Monday, February 28, 2005
Is the world shrinking?
Anyone who has spent any time in this tiny country called Israel is familiar with the 'small world' syndrome'. By this I mean you can't go anywhere without running into someone you know.
I'm a relative newcomer here, but this last week has been freakishly full of such 'small world' encounters.
Last Thursday I did something I haven't done since moving to Israel; I played a wedding (for you newcomers: I'm a recovering professional trombonist). The wedding was in one of the fancy hotels in Jerusalem, and aside from the guys in the band I really didn't think I would know anyone.
During the Chupah (the actual wedding ceremony) I looked around the room and a math professor who had suffered me gladly in my college days caught my eye and gave me a friendly nod. Clearly his smiling acknowledgment indicated that he had forgotten about my inability to make any sense of his patient lessons about the laws of odds and averages.
After the chupah, some of the musicians and I played while the crowd escorted the newly married couple out of the room. It was then that a parade of friendly faces began passing by and waving.
One after another a succession of women that I had dated in my college days passed by and gave me that smiling gesture that indicated they were not unhappy to see me. A total of 5 such women passed the spot where I was playing... what are the odds?
Then another smiling face came into view... this time a fellow traveler in the online world; Chayei Sarah! The world was shrinking faster and faster.
Later, as I sat on the bandstand listening to someone making a speech about the bride and groom, a mention of the bride's last name triggered a memory of another girl I had gone out with in my single days. Sure enough, as I looked across at the bride's family, there sat her sister... with whom I had shared many a pleasant date. This brought the total of former um, interests to an even half dozen!
I ended up having very pleasant conversations with all of my fellow travelers from the dating scene, and I went home feeling quite satisfied that, unlike some of my friends, I didn't have to duck and run for cover when I spotted women that I had dated.
Then, a few days later I found myself on the 12:30AM fight to New York (I almost missed the flight, but that's a story for another entry). I figured, what could be more anonymous than an overnight flight halfway around the world? Even if by some miracle of coincidence I happened to know someone on the flight, the lights would be out and I would probably miss them.
As I boarded the spanking new 747-400 I wandered to my seat and was immediately hailed by the guy sitting in the seat behind me. He was a caterer whom I had known from my 17 years of playing in hotels around the Metropolitan New York area. We had always had a good relationship, and he beamed as we caught up and he introduced me to his wife and kids.
While I stood there talking over the back of my seat, I noticed a series of waves and smiles from a few rows back. It turns out a group of people from my old community in Connecticut had traveled together as part of a UJA Federation trip to Israel. This was their return flight to the states... and I knew (or at least recognized) almost all of them.
A short way into the flight the dinner service was being rolled out and a few of teenagers were stuck next to me waiting for the service cart to move up the aisle. One of the teenage boys turned to face me and his face split into a happy grin of recognition. It was the son of one of our closest friends in Connecticut! He was returning from being an adviser on a youth trip to Israel.
I'm only a day into a week-long trip to New York and I feel like the world could not possibly get any smaller.
While I'm here I will be speaking to groups all over the tri-sate area. What are the odds of running into more people from my past?
I think my old math professor would probably agree that the answer is approximately 100%.
Friday, February 25, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XVI) [signs of life edition]
Many of the most common comments I've gotten about the pictures I've posted of my commute route have used terms like 'lonely' and 'desolate' to describe the landscape. I decided to post some other pictures to help people understand why I found these comments to be off-base.
My drive to work does indeed take me through some wide open spaces, but there are signs of life nearly everywhere one looks... it just so happens that I didn't point my camera in the right direction for you to see them.
One of the most common sights one is likely to see are the small piles of rocks that have been left by shepherds.
I have wondered for a long time what these piles meant. There are plenty of references in the Torah of the Patriarchs setting up make-shift alters by stacking stone upon stone, but I had my doubts that these modern piles had any religious meaning.
I was initially worried about how an Arab shepherd would take to being approached by me, but when I walked over to say hello, he spoke to me in perfect Hebrew! It turns out he was a Jewish shepherd from one of the small agricultural settlements in the south Hevron hills! What are the odds?!
