Thursday, 28 February 2013

Back to the Lake

So, finally I've got round to telling you about Day 3 of our northern adventures, a return visit to the Hula Lake (Agmon HaHula Reserve). The reserve is an old favourite of ours and we were all keen to go back. You can read all about our very first visit here.
The Hula Lake was once a large swamp that was dried in the early days of the State of Israel and then flooded again when numerous agricultural and ecological problems occurred. Israel is located on one of the main bird migration routes between Europe and Africa, and the lake and surrounding reserve hosts millions of birds in the migration seasons. Storks, cranes, pelicans and kingfishers are a familiar sight and you can also see coypu (nutria) and water buffalo roaming wild.
In December and January, just when we visited, the cranes are fed in the crane observation point, below. The cranes are huge and noisy and fill the air with loud honks and hoots. Every year 100,000 of these birds fly from Russia down to Africa to spend the winter. A quarter of these cranes winter in the Hula Valley and have become a threat to the peanut crops grown extensively in the fields across the valley.  A solution was found to supply the cranes with food, whilst protecting the crops in the area, at a cost of over 2 million shekels per year. We each paid a 3 shekels fee at the Visitors Centre to help lighten the burden of the feeding costs.
At the entrance to the reserve we hired a multi-passenger bicycle (you can also hire golf carts or walk), intending to pedal around the lake and surrounding woodland. The 8.5 km route is levelled and paved but we hadn't counted on just how heavy the bike would be with three adults sitting on it (the boys had gone off on their own). In the end one of us ended up walking just to lighten the load! However, this didn't spoil our fun. The Hula Lake is a beautiful and well planned reserve with hides to watch the birds from and a large deck on the edge of the lake. We spent a few wonderful hours getting close to nature and watching the birds fly by.
One day I hope to go back for a night tour of the reserve, to look out for the jungle cats, bats and owls. I simply love the place. But next time, as on our first visit, I'll be renting a bike just for myself.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Keren's Purim

I received a request for a customised guest book for Keren, who was having her Bat Mitzvah party on the evening of Purim. The festival of Purim is probably the most entertaining of all the Jewish holidays, whether you're in Israel or abroad. Everybody gets to have fun, dress up in fancy costumes and consume lots of junk food. What a great day to celebrate your Bat Mitzvah!
Keren is a really good jazz and folklore dancer. My customer sent me a photo of her in a show wearing the purple and yellow dress that I have featured on the cover of her book. Aside from dancing, she loves her cats, Blossom and Twister, and her little brown dog, May. The main thing I noticed about Keren was her amazing red hair. My son thought I had gone a little over-the-top with the colour, but really, I was not that far-off!
On Purim we are required to hear the reading of the Book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known as the Megillah, which means scroll. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle groggers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is mentioned in the Megillah reading. The purpose of this custom is to "blot out the name of Haman."
We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry, and to send out gifts of food and drink. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as Mishloach Manot (literally 'sending out portions') and a common treat is hamentaschen (literally 'Haman's pockets'), triangular fruit-filled cookies which are supposed to represent Haman's three-cornered hat. Because Keren was celebrating her Bat Mitzvah on Purim I included little papercuts of the aforementioned groggers and hamentaschen on the cover and inside pages of her book.
My customer told me that Keren and her parents absolutely loved the book, and that many other guests commented about it too. It was quite a last-minute commission but, when I receive such great feedback like that, I am always glad to have taken on the job!
As in previous years my boys wanted homemade costumes. The mini-industry that springs up at this time of year can prove expensive but fortunately my kids are happy to rely on Mum. Superheroes, pirates and princesses are all the rage but we went with Erno Rubik's Rubik's Cube, below, and a television remote control (youngest son's best friend was the TV!).
I put together some Mishloach Manot too. We are supposed to send food that is ready to be eaten immediately and to send at least two different items. I tried to steer clear of the more usual lollipops and chocolate - much as I love it - and created a package filled with nuts and dried fruit, oh, and a few homemade chocolate chip muffins too! The boys prepared their own packages, but theirs did contain the much-loved junk food which we know their friends just adore.
I hope that those of you who celebrated Purim had a great day!

