Vote for Minnesota Prairie Roots as the best blog in southern Minnesota


Well worth the vote.

Originally posted on Minnesota Prairie Roots:

southern minnesota scene best of logoTHE NOMINATIONS ARE IN, dear readers, for the “Best of Southern Minnesota 2014,” sponsored by the regional arts and entertainment magazine Southern Minnesota Scene.

And, ta-da, Minnesota Prairie Roots/Audrey Kletscher Helbling is among nominees for best blog/blogger, along with Dennis Vogen and Anhedonic Headphones/Kevin Krein.

I am honored. Truly. To those of you who nominated me, thank you.

Now, you have one month, until 11:59 p.m. September 1, to vote.

Click here to cast your ballot for Minnesota Prairie Roots and nominations in more than 150 other categories of “best ofs” in southern Minnesota. You need only register your name and email (there’s a promise not to sell your information).

You will find the blog/blogger ballot in the miscellaneous category, near the bottom of the page.

If you are reading this post, you likely are already among the nearly 1,000 Minnesota Prairie Roots subscribers. You know that I write…

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Time Shift and Diet Changes

Jet lag…

I was told if I being adjusting to a new time zone a week in advance, avoid red meat, increase my intake of water, take melatonin and bury a dead cat on hill at midnight of a full moon, I could avoid jet lag all together. 

This has not proven to be the case. Not that I did any of the above, seemed tedious… but last night I literally fought my circadian rhythm tooth and nail to keep myself from going to be at 2:00 in the afternoon. And this morning? Up a 3:00 am. I managed to fall back to sleep after an hour of mindless computer time, just in time for the 5:00 am alarm. Through out the day I felt pretty good. Until about 7:00 pm. Then.. i found myself ready for bed again. Fighting the droop eyelids and hallucinating whilst doing the mundane TV watching. 

I hallucinated that I was snoozing on a sofa in room with a tile floor. In Israel we never once saw a carpet, everything is tile. Had to put my foot down on the ground to make sure I knew where I was. 

I used to dream about semi-naked women, now I’m dreaming about naked floors. Sucks to get old. 

The middle kid had the double whammy of jet lag and food poisoning. Or a stomach virus, I have’t gotten close enough to him to find out which. To busy burning everything he’s touched or walked on, including the carpet. I do NOT need to the double sluice box at this time in my life, although the accompanying weigh loss is interesting to me. 

I did manage to lose about 10 lbs in Israel. First vacationer in history who can make that claim. Well, take that back, my cousin Bill who was there a month ago also lost a ton of weight. 

Why? I’m thinking it’s because for two weeks i didn’t eat 1 (one) (uno) (echad) morsel of processed anything! No fake cookies, no breakfast toasties, nada. Has to be it. Walking 5 miles a day helped too. 

Interesting note- my cousin who has lived in Israel since about 1968 has been eating the Israeli diet of salads at every meal, lots of veggies, very little meat and even then, mostly chicken. Acres of hummus and tons of fresh dairy. On that side of the family to say there’s a penchant for diabetes would be an understatement. Literally everyone, from my grandmother to three of her sons, and of the 5 kids in her generation 4 have diabetes. The only one who doesn’t have it.. yup, it’s her. 

I might need to take notice in my own diet. Put the family on a healthy fresh made diet. Once they’re all keeping solid foods down that is. 


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Baksheesh Economy

A fairly substantial fence surrounds the Kibbutz, like every other rural community in Israel. There’s rolling gate that closes every night around 8:00 pm and reopens at 7:00 am. Nowadays residents can open the gate with their cell phones.

What’s the fence for, I asked. Answer surprised me; Bedouins.

Bedouins? The dudes in the black tents with the long robes and kifiyas?

Used be black tents and robes, now it’s Toyota pickups and jeans.

Apparently they come into the Kibbutz from time to time and steal newborn calves from the dairy farm and occasionally farm equipment. “We have guard dogs, they really don’t like dogs, they’re ‘haram’ for Muslims, but the dogs stopped hanging out at the cow shed a long time ago.” “Where do they hang out now?” “By the kitchen.”

