Passing Down the Ancient Craft of Organ Building In Western Galilee, Israel

Gideon Shamir entrusts apprentice Uri Shani with his workshop, where metal and wooden organ pipes soar upwards like mountain peaks.

I was so enchanted during my visit at this workshop for organ building in the Galilee. The article appeared in Israel21C, which has fabulous news about Israel. I am sure you will enjoy reading this.

Uri Shani, left, and Gideon Shamir in front of organ pipes they will restore. Photo by Diana Bletter

I was so enchanted during my visit at this workshop for organ building in the Galilee. The article appeared in Israel21C, which has fabulous news about Israel. I am sure you will enjoy reading this.

For over 40 years, Gideon Shamir, 82, was the only organ builder in Israel. He searched for an apprentice to whom he could pass on his legacy and knowledge, but never found anyone with the patience to do the work.

Then, in June 2021, Shamir took theatre director and playwright Uri Shani, 55, under his wing.

“Uri passed the test with flying colors,” Shamir said. “He grasps what I’m trying to teach, he has good hands and musical ears.”

On February 14, the day I visited Ugavim, Shamir’s organ-building workshop and recital space in Yuvalim, in the Galilee hills, the two men signed a formal agreement. The business is now in the younger man’s hands.

Ugavim’s large, high-ceilinged workshop is filled with metal and wooden organ pipes that soar upwards Jewish organ music.

Shamir points out that the organ is first mentioned in the beginning of the Bible. Genesis 4:21 introduces Yuval, “the father of all who play the harp and the pipe — kinor v’ugav. How fitting that Ugavim (Pipes) is located in Yuvalim.

Read the rest of the story here.

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Israeli Aid Worker’s HeartBreaking Report: On the Ground with Refugees from Ukraine

Here’s the latest news…I spoke to Linor Attias, a relief worker in Moldova, helping refugees fleeing from Ukraine for Israel21C.

Israeli volunteers distributing food to Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. Photo courtesy of United Hatzalah of Israel

A delegation of 15 physicians, medics and paramedics from Israel’s voluntary emergency response organization, United Hatzalah, was the first international relief organization on the ground in Moldova, aiding about 70,000 refugees fleeing from Ukraine.

“We’re the only ones here,” said Linor Attias, a United Hatzalah emergency situation manager who arrived in Kishinev, the capitol of Moldova, on Sunday afternoon. (Tuesday, a team from Israeli humanitarian aid organization IsraAID arrived in the Moldovan town of Palanca.)

Reached by phone, Attias said there are an estimated 500,000 Ukrainian refugees who’ve fled into Poland, where other international relief organizations are helping them. Moldova is a less-developed country without as many resources, she said.

“Moldovan officials don’t know how to handle a civilian emergency like this but with our experience, we can help.”

The refugees have traveled by foot for days in freezing weather and snow to reach Ukraine’s border, Attias said.

Only women and children are allowed to cross into Moldova, however. Ukrainian men over 18 are not allowed to leave Ukraine and “must stay and fight. Once across the border, the women have no way to communicate with their husbands, fathers, brothers,” she said. “They don’t know if they’ll ever see them again.” The rest of the story is here.

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Take Your Wife to Work Day in Israel

Tales from the heart: Out on the tractor at dawn

Here’s my article in Israel21C about my husband, Jonny Kuritsky who has been farming the fields of Shavei Zion, Western Galilee, Israel.

By  Diana Bletter  FEBRUARY 3, 2022, 2:15 PM

Avocado grove workers in Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee. Photo by Diana Bletter

The alarm clock hasn’t even rung. Most people would say it is still night but for my husband, Jonny Kuritsky, it is morning.

He’s long out of bed as the muezzin’s voice floats toward us over the loudspeakers from the mosque in the village of Mazra’a across the road.

In the dark hours of pre-dawn, the jackals cry. Then, at exactly 5am, Kuritsky (that’s what I call him) climbs onto his rugged electric club car, headed for his job in the avocado groves of Shavei Zion, the village where we live in the Western Galilee.

He mostly works on a tractor, a dream job for a guy who, as a child, played with tractors and trucks in the dirt. He sprays against diseases that harm the avocado trees in the 1,000-dunam (about 250 acres) grove.

Most people his age – he just turned 70 – might prefer to retire. That’s not his game plan.

“Why should I stop? If I can get on a tractor and spray and do a good job with a little experience under my belt, why should I stop because of a number?”

