Saturday, January 15, 2011

Summing Up

Now that I'm back home and (mostly) recovered from jet lag, I just thought I would put in a few final thoughts about the changes I saw in Israel that have taken place in the 11 years since I was last there.

Politically, the Russification of Israeli politics has been quite dramatic. The fear of the other, the demonizing and criminalizing of political opponents, all selective arrest and prosecution of peaceful protesters, all hallmarks of Putin's new Russia, and Lieberman's new Israel. I'm hoping that the courts will serve as a final bulwark to preserve Israeli democracy.

That's the Israel one sees in the Israeli papers. On the ground, the political and social turmoil are more muted and masked.

As a tourist, one sees a rather different Israel. For me, the most marked change was in the quality of the food in restaurants. When I first came to Israel in 1984, the food was almost uniformly awful. Israelis rarely ate out, meaning that most places catered only to the tourist trade. By 1998, things had improved immensely. As more Israelis traveled, the learned to expect better food. Israeli tv hosted cooking shows, highlighting Mediterranean cuisine. While there were still plenty of bad restaurants (e.g., almost anything serving Chinese or Thai), one could, without too much difficulty, find nice places to eat.

On this trip, we easily found excellent restaurants, using quality ingredients and creative preparations and pairings. And not just in Tel-Aviv. As for hotel food, the traditionally good Israeli breakfast buffet has been expanded, but more importantly, the dinner buffet is far, far better than a decade ago. Even in Ein Gedi, where the rooms still reflect the style of the 1980s, the dining hall was updated to the present.

In the past, the ubiquitous Italian restaurants served bland and forgettable preparations; now, they're more than just red or white sauce. From the pasta fagioli soup, to the fried stuffed zucchini flowers, to the fagotini crepes, we all were impressed by the quality.

Ten years ago, I was struck by how the beautiful bauhaus buildings of Tel-Aviv were run down and shabby; now I could see an active campaign to renovate them (mostly through facade-ectomies, in which the outer shell is preserved and the interior totally redone. There's still a lot of work to do, but the situation is improving.

It's hard to imagine what Jerusalem will be like when Jaffa Rd is closed to all traffic except for the light rail system. Hopefully, it will be a real improvement.

That's it for now.

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