Friday, April 30, 2004
Song of a Clean Nation
Every so often the nearly forgotten lyrics of an old familiar song come into perfect focus. The blur of half-understood syllables that had previously acted only as hooks on which to hang the melody, suddenly exactly describe current feelings or events. If there isn’t a term for this, there should be.
Back in 1984 Matti Caspi, a popular Israeli singer, came out with an album called My Second Childhood, the first song of which was called “Friday Night is bath night” (parenthetically titled ‘Shir Am Naki’ - literally, ‘Song of a Clean Nation’).
This unremarkable song used typical pop instrumentation, but added an accordion to the mix that gave it a very folky/old-Israeli flavor. The lyrics, which I barely understood back when the song came out, talk about seemingly random events and observations from a Friday afternoon before Shabbat:
The ‘singing’ of showers running…kids with wet hair (parted in the middle or on the side)…people cleaning…water and soap…the electricity being switched over to the 'Shabbat clock'…putting away financial matters…changing into white shirts…the smell of food cooking…people greeting one-another…
This afternoon as Zahava baked desert, the kids did ‘sponja’ (washed the floor), I finished my chores and went to quickly check my e-mail. Just on a whim, I opened up iTunes and set it to ‘random play’. By chance, the first song up was the one we are discussing here.
Listening closely to the words, I realized it was giving a perfect description of what was going on in our house…in our neighbor’s houses…in fact, in houses all over Israel. Religious or non-religious, there are certain preparations that the entire country goes through on Friday afternoon. As Shai so aptly said in his list of 56 things that make Israel, Israel, “No matter how much of a hipster you are, you still end up at moms for Friday night dinner.”
Back in Connecticut we were part of a warm, vibrant community, but Friday chores, and the simple things we did each week to prepare for Shabbat, were out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood.
Although there may not be a term or phrase to perfectly describe that sudden identification with a song’s lyrics, there is certainly a phrase to describe the tangible rush that comes from watching everyone else running the same errands…doing the same chores…and finally slowing down as though listening to the same song…the song of a clean nation: 'Shabbat in Israel'.
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
To ‘Mangle’, or not to ‘Mangle’?
Part of the immigrant experience is contending with the ongoing problem known as ‘not completely understanding what the hell people are saying’.
I speak Hebrew fairly fluently, but for the past few weeks I've listened to friends and coworkers (not a mutually-exclusive list) asking one another about their plans to (and here is where the 'not-understanding' comes in) ‘mangle’.
Mangle who? For what reason?
After asking around I finally figured out that ‘mangle’ is the slang word widely used to mean barbecuing. However, in typical Israeli fashion, nobody seemed to know the source of the odd word. Given how logical a language Hebrew normally is, I couldn’t easily accept this.
Therefore, in a completely unscientific survey (the methodology of which would probably give my brother-in-law, the lexicographer, fits) I asked a random sampling of the abovementioned friends and coworkers (e.g. the complete contents of my e-mail address book) where they thought the word 'mangle’ came from, and how it arrived at its current usage.
[Of course, this is a completely unfair question given that I couldn’t say where the word ‘Barbecue’ came from, even with a gun to my head.]
Anyway, the question was asked (or more correctly flushed into cyberspace), and I must say my friends and coworkers really pulled out all the stops trying to track down the answer.
Here are the top ten responses (I’ve always wanted to include a ‘top 10 list’ in a post) that I got from these amateur etymologists:
10. “It’s slang…slang words don’t need a source…they just ‘exist’.
9. “I think it’s Turkish for barbecue”
8. “It probably comes from Mongol, as in ‘Mongolian BBQ’”
7. “It’s an abbreviation of the Hebrew words meaning, ‘fan the embers’”
6. “I have no idea”
5. “I have no idea”
4. “I have no idea”
3. “I have no idea”
2. “I have no idea”
and, the #1 most common response given to this question:
1. “I have no idea”
(Note to self: I’m fairly certain that a truly witty top ten list should probably include ten unique items.)
In any event, the reason that the word 'mangle' has been bandied about endlessly over the past week or two is that ‘mangle’ is what nearly every Israeli family does on Israel Independence day. On this particular day, the country is awash in the smoky aroma of meat and vegetables being grilled over glowing coals. This isn’t the gas-powered Weber variety of grilling that I usually practice, mind you. Mangle refers to the wood, charcoal and pinecone-fueled activity carried out in national forests, city parks, and even the narrow grass strips of traffic islands.
And did the Bogner family mangle this year on Independence Day, you ask?
Why, yes. Yes we did.
However, rather than fight the crowds and traffic trying to find a few meters of open wilderness, we found a much more satisfying venue barely a kilometer from home (you like the way I’m catching on to the metric system?).
At the rural intersection near the entrance to our town, there is a small wood-framed building called the ‘Pina Hama’ (literally the ‘warm corner’). This is a place where volunteers from our town, and other neighboring communities, take turns providing free coffee, tea, punch, soda, cake, muffins, cookies, etc., to any and all soldiers who wander in. Since the Pina Hama is located at a heavily traveled junction, there are always a lot of hungry, thirsty, weary soldiers wandering in.