This is not a first world problem.

Mickey is a part time police officer. “We caught some a few weeks ago with 11 calves in a Subaru.”

How do you get 11 calves in a Subaru? Put 4 in the trunk.

Seriously.. “What’d you do with them?, the Bedouins I mean.”

“We always let them go.” Apparently they have a code, no one ever gets hurt in a Bedouin heist, they just take the stuff and run. When they’re caught the stolen items are confiscated and the perps are let go.

I noticed that every time we drive past the big agriculture pumps by the road past the Kibbutz fence there’s a guy camping down there. Tent, fire, dude’s been there the entire time, who is that?

Bedouin guard. We hire Bedouin guards to watch the pumps and equipment out there. Keep other Bedouins from stealing stuff. “Bedouins will guard you stuff from other Bedouins? How does that work?” “The guys we hire tell their cousins not to steal from here and they gives them a percentage of what we pay, form of baksheeh.” Small bribes or charity.

So this whole thing is a scam?

Mark Twain wrote about a visit to the Holy Land in 1869. In it he talked about hiring Arab guards, by law, from the Turkish landlords in order to protect pilgrims from rampaging Bedouins. There were even a battle or two where to guards would vigourasly protect the travelers.

Twain reported that after the battle and once the group had passed the combatants would sit together and split the proceeds from the guard money and the tips they earned for the bravery in battle.

All a big scam organized by the local Turk and his folks.

“We’d be just as safe walking alone” he conjectured.

Things haven’t changed much it seems.

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Reflections on the Last Day in Israel


5:30 am, our last few hours in Israel.

All I can say about it is Wow. It’s certainly been a trip and a half. We’ve seen the country at its best and, unfortunately also at its worst. We’ve had the good fortune of having some of the most popular tourist sites in the world almost completely to ourselves. We were active participants in the events here, we like so many people here it the south, had to make 30 second dash to the shelters, and in one heard the explosion of rocket hitting the ground a few hundred meters from where we were hunkered down. We saw the Iron Dome, positioned in the fields around the nearby community of Kiryat Gat.

And, like many people here we after a few sirens and a few explosions in the distance we become sort of nonchalant about war and our own safety, instead of dashing the 50 meters uphill to the shelters we justified not going because they ever hit anything anyway. Thinking about it, when was the last time I went into the basement for a storm siren in Minnesota? I’m thinking about 1997.

We were close enough to Gaza that we could hear the shelling from Israel. There was an artillery battery about a mile or so away from us, the frequency and intensity of its low frequency but very substantial booming was our own indicator of the intensity of the fighting in Gaza. We guessed correctly that Israel was sending troops in last Friday by the intensity of our 3:00am wakeup call. And we were new exactly when the ceasefires were in place on Saturday morning, the silence was deafening.

We did a great deal of our travelling via public transportation. We tool local busses to Jerusalem and trains to Tel Aviv and home from Haifa. That in itself gave us a few into Israeli society that you’re not going to get from an air conditioned tour bus. We travelled to Jerusalem on Sunday mornings for no good reason other than that’s when it worked out. Sunday is the start of the work week in Israel, it’s when kids in the military go back to their bases after weekend leaves with their families. Our bus was the opposite of an “express” bus, we stopped more times that I can count on that trip. At every stop we picked up kids the same ages as mine in their uniforms. At one stop the three kids who got on the bus were kids of Ethiopian immigrants, two boys and a girl. The two boys were religious, they were wearing kippas. The girl was carrying a riot helmet and a baton with her, in addition to her automatic weapon. Also on the bus a few of the Heardi, the ultra-orthodox in their black suits and white shirts with ubiquitous giant black hats. The juxtaposition of these two groups of Jews really struck me.

