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Riding a Jeep in the Golan Heights

Taking a break in the Golan Heights

There is not one big vacation that comes to mind that I didn’t suffer from some kind of motion sickness.

I do not do well with motion. When I asked my friends back home who had been on one of these jeep rides in Israel how it was,  they described it like being on a roller coaster.

I do not do roller coasters. Even stop-and-go traffic makes me ill.

But I am still glad I embarked on a two-hour jeep ride through the Golan Heights. Like anything else in Israel, every  tourist activity, even a seemingly carefree jeep ride, is an opportunity to learn and further reinforce the fact that land, water and security are never things taken for granted.

The scenery along the ride was beautiful. The recent winter rains keep pastures and fields green.

Fields of Wheat

Cows graze along the pastures. The rainfall in the winter provides grass for the cows, which then provides  milk, butter and other dairy products for the Israelis.

A view from the Golan Heights looking down into the Hula Valley. The mountains Lebanon is in the distance.

But, within that beauty is a constant reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that the people below lived in constant fear when the Syrians controlled the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights are high bluffs that were captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

Fact: Israel is not hungry  for more land. They are hungry for safe, defensible borders. So, why then, does Israel not give it back? First of all, what country in the history of the world has ever been put upon to give back land it won in a war?  Where are the Golan Heights and why are they strategically important to Israel?

According to JewishVirtualLibrary, from 1948-67, when Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it used the area as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly sniped at Israeli civilians in the Hulah Valley below, forcing children living in villages to sleep in bomb shelters. In addition, many roads in northern Israel could be crossed only after probing by mine-detection vehicles. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing football near the Lebanon border. In some cases, attacks were carried out by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which Syria allowed to operate from its territory. For more on the Golan Heights, go to JewishVirtualLibrary

If you need a visual to get oriented to this region,  here is a map that shows you just why the Golan is important to Israel’s security. Our jeep toured through the tiny green area. With the current situation in Syria and a Lebanese government that is controlled by Iranian backed Hizbullah, the map shows that Israel is set within one very rough neighborhood:

If you still don’t understand why the Golan Heights are essential to Israel’s security, I’ll let our jeep driver, Avihu Hardy Yessod-Hamala speak for himself.

Avihu is a stout, strong man in his mid-50s with the ruddy complexion of a man who farms for a living. A retired pilot from Israel’s Air Force, Avihu is a fourth generation Israeli. In the early 1900’s, philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild commissioned Avihu’s great-grandfather to come to Israel because of his expertise as an agriculturist. Once in Israel, he helped pre-state Israel’s first wave pioneers learn how to turn northern swampland into farmland as part of Rothschild’s Jewish Colinization Association.

Avihu still lives in the same village in the fertile Hula Valley that his great-grandfather helped found.  The region serves as resting point for 500 million birds that migrate each year from Europe to Africa. Avihu’s family grows fruit like peaches, plums, pears and pomegranates that are sold locally in Israel and exported to Europe.

Avihu remembers as a child the dangers his villagers faced every day they went into the fields. Syrians had a stronghold and fortresses in the hills we drove along. From that vantage point, the farmers in the fields were  like fish in a barrel. Very easy to shoot.

When Avihu was 14, the Six-Day War broke out. Avihu remembers sleeping in those  bunkers mentioned above. He remembers his village being shelled.

In some of the  fields, there are still active mines though the war ended over 40 years ago. The Syrians refuse to tell Israel where the mines are in these fields, so vast parts of land are wired off with warning signs in  Hebrew, English and Arabic.  As we took a break sipping freshly prepared mint and honey tea that Avihu made for us in a portable kettle, we could not help but reflect on the beauty – and the still lingering danger – that surrounded us.

And what if we were … Transplantedsouth?

Getting to Washington D.C. is not what it used to be. Especially if you are Transplantednorth.

I remember as a kid, getting in the car before the crack of dawn, my brother and I clutching pillows and still snug in sweats. We’d watch the sunrise over the New Jersey Turnpike and continue on south on Route 95. We’d have lunch somewhere at a Maryland Welcome rest stop and would arrive at our friends in Maryland, just outside of D.C. by noon. In total, the trip took a little over four hours. Including a stop for lunch.

Not such a direct route when you are driving to Washington D.C. from Western New York. The way ambles through winding roads and Amish country in Pennsylvania, dumps us into sububurban main drags with shopping malls and car dealerships, and winds along both sides of the Susquehana River. Door to door time from Rochester to downtown Washington D.C.: nine hours.

Last month, the family — sans daughter who stayed back in Rochester with a friend to study for finals – went for weekend trip to Washington D.C. to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah (a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age ceremony) of the daughter of some good friends. My husband was excited about being with old friends. I looked forward to reconnecting as well, but at the same time I wanted to have time to show my sons the nation’s capital.

Somewhere on Route 83, I started playing the “what if” game with my husband:

What if we moved to Washington D.C.?