On Independence Day, the Pina Hama hosts an all day mangle for the soldiers who are unlucky enough to not have been given the day off. Zahava and I decided to take the kids over to spend a shift or two preparing food and drinks for the soldiers. I think a new Bogner family tradition has been born!
Starting at 10:30AM and continuing until after 6:00PM, there was a steady stream of jeeps, armored vehicles, hummers, and troop transport trucks pulling in and out of the Pina Hama. Hundreds of tired, dusty men and women stopped by for the mangle. A staggering quantity of burgers, dogs, kabobs, salads, lemonade, punch, homemade cakes, brownies and cookies, were served.
During the course of the day, radio calls came in from army units stationed on remote hilltops and manning distant checkpoints, requesting delivery. So, scores of boxed meals were prepared by the volunteer staff and sent off with passing soldiers.
I put on my lucky apron and manned one of the grills. Zahava (with Yonah providing moral support) cut pickles and prepared meals (she also baked some of the deserts). Ariella and Gilad acted as messengers, bringing the heaping pans of grilled meat to the people serving the soldiers, and packing the boxed meals.
All in all, it was the single most satisfying thing I have done since we moved here. These tired, sweaty boys and girls from every possible corner of the country, were so surprised and appreciative of the hospitality that they could barely comprehend why we would be thanking them. It was like a satisfying O Henry story, except everyone got to keep their hair!
By the end of the afternoon, we returned home…tired, filthy, and smelling like wood smoke. The kids were still keyed up from the excitement of the day, so we sent them out to play with friends. Zahava sat Yonah down to a nice bowl of sweet potato (some nice new pictures of the carnage in his photo album on the right), and I sat down next to an open window and enjoyed the smell of a thousand neighborhood mangles.
So, the question now is not, “what's a mangle”, but rather, “to mangle, or not to mangle next year?”
As far as I’m concerned, the answer to that question is as obvious as the place where we will be doing it.
Monday, April 26, 2004
You can tell a lot about a country by the songs that become popular during times of war. If there is one reason I am here, and nowhere else in the world, it is because of a song that became popular after the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The words of the song contain the hopeful chorus, “I promise you my little daughter that this will be the last war”.
Today and tomorrow are the ‘one-two punch’ that tends to give the country emotional whiplash:
Today is Yom Hazikaron (memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers) and tomorrow is Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence day).
The back-to-back proximity of these two days is intentional. It forces the mourners of the former (there are almost no families that have not lost a member or close friend) to recognize that their loss helped make the latter possible. Likewise, it forces the celebrants of the latter to understand the staggering price paid by the mourners of former.
In ceremonies around the country for Remembrance Day, the country mourned the 20,196 men and women who have been killed while serving in the Israel Defense Force. Soldiers, young and old, stood at attention with tears streaming down their faces as they remembered missing friends, playmates and neighbors. These soldiers, from the newest recruit, to the Army’s Chief of Staff, stood in their unadorned uniforms, with only worry lines and scars, besides the modest indicators of rank, to differentiate them. You see, unlike any other military in the world, The IDF does not give medals, ribbons, sashes, or other decorations to its soldiers for bravery. Every soldier that serves during a war is given a small colored bar to indicate his/her participation. Besides that, the only adornment on even the most senior officer’s uniform is the unit tag on the shoulder, the indication of rank, and the IDF insignia (an intertwined sword and olive branch) on the beret. War is not something to be celebrated here…and it is assumed everyone, in their own way, and at their own time, will have been brave.
When a parent looks at his or her children growing up, they have boundless hopes for the future. Today is the day when parents stand and cry over dashed hopes…over a pain that can never be eased; the loss of a child. While families mourn for their members who were killed…this is not a time for private mourning. The country truly becomes one large family for at least this one day, and somehow the shared grief is easier to bear.
During the ceremonies at the Western Wall, President Moshe Katsav pointed out that, while we may mark tomorrow as Independence Day…today is necessary to remind us that the war of independence is not yet over. Most of the countries that attacked Israel on the day it declared its statehood in 1948 still consider themselves to be at war over the issue. With each passing year we hope that we will be able to finally live in peace.
Israel’s national anthem, like its soldier’s uniforms, is unadorned and free of marshal trappings. No mention of battles or rockets. No bombs or flags. The national anthem is called ‘HaTikva’- literally, ‘The Hope’. The melody is borrowed from a simple eastern European folk song. The words speak about 2000 years of longing to live as a free nation in our homeland.
As an Israeli, and as a father, I can’t promise…but I hope this is truly our last war.
Sunday, April 25, 2004
Everything looks better by candlelight
I think that most people would agree with that statement.
Some people might say that the only real difference between decent cafeteria food and restaurant fare is the presentation and lighting. I know from personal experience that my clumsy efforts in the kitchen are dramatically improved when served by candlelight.
The same can be said about the written word. A paragraph embossed in a leather-bound volume has considerably more gravitas than the same words printed in a spiral-bound notebook. One is classic literature…the other, homework.