This Shepherd told me that there were several explanations for the stone piles. He said that some shepherds set them up as a way to mark the edge of roads and other hazards (such as holes and caves). On the rolling hillsides it is often hard for the shepherd to spot places that could be dangerous to the flock from a distance... so they set up markers.
He explained that some shepherds set up the markers to mark the borders of areas where they have permission to graze their flocks. He said that this is less common since most shepherds do not feel bound by silly things like borders and property ownership.
As an example he pointed out a field of rusting oil barrels. I had seen them before but never understood their purpose. As we walked closer he pointed out that each one had a small tree poking out of the top. The barrels were there to keep sheep and goats from chewing on the saplings. The owner of the young trees figured it was easier to protect the trees than to try to keep the shepherd's flocks away.
On another morning I was driving through the seemingly empty landscape and was startled by an Ibex leaping across the road in front of my car. There was no danger of hitting him, but I jammed on the brakes none-the-less. I quickly pulled over and grabbed for my camera, but by the time I was out of the car the Ibex was a small dot on the next hillside. Here is the blurry results that my little camera's zoom provided:
I guess the lesson I'm hoping people take from this week's Photo Friday is that things are rarely as they appear at first glance. Seemingly desolate landscapes are actually brimming with signs of life... and almost everything one thinks they know about Israel changes as the lens of time brings things into focus.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
A word of explanation...
... might be in order.
At the end of yesterday's second post (yes, I actually published two entries in one day!), there was a short note that read:
I've been so jazzed about this new endeavor that I forgot I hadn't written anything about it here on treppenwitz.
Israel21c (Israel in the 21st century) is a site that has finally done what nobody seems to have been able to accomplish. It has elevated the discussion of all things Israeli above and beyond 'the conflict'. Simply put, Israel21c refuses to allow Israel's detractors to define/limit the image of Israel that is presented to the world.
This may seem like a very simple concept, but to date not one web site, blog, news service, email list, lobby group or advocacy organization has even attempted to frame the discussion of Israel in anything but the terms selected by its detractors: The conflict.
It's like having a close friend that talks incessantly about his health problems whenever you get together. After a while you have to chose between taking charge of the discussion... or reluctantly allowing the friendship to slip away.
You and I know that loving Israel is so much more than mounting a cogent argument against the accusation /bias du jour. Yet if you take a moment to look over your 'sent items' box I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Israel-related stuff you've been forwarding has been limited to this very narrow range of discussion.
Also, if you look down the list of recipients to whom you sent those strident missives, the names probably look like a list of donors on a UJA/ Federation fundraising list. In short, you're sending out clarifications, petitions and rants to people who probably don't really need convincing.
What's happened is we've all unwittingly become that friend who can't talk about anything but his bad back... his prostate... his gout.... and it's high time someone took charge of the discussion.
Israel21c lives up to it's tag line: "A focus beyond the conflict".
What you'll find on this attractive, well written site is positive stuff about Israel that transcends political, religious and cultural 'turf'.
To put it in terms that Sunday New York Times junkies might understand: This is like finally being able to get past the front page and op-eds in order to spend some quality time curled up with the Arts & Leisure, Science and Regional sections. If Israel 21c had a crossword puzzle I think I'd just cry from sheer happiness!
One of the neat things connected to Israel 21c is a collaborative blog called Israelity (Life beyond the conflict). I'm one of several Israeli bloggers/journalers who will be contributing to this new forum. As with Israel21c, Israelity is about everything and anything except the conflict.
I don't know how often I will be contributing to Israelity (just as I never know in advance how often I'll be updating treppenwitz), but my guess would be once or twice a week.
Sometimes I may cross-blog (meaning I will post the same entry both here and there), and other times I will publish in only one of the two venues. I guess I'll see what works best. In any event, it pays to bookmark both Israelity and Israel21c because they will always be brimming with lot's of fresh, positive content.
So now that I've explained the cryptic little note from yesterday's post, I hope you're as excited as I am that we finally have an opportunity to take charge of the discussion... and renew our special friendship with the real Israel.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Another Nobel in the Making?
Make all the fuss you want to about Israeli advances in medicine... physics... microbiology... semiconductors... cellular technology. As far as I'm concerned, I just stumbled across the most important Israeli innovation of the decade!
