February 10-14, 2009
Kibbutz Gal Ed is where Pnina was born and where she lived, on-and-off, until she moved to America at age 21. Her parents, Ed & Arlene, still live there, as does her foster sister, Shiran. Her older sister Dahlia lives pretty close, in Afula. So Gal Ed was a natural focal point for our visit in Israel. We spent more time there than anywhere else.
For the first few days after reaching Gal Ed we fell into a really lazy daily pattern. We woke up at 8:55 am, saying “shit! breakfast ends in 5 minutes!” We rushed to the dining hall to stuff our faces with toast, cottage cheese, veggies, cereal, yoghurt, and hot chocolate. Then we walked back to Ed & Arlene’s place and fell into a stupor for a couple of hours. Then we said “shit! lunch ends in 5 minutes!” and once again rushed to the dining room. This pattern repeated for dinner, and at night we crashed into the bed in the attic space with a couple of cats fighting for the warmest positions between us. Hours passed and we did very little. It was perfect! 🙂
In between meals we hung out with some family and friends…
Ed (Pnina’s dad), Dahlia (Pnina’s sister), and Arlene (Pnina’s mom). This was at Dahlia’s in-laws’ place, at a BBQ. We ate a ton of food there. Dahlia’s husband, Yehuda, is from an Iraqi family, and Iraqis believe in basically force-feeding their guests. If you ever visit an Iraqi family, know that it’s not enough to politely say “no thanks, I’m full”; you need to physically hide your plate to keep from getting more 🙂
Pnina’s younger sister, Miriam, moved to Seattle a few months ago, following the footsteps of most of her siblings: Sim, Haim, Noah, Devorah, and Pnina (basically everyone except Dahlia and Shiran). But Miriam surprised us by coming to visit Israel not long after we arrived. She’s here with Dahlia’s daughter, Shira.
Here’s Ed with most of Dahlia’s kids: Nehorai, Shira, Lior, and (in the back) Ariel.
This is me playing Nintendo Wii with Dahlia’s last (and eldest) son, Natanel. I think we were playing the boxing game.
Here’s Dahlia’s husband, Yehuda, with little Shira. Yehuda used to run a barber shop where Dahlia worked – that’s how they met.
Dahlia with Nehorai. He was eating chocolate cake and making a mess – it was awesome! 🙂
While we were in the Kibbutz, Pnina’s foster sister, Shiran, had her birthday. We organized a small celebration:
OK, now some friends…
You might remember that in Johannesburg we visited Sydney and Patricia and their kids. The connection, again, is that Sydney’s sister, Lynne, lives in Kibbutz Gal Ed and is a close friend of the Strasbourgers. So, while it’s always great to hang out with Lynne, it was particularly fun to see her not long after hanging out with Sydney. They are both a little nuts (in a good way) and they have a lot of the same mannerisms.
Here’s Arlene, Lynne, and Ed:
Most of Pnina’s high-school friends eventually moved out of the kibbutz. I heard Pnina and some of these friends complain about the bad stuff at the kibbutz – the politics, the way some people talked behind your back, etc. But one friend recently moved back: Karen. She met her man, Josh, while living and working in California several years back. They had their wedding in Israel followed by a reception in Las Vegas, where Josh’s family lives. Pnina and I attended that reception, along with Pnina’s sister, Devorah. Since then, Karen and Josh had their first son, Itai, and recently they decided to move to the kibbutz. Why move back? They said that after you have a child all your priorities change. Suddenly all the bad stuff (politics, etc) isn’t important, but on the other hand you like that the daycare on the kibbutz is fantastic and that you feel safe letting your kids run around unwatched. We spent more time with Karen and Itai – Josh was pretty busy both taking classes and teaching classes.
Pnina, Karen, and Josh:
Pnina, Karen, and Itai at a forest in the kibbutz:
Another high-school friend, Shaked, now lives in Haifa with her husband, Omri. They are both engineers – she is a civil engineer while he works at Intel (software). They had just returned from a trip to Peru and Bolivia and they said it was awesome, but short.
Omri, Shaked, and Pnina:
The day we reached Gal Ed happened to be election day, so Pnina took the opportunity to vote in Israel for the first time:
After the elections, we watched the news periodically to see the results. Elections in Israel are a little more complicated than in the US, and this one was particularly confusing.
In the US you have elections with just two dominant parties. The voters choose a president from candidates nominated by those parties. Usually the outcome of the election is known the same night or by the next day (granted, the 2000 election didn’t go exactly like that).
