Monday, May 31, 2004
Pen vs. Sword
I rarely discuss overtly political subjects here. Partly because there are so many people out there who are so much better at it (Yes, Imshin, Allison, Gail, and Jennifer could severally or collectively kick my ass in a political ‘discussion’)…and partly because of my ‘Breakfast Table Rule’. So, in general I simply absorb the news and watch my personal views slowly evolve.
But the Peter Hounam story has really stuck in my craw, and I think the only way to get on with my life is to air out my ideas on the subject.
For those of you who are not news junkies, I’ll provide a quick synopsis of events (news junkies, skip the next paragraph):
Almost 2 decades ago, Mordechai Vannunu, a worker in one of Israel’s nuclear facilities, decided that he was better equipped to decide Israel’s foreign policy than those paid to do so, and shared a great deal of sensitive information about Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal with a British journalist named Peter Hounam. Shortly thereafter, Vannunu was lured by the Mossad from London to Rome, and there was drugged and taken by naval commandos to a waiting yacht for a trip to face the music. ‘The music’, in this case, was an 18-year jail sentence. One of the terms of his release a few weeks ago was that he not speak to foreign journalists. So…instead he gave a private interview with an Israeli journalist who provided the tape to Peter Hounam…who was promptly arrested by Israel’s security service.
OK…there are obvious nuances I have left out… but for the sake of today’s discussion, everyone is now more-or-less on the same page. For starters, I’d like to share a [rare political] comment I made on Expat Egghead and Cathy’s blog yesterday:
I consider journalists and diplomats to be very nearly inviolable. The same goes for ambulances. I say ‘very nearly’ because there will sometimes arise those who would hide behind the shield of these offices to try to bring about Israel's destruction...and I can't sanction that.
The diplomatic pouch and its messenger may be ignorant of the bomb or stolen state secrets they carry...and the U.N. ambulance and driver may have been used under duress. I will even go so far as to say that Mr. Hounam was carrying out his duties in the finest tradition of his profession.
However, in all of these scenarios, the unseen hand that makes cynical use of these sacrosanct offices works towards only one thing: Israel’s destruction. And I won't allow that.
There’s an old story about a guy who is attempting to show a pacifist friend the flaw in his philosophy. After the pacifist has espoused his views against violence, his friend punches him in the mouth. Getting up off the ground, the pacifist is stunned and angry and immediately reaches for his assailant. The other guy says, “no, no…you’re a pacifist…you can’t hit me. You believe that non-violence is the answer.” Hearing this, the pacifist calms down and agrees that retaliation would serve no purpose and tries to discuss the reasons his friend has hit him. Immediately his friend hits him in the mouth again! This goes on until the pacifist finally realizes he either has to defend himself or die.
I truly hate the idea that we have to search ambulances…women and children…and even occassionally journalists. But what do you suggest if Israeli respect for these institutions is used as a weapon against us? I believe in a free press and the inviolability of journalists. But when someone has figured out a way to punch me in the mouth with one of my own beliefs…eventually I have to punch back or die.
America is just starting to do the whole civil liberties vs. homeland security tug-o-war. Israel has been wrestling with it a lot longer. We have a very lively press in Israel, and every major news service in the world has a base of operations here (mainly because they can’t operate freely elsewhere in the region). But that doesn’t mean that state secrets and security do not enter the equation. In times of war the rules always change…and it is hard to argue that we are not at war. Because the pen truly is every bit as mighty as the sword…sometimes it has to be viewed as a weapon and defended against.
Israel hasn't given up on a free press any more than the fictional pacifist I mentioned earlier has given up on non-violence. Unfortunately, in today's world, terrible exceptions are made or people die.
Damn the enemies of my country for making us soil our ideals.
Sunday, May 30, 2004
The third plague
I sometimes feel that the picture I paint of life in Israel is too idyllic… too rosy… too (what’s the word I’m looking for?)… ah yes, perfect. That’s it, too perfect. Well, boys and girls, today I have the perfect entry to help dispel whatever misperceptions I may have encouraged among the far-flung readership here at treppenwitz.
Yes folks, there is trouble in paradise. It seems our house has been visited by a plague of biblical proportions (specifically the third plague that we read about in the Passover Haggaddah). Last night we found out that Ariella has lice.
I’ll wait a moment while those of you outside of Israel recoil in horror and silently wonder what kind of unwashed, backwoods, third-world influence you’ve allowed into your life. Those of you in Israel can spend this time nodding sagely and thinking, “Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.”
All better now? Good.
Now that that first shiver of revulsion has (hopefully) passed, allow me to dispel some misconceptions (some of which I held until last night), and to think out loud about my own feelings on the subject:
Only people with bad hygiene get lice. Right? Well, no, not exactly. Lice can certainly thrive in an environment where standards of personal hygiene are relatively low. But they also can be found in areas where ‘western standards of hygiene are the norm. Regions of the world where a wide range of hygienic standards prevail (like Israel), are bound to have a higher incidence of lice. In places where there are lice...younger kids with long hair seem to be more likely to get the little pests.
Isn’t there some kind of a quarantine period that could stop the spread of lice? In many places, yes. But in Israel…no. I’m not exactly sure why this is (maybe some of my veteran Israeli guests can shed some light on this point), but not only is there no quarantine period here…it is even illegal for school staff to check for lice. I remember in the states that every child had to pass a lice check before the start of the school year, and any child with the problem would be sent home until the plague had passed.
You have to shave a kid’s head to get rid of lice, right? Thankfully, no. There are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription treatments for lice. But almost all of them are extremely toxic (or even carcinogenic) to humans. Another wrinkle is that, in similar fashion to antibiotic resistant germs, lice seem to have developed a strong resistance to most of the chemical treatments.
