Friday, March 28, 2014

Where Theodor Herzl Met Kaiser Wilhelm II

Mikve Israel was the first agricultural school established in Palestine. Located just north of the city of Holon, Mikve Israel played an important role in the story of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael and in the development of agriculture in the country.

Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest in 1860, wrote of the agricultural possibilities available in the Jewish State he envisioned. In his book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896), Herzl wrote that "The poorest will go first to cultivate the soil... The labor expended on the land will enhance its value, and the Jews will soon perceive that a new and permanent sphere of operation is opening here."

In 1897, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. After the Congress, Herzl saw the need for encouragement by the great powers of the day. The Ottomans ruled in Palestine, so Herzl planned to meet with the Sultan. Another of the world's most influential powers was Germany, ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Herzl had heard that the Kaiser was favorable to the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Herzl prepared to meet the Kaiser at the Mikve Israel school, which was on the road the Kaiser would take from his arrival in Jaffa to Jerusalem.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Making a Name for Myself in Sri Lanka

For Israelis, as well as for Bulgarians, the island nation of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean brings up thoughts of elephants, golden beaches, tea, cinnamon, and tropical forests. In short - a very appealing, exotic destination.  But, what do Sri Lankans think of when considering Israel and Bulgaria?

"The east European country of Bulgaria is a name that surely evokes an image much bound to exoticism and mysticism to the Sri Lankan mind," states journalist Dilshan Boange.

In an article entitled "Unfolding the beauty of Bulgaria through fiction," which was published in a full-page color spread at the beginning of March in The Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka's English newspaper with the largest circulation, Dilshan introduced readers to my writing.

While many of my answers focused on my life, work, and writing in Israel, it was "enchanting Bulgaria" which truly appealed to the interviewer. Introducing me to his readers, Dilshan correctly wrote that the "picturesque land of Bulgaria brims with a richness of ancient history, culture, lore and legend" and this led to my writing Valley of Thracians.

"It is not often that Israeli authors are interviewed in the Sri Lankan press," Dilshan informed me.

I thank Dilshan for the interview, which can be read online here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Does Caffeine Make You a Better Writer?

Like many of my fellow writers, I need a cup of coffee to stimulate the creative juices, especially when I sit down to write at ungodly early morning hours before the sun has risen. Often my mind is full of ideas which germinated while I was sleeping. I am raring to get started, something that is only possible when a mug of java is steaming at the side of my laptop.

There is no doubt in my mind that we're talking about an addiction of sorts. My daily coffee intake is only two cups, but I find that I need that first cup as a source of motivation. My addiction is therefore not to caffeine, itself, but to the notion that I must drink coffee in order to have a productive writing session.

While it is a given that drinking coffee makes you more alert, does caffeine make you more creative as well? I decided to investigate.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Taste of Bulgaria in Tel Aviv

The ancient port city of Yafo (Jaffa), mentioned in the Bible and conquered by Alexander the Great, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and Napolean, joined Tel Aviv as part of the same municipality, in 1950.

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, Yafo was a predominantly Arab city, but most of its 100,000 residents fled. Their place was taken by waves of new immigrants from Libya, Morocco, and other countries.

Nearly all of Bulgaria's Jewish community, which had survived the Holocaust intact, came to Israel in those years as well. Many of them made their homes in Yafo.

As part of our culinary tours of Tel Aviv, we had previously visited the Levinsky Street Market and the Yemenite Quarter, each with its own delicacies. This time, we took to the streets of Yafo. We particularly enjoyed the tastes of Bulgaria in Tel Aviv, as it brought back many fond memories of the two years we lived in Sofia.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wandering and Wondering in the Holy Land

The stories in This Year in Jerusalem by Jeffrey F. Barken relate much more than just the author's experiences volunteering on a kibbutz.

In the opening story of this debut collection we meet Myles Fletcher, a young American waiting in Tel Aviv for his work visa and assignment to a kibbutz. Myles convinces Kurt, a non-Jew from South Africa, to join him on a trip to Jerusalem. In the holy city, the two of them hear bells, which give this story its name.  Kurt states that he "didn't think you'd hear church bells in Jewish city." This is just the first of many small observations that characters in the book make about their stay in Israel.