It seems more than fitting that our last day of touring was in Tel Aviv. In my past trips here Tel Aviv wasn’t on the itinerary. There’s not a ton of sightseeing in Tel Aviv. It’s a place to go if you want to sit on the beach, go to a mall or experience some great restaurants. Tel Aviv is ground zero of Secular Israel. My cousin kept referring to it as a “free” city. It’s the only place in the country where the grocery stores are open and the busses run on Saturday. It’s the one place in the country where there was a protest last week against the actions in Gaza. When we walked the streets, especially a day after Jerusalem, I was struck by lack of Heradi on the streets. “They aren’t welcome here” was my cousins comment. Tel Aviv is, when there aren’t siren going off, a travel destination for Gay and Lesbians. It’s an open progressive city, it’s outrageously expensive and according to my son, it’s the goal of every young secular Israeli to live there.

While there we visited Rabin Square and saw the spot where Yitzak Rabin was assassinated. There’s modest memorial at the corner of the City Hall building that the place. As Mickey explained the events of that evening it was painfully obvious that he was deeply affected by them. To set the stage, the square is a city block that has a small pond on one side, a single olive tree in planter in the middle, the rest of paved. At the north end is a raised area and behind that is City Hall. Around the square are the 4 story apartment buildings that sort of define the city.

To paraphrase;

We really had the feeling at that time the peace was at hand. The country was very optimistic. We were very close to an agreement with the Palestinians that everyone could sense was going to bring a genuine peace to Israel. Rabin came here to this square to participate in a peace demonstration. Almost the entire country it felt like, was packed into this block. He spoke, and sang a song about peace and really we thought it had arrived. But, (and he pointed to the buildings around the square) up there were the counter protesters, the religious and the right wing. The religious parties were furious with Rabin. There were Rabbi’s leading prayers for his death, it was crazy. But, it’s a free country and anyone can say whatever they want, and they. No one thought much about it.

After the speech he descended from the platform and went to get into his car. Security was tight they were looking for terrorists, Arab terrorists specifically no one ever thought to look for Jews. And right here a Religious kid, wearing a Kippah, from Bar Ilan University, the Ultra-Orthodox school near here, came behind him and shot him three times in the back.

After that day Shimon Peres became Prime Minister but he lost the next election and Netanyahu and Likud came to power. The government took a hard right turn, settlements increased, and relations with the Arabs got worse, we really felt collectively that a light was snuffed out that night.

On the memorial it was supposed to be written that Rabin was killed by “an assassin wearing a kippa”, it was going to be our way (the secular Israeli left) of reminding people that this was not an act of Arab terrorism, this was Jewish terrorism. But, there was a massive outcry from the right and it never happened.

Then the really profound statement

Most countries in the development go through some kind of Civil War. There’ some battle, ideological or political for the soul of the country. In Israel we haven’t had that war yet, probably because we too busy fighting to defend ourselves. But as the country has grown in prosperity and strength, it’s my sense that this event is a small battle in that war between the ultraorthodox, the settlers and the far right, and the secular left.

This a country wrestling with a lot of problems. But a lot of her strengths get lost in the discussion, especially in the international press. This is still a democracy. Everyone in Israel has the right to vote and speak their mind.

Interestingly on the city buses in Jerusalem there are signs that say “By law anyone is entitled to sit anywhere they choose. It is against to law to force people to move.” This sign BTW, directed to the Ultraorthodox men who would object to having sit next to a woman, especially a secular woman, because they might accidently touch or worse, she would corrupt his thoughts or his ritual purity because she may be “unclean”. Apparently there’s been a problem of women getting harassed by these guys.

It’s one country around here where issues like equality for 20% of the Israeli population who are Palestinian, or settlements and politics are openly debated. Israel doesn’t have it right but they talk about it and the vote on it.

This country has a booming economy at the moment. 2000 years of stressing education and learning is finally paying off as around the world power shifts to the geeks, there’s a high tech boom here fueled by Israeli and Russian mathematics and innovation. And there’s a growing disparity between the wealthy and middle classes as the price of housing goes through the roof. We saw Intel, all over the country (facilities were protected by Iron Dome) SAP, etc in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Skyscrapers and development town tenements.