So, what do you do? The answer is rather low-tech (and fairly revolting). First, the hair needs to be carefully combed out with a lice comb (a small comb with extremely closely spaced teeth) and then comes the time-consuming process of manually finding and removing any remaining nits (yes folks, this is where the term ‘nit pick’ comes from). While this is being done, all bed linen, clothing, and toys need to be washed in very hot water and put away in a sealed plastic bag for a few days. After a hot shower and a thorough shampoo and conditioning, a second comb out is done and then, a healthy coating of olive oil is applied to all the hair. This apparently clogs the air holes in any remaining eggs and smothers them in a matter of hours. Repeat the above process daily until all traces of lice are gone.
I’m trying really hard to be Israeli about this…but the American in me is still freaking out!!! MY DAUGHTER CAN’T POSSIBLY HAVE LICE! OK, what comes after denial in the 12 steps…anger? OK, I’m there, now what?
Maybe it’s best that this happened when most of my US readers are far from their computers (Memorial Day weekend)…because what I really need is some good advice and a few stories from my Israeli readers to reassure me that I haven’t somehow failed as a parent.
Dear readers, if you have made it this far and are not too busy scratching imaginary lice from your heads...I could use a little consolation.
Friday, May 28, 2004
SOUL of the WEB
[Warning: This post may result in many hours of lost productivity!]
There it was… a little button sitting off by itself with the word SOUL written on it.
I must have visited Evaporation a dozen times before I realized this wasn’t just a quirky accent to Steve’s otherwise spartan site design. Was it a link? When I passed my mouse over it, the arrow didn’t change into a little pointing hand, so I assumed it wasn’t.
But then I noticed that whenever I moused-over the SOUL button, a strange phrase popped up:
"Nestled into the corners and other hidden places, the web holds her treasures"
What’s that supposed to mean? I felt like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams when he started hearing voices!
Another mouse-over and again:
"Nestled into the corners and other hidden places, the web holds her treasures"
It may be that I’m especially obtuse… or perhaps I was just having one of my less intuitive days. But it wasn’t until I had visited Steve’s site a few more times that curiosity got the better of me and I passed my cursor over the word ‘soul’ again… reread the cryptic phrase… and on a whim, I clicked.
It turns out it was a link… but not to a site, exactly.
Instead it launched a little box with a list of five odd words. Again, not too quick on the uptake, I clicked the command, ‘new list’ several times, each time generating a seemingly random list of odd words before I realized the list I was being shown were links to web sites… really interesting web sites.
What followed was nearly a week of the most enjoyable web crawling I have ever experienced! Not every site listed in the SOUL was exactly my taste, but they were almost universally interesting. Many of the sites you see listed on my ‘Good Readin’ list came from those first heady days of exploration.
Now, all these years later, I have a journal/blog with my very own SOUL button …and to my amazement… once in awhile, when I click for a new list… nestled there among the strange and interesting sites is an odd word for others to puzzle over… treppenwitz.
Why not add a little SOUL to your site?
Thursday, May 27, 2004
Hiding in plain sight
The other evening I received something out of the ordinary (at least for me): Fan mail.
I mention this not so much for it’s rarity, or to brag, but rather because it made me feel momentarily self-conscious about the public nature of this endeavor. I haven’t dealt with this topic before, so I suppose I should come clean about some simple truths.
You see, keeping a journal in view of the entire wired/literate world is a little crazy, and the sane journaler needs to adopt some rules to provide at least the illusion of control. First and foremost among these rules is how much (or little) to reveal about one’s self and family. Some choose to blog anonymously (sort of like singing from the open window of a 4th floor walk-up), while others use little or no obfuscation (more akin to walking around naked in a 2nd-, or even ground-floor apartment). Somewhere in-between is my comfort zone… what I've come to think of as 'hiding in plain sight'.
I’ll freely admit that I didn’t give too much thought to such rules before starting treppenwitz, as it was originally created to communicate with people I already knew (e.g. family and friends). However, as time has passed, and my little curbside window has gone global, I find myself regularly strolling around in front of several hundred people a day (not counting the scores of drop-ins from search engines) wearing not much more than a towel.
Therefore, I feel like a little post-hoc assessment / summary of my ‘rules’ might be in order, if for no other reason than to point out that I am wearing a metaphorical towel.
First off…all the names are real, but the 'innocent' have been provided a certain amount of protection through judicial 'filtering'. For instance, my wife had a different first name when we lived in the states, but it didn’t roll comfortably off of the Israeli tongue so she legally changed it to Zahava when we moved (and here, Zahava she shall always be).
You will see frequent references to my kids, but will almost never read anything about them that wouldn’t pass the 'First Date Test' (i.e. would I feel comfortable telling the anecdote in front of one of my children’s future first dates).
However, my extended family (parents, sibs, in-laws, etc.) and friends have (and will), always been referred to obliquely, or by their relationship to me, rather than by name. This is because I feel comfortable making decisions about my own anonymity (or lack thereof), but not theirs. If they decide to 'out' themselves or one-another in the comments section, I can’t help that… but I do what I can to provide a modicum of 'cover' in what I write.
Next, while I consider my family life to be fairly normal, it is not the idyllic '7th Heaven' (or 'Father Knows Best', for you older folks) existence that one might imagine if they knew us only from treppenwitz. If I write about something here, it is because I want you to know about it. Like most people, I’m embarrassed about my foibles, and I go to great lengths not to publicize the flaws in those I love. I don’t feel this is dishonest or even disingenuous. We all do this in our everyday lives… hiding 'The Stranger' (as Billy Joel so eloquently described the essential 'us') from all but our most intimate relations. I feel it is important to say this last bit because I would regret giving the impression that I hold myself, or my family, to an unusually high standard of conduct. We are all quite imperfect.
Lastly (for now, anyway), is what got me fixated on this line of thought in the first place: Communication from the outside world. I enjoy getting comments on what I write. A lot. I have also 'met' some wonderful people, and discovered some fantastic journalers from the simple miracle of receiving a message on my blog. I’ve also had some lively on/off-line discussions on politics, religion, family values, and writing style with people I would have never encountered without the medium of my blog. However, I’m continually amazed that people with such different experiences and backgrounds find my topic selection interesting. I suppose it validates my own reasons for perusing such a diverse group of bloggers/journalers (see my ‘Good Readin’ list) during my early morning browsing routine. Maybe too, it might suggest we aren’t that different after all.
