Monday, 24 June 2013

This Sporting Life

Jonny has recent taken up running and so his wife thought it would be fun to show him doing just that on his birthday card. She told me that he always wears a blue cap and blue shorts. The rest of the outfit I took a guess at! Jonny runs around his local neighbourhood so I added a couple of buildings in the style of the city we live in. I think I did it a disservice.
A regular customer asked me to make a large birthday card for her grandson. He is currently serving in the Israeli military and you may remember the card I made for him last year. This year we concentrated on his love of football, and in particular Manchester United! I crafted a red and black striped scarf with the team crest and added a football too. The Hebrew greeting on the card says "Happy Birthday to my dear grandson Nadav".
My customer also asked me to make a card for the same young man, this time from his parents. For this card she suggested I add his other sporting passions, which include tennis and swimming. I added a football in again for good measure.
Grandma told me that he loved the cards.
Finally, this blue and white shirt was going on a card for a Leeds United supporter. Given that Leeds scored the goal which helped my family's favourite team, Hull City, regain entry into the Premier League at the end of this year's football season, I was happy to make the card and crafted it with great care!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

An Oasis in the Desert

As those of you who follow me on Facebook already know, the hubby and I recently celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. It was our crystal anniversary apparently, though we didn't buy each other any crystal. We got some bowls for our wedding which we rarely use and don't need any more thank you. Instead we treated ourselves to a very rare 24 hours away without the kids. Living abroad, away from our families, that never happens. Ever. Except when lovely friends step in and look after our kids overnight. Hurrah!
Of course Mister Handmade in Israel got a card too. He's not a big drinker but is rather partial to a glass of sweet fizzy wine. The Italian Sparkletini is our current favourite. We're very classy. Yes we are.
I've shown Mister Handmade in Israel with a bottle of his preferred plonk in one hand and the number 15 in the other. It looks like he is weighing up the situation, doesn't it? Hopefully he has grabbed the wine to celebrate our anniversary, rather than hitting the bottle in despair!
So Friday afternoon we set off for Mitspe Ramon, a town in the Negev desert, in southern Israel. We've been there before, and have stopped there several times en route to Eilat, usually to say hello to the friendly ibex by the side of the road. On this occasion we had no great plans. Just 24 hours of quiet and relaxation.
Mitspe Ramon is actually less notable as a town and more as a crater. This 40 km long crater, or machtesh as it is called in Hebrew, is a formation unique to Israel and looks rather like a chunk of Mars was grafted onto the planet! The stark desert landscape might look barren but its rock formations hide a world of life. A short visit to the Bio Ramon "desert zoo" allowed us a glimpse into the amazing world of the unique animals that live hidden in the desert. Most Negev animals and insects are active only at night (or are experts at hiding) but the enclosures at Bio Ramon provided us with a good daytime look at these animals. The mammals, insects and reptiles kept there are all rotated so none are held for too long in captivity. The tame ibex waiting for us in the car park afterwards made it all the more exciting.
We walked over to the newly renovated visitors centre on the edge of the crater too. It offers breathtaking views from the rooftop observation deck, and audio-visual presentations describe the formations of the Negev and its craters, and illustrate the history of settlement in the Negev, its flora and fauna. In addition to serving as a portal for educating visitors about Mitspe Ramon, the centre is also dedicated to the memory of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, whose shuttle exploded during the Columbia disaster in 2003. We are told the story of Ramon's life, from his Israel Air Force service to the launch of his space shuttle and his last moments. The infinite space of the Ramon crater seems an appropriate place for such a commemoration.
Mitspe Ramon was originally founded in 1951 as a place for workers building the road to Eilat and, though it is still in its early stages, the town is finally growing to accommodate an increase in tourism. Our boutique hotel, Chez Eugene, was recently opened by an immigrant from France, Arnaud Rodrigue, whose dream it was to build a combination restaurant/boutique hotel in the Negev, likes the ones which dot the French countryside. Chez Eugene lacks the external trappings of a great hotel: no views, not perfectly located and built within a converted warehouse on a very plain street, but inside is a totally different story. We had an excellent weekend there, mostly due to the friendly and helpful staff, beautifully decorated rooms and a wonderful dinner. You can feel the owners excitement in having achieved their dream of building an oasis in the desert.
In the evening we ate fresh products of the region cooked in the hotel's French restaurant. Each dish we ordered was truly delicious, fresh and creative. The hubby ordered locally farmed baramundi with steamed vegetables, while I had Pappardelle pasta with a cream, garlic, vodka and cherry tomato sauce. Arnaud, one of the owners of the hotel, also has a vineyard in the north of Israel, and we drank his private label white wine, though we didn't manage to finish the bottle (see beginning of post!). Shahar Dabbah, the young and talented chef, came over to our table to introduce himself, giving our meal that extra personal touch. The rich Israeli breakfast in the morning was also excellent, with fresh spreads, bread and made-to-order eggs, omelette or shakshouka.
The restaurant is "friendly kosher". They have no teudah (certificate of kashrut) but all of the products are kosher.
Mitspe Ramon was the perfect place for our weekend away. The stunning views, ibex walking down the street, and a night at Chez Eugene made for a very pleasant time. We will definitely return for another child-free weekend away, whenever that might be!
Photos from Chez Eugene.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Two Brothers