Kuritsky works with a diverse team of men that includes four Israeli Arabs, four Israeli Jews, and four workers from Thailand who are in Israel for five-year stints. The dozen men speak to one another in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, Thai and English.

He mostly works on a tractor, a dream job for a guy who, as a child, played with tractors and trucks in the dirt. He sprays against diseases that harm the avocado trees in the 1,000-dunam (about 250 acres) grove.

Most people his age – he just turned 70 – might prefer to retire. That’s not his game plan.

“Why should I stop? If I can get on a tractor and spray and do a good job with a little experience under my belt, why should I stop because of a number?”

Kuritsky works with a diverse team of men that includes four Israeli Arabs, four Israeli Jews, and four workers from Thailand who are in Israel for five-year stints. The dozen men speak to one another in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, Thai and English.

MORE ABOUT AVOCADOS

Jonny Kuritsky wears shorts to work all year round. Photo by Diana Bletter

I decided to do a “take your wife to work day” to watch my husband in action. I am in awe of his energy, his work ethic, and his care for the other workers.

On the day I went with Kuritsky to work, in fact, he was worried that one of his fellow workers, Monib (“just Monib,” he said, when I asked him) didn’t bring breakfast. So my husband prepared Turkish coffee with cardamom for him, while Ali Majdoub, another worker, made him an avocado sandwich in homemade whole-grain pita.

The mother of another worker, 27-year-old Aiman Khalaf Alla, “wakes up at who- knows-what hour to make coffee for everyone but she’s sick and in the hospital,” Kuritsky explained.

At a nearby picnic table, the four Thai workers were eating traditional homemade food that they had packed in woven baskets.

Thai workers on the avocado groves taking a breakfast break. Photo by Diana Bletter

Green gold

Except for a hiatus for several years, Kuritsky has worked in agriculture since he moved to Shavei Zion from the United States in 1975.

At the time, there were field crops including corn, onions and potatoes. The field crops have given way to avocados, known as “green gold” because of their international appeal. Shavei Zion grows 10 varieties of avocados.

“What was it like working in the fields back then?” I asked as we rode past a little white birdhouse on a pole, home to barn owls which are part of Israel’s National Barn Owl Project.

Barn owls provide a natural form of pest control in agricultural fields. Photo by Eli Temime

“I was 23,” Kuritsky began. “I was in good shape. I didn’t have to wear a shirt – nobody knew about skin cancer – and I didn’t need a lot to survive. The field’s irrigation system wasn’t computerized so we did everything by hand. I loved turning on the water and running through the sprinklers.”

Today, 90 percent of the avocado groves are irrigated by treated wastewater through a computerized drip irrigation system.

“Israel is number one in the world when it comes to using treated wastewater for agriculture,” said Nimrod Wolf, the grove manager, as we drove around in his pickup truck that morning.

Manager Nimrod Wolf, left, with Ali Madjoub in the avocado groves in Shavei Zion. Photo by Diana Bletter

The sun was shining after the previous night’s heavy rain. During the drought in the 1990s, Israeli farmers turned to wastewater treatment out of desperation.

“We’ve been using it for about 20, 30 years,” Wolf said.

Challenging conditions

When it was time for a breakfast break, I walked toward the work shed with Majdoub. At “62 and five months,” he said, he has worked in the avocado groves for most of his adult life.

“When I was younger, I performed as a singer at weddings,” Majdoub said. “But when I became religious, I had to choose – either this or that.” Each morning, he prays at home in Sheik Danoun, a nearby village, before driving to work.

“Morning prayers are the most important thing in the world,” he said.

When Majdoub arrives, the groves are still dark because there is no electricity. The only light comes from Kuritsky’s headlamp. He’s in the work shed, boiling water for tea on a small gas stove. Wolf said they are waiting to install solar panels to supply energy.

“We are trying to make the avocado groves as sustainable as possible,” he said.

Until the panels arrive, however, Dov Ben-Ami, 46, who manages irrigation and fertilization in the groves, said, “It’s very challenging. We have the mud, wind, heat and cold and no electricity.”

Ben-Ami grew up on a family farm in the Jordan Valley where they grew vegetables and flowers. In the early 2000s, his family switched to growing Medjoul dates. His two brothers still manage their farm.

On the day that I visited the groves, the workers were picking Gem avocados for export to England and France. About 80% of Shavei Zion avocados are exported. It takes up to two weeks for the fruit to reach Europe.