No issue here in Israel is easy. Everyone single one is like an onion, layers on layers on layers of complexity. A great metaphor can be found in Jerusalem, at the church of the Holy Seplecure. In the 1800’s a repairman left a ladder up there as he was installing some windows for the Ethiopian Orthodox chapel. None of the other groups in the Church, the Greeks, the Latins, the Armenians etc could agree on the work and no one could come to agreement on who should go up there and take down the ladder after the work was completed. They argued about it, any move to do something would indicated the supremacy of one group over another simply because they had given approval without consulting the others.

150 years later, the ladder… it’s still there.

Agreements here require enormous strength, and have to come from strength, a strength that at the moment, is a little hard to find. People like Rabin come along once in a while, but they do come along, I just hope everyone can recognize them when they do and have the courage to act.

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The Opposite of Minnesota Nice- Israeli Pushy

Speaking of which, if my cousin tells me one more time to “Israeli up” I sweat to G-d I’m going to get very cross and just may give him the sternest of frowns.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 30 years or so is Israeli recalcitrance.

Case in point- when we were touring around the Crusader castle in Akko yesterday we came across a gate that ajar. Signs all over the gate in literally every written language west of the Euphrates said “Keep Out” and “Closed”. Cousin Mikey looked at the gate, looked at us and in two seconds looked back at us and announced “If they didn’t want us in there they would have locked the gate. Welcome to Israel” and pushed his way through. Followed BTW by Mrs S, and all the little S’s. Me… A rule is a rule and if the sign says to keep out they must mean they want you to keep out. If you stop doing what sings tell you society will breakdown and… “Come Gary, Israeli up and come look at this.” My kids found this particularly humorous.

And in I went, all they could do is tell you to leave… or take you down to the lower part of the castle dungeon and chain you to a wall and throw away the key. It’s been done there before.

Israeli’s have a reputation for being a little bit.. what ever the opposite of Minnesota Nice is. Pushy in a way that would make Garrison Keillor blush.

Yesterday I stopped into the post office to change some money. Post offices in Israel are like post offices anywhere, long lines, windows with half-awake bureaucrats slogging through a boring day and people who are a touch uptight about having the wait in the lines. At least they’re air-conditioned, which yesterday was a big deal. Three people were in line ahead of me, three people, and still endured a 20 minute wait. One lady didn’t really speak Hebrew so well, she spoke Russian. She was having a difficult time explaining to the clerk what she wanted, basically a package. After a few minutes of frustrating sign language and broken Hebrew, a fellow in line behind started translating for the two of them between Russian and Hebrew. The clerk must have been new because she didn’t exactly know how to do what the woman wanted. No problem, the other three or four patrons in the place started coaching her, at some decibel level on what she should be doing and, as Nate explained between snickers, with contradictory instructions.

Meanwhile at window #2 a lady in line wanted to pick up a package that was in her husband’s name. Against policy. That conversation went downhill in a big ass hurry as the woman went off on the poor clerk. But being Israel he was happy to start yelling right back at her and for oh.. 10 minute so there was a heated exchange that basically covered two topics – 1) Give me my package and 2) NO and get out of this office. Rinse and repeat. Sort of symbolic of the state if relations around here, stubborn non-negotiable positions spiced with a certain endemic recalcitrance.

There’s a certain psyche here that says “don’t give an inch”. Comes up in international relations as well as in day to day interactions.

But at the end of the day, people here, by and large are very giving and warm. You want your relationships with people to be just as warm. In Minnesota we tend to start new relationships on cold, gradually warming up as we get to know people. Here they start hot, and over time things settle down and you develop a nice warm relationships. Different approach to the same end.


