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I … um…. “Chimney Bluffs State Park” … New York?

Governor Cuomo, just don’t mess with a good thing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

To kick off the summer travel season, New York State has revamped it’s iconic I Love New York tourism ad campaign created in the 1970’s. I loved those commercials as a kid!

Now, the heart has been replaced by a number of symbols of New York. Think:  The Statue of Liberty, Niagra Falls, a beach ball to represent Long Island beaches…

The reasoning behind this tweak in New York’s decades old ad campaign is that the whole I heart  thing has been overdone. And, to get all New Yorkers involved,  Governor Cuomo has asked us to draw our own symbol and submit it to www.iloveny.com. Maybe my talented daughter can come up with a logo for this park.

So, I’d like to add my own symbol, although it might be hard to draw in a simple red outline.

Chimney Bluffs State Park near Sodus Point in Western New York is definitely worth the road trip even if it may not make the most recognized logo for an ad campaign.

From Rochester: Take 104 East until you see a sign for Chimney Bluffs State Park. It’s that easy. It’s about an hour’s drive.

You will be then treated to these views along an easy hike on a trail that hugs a cliff that looks out at this:

On the way back to the park entrance, which has great amenities like a pristine brand new bathrooms, picnic tables and a nice shoreline, walk back on the wooded path. Just bring your mosquito repellant:

Will you be visiting upstate New York this summer? If so, why don’t you write a guest post for my blog and tell me what you discovered? Governor Cuomo and I would love to know where you went.

But, I have to say, nothing beats those old I Love New York sweatshirts.

The Bronx is Blooming

Just got back from a visit from “the old country,” New York City, to visit family and friends. And I can’t stop raving about The Bronx.

We just returned from a place blooming with lilies and hyacinth, filled with beautiful views of the Palisades, the Hudson River and gracious stately homes and gardens.

I’m talking about the Bronx here. Da Bronx. Really!

As a fifth-generation native New Yorker, a lot of my family has roots in the Bronx. My father and grandfathers were born there as well as my father-in-law. But, at the height of the urban blight of the 1970s and 1980s, it was not exactly somewhere we went exploring when I was growing up outside of a trip to the Bronx Zoo.

When most think of the Bronx, they conjure images like urban blight.  A crumbling school in the south Bronx that caught fire shortly before game 2 of the 1977 World Series inspired the book “The Bronx is Burning ” by Jonathan Mahler

Or, perhaps they think of the massive, impersonal apartment complexes they sluggishly traverse the Cross Bronx Expressway on their way to the Long Island Sound or the George Washington Bridge :

But on my last visit, my family and I got to visit the Bronx’s best-kept secrets: The Cloisters Museum and Wave Hill.

The Cloisters, right on the Manhattan-Bronx border, is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that specializes in European Medieval Art. It is set in a castle-like building jutting over the Hudson River set on four acres of parkland. If you have the time on your next visit and already paid admission to the main branch of the Met on Fifth Avenue, you can treat yourself to this as well:

View of George Washington Bridge from Fort Tryon Park

Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center

Further up the road, and I’m talking a country road that makes one feel as if they are in the middle of the countryside and not just 10 miles from Midtown Manhattan, is Wave Hill. Surrounded by 19th Century mansions,

Wave Hill is a semi-private park that consists of gardens and mansions once leased by the Roosevelts and Mark Twain. In the 1960’s, the Perkins-Freeman family, founding partners of J.P. Morgan, donated the land to New York City, allowing the rest of us New Yorkers, for a small admission fee, to afford views like this:

So, next time you find yourself in New York City, do yourself a favor and visit upper Manhattan and The Bronx. You might find a unicorn:

Or even a fair Bronx princess:

Chocolate, Love, Olives and Lemons

I love the land of Israel. I only wish that in this land, there could be more straight roads.

It was about the sixth day of our tour of Israel. We had left sacred Jerusalem for a tour of the more secular, serene northern region of Israel, full of fields, mountains and seaside scenery.