Well, I finally got tired of looking at the tired old, generic-looking, page banner on my site. Not only did it mark me as a rank amateur (which I am), but it also bathed the writing beneath it in a pale, unappealing fluorescent light. The way I saw it, the writing wasn’t gonna get much better, so it was time to turn out the lights and bring out some fancy candles.
The snazzy new page banner you see here at treppenwitz, was inspired by a couple of unrelated things:
First, the banner obviously had to suggest the concept of treppenwitz…you know, the perfect retort that occurs to you only as you are leaving on the stairs. I didn’t know how to visually suggest this concept, other than to have someone stand on the stairs. That was the sum total of my big idea. Aren’t you glad you weren’t the artist given this assignment?
Another, more subtle influence entered, exited, and then re-entered, my life quite by chance.
Years ago, long before I had even heard the word treppenwitz, I saw a picture in a social studies book, taken in1939 by Marion Post Wolcott entitled, "Negro Going in Colored Entrance of Movie House, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi."
Something about this picture captivated my attention. Maybe it was the stoop-shouldered posture of the silhouetted man…or perhaps the battered fedora he wore…or maybe the insulting, matter-of-factness of the signage indicating who went where. In any event, I folded over that textbook page and found myself repeatedly drawn to that picture. Long after the social studies book had gone to that place where social studies books go, that image remained burned into my brain.
When I ‘discovered’ the word treppenwitz, I immediately thought of this picture because of the common element of stairs.
Anyhoo…I wanted my talented, graphic designer, spouse to design me up a new page banner, so I downloaded a couple of ‘gigs’ worth of pictures of stairs, staircases, and people on stairs from the Internet. Lo and behold, don’t you know one of the first pictures I stumbled across was my old favorite!
Last night, after I handed over my hoard of stair-images to Zahava and gave her a sketch of what I had in mind, I left her to do her magic. I was a little disappointed since I figured there wasn’t much she could do with the picture I liked (the guy was walking up the stairs and not down), but I included it just the same.
Over the years Zahava and I have developed a finely tuned partnership when it comes to design projects: I give her a tremendous amount of detail, input and direction, (including colors, images, shading, etc)…and she promptly ignores all of it in favor of what I really needed in the first place. This project was no exception.
Not only did it come out better than I could have ever imagined, but she also (without my having even mentioned my long-standing attachment) included the central character from my beloved picture!
This, boys and girls, is why she is a sought-after graphic designer, and I’m…well, I’m not.
She whipped this little baby out in less than ten minutes while simultaneously cooking dinner, nursing the baby, checking her e-mail, helping the big kids with their homework and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle (sorry Beth…not in ink)!
I bow before her designerness.
And as an added bonus…perhaps my writing will look a little more appealing now that it is bathed in the film noir-like glow of this deep blue, candlelit banner.
Friday, April 23, 2004
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Holy Land
[I realize that the past three or four journal entries here at treppenwitz have been pretty heavy, so I've decided to finish off the week with something a little lighter]
Hitchhiking, once a popular, carefree, youthful pastime in the U.S. (and now seemingly the exclusive domain of vagrants, runaways, and axe-murderers), is all but gone from the American landscape. However, it is an accepted form of alternative transportation for a very wide cross-section of the population here in Israel.
Lest the reader think I lack the credentials to make a proper comparison of American and Israeli hitchhiking techniques, allow me to assure you that I have more than a passing acquaintance with the subject. You see, after high school I decided to postpone my university studies and join the navy. As if this alone weren’t enough to kill my parents, I also elected to spend a good part of that summer hitchhiking around California. [Yes, I am well aware that the karma debt collector will be showing up on my doorstep just about the time my kids reach their stupid years]
In Israel, the first thing that strikes the uninitiated observer is the sheer number of people who hitchhike (called ‘tremping’ in the local vernacular). Nearly every bus stop and rural intersection has a small crowd of people waiting patiently for rides. The second thing that jumps out at you here is the variety of people that tremp. Everybody does it; Young kids, senior citizens, men, women, professionals, students…and of course soldiers.
Technically it is against army regulations for soldiers to hitchhike, and they can get in quite a bit of trouble if caught doing so (because there have been several cases of terrorists kidnapping and murdering military personnel). However, despite the prohibition, the army requires soldiers to take a course on how to safely hitchhike. This is a very typical Israeli concept…prohibiting something, while planning for the eventuality that many people will not abide by the prohibition. Go figure.
Another marked difference between Israeli and non-Israeli hitchhiking are the hand signals. I grew up with the understanding that the proper hitchhiking posture was to stand facing traffic with your thumb extended into the roadway. In Israel, I was surprised to see that they stand with their index finger pointed outwards, and slightly down, as though arrogantly saying, “I want you to stop right here”. Of course, an Israeli seeing an American hitchhiker might think he/she was either doing a Fonzie impersonation, or giving all the passing drivers a goofy ‘thumbs up’ sign. Ah yes, so fun to judge and ridicule cultural differences.