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Touring Israel Local Style

There aren’t many tourists in Israel at moment, for obvious reasons. The running joke is everywhere we go the business and tourism folks already know about that “family from Minnesota”. It’s basically us, a few groups of pilgrims in the Christian holy sites and a couple busloads of Jewish kids on Birthright trips touring the country in mass. This has worked out pretty well for us for the most part, no lines anywhere.

When we came up to the northern part of the country, (Up North ironically as they say here) we encountered masses of Israelis on “holiday” if you will. It’s been really interesting to see how the country reacts in tough times. For the last week or so all of the national parks, archeological sites, beaches and so forth have been free for people with ID cards from the South. In addition local business are offering discounts on food and lodging for folks looking for a few days respite from sirens and rockets. And on the social networks lots of kibbutzim and a some individuals have offered to take in folks from the south for free.

We’ve been touring around with my cousin Mickey for the last few days. Mickey lived in Minneapolis for a few years a while a back and we become really close during that time, it’s been really fun to hang with him. It’s also been really beneficial from a cost standpoint. Mickey made arrangements, before all this crap started, for us to stay on kibbutzim for some of the nights we’ve been out touring and we’ve had a few meals on kibbutzim. Not a lot of tourists on Kibbutzim We’ve been to about 5 over the last couple days. Basically we’re staying on the farm if you will. Modest but comfortable accommodations. In Haifa we’ve been staying in an Air B&B. This one is an apartment in Russian part of Haifa. The apartment is one of the endless tenements that dot Israel’s cities. It’s really nice but again, modest. Two bedrooms in about 700 square feet. Pretty typical for middle class Israel.

The meal strategy has been to go somewhere cheap for breakfast. Cheap is the grocery store for yogurt, veggies and bread or find an Aroma, the local version of Starbucks. There, for about $9.00 you can get the Israeli breakfast plate; three eggs, a cucumber and tomato salad, a scoop of cream cheese, guacamole (not really guac more avocado and mayo) and tuna, and 4 slices of thick brown bread. That meal lasts well past lunch! For dinner we’ve been eating a lot of falafel and shwarama. Yesterday we ate dinner in Dahlit Al Carmel- a Druze village above Haifa. The food was not only outstanding, there was a ton of it. A TON; eggplant salad, cumber salad, carrot salad, Turkish salsa (local term for a spicy mixture of veggies and spices), cabbage salad, salad of unknown origin (Pickled something, don’t know what) pita, hummus and tehina, cooked lentils, two kinds of grilled chicken, grilled seasoned beef patties, fries and dessert. Drinks were free.

I might go a couple days without eating after that meal! We also had some interesting conversations with the folks who owned the place. More on that later.

We’re really seeing the country down close and personal, no programs or guided experiences. Yesterday we went to Dan National Park. Had a chance to hike by the River Dan, one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River. Also in the park were excavations of the ancient city of Dan. No tourists there, the hike is too long for them. But the place was pretty busy with Israeli’s, many from the south who were up for a hike under the cool canopy.

Today we’re off to Acco to see the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land, then up to the Technion in Haifa to see where Nate’s been going to school the last year.


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Israel- First Week Recap

We’ve now been in Israel a week. I’ve started and stopped several posts in that time, frankly it’s been hard to steal away and write when you’re hanging out with extended family. Everyone here uses a very archaic communication method called “talking”. So inefficient.

It’s really been an amazing week and as anyone who knows me or has read this space for a while knows, I DO NOT use the word “amazing” lightly. On the one hand it’s been quite an experience to be here during war time. The “situation” is always in background, in conversations with regular Israeli’s it comes up the time. How can it not. Yesterday there was news that two American kids who were serving in the IDF, both from Haifa, were killed in action. It was interesting to see Nate, at our first stop during the morning, make a beeline for the newsstand to get a paper to see if it was anyone he knew. He’s mentioned several times that some of his friends from school have been called up and are somewhere in Gaza. In Israel everyone knows someone who has killed in fighting and each loss is taken personally by everyone.