Looking back over this entry, I realize I could have simply pointed out that what you read here is the truth, and nothing but the truth… although perhaps not the whole truth. It’s a balancing act that many journalers perform, between revealing everything and not revealing enough. But in the end, if done properly, it allows the sharing of ideas and values without ‘dropping the towel’.
Such is the process of hiding in plain sight.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Shavuot (last syllable rhymes with bloat)
Well, here it is …a few hours after the end (at least here in Israel) of the holiday of Shavuot (no…I’m not going to explain it…that’s why you have Google!), and I’m bloated from too much food. OK, this could be the aftermath of ANY Jewish holiday…the difference being that Shavuot menus traditionally feature dairy products.
If there is one thing that The Jewish State does well, it is dairy products! In the U.S. the dairy section of the grocery store has several distinct product categories such as yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese and hard cheese.
Here in Israel, the dairy counter is one long continuum starting from most liquid (milk) and ending with most solid (hard cheese). In between are all the same options available in the states, but with many gradations in between. For instance, if you want yogurt, but a little thinner, go with eshel or leben. Want something between sour cream and cream cheese? Try one of the many white cheese configurations in the 7% – 15% fat range. If you’re in the mood for cream cheese, there are about ten different gradations of richness, fat content and added content (olives, garlic, etc.). Towards the cheese end of the spectrum you’ll find a dizzying array of soft cheeses (brie, camembert, and berry (a nice mold coated goat cheese). The medium cheeses emulate (and in my humble opinion, surpasse) their Danish and Dutch equivalents for creaminess and flavor…and the hard cheeses are enough to make you swear off Swiss Ementel.
After Zahava put out her usual spread of motherly love (consisting of soufflés, casseroles and salads), I served my famous (at least among my friends and family) Kahlua® chocolate cheesecake with chocolate butter crumble crust for dessert. Diet? What diet??? I’m still buzzing from all the carbs.
We are all a little bleary-eyed from another traditional Shavuot activity: Staying up late (or all night) studying Jewish texts and/or listening to scholarly lectures. Zahava and Ariella faded sometime after midnight and went off to bed. Gilad and a few of his 8-year-old friends impressed me by attending lectures and studying ‘til dawn. I also stayed up all night listening to lectures and met Gilad for morning services. The neat thing is how it seemed everybody in town was up and involved in this all-night learning marathon. After services Gilad and I stumbled off, hand in hand, to a quick breakfast and passed out in our beds until lunchtime.
One of the really neat features of this year’s holiday was the traditional reading of the book of Ruth during the morning service. I have read this many times before, but knowing that much of the story played out in our part of the country (Efrat) makes it so much more ‘real’ for us.
It is now 10:00PM and my internal clock is hopelessly out of whack. Apparently so is Gilad’s since as I was typing the last sentence he wandered into our office to tell us he was having trouble falling asleep. I prescribed a small glass of chocolate milk and sent him on his way. Zahava shot me a horrified look, but to her credit remained silent on the evils of giving kids sweets at bedtime. Hey, c’mon…I know as well as you do that it probably won’t help him fall asleep…but it couldn’t hurt!
Monday, May 24, 2004
Survey: 43% of youth may disobey army orders!
The title of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness Jerusalem Post headline. Really!
According to the breathless article in today’s Post, a survey was conducted that found that, “43 percent of Israel’s youngsters support disobeying army orders because of personal ideology…”
Let’s look at that for a moment, shall we. What they are saying is that a group of teenagers (13-17 year olds) has expressed a predisposition to defy authority. Stop the presses!
Helloooo… News flash for the apparently childless editors over at the Jerusalem Post:
Teenagers would hold their breath and pass out if an adult ordered them to breathe!
Rebellion is their job…it’s what they're hardwired to do at this age. It’s basically why we don’t let them drink, vote, or carry weapons…they are not equipped to make adult decisions. Stop any teenager on the Tayelet in Tel Aviv and order them to do something…anything! Pretty fun, huh? The headline would have been more realistic if they simply reversed the equation: "57% of youth may follow orders!" Now that's newsworthy!
Don’t get me wrong… there is nothing magical about turning 18. Some kids carry adolescent rebellion into their 20s and others are mature beyond their years shortly after Bar Mitzvah. But since we are talking about a random sampling (the whole premise behind a survey’s accuracy), we can safely assume that typical teenage rebellion will be well represented in the responses.
I should be thanking the Almighty that the news cycle is empty enough today to allow this kind of 'man bites dog' story into the papers…but c’mon people, try the decaf!
Extra added bonus item: If you look closely at the photo that appears below the fold on the front page of today's Post (I apologize to those of you reading this from outside of Israel...the Post already took it down from their web site), it shows a couple of YU students marching in the Salute to Israel parade in NYC. Please take note that one of them is 'flipping the bird' to somebody (or everybody). Youthful rebellion? What youthful rebellion?
Sunday, May 23, 2004
I want that!
I hate to generalize, but I think it’s fair to say that most of us go through life 'wanting stuff'. This is not to say we are greedy or selfish, but rather that we go through phases where we see something and absolutely have to have it. And, the truth is, if we make enough (or save enough) we can usually figure out a way to have most of what our little hearts desire.
For some people this 'have to have' impulse focuses on a fancy car, the 'perfect' pair of black pumps or a sophisticated watch, while others are drawn to sleek computers or the latest electronic gewgaw. I’ll freely admit to occasionally succumbing to the insatiable, irrational 'wanting' of many of these things (no, not the pumps), combined with the arrogant feeling that, with a little budgeting, nearly anything is within my grasp.
But I have also noticed over the years that I have started to have similarly strong longings for more intangible things like status or lifestyle… and I’m realizing that these are things that require more than desire and a careful money management to attain.
There’s an older couple living next door to us who are the kind of neighbors people dream about having. When we moved in, they brought over a delicious homemade cake and a genuine offer of assistance with anything we might need to make our move into the neighborhood more comfortable.