There are also a few variations and nuances to the Israeli hand signs and hitching techniques. For instance, if you are traveling a short distance – say to the next intersection or town - you would point emphatically at the ground in front of you. If your desired destination required a turn early in the trip, you would point in that direction.
However, my favorite twist is the way in which the entire Israeli hitchhiking transaction is controlled by the passenger rather than the driver.
When a car pulls over to offer a ride, it is the driver that is required to state a destination through the open window, not the potential passenger. The assumption is that the driver has seen the hitchhiker and wouldn’t have stopped unless prepared to offer a ride. However, the person standing on the side of the road needs a few moments to size up the driver and decide if he/she wants to accept the ride. If the driver seems safe (always a value judgment and not-so-subtle exercise in profiling) and the destination coincides with the hitcher’s needs, the ride is accepted. If anything about the driver makes the hitcher uncomfortable, or if the destination is not helpful, a simple “thank you…have a nice trip” is offered and nobody is offended. It’s really quite logical if you think about it.
Once a ride is offered there are a whole bunch of unwritten rules to guide the conduct of passengers and drivers. For instance, even after the ride is accepted, the hitcher is generally under no obligation to disclose a destination until the car is within site of it. Again, this keeps the control firmly in the passenger’s hands. If anything about the ride makes the hitchhiker nervous, a simple, “would you please let me off here” is all that is necessary to quickly bring the deal to a close. Something that also took some getting used to on my part was that, in many cases the accepted way of telling the driver that the desired destination is approaching is to unbuckle one’s seatbelt. This sudden clicking of the buckle made me very nervous the first few times it happened, (having been brought up with the rule that seatbelts were fastened until the car comes to a full stop), but I’ve been told by friends that this is the way things are done, so I’ve accepted it.
I remember in my hitchhiking days in the states, it would be considered strange, or even suspicious, for a hitchhiker to not offer some account of himself (or otherwise engage the driver in some sort of small talk). In Israel, the act of hitching is so commonplace that talking is usually frowned upon (unless the driver begins the conversation). Soldiers, especially those returning home from the field, have their own unique way of observing the no-talking rule: they fall immediately and profoundly asleep. For this reason, it is sometimes appropriate to break with etiquette and ask a soldier’s destination once the vehicle is moving so that the driver knows in advance where to stop.
Another modern wrinkle added to the driver/passenger relationship is the cell phone. Everyone has a cell phone here so invariably a phone will ring, or a call will have to be placed to tell family or friends that you are on your way. The rule of thumb is that one should speak quietly and not stay on the phone for an extended period of time. A close friend of mine has actually chastised passengers who were rude enough to conduct loud or extended cell phone conversations in her car.
Seating arrangements are also the exclusive choice of the passenger. Women, especially those who will be the only passenger in the car of a male driver, often elect to sit in the back seat so as to assume a modicum of control, and to provide a good view of everything around her.
I’m sure there are other subtleties that I have missed (feel free to share your own experiences and knowledge on the subject), but that should be sufficient for anyone interested in offering or accepting a ride here in the holy land.
As always…don’t thank me, I’m a giver.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Looking closely at the two tabs of a Velcro® fastener one would be hard pressed to identify them as having come from the same place. The mind says, ‘This is no matched set…they can’t possibly belong to one-another’. One side is soft and cushioned while the other is stiff and springy. One side is sparse and translucent while the other is dense and opaque. Someone unfamiliar with their function could not possibly anticipate the value in bringing them together…or the difficulty in tearing them apart.
Funny…I was thinking about Velcro® this morning, after leaving my parents at the airport.
I am nothing like my parents in so many ways. The choices I have made bear little resemblance to the tenets they hold dear…yet here they were, half way around the world, confirming the perfect fit that nobody would suspect upon seeing us apart.
After a hug and kiss goodbye I watched them walk through the security gate, relieved that they didn't turn to see the tears. As our lives and worlds are once again pulled apart, I listen helplessly to the soft tearing sound coming from my heart.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Failing to meet expectations
Ever since my humble journal received a mention in a recent Haaretz article (Web diaries become hot medium for talk on Israel), there has been a tremendous surge in daily traffic here at treppenwitz. In order to make both of these new readers feel at home I guess I should probably give a little background about the blog, as well as the guy writing it.
First of all, I’m rarely funny. If you’re looking for funny, go read Dave Barry, or some of the truly gifted people on my ‘good readin’ list like Defective Yeti or The Sneeze. A lot of the stuff I write about, including my kids, my marriage, my commute, etc., are hilarious without any help from me… I just tell it like I see it.
If you are unfamiliar with the word ‘treppenwitz’, there is a workable definition at the bottom of my about page.
Most people experience treppenwitz every once in awhile. I, on the other hand, sit up and take notice if every once in awhile I don't experience it! You see, some would say I'm wired just a little bit strangely.