One of the American kids was laid to rest yesterday has no family in Israel, his parents flew over the day before for the funeral. Social networks in Israel, specifically WhatsApp which seems to be the most popular texting application, lit up with messages about the kid,and this family. The call went out that if anyone had time on Monday the funeral would be in Haifa and if a few people showed up to support the family since they know no one here it would be nice. 18,000 people showed up.

I’ve also had some talk about the other side of this issue, the elephant in the room if you will. What about the people on the other end of the bombs and artillery, the people in Gaza who are getting pounded at the moment. I’m getting a little anxious from a few sirens I can’t imagine actually living through a shelling day after day. For the most part there is a sincere sympathy. There’s a few folks I speak with on the Far Right who articulate a “they’re getting what they deserved” message, but so far that’s only one. For everyone else there’s more of a sense of this is a necessary evil. The rockets have to stop. There was really strong shift to this opinion after Hamas started infiltrating Israel through their intricate tunnel system. Once that started my sense is that there was a stronger feeling that something has to be done.

Enough politics, that’s a whole ‘nuther debate.

So why am I dropping the “amazing” word?

Top things about the trip so far

#1 and there isn’t a number one high enough for this. Reconnecting with family. As all readers here know I’ve been estranged from my folks for 10+ years. Not going into it here. Some of the collateral damage of that relationship has been a disconnect from the rest of the extended family as well. Coming here I’ve had a chance to sit with cousins I haven’t seen in years and reconnect and it’s been fantastic. Not to mention that they have gone out of their way to make us feel at home, to the point that I feel like I’m taking advantage. Now, I know family well enough to know that we fully subscribe to the Food is Love theology, but my cousin is such an outstanding cook and the whole family so generous that we gots to do something. ‘know what I’m say’n.

2- Food. There’s nothing more personal than food and I’m doing some reconnecting there with foods I haven’t had in 20-30 years. Specifically homemade hummus and tehina at every meal. Salads at every meal, Kiebe- Lebanese meatballs covered in a bulghar wheat coating and deep fried, the best homemade babaganoush I’ve ever eaten, on and on. Kunafa and baklava for desert.. and frankly the best mangos I’ve eaten since Florida.

3- Immediate family- My work email password expired on Sunday and I can’t recover it from here.. so I’m disconnected. Sometimes it’s the little things G-d does to remind you he exists.. (Speaking of which, Cheryl, Nate, Eric and I found ourselves alone in the very small crypt of the Holy Seplecure, Jesus’s tomb. They only want you in there for a few minutes, for most to say a little prayer and get out for the next group. It’s only about 5X7 foot space. 4 Jews in there talking history, and I made the comment “lets get out of here and make room for the believers.” Right after that I thunked the top of my head bending down to exit the small crypt. As Eric said “the Thumb of G-d! Thankfully I didn’t utter some words I usually come out of my lips in that situation. Not really the place)

While it’s been awesome to see Nate, it’s been more awesome to see everyone together. I couldn’t be prouder of this family and how they’ve handled the situation here with humor and wicked defiance. When I suggested that this might not have been the best time to come here the middle kid said “and let the terrorists win? Hell no!” Have to say that was a moment.

The kids have been great sports putting up with cramped cars, makeshift and sometimes less than luxury accommodations. There’s hasn’t been one complaint about anything except… the rock beach on the Sea of Galilee. They were really hard on the feet. I was pointing out that the landscape around us is where Jesus did most of his preaching and where his disciples came from. Comment from Eric “and he couldn’t do anything about the rocks?”


Finally #4- Nate. Having not seen him in a year the changes are huge. Confidence, attitude, a certain worldliness… all amazing to see. Not to mention how well acclimated he is. Reading the Hebrew newspapers for us to tell us what’s going on. (although Cousin Mickey is faster with his cell phone) conversing with people in stores and restaurants and filling me in on jokes at dinner when I’m missing the translations.

One week down, one to go. I haven’t been this content in and at peace with the world in years.

Now if they can get the flights going again …. All will be good.


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