While "Bells" and the other stories are each strong enough to stand alone, they are interconnected, allowing us to reacquaint ourselves with the characters at emotional turning points in their lives. In the story "Diaspora", Myles has "already been living on a kibbutz for a few weeks". His job is laying sod, but he "could never grasp the language or the scope of a project." In a parallel story, we meet Ari Shultz, a childhood friend of Myles, who is traveling westward across the United States. There is bad blood between the two, something we will only fully understand as the book progresses.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Equal Opportunity Mossad Spy Thriller

Israel is again facing apocalyptic destruction and only one Mossad agent can save the day. But this time, things are a bit different.

This time, both the Mossad and its jihadist enemy are equal opportunity employers. On one side is Jodie Moore, a Palestinian sympathizer who campaigns against the oppression of the "apartheid" Israeli state. But wait, Jodie is one of the good guys. She is secretly tracking pro-Palestinian activist in Britain. Like "dry bones waiting to be quickened in the service of Israel," Jodie is ready to be called up for active duty and serve her country at a moment's notice.

On the other side, Masha Khanov is a Chechen woman who is doing her share to make sure that the "final siege on Israel was being set." Masha is the daughter of the unseen, mysterious Sheikh Bayfal, who is leading the call for a holy war. To the vast majority of his followers, the Sheikh "was a phantasm, sermonizing and commanding via the samizdat of digital audio clips."

Strip Mine by Dan Williams takes the equal opportunity notion one step further. Jodie is not your average spy, for she has Type-1 diabetes, a condition kept secret from her Mossad commanders. "She kept the illness so private that, at times, she almost forgot it existed." Jodie has an excellent track record - she had distinguished herself during the Intifada - so a small mishap in a passport drop in London is quickly forgotten.

And there is Jodie's handler, a talented woman who carries on with Mossad duties while pushing her infant son in a pram. "I'm still on maternity leave, sort of," the woman informs Jodie.

Another colorful character is Max Frey, who recruited Jodie to the ranks of the Mossad, and on whom she has a secret crush. Max is an older man who accepts patients "at the psychiatric practice that he ran from his home" but doesn't welcome the prospect of retiring from the Mossad. To Jodie, Max "was an ally, a blessed apparition in an alien crowd, a man who knew her value."

Jodie is called upon to enter Hamas-controlled Gaza as she is the only agent capable of locating Masha and stopping the Chechen woman before she succeeds in "ending the abomination that was the State of Israel - or at least, bringing about the beginning of its end."

The multi-dimensional characters set Strip Mine apart from other spy thrillers. The colorful descriptions of Gazans going about their daily lives on streets that smell like "old falafel" render additional authenticity to the narrative. The author clearly knows the settings where the action takes place, but one wonders whether there really is a secret passage at the back of the Cinema City mall complex leading to Mossad headquarters.

The subtitle for Strip Mine states that the book is a "Jodie Moore Thriller", so we know our heroine will be back for another adventure. Let's hope she remembers to pack her insulin when sets off on her next mission.

Author Dan Williams is a senior correspondent for Reuters, reporting from Israel and the Palestinian territories. Strip Mine is his first novel.

Buy Strip Mine and read it now!

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Incident with the Beard

So, who knew that shaving a month's growth of beard would clog up the bathroom sink?

And who knew that pouring some Plumber's Aid down the drain wouldn't do a thing?

And who knew that trying to loosen the plastic pipes under the sink would just cause it to leak?

And who knew that pouring industrial strength drain cleaner down the pipes would burn holes in the tubing, only making the leak much worse?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wolf of Online Processing

When they make the film version of Alligator Blood by James Leighton (Simon & Schuster UK, 2013), it is without a doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio will be cast in the role of Daniel Tzvetkoff, the whiz kid who built a fortune in online payment processing only to subsequently have his empire collapse and his reputation shatter.

"Take a look people," one of Tzvetkoff's business partners declares in the book. "This is what you get when you deliver…  Deliver for me and I’ll make you all fucking millionaires!"

That line could have been belted out by DiCaprio's character in the 2013 film "The Wolf of Wall Street".  In Leighton's tale of Tzvetkoff's rise and fall, the online processing genius is said to have read and been enthralled by Jordan Belfort's memoir, which led to the hit movie of the same name. "The parallels were obvious," Leighton writes.

Read the rest of this book review here.