Sunday, February 8, 2009

The situation

For the last 100 years or so, Jews have struggled to return to their ancestral homeland, even if it meant displacing the people who already lived there. For centuries, Jews and Arabs lived here together in relative peace and mutual respect. But a movement began in the late 19th century for Jews from all over the world to relocate to Palestine, which centuries before was the kingdom of Israel. The most radical of these Jews insisted that God’s Old Testament promise of this land to the Israelites applied to them. Some were willing to do anything to regain the land. Violence broke out between these immigrants and the local population, Arabs who had lived here for centuries. Then World War II happened and, in the ashes of the Holocaust, world opinion overwhelmingly turned in favor of the creation of a Jewish homeland here. With no provisions made for the native population, the U.N. voted in favor of the creation of the modern state of Israel in May 1948. By some estimates, nearly a million inhabitants were forced from their houses and off their land as Jewish residents of the new nation sought to claim their new homeland.

For the more than 60 years since, these two peoples have fought over every parched inch of this land. Although neither side is innocent, one side clearly has superior power and might. The degree of control Israel’s government exerts over the Palestinian people is mind-boggling in its complexity. One small example: the mother of one of my co-workers is allowed to visit her daughter’s home only once a year, even though they live not more than 10 or 15 miles apart. Here’s another: Israel sometimes posts soldiers outside Muslim mosques and prevents men 40 and under from entering to pray. Such issues raise my ire – but cause real hardships for Palestinians.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Serious times in Jerusalem

Each time I've been asked in the last five months if I'm having a good time living in Jerusalem, I've struggled to answer. Living in the land of the Bible, walking the streets that Jesus supposedly walked, how can I not be enjoying myself?

But the answer occurred to me this morning. I didn't come here to be a tourist. I didn't come here for fun. I came because there is a crisis of justice here, and I was told I could help. I can only hope and pray that what I do does help or that, at the very least, it doesn't make things worse.

I haven’t used the blog, as I had anticipated, to explain the situation in Israel-Palestine as I see it, mainly because I just didn't know where to begin. But with the current situation in Gaza, it seems callous to blog about anything but.

What a tragedy. Two peoples are held captive by fear, and more fear is the solution their leaders offer. Violence never begets peace, only more violence.

But at the risk of seeming to minimize the violence from the Palestinian side, I’ll state right up front that my sympathies lie with them. Israel is a superpower compared to Palestine. And, like a true superpower, Israel is using its disproportionate might disproportionately. It seems callous to compare the deaths on both sides like so many poker chips. But the asymmetry of the situation necessitates it. Further, Israel has said their bombardment is in response to rockets fired from Gaza. On the Israeli side there have been 13 deaths. It is estimated that more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed. And the bombing goes on.

I am far too new to this subject to offer an in-depth discussion of the situation. But let me offer a few observations. Surely both sides use propaganda to support their cause. But Israeli spokespeople are telling some whoppers. Yes it’s true that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But Gazans are hardly a “free” people. Israel controls all access to Gaza by land, sea and air. It destroyed its airport. It positions its navy in the Mediterranean, keeping out ships that try to bring in humanitarian aid. Except for one on the Egypt-Gaza border, Israel controls all border crossings. Yes, it has allowed in truckloads of supplies. But is a fraction of the goods needed for the 1.5 million who live there. Yes, Israel discontinues operations for three hours each afternoon. But aid workers say much more time is needed.

Even before this incursion, Israel controlled who went in and out of Gaza. I live on the campus of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. It is the only place in the country where Palestinians can get certain kinds of medical treatment. Those Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza must get permits to travel to the hospital, which Israel routinely denies even to seriously ill people.

No, I don’t condone Hamas’s firing of rockets into Israel. But neither do I condone the violence Israel has done to Gaza -- turning it into a virtual prison, allowing little more than starvation rations to enter and now, rolling their tanks into cities by day and dropping bombs on it by night. A complex situation is made more complex; precarious times are made desperate. It’s a good thing I didn’t come here looking for fun.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Come 'n' get it!

Anyone want to take a guess as to how much these groceries cost me? Some of the items are recognizable; among those less distinguishable are a box of Ritz-type snack crackers, a bag of oatmeal, a container of frozen juice and, unknown to me at the time I purchased them, a dozen organic, free-range eggs. $30? $50? $75?

