Friday, 27 March 2015

The Ayalon Canada Park

The almond trees, the first of the fruit trees in Israel to wake from their winter 'sleep', were in full bloom when I recently visited the Ayalon Canada Park. The trees pinkish white blossoms are always a sign that Spring is around the corner, and they were truly a sight to behold.
The Ayalon Canada Park, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, covers an area of 7,000 dunams and is filled with wooded areas, walking trails, water features and archaeological sites. Trees in the park include olive, carob, pomegranate, pine and the aforementioned almond. The area is also home to a range of wildlife from lizards and turtles, to grey ravens and blue jays. Historical ruins on the grounds of the park include burial caves, an aqueduct, agricultural installations, a Roman bathhouse, a Hasmonean cemetery, and a Crusader fortress. Two Second Temple-era ritual baths were also discovered there.
My tour of the park with the Eretz HaHashmonaim Centre for Study and Tours gave me the opportunity to see things that I have never noticed before, even though we have picnicked in the park many times over the years. We drove through the park, stopping several times to see historical ruins and to hear about the various battles that took place in the area. Joshua fought there against the Canaanite king. There were also fierce battles in the Ayalon Valley between the Hasmoneans and the Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. In the first stage of the Arab occupation of the land of Israel in the 7th century CE, this valley served as a centre for their forces. Many fierce battles also took place here, between the Israel Defense Forces and the Jordanian Arab Legion, during the War of Independence. We learnt that Ariel Sharon, Israel's 11th Prime Minister, was shot in the area, in the First Battle of Latrun. His brigade suffered 139 deaths. Sharon survived because he was helped by a 16 year-old soldier under his command who virtually carried him through the field, surrounded by Arabs, relying only on Sharon’s flawless sense of direction to guide them to safety. From then on, it was declared that an Israeli soldier would never be left in the field, no matter how badly injured.
Battles aside, we stopped to see an ancient wine press carved in the rock, where grapes were pressed to make the grape juice that was fermented into wine, and enjoyed the stunning panoramic views from Derech HaTamar (Tamar Trail) at the eastern edge of the park. Shvil HaMa'ayanot (the Valley of the Springs) was our next stop. The valley is around 1.5 kilometres long, and alongside it are interesting remains from the water system of the Roman city of Emmaus-Nicopolis. The aqueducts in the valley were built in the Late Roman period (3rd and 4th centuries CE). Along the trail were what seemed like thousands of blossoming almond trees, as well as fig and pomegranate trees, all surrounded by beautiful terraces built for farming. Especially notable along the trail was the Roman Tomb, a grave site of a family that lived here 1,800 years ago, carved in the rock (bottom photo).
The Ayalon Canada Park is a favourite destination for off-road bikers, hikers and picnickers who enjoy the scenery and the weather, but few know the story of the former Arab villages on whose land the park now sits. Until 1967 the Arabs were able to endanger the old Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway by taking advantage of the hills around the Ayalon Canada Park and their commanding view of the valley. The mobilisation of Egyptian forces along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula was the start of the Six Day War, and the Israeli Army captured the region in which the Ayalon Canada Park is located on the second day of the war. Israel annexed the land as part of strategic plans to widen the Jerusalem corridor. Four Arab villages were razed and the Ayalon Canada Park was established on the lands of two of the villages, Imwas and Yalo. The villagers were offered compensation but were not allowed to return.
Thanks to the generous support of Canadian friends of KKL-JNF (Jewish National Fund), the Ayalon Canada Park was completed in 1984. JNF Canada continues to fund the upkeep of the park through donations received for this purpose. In the middle of the park is a forest planted to commemorate over 300 American and Canadian Jews who died in Israel's wars or were victims of terror.

Monday, 23 March 2015

(They're) Leaving on a Jet Plane

Liora was turning 21. She loves the colour purple, collects elephants, and has got the travel bug! She was heading off to Thailand the week after her birthday, so my customer wanted me to feature it on her birthday card. I have shown her with a travel bag slung over her shoulder. An aeroplane soaring through the clouds can be seen in the background, and a palm tree in front of a bright yellow sun sets the scene.
This cute little elephant was only 5 cm wide. My kids think that I should put one on every card!
My customer's parents were soon to be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. She sent me a photo of the couple and told me a little about them. They are enjoying playing bridge together in their retirement - thus the fun oversized playing cards -  and also they have four daughters and a number of grandchildren in four continents: Israel, South Africa, Australia and the USA. This means that they travel quite a bit! I added the flags of each of these countries to the card, along with a gold 50, since gold is the precious metal associated with the 50th wedding anniversary.
My customer told me that she thought the cards were amazing!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dancing Girl