When smoke came billowing out of our windows one afternoon (after Zahava put the oven on 'self-clean' and took the baby for a walk), these thoughtful people began calling everyone we knew until they managed to track her down. Whenever we, or our kids, meet either of these lovely folks on the street, they always stop to offer a warm word, a compliment, or a cheerful observation about the day. They never mention health issues (of which there have been some) or gossip… and the only topics of conversation are positive ones.
The other night, Zahava and I were invited next door to their house for a 'meal of thanksgiving'. As usual, their house was full of doting children and grandchildren, but the crowd was augmented by a group of neighborhood friends. It seems two weeks earlier, the wife had been in a serious car accident, and although the car had flipped several times and had been completely destroyed, she had miraculously escaped without so much as a scratch.
Many people would have come away from such an experience with vague feelings of anger over the loss of an expensive car or the random circumstances of the accident. However, the first and only instinct this couple had was complete and unshakable gratitude. Therefore, they prepared this lavish dinner so that their friends and family could join them in giving thanks for a happy outcome.
Their children and grandchildren fussed over them even more than usual throughout the evening, making it clear to even a stranger, their profound gratitude and relief. The husband explained to the assembly with tears standing in his eyes how grateful he was to still have the love of his life, and he made sure everyone understood precisely to Whom he was grateful for her escape.
As I watched this couple almost twice my age exchanging comfortable pleasantries in the kitchen, basking in the unabashed affection of their friends and family, I realized that here was something special… something that you don’t get just because you save or budget for it.
The old clichés about '… richer and poorer', and '… sickness and health' are often simply little white lies young people tell one another when they can’t imagine poverty or sickness (or worse) intruding on their well-laid plans. Having spent an emotional evening with a couple that is reaping the rewards of a life lived unconditionally, full of gratitude and love, I realize…
…I want that!
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Whenever a big project needs to be done around the house, I manage to lose focus and invariably end up finding an unrelated random task to take its place.
Purely for purposes of illustration, consider the following hypothetical scenario:
Let’s say my wife mentions that the kid’s rooms need painting. No problem! Before we can paint I have to mask the windows and doorframes. But before I do that, I need to use a razor blade to clean off the drips and smears from the last paint job. Now, where is my box of one-sided razor blades? It must be in my toolbox! You know what? I think this afternoon I’ll just organize my toolbox so that I'll be better prepared for this kind of a project.
Big Project = Painting the kids rooms
Unrelated Random Task = Reorganizing my Toolbox
See how that worked? Good.
Another completely made-up example:
My wife wants to put in some flower bulbs, and has picked out a likely spot in the yard with just the right amount of sun/shade/humidity/feng shui/karma…whatever… it’s perfect! It just needs to be dug up a bit, have a border of boulders/railroad ties installed around it, and be filled with a few metric tons of bovine excrement.
No problem! Before I can start, I need to take my pickaxe and shovel out of the shed and bring home the excrement / border materials. But you know what? Once this new flowerbed is in place, the grass is going to grow up around the boulders / railroad ties, and I’ll need to use the electric edging tool to keep the whole thing looking neat. Now where is that edging tool? Crap! “Honey, I’m almost out of that plastic string that goes in the edging tool, so I’m gonna run over to the hardware store to pick some up.” [Exit stage left!]
Big Project = Raised flower bed
Unrelated Random Task = Trip to hardware store for nylon WeedWacker® string.
These fabricated examples should have most of you feeling my wife’s pain. Keeping me on task is a lot like herding cats. There’s a good reason that her favorite saying is a sarcastic, “Hands off girls, I saw him first!”
OK, now that we’re all on the same page about my A.D.D. work ethic… my ‘Big Project’ at present is getting myself back into the writing zone. The completely Unrelated Random Task that will forestall any real progress on that front is the tinkering I've been doing with my Good Readin’ list (again).
What got me off on this tangent was the return of one of my journaling heroes, Steve Amaya (who fortuitously chose this exact moment to reemerge from a self-imposed, one year hiatus).
Just to provide a little history: The inexplicably riveting tale of the Mohave Phone Booth that I read about first on Chuck Atkins' site, and then on Steve's, was my first exposure to online journaling. After that I spent an eternity wandering through the archives of these talented writers, and realized that this was something I really, really wanted to do.
So, as long as I’m not really 'writing' at present… I may as well invite everyone to check out the new (and old) talent on the Good Readin’ list. You'll find that there are enough topics, lifestyles, politics, and religion to destroy even the most open-minded dinner party... truly something for everybody. Enjoy!
As for me... I should be back on task soon. Really!
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Years ago, I heard from an intermediary that somebody I care about deeply had referred to me as a 'primary source'. By this they meant that I was often a source of original thinking… and fresh insights. In this person's point of view, a secondary source was someone who relayed and discussed other people’s ideas, or worse, repackaged other people’s ideas and opinions as their own.
At the time I took being called a primary source as the highest possible compliment, and became a voracious reader of other people’s opinions to reassure myself of my own originality. However, in short order, I found that I was weighing and measuring everything I said for its novelty, which in the end found me gagged into dumb silence for lack of a unique point of view.
This compliment that had most likely been given in the most off-hand manner turned into a long-term curse. The more I tried to confirm my own inventiveness… the more I discovered that the world was full of novel ideas I’d have loved to call my own. It was a humbling experience to constantly ask myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”
Part of the reason I began blogging…and blogging specifically about fairly personal observations (as opposed to political commentary or current events)… was to try to reconnect with the part of myself that used to observe and comment about things in truly original ways.
I’ve been banging away here at treppenwitz for about 6 months now, and I can honestly say that I have usually been able to keep the end of my nose in view while describing my world, and I’ve managed to relegate secondary sources/opinions almost entirely to the periphery of my commentary. Granted, I occasionally give into the temptation to talk about the political landscape… but by and large, I leave that to the people who are able to do it well.