If you guessed $75, you'd be close. It was actually about $73.44. Yeah, groceries are expensive here. Here's the breakdown:






1 doz



Lime juice

32 oz



Lemon juice

1 liter



Snack crackers

12 oz



Tortilla chips

1 lb




500 gr



Brown rice

1 kg



Rolled oats

500 gr



Anti-perspirant stick

1.5 oz



Crushed tomatoes

large can




32 oz



Coconut milk

13.5 oz



Colgate toothpaste

132 gr



Cottage cheese

about 2 C



Chick peas

medium can



Peach halves

large can



Chicken boullion

400 gr



Natural peanut butter

18 oz



Green peas, dried

500 gr



Mango slices

medium can




medium can



Creamed corn

medium can



Green beans, frozen

800 gr



Hot dogs

400 gr



Mango juice, frozen

280 ml






Here are a couple other items, just because they still had their tags on:

Hair conditioner, 700 mL 15.9 $3.98
Shampoo, 750 mL 22.0 5.50

Here are some estimates of other "essentials":
Beef 35 shekels/kilo, or about $4/lb.
Chicken 18 shekels/kilo, or about $2.05/lb. for whole chickens
Whole-wheat pita bread 10 for 6 shekels, or about $1.50

For one of the two Thanksgiving gatherings I attended, I made my mom's "Cranberry Delight." I forgot to buy the ingredients the Sunday before, so I had to make a special trip on Wednesday. Nearly $25 later, I had all I needed for the scrumptious dessert. You probably won't have to pay nearly as much as I did. Many of the ingredients I bought were imported from the U.S., thus were super-spendy here.

For instance, the graham crackers were 18.9 shekels, or about $4.73/box. One can of cranberries (fresh/frozen not available) was 11.9 shekels, or about $2.98. I don't know how much the cream cheese was, but I'm sure it was a lot because I'm a long way from Philadelphia! And pecans are expensive anywhere. These were $6.68 for, I'd guess, about 9 oz. And because your mouths are probably watering, here's that recipe:

Cranberry Delight
Yields: 8 servings
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons orange marmalade
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
Combine crumbs and butter; press into an ungreased 8-in. square baking dish. Chill. In a saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in pecans and marmalade; refrigerate until completely cool. Meanwhile, combine cream cheese, confectioners' sugar, milk and vanilla in a mixing bowl; beat until smooth. Fold in whipped cream. Spread over crust. Top with cranberry mixture. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

As you can see, I've had to adjust my grocery budget here. I also eat less meat, although I tended not to eat a lot at home either. So if you have any good vegetarian recipes, send 'em my way!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life on the hill

Take an ancient city, a mission job there, a nice camera and a laptop computer and you’d think you have the perfect recipe for an exciting blog.

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. I guess what I didn’t count on is being overwhelmed with blog material to the point of paralysis. There’s so much to say about this place that I don’t know where to begin. So I’ll start here. It’s been more difficult adjusting to life here than I expected. Unlike the other places I’ve visited overseas, I didn’t spend any time longing for and dreaming about living in Jerusalem – thus, I’ve not started out with the usual infatuation I feel in new cultures. You’d think that’d be a good thing. But I think it’s prevented me with “bonding” with the place. Maybe it’s better for that to happen slowly, over time. I’ll let you know in 20 months!

So I’ll start with something basic. I live in a small apartment in the guest house of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. If you have Google Earth installed on your computer, you can zoom in on the guest house and see where it is in relation to the rest of Jerusalem. (Here I could complicate things with a discussion about what constitutes “Jerusalem.” But I’ll save that for later.)

The hospital has been around for nearly 100 years, starting in 1910 as a hospice and rest home. Since 1950 it’s operated mainly as a hospital for refugee or needy Palestinians. The guest house has served various purposes over the years, but right now it houses about 25 people who are serving with various humanitarian projects in the area. Other buildings on the campus provide office space and housing for other faith-based missions, such as World Vision. Also within the walls are 800 olive trees, the oil from which provides money for the hospital’s “poor fund.” The fund pays for medical treatment for those who can’t pay for it themselves. The hospital sits atop the Mount of Olives (“Jabal al-Zaytoon” in Arabic); the chapel’s bell tower is a prominent landmark and can be seen for miles around. The hospital campus also includes a little store where you can get all the basics like milk, peanut butter, hummus and ice cream bars.