Yesterday I bought a container of Israeli windshield-wiper fluid at my local gas station... and it contained (I can't even believe I'm writing this!), exactly the same amount of mysterious blue liquid as my car's reservoir holds!
That's right... when I finished pouring it into the reservoir there was nothing left in the container.
Not. One. Drop.
For years I've driven around the US with partially filled gallon jugs of wiper fluid sloshing around in my trunk. Apparently the greatest minds at the US wiper fluid laboratories have never been able to reconcile the fact that not one car manufacturer on earth builds a car with a one gallon wiper fluid reservoir. It should be obvious, but nobody could see it.
It's like that guy who picked up the little plastic table from his daughter's Barbie Playhouse and thought to himself "say... this would be perfect to put in the middle of a pizza to keep the top of the box from falling into the cheese!"
The solution only seems obvious when a great mind reveals it to us.
Each year there are six Nobel Prizes awarded... one each for Literature, Economics, Chemistry, Physics, Medicine and Peace. It's a shame that none of these categories are sufficiently broad to be able to accommodate 'significant advances in automotive fluid packaging'.
Yet another Nobel going to a Jew: Big Yawn.
The panel of Swedish judges handing the Nobel Prize to a mechanic from South Tel Aviv named 'Dudu': Priceless!
To drop the veil... or not?
A blogger friend recently asked my opinion as to whether or not she should post a picture of herself on her sidebar. It is worth mentioning that this person blogs semi-anonymously. By this I mean that her real identity is not a state secret, but it rarely occurs to the reader that she is writing under a pseudonym.
The decision about how much (if any) personal information to put on one's blog is a difficult one. I'm actually a perfect example (read: cautionary tale) of how not to think this subject through before getting started!
When I posted my first few entries I couldn't imagine anyone besides my immediate family ever logging on to read, so I held nothing back; pictures, names, Social Security Numbers (OK, I held something back).
By the time I woke up to the fact that people... a fair amount of them, in fact... were stopping by, it was a little late to start redacting names and putting those blurry circles over everyone's faces in the photo albums.
In short, I outed myself before it ever occurred to me that there was a closet in which to hide.
But many sensible people have erred on the side of caution and started blogging in the electronic equivalent of a Burqa. This blogger who asked for my advice is one of those, and has recently been toying with the decision of whether, and how far, to drop her veil.
A good example of someone who is 'out there' for all the world to see, but probably shouldn't be (IMHO) is James Lileks. I have been a Daily Bleat junky for almost as long as James has been, well, bleating. But the funny thing is that I somehow managed to read him for months before I ever spotted his picture. I wasn't avoiding it... I'd simply been reading the bleat on a small laptop and his picture had been out of the reading frame.
As a result, during those first few months I had created a mental picture of this tall, lanky uber-dad who looked like Tom Selleck with a perpetual sarcastic grin around his evening cigar.
I was right about the cigar.
I know, I know... it's not fair to be disappointed about someone's appearance, especially since I'm certainly no prize. Heck, who knows where I'd be today if Zahava had managed to get a good look at me before our arranged marriage!
My point is that before I knew what Lileks looked like I was able to let his words paint a picture of who he was. After I had seen his picture, I found I still loved his writing, but I couldn't help thinking that he was a talented writer who looked a lot like a kid dressed up in has dad's old suit.
In trying to provide some advice to my blogger friend I decided not to use the Lileks example. I figured she might take it the wrong way (she's actually quite pretty). Instead I told her the following:
"Only you can decide if you want to cross that boundary. I'll give you a 'for instance' to explain which boundary I'm talking about:
I love reading Chez Miscarriage. I have a very clear picture in my mind's eye of what she looks like. When I read her words I can actually see her speaking them. That's what a good writer can do.
I would be disappointed if she ever put a picture of herself on her blog. Not because she might be unattractive or weird looking... but because there is a 100% certainty that she will look different than the woman I see when I read her words.
A lot of people, men and women, read your blog and have a clear picture in their mind's eye of what you look like (and no two of those 'pictures' are alike). If you post your picture on your blog, there is a 100% certainty that each of those people will feel let down just a little bit, not because of who you are... but because you're not who they imagined you to be.
