Mistakes were made
Friday, the first day of Hol Hamoed, is the second day of Passover, and the first day that is half mundane/half holiday. That means that, while food restrictions of Passover are still in effect, other proscriptions are not. And, since it was a Friday, and we were going to Beit Shemesh for shabbat and did not need to prepare meals for shabbat, it was good day for hiking.
For the competent, that is.
My first trouble was the fact that it was a really hot day. Nowhere near summer heat, but hot. At least it wasn't raining, like it would be the next day.
My next problem was that Rachel wasn't available to come, so it would be just me, Saarya, and Tal. In order to boost the companionship, I invited some friends who had two young kids to join us. Their kids are only 2 and 3 years old, something which should have bothered me when considering whether to invite them on a hike. However, the kids were not too much problem, as the parents were willing to carry them most of the time, and they didn't whine overly much (a bit, but not too much)
The biggest problem was my ability to follow directions. A tour-guide friend of mine gave me directions to the hike, which included "drive to the end of the dirt road, and then get out, cross under the train tracks, and begin hiking the black trail".
Unfortunately, my ability to understand "the end of the dirt road" did not include the logic that the dirt road ends at the big sign that said "only 4x4s beyond this point". Me and my little sedan, followed by my friends and their little sedan, looked around at this point, didn't see the bridge under the train tracks, and decided to keep on going down the dirt road, slowly.
For an hour.
Until I realized that there is a reason why only 4x4s should go beyond this point. I then had to make a painful and nervous turnaround without falling off the road into the polluted stream, and drive for another hour slowly back to the sign.
That effectively killed a lot of our hiking time, not to mention probably all of my tires. They're not deflated yet, but I expect them to have lost half their lives, at least.
With a little bit of looking around, we now found the bridge and the black trail. Now, my instructions were to walk up the black trail, rest at the top, and then go down the blue trail until you hit the green trail, and then down the green trail until you end up back at the start of the black trail. This is because the black trail is more populated by other hikers, while the blue/green trails are nicer, slightly longer, and less populated.
Naturally, we started up the green trail, intending to come back down the black trail. Actually, that was not so bad; it really was a lovely trail, shaded, great flowers at this time of year, and great views. However, owing to having started so late, we were still on the blue trail after an hour and we had no idea of how long it would continue before we got to the top and could return on the black trail. And we were running out of water.
It was already getting close to shabbat, and both Saarya and I knew that we could descend the way we came and get to Beit Shemesh in time for shabbat, whereas we had no idea, other than instructions and hope, that if we continued that we would make it back in time. After all, we may have been going completely the wrong direction, for all I knew.
The other family decided to continue, while we returned the way we came. A little frustrated for having backtracked twice in one day. We heard later that they got back to their car about half an hour after we did, which would still have worked, but would have been cutting it close. In any case, the prudent course was the best choice.
These types of minor disasters happen to me all too often. The only time they are worse is when Rachel comes. Rachel's Battle Cry of Hiking is "Let's get lost!". She's only happy when we no longer know where we are and are scrambling around the side of a garbage dump next to an eight meter drop into a barren pit, or crossing a live firing range (both true events).
Back to nature
Israel has extensive marked trails and nature preserves, when they are not being burned down by our enemies or careless hikers. Leave any city and you will see numerous brown signs and little paths pointing you to the start of trails, overlooks, historic sites or ruins (by the bucketful), and so on.
You can actually get all the way from the tippy top of Israel to the bottom of Eilat on a series of connected hiking trails. The nicest ones also have water during the winter and spring (watch out for flash floods in rains).
The biggest problem for me is that most of them feel dry. You don't get that sort of wet, fungus, lichen, ferns, green misty sense that you do hiking around new England. Instead, unless it has literally just rained, the trees and air always feel dry and rough. There are usually thistles and some cacti on the train.
What we do have, in March and still in April, are beautiful wildflowers, especially blood-red poppies, as well as various white and purple things. Books are available on the subject, if you are interested. Sorry, I didn't bring my camera on the hike.
Nofie Aviv is a community within Beit Shemesh. It is basically an Anglo enclave, although some native Israelis or others also live there. Picture a banana shape of about 200 houses around the base of a hill. The residents are almost all very well off. Houses sell for $400,000.
Off of the convex side of the houses, you get fields going up another hill to the Beit Jamal monastery (makes lovely ceramics). On the convex side, and a little higher up the hill, are the "tromim", which are stucco apartment buildings with very poor people, including many immigrants from Ethiopia. The Ethiopians are Jews who were rescued from the warfare and poverty in their country, but haven't quite been integrated into society, yet, either due to cultural, political, or economic reasons.
Continue past the tromim, and you get the rest of Beit Shemesh, in its various forms, about 40,000 people. Nofei Aviv is one of the wealthiest spots, strangely situated right next to one of the poorest spots.