Monday, 18 February 2013

Love is in the Air

A customer in Tel Aviv gave me a last minute order for a wedding card. She was travelling to Vancouver, Canada, for a wedding in just a few days time and wanted me to make a special card for the bride and groom. How could I resist?
The bride, my customer told me, is very into cooking, whilst the groom is a keen runner. I have shown the couple standing under the Chuppah, the canopy under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony. It is decorated with flowers and, if you look carefully, a small flag of the city of Vancouver. The bride is wearing her wedding dress and has a chefs hat on and a wooden spoon in her hand. The groom is wearing a running vest with the number 10 on it. The couple got married on February 10th. Maybe the number on his vest reminded him to be there!
Whilst we're on the subject of weddings, a dear family friend got married just yesterday back in the UK. Sadly I couldn't be there but I heard that it was a lovely day and, with the wonders of Facebook, I got to see photos in almost real time. I popped this card, below, into the mail to let the couple know that I was thinking of them on their special day.
Finally, not a wedding but an anniversary card. There were no particular requirements for this card. I was simply asked for a pretty anniversary card. I hope this one, replete with birds, hearts and flowers, fitted the bill.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Ay, caramba!

Happy Valentine's Day! I am going to take a quick break from our trip to the north to show you some recent birthday cards.
This first one, above, was made for a 13 year old. Her Mum  asked me to make her "something lovely with... the usual stuff... dance, music, netball". I made this young lady's Bat Mitzvah album a year ago, so knew that this year's card had to be different from her Bat Mitzvah book. I decided to forgo the little paper portraits that I know she likes and came up with a funky design which included her various hobbies instead. I hope she liked it.
Eliya is in second grade. She is learning to play the piano and loves dressing up in hats, headbands, her Mum's clothes and high heels. She likes to put on a little make-up too. Eliya's Mum liked my suggestion that the birthday card could show her daughter in some dressing up clothes, sitting at the piano. I added a big number 8 to show her age plus a small pile of books by the side of the piano, since her Mum told me that she loves to read. I am not sure that you can see it on the photo, but Eliya has a little blue eyeshadow on too. She looks very pretty!
Finally, Max loves The Simpsons. In fact he loves them so much that I was asked to put Bart on his birthday card last year too! I put Bart in a different pose this year and added a big red balloon with the birthday boy's age on it. Happy Birthday Max. As Bart says, "Ay, caramba!".

Monday, 11 February 2013

Nimrod's Fortress and Mount Bental

Continuing with our northern adventures, Day 2 saw us visiting the Nimrod Fortress, the highest fortress in Israel. Situated in the northern Golan Heights, Nimrod Fortress can be found on a ridge rising about 800 metres (2,600 feet) above sea level. We visited on a cold but clear day. The sky was bright blue and we discovered that we were actually visiting a site located high above the clouds. So exciting!
The fortress was built in 1228 by Al-Maliq al-Aziz Othman, the second son of Saladin and the second Ayyubid of Egypt. It overlooks the deep, narrow valley separating Mount Hermon from the Golan Heights and the road linking the Galilee with Damascus (in present-day Syria), and was built to preempt an attack on Damascus by participants of the Sixth CrusadeIt was named Qala'at al-Subeiba, "Castle of the Large Cliff" in Arabic. During the 12th-13th centuries it changed hands several times, but it was maintained and strengthened mainly by the Muslims, evident by the numerous Arabic inscriptions spotted around the site.
The Ottoman Turks used the fortress as a prison in the 16th century but it was abandoned later that century and ruined by an earthquake in the 18th century. The Druze came to the region  during an 1860 conflict and began calling the fortress Qal'at Namrud (Nimrod). The Biblical hero Nimrod, according to local tradition, made his home in the area.

Nimrod's Fortress ended up being one of my favourite places of the trip. It contains a maze of underground tunnels, a secret passageway, wide halls, a huge water cistern and watchtowers. The kids had a ball roaming around, pretending to be soldiers, and even the adults had a fantastic time exploring the place! The magnificent views of the Hula Valley, the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights, and Mount Hermon were incredible. Mark Twain called the fortress "probably the most exquisite ruins in the world."
It is still so.