After a morning  jeep ride, our family got back in our minibus and we began our long and winding  climb climb climb to the top of Mount BenTal, one of the highest points of Israel. Here, there is a lookout point where Israelis fought the biggest tank battle against invading Syrian armies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Thank you to Jewish Virtual Library for this source of information:

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Mount Bental was the site of one of the largest tank battles in history. Mount Bental is a key strategic point for Israel due to its advantageous observation point. Israel knew it count not risk losing this mountain, nor any of the Golan Heights . The Syrians attacked the Golan with 1,500 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces. Israel countered with only 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. The long stretch of valley in between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon became known as the Valley of Tears. The 100 Israeli tanks were reduced to seven under extreme enemy fire. However, the Israelis managed to take down 600 Syrian tanks in the process. The Syrians eventually retreated, but not without inflicting heavy casualties on Israel.

In the backdrop of all this very recent history, mount Bental is also a great place to have lunch.

High atop on Mount Bental is Cafe Annan (anan means cloud in Hebrew). A great play on words, Israel’s highest restaurant is named after the former UN Secretary General.

There, we were treated to steaming bowls of sweet potato soup, salads, tuna and grilled mozzarella sandwiches, bagels, and great cups of hot coffee.

Afterwards, we walked among the bunkers where Israeli troops fought off invading Syrian army during the Yom Kippur War.

Mom walking through the bunkers where IDF soldiers defended Mount BenTal from Syria

The mountaintop also affords a great view of Har Hermon, blessed this winter with snow:

the family with Mount Hermon and Syria in the background

And right into Syria. Damascus is only 60 kilometers away.

The Israel/Syria border

My son the Bar Mitzvah boy was nearly eaten by a rusting metallic giant insect, made out of scrap metal from leftover Syrian tanks:

Then, we boarded the bus and went down the winding road to our next stop, the de Karina Chocolate Factory. A small factory created by Argentinian immigrants, de Karina specializes in micro batches of different kinds of confections we all had an opportunity to taste and then make our own chocolates in a workshop. We all had fun getting our hands dirty, except for my dad. My dad doesn’t even like to get his hands dirty eating french fries or barbecued chicken. He can dissect every piece of meat from a chicken breast like a steely surgeon. So you can see the disgust on his face when we all were up to our elbows in melted chocolate:

I however, didn’t mind in the least:

As we were waiting for our chocolate creations to cool, we had a chat with our chocolatier guide, Sigi. When he found out my in-laws were from Long Island, his face lit up:

“Are you near Syosset? That’s where my girlfriend lives!” exclaimed Sigi with a big grin.

“How do you know a girl from Syosset?” We asked.

“I met her when she came on birthright trip when I was still in the army!”

A match made through birthright. My heart melted like chocolate.

Then, it was onto another winding road to an Olive Oil Factory in the Katzrim village. Israel has no shortage of Olives. Groves of olives are everywhere. As it happens, we were in Israel the very week of Chanukkah, when we celebrate the miracle of the olive oil that burned in the newly restored temple for eight days.

An ancient Olive Oil Press at Capernaum Vista Olive Mill

It was about the end of this tour that my day started going, well, downhill. I had already started feeling the effects from a day riding a jeep and riding through the winding hills of the Golan. I am sure that chocolate tasting and then olive oil sampling were not much help either.

On the winding way  back to our hotel on Kibbutz Halavi, I tried to remember tips to ease motion sickness. Look to a still horizon. Don’t talk. Don’t move. Deep breaths.

No help.

Our driver had to pull over about twice for me. The second time was in the thick of the afternoon traffic rush in Tiberias. I lost sight of the horizon of the Sea of Galilee to the  houses and buildings of this ancient and thriving town in Israel’s north. I also lost my lunch, chocolates and olive oil.

Our guide Vivi (have I told you yet about the incredible guide Vivi?) hopped off the bus and held back my hair as I puked into the street curb. I was completely humiliated and apologized for making the bus  stop so much on account of my weak constitution.

“Aeyn Ba’ayah,” she said, no problem, in Hebrew.”This happens all the time, I’ve seen it all,” she said. Indeed, Vivi has 13 years  of experience leading small and large tours through Israel.

Out of nowhere, our driver Eli also came to my aid and handed me a freshly-halved lemon. The lemon’s zingy scent  was instantly refreshing and reminded me of how an Arab shopkeeper decades ago revived my brother on a hot August  day in Jerusalem in 1982 with a lemon.