A new customer asked me to make a Bat Mitzvah card for a young lady called Ariella. Ariella, she told me, is the eldest of four children so, despite her age, she is a bit of a superhero when it comes to childcare, cooking and babysitting. She really loves ballet and recently got her first pair of pointe ballet shoes, so my customer was keen for me to show those on the card too. She also goes to the Scouts, likes reading and, according to her Mum, "of course she likes watching rubbish television!"
I have shown the Bat Mitzvah girl balancing on her toes in her new pointe shoes in the centre of the card. She is surrounded by all the things she enjoys in life: cooking pots and utensils, a television, books and the badge of the Hebrew Scouts Movement in Israel. I added a Magen David (Star of David) and the number 12, since that is the age that a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah and is considered an adult, according to Orthodox Jewish law.
I heard from Mum that the card was Ariella's favourite!
I haven't blogged about anything food related for quite some time but, since I have mentioned Ariella's love of cooking, I thought I'd show you the chocolate brownies which I made recently, and which I think deserve a mention. I enjoy baking but have never really managed a decent chocolate brownie. I have tried several brownie recipes over the years - some because they were simple and quick to make, and others because they just sounded delicious - but I never got them quite right. Some time ago I spotted Margo Sugarman's Lush Chocolate Brownies recipe on her blog, "The Kosher Blogger". I used to work with Margo in my previous life as a graphic designer at a news magazine, and now I enjoy following her cooking adventures through Facebook. She describes these brownies as "the Holy Grail of brownie recipes and everything a real classic brownie should be." She's not wrong! The brownies came out chocolaty and rich, and were wolfed down at speed, even though I had doubled the recipe (I do have a teenager and a preteen in the house!). I won't be looking any further for a good brownie recipe.
An interesting aside, brownies were invented by a prominent Chicago socialite, Bertha Palmer, whose husband owned the Palmer House Hotel. Bertha asked a pastry chef for a dessert suitable for ladies attending the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. She requested a confection smaller than a piece of cake, though still retaining cake-like characteristics, easily eaten from boxed lunches. The first brownies featured an apricot glaze and walnuts, and are still made at the modern hotel according to the original recipe.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


The ancient archaeological site of Shivta, located in the north of the Negev, close to the border with Egypt, reminded us very much of our visit to Pompeii. A Nabataean city that was first settled in the Early Roman period, in the 1st century BCE, Shivta grew prosperous in the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE). The city was part of the Nabataean Spice Route, transporting frankincense, myrrh and other spices from Oman and Yemen, crossing Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and ending at the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean, for export to the Classic world of Greece and Rome. Along the way are forts, caravansaries, springs, cisterns and milestones, as well as the ancient cities of Mamshit, Avdat, Haluza and Shivta, built in order to support and protect the Spice Route.
Shivta was abandoned following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE but, unlike most cities in the Negev, it was not destroyed, possibly because it was too far away to be pillaged. Over time many of the structures have collapsed and have been restored by archaeologists. Walking through the ruins really gave us the feeling of walking through what was once a real live city.
Shivta differs from the other Nabataean cities in the Negev in that it is not located on a main commercial route. It was also unwalled, and so may be regarded as a large farming village. Two magnificent churches dating from the 4th century CE, when most of the residents adopted Christianity, can be seen in the village, as well as residential areas, large courtyards and public squares, oil presses, wine presses, water cisterns and impressive water collection pools. A mosque was added in the 8th or 9th century CE. The construction of the mosque was carried out with care not to damage the church's baptistery, and so it seems that both communities of Christians majority and the Muslim minority lived peacefully together.
Since Shivta has no natural water sources, its residents, who were mainly farmers, carefully collected every rare drop of rain. The streets leading from the northern part of the city drain into large collection pools in which "notes" written on pieces of pottery were found, with confirmations as to the cleaning of the pools, which was part of the city’s residents responsibility. No water was wasted amid the harsh desert conditions.
It was not until the 20th century that archaeologists rediscovered Shivta and began excavating. An attraction in the national park is the Colt house, used by the team of archaeologists led by H. Colt (son of the famous American gun manufacturer), who dug at Shivta from 1933 to 1934. Over the entrance is an inscription in ancient Greek which translates, "With good luck. Colt built (this house) with his own money."
Studies and restoration of Shivta began in 1958, but seem not to have been completed. Signs identify the main buildings, but wandering through the deserted city I was fascinated but honestly a little bit clueless about what I was seeing until I did some further reading at home.
In 2005 Shivta was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In an unusual arrangement, a family now lives in the Colt house. They operate a unique restaurant preparing typical desert fare, as well as a guest house. They can also provide visitors with information about the site and about human life in the desert in the past and present, though we did not know this on the day we visited. A modern-day orchard north of the site utilises ancient methods to grow various fruits.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Second Bar Mitzvah