Two brothers recently celebrated their birthdays. The older boy turned 6 at the end of May. His Mum told me that he loves to play with cars, and enjoys football and basketball too. I made him the driver of a bright red sports car and by the side of the road there is a basketball net and football goal, ready for him when he wants to go and play.
His younger brother turned 3 just a few days before him. His photo showed him with a mass of curly blond hair, though Mum said that it was soon going to be cut. It is customary to allow a Jewish boy's hair to grow untouched until he's 3 years old. On his third birthday friends are invited to an upsherin haircutting ceremony (from the German words "scheren", which means "to shear" and auf, which means "off").
There are a number of explanations for this three year wait. Some relate it to the Biblical law which stipulates that you are not allowed to eat fruit from a tree during the first three years after it is planted. Jewish tradition sometimes compares human life to the life of trees. Waiting three years to cut a child's hair, like waiting three years to pick a tree's fruit, suggests the hope that the child will eventually grow tall like a tree and produce fruit.
Another theory is that the upsherin is the third in a series of "cuts" symbolising a child's movements away from his mother and into the world. First the umbilical cord is cut after the birth, then the foreskin is cut during the brit milah. The haircut at age 3 marks the beginning of the child's movement into society when he is ready to be less dependent on his mother and to interact more with adults and friends.
Besides the important haircut, this blue-eyed 3 year old enjoys doing puzzles and absolutely loves the Winnie-the-Pooh character Eeyore. His Mum also said that he sings and dances a lot. He sounds like a delightful little boy!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Tali's Recipe Book

Remember the recipe book I put together? Well, I made another one. The very same day that I showed it on my blog a customer wrote to ask whether I could make one for her granddaughter's upcoming Bat Mitzvah. Social media working at its best!
My customer told me that her granddaughter, the Bat Mitzvah girl, loves shopping, fashion and listening to music on her iPod touch. She enjoys holidays in the sun and is also a keen cook. Her grandma thought that a recipe book was the ideal gift for her.
A little bit of sketching and I managed to piece all of the young lady's interests together. I decided to show her by the beach, with a big yellow sun in the background and her flip-flops and towel nearby. She is wearing her favourite Hollister hoodie and has her new silver heart necklace, recently given to her by her parents, around her neck. It looks like she has been shopping too and bags from Selfridges and Abercrombie are in the background. I am told they are her favourite places to shop!
Because this is the cover for a recipe book, and because Tali loves to cook, I have shown her with a mixing bowl in one hand and with a big cooking pot nearby. Her other hand is busy with her iPod. I have a child of almost the same age. I know what's important.
Now, the inside pages took on a life of their own. We originally talked of filling 10 of the pages, and leaving the other 10 for future use. Well, the book grew and grew and grew, and soon it was full. It was quite a jigsaw to make it all fit!
Tali, and her Mum, are apparently always associated with the colour pink. She loves flowers, hearts, nail polish and basically anything girlie and so, once the pages were laid out, that's what went on them.
My customer, well actually her daughter, the Bat Mitzvah girl's Aunt, collected recipes and delightful messages from the young lady's friends and family, and the book was soon filled with some fabulous ideas... and lots of love.
I added a little illustration of the relevant food item on the recipe pages, just some of which I have shown here. Thus the carrot cake recipe was decorated with bright orange carrots, and the strawberry cheesecake page got some sweet little strawberries to make it look pretty. I cut some teeny tiny pink raspberries to go on 'The Princess Tali Pink Ripple Cake' page too. What a great name!
Tali was getting some Uggs as a Bat Mitzvah gift and her Aunt was keen that they should appear too. They don't have a lot to do with recipes or food but they looked pretty cute anyway!
My customer emailed me when the album arrived. "Album amazing!" her message said. "Thank you SO much! You went to so much trouble on our behalf."
Apparently Tali was thrilled with it too. She couldn't believe how many of her friends had sent messages and contributed to the book, and when her grandparents gave it to her she kept going to reread it again and again.
I hope that it is something she will really treasure.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Masada and the Dead Sea