All through my school years I was labeled an "under-achiever". Back in the day, that was 'teacher-speak' for, ‘he’s a smart kid, but he’s lazy’. In their defense, I was sending out very confusing signals. I tested off the charts on all those nifty standardized exams (the ones named after states), and was able to converse on a range of topics light-years beyond my age or grade level. But when push came to shove, my overall academic performance was sliding off the 'uh-oh' end of the scale.
I know now that a big honking case of A.D.D. and a minor case of dyslexia, were probably strong suspects in the equation...but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy, on some level, my role as an enigma.
Well, here I am all these years later, and I am still an enigma.
I am a 42 year-old, married, observant (I still can't get my mind around the term Orthodox) Jew.
What's that you say? We don't belong to the same 'shul', so therefore I must somehow be sitting in judgment of you? Well, guess what...synagogue membership is about writing checks. It doesn't say a thing about what you actually do with your life. Trust me...I'm in no position to judge.
Next...I live in Israel (ok, for you hair-splitters, I live in Judea...10 minutes over the 'green line') with my family of 5 (plus dog) and I work in the Israeli defense/aerospace industry. This must put me firmly in the right wing settler camp, right? Here's a news flash for you: The fact is I don't agree with MOST of what I'm hearing from either side of the Knesset these days...but I believe that within the mosaic of Israeli politics, there [hopefully] exists the basis for a secure, if not peaceful future.
Some might view this entry as an attempt to set out a position for myself - a warning of sorts so that readers will know what to expect in future posts. Well, sorry to let you down, unlike the broad brush with which I was painted in the article, I hold too many conflicting views on a broad range of topics to be easily 'pigeon-holed'. As convenient as it would be if I toed some party line, those who visit here may be alternately offended, surprised, or reassured... but never bored.
What, then, is the point of this post? I guess it is a request for readers (old and new) to take the long view of things. Resist the temptation to rush to judgment. Learn something about someone who is NOT like you.
If you have a beef with something I say here, please feel free to comment on the issue at hand. That's what that little 'comment' link at the end of each entry is there for. However, if you do weigh in on an issue, try to be intellectually honest. I don't want to see any "you people...", "you religious Jews...", or "your right wing agendas...". All of those phrases and labels are cheap attempts to invalidate viewpoints by vilifying the people who might (or might not) hold them.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough to have turned away all but the most adventuresome readers. If you want to find out more about me, feel free to browse the treppenwitz archives. I would especially recommend you take a peek at my ‘favorite posts’. Everything I write here is important to me (at least while I'm writing it). But the entries you’ll find on the 'favorite posts' list are ones that jumped fully formed from my heart, and not from my head. If you've ever done any writing, you know what I mean.
Anyway, welcome aboard...enjoy the ride.
Monday, April 19, 2004
All right then…where were we?
I few minutes ago I was on the phone with tech support for HP discussing a small problem I was having with my printer. The HP support line I was dealing with is located somewhere here in Israel.
After I had given my personal information, model and serial number, we began to do some long distance trouble shooting. Suddenly the women from HP interrupted herself and abruptly asked if she could call me back. I was a little nonplussed, picturing no return call and another long wait on hold for a new person unfamiliar with my problem, but I said OK.
A moment later I was standing in the living room talking to my parents when I heard the wail of the air raid sirens. Of course…now I understood.
Today is Yom Hashoah, the day that has been set aside to commemorate the holocaust. Outside of Israel, there are ceremonies at synagogues and at Jewish community centers to mark the day, but beyond that, it is a day much like any other. Here in Israel, it is a day like no other.
Of the hundreds of cable and satellite TV stations, almost a third of them are running programming today with films (Schindlers List, Sobibor, etc.), documentaries and televised ceremonies, all trying to come to grips with this dark chapter in history.
What I had forgotten was that at exactly 10:00AM, air raid sirens all over the country scream to life, and for a full minute the entire country comes to a stop. Cars on highways stop and their occupants stand with heads bowed next to their silent vehicles…Pedestrians stop and stand on crowded sidewalks and in crosswalks…children and teachers stand amidst their interrupted lessons…Shoppers and salesclerks pause mid-transaction to stare back in history…television and radio stations go silent…
…and of course, tech support operators softly, but firmly tell their clients that they will have to call them right back.
For a full minute everyone stands and silently contemplates how, for a minute in history, G-d seems to have looked away.
At the end of the minute, the wail of the sirens trail away like the dopplered whistle of a train retreating quickly off into the distance. The inadvertent parallel of both the siren and the holocaust withdrawing quickly into the distance is not lost on the millions of people standing firmly in the present…a present made up of fewer and fewer witnesses and survivors, but with the torn, yet serviceable remnants of the Jewish people.
As the sirens trailed off, pulling with it our collective meditations, the phone began to ring. The young woman at HP, with the moist hint of freshly dried tears in her voice resumed our problem solving with a brisk, “All right then…where were we?”
A few minutes after hanging up the phone I realized how profound a statement that was, and how it suited Israel and the Jewish people far better than any anthem, philosophy, or creed. Our determination to forge ahead after so many attempts at a ‘final solution’ is perfectly summarized by that simple mantra:
‘All right then…where were we?’