Later that day we visited Mount Bental, a dormant volcano in the northern Golan Heights, 1,170 meters above sea level. It is one of Israel's favourite mountain peaks to visit because of the great panoramic views it offers of the Golan and into Syria (Damascus lies just 60km away), but also because Mount Bental was the site of a courageous battle fought during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
We viewed the Valley of Tears – the long stretch of valley in between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon - the site of a bitter four day-long tank battle during which the crews of some 160 Israeli tanks managed to hold off almost ten times their number of Syrian tanks. We could also clearly see Mount Avital, the Syrian ghost town of Kuneitra, which was evacuated when the Israeli-Syrian border was drawn in its middle, the wind farm at Alonei HaBashan, and the many surrounding vineyards which produce the wonderful wines of the Golan.
Mount Bental is no longer used as a military base, but the old army bunkers and trenches are open to the public. Most of the bunkers have been completely cleared out but some old beds, signs and maps can still be seen - and bumped into if you don't have a torch with you! We got some idea of what life is like for the soldiers in the underground bunkers and frankly it can't have been much fun.
It began to rain, so it seemed the perfect time to drop into the 'Coffee Anan' café on the mountain's peak – the highest café in Israel! 'Coffee Anan' is indeed a play of words based on the name of the former UN secretary general Kofi Anan. Since 'Anan' in Hebrew means 'cloud', the name of the cafe translates as 'Coffee of the clouds' – a fitting name for its lofty location.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Atlit and Rosh Hanikra

Since we're now in February it's high time that I showed you some photos from our little jaunt up north in December! We had a glorious few days. It was chilly but dry and we visited some beautiful places.
Our first stop on Day 1 was at the Atlit Illegal Immigrant Detention Camp (above). The camp was established by the authorities of the British Mandate for Palestine at the end of the 1930's to prevent Jewish refugees, many from Nazi-controlled Europe, from entering Palestine. During this period Palestine was controlled by the British and there were very strict restrictions in place regarding the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants were interned at the camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
Today the Illegal Immigrant Detention Camp, situated just south of the port city of Haifa, has been transformed into a museum. Barbed wire fencing still surrounds the site and the notorious disinfection facility, restored barracks and a recently arrived ship, similar to the one used to transport immigrants to Palestine, give a clear indication as to what went on there.
The day we arrived the electricity was down so there was no lighting nor films to be watched. Instead the young Sherut Leumi woman who was volunteering at the museum as part of her national service, took us around and she certainly knew her stuff! Our stop at Atlit was fascinating and well worth the good couple of hours we spent there.
Next on the itinerary was Rosh Hanikra. I had last visited on a youth tour when I was 16, which is, ahem, quite some years ago. I had good memories of the place but it turned out to be even more spectacular than I had remembered! The gleaming white chalk cliffs and the beautiful stretch of beach below were a magnificent sight to behold.
The real excitement began when we boarded the cable-car at the entrance to the site, for a two minute ride down the cliff face. At the bottom was the main attraction - the Rosh Hanikra grottoes, or sea caves, formed as the result of geological processes and the effect of the waves from the Mediterranean sea lapping on the soft chalk. Visiting during the stormy winter season meant that the waves were extra noisy, crashing into the grottoes and creating explosive sounds. The boys were delighted! This was spectacular nature in all her splendour.
Rosh Hanikra is also the meeting point of the Israel and Lebanese border. We could see the tunnel dug in 1943 to extend the Cairo-Haifa rail line to Beirut and which served the British military until 1948. A short film, shown in the old tunnel itself, told us the story of the site. The railway bridge was destroyed by Jewish underground fighters in March 1948, under the nose of the British soldiers, in order to prevent Lebanese arms being smuggled into the newly founded State of Israel. Since then the railway has been closed. The coastal railway in Israel currently ends near Nahariya, several kilometres to the south.
At the border point there is a sign, seen above, with the distance between the two capitols - Jerusalem and Beirut. The border is currently closed and limited to special cases and United Nations personnel.
Since Rosh Hanikra is located on the seashore, we couldn't resist a quick visit to the rock pools. It  was the perfect way to end a great day. The kids investigated the pools and got wet - even though they promised me that they wouldn't! The rest of us watched the sun slowly set, in perhaps one of the most beautiful locations in Israel.
It was going to be a good trip.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Counting Down

I don't make many of these! Well actually, to be more accurate, I've never made one of these before. What an age! I have made a few 100 cards over time, and I made a 101 card for "Auntie Rae" last year. I was delighted when her niece called to ask me for a card with the numbers 102 on it. Ad meah viesrim (until 120).
This customer asked me for "something pretty" for Mum and Grandma. Balloons, cake and flowers always fit the bill. Grandma was 70, not 3, but I couldn't quite fit 70 candles on one slice of cake.
This 50th birthday card was for a special sister who seems to be very sporty. She competes in triathlon events in the US, so her sister asked me to illustrate the three typical components of triathlon: swimming, cycling, and running. The birthday girl can be seen swimming at the top of the card. Her training shoes are below, and a delicately cut bike is on the left of the card. 'becca also loves cats, so I popped a couple of her feline friends in there too. I'm exhausted simply by the thought of the triathlon!