Husband: I can call my contacts at the Deparment of Energy, I’m sure I could get a job down here very easily.

Me: Imagine that! We would be closer to our friends we grew up with and hung out with in grad school!

(but those darned traffic circles…)

Husband: But the traffic! And my commute would be hell!

Me: Yeah, there is such little traffic in Rochester.

(that’s because everyone is moving away because there are no JOBS) 

Me: And I bet there is a bigger chance I’d land a job in PR or writing for a lobbyist or something.

Husband: But you probably would not get a job as a columnist for the Washington Post. And you wouldn’t get recognized in the supermarket with people telling you they love your column.

Me: True. But I’d be able to find a full-time job that makes real money!

Husband: You’d better, because houses are a lot more expensive down here.

Me: And we’d most likely have to pay for private schools.

Oh, but the schools are so GOOD in Brighton.  Worth every penny of our property taxes….

We sat in silence for a while. The boys had their headsets on and were watching a movie – Matilda, I think – on the car DVD player.

But then, I had more things to add to our “what if” fantasy:

Me: It would be WARMER!

Husband: Yes, but it still snows in Washington and they don’t know how to handle the snow.

Me: That is an excellent point, but to be WARM!

Husband: Do you know how hot it gets in D.C. in the summer?

This is true. It was hot already there, and it was only June. And my Northern-blooded children can barely stand when the temperatures are in the 80’s.

Me: But imagine being so close to all the museums in Washington D.C.

All that culture we could give to our children!

Husband: How many times do you think we’d really get to the city? We would probably have to live way out in the suburbs.

Me: This is true.

(He had a good point)

Husband: We would be closer to our family in New York.

Me: We would be closer to our family. And more people would visit us

(because no one visits us Rochester)

The traffic slowed even more. Friday rush hour traffic. And, the US Open was on. The GPS lady cautioned a six mile back up in 1/2 mile, but we were already IN traffic.

 And somewhere in our conversation, the movie must have ended because the boys piped in:


Rochester, the only home they ever knew.

“You’re right, guys, we’re not moving to Washington D.C. We’re staying in Rochester.” we both said.

But, it is nice to play what if.

Welcome to Canada: Did you bring your Skates?

after a skate, a young couple takes in free samples of beer in a Toronto Brewery

This Christmas vacation, my family took a mini getaway to Toronto.  As an alternative to our New York City visits, we love exploring this cosmopolitan city to the North for its great restaurants, theatres, shopping, and museums. Going round and round on an outdoor skating rink in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures we regret to say was the farthest thing from our minds.

Because our children go to sleep away camp north of Toronto, not only are we having fun getting to know Torontos’ sites but its people.  My daughter spent much of our visit not with us but  with the family of a friend she made from summer camp.  All arrangements were made over Skype through the girls and without one conversation between the adults. All directions were found via GPS. Welcome to long distance friendships in the 21st Century, I guess. 

We dropped Jolie off at her friend’s house and were greeted by the girl’s mother. In the small entryway of the house, we made some awkward chit-chat as the girls settled in for a weekend of catching up and shopping. When we mentioned that we were staying at the Westin Harbour Castle, the mom’s first reaction was:

“They have a lovely ice skating rink just a block from your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

About a half hour later, the father came home after participating in the traditional Canadian Boxing Day, which is the equivalent to our Black Friday for shopping deals and sales. We were introduced and then his wife went down to the basement to get something from their pantry.

In another awkward introductory chit-chat, the father of my daughter’s friend independently asked us the same question:

“There is this great outdoor ice skating rink near your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

Now, both my husband and I looked at each other with great amusement. We were struck that Canadians make the assumption that we actually – all of us – owned our own pair of skates. And there was this second assumption that – upon our arrival to this vast cosmopolitan city, the first thing we would want to do was skate.

Another inquiry of our skating habits was made as we were checking out of our hotel. As we waited with our luggage, the bellhop looked at me and my boys and asked me in his French Canadian accent: “Do your boys skate? Do they play ‘ockey?” I had to say no and I asked him why he asked.

He then pointed to a well dressed young man standing in the lobby. “Because, ma’am, that young man plays hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is only 20 and makes over 2 milion a yaear. So, your boys should liarn to play ‘ockey!”

Now, I am sorry to say that I did not recognize this young man, so this brush with fame was completely wasted on me. And I also appreciated this bellhop’s hope that my young sons held the athletic prowess to be hockey stars, but again he was sorely mistaken. I’m afraid, Canada, that we Americans are just not that into skating.

Or are we? Do you skate? And if so, do you own your own pair?

Over the River and Through the Woods: Tips from Thankful Road Warriors

How do you get from here to there?

Thank goodness for Thanksgiving.  The long weekend affords most of us a breather from modern life’s breakneck pace. We pause to focus on coming together with family and friends, preparing a meal, tossing a football and sleeping late in your own bed.