By contrast, in Israel everything is centered around the parliament (kneset). To form a government, a party needs to collect 50% of the votes. The problem is that in Israel there are so many parties that none of them come even close to 50%. So, after the elections, the president, who generally plays a purely ceremonial role (like the queen in England), steps in to do one of his few important tasks: he chooses one of the leading parties to attempt to form a stable coalition. Usually that’s the party that got the most votes, but not always. Now, this party needs to go around and convince other parties to join them and throw their collected votes together. To do this, they need to promise those other parties certain favors: ministerial positions, funds for new programs, etc. If they manage to convince enough other parties to join them such that they collect 50% of the votes, then a new government is established. If not, then the president chooses another party to try to form a coalition. In other words, the party that got the most votes may not actually get to lead the new government.
And that’s precisely what happened in this election. The Kadima party (lead by Tsipi Livni) got 28% of the votes. They were followed closely by the Likud party (lead by Bibi Netanyahu), who got 27% of the votes. But Tsipi was not able to establish a stable coalition – her views were just too leftist for most of the other parties. So president Peres ended up choosing Netanyahu to form a coalition, and Netanyahu was successful, which means that Netanyahu became the new prime minister (for the 2nd time). This whole process took about a month, during which the entire country didn’t really know who the new prime minister will be. All that time, the old prime minister, Olmert, kept his position.
The fact that in Israel leading parties need to form coalitions with smaller parties means that smaller parties often end up with quite a lot of power, more so than they would in an American system. There are a few ultra-religious parties in Israel, and they tend to join up with the rightist party, Likud. In exchange for joining, they generally end up controlling certain government offices, in particular the department of education, which lets them influence how kids are taught. This election was unique because for the first time it was (at least theoretically) possible for all the secular parties to join forces and find the 50% majority they need without having to join with one of the ultra religious parties. It would have been pretty cool, but there was no way it could actually happen. Those leading secular parties were just too far apart on the liberal-conservative spectrum.
By the way, one unfortunate side-effect of the recent war in Gaza is that it shifted many Israelis to the right – less of them now believe that peace with the Palestinians can really be established and more of them are in favor of a hawkish defense strategy. It was interesting to speak with people in Israel about the war since Pnina and I got most of the info about the war watching TV in various African countries, mostly on Al Jazeera. We told our friends and family what we saw on TV, how it mostly focused on demolished buildings and the awful civilian casualties. In response we heard a few interesting counter-points. First off, Hamas has actually been shelling towns in southern Israel for 8-9 years continuously – this is not a new thing. But the foreign press doesn’t talk about that, making it sound like Hamas only recently started shooting rockets at Israel, and that Israel’s response was disproportional. Second, during the recent war in Gaza, Israel called a cease fire several times to send its own trucks into Gaza with food and medical supplies for the civilians – do you know another country that does that? From our perspective, these counter points don’t justify the civilian deaths of the Gaza strikes; nothing does. But I think it is fair to say that the western press had a certain anti-Israel slant. As far as PR is concerned, Israel certainly lost the war.
Years ago, Ed & Arlene planted some kind of bush/tree outside their house. This tree spreads like a vine and regularly “consumes” their house. Ed & Arlene don’t really care too much, but it drives Pnina nuts – the plant completely covers the living room window, turning that room into a cave. So, one of the few active things we did while in Gal Ed was to fight this plant. We spent about 2 hours with clippers and our bare hands, cutting away at this plant until we cleared enough to once again let daylight into the living room.
Pnina fighting the plant outside Ed & Arlene’s place. Notice all the carnage on the path to the front door. By the way, the black dog on the lawn in Leona.
Walking Around the Kibbutz
Gal Ed is set in a beautiful location, surrounded by green hills and forests. Pnina and I took a couple of walks in the area with Ed and the two Strasbourger dogs: Chuckie and Leona. For Pnina and I, this was the first bit of exercise after a couple days of being completely lazy. And for the dogs – it was probably the most exercise they got in two years 🙂
The first walk was in the area west of the kibbutz (Hubeize), and we happened to catch a really nice sunset. What these photos don’t convey is the sound of gunfire. A few years ago the Israeli army opened a practice firing range for its troops not far from where these photos were taken. It’s a little bizarre walking in such a pretty spot and hearing a steady stream of gunshots in the background.
The second walk was to a famous spot called Hurshat Harakafot (Cyclamen Forest). A lot of people in Israel haven’t heard of Kibbutz Gal Ed, but if you tell them it’s right next to Hurshat Harakafot then 8/10 times they know what you’re talking about. My parents took me and my sister, Orit, to this place when I was young, but I didn’t remember very much. The main attraction is the blanket of flowers on the ground – Israelis tend to be nature-lovers and they go nuts for this stuff (us included).
