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Army Trip: R&R and Yom Sport

In Coastal Plain, Israel on November 6, 2013 at 2:23 PM

This double-event blog post covers two separate trips taken one week after the next to the FIDF’s Rest and Recreation Centre in Ashkelon. The FIDF, which stands for Friends of the IDF (Israel Defence Force), is an organisation that pools donations together for the benefit of the Israeli soldiers. On every military base, and in every remote outpost, there are signs of the FIDF – be it a gym, mobile synagogue or “wellbeing centre.” That being said, this R&R centre in Ashkelon is another of FIDF’s endeavours to pad the rough edges of soldiering and I fully approve.

FIDF logo

FIDF logo

Part I – four days of R&R in the beach-side resort:

It started Sunday morning, a few weeks back, when a small group of eleven soldiers from my base gathered together and drove down to Ashkelon. Our group comprised of truck drivers like myself, a commander and an officer. We disembarked at the centre, ate lunch and settled into our rooms in the Jasmine bungalow.

Our Jasmine bungalow

Our Jasmine bungalow

Nestled between modern-day Ashkelon and the ruined ancient Ashkelon, a national park, the R&R centre hosts hundreds of soldiers every week (usually combat or combat-support soldiers, like my friends and I). We walked along the sun-baked paths and explored our new digs, marking out activities that we’d like to do throughout the week.

Off to the pool!

Off to the pool!

After dinner the fellas went to watch a movie in the auditorium while I, uncermoniously, went to bed early. The following day took us to the sauna and pool where we took turns roasting and drowning ourselves. There was an organised race set up and, not surprisingly, the winner was from Shayetet 3 (Flotilla 3) of the Israel Navy.

Swimming contest at the pool

Swimming contest at the pool

That night we found ourselves in the local “club” – an alcohol-free dance club with ear-piercing music thumping till 3am. There too an organised contest was held, this time dancing instead of swimming. A friend of mine participated, and while the judging was hotly contested, he was not deemed winner.

Dance contest

Dance contest

The next day some of the fellas went off to play tennis and I went off to find fellow Americans – of which there were a handful, mostly in some Foreign Affairs unit down south. As the Jewish world is incredibly small and interconnected I succeeded in finding someone who knew someone I did. Later that afternoon I sat on a sandy bench and watched the sun set over the warm Mediterranean Sea, a ship chugging away nearby.

Of ship and setting sun...

Of ship and setting sun…

Resting up well in the nights with the window open to the pleasant sea breeze and spending the days eating well, swimming, sauna-ing and enjoying the other activities on-site we burned up the week pretty quickly. The last night of R&R we all headed into the auditorium to enjoy a performance from one of Israel’s stand-up comedians, Kobi Maimon. There were some pretty funny jokes, to say the least.

Lunch with the fellas

Lunch with the fellas

The following morning, Thursday it was, we packed up our things, tidied up, had a nice breakfast and headed out. While waiting for the bus to the train, I recalled that the Ashkelon National Park was just a few minutes away. I hastily bid farewell to my friends and headed to the park, the subject of my next blog post.

Part II – Yom Sport for all three “Hovala” battalions:

After positive feedback from our small hand-picked group that enjoyed the week of R&R at the Ashkelon centre, it was decided to host the truck driving brigade’s Yom Sport (Sport Day) at the centre as well. The purpose of the day is to break the daily grind and to offer the soldiers a chance to bond and to catch up, as we don’t see much of each other in our job. The three bases, Knights of the North, Centre and South, were present, each wearing a different coloured t-shirt.

Knights of the Centre celebrating

Knights of the Centre celebrating

Sadly, I had forgotten my camera and so had to photo-document with my cell phone’s camera. From the over-bounding quantities of food to the noise of over a thousand happy people, mostly soldiers in active service, we got the day started with some opening words from the brigade commander, Colonel Gil Galron – a nice chap who originally was a naval officer. With that the day was launched into high gear, with numerous games to compete in and watch. One game that I observed was the Israeli-style dodge-ball competition between our base and the southern base. My captain participated and was, in fact, the last one standing from our team – we lost.

Dodge-ball

Dodge-ball

Later, there was enthusiastic self-propagated singing and dancing from some of my base’s ethnic groups and as the sun went down, two small concerts out on the main soccer field. The first was a finalist in a singing reality show, and I got a free CD, and the second was a heavy metal band who didn’t have quite the right crowd at hand. After belting out AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” to the joy of a select handful, they packed up their musical equipment and we all headed down to the buses, tired but grateful from a long Yom Sport at the Ashkelon R&R centre.