I guess Eli had this lemon stored away for this very occasion. Israeli guides and their drivers are prepared for anything and keep their tourists in very good  hands.

I spend the rest of the drive sucking on the lemon, rubbing it on my forehead and inhaling its citrus aroma. And I felt much, much better.

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.

Acre Eye Candy

Acre, or Akko, is an Arab port city in the north of Israel. It is a city that was built and rebuilt by the Crusaders, and then the Ottomans. Parts of the old walled city are being excavated til this day.

You can look up the history of Akko. I’m just going to show you some nice pictures that will speak for themselves.

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Tunneling Through time under the Western Wall

 

After years of waiting, finally I got to take a tour of the passageways below the Western retaining Wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem.

In 1967, when Israel reunified Jerusalem after capturing the Old City from the Jordanians, the Jewish Quarter of the Old city lay in ruins.  For nineteen years, Jews had been kept away from their holiest site from the Jordanians. Jordan had destroyed most of the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Most of the Western Wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple that stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed in 70 AD, was buried in rubbish.

When Israel recaptured the Old City from Jordanian rule, Israeli authorities pledged that they would restore the Old city and do extensive renovations along the Western Wall, and then continue these restorations to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. After decades of painstaking excavations, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2002.

For complete details on the history of these excavations, click here.

When most people think of the Western Wall, this image comes to mind:

Actually, this is only a small portion of the enormous Western Wall that King Herod (truly the Donald Trump of his day) had constructed as a retaining wall to expand the Temple Mount to support the Second Temple.

Today, this massive wall is buried and where over the centuries, the Moslem Quarter of the Old City was built over the rubble.

So, we began our journey under the Western Wall at the extreme left corner of the above photo:

 Appropriately, for Chanukkah, our guide was Mattisyahu (no, not that one), originally from Atlanta, who used Toby as a volunteer:

Toby helping out Mattisyahu demonstrate the massive size (40 feet long) each Herodian stone for the foundation of the Temple Mount

Below the surface, there are narrow passageways, but there are also cavernous rooms. The visitor is taken back to the First Century, the heyday of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.

The Western Wall Tunnels provide an odd mixture of tourists

devout women wishing to pray in the quiet subterranean solitude,

As close as they can get: women of the Western Wall Tunnels

and construction workers.  In the distance, down a tunnel not yet open to the public, there are the noises of hammers and drills as further excavations are meticulously conducted as to not disturb the houses in the Moslem Quarter overhead.  There are new discoveries made every day.

 Down here, even construction work is holy.

And After All, You’re My Wonder Wheel

on the moving car of the Wonderwheel with Craig

And how could I not visit Coney Island?

After all, it’s en route in our Island hopping tour – between Staten Island and Long Island.

My family plunked down its roots in Coney Island, on 21st Street. This is where my great-grandparents on my grandmother’s side lived. My grandmother with her three sisters and one brother.

This is the subway train stop that takes you to the boardwalk. The very spot where my grandmother and her sisters would stand and offer visitors and beachgoers a clean place to shower and change after beachgoing at their apartment  – all for a quarter.

On the boardwalk, there are signs of souvenir stores that are so old they advertise Suntan Oil – NOT sunscreen, or sunblock – but good, old-fashioned melanoma inducing suntan Oil.

This is the famed Coney Island boardwalk. On this spot – or around here somewhere –  my grandmother met my grandfather and told him to go home and grow up. They were married for 67 years. This is also the Boardwalk and the beach where my brother and my cousins and I ate chicken salad sandwiches with grapes and then had to WAIT on the beach blanket for 30 minutes before we can go jumping in the waves. It was a cruel ritual that we endured each summer.  

This is the Cyclone. My grandmother rode it, as well as my mother. Skipped a generation with me. Now, this week, my husband and son got a chance to ride its rickety hills.

Me? I agreed to ride the Wonder Wheel with the family.

My husband, two boys and my parents crammed into one of the moving cars that shoots out into nothing over the beach.

