Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The toilet lady

IT WAS Louis who spotted her: the stenciled lady on the side of a bus shelter, just up the hill from our flat. She'd appeared overnight, the familiar silhouette that adorns toilet signs the world over, rendered unfamiliar in the context of a Jerusalem advertising hoarding.

"What's that?" he asked, probably wondering where her habitual male companion was. I couldn't read the Hebrew daubed alongside but I could guess what it said given the city's unofficial ban on women appearing on public billboards. The image had to be part of the spiraling protest against rampant sexism that is turning Israeli women into second-class citizens.

It was still early - we were on our way to the yoga class at a local playcentre that keeps me semi sane - so I left the lecture on female equality for later in the day. But even our destination reminded me that gender segregation is commonplace here: all but three of the yoga classes are women-only.

From the army, where religious conscripts are being urged to walk out of events when women sing, to religious schools, which are banning dads from watching their daughters perform in end-of-term plays, women are getting an increasingly raw deal in public life thanks to pressure from the religious right. The situation is worst in Jerusalem, where even retailers can't use female images in their ads, but is deteriorating elsewhere.

Segregation starts in the synagogue, where men and women sit separately: at the Western Wall, a smaller wall divides the sexes. On the street, gender division is most blatant on buses, where the Orthodox men take the front seats, leaving the back for the ladies.

There are some unusual flipsides - some might say benefits - to such draconian notions about women: on Fridays there are more Haredi fathers than mothers stocking up for Shabbat in the shuk, the city's main food market. But there are downsides too. Consider the school textbook that teaches children about the virtue of respect. The illustration? A man.

With some leading questions, I managed to make Louis see the light but it's worrying to think his Israeli peers, including a new generation of kids whose parents have "made aliyah" (what Jews call emigrating to Israel), might ask the same question about a real female image on the side of a bus shelter elsewhere.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Israel Museum

Contemplating the Shrine of the Book

I HAVE discovered the secret to taking a three-year-old child round a museum. It's not the interactive kids' section (or, at least, it might be but I tend to avoid them - can't bear the other children), but rather the video art installations. Louis adores them. The more esoteric, the better, too.

Take today's trip to the Israel Museum: once he'd got over the excitement of the fountain spraying water over the white domed Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest bible ever found, for any heathens), the exhibit that most captivated him was a video of a pair of boots sinking into a frozen pond. Because every display had to have some kind of Israeli message, the boots had been first dunked into the Dead Sea to cake them in salt crystals, and then taken to a frozen lake in Gdansk where the salt was left to do its work.

To say the piece was light on the action is an understatement, but still he watched, spellbound, for the full 20 minute or so cycle it took to complete. Another favourite was a man spinning round on his stomach on some tarmac holding a piece of chalk. Yet another was some sort of take off of Eve and the apple, involving a naked lady, lots of watermelons, and some sea. It was supposed to represent the founding of a new country, but the nuances escaped me. And him, I imagine.

The only video installation that left him cold was the one I liked best, Chic-point, by Arab-Israeli artist Sharif Waked. Filmed on an "occupied catwalk", it featured outfits suitable for an Israeli checkpoint. Each one was cut away to reveal a slash of midriff, thereby saving the IDF guards the bother of stopping and searching each Palestinian hoping to pass through.

What with the scale model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple, Anish Kapoor's polished-steel hourglass "Turning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem" sculpture, and the fun scooter trip, on an olive tree-lined path zig-zagging the hill up to the museum, the trip was a hit and one we will repeat - if only to brave the Youth Wing to see if it's worth the fuss.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

The Old City from the Haas Promenade

I STILL find it odd that I've wound up in Jerusalem. It's one of the rare cities in one of the rarer countries that I've never wanted to visit. Not that it isn't fascinating: as a historian, I could hardly ask for more to have happened in what is, after all, something of an outpost in terms of great geographic locations. It isn't on the coast, and nor is it on a major trade route. Yet it's been fought over more than most other cities in the world, changing hands some 26 or so times.

It's also beautiful, stunningly so, something a brief trip out to the hilly Ein Kerem suburbs yesterday underlined. Even the man made is easy on the eye thanks to British Mandate-era laws that prohibit building in anything other than limestone. How many new city centre shopping malls, such as Jerusalem's Mamilla arcade, which lies just feet away from the ancient city walls, chime in so well with the old ?

