There’s No Akko-unting…

Would anyone mind if I posted an older article, one that I began over the summer, but, for reasons I won’t bore you with, never was able to complete? If not, here goes:

The late Alice Trillin, the wife of the (still-living) humorist Calvin Trillin, has never gotten the recognition she deserves for formulating and codifying an economic principle we all more or less understand intuitively. It goes something like this: Let us suppose that she had considered purchasing a new living room set, one that cost $10,000, money they didn’t have. And then she changed her mind for whatever reason. The $10,000 that she had saved by keeping her old furniture for another year was now available as actual cash, so she reasoned, for the vacation get-away that they previously could never have afforded.  What an amazing discovery! How the Nobel committee has overlooked her contribution to economic theory is a mystery to me.

What does this any of this have to do with affairs in the Casden household? Please read on and all will be revealed.

Barbara Casden, the wife of the still-living all-around-good-guy Fred Casden, had in mind to go on a jaunt to Georgia (not the one that Sherman marched through in Gone with the Wind, but the Asian country that gave birth to Josef Stalin, to the eternal sorrow of most of the world). As hubby had less interest in the project than was required, Barbara offered to take Natania with her on a richly deserved vacation. However, by the time Barbara returned home after her trip to The States, the tour was cancelled. (Too many hubbies like me, I imagine.)

I can only imagine what exotic voyages my charming wife would have come up with to spend the money we saved by the cancellation, but Natania came to the rescue with something sensible. How about if the three of us spend a few days in Akko? That was one of the many places in Israel where she had never been – too busy working and going to school to join her parents in jaunts of this kind.

Well, that’s a lot cheaper than sight-seeing in the former Soviet republic!

And so, my wife and daughter formed a de facto planning committee to figure out where we would stay and what we would do. I relegated myself to the schlepping committee, lugging our suitcase hither and yon and, once we arrived, assuming the role of chronicler and chief photographer.

Barbara and I had been to Akko on several tiyulim, almost all of which focused on the Old City, so we sort of knew our way around that area. We had noticed on our last excursion that there was a new hostel, strategically situated right outside the Old City. Less expensive and more convenient than the fancy-shmancy hotel we had stayed at for Ari Levine’s wedding.  I should point out, though, that today’s hostels, at least in Israel, are nothing like the hostels of yore, fit only for young indigents back-packing their way from country to country. The ones we have stayed in by and large were modern, roomy, and clean. (And not so cheap: 500NIS a night!)

Whiling away the hours (Hostel in Akko)

We arrived in Akko in the late afternoon, after taking a series of three trains from the Old Train Station near the Malcha mall and then a taxi from the Akko station – for which we were charged 30NIS instead of the standard fee of fifteen, just because we didn’t know better or were too bedraggled to argue.

We knew that the hostel dining room was kosher, but they only served breakfast. Given the lateness of the hour, we would soon need to deal with dinner, which meant finding somewhere else to eat. We had been advised that there was nothing kosher near the Old City, so we made sure to print out a list of restaurants taken from the Internet, although had not been updated in a long, long time. After a leisurely stroll for about half an hour in the direction away from where we were staying, we arrived at what we had thought would be the most promising restaurant. Doesn’t look too open. It had, by the looks of it, been shuttered ages ago, with only the ghost of the former mashgiach wandering around where the kitchen had been, making certain that everything was at least cosmically kosher. Fortunately, Natania had kept a watchful eye out riding in the taxi to the hostel and remember the location of a grill place far off the beaten path, one that no self-respecting tourist had ever ventured near. Just locals, soldiers, a couple of young women who, by their attire, had spent the day at the beach, and us, all chomping on baguettes filled with this or that and lots of ‘chips.’ At least they didn’t raise their prices in our honor. (When you think you know the language department: Natania, our best Hebraist, was intrigued by one item on the menu. “Salafi? Salufi?” She finally inquired of the young woman tending the cash register. It was actually ‘sloppy,’ as in the local version of a Sloppy Joe.)

A walk to the ocean, back to our hostel, and then to bed – with a full day of wandering in store for us. Early to bed and early to rise, if for no other reason that the hostel stopped serving breakfast at 9AM. At 8:30, the dining room was packed with guests wolfing down an assortment of fairly typical Israeli hotel fare; we grabbed one of the few remaining tables all the way at the other end of the room and started shoveling food onto our plates – enough for a hearty breakfast and some more for a mid-day repast. As with all establishments of its kind, there was a sign at the entrance saying it was forbidden to take food from the dining room. And this being Israel where signs of this nature are considered ‘suggestions,’ it was universally ignored.