The attitude of Nofei Aviv is the conflicting attitude of the wealthy but religious. They complain about their neighbors trashing their park and playground, breaking in and stealing their bicycles and cars, and generally looking threatening. On the other hand, they donate tons and tons of clothes, food, household items, and so on, run education programs, both religious and economic, and hire them when possible at modest wages.
The shul and its colors
One place where this stands out most is in shul. The shul is a generally modest but large building right up against the tromim apartments. The entrance to the shul is even facing these apartments. The shul may have cost $800,000, but this is mostly due to its size and air conditioning units; it is pretty understated and not flashy. The exception to this is a humongous ostentatious chandelier which someone donated recently and hung in the main sanctuary; it might be kind of pretty in the oval office, but looks totally ridiculous in the shul. Most people in Nofei Aviv feel the same way and are angry about it, but it was, after all, donated.
But what's interesting is that some of the Ethiopians from the tromim come to shul. It started with one or two families, and is now about eight or ten families. And every single one of these black-skinned people sits in the back corner of the shul in a little group.
There is no discriminatory policy in this shul, as far as I know. Each of these people gets called up to make blessing on the torah like any other person would in the shul. They get honored with holding the torah, or opening the ark. No one, to my knowledge, has ever so much as given them a dirty glance that would make them uncomfortable if they chose to sit more scattered around the shul. People say hello to them and shake their hands after shul like they do to everyone else they see after shul, although they don't speak English or much Hebrew.
I asked someone about this, and he said that the truth is that many sub-cultures sit together in shul. The French speakers all sit together, too. It's just that this isn't noticeable because you can't tell a French speaker just by looking at him or her, as you can an Ethiopian. When an American or British black visits, as they do on occasion, they sit anywhere in shul without any problems or particular notice (well, everyone notices a black in a room full of whites, but no more particular notice than that). I guess it is just the fact that they are all in the back corner that makes it seem weird.
But enough about all that.
In Dallas I stayed with my friends the Elkins who are on sabbatical for a year. In Beit Shemesh, we stayed in their house which is still occupied by their 19 year old son and 18 year old daughter. We would have stayed with my parents, but they are in Haifa for Passover and had rented out their house.
In the Elkins house I get to play Billiards, another one of my little passions. I am passingly competent in many things, and Billiards demonstrates this very well. Although out of practice, since I never play unless I visit the Elkins, I am still capable of breaking, sinking balls, positioning shots, and so on. Not with any real professional competency, nor with great consistency, but pretty good. I managed to win five games before losing one.
We are not likely to get a Billiards table in our house any time soon, not only because they are grossly expensive, but because the act of playing Billiards somehow seems even more indolent to my wife than playing board games.
Friday night we ate at the Ehrmans. They are a good match for us, in many ways. The father is a torah learner like my wife, and a passionate Jew, singing songs and so on during the meal. He also used to run an online computer game company called "2am" and has many years of game experience.
They have some good games in their house, like Settlers, Carcassonne, San Marco, Junta, and so on, and they play a lot of Bridge (not too well, I gathered).
Last time I was there I taught the kids (seven of them, plus friends) how to play Spit. This time I was nicer to my hosts and avoided a game with screaming, and taught them how to play Oh Hell. I seem to be on an Oh Hell kick, even though the game is fairly random, and I don't really like the rule about the dealer having to not bid a sum that would add up to the number of cards.
We started with 5 players, but lost one after two rounds, and finished with 4 players. I won by a large margin. All the while, one of the players was complaining about how the game was "all luck". I was trying to explain how there is "luck" and "all luck", but without much success. The fact that I won 40+ to single digits all around should have been enough to convince her, but apparently it wasn't.
The next day at lunch we went to another family, one that I have mentioned before. They have visited us for shabbat a few times. The parents don't play anything; well, David, the father, is willing to play the game: going around in a circle, each person says a number and the person who said the highest number wins.
Luckily, the son Shlomi plays, and he was keen to play Go with me again, as was I with him. Last time we played, I thought that I would be better than him, but it turned out that he was even or slightly better than me. This time we played eight games, taking turns going first, and each time the person who went first won. That is about as even as you can get. We played on a 9x9 board. I invited Shlomi to Games Day which was on the following day.
Back at the Elkins house in late afternoon I taught and played some more Oh Hell and Billiards.
I also played some Settlers of Catan, and completely failed to teach an 18 year old girl how to play. She was the type that would just look at you and smile, and cringe and complain that she can't understand a word that you are talking about. She begged to be released from the game before it began, and I realized that it would have been pointless to try to encourage her to play any further.
Instead, I played three player, stealing the Longest Road from Saarya, who stole it back to win the game. I can't remember the last time I beat Saarya at any game, and he's only 14 years old. My son.
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