My apartment is basically two rooms: a bedroom with two single beds and another room that serves as living/dining/office, with a closet-sized kitchen to one side, and two bathrooms. The apartment is at least twice the size of any of the other rooms here and is the only one with a kitchen. The rest of the residents have a shared kitchen/TV room. So mine feels pretty luxurious by comparison!
Speaking of residents, there is a group of campus residents to whom I’m particularly attached. There are lots of photos of these feline friends on my picture website ( They are my surrogate animal children, since I had to leave my kitty King behind.

So, there you have it – life at Augusta Victoria guest house. It would be a big help to me if readers would ask specific questions about life in Jerusalem for me to answer on the blog. Otherwise, it’s hard to narrow down possible topics.

And so, because my dad has asked multiple times for me to tell him what prices are like, that’s what I hope to write about next. Guess I’d better get out the grocery receipts!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Election night 2008

There are lots of reasons why I'll always remember election night 2008 -- not the least of which is that "my" candidate won. But it won't be because I voted by absentee ballot because I was out of the country. I cast my vote for Bill Clinton ahead of time in 1996 in order to spend November and December in Russia. This time I applied for an absentee ballot, which I received and completed while I was in Jerusalem. Nor will it be for the fun I had staying up all night waiting for results with the group you see at the left. It won't even be because of all the emotions I felt at the incredible result -- relief, hope, joy.

Instead, I hope it will be because I intend to fulfill a realization I made that night. Obama's victory for me did not signal the successful end of a campaign. For me it was the beginning -- the beginning of my holding my president-elect to his promises, of my demanding accountability from Obama for how he governs our country. I made a choice, I placed my trust in him, based on him putting himself forward as an ethical, intelligent, responsible leader. His job is to live up to his pledges; mine is to hold him to it. I intend to be every bit as critical of him as I was of his GOP predecessor. Now the work begins.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Wall Drug of Wisconsin?

At least one reader of this blog will get the significance of this photo, which I recently snapped outside the Old City ...

... especially when I enlarge it. (And no, it's not about the guy, although he's not too hard on the eyes.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Who's your hero?

Even non-sports enthusiasts like me know that Michael Phelps was the hero of the recent Olympic games. His amazing performances won him fame, admiration and, no doubt, millions of dollars in product endorsements.

I’m no Michael Phelps, but when people praise me for leaving the comforts of home to volunteer for two years in a foreign country, I’m inclined to put myself on a p
edestal not unlike the three-tiered rostrum of the Olympics. But the truth of the matter is that I did not get here on my own, the same as Phelps did not win eight gold medals on his own. I don’t know who sacrificed and worked so that Phelps could achieve renown and glory. But I’ll show you who are the real heroes in my story.

This is my family. Every one of them, from little 4-year-old Levi to my septuagenarian parents, made sacrifices without which I would not be in Jerusalem today. Each of my three siblings spent time packing, cleaning or completing maintenance projects. Each of my in-laws hauled boxes, cooked meals or watched kids so that others could help with trip preparations. Each of my seven nieces and nephews was bereft of one parent or the other while they attended to my needs.

If I could hand out Olympic medals, I’d award not one but two gold medals – one to each of my parents. They didn’t just make multiple trips to my house to help, but they lived there for days at a time. Now in their well-deserved retirement, they gave up their free time, their own bed and their central air conditioning to pound, scrub, paint and haul at my house. They were patient with me when my head spun in indecision. They encouraged me when I became overwhelmed with all that had to be done. They soothed and reassured me when the stress rendered me a sobbing mess. And when I had to board a plane on Aug. 19 and leave things undone, they went back to my house – again and again – until it was done. Tears well up in my eyes if I think about this for more than an instant.

There’s another medal to be awarded, this one to the step-mama of my cat. When I first began talking about going overseas, my friend Lois volunteered to foster my pets before I even had a chance to ask. My beloved beagle, Yukon Cornelius, went to heaven in February, leaving only King in need of room and board. So Lois is feeding, watering and scooping poop for King for the next two years. It is said that “
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But I think cleaning out someone else's litter box is right up there! On top of pet care, Lois gave up nearly a week of vacation days to come and help out just before my departure. She was my chauffeur when we needed to go somewhere. She was my brain when I was too flustered to think. She was my hands when things needed to be packed for storage at the last minute. And now she is my heart, loving my cat when I’m too far away to do it myself.