And yet Israel's contentious recent past has always put me off. It's been easier to avoid the country, then attempt to make sense of its domestic politics. We've still more than a month left but I know I'll go home more confused than ever about what to think. I'm fairly sure I won't succumb to the toddler-sized Israel Defense Force t-shirts on sale at the shuk but living here has killed any knee-jerk sympathies with the Palestinian cause. And I've yet to visit Yad Vashem, the country's Holocaust memorial museum.

I enjoy being here far more than I thought I would (and far more than I probably let on). We're spoilt with the location of our flat, bang in the middle of West Jerusalem. Which, incidentally, is politically incorrect - most Brits live in the East, in a show of Palestinian solidarity. But life is undeniably easier in the West, speaking as someone with kids in tow at least. There's a playground every few hundred yards, not to mention cafes a plenty and miles of beautiful promenades. Best of all is seeing the desert hills of Jordan from Louis's bedroom window, bearing in mind that just about every night since his birth I've sung him "Swing Low" in various ill-fated attempts to get him to sleep.

Even being on my own - if you can call looking after a three year old and a four month old being on your own - for two weeks isn't making me wish the time away. That said, Shabbat is looming, and another wet weekend. Perhaps we'll finally make it to the Israel Museum and nail some of that history.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jerusalem's Train Theatre: destination somewhere dry

Watching the show

IF, LIKE me, you stumble across Jerusalem's Train Theatre and think you've hit kiddie gold then a word of warning: the company's repertoire is distinctly engine free. And it's no longer based in the old train carriage to which it owes its name, and hasn't been for longer than anyone working there now can easily remember.

Instead, what it is, is a charming little puppet theatre that puts on a wide mix of shows two or three times a week all aimed at children of varying ages. Given Louis's Hebrew is somewhat patchy, I'd been giving it a wide berth. But desperation and a Biblical weather forecast - I'm thinking Noah, not Moses's locust plague - forced me to reconsider, especially as it's based in Liberty Bell Park, a mere stone's throw, or short scoot, from our pad. Even better, it looked like today's show, The Cubes Circus, was set to music, making it the perfect choice for the Hebrew challenged.

Alas, one of the dancers was sick so they switched the performance to a story for the 5s and up: Rain Bird - A Paper Tale. Not to be defeated, I paid up for two tickets and scanned a brief synopsis of the plot - broadly, "the most beautiful bird in the world" finds it tough to cope with life in the 21st century - and we settled down, Louis on one knee and a squirming Raf on the other. Despite understanding just the one word in the whole show ("tinoch", which means baby) I think I made a fairly good translator, especially as Louis could hardly argue with my rendition.

I'd like to say he was entranced by the stunning origami puppetry, which spanned the set to the protagonists, but typical Louis, a single plastic car turned out to be his highlight. That and the police siren used to help create the illusion of the village, where life for a paper bird was easy, turning into a city. At least the car made up for the lack of trains, although Louis bought my ill-informed claim that the mini stage was based in an old train carriage happily enough.

Actually, I'm being unfair: he loved the whole thing, and best of all, it set us up for an afternoon of our own origami, which was useful given the rain is making me regret bringing just the one Snuggle Bunny and Mummy Nelly with us to Israel. If it keeps up for much longer, we'll be able to put on our own show.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The giant candlestick

Photo #36

NEVER LET it be said that Louis is having a dull time here. Today's treat was a visit to, wait for it, a giant candlestick. It had captivated him ever since he'd spotted its image on the mini Jerusalem jigsaw we picked up in a gift shop on our first weekend. He'd remark on it every time we saw a picture around town, and I'd promised him we could go and find it one day.

The candlestick, or menorah, sits opposite the Knesset on what felt like the highest of the city's seven hills. And that was my legs talking; goodness knows what our vertiginous scramble felt like to a three year old. It was a 6km round trip from our flat, which Louis initially insisted on doing on foot, but then conceded to take his scooter. As if that wasn't exercise enough, he stopped at a playground on both the outward and homeward legs of the journey.

Our trip took us through Gan Sacher, the city's largest park, which is somewhat hard to navigate as there are hardly any entrances. I'm sure we didn't go the authorised route, mainly because we were greeted by vast rolls of barbed wire. Then again, considering there were about three checkpoints even to get to the screening gate for the Knesset, maybe the barbed wire was par for the course; this is Israel.

