Israel Night: Learning About the Country’s Culture, Food, Religion, & More

–submitted by Jocelyn Riley; photos by Jason Beren

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Two dozen Rotarians attended our Rotary Club’s Cultural Awareness Fellowship Event Israel Night on Thursday, January 26, at UW Hillel / The Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Student Life on Langdon Street in Madison.  We were treated to a delicious kosher buffet meal of falafel, chicken shawarma, hummus, Israeli salad, pita bread, tahini, and desserts including mandelbread, chocolate and cinnamon rugelach, and “Prussian ears.”  The meal was prepared by Adamah Neighborhood Table, which also runs a restaurant in the Hillel building.

After dinner, Rotarian Lester Pines gave a presentation on the history and culture of Israel.  Lester opened by telling us some details about his own relationship to Israel (which is, he pointed out, about the size of New Jersey).  At the age of 16, Lester spent 9 weeks in Israel in the summer of 1966 (the year before the momentous war of 1967).  When he returned many years later to the place where he had stayed in 1966, at first Lester could not recognize the spot.  Where there had once been small saplings surrounding the building, there was now a forest of large trees, part of Israel’s extensive “reforestation” effort.

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Lester then led us through some highlights of Israeli culture and customs.  Lester pointed out that Israel is home to many people from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, including people from Western Europe, Central Europe and Asia, and Africa.  Migration to Israel from so many parts of the world has influenced how life there has evolved.  Lester pointed to the mass migration of about a million people from Russia to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a transformative event in Israeli life.  Many of the Russian Jews who left to avoid persecution were highly educated scientists.  Once in Israel, they initiated scientific work that transformed Israel into “Silicon Wadi,” parallel to America’s Silicon Valley.  Even though the bulk of Israel is located in a desert (the Negev) on a salty sea, its economy had for many years been based on agriculture.  The newly arrived scientists began working on projects that led to Israel becoming the world leader in desalination of saltwater and to developing a strain of potatoes that can be irrigated with saltwater.

Lester closed with a description of an Israeli festival called Purim, based on the biblical book of Esther.  When he showed pictures of people in costumes at a Purim festival, people in the audience spontaneously called out, “It looks like carnival,” and “It looks like Halloween.”  Lester agreed that even though Purim in based in ancient texts, it’s a contemporary festival just for fun.

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