This crate of avocados is headed for European markets. Photo by Diana Bletter

Doing what he loves

Kuritsky works from five until 10 in the morning, five days a week. He said he loves taking care “of a sapling from when it’s first planted and then getting to eat its fruit for years to come.”

Sometimes when there is too much wind during the day, he sprays at night. He remembers one night working a long, dark shift on an open tractor.

“I looked to the east and all of a sudden I saw the tip of the sun coming up over the hills,” he said. “I remember standing up on my tractor and saying, ‘Yes!’”

In the winter, Kuritsky wears “at least seven layers on top” but he always wears shorts. Then he comes home full of mud; in the summer, he’s full of sweat. He sometimes grumbles but he has no intention of retiring.

Jonny Kuritsky supervising the hitching of crates to the tractor. Photo by Diana Bletter

“It’s like taking someone’s life away from them,” he said. “It’s like cutting out the biggest part of them. I love to work. And I still have time to drive you and everyone else crazy.”

Perhaps it is because he lost his parents at a young age, he said. His mother died when he was 16 and his father died three years later.

“Maybe when you’re forced to work to put food on the table you get used to it,” he said. “I love to work with younger people, it makes me feel good. I’m part of a group. We have a lot of laughs.”

He said he’s grown close to the other workers; they share family celebrations and birthdays. He said they’re all looking forward to Khalaf Alla’s wedding in July.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed with good health so far, great coworkers, a great boss and the thing I like most in life, being outdoors,” Kuritsky said. “I get to do all this and I even get a salary!”

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Environmental Activist Sharona Shnayder is Only 21, Just Moved to Israel, and She’s Already Tackling Israel’s Trash

Tuesdays for Trash founder Sharona Shnayder picking up garbage on the beach. Photo by Kseniia Poliak; makeup by Paula Fay; styling by Lilya Kubrick

Here’s my article from Israel21C, a great site with informative articles and profiles. It shows you what one person can do.

Awesome. That is one of Nigerian-Israeli environmental activist Sharona Shnayder’s favorite words, and when I told her we could meet for lunch at one of her favorite cafés in Tel Aviv, a block from her office, that’s what she said.

The café is readymade for Instagram. And Shnayder, in her black sweater and impossibly long, colorful braids, fits right in. She’s a photo shoot just waiting to happen. In fact, she’s a politician just waiting to happen.

“I am focused on politics because without legislation, nothing can change,” said 21-year-old Shnayder.

hnayder, who moved to Israel in May, is cofounder and CEO of Tuesdays for Trash, a global environmental movement that encourages individuals around the world to dedicate at least one day a week to picking up garbage.Sharona Shnayder throwing away trash she picked up on a Tel Aviv street. Photo by Diana Bletter

Shnayder started the movement during a Covid lockdown in May 2020. She was studying at Portland State University, but like most of the other students was forced to go home. Restless to get outside and “do something”, she put on masks and gloves and she and a friend, Wanda McNealy, began picking up trash.

They did it the following week and then the next, and the initiative grew into Tuesdays for Trash. In a little more than a year, Shnayder has grown the movement to 26 countries with 10 chapters.

And since arriving in Israel, Shnayder has dived into a mind-boggling assortment of environmental activities, including speaking at high schools and demonstrations and planting seeds for her political future.

The young environmental activist was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Nigerian mother and an Israeli father. When she was eight, she moved with her father to Tualatin, a small suburb of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up.Sharona Shnayder cleaning up a beach. Photo by Nicolas Glasbauer; makeup by Paula Fay; styling by Lilya Kubrick

She was in college when she watched Greta Thunberg from Sweden speak at the United Nations. At the time, Shnayder was studying accounting.

“I was good at it, too,” Shnayder said, “but I realized that I don’t want to spend my life crunching numbers if there isn’t going to be a planet. As much as it is a cliché, it’s true.”

She didn’t have to look far to see the disastrous effects of climate change. All around her in Oregon, wildfires were spreading.

“I’d look at the red sky and all the smoke and it almost felt like we were in an apocalypse,” she said.

“The weather was 116 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the Sahara. Cable lines were melting. Sweating isn’t even healthy. Your body can’t regulate so you can suffocate. Breathing outside for one hour was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes.”

She related all this to me before she’d even looked at the café menu. After deciding what she wanted to eat, she talked about her new position at Albo Climate.