Sunday, April 18, 2004
The Smoking Gun
Despite the fact that I am 42 years old and have a family of my own, I still find myself seeking my parent’s validation – or at least tacit approval – of the choices I make in my life. To a large extent, the social conscience and values I possess, I received as part of the liberal, Jewish, suburban American upbringing they provided. Though I have developed my own views and am a thinking adult/parent, I still find myself occasionally wondering WWMADD (what would Mom and Dad do) in any given situation.
I bring this up because, as happy as I am to have my parents staying with us for a few weeks, there was a secret that I kept from them, and was completely unsure of how they would react to it’s revelation.
I own a gun.
More than that, I carry a gun during every waking hour of every day. My daily commute takes me past several Arab villages (where passing motorists have been attacked), and recent events have proven that even at home one is not entirely safe from terrorism. Also, Israel’s highest law enforcement official has publicly asked that those who are licensed to carry weapons do so at all times.
If you are a Republican or an NRA member (I know…redundant) you are probably scratching your head and asking, “What’s the problem?”
The problem is that I grew up in a household where perhaps the only civil liberty one was not encouraged to exercise was the right to keep and bear arms. If any of us had been arrested at a demonstration, or for some sort of civil disobedience, or for doing one of a hundred other things allowed by the constitution, my parents would have been proud of us. But Guns were always considered out-of-bounds…something that was exclusively the province of law enforcement officers and right wing nuts.
During the week before my parent’s arrival my wife asked me how I intended to broach the subject of my gun. This is where the child-parent struggle takes place. Part of me silently agreed with her that I should probably prepare them in some way so we wouldn’t have a ‘scene’. But another part of me was saying that, damn it, I was a grown-up and they would have to accept the choices I had made in my life. If I had decided to start smoking, or had gotten a tattoo, or voted Republican, they would have had to just accept it (no, I've never done any of those things). So how was this any different?
In the end, I opted to just say nothing and see if they mentioned it (I know…pretty mature, huh?).
They didn’t mention it at the airport, even though we had to make a detour through the El Al security office (where I had checked my pistol). In the days following their arrival, and throughout all the touring and time spent at home, they never mentioned it.
I imagine that the first time an adult smokes a cigarette or takes a drink in front of his/her parents (or does anything else that a parent might disapprove of), there is a tension in the air caused by the generations being slowly pulled apart. Although I have never smoked a cigarette, and my parents have long known my fondness for bourbon and red wine (not together, of course), I imagined I could feel their combined attention focused on the butt of my pistol each time my back was turned to them. However, for almost a week – not a word was mentioned about the gun. It was like this big pink elephant sitting in the room that nobody could mention.
In the end, it was a simple comment that Zahava made that ended up broaching the subject.
We were all squeezed into the kitchen for dinner one evening and I was standing at the sink washing some leftover lunch dishes. As Zahava passed behind me she accidentally banged her hand on the gun and let out a delicate exclamation (not printable here). Almost at once my mom asked if I always wore a gun. I explained that yes, as a result of the security situation here, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. My dad asked if it worried me to have a gun in the house with the kids. I explained that, not only had I had a LONG talk with both the kids about guns and their inherent dangers, but that when I was sleeping or showering (the only time it was not physically on my person) it was locked in our safe.
And that was that.
Perhaps they still remembered the terrorist attack that had taken place in front of the Jerusalem pizza parlor at which I had worked during my student days at Hebrew University. Two Palestinians had walked into the center of one of Jerusalem’s busiest streets and had begun calmly lobbing hand grenades at the crowds of shoppers on either sidewalk. Within seconds both of them were killed, not by policemen or soldiers, but by armed civilians. The double miracle is that not only did the terrorists fail to kill anybody (although several people were wounded by grenade shrapnel), but also nobody was wounded or killed (besides the bad guys) in the civilian crossfire from opposite sides of the street! My parents watching the news back in 1985 had recognized the front of ‘my’ pizza parlor, and had been very relieved to hear I was unhurt.
Or, it could simply be that they have a better ability to grasp the ‘big picture’ than I ever gave them credit for.
In any event, they haven’t mentioned it since.
Almost as if they were given some sort of cosmic follow-up exam, one of the guests we invited for tea & cake today arrived carrying an M-16 assault rifle. Both of my parents did a quick double-take, but acted as though it were the most natural thing in the world. After we had seen our guests out, my mom asked quietly, “Can I ask, why your friend was carrying a machine gun?”. I explained that he was part of our town’s anti-terror response unit (every community has one) and he is required to carry it while on call. Once again, information that I figured would trip my parent’s circuit breakers was absorbed and accepted in a very matter-of-fact manner.
Mark Twain once said:
"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."
Perhaps my parents had learned a thing or two since I had grown up (or more correctly, perhaps I should finally have realized that they have been pretty sharp all along).
Five follow-up facts for the curious:
1. While I had plenty of firearms training when I was in the Navy, I don’t enjoy either the idea or the current reality of carrying a gun. I never imagined it would be glamorous or empowering…and it is neither.