This is the sign that tells the rider just how old the Wonder Wheel is, and that there has never been an accident in all the Wonder Wheel’s 89 years.  This is the view up top of Nathan’s Famous Franks below:

And after a few hours, hot hungry and tired, we left the boardwalk to find our car which was parked by the Luna Park apartment projects. These were the apartments where several branches of the extended family lived for several decades.

I took a walk on the grounds. I looked up at the terraces where my cousins and I played tag.

The buildings were under a much-needed renovation. As I walked along memory lane, I noticed that the playgrounds of my childhood had been upgraded. Old school monkey bars and jungle gyms have been changed to the plastic, safer playgrounds of today.

But wait – some were JUST the same. The same concrete play structures were still there that I played on. So, for one more time , I climbed on them, with my youngest son:

African Burial Ground, Lower Manhattan

Ranger Doug at the African Burial Ground Monument in Lower Manhattan

This summer, play tourist in your own city. 

And if you are one of those native New Yorkers that scoff at tourist traps like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, there is a relatively new attraction just north of City Hall that after one visit will change the way you will think about the American history you learned back in your school days. As we approach Juneteenth, a little known holiday that celebrates the emancipation of the last slaves of our nation, it’s worth a visit.

This spring on a visit back to New York City, my family went to the African Burial Ground National Monument and we all got a brush-up course on American history.

From what I remember about my public grade school education, slavery was taught like this: 

  • Africans were captured from their native lands. 
  • There was a very harsh, inhumane passage over the Atlantic where slaves chained together in the hulls of ships. 
  • Southerners owned slaves to work in the cotton fields and in their master’s homes.
  • Northerners didn’t own slaves.
  • Blacks were treated as slaves in the South so they tried to escape to the North, to places like New York City where they could be free

My kids were disappointed that the indoor museum was closed that day. However, the outdoor African Burial Ground National Monument Memorial was open, as it is daily from 9a.m. until 5p.m. except for all Federal holidays. 

The burial site, used by African slaves from 1626 through the late 1700’s, was discovered only 21 years ago, when the federal government broke ground for a new building on 290 Broadway. Because archeologists uncovered the remains of 419 individual bodies of all age groups, it is regarded as one of the most important archeological findings of the 20th Century. In all, it was the final resting place for 15,000 Africans and their descendants It was the only place where Africans could be buried in the city.

The plans for the building were modified to accommodate a museum and a 6.1 acre monument that was opened to the public in 2007.

On the first approach to the memorial from Broadway, a grassy patch of ground with partially raised holds the remains of those 419 slaves. The grassy area gives way to a path marked by bricks and marble that spirals downward to what used to be the street level of the New York – or New Amsterdam – centuries ago.

The Circle of the Diaspora includes symbols that represent the African cultures from where the slaves were taken

The walls were marked by strange symbols and dates.

In the middle of this spiral is a map of the world that marks each native land where slaves were taken.

My kids, aged 14, 12 and seven, wandered around the site exploring.  Finally, my youngest mustered up the courage to ask the Ranger what this place was all about.

All it took was that one simple question.  Ranger Doug – Doug Maslenberg  — brought the history of this place to life. In a narrative presentation that was no less fervent  than sermon delivered like gospel at a Baptist church,  Ranger Doug went into great detail to tell us about the lives of the slaves who were found buried at this very site. Through his booming voice, he brought the suffering of those people back. He spoke of the horrors of the middle passage on those ships, represented at the memorial by the 24-foot Ancestral Libation chamber:

Reminiscent of a ship's hold, the interior is a place for individual reflection.

He spoke of the bones of children that had been bent under the weight of carrying bricks and buckets of water too heavy for their bodies to withstand. Bones of men that contained evidence of whippings.

Ranger Doug looked directly into our eyes, almost a bit too long. Any preconceived notion that I had about a slave-free New York City was obliterated under Ranger Doug’s stare.

Back at home in Rochester – a city with its own past link to Abolition and Emancipation – my kids and I wanted to learn more. So we picked up a historical novel called Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. This young adult novel, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, follows the life of an African slave girl in New York City during the Revolutionary war.

Thank you, Ranger Doug, I’m glad we asked.

 

 

 

My Dark Dances with Danger

Dark path

When I was younger, there was something about a boy carrying a flashlight for me on a dark night that would always invite me to take a dance with danger.