I have made many, many Bar Mitzvah cards over the years, but this Bar Mitzvah card request was an unusual one. It was the first time that I was asked to make a card for an 83 year old man! 
Among some Jews, a man who has reached the age of 83 will customarily celebrate a second Bar Mitzvah. My customer's father had reached that wonderful age and had decided to commemorate the event. A Bar Mitzvah essentially marks the day that a 13 year old boy becomes obligated to do the mitzvahs (God’s commandments to the Jewish people in the Torah). Once he has passed that age, he is "Bar Mitzvahed" until the final day of his life. But some people like to celebrate again, often after a period of spiritual reawakening and re-dedication to Torah study and observance. They choose a milestone birthday when they are once again called to the Torah, and they read the Torah portion that they read on their 13th birthday (or the Torah portion that would have been read on that date).
The idea for a second Bar Mitzvah comes from the Book of Psalms where King David noted that 70 years is the average person’s lifespan, and a man reaching that age starts a new life. Therefore, 70 years plus 13 years equals 83, and, if he wishes, a man can have his second Bar Mitzvah.
My customer was looking forward to travelling to England to mark the day with her father and other members of the family. Her father, she told me, has always spent a great deal of time choosing birthday cards for everyone in his family, so she wanted to come up with something extra special to mark his second Bar Mitzvah celebration. Dad sings in a choir, and is a big fan of cricket and football. I made sure that his card also included some religious elements: a tallit, which is often first worn by boys on their Bar Mitzvah; and a Magen David (Shield of David, or as it is more commonly known, the Star of David), the symbol most commonly associated with Judaism today.
This young man was celebrating his first Bar Mitzvah, at the somewhat younger age of 13. He is a big fan of the English Premier League football team West Ham United F.C., so the team's newest shirt had to appear on his Bar Mitzvah card. He worked on a charity project loosely based on the board game Monopoly before his Bar Mitzvah, so the Monopoly board and some little red and green Monopoly houses went on to the card too. He is also a fan of Lego, as my own 12 year old is, so I added a few of the coloured bricks to the design. Finally, I finished it off with a gold Magen David (Star of David) and the number 13, this boy's Bar Mitzvah age.
My customer also wanted some more cards for the other members of the family. This was my opportunity to create my full range of Bar Mitzvah cards - a Magen David; a Torah scroll and tallit prayer shawl; and a Bar Mitzvah boy wearing a kippa. I am always coming up with new ideas. Another Bar Mitzvah design could likely be added soon!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Eden and Emily

Eden recently turned 15 and her Mum asked me to make a special card for her big day. Dance still had to be the theme of the card, Mum said, just like it has been several times before. (You can read the lovely story about one of the first cards I was commissioned to make for Eden here.) She goes to Hip-hop, jazz and modern dance classes - busy girl - but is also very studious and Mum wanted some school books to be on there too. Eden also regularly attends meetings of the NOAM youth movement (NOAM is an acronym for No'ar Masorti, Masorti Youth, a Zionist youth movement.) so I popped the movement's badge onto the card as well.
She looks pretty happy with it, doesn't she?
Emily was turning 18 and her auntie wanted a lot on her customised card! She specifically asked for the number 18 to be in the middle of the card with the words חי – Chai in Hebrew and in English next it. Chai, which is pronounced as if you were saying "hi" in English, is a Hebrew word and symbol that means "life." It is spelt with the Hebrew letters Het (ח) and Yud (י). According to the gematria, which is a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters, the letters Het (ח) and Yud (י) add up to the number 18. The Het has a value of 8 and the yud has a value of 10. As a result, 18 is a popular number that represents good luck. At weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events Jewish people often give gifts of money in multiples of 18, symbolically giving the recipient the gift of "life" or luck.
Along with wishing her niece "Chai", good luck, my customer also wanted me to include many of her interests on the card. These include Netflix, the high-fashion retailer Topshop, Mac Cosmetics, Capital Radio, the television music competition The XFactor and sushi.
Phew! I think I got everything on there.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Hirbet Midras