2. Guns are not art. While there is an entire genre of magazines devoted to the detailed, shiny, intricate results of the gunsmith’s ‘art’, the real issue that seems to escape all of them is that guns have one purpose – to kill. I think there would be a few less deaths in the world if more people stopped ignoring that little fact. I chose the ugliest, simplest, ‘safest’ gun currently available (a Glock) in a caliber large enough to be lethal (9mm), but less likely to pass through walls and kill bystanders (e.g. my kids).
3. I don’t trust my kids (or their friends). I love them dearly and would stand in traffic for them, but I know that kids explore. The ‘talk’ that I told my parents about mainly reinforced the fact that the kids were never to touch a gun, period. That said, I know that kids don’t listen. By the time I was 8 I knew the contents of every drawer and closet in my house…especially those belonging to my parents. I wasn’t a bad kid, and my kids aren’t bad…which is why I will never put them in a position to make the potentially fatal decision to play with a gun or not. My gun is on my person…or it is in the safe, period.
4. In the states, getting a gun license means taking a safety course (once) and based upon that fleeting exposure to common sense, one can renew a gun license indefinately for the rest of one’s natural life. You can maintain a gun license longer than a Florida driver's license! In Israel, one has to undergo an extensive background check, and then every year, in order to renew the license you have to again attend a safety class and then prove to an examiner that you can still hit a target 50 TIMES IN A ROW!
5. Between private gun ownership and active & reserve army duty, nearly every Israeli household contains at least one gun. Despite this, Israel has one of the world’s lowest rates of gun-related violence (including accidents). No road rage incidents ending in gunplay…no marital disputes ending with a bang…it just doesn’t exist here! I would like to think that constantly being faced with the specter of death has had the result of reinforcing the sanctity of life.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
My parents are visiting with us for a few weeks. They had originally debated about flying over when our son Yonah was born a few months ago, but instead decided to wait until he was a little more ‘interactive’. Honestly, I can’t blame them. As wonderful as his arrival was for the entire family…as a houseguest he really didn’t bring much to the table those first few weeks.
You can tell from the photo albums… even the picture taking was sort of a one-sided affair (“Here’s Yonah facing east…and another one of Yonah facing north…oh, and here he is facing east again, but this time he’s drooling!”). No, I think Mom & Dad made the wise choice waiting until we could teach the kid a few tricks.
Now that the Westport Bogners are finally here, they are able to relax and really enjoy their new grandson. He smiles, plays with toys, rolls over, does long division (just checking to see if you were paying attention), in short everything a gifted, precocious grandchild is supposed to do. And, of course they are free to exercise that most important of grandparent prerogatives: They are free to hand the kid back when he needs food, a diaper change, or cheering-up (I can’t wait to be a grandparent!).
Since they arrived we’ve dragged them into Jerusalem for a little touring, and taken them hiking over hill and dale to a couple of archeological sites not far from our house. They even went with Zahava and the kids to visit Rachel’s tomb (yes, the Rachel from the bible) which is just up the road from where we live.
I guess we ran them a little hard for the first few days, so they decided to take most of today to just relax around the house. They’re entitled…after all, they’re not kids anymore. In fact, over breakfast this morning, I got a little hint that Mom and Dad might be starting to mellow in their ‘Golden Years’:
I’ve mentioned in a couple of entries how central a role coffee plays in my day. Well, I inherited this trait from my parents. To say they like coffee would be the worst kind of understatement. They like their coffee the way a junkie likes his ‘smack’! Once upon a time they used to make their coffee in a drip machine, but then they started ‘jonesing’ for stronger and stronger brews.
They went from regular roast to dark roast to French roast to Italian roast, and still it wasn’t strong enough to give them their morning fix. Once they were on the strongest roast they started increasing the amount of coffee until there wasn’t any more room in the filter basket (remember…they weren’t making a whole pot…just a cup each!!!). So like all good junkies, they moved up to the harder stuff: French Press pot, and ultimately Italian pressure pot! The beverage that oozes from the Italian pressure pot is something akin to having someone rip open your shirt, yell ‘clear’ and zap you with the defibrillator paddles! This stuff is literally one step removed from ‘freebasing’!!!
I mention this shared affection for strong coffee because this morning, after I’d made a big steaming pot of Peets in my French press, my parents casually mentioned that the coffee was good…"but a little strong". Huh? I’d better get on the phone to El Al…they seem to have misplaced my parents!
Monday, April 05, 2004
A Modern Passover Story
I'd like to share a bit that has been around since before last Passover. It has been circulated with various author's names attached to it, but the name you see below is the one I have seen most often.
To all my friends and family: May you all have a great Passover, Easter, Earth Day, Krasnaja Gorka, Radunica, Ascension, St. Egorij Day, Rusal'naia Week, Semik, Ostara... (yes these are just a few of the holidays celebrated in the spring, you narrow minded people!) ;-)
The Passover Story (as reported by the New York Times)
By Daniel P. Waxman
The cycle of violence between the Jews and the Egyptians continues with no end in sight in Egypt. After eight previous plagues that have destroyed the Egyptian infrastructure and disrupted the lives of ordinary Egyptian citizens, the Jews launched a new offensive this week in the form of the
plague of darkness.