A stroll in the evening can be peaceful, even romantic. But dangerous? Well, it might be if you are a 19-year-old volunteer breaking curfew to take a mile walk through the wilderness of Israel’s upper Galilee region with a bunch of soldiers just to get to a party.

I am a pretty cautious person. I don’t speed when I drive. I’m afraid of heights so that rules out roller coasters, sky diving, hang gliding or even trapeze flying to get a thrill. So this story of my walks through darkness may be tame in comparison to other risky ways to have fun.

My earliest memories also find me sneaking out into the dark for adventure. I was five or six. I must have been that young because my brother, four years my junior, was still in a playpen.

My family was on vacation at the Bay of Fundy in Canada. My parents had a knack for making fast friends with other families on vacation, and it happened that one such family invited us for dessert in their big Winnebago Camper one night. It was the kind of camper that kids drool over at R&V shows at the mall: complete with a kitchen and a loft perched over the driver’s cab. My parents and this other couple were sitting having coffee outside the camper, I had bunked down with the kids of this family in the loft, and my baby brother was sleeping in the playpen.

All of a sudden, the family’s oldest, a boy of about 10, said we should go for a walk in the dark because not too far away, there was an outdoor amphitheater playing a movie. And, according to this boy, my parents had given me permission to go with him.

There are reasons why you shouldn’t talk to strangers.

I remember bits of what happened next. I remember the kid, his sister and I leaving the camper, He carried a flashlight to light the way, and at one point he shined it on the ground so I could tie my flower-patterned Keds.

To get to the amphitheater, we had to cross a four lane road with a grass median. A road with trucks on it. And not a crosswalk to be seen. No lying. Now, I remember this kid stepped into the middle of the road and held out his hand to stop the traffic. Miraculously, the traffic stopped both ways, to let three kids under 10 cross the street.

I can’t remember what movie they were showing in the amphitheater, or what happened afterwards. I think I remember a part where I was crying to my parents explaining to them that they said it was okay if I went wandering in the dark to go see an outdoor movie.

Sure, any parent of a six year old would say that!

But, getting back to Israel….

The summer I was 19, I picked myself up from my comfortable American surroundings and volunteered on a collective farm or a kibbutz for a month. It was a great way to meet kids from all over Europe and to better understand Israeli culture. All on 5 shekels, or about 1 dollar a day. Plus free room and board.

In addition to the volunteers and the residents of the kibbutz, there were also a group of Israeli soldiers who did part of their military service by providing free labor to the kibbutz. They were called the Garin.

One night, some of the Garin told me and some of the other girls in my volunteer barrack that they knew of a party taking place at a nearby kibbutz. But, we would have to break our curfew and walk through some brushy wilderness to get there.

There was no real path. There had to be snakes, scorpions and other lovely things along the way, not to mention that we were right on the border with Syria and Jordan. I tried not to think about any of those things. I was with trained soldiers after all, and in addition to the flashlights to guide our way, soldiers also carried guns.

So, we walked guided by those soldiers, just kids like us really, the light of the flashlights and a thousand visible stars. We got to the party and danced with lots of other kids to songs from the Pet Shop Boys and Ska music by Madness and an Israeli Madness wannabe band called Machina.

My British barrack mates, in true British form, got very “pissed” drunk and could barely get up the next morning for our 4:30 a.m. wake up call to work the fields.

Was it dangerous? Maybe. Was it fun and would I do it all again? Definitely.

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A backlog of blogs

Okay.

So, so much for Post-a-day.

These days, I’m lucky if I can post-a-month.

But I have so many ideas to write about but working, parenting, track, baseball and concert season are getting in the way. So is that chocolate milk that my son just spilled on the kitchen floor.

So, before I have to be in two directions at once, here are some topics I have been meaning to blog about. You pick what I should tackle first:

  • More Love Letters: This time, the ones I found between my grandparents before they were married.
  • The Robin who made a nest in our front shrub.
  • The African Burial Ground in downtown Manhattan
  • Transitions from childhood to teen-dom
  • What we saw at Ground Zero

Gotta go and watch my youngest play ball!

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