However, I have recently been noticing that when I make the rounds of my regular blogs and news sites before sitting down to write, I end up with something akin to writer’s block: Something I call ‘Thinker’s Block’. It’s not that I can’t write exactly… but rather I feel unqualified to write. Having never taken a journalism class, I honestly can't figure out how 'real writers' manage to keep their own ideas from getting jumbled up with the viewpoints and observations of others. What I’m talking about is the feeling one gets after hearing or reading such wonderfully original thinking that all you can say (or think) is, “Yeah… what he said!”
I once read about a cartoonist that steadfastly refused to look at anyone else’s work for fear it would creep into his own. I’m starting to understand the concept. For hours, and sometimes days after reading really good, smart commentary (or compelling crap) I am unable to write a coherent sentence. I know that blogs are expected to be chock full of links to the latest and greatest thinking about ‘did you read?’… and ‘have you seen?’, etc. But for some reason that stuff is like kryptonite to my writing muse.
If you see a few days go by without my having posted an entry, chances are pretty good that I have gotten too deeply involved with reading someone else’s blog (like Imshin’s wonderful take on Ami Ayalon’s speech, or the tragic little psycho-drama going on over at protocols). But by the same token, if you see 5 or 6 posts here in the course of a week, you can be pretty sure I have been sipping, rather than gulping from the online fountain of OPI (Other People’s Ideas).
Here’s to moving past 'Thinker’s Block'. Cheers.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Lee Chong’s Makolet
My wife chuckles and shakes her head whenever she sees me take down and re-read my dog-eared copies of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Sweet Thursday. I like re-reading books in general (she prefers the ‘latest’ literary offerings), but these two in particular allow me to mentally live out the old-time, small town fantasy. I also really enjoy the effortless ‘emersion’ that takes place when re-reading an old favorite.
After the brief prologue, Cannary row begins:
“Lee Chong’s Grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and be happy.”
As I read, and then re-read this initial description of the contents of Lee Chong’s grocery - a passage I’ve read a dozen times before – I suddenly saw that fictional store through the lens of my new life in Israel. Steinbeck was unwittingly describing a makolet!
For those of you not familiar with this cherished Israeli institution, a makolet is a neighborhood store where one can buy ‘staples’ such as fresh bread (unwrapped, and often still warm from the bakery), milk, cheese, cereal, coffee, sugar, vegetables, light bulbs, batteries, beer, candy, and roughly 10,000 other absolutely essential items.
[Funny aside: On my first trip to Israel, I was sent out by my flat mates to buy milk and bread at the makolet. Being too embarrassed to ask directions, I followed a series signs and arrows that seemed to say 'makolet' down into the basement of a neighboring apartment building where I found myself alone in a bomb shelter (a miklat). The problem stemmed from the fact that to a neophyte, the Hebrew words for these two unrelated things look phonetically similar. A newcomer to English could be similarly confused by ‘karat’ and ‘carrot’, albeit with a less funny anecdote to share afterwards]
Anyway… unlike the nearly extinct neighborhood stores of my youth, the makolet seems to have stubbornly maintained its status as the hub of the Israeli neighborhood. While most people now do their ‘big shopping’ at supermarkets, early each morning you will still see a steady parade of husbands and children sent out to buy fresh milk, eggs, bread, butter, cream, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, etc. from the makolet.
On the way to school, kids often stop at the makolet to buy a ‘lachmahnia’ (a fresh baked roll) and ‘sakeet shoko’ (a small plastic bag filled with chocolate milk, consumed by biting off the corner and squirting the contents into the mouth). On the way home they might stop in again for an after-school treat. And for the remainder of the day, thousands of errands are run to this ‘miracle of supply’ to pick up whatever is lacking in the family larder.
One might think that the makolet only exists in small towns and villages. Not so. Even in big cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, most neighborhoods still have at least one makolet.
Here in Efrat we have two fairly large supermarkets, but nearly everyone I know has an account under the family name at the neighborhood makolet.
All in all, the makolet provides a very satisfying aesthetic and business arrangement. And in light of my somewhat ‘old-fashioned literary tastes, it is wonderfully reminiscent of a simpler time when places like the fictional Lee Chong’s sold nearly everything a person “needed or wanted to live and be happy”.
Friday, May 14, 2004
Lions and tigers and bears, OH SH#T!
In case you were wondering how I came up with the catchy title for this post…that’s the PG13 version of the colorful language that bounces around the inside of my car when I have one of my frequent close encounters on the road with one of Israel’s wild creatures.
People tend to think of Israel as being a fairly developed country, and they would be correct in this assessment. There are big cities, lots of agriculture, a growing network of roads and highways, and of course those ‘obstacles to peace’: settlements.
However, many people don't realize that there are vast areas that are nearly uninhabited (like most of my commute) that contain a dizzying array of wildlife (no…I’m not talking about the more restive human inhabitants).
Since the end of winter, my commute has started to take on the feel of a naturalist outing (and obstacle course), with birds and animals of every description waiting around every curve. So I’ve started keeping a list of the incredibly varied fauna I see (and sometimes nearly hit).
Here’s what’s on the list so far:
Feral Dogs (everywhere)
Feral Cats (more than everywhere)
Coyotes (mostly when I come home after 8 or 9 PM)
Hyenas (also late in the evening, towards the southern end of my commute)
Sheep (domestic herds all along the hills south of my house)
Porcupines (I have a close call with one of these huge pincushions nearly once a week)
Snakes (warming themselves on the roadway in the morning and evening)
Camels (both feral and herded)
Partridges (I want to catch a few…they’re supposed to be yummy)
Falcons, Eagles & Hawks (several species live in the mountains along my route)
Hares (mostly in the early morning)
Donkeys (the pack animal of choice for the local Arabs)
In addition there are less common animals that I have yet to see (but I’m keeping an eye out for them), including:
I was troubled to read recently that despite a well developed National Parks system and a well subscribed Society for the Protection of Nature, we Israeli’s continue to inadvertently develop, pollute and poison some of our more endangered species out of existence.