My fears that what is essentially a 5m-high bronze sculpture would disappoint were entirely misplaced: Louis loved it. The 38 photos he took on my phone bear testament to his delight. I'm still not quite sure of the appeal. It's not as if he took in the ravages of Jewish history, as depicted by British-Jewish sculptor Benno Elkan on each of its prongs, or noted the irony that it was a gift from British lefties: the Labour Party in 1956 to celebrate Israel's eighth Independence Day.

But I guess to a three year old, it really is just a giant candlestick. Atop a very steep hill. And what's not cool about that?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Picnic for peace

WITH THE Palestinian quest to join the UN on the same footing as their Israeli neighbour a no-go, the army of lobbyists and activists kept in business by the doomed peace process will be scrabbling for a new strategy.

Given that simplest solutions are often the best, has anyone tried a picnic for peace? Sniffing the air this week in Liberty Bell Park, which is the city's nearest park to Arab East Jerusalem, makes me think they should. The place was packed with Muslims from East Jerusalem - making them either Arab Israelis or Palestinians depending on your political sympathies - celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, but if you shut your eyes, the holiday smelt like a Jewish one. Like their adversaries, the Muslims are fond of a barbecue, and smoke filled the sky, much as it did during many of the city's parks during last month's Sukkot holiday. The only difference being the Arabic on the bags of charcoal.

And it isn't just grilled food where the opposing faiths overlap on the culinary front. The hijabed mums sitting around the playground were doling out pittas and felafels all but indistinguishable from those munched daily in Jewish West Jerusalem. There was more popcorn and candy floss than I'd seen but I'm willing to bet it was Kosher. Not that there were any Jewish children to share it; Louis excepted, the playground was exclusively Muslim for the entire week, a first since we'd arrived.

Next time perhaps someone could lay out a giant picnic rug and spread the word. After all, if the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, perhaps the way to a nation's peace is through that of its inhabitants.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Israeli roadtrip

The Golan and Nimrod Castle

WITH HINDSIGHT there were always going to be flaws: it's no coincidence that the phrase "Israeli" and "road trip" isn't a classic. But remind me to check a country's car-to-road ratio (and if that stat doesn't exist, it should) before setting out on our next wheeled adventure.

Not that we didn't have fun. But spending half my birthday in a non-moving jam to do a 40-km journey from Caesaria to Akko wasn't a highlight. Especially not when a certain three month old defies baby logic by hating the car, even a $XXXXXX (blanked out to protect licence fee payers' sensibilities) BBC jeep . Nor was the near-stationery hour on our way to the mountains above the Sea of Galilee with said infant showing none of the stoicism a certain other baby doubtless showed on another journey not a million miles from our own, a couple of millennia ago, anything to write home about.

It took Shabbat and a drive through a minefield in the Golan Heights before we finally had the road to ourselves. We were headed north, as far north as Israel goes, and a lot further than the Syrians would like it to, in search of a medieval castle on a ridge above Damascus. Our route skirted the UN-monitored buffer zone that still separates Israel from Syria. Burnt-out tanks and abandoned Syrian bunkers from the 1967 and 1974 conflicts littered the hilly landscape, a living reminder that Israel is still a country at war. We paused at a viewpoint to take in the ghost town of Quneitra, once Syria's main Golan town but destroyed in 1967, and the red, white, and black of the Syrian flag flying in the distance. Perhaps it's the islander in me, but there's something innately thrilling about staring across an international border, especially one to a country all but off limits.

The drive wound up being a highlight, not least because Nimrod Castle was shut when we reached it, at just gone 3pm. A real shame, as it looked amazing. Lucky, then, that Israel does a mean line in crusader castles, with the 12th-century Belvoir Fortress making the perfect lunch spot on our way back to Jerusalem the next day. Being Sunday - and the start of the working week around here - we were worried about the traffic potential, but needn't have thanks to the fact that the road went straight through the West Bank. And I mean straight through: the Israelis purposefully ensured the road bypassed all Palestinian towns when they built it, just to make life that little bit harder for them. The net effect was an empty highway, which suited us and our two sleeping boys but was something of an anomaly given the traffic chaos elsewhere.

At least it explained the heavy traffic elsewhere if roads exist that most citizens don't use - Palestinians because there's no point and Israelis because they won't travel in the West Bank. Next time I'm sticking to disputed border byways or taking a leisurely approach to my road trip and just driving on Shabbat.