But,  if you are like my family – transplants – Thanksgiving means hitting the road. Or, heaven forbid, the airports. That is the only way the family-coming-together aspect of the holiday happens for us. 

In our case, traveling is not as idyllic as over the river and through the woods.  It’s more like Down the Thruway and over the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island We Go.  Where there are hardly any woods left to go through.

For eleven years now, we have traveled to see our family every Thanksgiving but one. This is another consequence of being Transplantednorth. If you leave the area where one’s family roots are still entrenched, the roads are rarely traversed the other way. It’s just expected. We are the only part of the family “upstate.”  We left. Everyone else still lives Home — the New York Metro Area. Or, in a term I only learned when transplantednorth – “downstate.” 

And on Thanksgiving, just as the larger planet pulls on its smaller orbiting moons,  down the Thruway we go.

One especially hectic year, we stayed in Rochester for Thanksgiving. The weather was beautiful – warm even —  and we spent a relaxing weekend feasting and playing into the evening at the Brighton Town Hall playground. I prepared perhaps the only Thanksgiving feast I will ever make. I made the turkey on the barbecue. I made a chestnut stuffing ala Martha Stewart. Everything tasted delicious. But the lonely looks on my childrens’ faces taught me a lesson: Thanksgiving tables are too empty without grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

So, after traveling for 11 years with two and then three kids in tow, I have become thankful for a thing or two on what I have learned and would like to share them with you, especially if you are a novice at parenting on the go:

  • I am thankful that cries for Sippy cup refills and diaper changes have been replaced by three contented souls in the back who can pass snacks to each other, operate the remote to the car DVD player, and participate in family sing downs and games of 20 Questions. 
  • I am thankful for every rest stop we have discovered between here and there, especially to kind workers who have supplied us with buckets, hoses and slop sinks for carsickness cleanups.  Really, if you do have a kid that gets sick in the car, find a truck stop like the Flying J Travel Plazas that have showers and washing machines. The folks there are all too kind to help you in your distress.
  • I am thankful that we finally come “home,” we have relatives who bound down steps and out into driveways to greet us, no matter the lateness of the hour.

In our 11 years of travelling down to New York City, here are my family’s dos and don’ts when traveling the Western New York-to-New York City Route:

  • DO strap everything down very carefully. On our first trip back to Rochester, on a windy, windy passage of Route 78 in New Jersey, our Peg Perego Stroller came loose and flew off our roof rack. One minute, there it was, and then it was on the side of the road, thankfully killing or injuring no one in its catapulted flight.
  • If you are traveling with very young children that might become carsick, but may not alert you at the most opportune time that they will become carsick,  DO pack a puke kit. This kit includes a roll of paper towels, a bottle of Lysol all-purpose liquid cleaner, and a change of clothes that is easily accessible.
  • If traveling with those same small children, DO invest in one of those Art Cart on the Go Tables that can be placed over a child’s lap. The Art Cart has legs that double as side pockets that keep paper, crayons and markers handy. Or, in the worst case scenario, those pockets also can come to the aid of the carsick child. I speak from experience.
  • For a meal break, DO stop in Scranton or Dickson City, Pa. It is exit 191 A or B on Route 81.  Home of The Office, it is a great little town to stop for meals. If we hit Scranton for lunch or dinner, we eat at Tonalteca. The place is clean, the decor features hand crafted carved booths from Mexican artisans, and there are plenty of choices for vegetarians. The guacamole is outstanding.  And, for those of you who get stir crazy in the car, they play great salsa music in the bathroom. If they have the security camera going by the sinks in the ladies room, they might have footage of me doing some salsa steps I learned in Zumba for all I know. Anything to work off that guacamole.
  • DON’T stop in the Poconos for any reason. There really is no place to stop. The gas stations for bathrooms have nothing more than outhouses or bathrooms around back that you have to carry in those huge keys for admittance. And, if you see a billboard for The Cheesecake Factory, don’t believe it. No, it isn’t The Cheesecake Factory, the upscale eatery. It’s just – a cheesecake factory. So, unless you want to sit in your car with your family consuming a cheesecake for a meal, ignore the sign and keep driving.
  • DO find the small village of Whitney Point along Route 81 and stop at Aiellos Italian Restaurant for the best pizza you can find in Western NY.  And I am not saying this is good pizza for Western New York. I mean, this is thin-crust Brooklyn Pizza that somehow found its way to Western New York. And, the quaint restaurant in the back will be decked in its Christmas decorations this time of year. You won’t want to miss out on this.

And as for traffic…..

  • DON’T be anywhere near Binghamton or Syracuse on Sunday afternoon if you can at all avoid it: college kids coming back from Thanksgiving break.
  •  DON’T go near the Delaware Water Gap if you don’t want to get stuck in traffic during peak hours
  • DON’T go over the George Washington Bridge or traverse the Cross Bronx Expressway.  Ever.

Safe travels to you and a very happy Thanksgiving.

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