However, to put things in perspective…According to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs'‘ web site, Israel has 116 different species of land animals (compared with 140 in all of Europe, which is 300 times larger). Not a bad ratio. No wonder hiking is such a national obsession here!
I suppose that taking a little more care while driving to work is a small price to pay for the living scenery I get to see along the way.
Thursday, May 13, 2004
I knew I wouldn't be able to blog today. Tomorrow might be a better day. I’m sorry.
I knew when, late yesterday afternoon, the radio stations started playing older, sadder songs… I just knew.
I knew what the newscasters wouldn’t/couldn’t say… that another set of parents, or two, or five were opening their front doors to find somber-faced army officers and social workers waiting outside.
I knew the truth as the radio played Arik Einstein’s ballad, ‘Shmor Al Atzmecha’ (Take care of yourself) in which a parent repeatedly implores a young man to “be careful… don’t be foolish… don’t be a hero…because we love you and think about you all the time”.
I knew without ever having yet said them that these are words that every Israeli parent says to his/her children as they go off to serve… words which come back to haunt some of them at the loneliest moments of their lives.
I knew when we decided to live here that service was the terrible price to be paid to purchase our nation’s security… and I think the unthinkable as I kiss my sleeping children each night.
But I didn’t know that our very humanity would become a weapon in the hands of our enemies. That even though we instruct our soldiers to respect their living… we are somehow, even in death, undeserving of respect.
I knew I wouldn't be able to blog today. Tomorrow might be a better day. I’m sorry.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
I used to put a lot of stock in the adage 'familiarity breeds contempt'. Like I said…'used to'.
To illustrate my point; back in the old country, when I’d notice a police car behind me on the highway, my heart would start to pound and I would obsessively check my speed, put my hands at '10 & 2', and basically think good clean, legal thoughts. I’m not nearly old enough to have developed that WWII-era 'show me your papers' association with the police, but I don’t think I am the only law-abiding American that feels something closer to fear than to joy when in close proximity to them. More importantly, I don’t think that police officers in the U.S. particularly mind the reaction their presence evokes.
In contrast, here in Israel I’ve made the acquaintance of several policemen/women. Many of them live in our community, and seeing them in the synagogue, the grocery store or at parent/teacher night has certainly provided a certain level of familiarity.
This is not to imply that they wouldn’t give me a ticket if I were speeding (they would), or that they don’t have the same powers held by their American counterparts (if anything, they have more). The difference seems to be that the deliberate ‘distance’ (what one might call ‘unfamiliarity’), which American cops seem to cultivate, is absent here. I haven’t completely decided if this is good or bad…but I personally feel better about it.
The following story should illustrate the extent to which my American instincts and prejudices are still very close to the surface…as well as my growing appreciation for the differences between 'there' and 'here':
Driving to work the other day, I was in the middle of nowhere (a breathtakingly empty section of the Judean Hills), and admittedly pushing the speed limit by a 'small' margin. As I crested a hill I caught site of a police car sitting on the shoulder a few hundred yards ahead. Klong! That feeling I described above came stomping down on the pit of my stomach with jackboots. I instinctively began pumping the brakes, but I was already resigned to the fact that I was about to get my first Israeli speeding ticket (the last speeding ticket I received was as a high school senior in ‘79).
Sure enough a policeman, who had been standing and talking to his partner inside the car, strolled casually into the roadway and held up his hand with all the fingertips (thumb included) pressed together and pointed skyward. Depending on the context, this uniquely Israeli gesture can mean, 'just a moment', 'wait', 'have a little patience', or 'stop'. There was no confusing the intent of the policeman’s gesture…so I slowed to a stop just in front of the police car, turned off the ignition and sat listening to the ticking sound that cars seem to only make at times like this.
In the States, this is the moment where important decisions are made; Do I argue? Should I be contrite? Are there any mitigating circumstances that might tip the scales in my favor? I even had to consider the additional matter of how to do any, or all, of these things effectively in Hebrew (or perhaps try that old immigrant favorite: Pretend not to understand)!
In the end, I didn’t get a chance to do any of those things.
As the policeman’s boots crunched to a stop on the gravel outside my open window, he preempted my plea by politely explaining that he had '…just gotten off shift, and would I, by any chance be passing the town where he lived?'
I was so unprepared for this turn of events that I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. He misunderstood the confusion on my face and plowed ahead to hurriedly explain that he knew it was inappropriate for him to ask a citizen for a ride, but very few people travel this road and his partner was heading home in the opposite direction.
With a big grin on my face and 'guilt sweat' still dripping down my back, I said the Hebrew equivalent of, "Sure, hop in!"
The 15 minutes until we got to his town (it really was right on my way) were uneventfully passed with small talk about the weather (unusually hot and dusty), basketball (the recent Macabbee Tel Aviv triumph), and the latest news from Gaza (all bad). If he had any inkling that I was giddy with relief, he didn’t let on. The fact is, I don’t think he would have understood my emotional state even if I had tried to explain it to him. He could have easily given me a ticket (I admit it wasn't even a close call), but if the event had ended with a ticket sitting on the passenger seat instead of a cop, I know now that it wold have been an annoyance...not a trauma.
Israeli cops command respect - make no mistake. But the familiarity of our shared cultural experiences seems to have tempered the respect so that it doesn’t bump up against any emotions remotely resembling fear. Some might say this is a bad thing, and that it might make it harder for Israeli police to do their job. But I’m very comfortable living in a country where a policeman could never comprehend the jumble of fear and paranoia I used to feel while driving in front of a cop on the Merritt Parkway.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
A bowl of tradition
When we first got married, Zahava and I moved into our first apartment and immediately began dividing up our turf. Not the physical space, or the possessions mind you (she got all that), but rather the ‘tradition turf’.
Like many new couples, we each had our fond memories of how holidays should be celebrated, and what foods were appropriate for different occasions. Most stressful was the fact that we each had cherished family heirlooms that needed to be displayed and used, and we anticipated a tug-of-war over whose traditions would prevail and become ‘our’ traditions.