Note: the FIDF is a wonderful organisation doing wonders for the IDF, if you’d care to become a part and donate, details can be found on their website HERE. For more information on FIDF’s SPIRIT R&R Program, click HERE.

Caesarea

In Coastal Plain, Israel on August 11, 2013 at 4:44 AM

Last week, en route to an army meeting I had, some members of my family and I stopped off at the iconic Caesarea, a place I’ve never been to in the four plus years I’ve lived here in Israel. Caesarea, named such by Herod in tribute of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, was originally built some 2,100 years ago. The ruins that are seen today are mostly from the Roman, Byzantine and Crusader eras (as are much of Israel’s antiquities). We started our tour at the ancient Roman aqueduct which supplied water to the city’s inhabitants from springs at the foot of Mount Carmel to the north.

The end of the aqueduct

The end of the aqueduct

The aqueduct can be visited for free, unlike the rest of the Caesarea National Park, and is found on the beach just north of the park. When we were there it was hard to get pictures without people in them as there were tons of people sunbathing in the sand and picnicking in the arches.

Aquedect arch

Aquedect arch

After the aqueduct we continued on to the actual park. Since we have a family park pass, only I had to be paid for and I had my uniform on so we got a discount. The first ancient building we walked into had a magnificent ceiling. Turns out that this particular structure was built by the Crusaders – Louis IX, King of France, of the Sixth Crusade, to be exact – and is called “Gothic-European military architecture.”

Complex arched ceiling

Complex arched ceiling

And this is the building from the outside, nowhere near as impressive looking:

Gothic-European military architecture

Gothic-European military architecture

As we walked along the rows of ruins, we were somewhat taken back by the over-abundance of commercialism. There were so many restaurants and the like, most built to look like period buildings, that it felt weird as an archaeological site. One interesting site, which wasn’t very old – Ottoman era (late 1800s), is the Bosnian mosque minaret:

Bosnian mosque minaret

Bosnian mosque minaret

Just south of the minaret we crossed through a gate in the Crusader fortified wall and walked the bridge over the moat – all this fortified by King Louis IX of the Sixth Crusade. The area we stepped into was the Roman area, the city ruins, the huge arena of King Herod’s Hippodrome and more. After passing a marble tub, where some family members posed, we came across a “Mithraeum” which is described as a vault turned into a house of worship for the cult of Mithras. This particular vault had a hole in the ceiling which let a sunbeam down onto an altar, contributing to Mithraic beliefs of an “unconquered sun.”

A ''Mithraeum''

A ”Mithraeum”

Alongside the “Mithraeum” were other, unassociated vaults and at the far end of one was a colony of roosting fruit bats. The tunnel was long and dark and flash wouldn’t have helped so I tried my best by stabilizing the camera. Here is the best I got of the bats:

Fruit bats in the back of a vault

Fruit bats in the back of a vault

At another dark tunnel I was able to enter from the back and thereby a nice photo opportunity was handed to me; the Mediterranean Sea through the Roman ruins:

Through the ruins at the sea

Through the ruins at the sea

Before long we were walking the sandy grounds of the Hippodrome where Romans and locals, nobles and farmers, would gather to watch horse and chariot races. Here is a shot of the circular section of the Hippodrome from Herod’s Palace at the far end of the arena:

King Herod's Hippodrome

King Herod’s Hippodrome

And a depth shot, illustrating the length and showing how close the Mediterranean Sea was. It is said that for re-enacting naval sequences they would flood the Hippodrome…

The length of the Hippodrome

The length of the Hippodrome

At the end of Herod’s Palace there is a large rectangular cut-out in the stone, this was a decorative pool he had made. This is my new dream pool!

The decorative pool from Herod's Palace

The decorative pool from Herod’s Palace

After Herod’s Palace we went over to the Roman Amphitheatre which looked like it was being set up for a concert (lots of high-profile concerts are, in fact, held at this amphitheatre). Not dwelling too long on the amphitheatre, and needing to get to my meeting, we wrapped up our visit and were on our way.

Army Trip: ”Battalion Race”

In Coastal Plain, Israel on May 19, 2013 at 4:43 AM

This past Thursday, the day after the short holiday of Shavuot, a good chunk of our battalion, 6910 “Northern Knights”, was treated to a day of sports and activities. The main feature of the day was a “battalion race” where all five companies in the battalion got different coloured t-shirts and participated in a big race. The destination was the Ramat HaNadiv park just outside of Zichron Ya’akov. The morning started off quite cool and refreshing, a gentle breeze in the air.