It’s like my dream job,” she said. “It’s a high-tech startup which uses satellite imagery and A1 to map and monitor carbon sequestration.”

She paused to take a quick breath. “That’s a way to take the carbon out of the air and bring it back into the soil. Our company works with projects in Africa that are working on managing forests and regenerative agriculture.”

I asked how she got the job.

“Like everything that works in Israel, through a WhatsApp group,” she said.

Shnayder had never been to Israel when she considered moving here. While at the university, she got involved with the Jewish Student Union. “The students there were so funny and made me feel so welcome,” she said.

Although her father is Israeli, it was the first time she started to explore her Jewish roots. She came on a Birthright trip this year and then continued with a Masa Israel Journey program working as an intern at UBQ Materials, a company that promotes recycling and waste management. She decided to stay in Israel.

“It was a strategic move for me,” she said, no longer sounding like a peppy college graduate but more like the CEO of herself.

“I know, I overthink everything,” she said. “But in Oregon, I was fearful. I was thinking, how am I going to live? What do I do to survive?”

Israel, she reasoned, is where innovation is happening. “Israel can be a leader around the world for setting standards for sustainable society. We have the ability to implement widespread change if we can convince people to care.”

Soon after Shnayder arrived, she began the Israeli chapter of Tuesdays for Trash and has organized weekly cleanups in Tel Aviv.Sharona Shnayder and friends doing a Tuesdays for Trash beach cleanup. Photo courtesy of Sharona Shnayder

Her group will participate in nationwide beach cleanup day on December 3 and she hopes to organize intercultural cleanups in Tel Aviv and Jaffa with HaBayit (TheHome), which sponsors Israeli-Palestinian dialogues and “Cleaning the Hate” litter cleanups.

“I know a lot of people ask, ‘Why does it even matter?’ because there’s so much trash,” Shnayder said. “But if billions of people around the world pick up one piece that’s seven billion pieces.’”

There’s also an important awareness aspect. “It gets you thinking, ‘Hey, this is going back to a landfill. Then you think, ‘Who’s responsible for the litter?’ This is an educational tool. It’s a gateway into action.”

At a recent talk with a high school in Zichron Ya’akov, Shnayder explained to students what they could do. “High schoolers can be very bratty but the students were captivated,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know how they can help.”

The plastic problemSharona Shnayder eating lunch at Citizen Garden, Tel Aviv. Photo by Diana Bletter

After snapping a photo of her dish when it arrived at our table (“It looks so good I don’t want to eat it”), Shnayder perked up her ears as certain a song began playing in the background at the café.

“I love this song,” she said excitedly. “It’s Milky Chance! They’re the first concert I went to. They’re trying to hold concerts in sustainable ways; they’re not using water bottles.”

She ate some of her food and continued, “Recycling makes people feel more okay with purchasing plastic products. But most manufacturers aren’t buying recycled plastic. It’s much easier to purchase virgin plastic.”

She said that companies are “unwilling to make the switch and our governments are allowing them to continue to make money. As much as I’d love to think that companies care and they’d be ethical, they’re not.”

Israel needs laws that “hold big businesses —producers and manufacturers—responsible for the plastic pollution being created,” she said.

Shnayder would like to see the government implementing incentives and subsidizing eco-friendly materials that can substitute for plastic, as well as providing tax benefits for utilizing renewable sources of energy instead of fossil fuels.

Although a newcomer, she was one of the speakers at an October 25 demonstration with Extinction Rebellion and other environmental activists outside Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s residence as the Israeli delegation to the United Nations COP 26 Climate Talks in Glasgow, Scotland, met inside with the president.

Shnayder said that she feels in some ways she and other environmental activists gave up their childhoods to force governments to make changes.

“I don’t love to wake up and think about these issues,” she said. “I’d love to follow my dreams and live my life but if we keep going, business as usual, for the next seven years, we’re not going to survive.”A Tuesdays for Trash meeting at a high school in Zichron Yaakov. Photo courtesy of Sharona Shnayder

She points out how wildfires are growing more intense and the rising sea levels have accelerated rapidly.

“By 2050, we’ll have 200 million climate refugees,” she said. “It’s inescapable. There’s no place that’s safe.”

In Israel, she would like to see a more “robust educational system around climate and the environment so our society can be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of how to work towards a sustainable future. We are in a generational battle to determine the livability of our future on this planet.”

