Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just back from Israel - a quick review of sights + sites, sea, spa & sounds

View of the Jerusalem Hills
Recently back from an extended trip to Israel where we attended a nephew's wedding in the Jerusalem Hills; ate in a number of Tel Aviv restaurants - from Thai to, for lack of a better term, "new" Israeli cuisine; traveled for a couple of days to the Dead Sea area; visited (and dined in) Yafo, in the "gentrified" flea market area, on two occasions; and lunched in Ra'anana ... in the bright mid-afternoon sunshine ... in a simply beautiful garden restaurant called Makom Balev

Seated at Makom Balev
This friendly & welcoming restaurant & upscale coffee shop offers a prefixe menu, specializing in what they identify as "fresh rustic delicacies" - e.g., chicken liver paté; unique pasta dishes (including a spinach linguini); a chicken liver plate with puréed potatoes & fresh red currant berries; variously intricate seasonal salads (such as Fattoush salad) all composed of locally grown vegetables; an interesting array of pastries & pies & other dessert items, including gelato & their unique chocolate soufflé.

View of Ruins at Shivta (near Nitzana)
Additionally, we participated in my wife's "youth group" reunion in Nitzana (in the western Negev & just a short trek by foot to the Egyptian border) where we ate dinner and lunch, communally, in a Bedouin-style (tent-like) structure - featuring various tasty (local) dishes: eggplant, hummus, tahina & a variety of fresh veggie salads; a mildly spicy rice & "crumbled" beef dish seasoned with baharat (a clove-based spice mixture); endless thin & stretchy gum-like "lengths" of pita; and cast-iron frying pans filled with onions, tomatoes, garlic & eggs ... a homey shakshouka.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art
And, almost dutifully, I returned to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, specifically to attend to an extensive exhibit entitled "20th-Century Art: The First Half," underscoring "... where modernism took form in Europe" and displaying pieces by every (?) major and many minor painters & sculptors, like Juan Gris, Picasso, Georges Braque, Leger, Magritte, Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Giacometti - from representative works of Fauvism to Cubism & Surrealism, from "Art Informel" to American Abstract Expressionism. Just a wonderfully curated, memorable, intense & extensive, all-encompassing show. 

Earth Worms - 1946
My favorites pieces on display in the exhibit: some masterful works (in oil, if I recall) by Juan Gris & George Braque, as well as one of Pollock's drip paintings, the smallest of that ilk I had ever seen (roughly 3 1/2 feet by 2 1/4 feet, or thereabouts!). But arresting, nevertheless!

Illuminated Woman, 1966-1967
NOTE:  The Tel Aviv Art Museum is also running an extremely impressive show presenting, in a rich assortment, the major sculptural work of the Polish-French (Jewish) sculptor, Alina Szapocznikow, entitled "Body Traces." If you missed the recent Szapocznikow exhibit mounted at MoMA just a few months ago (October - January), you can see all (or most) of the same singular items here in Tel Aviv (through 31st May). (I discussed the MoMA show - "Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972" - in a blog post a while back; have a look!) 

Isrotel Ganim / along Ein Botek "Strip"
While on our brief excursion to the Dead Sea area, we stayed at a very comfy & posh (neither too elegant nor too elaborate, nor baroque) spa-hotel in Ein Bokek, along the Dead Sea hotel "strip," the Isrotel Ganim. The hotel offered us expansive breakfasts (the various herring & salmon platters alone were truly alluring) and dinner buffet meals replete with a wide mix of meats (the freshly sliced pastrami was divine!), poultry, fish, cut & sliced veggies, potatoes (prepared every which way), and salads of every content, color & texture. Moreover, we made good use of the spa facilities (we each had a "rejuvenating" massage) and the crystal-clear, ultra clean, buoyant & therapeutic Dead 
Man "Buoyed up" in The Dead Sea
Sea-like saltwater pools in the spa area, not to mention the two large jacuzzi tubs we also took advantage of. This Ein Bokek spa-hotel proved calm, commodious, and relatively quiet throughout - inside & out - and there were plenty of "beach" chairs, couches, and lounge chairs, also inside & out, in which to read, relax, nap, chat, or simply to imbibe a hot or cold drink.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi Park - Ibix
During our stay in Ein Bokek, along the Dead Sea (the lowest place on earth!), we managed to take an excursion to Ein Gedi (where we'd ventured some 35+ years before), an oasis in Israel, located west of the Dead Sea, near Masada & the Qumran Caves

We hiked up to the pools & waterfalls at various levels and meandered in and around the park, also hiking, not far,
Ancient Synagogue - Tile Floor

over to the remains of an ancient synagogue, with original colorful (just slightly faded after thousands of years) tiled floors lining the various "rooms" of the partially excavated structure. The synagogue was (is) part of a Jewish settlement dating back to somewhere between the 3rd and 6th centuries, CE. Miraculous, indeed!

But one of the most interesting experiences we had on this trip to Israel turned out to be a jazz concert in Kfar Saba, featuring Leonid Ptashka (with a bassist & drums), the Russian-Israeli jazz phenom whose piano just sizzles as he pounds out traditional jazz themes, folk-inflected jazz tunes, pop (jazz) tunes, salsa & syncopated rhythmic fare. 

Leonid Ptashka in Concert
Mr. Ptashka is a masterful pianist (classically trained in Russia at various top-notch music institutes & conservatories). But, besides his obviously awesome musical talent, what makes Ptashka unique is his "artful" showmanship, audience-centric style & bravado performances. And on this particular evening ... his unlimited energy prevailed throughout a very long & thrilling show. 

Ptashka combines, in the jazz idiom, the somewhat incongruous sparks & fire of a Jerry Lee Lewis, the attention-drawing dress (white jacket, red boots, pompadour, rings) of an entertainer like Liberace, the frenetic fingers on the piano a la Thelonious Monk, and the technical skill & emphatic approach of an Andre Watts. Ptashka's "act" (and I certainly don't use the word in any derogatory sense) must be seen & heard first, in concert (or club), then a listener can be mesmerized by the music on a CD, alone! Just listen, for example, to his stunningly precise interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," or his "borderline mellow" version of Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right." 

In sum, Leonid Ptashka, according to the biographical notes to be found on his web site "... has established himself as a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant performer and an artist passionately committed to his music." [italics added]

Just pick up a copy of the CD, Leonid Ptashka & Jazz Friends, 2005; listen with care ... & you'll be a convert, too!  

Israeli Opera at the Foot of Masada
Alas, based on what I observed and the people I spoke with on this recent trip, things are - with the exception of the lingering Palestinian peace treaty still in a state of limbo - pretty solidly & obviously thriving in the State of Israel: particularly in the areas of science & medicine; high tech & tourism; literature, opera & film; food & gourmet dining; and construction, commerce ... choreography & concertizing.