All these years later it’s funny to think about that period in our life, and how we needn’t have worried. Traditions will take on a life of their own if you let them. The very essence of building a family is the natural blending of traditions, old and new.
Zahava’s great-grandmother’s candlesticks are the ones she lights each Friday night. They aren’t fancy, or even particularly valuable. But when my wife sees her reflection in the polished surface where her great-grandmother once stood…the value is beyond rubies. If neither of us had inherited a set of candlesticks, there would still be a tradition. We simply would have been the one’s to start it.
When our oldest was born, we brought her home from the hospital dressed in the same layette gown in which Zahava had been brought home. The blanket in which she was wrapped was the one that had warmed all the children in my family as babies. Each of our children has shared this same attire for the trip home from the hospital, and with luck (and care) so will theirs.
My grandmother was an avid quilter, and unwittingly created a family heirloom while quilting a blanket from scraps of my older sister’s baby cloths. In her mind she was being thrifty. But my kids see only a comforting tradition and a link to a woman they never had the privilege to meet.
What started me reminiscing about traditions is a recent milestone that Yonah has reached: Solid food.
Now, calling the stuff he consumes solid food is a bit of a misnomer. It’s mush, plain and simple. But being parents we need the label in order to check off those milestones.
Yonah’s mush is prepared and served in the porringer from which I ate my earliest mush (as did all my sibs). Each of the cousins has had their turn swilling mush from the porringer, and now that my nephew (my brother’s son) has moved on up the food chain, my parents were more than happy to bring the porringer here for Yonah to use. Watching him eat from this little metal bowl may not seem like much of a tradition to some…but for me it is like time travel. With each spoonful I see all the babies who have been fed…and who have then grown up to feed their babies.
The traditions Zahava and I inherited /created have become the fabric of our marriage and family life. Without them we would simply be roommates and babysitters. The portability of these traditions has made our migration bearable for our children…and connects them to the family we left behind.
Living in an age where ‘disposable’ is considered a good thing, I’m glad we have so many things worth holding on to.
Sunday, May 09, 2004
Napping for the Common Good
I’ve been watching with interest the public service ads that rotate through the top of the screen over at Protocols. First off, I think it's a very civic-minded thing to add to one’s site…and in addition it occasionally makes easily-distracted readers like me go, ‘hmmmmm’.
For instance, today when I stopped in for my daily dose from 'the elders', I noticed the ad from VolunteerMatch.org at the top asking:
“Want to Volunteer? We’ll help you find an opportunity for whatever you like doing, today!”
Being a total slacker-at-heart, I immediately thought, “Cool! Hook me up with a nice napping opportunity. I can take a snooze…and it will be considered altruistic!”
Can anyone tell I stayed up past my bedtime last night?
Smoke gets in your eyes
It’s 12:45 AM…I just tucked my 8 year-old son into bed, and I’m waiting up for my 10 year-old daughter to get home. I feel like the most irresponsible parent on the planet, but if the groups of kids still wandering around the neighborhood are any indication, I’m in good company.
Today is Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the 49-day count between Passover and Shavuot. Outside of Israel people don’t seem to make much of a fuss about this particular day, but here it is a very big deal. The essence of the celebration revolves around the making of bonfires…Everywhere!
For weeks, kids have been running around collecting firewood in forests, backyards and construction sites. By the end of this past week, the wood gathering had reached a fever pitch with kids bragging to one-another about how large their pile had become.
Ariella and Gilad each had bonfires to attend. Ariella went to one run be her youth group, and Gilad went to one at the house of one of his classmates. Zahava and I took Yonah to a big neighborhood bonfire on the hillside behind our street.
No matter which direction we looked, every hillside and vacant lot was dotted with fires. Each one had a crowd of people around it, cooking, eating, laughing and singing. The sound of happy conversations and a guitar being strummed, combined with the smell of cooking potatoes, hamburgers, hot dogs, and onions made for a very festive atmosphere. It was great fun!
Of course, being an overprotective American, I was a little unnerved at how close some of the kids were to the fires, and how they all seemed to be wandering around with sharp sticks. I expected any moment, that somebody was going to pass out scissors for them to run around with. I guess I’m just the nervous sort, since nobody else seemed to mind. I suppose I’ll have to learn to relax if I’m ever going to be a ‘real Israeli’.
Well, that was the door, so Ariella must be home. I really thought I had a few more years before I’d be waiting up for the kids. I’m not ready for them to be so independent!
That fire must have been pretty smoky because for some reason my eyes are all watery…
Thursday, May 06, 2004
Coincidence? I think not.
Have you ever noticed that out of the random chaos of everyday life there occasionally emerges something resembling a pattern? Well, over the last 24 hours, life threw me a few ordinary things that I can’t help but see as somehow related to one another.
First, my sister and brother-in-law sent a nice care package of DVDs for the kids. Among them was the oft-requested Finding Nemo.
Then, when I came home after work today, I found the kids watching ‘Nemo’ (with roughly half the neighborhood) in our living room. In retrospect, I should have seen the fish theme developing right there…but instead I went downstairs to check my e-mail, and what should be waiting in my inbox? The following picture (look closely):
Sometimes life leaves little post-it® notes saying, “Coincidence? I think not!”
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
The stars and the moon
Last night provided a nice opportunity to take my eyes (and mind) off of ‘our world’ here in the Middle East, and focus (for a change) on things far off in the distance, and also right under my nose.
During the last couple of years that we lived in Connecticut, our (big) kids became old enough to be woken up at night for a ‘once-a-year treat’: viewing the Leonid Meteor Shower.
Shortly before going to bed, I would drag our big wooden Adirondack chair onto the back deck, throw a half dozen blankets onto it, and then set my alarm for whatever pre-dawn hour the meteor shower was predicted to be at its peak.
When the clock radio dragged me out of my coma, I would go about boiling water, filling a big hot water bottle, brewing tea, and then pull my sleep-tousled wife and kids out onto the deck. We’d all sit smooshed on that chair, with the hot water bottle radiating between us, sharing a couple of mugs of tea, with the wool blankets piled high. We’d watch the celestial fireworks for 30 or 40 minutes (usually the time it took for the kids to doze off), and then I’d carry them back to their beds.