Perfect day for a run

Perfect day for a run

Before the run, when all the battalion was gathered around, the base commander (a lieutenant colonel) and the commander of all three truck driving bases (a colonel) gave little speeches, two army photographers snapping away on the sidelines. Before long, my green-shirted company (active-service truck drivers) was called up and we gathered at the starting line:

The starting line

The starting line

The signal was given and off we went, running the marathon. Here are some photos of other people running, the black-shirted “Command” company here:

Runners

Runners

Runners up the hill

Runners up the hill

Before too long, a friend and I stopped at some ruins we were passing at the side of the trail. We decided to ditch the race and explore the antiquities. It was a wise decision, nothing like a good look at the past. This particular building, known as the Mansur El-Aqab ruins, was basically a Byzantine-era farmhouse belonging to Jews with some other bits and pieces from the Crusader times. It’s a pretty extravagant farmhouse, I’d say.

Mansur El-Aqab ruins

Mansur El-Aqab ruins

We first headed to what we saw was an observation area, the Mediterranean Sea and the coastal plains clearly visible from far away. The view was incredible. My two favourite parts were the train passing by far below (it made me want to film a western movie) and watching a hovering kestrel hunt (raptors are amazing to watch, especially when they are flying so close by).

Observation cliff

Observation cliff

Here is a panoramic photo of some of the view, those dark patches are cloud shadows:

Panoramic of the view

Panoramic of the view

And here am I, enjoying the incredibly serene view:

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

After a good, long break we hit the trail again, heading back to the finish line (which was the start line as well, the route being a looped one). On the way I snapped a photo of this little clearing area. The delicate lace flowers of the Queen Anne’s lace combined with the bold pines, clouds and blue sky made for a very interesting look.

Field of Queen Anne's lace

Field of Queen Anne’s lace

We made it back to where the rest of the battalion was lounging, having basically missed the rest of the race. The soldiers were waiting for the BBQ to finish up, and in the meantime little cereal bars were available, and then when the wait got longer, out came boxes of popsicles. But we waited patiently, a dozen or so soldiers putting on tefillin while they waited – which was nice to see. Eventually the food was ready and an extensive buffet was opened up. We helped ourselves and upon completion of lunch, engaged in some activities with park staff. After the activities we were hustled into the gardens of the park, where we spent the bulk of our time last army trip to this particular park:

Walk through the gardens

Walk through the gardens

As we walked the sun seemed to get more and more fierce, and as I sit here now typing, a nasty sunburn adorns the back of my neck. We were led to a grassy area where a darbouka drumming session was being held, presumably for us yet I saw civilians chiming in as well so it could have been the park’s idea. I seized up a fancy darbouka and made semi-rhythmic noises to accompany the wall of darbouka thumps that filled the air. Next we kind of milled about and then escaped to sit in the shade in peace. Some time later we headed onto the buses from which we came and were driven to a gym where a little battalion ceremony was held. The most interesting part of the ceremony was two Israeli Arab soldiers from my company who went up to the mics to deliver a custom Hebrew rap about our base, and our company in particular. The interesting part was when my company commander, a major, hopped on the “stage” and joined in on the rap… that was interesting to see.

That’s all for now, folks. Until the next adventure, whenever it may be!

Castra & the Atlit ”Illegal” Immigration Camp

In Coastal Plain, Haifa, Israel on April 2, 2013 at 6:10 AM

On the second day of Chol HaMoed, somewhat well-rested from the previous day’s trip to Tel Dan, we headed out in the very opposite direction, destination: Castra and Atlit (just south of Haifa). First site, coming out of the Carmel Tunnels (which feel way longer in a car than in a bus) was the Castra museums. Located within a mall, there are two “museums”: a Doll Museum which, in many display cases, recite the history of the Jewish people, and the Archaeological Museum which showcases the finds of Khirbet Castra’s excavations. Khirbet Castra lays on the western slopes of Mount Carmel and was an important settlement during the Byzantine period. Artefacts found in the area can be traced back to all different periods, due to the great location of the area.