This planet we call home

When she’s not “strategic thinking,” as she puts it, Shnayder likes to spend time in the Israeli National Park near where she lives in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

“I just sit there and be in that space, where there’s a lot of water and trees. It’s really cool to be so still and be a part of nature,” she said. She believes that Jewish values should lead Israelis “to take tangible steps to take care of their home.”

Beginning in January, every Birthright trip that comes to Israel can put Tuesdays for Trash on its itinerary.

“It could be influential and have an impact as part of your lifestyle of caring for the environment and love for your community,” she said. “Just like Shabbat for the soul, Tuesday could be the day dedicated to sustainability.”

“Do you always speak in sound bites?” I asked.

“Well, I write a lot about these issues so I’m good at them,” she said. “I just have to learn Hebrew to get the message across.”

She is now in an ulpan, an accelerated Hebrew-learning course, so that she can enter politics. She viewed learning the language as just another hurdle, a minor challenge—as opposed to saving the planet, let’s say.

“Do you feel a bit like Chicken Little, that the sky is falling on you?” I asked.

“There’s something called climate doomism that effects environmental activists. It’s easy to maintain a mindset of negativism,” she admitted, but she has a remarkably upbeat aura even when making doomsday pronouncements: “At the end of the day, if we don’t face reality and make even small changes then we’re going to die.”

She paused before continuing.

“I’m basically trying to ask people to let me live. I’d like to be part of this planet I call home.”

Speaking of home, she plans to visit her mother in Lagos, Nigeria, in December. She said that her mother has already given her a list of what she should bring.

“Like what?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “Nutella and Bamba.”

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Finding promise in a farewell to summer

At the local lifeguard station here in Israel, I savored the last few moments of summer with the Jews and Arabs who kept my beach safe.

This article appeared in Israel21C.org. If you want to read it on the site – and read fascinating stories about Israel – you can go here: https://www.israel21c.org/saying-goodbye-to-the-summer-and-finding-hope-on-the-beach/

By  Diana Bletter  OCTOBER 11, 2021, 1:50 PMLifeguards at Shavei Zion beach, from left, Ali Srhan, Gabriel Perez, Bassel Hlwe. Photo by Diana Bletter

It was the last hour of the last day of the official summer season in Israel.

I biked over to the beach in the village where I live, Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee, to say goodbye to the beach employees.The staff of three Arabs and three Jews had been working together from sunrise to sunset, every day, since March 15. I wanted to talk to them, to thank them for a job well done.

There is rarely a day that I’ve missed going to the beach since I moved to this village in 1991. I’m drawn to that turquoise bluish-green water. Those startling white waves. The indelible line on the horizon where the sea meets the sky.The beach at Shavei Zion. Photo by Diana Bletter

It was the last hour of the last day of the official summer season in Israel.

I biked over to the beach in the village where I live, Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee, to say goodbye to the beach employees.

The staff of three Arabs and three Jews had been working together from sunrise to sunset, every day, since March 15. I wanted to talk to them, to thank them for a job well done.

There is rarely a day that I’ve missed going to the beach since I moved to this village in 1991. I’m drawn to that turquoise bluish-green water. Those startling white waves. The indelible line on the horizon where the sea meets the sky.The beach at Shavei Zion. Photo by Diana Bletter

I climbed up to the second floor of the lifeguard station.

There weren’t many minutes left to their last shift, but the lifeguards still had their binoculars and life preservers handy, ready to slide down the pole, like firefighters in a fire station, for one final emergency.

“We had a good season, no problems,” said head lifeguard Gabriel Perez, who has worked at the beach for the past 15 years.

“I remember when we saved those four kids from the rocks,” said one of the assistant lifeguards, Ali Srhan, 28, who lives less than four miles away in Akko (Acre). He already sounded nostalgic.

“Mothers bring their kids to the beach and let them go in the water while they look at their phones,” added Bassel Hlwe, 27, the other assistant lifeguard, from Abu Sinan. “We can’t take our eyes off them.”

We all gazed for a moment at the sandy beach with its jetty built by the early members of Shavei Zion, an agricultural cooperative moshav founded in 1938.

When I moved here, it was a rural farming village, more cows and chickens than residents. We may soon have a luxury hotel on our shoreline, drawing more traffic and more tourists.