Ed, Shahaf, and Chuckie at the start of the walk.
Green hills covered by yellow mustard flowers:
Inside Hurshat Harakafot. So many flowers!
Downloading All TED Talks
Allow me to get nerdy for a second…
Pnina and I brought a couple of MP3 players along for the trip. We preloaded them with a bunch of podcasts, mostly NPR shows such as This American Life and Selected shorts, and also a few TED lectures. It worked out pretty well. These podcasts were great to listen to in various situations where it wasn’t convenient to pull out a book, e.g. shaky crowded bus rides. But by the time we reached Israel we nearly finished listening to all these podcasts and I was getting worried. I was thinking ahead to the week+ long treks we would have in Nepal later in the trip; hiking for me goes much better if I have interesting stuff to listen to.
So, while we were in kibbutz Gal Ed doing nothing, I gave myself the assignment to download a whole bunch of new podcasts. Now, maybe it’s just me, but when I search iTunes for “TED” or “TED Talks”, I only manage to find a few lectures. By contrast, when you visit the www.ted.com website, you can see hundreds of talks from TED conferences over the last few years. You can click through the website to download them one-by-one, but of course that’s a pain in the butt. So, I decided to write a little program that automatically downloads all the TED talks from the TED website. This is the first bit of programming I’d done since leaving Redfin for the trip. And just to make it interesting I decided to try a new programming language: Python. Anyhow, in case it helps anyone out there, here’s the program. It’s not particularly elegant, but it works. To run it you need to download Python 2.6. Basically it tries to find a “download MP3” link on each lecture’s page and if it finds one then it downloads the MP3. If not then it downloads the video file, which requires a secondary step to extract the audio from the video. For the audio extraction I used a free tool I found called Extract Now, part of DVD Video Soft’s Free Studio Manager. This whole download-and-extract process took something like 3-4 days; Pnina’s dad (Ed) was kind of annoyed that his computer was running 24 hours a day, but he was a good sport about it. We ended up with nearly 5 GB of lectures. I’m not sure how many hours’ worth of talks that is, but definitely enough for a few longs hikes. By the way, we later found out that a few of the lectures were interrupted, which was pretty annoying – just as you get into the lecture it suddenly ends and the next lecture starts. Ugh! So it’s likely that something here is busted, either in the downloading code or in the extract process. But the success rate was at least 95%, so it was good enough for us.
print “Starting download”
# number 129 was busted, also 220, also 312, also 316, also 442
for i in range(1,500):
print “Checking for talk ” + str(i)
remoteFile = urllib.urlopen(“http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/” + str(i))
fileContent = remoteFile.read()
match = re.search(“a href=\”(.*)\”>Audio to desktop”, fileContent)
audioUrl = “http://www.ted.com” + match.group(1)
urllib.urlretrieve(audioUrl, “TEDTalks_” + str(i) + “.mp3”)
match = re.search(“a href=\”(.*)\”>Video to desktop”, fileContent)
audioUrl = “http://www.ted.com” + match.group(1)
urllib.urlretrieve(audioUrl, “TEDTalks_” + str(i) + “.mp4.zip”)
The way I see it, the main benefit of living in a kibbutz is that you don’t need to spend time on various chores that us city-folks need to take care of. In a kibbutz, other people are in charge of doing laundry (everyone’s laundry, yours too), other people are in charge of cooking meals (for everyone), and so on.
Here’s how it looks when you drop off your laundry:
My jaw dropped when I saw all these bins. Each one is some unique combination of fabric, color, and type of clothing. The first time we handed in our laundry it took me 15 minutes just to find the right bin for each item. And it didn’t get much faster the second time. Still, it beats hanging around waiting for the washer and dryer to finish.
Around the World
On TV we saw a set of intense wildfires in Australia, near Melbourne. Altogether there were more than 400 fires which caused at least 173 deaths. Officials suspected larceny.
The corrupt leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, finally agreed to step down and give his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, the seat as Prime Minister. It’s unclear if this change of power will last.
My company in Seattle, Redfin, released a new version of the website. This version adds a slick page for each of our real estate agents, showing all their deals along with comments (good and bad) from our customers. As another change, in certain areas where Redfin doesn’t have our own agents, we now have partner agents.
Also, Valentine’s Day came and went, and we totally missed it. It’s not celebrated in Israel.