Old ceramic piece from Castra

Old ceramic piece from Castra

Rather small museums, but free of charge, there isn’t too much to share but here is a nice scene from the Doll Museum – the 1967 recapture of the Kotel, a great time in recent Jewish history:

Doll depiction of the 1967 recapture of the Kotel

Doll depiction of the 1967 recapture of the Kotel

After the Castra Mall museums we continued south and took a little stop at my base. We weren’t allowed in, well I was, but it gave my family a glimpse of what some of the army life is like – a glimpse. After the base, we continued on south to Atlit, on a road that I’ve driven on so many times. At the entrance to Atlit, just across from the gas station we fill our trucks up at, is the Atlit “Illegal” Immigration Camp. Being that I pass it so often while army driving, I’ve been waiting and waiting to get inside. With the tour starting shortly, we hopped on in. The first site on the tour, a prisoner transport bus with a British army guard:

Transport bus and guard

Transport bus and guard

To relay a brief overview of the site, the Atlit camp was built in the late 1930s by the British to hold the refugees flooding in from Europe, before, during and especially after the war. After stopping the clandestine immigration ships out at sea, the British would often detain the wannabe immigrants and so the camp at Atlit began its years of service. With new people continuously coming, the British would let people go from time to time. Here is a aerial model of the camp and the train tracks, with the guard towers on the low sandy hill in between:

Model of the camp

Model of the camp

One famous incident took place at the camp. One night, after two days deliberation, the Palmach sent fighters into the camp to release everyone. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated, was one of the commanders of the Palmach strike force that liberated the camp. With the operation a success, the British devised a detaining method out of the Palmach’s reach – detainment camps in Cyprus. An island off the coast of Turkey and Syria, the British opened up camps and brought the wannabe immigrants in by the thousands. But before the opening of the Cyprus camps, the Jewish immigrants were brought, often by train, to the camp at Atlit. Here is a photograph of children who survived the Holocaust being “transferred” from German camps to British camps in 1945:

Children that survived the Holocaust...

Children who survived the Holocaust…

First thing first when entering the camp. Segregation, showering and delousing with DDT in the shower house:

The shower house

The shower house

An interesting fact, which I learned on Wikipedia, is that some of the German Templars from Haifa (from the German Colony), who supported the Nazis, were detained in the Atlit camp before being deported. I cannot imagine it was very nice for the Templars and the immigrant Jews living together in the camp. Speaking of living, here is one of the surviving buildings from the living quarters:

Exterior of the living quarters

Exterior of the living quarters

And inside the living quarters. In the photo, the restoration attempts, there are just 20 beds, usually there were about 40 and in times of maximum capacity there were 70 beds per building!

Living quarters

Living quarters

And in the corner of the living quarters, an area dedicated to teaching. Mostly there were impromptu instructors teaching the Hebrew language to the immigrants but I’m sure other subjects were thrown in as well.

The teaching corner

The teaching corner

The tour guide took us next to a room with a screen. We all sat down and she stood at a podium and asked us as a group if we knew anyone that spent time in the camp. A woman, sitting beside my mother, spoke up and told the guide to search for a “Shimon Gelles” on the computer. When the search was complete, and Gelles’ face was staring down at us from the screen, the woman announced that Shimon Gelles was none other than her father. There was a murmur in the air and she told us a little bit about his trip, adding that she hadn’t known what month he arrived on the shores of the Holy Land, but now did due to the scraps of info beside Shimon’s face on the screen. When she was done the guide told us the story of one man, a book illustrator, who drew scenes from his trip across Europe, down to the bottom of Italy and onto a clandestine immigration ship. Then there were drawings of the British warships stopping them and then being sent off to be detained. Next site on the tour, the “Galina”, a small ship carrying “illegal” immigrants:

The ''Galina''

The ”Galina”

The rescue story of the ship, if I understood it correctly, was a tale unto its own. In the late 90s the ship was brought from Latvia to England, where it sat for some time doing restorations to make it seaworthy again. Then, in 2006, the “Galina” was towed by a Dutch fishing ship all the way from England to the coast of Israel. It sat in the Tel Aviv port area for a while whilst the Second Lebanon War broke out. A missile struck the factory commissioned to turn the old ship into what we see today and therefore work was delayed. Finally, a few years ago, the finished ship was laid to rest in the Atlit camp. The insides of the ship have been reconstructed into a display piece including screens, models and effects – with very special attention to detail! Here are two nice rooms, the communications room and the bridge:

Communications room on the ''Galina''

Communications room on the ”Galina”

The bridge on the ''Galina''

The bridge on the ”Galina”

At the end of the tour I broke free from the group and took photographs of the guard towers and train cars. Here is one beautiful pictorial representation of both tower and train:

Guard tower and train

Guard tower and train

After leaving the site we drove to the coast, attempting to visit the Atlit Fortress (also known as Chateau Perelin). We got as close as the Shayetet 13 base entrance, where the guards told us that the fortress was inside the base and that we were not allowed in. Being that Shayetet 13 is the Israeli version of Navy SEALs, that makes sense – if we weren’t all allowed into my base, all the more so… So, we stopped at the beach area and spent a few minutes in the chilling winds and the waning sun, the Atlit Fortress silhouetted in the background:

Sunset at the coast in Atlit

Sunset at the coast in Atlit

Well, this may be my last post for a spell. Vacation ends when Pesach does, so it’s in the hands of the army to provide me with blogging content!