The three weeks before I left for Jerusalem was one of the most stressful times in my life. But the result of it is that I have the privilege of spending two years in Jerusalem. What my helpers got out of it was a few free meals and unlimited boxed wine. Big deal. I guess that’s what amazes me most about all the help I received – they did it even though there was nothing in it for them. As I told my parents one night through my sobs, I never imagined anyone would ever love me that much. I think I must be crazy to separate myself for two years from that kind of love.

Unlike Michael Phelps, I don’t have eight valuable gold medals or million-dollar contracts with which to show my gratitude to my heroes. I just hope they know how much I appreciate and love and miss them. And I hope they realize that every newsletter I create or web page I publish or speech I write is made possible because of their selfless service to me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Teach a cat to fish

At age 15, my beloved cat, King Carnivore, is probably a little too old to be relocated half way around the world. So my dear friend Lois agreed to add her to her own two-cat household while I was away. Having proved her portability on a camping trip earlier this summer, King was invited to join Lois and her husband, Darin, on another trip into the great outdoors. The destination this time was the "garlodge" (that is, a feature of northern Wisconsin architecture in which a garage functions as a lodge) of Lois' sister, Linda, and her husband, Jeff. Lois' very entertaining account of King's adventures follows. (Below: This is King curled up with a tackle box on her first fishing adventure.)

Lois writes:

If there was ever a cat cut out to be an ambassador, it's King. She's not afraid to go to new and different places, she seems to be inured to the difficulties and/or boredom of travel (sleeping is her favorite remedy), she makes friends easily (Linda and Jeff, this time). In short, according to Darin, she's just like you! Except for one aborted escape attempt behind the Thorpedo Restaurant when we were seeing if she'd take a potty break in the her box in the back of the truck, we had no troubles whatsoever.

We did broaden her horizons on this trip in a couple of ways. First, we've given her retail experience, and not in the way you think. As a surprise to Darin, I scheduled an appointment at Toys for Trucks (yes, a "guy" truck accessory store) to have them install a tonneau cover on the back of the truck so that he could get the secure, weather-proof storage he's been pining for before we trekked yet again across the state with our weekend goods out there for all the world to see. This required the truck without us in it for half an hour. I asked if I could just stay in the truck in their shop, as I was traveling with a cat. He said, "You're more than welcome to bring her in here ... we get guys bringing their dogs in all the time." I shrugged and complied. King handled it like a pro. She sat in her bed in my lap in the waiting area next to the Outdoor Life and American Hunter magazines (two things she's big into) until she tired of the view. Then she wriggled out of my grasp and went on walkabout. Darin did stop her from going back into the office, but otherwise she checked out displays of wheel covers, tonneau covers, etc. On a side note, her full name came in handy in introductions to the staff. It amused me to increase the machismo level of bringing a cat into the world of men and dogs by introducing her as "King Carnivore"!

By our last evening, Jeff had decided she was pretty cool, and had even reintroduced the topic of getting a cat for Linda. We decided to spend the time after a late dinner fishing on the dock. I decided that King had seen everything else, so I thought, "What the hell! Teach at cat to fish ... or at least let her watch." I brought her on a makeshift leash down the 70 steps to the dock. Everyone was sitting on the pontoon since it provided fish cover and had the only seats, so I joined them, figuring the solid, carpeted floor would be less disconcerting than a slatted dock. After 10 or 15 minutes without any luck, Jeff said, "Should we take the boat out for a cruise?" I reminded him that we did have a feline companion about whom a week ago he said would have to stay in the "garlodge" when we took the boat out. He wasn't concerned at all, and King didn't appear to be either, so she is now the first cat of my acquaintance to have gone pontooning! She again handled it like a pro, keeping her sea legs under her and even "helping" a little with piloting. Matter of face, the only fear she showed all weekend was when Darin shot across the room to stop her from scooting her butt across Linda and Jeff's sleeping bag. After she heard "King, no!" and saw him descending on her, she tucked herself quickly under the bed, but came out with some reassurance from him that she wasn't in big trouble.