To get to our first stop, all we had to do was leave our hostel and cross the street to the tree-lined Enchanted Garden, the entrance to the Knights’ Halls of the Hospitaller Fortress.  Barbara and I had been there before, but the excavating people keep digging, so there’s always more to explore, most of it underground.

Inside the fortress

As Natania had seen none of this, we took our time, going slowly through every room. A few other places of interest, including an art gallery and a mockup of an old bath house,

The “bath house”

and then back to the hostel for our purloined lunch and short rest before venturing forth into the mid-day sun.

Mercifully, the area we planned to sight-see isn’t that extensive, nor was it very far from where we were staying (which was the point after all!). We wended our way to the port area to take the short boat ride around the harbor. Everyone else who boarded the small boat paid 10NIS per, but because we’re special, we got to pay 20NIS per. We were the first to board, and while we were waiting for the requisite number of people to join us, it began to dawn on me that I would have paid more than 20NIS to get off the boat right then and there. I’m perfectly fine on an ocean liner, but the swaying back and forth of a small boat on a big body of water gets me seasick faster than you can say ‘Sh’ma Yisrael.’ No such luck! I was stuck onboard. Off we went around the harbor.

The best thing I could do was not look around; for then I would really be under the weather. Just focus on one thing and ignore everything else. It happened that Natania and I were seated right next to the ‘captain.’ I kept looking at his impassive face. What would it be like to spend your days going endlessly around the Akko harbor? I know for sure it will never be me doing it!

The captain

The twenty-minute boat ride took only about fifteen minutes; but who’s complaining? Off to wander through one of the several khans, courtyards from the Ottoman occupation. That’s one of the fascinating things about old Akko, the confluence of different periods, different styles, different rulers. Everyone left their mark architecturally, except for the Jews, who did live in Akko through most of the last several millennia – at least until the Arab riots in the 1930’s, when the city became Judenrein. The only actual Jewish tourist attraction in the Old City is the Ramchal synagogue. Even with the posted signs pointing the way, it’s not easy to find, at the end of a narrow alleyway.

Not really a Jewish neighborhood…

The fellow who’s minding the place these days was quick to point out that the Kabbalist Luzzatto led the davening from the basement – something that every tour guide will tell you. What is generally omitted from the standard presentation is the fact that the Ramchal forbade women from entering his place of worship. Not my cup of tea, but then I’m no Kabbalist.

Ramchal turning over in his grave…

More wandering around, and then back to the hostel to rest up before going out in search of dinner. We were not going back to the grill place or the American pizza joint down the block and across the street from it. Natania, holder of the map, directed us to the Azrieli mall (not as impressive as their towers in Tel Aviv, but our best bet for kosher food.)

The mall

There is a food court on one end with an assortment of fast food places, but we sat down for a leisurely meal at a Café Gregg – a fine place to eat as long as you don’t need a first-rate cup of coffee. And then a walk back to the beach and from there around the city’s ramparts and back to our hostel for a good night’s sleep.

But we just got here! After breakfast, we finished packing and checked out, leaving most of our belongings in the store room. There was one place that Barbara was determined to visit, a small museum along the ramparts ironically named “Treasures in the Wall,” based on the principle – one that I’ve seen verified many times over the years in my wanderings through flea markets – that one man’s dreck is another man’s gelt. There are many different artifacts housed within, but a major thrust of the collection is to showcase objects actually used in the yishuv and the early years of the State: items to be discarded when they have stopped working or are no longer needed. Case in point: old Primus stoves.

That’s a Primus stove on the left

When Barbara was here in 1967, she stayed for a few days with the Habshush family. Bracha Habshush, of blessed memory, prepared all the meals for her enormous brood using two of these devices. I’m sure she was ecstatic when she finally got an upgrade. It would never have occurred to her that her Primus stoves (or ones exactly like hers) would wind up in a museum collection. I’m sure that none of the owners of the well-used children’s books imagined that their cast-offs would join hundreds of similar ones under a glass display case.