Army Trip: Ramat HaNadiv

In Coastal Plain, Israel on December 30, 2012 at 5:32 AM

After more than two months of army duty, having completed basic training and already well into the driving course, my fellow soldiers and I were treated to a “break from the schedule” and enjoyed a day trip to the Ramat HaNadiv memorial park. The trip was intended to give us a taste of driving on unfamiliar roads as well as providing us with a little bit of fun, tied in with history and education. With each driving instructor giving each of his soldiers a turn at the wheel, we took a really long and roundabout way to Ramat HaNadiv (coming from the Haifa area). I drove a nice hour-long stretch and then handed the wheel over to the next soldier. When we, at last, arrived to the park, there was a BBQ going and we were given a brief explanation of the site by our immediate commanding officer. After that we were released into the park to explore and enjoy while the food preparation finished up.

Some of the gardens

Some of the gardens

As we walked through the park we took group pictures and individual pictures, posing in the well-maintained gardens. Had I known about this trip when I was last at home I would have made sure to bring a camera but the trip was spontaneous (at least from our side) and I was forced to engaged in photography with a 5-MP phone camera – some of the pictures coming out remarkably well.

Vegetation

Vegetation

To give a little background about the site, Ramat HaNadiv is a small nature park just outside of Zichron Yaakov established as a memorial gardens for the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and his wife, who were both buried in a crypt on location in 1954. The Baron and his wife had been previously buried in Paris in 1934 and 1935, respectively, but were re-interred in Israel on land purchased by them some time before. Ramat HaNadiv translates into “Heights of the Benefactor”, an ode to the Baron’s nickname which was earned through many years of donations and assistance to the Jewish settlers during the first few Aliyahs.

Sundial

Sundial

The Baron Rothschild is the same baron as the one who was instrumental in founding Rosh Pina, a town established in 1882 beside Tzfat (blog post about Rosh Pina, mentioning the Baron, found here).

Engaged in thought...

Engaged in thought…

One of the things that makes Ramat HaNadiv a unique place is the variety of flora, of all different varieties. It was told to us towards the tail end of our walk that Ramat HaNadiv contains the largest amount of endangered plant species in all of Israel.

Flora

Flora

Mid-way we came across a sign to “The Crypt” and followed it. There we found an impressive stone courtyard with narrow pools of koi fish and outside a handful of us posed, myself not included:

Some of us outside the courtyard to the crypt

Some of us outside the courtyard to the crypt

And a view of inside the courtyard:

The courtyard outside the crypt

The courtyard outside the crypt

Once through the heavy doors, I entered the crypt and walked down to the burial room where the remains of the Baron and his wife are now held:

Inside the crypt

Inside the crypt

Emerging from the underground cavern, I branched off from the group with two friends and began to explore more, despite the constant update that the food was ready and everyone was heading back to eat. In the end I’d say that our actions paid off as we got to see a larger portion of the gardens and ended eating as well when we finally got back to the picnic grounds. There was even a family of mongoose that ventured out of the bushes to examine us and our victuals. Back in the park, here is the Cascade Garden:

The Cascade Garden

The Cascade Garden

As we continued on, just after the Fragrance Garden, we bumped into an elderly gardener who noticed we were speaking English. He introduced himself as Sydney and gave us a thorough lecture on the water absorption complications of the ficus tree. An experienced gardener, having decades of horticultural experience under his belt, Sydney filled our minds with interesting facts and tidbits, sharing some of his knowledge with us.

Sydney the Gardener

Sydney the Gardener

Had we had more time at our disposal I would have liked to have heard more about the site, but at last he told us that we should be on our way and so I promised that if I come back I’d have to snare him into giving me a tour. Looking at the Wikipedia page about Ramat HaNadiv I see that there are several archaeological digs that I missed and those demand to be seen!

Until next time, whenever and wherever that may be!