Over breakfast in the morning, neither kid had a clear recollection of the entire event, but both remembered snuggling under blankets…the smell of warm tea on the frigid night air…the occasional flash of a ‘shooting star’…The good stuff.
Last night there was a total lunar eclipse here in Israel. I didn’t tell the kids about it in advance (for fear they wouldn’t go to sleep), but once the earth’s shadow began to nibble away at the moon I went upstairs to wake them.
I’d forgotten how deeply they sleep…it took nearly five minutes of kisses and gentle nibbling to get either of them to respond. Ariella took me by surprise by groggily asking me, in Hebrew, whether she was late for school. It took her a few minutes to unconsciously lapse back into English, and I’m fairly certain she was unaware of the switch. I’ve suspected for a while that the kids have been dreaming (at least occasionally) in Hebrew…Neat!
Since the moon was clearly visible from Ariella’s bedroom window, we all sat on her bed, wrapped in a blanket and watched the moon being slowly consumed. After 10 minutes (and still nearly half an hour from totality), I realized that both kids were falling asleep on my lap (taking up MUCH more room than they used to), so Zahava and I tucked them back into their beds. Gilad has grown so much this year that Zahava couldn't lift him, so he was guided back to his room under his own power.
As usual, this morning the kids were a little fuzzy about the specifics of last night’s astronomy lesson, but they both remembered the good stuff; the kisses, the family snuggle, and the peek at the moon with a big bite taken out…Enough that there is some touchstone connecting their old life to the new. It also reassured us all (I’m not sure who needed it more - the kids or the grown-ups) that things are right with our world…A world where the stars and moon still give private performances while we snuggle together for warmth.
Monday, May 03, 2004
The Breakfast Table Rule
I know, I know…Yesterday’s entry was quite a bit more political than I usually allow things to get here at treppenwitz. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to keep a blog about life in Israel completely free of politics. So, what I’ve always tried to do is reread all my posts to make sure they adhere to the ‘Breakfast Table Rule’. By this I mean that they shouldn’t contain more political content than I would normally allow my big kids (8 & 10 respectively) to overhear at the breakfast table.
I use the breakfast table as my litmus test (rather than, say, the lunch or dinner table) because at breakfast the senses are fresh. They haven’t been dulled or skewed by a day’s worth of abuse. Think about how much more softly people speak at the breakfast table than at other meals. Consider how much more tentatively subjects are broached at the start of the day than towards the end.
OK. So that’s the rule. Yesterday I got a little worked up and ended up with something maybe more appropriate for ‘brunch’. I’ll try to be more careful in the future.
By way of an apology, I’d like to offer an insight from yesterday that, aside from the context in which it occurred, was actually quite heartwarming.
During the early reporting of yesterday’s tragedy, I listened as a radio interviewer spoke with eyewitnesses to the attack, and several people who knew the victims. As a preamble to many of the questions, the reporter repeatedly reminded the people being interviewed not to use any names or reveal any information that could give away the identities of the victims. It was clear that this was being done to allow authorities time to locate and speak with the family of those killed and injured.
Having grown up in a country where journalists would sell their souls in order to get an on-air first reaction from a grieving relative or a ‘scoop’ concerning a victim’s identity, this was refreshingly humane journalistic conduct.
I have no idea if Israeli law mandates this admirable behavior, or if the close-knit nature of our society has forced Israeli journalists to realize how precariously close they are to the stories they report. Regardless of which it turns out to be, I was relieved beyond words that the relatives and friends of yesterday’s victims were allowed to receive their tragic news from social workers and army officers rather than from a radio loudspeaker.
This is responsible behavior I would want my children to know about and emulate. And, I would gladly discuss it with them at the breakfast table.
Sunday, May 02, 2004
It must be a busy news day…
I just took a glance at the New York Times web site. The top stories (in the largest possible type size) are:
“Officer Suggests Iraq Jail Abuse was Encouraged.”
“American Hostage is Found by U.S. Forces in Iraq.”
“Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear.”
“Drought Settles in, Lake Shrinks and West’s Worries Grow.”
Off to the right in much smaller print, and sandwiched between a human interest story about “An All American Town with a Sky High Divorce Rate” and a business article about how a “Firm Pulls 100 From Saudi Arabia After 5 Deaths”, is a rather unremarkable looking link to a story about, “5 Israelis killed in Gaza shooting”.
Ho hum…more shooting in a place with lots of shooting…how sad. Now, what did the Dow Jones do today...?
What the Times (and CNN, Reuters, MSNBC, and some of the other on on-line news destinations) failed to mention in their headline/link (thus reinforcing the ennui of the reading public with the situation) is that a couple of Palestinian terrorists calmly walked onto a highway and began spraying passing cars with assault rifles. They targeted a car with a mother (in her eighth month of pregnancy) and her four daughters. Once the car was disabled, the terrorists walked up to it and calmly shot each of the inhabitants multiple times at point blank range. They then proceeded to target other vehicles (wounding several other people) until an army patrol arrived and dispatched them to the waiting arms of their 72 virgins.
Given the extensive journalism talent available to these various news outlets, and the fierce competition for readers, it is amazing to me that they all somehow managed to downplay this story by using the least compelling headline/link possible.
For the record, I’ve never taken a journalism class, and even my creative writing credentials are, um, limited to say the least. But I think that even I could have come up with some way of mentioning the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of almost an entire family, including the very pregnant mother, somewhere in the headline.
The story that few western readers will ever read is that a very pregnant Tali Hatual, 34, and her four daughters, Hila (11), Hadar (9), Roni (7) and Meirav (2) left home shortly after lunch time. They had no reason to think for a moment that by dinner time their grieving husband/father, friends and community would be placing them lovingly into their graves.
Maybe I'm demanding too much…but somehow I feel that the major news outlets could have deemed these modest facts worthy of mention.