We still had plenty of time left before we were scheduled to board a train that would take us back to Jerusalem. How about if we headed over to the other shuk, the food market where local Arabs sell their produce – just to look around? We could probably have taken a bus there – assuming we could figure out the local schedules – but it was just as easy to walk. There wasn’t that much to see there – unlike its counterpart in Jerusalem – just a lot of prosaic fruits and vegetables. No restaurants, no coffee bars to nurse a cup of espresso and watch the world go by, just the same old, same old.

Not quite Machane Yehuda!

But we did realize one thing: this shuk we had walked to is down the block and across the street from the train station, the same station where we had paid 30NIS to take us to our hostel! And in the other direction, it was one block from the same Azrieli mall where we had dinner the night before.  At least we knew where to go to have some lunch!

We waited for a table at Café Café (a possible meeting place for a local contingent of William Safire’s Squad Squad), had a leisurely meal, took a bus back to the hostel, got our luggage from the storage room, and took a cab, which let us off across the street from the train station, a few feet from the shuk where we had just been.

If I had my druthers, we would have taken the train into Tel Aviv and taken the #480 bus into Jerusalem, but, remember, I wasn’t on the planning committee. It seems that Natania suffers from a phobia that is so rare that it doesn’t have a name: it’s a fear of getting stuck for all eternity in a traffic jam on the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Her solution? Retrace our steps on the train that winds its way hither and yon and ultimately arrives hours later at the Old Train Station in south Jerusalem. That route actually works for Natania, as it’s only a fifteen-minute bus ride away from where she’s living. But for me and Barbara, it’s another story.

Someday, maybe in our lifetime, there’ll be a light rail between the Malcha Mall area and the Central Bus Station, and the trip will take, at the most, ten minutes. But for now, there is an express bus, which takes fifteen minutes – once you get on it, after waiting for a lot longer than the ride itself for the bus to show up.

There are electronic signs on many bus stops that report when the various busses are supposed to arrive. The signs are supposed to be hooked up to a sensor in the bus, so, in theory, the information should be fairly accurate, which it is much of the time. But every once in a while, something goes wrong.  You’re waiting for the #99 bus, and the sign says it’s coming in ten minutes…then eight minutes…then six minutes. Finally, there’s an arrow, meaning the bus is seconds away, right around the corner. Then the sign changes: the next #99 bus will arrive in twenty minutes. WHAT???? Where’s the bus that was just around the corner? Did it fly past at the speed of light? Was it a virtual bus? This is one of the little things that makes you crazy. (Well, it makes ME crazy.)

We got off the train at the Malcha Station. Natania went in one direction, and Barbara and I headed off lickety-split, wheeling our suitcases as best we could, to a bus stop several blocks away to catch our express bus – which never came. Finally, we had to make a choice: take the local bus arriving now, which would wander all over southern Jerusalem and arrive at the Tachana Mercazit an hour later, or wait for the next express bus, which, if it actually did arrive on schedule a half an hour later, (no guarantees!) would get us to the Central Station much faster than the local bus. Decisions, decisions.

You know what “they” say: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Get on the bus that’s there now, along with all the other people waiting. And then…… There was a Hareidi looking guy sitting on the bench in the bus stop. He stood up and got on the bus. Uh oh! This poor fellow hasn’t had the opportunity to bathe or change his clothes for quite a while, and that’s the polite version. Let’s take a seat a reasonable distance away.

As the bus made its way through this street and that street, it began to get crowded. Really crowded. NYC subway crowded. There were now people sitting and standing closer to this poor fellow than anyone would want to be.  I began to wonder: What’s this guy’s story? Where exactly is he heading in that condition? Is he heading anywhere at all or just from one bus stop to another to spend the night? A better man that I might have invited him to our apartment and dealt with his hygienic needs, but nobody else did either. He was still on the bus when we arrived at the CBS, where we got off and got on our bus to Ma’ale Adumim. Total travel time? Well, Natania, even if the Hareidim were rioting and blocking traffic all along the highway, my way would have gotten us home faster than your way. Just keep that in mind for the future.

The high-speed train that will travel on the new line from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in twenty minutes is supposed to be ready sometime in 2018, but, like the signs in hotel restaurants or the electronic ones by the bus stops, that projection is more or less a suggestion or, perhaps, wishful thinking. There’s a lot of that here in The Land; maybe that’s our secret weapon: the firm belief that sooner or later the bus WILL arrive, no matter what it says on the sign.

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