Adulam Park is a nature reserve in central Israel which spreads over 6,500 dunams and features rolling green hills, rich natural foliage and stunning views. It was here that Judah, the son of Jacob, met his first wife, and it is the place where King David sought refuge after being expelled from the city of Gath. Remnants of ancient settlements have been found on almost every hill in Adulam, and special sites within the park include the Midras Ruins, Atari Ruins and Burgin Ruins. We recently visited the Midras Ruins, after stopping by Kakadu in Moshav Tzafririm, which borders the Adulam Park.
Hirbet Midras (the Midras Ruins), are the remains of an agricultural village which dates back to the 10th century BCE until approximately the 4th century CE, when the village was deserted. The ruins of houses, a system of burial caves and a burial pyramid, hiding tunnels used during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132-135 CE, and a columbarium cut in the rock for the housing of pigeons, have all been discovered at the site.
We had visited Hirbet Midras previously in search of Kalaniyot (anemones) and Rakefot (Persian Cyclamen), but this time I was looking for the Pyramid, a large pyramid-shaped monument with several stairs, which was probably used as an impressive tombstone for a burial system located next to the pyramid. 10 metres long at its base, and reaching a height of 3.5 metres (the top layers of the pyramid are missing, and the original height of the pyramid is estimated at 5 metres), it is thought that there is no other monument like this in the whole of Israel. This type of monument is known in Hebrew as a nefesh (soul). In Arabic its name is al-mantar, the scout.
A little down the hill from the pyramid, past a hewn stonewall, probably from an ancient synagogue, a burial cave with a rolling stone to close the entrance to two burial rooms can be found. The inner burial room has decorated arches. Multiple niches for burial can be seen in both rooms. In the time of the Second Temple, burial customs were such that when somebody died their body would be laid out on a shelf in a cave which would be sealed with a heavy stone. A few months later, after the flesh had decayed, the bones would be transferred to a special bone box, whose size was determined by the femur, the longest bone in the human body. The cave once contained small ossuaries for collecting the bones of the decomposed bodies. Pottery found in the burial cave was used from the 1st century BCE until the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE.
We walked on until we reached the Columbarian Cave. The shape of the many concaved holes carved into the cave walls explains the name: columba in Greek is pigeon, and columbarium is dovecote. Researchers are unsure about the genuine use of the holes but it seems that one of the uses was for collecting dove-dung for organic fertiliser. The pigeons were kept as a source of food, were used for sacrifices, and also to deliver messages.
Hirbet Midras has an ancient tunnel system, said to have been dug by the Bar Kokhba Jewish rebels fighting against the Roman Empire. It is likely that those who dug the hidden tunnels took advantage of more ancient underground chambers. The system of interconnecting rooms - over fifty underground caves and cisterns - were used as shelter for the fighters, as well as for storage of food, oil and water. Most of the chambers allow for standing but in the connecting tunnels one must crawl on all fours. The Romans eventually defeated the Jewish rebels, and the agricultural village was destroyed after the revolt, but was rebuilt and used a few hundred years later by Christians during the Byzantine Period.
The tunnel system can be entered and navigated by crawling; arrows mark the direction to be followed. The trail between the tunnels and the caves is fascinating, and was especially loved by my youngest son who found them a great thrill to crawl through. There is a lot of turning and crawling, so you need a torch, a tight waistline and no fear of the dark in order to enjoy the experience! (Okay, I admit at his point that neither Mister Handmade in Israel nor I had the slightest inclination to crawl through the tunnels ourselves.) Your torch will illuminate niches where oil lamps once lay and other carvings in the rock.
The Pyramid, the burial rooms and the beautiful seasonal wild flowers spotted during our visit to Adulam Park were interesting enough, but it was the "Crawling Cave" which proved to be the most fun for my son. He tried the tunnels out when we first arrived at the park, and we finished off our tour with yet another visit.