But there’s always the beach, the sea, the sun.The beach at Shavei Zion on the last day of swimming season. Photo by Diana Bletter

On summer mornings when I’ve gone swimming at dawn, one of the first people I saw was Amin, who has been on the beach maintenance staff for the past six years. Now he told me that the men on the staff consider their job to be “more for medicine for our souls than for the money. This beach is like our home.”

Amin is a Muslim Lebanese who fought with the Southern Lebanese Army in the 1990s. He came to Israel on May 25, 2000, when Israeli troops withdrew from Southern Lebanon.

He said he can’t speak to his four adult children still in Lebanon; he has three other children who grew up here, first on a northern kibbutz and then in the border town of Shlomi. He said they now have good jobs here in Israel.

“I never learned to read or write,” Amin said. “But I’ve studied life.”

Next to Amin sat Yehuda Gruber, who has also worked on the beach staff for several years. When I asked what he would do once the beach closed, he said, “I’m here today. Who knows where I’ll be tomorrow?”Lowering the flag at the Shavei Zion beach. Photo by Diana Bletter

Gruber plans to visit one of his children in America and another who lives in the Dominican Republic.

Perez, the head lifeguard, told me that after seven months of constant work, “it’s like I’m shutting the door and another is opening.”

But Hlwe admitted he feels sad.

“It’s like the end of a dream,” he said.

Srhan and Hlwe have been best friends since they took a lifeguard course in Haifa 10 years ago. Once the season is over, Srhan will go back to his winter job, catching fish for restaurants in Akko. Hlwe will look for work until the next beach season begins.

At precisely 5pm, Perez got on the loudspeaker the way he did each day throughout the season.

“The beach is closed and swimming is prohibited,” he announced. Then he couldn’t help himself and added, “Until next year.”

I watched Hlwe lower the red lifeguard flag from the flagpole and fold it for the last time.

At that moment, I wanted it to be endless, the summer, filled with suntan lotion and sandcastles and waves to ride.

And right then, I especially wanted to continue experiencing this sense of camaraderie with the lifeguards at the beach. After last year’s riots and tension, it means even more that three Muslims and three Jews are working together and sharing stories.

The summer has just ended — but I’m suddenly brimming with hope.

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“Shtisel” Star Michael Aloni On His Upcoming TV Series, Family, Love and History

PHOTO CREDIT: NATI LEVI

 I had the wonderful opportunity to be on the set of the upcoming TV series, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” where I spoke to the actors, producers and director of the show for The Jerusalem Post. Here is the article:

Up in the hills of Safed, in a picturesque cobblestone alleyway, actors Michael Aloni and Swell Ariel Or stood together recently and hugged during the filming of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a TV series based on Sarit Yishai-Levy’s best-selling novel. The story of the multi-generational Ermoza family, set in the early-mid 20th century, actually takes place in Jerusalem, but most of the series was filmed in Safed. The city’s ancient streets — without too many air conditioning units — make the vintage cars and costumes seem authentic. It was a chilly, drizzly day, the 70th day of filming, with 10 more days to go. During a pause between sprinkles of rain, actors who play extras walked up the narrow alley in period costumes, passing the signs plastered on building walls in the old-fashioned font of the time, and a clothing store filled with vintage clothes. The series starts in 1917, at the time of the Ottoman Empire, and continues through Israel’s War of Independence. The day’s shooting was now during the British Mandate and a large British flag fluttered by a shop window.

Or, the series’ leading actress, dressed in her role as Luna Ermoza, (in her breakout role), walked up the street; her father in the series, Gavriel Ermoza, played by Aloni, (of Shtisel fame), ran after her. He showed Or a newspaper article and said, “I didn’t want you to see this when you were alone…” and then put his arms around her for a dramatic moment.“CUT!” yelled the director, Oded Davidoff. WELL, VIEWERS will have to wait in suspense to find out what happens until the series airs in Israel on Yes TV in early summer. There is not yet a release date for countries around the world, but Danna Stern, managing director of Yes Studios, which distributes the series, said she has “no doubt this show will be a success, and I don’t say that often.” Drama Quarterly.com just named Beauty Queen one of the top 20 shows to watch in 2021.On the film set was Dafna Prenner, co-CEO of Artza Productions, the series’ producers. She and her partner, Shai Eines, had their eye on the novel ever since it was published in 2016 and then translated into 11 languages. Prenner said that a book that sells well in Israel might sell 10,000 copies; Levy’s novel sold 300,000, making it one of the best-selling books published in Israel in the past 20 or 30 years. The first two seasons of the series were created by Shlomo Mashiach and Ester Namdar Tamam and written by Mashiach. The series also stars Hila Saada (The Baker and the Beauty), Itzik Cohen (Fauda), and Dov Navon (Cash Register).Prenner said that this period drama has been one of the most expensive to make in Israel. It was originally supposed to be filmed in the Ukraine but when “Corona hit,” she said, “we had to move everything to Israel,” increasing production costs another two million shekels.  

