Ma! is the word I’ve heard most commonly everywhere in Israel. It’s literal translation is “What” but it has many other more subtle translations, the most common of which is “What the fuck?”. It’s a place holder, to use while you’re considering what to say next. It’s a  sly request for more information, spoken in a purr it’ s like “Tell me more, darling” It can be a term of agreement, as in ” Yeah, I get it”  but mostly I’ve heard it used in the first way…..”Get outta my way”, “Are you insane” and ” I’m getting in line in front of you, even though you’ve been waiting patiently  in the Post Office for an hour”. One of the many things I’ve learned during six weeks in Israel.  Here are a few more:

Israel is not America ( really?). Despite America’s obsession with Israel and Israel’s keen awareness of all things American, it is in fact a Middle Eastern society. I noticed this most on the street. Walking down the street in NYC , I make eye contact, I smile at people, I help blind people , I smile at children.   A real freakin’ boy scout. Here, no one makes eye contact on the street. Especially men and women. Smiles are met with a look of suspicion if not hostility. I learned not to take it personally, but it saddened me a bit. Here’s a snap of Rami, a motorcycle mechanic near the studio who always smiled and chatted with me…..Even after I told him that I was married, he continued to spread a little sunshine on the street.


And my buddies at La Rampa. These gents make a mean cuppa joe, always have a smile and a wisecrack for me. They seem to think that I am a weird exotic bird that has temporarily landed in their Universe. They may be correct.

my friends

I took the bus to Jerusalem. Traveling by public transportation is great. Buses pick you up and drop you off where ever you want. There are bus stops, but we don’t let that detail control us! The only down side is that the driver can play whatever music he wants -very loud. You also get to hear him to speak on any one of the three cell phones that he juggles whilst driving. It’s cheap and it gets you there. I walked from the bus station with this lovely gent from Iran. He spoke not a word of English, nor much Hebrew. Nonetheless we chatted as we walked, smiling and nodding in a gentle bubble of mutual non-understanding. He wore a great deal of gold around his neck. mustachePortraits of his children, I think. Bling bling Iranian style.








Here is a detail. He was very happy and proud to show me and in fact asked me to take his picture gold. Jerusalem is beautiful. A stunning world class museum- The Israel Museum. A really edgy, brilliant contemporary art museum called The Seam. It’s right on the “seam” between east and West Jerusalem and devoted to showcasing political and socially relevant art. The current show is about the notion of Loneliness, and it’s very moving. There’s ancient history. A terrific art school. Good restaurants. Elegant neighborhoods. And lots and lots of soldiers and tension. When I arrived the bus station was in full scale bomb alert. They take that pretty seriously in Israel. It’s sobering and  a million miles away from the fun and funky world of Tel Aviv.  I found the city very sad. But here’s some snaps of Arab school girls at the Israel Museum, taking pictures of each other and blissfully ignoring their teacher. Some things are the same the world over.


school girls


And a magical moment. While in the Nougichi sculpture garden I wandered into a breathtaking James Turrell room. Pink stone, blue sky, brilliant golden light. And happily crawling on the cool floor was a baby. Her mother watching joyfully from the side. The three of us smiled, gurgled and basked in the glorious room.

turrellturrell and baby

I saw no street art in Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s not part of the culture. Perhaps it gets painted over, since J Town is a major tourist site.

Sadly driving IS a contact sport in Israel. I’ve seen more car accidents, or the aftermath of, in six weeks than I have in my entire life. Some bad ones. I saw a cop car run into the side of a building and a pedestrian run over by an electric bike. Which, since you asked, are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. It’s stupid, crazy, insanely dangerous  and and should change. All two wheeled vehicles- bikes, electric bikes, Vespas, motorized skateboards careen down the sidewalks in Tel Aviv. It is your responsibility to jump out of their way. No bells, no nothin’ warn you that you are about to be mowed over. I watched a teen with two broken arms, on a skateboard run into an ancient old woman carrying her groceries. Maybe he broke another limb. It would have been a bit of Old Testament Justice, fur shur.

Israelis are obsessed with many things. Everyone says that they are sick of politics and then proceed to passionately dive in, again. It is a very intense place. My keen political analysis of the situation boils down to several issues……..Israelis are deeply invested in  the music of Lenard Cohen. Every home I went into was playing his dreary dirges ( there, I betray my own prejudices) I find this problematic and feel that perhaps if we could encourage a move away from LC it could positively affect the peace process.

I find another  second cultural investment less problematic. That is is the man himself- Robert “Bob” Marley. Every taxi cab plays Bob’s music. Teens on the beach wear flowing pants emblazoned with his image. Dreadlocks abound ( and yes they even look stupid on young and beautiful Israelis).  The market is draped with these pants in all their polyester glory. I feel that we should encourage Marley, discourage Cohen.

marelypants marelypantsll

Do I have other, perhaps more relevant ideas about the political situation in the Middle East? You betcha!!!! Am I going to post them on the Inter-web? Nope.  Invite me out for a glass of wine and I will happily expound, like everyone else, about what Israel should and shouldn’t do and be. No problemo.

Check out these drawings. It is, after all, a democratic and uncensored country…..burka

blindfold Bibisweet future

So many more snaps of street art. I will post some on their own……

As seen in store windows throughout Te Aviv- Pride week comin’ up,

The Spring flowers are amazing. After a week of tremendous unexpected rain the countryside burst open-

yaelflowers spring flowers

And finally- While in Jerusalem I went to Ammunition Hill, the site of a crucial  battle of the 1967 war. I found a plaque honoring my father’s service in Europe during WW ll . It made me happy. It made me sad. A lovely and tender site. Rarely visited by tourists. Mostly a place where schoolkids are taken on trips to learn about the nation’s history.

amunb hill3

It’s been six weeks. I’m tired and tan and full of new thoughts…….Home again, home again, jiggity jig……..



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22 Responses to MA!!!!?

  1. Pesya says:

    Great blog! You did capture the essence of my homeland Thank you!

  2. Paul Karlstrom says:

    When do you return? Paul

  3. Paul Karlstrom says:

    Melissa dear,
    this is by far the best travel letter I’ve read. And the illustrations are gorgeous. Truly. I now don’t have to visit Israel in the remaining travel opportunities vouchsafed me. Or maybe thanks to you i’m more inclined. I think you should publish your reports with a thoughtful introduction. Or should we do an interview on the subject?
    Love, Paul

  4. Keris says:

    Very nice! Welcome home!


  5. Babs says:

    Thanks for sharing pics and bits and pieces about your trip. Miss you and look forward to seeing you back home.

  6. Terry Heller says:

    you are such a delight… I hope you continue these artful musings for years, and years and years to come!


  7. Todd Pearson says:

    Thanks Melissa, interesting blog, I’m looking forward to seeing you back in New York later in the year, safe travels!

  8. Bret Philpot says:

    A fantastic selection of words that took me along with you. I got to feel Jerusalem And Israel n her perfections and her blemish. I’ve spent time in Syria and Egypt and would love to visit Israel. Traveling afar keeps us in such perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Sue Lipkins says:

    Loved reading your impressions! Let’s tawk when you get home… safe travels, Girlfriend!

  10. Gwen Alter says:

    Ma, Let’s have a bottle.

  11. Meg says:

    M – thanks for taking us along on your incredible adventure! And yes – more Marley, less Cohen. Safe travels home. Meg

  12. angelique says:

    Safe travels home, Melissa. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Was great seeing you and Yael inTel Aviv!

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