A dear friend who I have not seen for a long, long time was in Israel recently and I jumped at the chance of spending a day with her and her wonderful family at Masada and the Dead Sea. I mean, who would say no? Masada is an incredible natural fortress located in the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. A Friday morning spent there is a pretty good way to start the weekend!
The palace complex of Masada, whose Hebrew name means "fortress", was built by King Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BCE on top of an isolated rock plateau. Herod wanted a place where he was protected from revolts and external threats. Later, during the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the first century CE, a group of Jews took refuge in Masada and remained there for seven years until they finally fell at the hands of the Roman army. However, rather than be killed or enslaved, they chose mass suicide and consequently Masada became a symbol of the determination of the Jewish people to be free in their own land. 
Nowadays Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a special place in the hearts of the Jewish nation. Israeli soldiers who had just completed their basic training used to be sworn in there with the declaration "Masada shall never fall again". That ceremony now takes place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
I had visited Masada before, the most recent time being in 2008 when I climbed to the top via the Snake Path, a long winding route up the plateau which totally exhausted me! The incredible desert views, however, make it all worth it. On this occasion we took the cable car and had more time, and energy, to wander and soak up some ancient history. The guide my friends had hired, Joe, was superb and he showed us all kinds of buildings and ruins that I had never seen, or at least understood, before.
We visited the massive Northern Palace overlooking the Dead Sea, some wonderfully preserved thermal baths, a Byzantine church dating from the 5th century, and saw the Roman attack ramp on the western side of Masada. A synagogue, storehouses and the homes of the Jewish rebels have also been identified and restored, and the Mikve (ritual bath) and columbarium for doves, give a clear indication of Jewish life on Masada.
For me it was the first time I had taken the steps down into the huge water cistern built by Herod so that he could live out the rest of his natural life on Masada, no matter what happened outside. This cistern was later used by the Jewish rebels and allowed them to conserve enough water for the long time they spent there. At this southern water cistern we saw graffiti from 1943 which related events of the 40's to the story of Masada. The graffiti says, "Labour Youth seminar, 1943. 70 people. Our faces turn to Hebron".
I recently celebrated a birthday - yes, I just turned a whole year older - and my friend sent me Alice Hoffman's 'The Dovekeepers' as a reminder of our day together. I look forward to learning even more about Masada and think that it will bring it all to life for me just that little bit more.
I really could have stayed all day but the girls in our little group were keen to experience the Dead Sea. We drove to the Ein Bokek beach and quickly changed into our swimsuits before entering the water. The Dead Sea is 423 metres below sea level and is one of the world's saltiest bodies of water. It is the lowest point on earth and a natural health spa, and soon we were lathering ourselves in the black mud deposits from the sea bed, said to be so good for the skin.
Funnily enough I am not going to show you any photos here but let's just say that we had a lot of fun! Floating effortlessly on my back in the mineral-rich waters, perusing the dramatic and beautiful landscape around me, with good friends by my side, I can honestly say that it had been a pretty perfect day!