Extras on the set during a filming break PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Bletter

There have been few shows depicting what life was like in the early 1900s, Prenner said, first in what was then Palestine and then the early days of Israel. Vintage clothes were hard to find and sometimes had to be sewn, and the makeup artist had to work hard to make sure everything from hairstyles (including metal clips) to mustaches were just right.THE BEAUTY Queen of Jerusalem is a story about members of a Sephardic family, also known as Spagnuolo Jews, because they made way to Jerusalem after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492. The Ermoza family speaks Spanish-Judeo, a dialect of Ladino, and because they have been in Jerusalem for so many generations, they feel superior to newer immigrants. According to Aloni, whose own family stretches back nine generations in Israel, the specificity of the story is what makes it appeal to international audiences.“When you write something that’s very particular and seems provincial and personal, you can hit the hearts of people,” Aloni said in an exclusive interview between shooting scenes in Safed. When Aloni first started filming Shtisel he didn’t think anyone would even see it. “I never imagined it to be so successful,” he said. “Even the Arab world is watching the show. I know because I get messages from Arab viewers on my social media all the time.”Aloni said that what makes this series so unique is that the politics and complexities of the time were so special. During Turkish rule, Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem worked together as merchants. The tensions started to increase during the British rule, Aloni said, and then the series focuses its tale on “Israel on its way to becoming a country.”The director of the show, Oded Davidoff, “gives us freedom to be totally in character and own every moment,” Aloni said.The show will have 22 episodes and each episode is an hour long. Prenner said that in Israel, the entire series is shot at the same time, unlike in the United States.While the show is based on the novel, the series has its own story lines. Aloni said he feels that the book will work better as a series than a film because there is more opportunity to develop different plots and “add something new.” He said that when he first read the book, he cried for the last 70 pages.During a break in the filming in a clothing shop, Or sat outside with her boyfriend in the series, Israel Ogalbo, better known as a star in Survivor and Big Brother. They said they were going to be sad when the shooting ended; since August, they have been working in the production along with more than 30 production crew members who circled the set offering hot tea and warm crepes on the cold day.Aloni said the essence of the novel, as well as the series, is the story of a family. He cited Leo Tolstoy’s quote from the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”The series follows members of the Ermoza family who, Aloni said, have been cursed to live without love. “Family is family,” Aloni said. “Life is full of choices we make that we have to live with.” He paused for another thoughtful moment and then added, “and we carry our family’s history on our shoulders and in our hearts.”

Looking at the director’s screen during an emotional scene of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” with Michael Aloni. PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Bletter
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Yom Kippur – Finding a Way Toward Forgiveness

I wanted to share my short story that was just published in the latest edition of Jewish Fiction. It is timely for Yom Kippur. Thinking about forgiveness, forgetting. You can find it here.

I revised the above story many times and watched it get rejected many times. And now it’s finally found a home. 

And posting my non-fiction piece on my quirky Jewish mother that appeared in Kveller.com here.

 

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First Place Winner in Moment Magazine’s Fiction Contest (Me!)

I’m honored to announce that my story, “What If I’ve Changed My Mind?” won First Place in Moment Magazine’s Fiction Contest, judged by Max Brooks, author of World War Z and many  other  books  and  articles.

This reminds me, once again, not to give up. I keep doing the work each day. Over the past years, I’ve gotten 12,397 rejections, but who’s counting? I never, ever thought I would win this contest. Best of all, I’ve got my imagination. I can travel anywhere while sitting in my chair.

Details for entering Moment’s Fiction Contest this year can be found here. I encourage you to send in your work. The deadline is September 1, 2020.

Fiction | What If I’ve Changed My Mind?

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Coronavirus and My Husband’s Shoelaces

Here’s my latest blog at Times of Israel on the Coronavirus and my husband’s shoelaces.

