Street called bar noar (youth bar). When the assailant had finished pumping bullets into his terrified victims, two were dead and 15 injured, some critically.

At first, the immediate suspect was someone from the orthodox community, some of whose representatives, including Knesset members, especially from Shas, are openly and vocally homophobic. Last night, exactly a week after the shooting we went along to a rally in Rabin square(the site of course of another murder bred of hatred and intolerance), to commemorate the victims and to show some solidarity with our gay friends.

Israel's President Still Can't Say the Word Gay wrote Gidon Levy in Ha'aretz this morning, and indeed, while the square was awash with banners, it was not overflowing. Those who were there were the local gay community and secular liberals like us (in other words the Tel Aviv Bubble). Most of the population would have rather been seen dead than in the square. Even some well known gay artists, like Yehuda Poliker, preferred not to appear.

But , despite the disappointing turnout, thousands of gays were openly demonstrating their anger and their determination that this be a seminal moment in their struggle for full acceptance. President Peres, though struggling within the limitations of his archaic vocabulary, was present and the education minister did publicly promise to inculcate tolerance in schools. The killer, meanwhile, is still at large.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

taking up the fight

Neve Tzedek (Nehushtan) tower as seen from the rooftop next to the rooftop. Another six are planned along the same road, two adjacent to this one.

The local Neve Tzedek community centre was buzzing with activity the other night with about 100 local residents cramming in to hear speeches and sign up to volunteer and contribute. Even some of the local celebs could be seen among thge locals. There was a catalyst for this sudden spurt of community action in our normally placid and increasinghly gentrified neighbourhood. This came in the form of a policy documentadopted by the Tel Aviv local planning and construction committee recently approved a policy document for building in the mesila (old train tracks) area running along Rehov Eilat/Derekh Yafo.

The document refers to an area of 128 dunams and includes seven towers. The new buildings will add some 650 residential units to the 750 now existing in the area. Included in the buildings referred to in the document is the 38 storey Neve Tzedek (Nechushtan) tower that was built 5 years ago and can clearly be seen from the rooftop. The additional towers slated for construction are the Lieber Tower, a 32 storey tower for residential or office use which will be even closer to the rooftop ; the Niva Tower, 28 floors slated for residential use; The Ha-atad Tower, 32 storeys for office or residential use (next to Lieer and therefore also highly visible) ; the Lapid quarter that will include two towers containing 150 apartments and the Eliphelet area that will hold two additional towers.

In view of the latest development, the ‘Residents for Neve Tzedek’ non-profit association believes that if action is not taken soon the battle will be lost. Neve Tzedek will quickly find itself surrounded by busy roads and high towers and will become a “traffic island” choked by car pollution and darkened for most of the day by the shade of the towers.

Hence the emergency meeting. Now the idea is to continue to fight the plans through the various planning authorities and at worst, to ensure that the area receives the green spaces and schools it needs. At best, the plans should be overturned and the whole vision rethought but it seems that too much money and too many interests are involved to completely halt the juggernaut of a planning process from steamrolling on.

Anyone interested in making a donation to the cause can do so by making out a cheque to
Residents for Neve Tzedek
c/o Advocate Roy Amsel
Rehov Har Sinai 5
Tel Aviv 65816

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oy Jerusalem

A Palestinian neighhbourhood in East Jerusalem. Click not to see details like paved roads, public transportation, pavements, sewage and refuse collection.

A few days ago I took leave of Tel Aviv for a rare visit to Jerusalem , or more specifically to what is normally called 'East' Jerusalem (despite much of this being in the north and the south of the city) The occasion was a tour with the Ir Amim NGO whose optimistic motto is: 'An Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future'.

Thus, only a 90 minute drive from the fleshpots of Tel Aviv, I found myself meadering (in a van) through the potholed roads of Um Tuba and Jabel Mukabar, Suhr Bahr, Ras el Amud and Silwan - in other words, places that most Israelis have barely heard of, let alone visited. There were no pavements, the garbage was collected only infrequently and some 9,000 children would not be going to school in September because of a chronic lack of classrooms. This is what Israel's 'eternal capital' looks like from the Palestinian side. To cap it all, the security fence (in some places an 8 metre high wall) snakes around most of 'east' Jerusalem cutting off hospitals from patients, children from schools, farmers from fields and customers from businesses. As much as it protects Israelis from terror attacks it seems also to demarcate which part of 'Jerusalem' Israel intends to keep for itself.

Here and there in the heart of these Palestinian neighbourhoods (some of them former villages annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 war) , settler organisations with complete governmental collusion are buying out Palestinian houses and land to set up difficult-to-move Jewish "settlements" - 20 units here, 150 there. This is the same tactic the settlement movement has always used. Establish enough "facts on the ground" and they will never be able to budge us. This sort of activity has been stepped up in recent weeks and months.