Now she's back home again, and we're picking up where we left off with developing kitty detente in our house. There's a little less hissing (although still a lot of staring), and King has been allowed by Xan [Editor: One of Lois’ cats] to spend a few hours in the "playpen" (deck, that is). Do you really need her back? ;-)

What's next for King -- sky-diving?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Welcome to Israel!

After many hours in airplanes and in airports, I had the pleasure of a traditional Israeli welcome. I thought my U.S. credentials would allow me to fly through customs. So when the woman in the passport kiosk began asking a lot of questions about whether I was traveling alone and where I was staying, I was taken by surprise. She finally handed my passport back to me and, in yet another line, I waited to pass through a gate manned by an Israeli soldier. You can imagine my shock when he allowed me to pass but handed my documents to someone other than me.

The young woman told me to take a seat because they were going to have to ask me a few questions. Immediately I began to wonder, what had I said or done that had caused concern? Was it the fact that I said I was staying at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer … I mean, Augusta Victoria Hospital guest house? Did she know that I intended to stay longer than the one month I claimed? Did she know my “return ticket” for Sept. 18 was a dummy? I waited a little nervously as I watched the police question others who had been detained. I assumed the others were Palestinians, who receive such treatment as a matter of course.

More than anything, though, I was curious as to what they would ask me. Finally, after dispatching the other detainees, my name was called. Was this my first trip to Jerusalem? Did I know anyone there? Where was I going to stay? How long was I going to be there? What sites would I see? How was I getting to Jerusalem? What did I do back in the United States? They asked questions like these over and over, as if trying to catch me in a mistake. Their manner was polite if somewhat haughty, as though they wanted me to know they could deny me entry into Israel.

Finally, one officer decided to check out my story that Pastor Mark Holman would be waiting for me and went off in search of him. It was nearly two hours since my plane had landed. I just prayed that Mark hadn’t given up on me and gone home. After a long wait, the officer returned and handed my passport back to me. “Welcome to Israel,” he said. “Sorry for the inconvenience, but this is Israel,” he said.

Israel, indeed – probably the only country in the world where a goody-two-shoes like me might somehow constitute a threat. I pondered these things as I tried to locate my luggage and my ride. Later that day I learned that there had been cases of Western women being wooed by extremists and used to carry contraband into the country. So the cautiousness of the Israelis was not without warrant.

That’s one of the paradoxes of this land: Extremists have carried out horrific attacks on Israelis. But does Israel’s response – police detention, checkpoints, land closures, disenfranchisement – decrease extremism? Or does it intensify it?

For me, the detention was little more than an inconvenience. But it gave me a tiny glimpse into the indignities the Palestinians suffer on a daily basis. For this I’m grateful.

Welcome to Israel, Allison. Welcome, indeed!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Please pass the Kleenex

"Love you."

This simple and unexpected sentiment from one of my cousins at a recent family gathering seemed to open a floodgate of emotion in me. From then on, the mere mention of my upcoming trip and the related two-year separation from family and friends was enough to bring on a shower of tears. My eyes leaked and my nose ran practically the whole four-hour ride home with my sister and brother-in-law. (This was apparently, in my brother-in-law's estimation, one of the most newsworthy events of the weekend.)

Not usually one to cry, I suddenly found myself in tears as, back home, I packed objects that reminded me of those I love. I again grieved the loss of my cat, Frances, who succumbed to kidney failure two years ago, as I disposed of the apparatus I had used to give her fluids. I recycled the plastic detergent bottle poop scoop of my dear departed dog Yukon only after many tears and several photos of the unsightly thing. And a mere glimpse of a family member cleaning or repairing something in my house as they helped me prepare to go left me momentarily blinded by tears. Among the volunteers were my mom and dad, who must have questioned my stability as they helped me two weeks before my departure. Every other thing out of their mouths turned me into a sobbing 6-year-old.

Lucky for me, this crying phase was just a phase and I was able to get back to work. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe it was stress. Maybe being emotional is to be expected when one is moving to the other side of the world.

Those around us let us know we're cared for by the way they treat us. But maybe it's especially nice, at least once in a while, to be told, "Love you."