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/coronavirus-and-my-husbands-shoelaces/

You can read it on the Times of Israel site or here:

The other day, hours before Israel imposed a countrywide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I rode my moped to a grocery store in the nearby town of Nahariya, and then took a few moments to search for a pair of shoelaces for my husband, Jonny. I always go to an old-fashioned shoe repair shop in a small side street. The repairman has worked magic on my four-inch high heels, and refashioned my orthotic inserts for my sneakers. Surely, he’d have shoelaces. But the government deemed his shop non-essential so it was shuttered, along with almost every other store except supermarkets and pharmacies.

At home, I scrounged up an old shoelace, convincing Jonny that he was now a fashionista in his work boots with one purple shoelace and one gray one. At least my husband has a job. For today. He works in the 200-acre avocado groves of our village, Shavei Zion, about 75 miles north of Tel Aviv and if you keep going for  twelve more miles, you’ll reach Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

I’m a transplanted New Yorker; by now I’m familiar with traumatic events in Israel. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, about 300 Katyusha rockets rained down all around our village; miraculously, nobody was injured. Seven years later, we watched the Iron Dome defense system take out four Grad rockets fired from Lebanon — right above our heads. Against this viral foe, however, military might seems as helpful as a fly swatter.

The coronavirus is worldwide but it has shrunk my outlook from global to local, if not tribal. More than ever, I’m relieved I moved to Israel in 1991, a place I feel cared for — and wanted — in two crucial ways.

The first is Israel’s national health care system which covers all its citizens, no matter our race or religion. I’ve always appreciated seeing our topnotch family doctor, who happens to be a Muslim Arab, free-of-charge, and taking my kids to the emergency room for various calamities, including centipede bites and sports injuries, without having to consider the cost. If I now wind up in a hospital, I won’t pay a shekel.

The second way is how the Israeli Government has scrambled to airlift Israelis home from around the world. Israelis are wandering Jews in every way — even when we have a country to call our own, and since early March, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has engaged in high-level diplomacy with officials in entirely-sealed countries. With Passover drawing near on April 8, Moses’ plea, “Let my people go,” took on urgent new meaning. Israel even arranged a free flight for more than seventy Ethiopian immigrants to come to Israel on March 24, just hours before the Ethiopian borders shut.

My oldest daughter, Amalia, could have been one of those stranded Israelis unable to get home. She had been trekking in Chile and planned to continue to Tulum, Mexico, thinking she could wait out the virus, relaxing and doing yoga on the beach.

While Jonny and I usually go along with our six children’s roaming spirits, this time, we persuaded her to come home immediately. What would happen if she got to Mexico, changed her mind, and wouldn’t be able to leave? She thought we were exaggerating the problem but reluctantly agreed to make travel arrangements. She boarded one of the last flights out of Santiago on March 16.

Amalia’s friend, 27-year-old Lina Thompson, a nurse from Ontario, Canada, had been on a four-day trek in Peru, and had not even heard the “C-word” until she returned to Cusco on March 15. With the country set to lock down, she managed to buy an airplane ticket for March 18. When the military imposed a sudden closure on March 16, it was too late. Thompson, now shut up in an apartment with an Irish woman and two other Canadians, keeps appealing to the Canadian government to help her, but she said “nobody’s stepping in.” When she heard how Israel sent four airplanes to pick up a thousand Israelis in Peru and fly them back to Israel last week, she said, “I want to learn Hebrew so that the Israeli Government adopts me.”

Meanwhile, my niece, Ruby, from New York, had been studying at EMIS, Eastern Mediterranean International School, a high school boarding program in HaKfar Yarok, central Israel, for the past three years. She and eighty other high school seniors hailed from more than forty countries around the world, including Armenia, Gambia, and China, as well as Israeli and Palestinian students who forged connections that transcended borders. But the virus won out, and the school shut down on March 25. Ruby flew back to New York; the other students went winging home to their native countries. Suddenly, the world that these idealistic students envisioned uniting has become splintered and small. And something small, like a pair of shoelaces, suddenly seems so huge.

 

 

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Waiting 75 Years for Liberation from Auschwitz

I was honored to be a part of the ritual in our hevra kadisha, the village burial circle, to prepare my neighbor, Suzy, a survivor of Auschwitz, for her burial, on the very day that Auschwitz was liberated. Then I wrote about it for The Forward.

ou can go to the link here. https://forward.com/life/438978/preparing-an-auschwitz-survivor-for-her-final-resting-place/

 

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