The wider picture is of course Obama's renewed effort to jump start negotiations between Israel and the PA, negotiations that will never be concluded positively without a resolution to the status of Jerusalem. If there are to be two states, then Jerusalem is to be the capital of both of them. This demands redrawing the map of Jerusalem and dividing the city into sections of Israeli , Palestinian and probably some form of international sovereignty. The clumps of Jewish settlement inside densly populated Palestinian neighbourhoods are designed to place physical spokes in the wheels of this plan by further complicating an already complicated situation.

Under various peace plans, the 'holy basin' containing Temple Mount/Haram el sharif as well as the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (among others) would fall under international sovereignty and administration.

Indeed, even without this sort of malicious sabotage it is hard to fathom how the city can be both divided yet remain open and maintain several sovereignties without them continuously clashing.
President Clinton's "parameters" of 2001 talked of freezing a snapshot of the status quo: neighbourhoods containing Jews to Israel, Palestinian neighbourhoods to Palestine and the holy places under a special regime. But few other practical details of how all this might work in practice have emerged. For example there would have to be some sort of external barrier that would prevent militant Palestinians from exiting Jerusalem to carry out a terror attack in Tel Aviv or zealous settlers from doing the same in Ramallah.

But all of this is speculation, a long way down the road. Tonight at 8pm Netanyahu will address the world and we will have a better idea of whether he will submit to the American demand and say out loud that the goal of the process is a two state solution. If he does, Obama wins. If he doesn't Obama still wins because his confrontational position with Israel will raise his standing in the Arab world. Knowing Bibi's coalition contraints and sincere world view, the latter scenario is the more likely .

We - here on the rooftop and in other reasonably sane households throughout Israel - feel that entering a confrontation with our greatest friend and ally over semantics and settlements is lunacy but have also always belived that the entire settlement enterprise is lunacy.
This certainly feels like the beginning (if we're not already in the middle) of Israel's gradual decline to the status of international leper.

A Palestinian boy in the Old City of Jerusalem. What future for him and Jewish children in west Jerusalem?

For balanced information on the Jerusalem question:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fallen king of the ratings

Dudu in brighter days

With relations with the Obama administration rapidly deteriorating to crisis proportions, one would have thought that the possible loss of Israel's most stalwart ally would be dominating the headlines 24/7. One would be wrong. In fact the top story of the last few days has been the involvement of entertainer Dudu Topaz in physical assaults against TV executives

"Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court ordered an eight-day extension of the remand of one of Israel's top television stars on Monday, branding Dudu Topaz the ringleader in a series of violent attacks on TV executives. Topaz was arrested Sunday over the attacks on TV producer Shira Margalit two weeks ago, the CEO of the Channel 2 Keshet franchise Avi Nir in November 2008 and actors' agent Boaz Ben-Zion some six months ago."

The babyfaced Dudu Topaz was (it seems only yesterday) Israel's top TV personality, the 'King of the Ratings', MCing peaktime shows which involved a combination of stand-up humour and elaborate projects designed to pull at the heartsrings. Before that he was a successful comedian, packing halls and wowing fans all over the country. But gradually the ratings faded, the wrinkles deepened, the blue eyed boy of the 80s lost his slot on Channel 2 and his career nosedived. By all accounts, Dudu's (gargantuan) ego punctured, he flipped and ordered the beatings of the above from a next door neighbour with criminal inclinations.

No we won't

On second thoughts, there might be hidden parallels between the Dudu Topaz story and the Binyamin Netanyahu story. Both were national heartthrobs in their younger days. Both have the gift of the gab. And both are now sweating.

Bibi's formerly renowned rhetorical powers seemed to have been replaced recently by increasingly jerky arm movements. The political king of the ratings has today something of the air of an ageing TV show host making a comeback. Now he's been knocked off balance by the cool onslaught of the Obama administration into the very narrow manoeuvering space between his hawkish coalition and the heat emanating from Washington.

Dudu seems to be in frail mental condition and could be facing years in jail or other institution. He made a lot of people laugh and it's a shame. However, he's not the prime minister.
On the other hand, Bibi's mental state is reputedly lachitz (given to pressure). And so, yet again, the question is who will press harder: Barack Obama and Team America or Bibi's hawkish chums from Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi. Not to mention the settlers who are already heating up the West Bank and Jerusalem.
If history repeats itself , the combination of a committed Israeli right and a small and passive left will again succeed in upsetting Washington's plans.

But I'm rooting for Obama all the same.

Three Philippines Scenes

A trip downtown We are staying with our gracious Filipino hosts in Santa Rita, a suburb of Olongapo, a city of about 240,000 si...