Western journalists were particularly enraged by this plague. "It is simply impossible to report when you can't see an inch in front of you,"complained a frustrated Andrea Koppel of CNN. "I have heard from my reliable Egyptian contacts that in the midst of the blanket of blackness, the Jews were annihilating thousands of Egyptians. Their word is solid enough evidence for me."
While the Jews contend that the plagues are justified given the harsh slavery imposed upon them by the Egyptians, Pharaoh, the Egyptian leader, rebuts this claim. "If only the plagues would let up, there would be no slavery. We just want to live plague-free. It is the right of every
Saeb Erekat, an Egyptian spokesperson, complains that slavery is justifiable given the Jews' superior weaponry supplied to them by the superpower God.
The Europeans are particularly enraged by the latest Jewish offensive. "The Jewish aggression must cease if there is to be peace in the region. The Jews should go back to slavery for the good of the rest of the world,"stated an angry French President Jacques Chirac.
Even several Jews agree. Adam Shapiro, a Jew, has barricaded himself within Pharaoh's chambers to protect Pharaoh from what is feared will be the next plague, the death of the firstborn. Mr. Shapiro claims that while slavery is not necessarily a good thing, it is the product of the plagues and when the plagues end, so will the slavery.
"The Jews have gone too far with plagues such as locusts and epidemic which have virtually destroyed the Egyptian economy," Mr. Shapiro laments. "The Egyptians are really a very nice people and Pharaoh is kind of huggable once you get to know him," gushes Shapiro.
The United States is demanding that Moses and Aaron, the Jewish leaders, continue to negotiate with Pharaoh. While Moses points out that Pharaoh had made promise after promise to free the Jewish people only to immediately break them and thereafter impose harsher and harsher slavery, Richard Boucher of the State Department assails the latest offensive.
"Pharaoh is not in complete control of the taskmasters," Mr. Boucher states. "The Jews must return to the negotiating table and will accomplish nothing through these plagues."
The latest round of violence comes in the face of a bold new Saudi peace overture. If only the Jews will give up their language, change their names to Egyptian names and cease having male children, the Arab nations will incline toward peace with them, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah declared.
Thursday, April 01, 2004
Great Mysteries Vol. I
The Discovery Channel and National Geographic are chock full of amazing stories about herds of elephants and zebras making instinctive migrations across the Serengeti generation after generation. We all know about the inexplicable ability of salmon to return to their spawning grounds year after year, and the uncanny ability of seals and walruses to return to the same arctic cliffs and ledges to bear their young without benefit of OnStar® or GPS.
So why am I baffled about how all children seem to instinctively know that vomit is a problem they can only bring to daddy?
This morning, around 5:00AM (has any kid in the history of the world ever thrown up in the afternoon???) my daughter Ariella nudged me awake to inform me she wasn’t feeling well.
Now for all you non-fathers out there… nothing, but nothing will yank you out of a sound sleep faster than a moaning kid complaining of ‘not feeling well’ six inches from your ear. As I vaulted out of bed and started ‘guiding her briskly’ (translation: giving her the bum’s rush) towards our bathroom (carefully pointing the moaning part away from me) she tearfully informed me that this morning’s revelry had been underway for some time…that is, she had already redecorated the floor in the upstairs hallway and guestroom in the festive colors of last night’s dinner.
Now, mothers may wear the badge of labor and delivery on their sleeves like combat medals, but where are those brave souls when the vomit hits the floor? Nowhere to be found, I can assure you!
After getting Ari settled comfortably in front of a movie in the living room, I did the ‘condemned man’ walk up the stairs to survey the damage. No matter how many times a father has cleaned up his children’s messes, he is never fully prepared for the next one. Suffice it to say, if a spot ever opens up in one of the NYPD Homicide Squads, I can point proudly to my own resume of grisly crime scenes.
The funny part is, I have crystal clear recollections of waking my father with plenty of early morning emergencies. It would never have occurred to me to go to my mom…the ‘on-call’ light was only lit on dad’s side of the bed. I can also remember plenty of times when I waited a little too long for the rumbling in my stomach to reach critical mass, or took a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom. Yeah, you got it… “Dad, I’m not feeling well”.
You might be asking, ‘why didn’t you wake up your wife for help?’ The simple answer is I didn’t want to clean up two messes. Just as there are housekeepers that ‘don’t do windows’…my lovely wife ‘doesn’t do vomit’. Fair enough.
I guess if our lives were ever made into an Animal Kingdom special, the announcer (in hushed tones) would point out to the viewers ‘the instinctive division of labor in the typical human family’: “Notice how the mother human births and feeds the young while the father human intuitively takes responsibility for cleaning up the unspeakable mess the kids make when they are sick…”.
All I can say is, it’s a good thing our kids are cute…otherwise I could see why, in some species, fathers eat their young.