It's a big step crossing the boundary from the fiction shelf to the non-fiction shelf."
Obviously it's easy for me to sit here and be all full of good advice since my cover's already been blown.
So what do the rest of you think? Should an anonymous blogger with a large readership drop her veil and give the world a peek?
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Economics for Poets
I've made no secret of my, um, less-than-stellar academic career. Anyone who knows me (or who has done even a little reading here) knows that even colorful pictures and sock-puppets wouldn't be enough to get most math/science-related concepts to take root in the infertile soil between my ears.
However, occasionally my inability to process complex topics could be circumvented by hiding the more elusive subject in the guise a mundane topic that I found engaging (sort of like hiding a your dog's heartworm pill in a big hunk of meat).
A good example of this would be Geology.
All by itself, geology didn't stand a chance of making any sort of lasting impression on my limited store of retained information. But because the first person to teach me about geology (a Paleontologist who was a colleague and close friend of my father at SUNY New Paltz) wisely combined that topic with my innate love of anything related to dinosaurs and fossils, I inadvertently became quite well versed in the broader discipline. In short, my extensive knowledge of the various families of rocks can be entirely attributed to the fact that I wanted to know which kind of rocks contained fossils, and why.
I mention this small personal triumph because I get an e-mail from an old college friend last night containing a link to a fascinating story. I'll get to the nature of the story in a second, but first it is important that you understand that I am a complete and total ignoramus regarding anything to do with another complex subject; Economics.
I took both micro and macro economics a combined total of 5 times during my University career (I'm fairly sure that is a school record that still stands). I only needed a passing grade in one of them for my degree requirement, and in the end the professor gave me a [barely] passing grade... not because I had proved my mastery of the subject, but because he couldn't bear to see my furrowed brow in his lecture hall for another semester. The friend that sent me the link to the story suffered through at least 3 of those economics classes with me, and also likely passed due to the professor's exasperation.
To his credit, this professor tried everything to make the study of economics more attractive to the skittish minds of his students. For instance, he taught the principles of supply and demand using a graph containing 'shots' along one axis and 'beers' along the other. As soon as he linked this basic economic rule to a 'completely hypothetical' drinking game, many of the students immediately became engaged and were able to go on to master ever-more-complex economic theories.
Me, not so much.
Don't get me wrong... I enjoyed an occasional shot and beer as much as anyone in the class (maybe more so), but I saw the ruse for what it was. It was a trick, and you'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to slip any useful information past my mental gatekeepers.
Getting back to the story that my old college friend sent me... he knows two things about me;
1. I'm a history buff
2. I was perhaps the only person on the planet with a poorer grasp of economics than he
To tell you more than this would ruin your enjoyment of the story. Follow this link and read for yourself a fascinating tale... about challenges faced by real people under difficult condition.
By the end of the story you will find that you suddenly understand all that stuff Alan Greenspan talked about in his press conferences... you know, that mind-numbing jargon that used to make you instinctively want to channel-surf over to ESPN.
Lesson learned: The retention of any important information is completely dependant upon the way it is packaged.
Friday, February 18, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XV)
I've mentioned several times that many people have asked for the same / similar photos, so today's edition is to see what we can do about getting caught up with those.
The first request is for something with funny or confusing packaging.
There really is no good place to start with this one... there are so many choices! But looking through our stuff I noticed a likely candidate. This is a picture of a spray that is used to remove wrinkles. Why, oh why do Israeli's think they don't need to consult people from one of their largest target audiences before randomly assigning a name to a product? Helloooo, ever hear of a focus group???
The name of this product is 'Soupline'.
Yes, as in a combination of two most lasting images of the great depression; Soup kitchens and Bread lines. I sat for quite some time trying to fathom if there might be some less obvious source for the name, but came up empty. Anyone care to venture a guess?
One of the more frequent requests was for something that my kids see nearly every day. I asked them about this, but it seems that kids see everything, but take notice of almost nothing. So I decided to take a stroll along the route they normally walk to school. Just outside the front door of the school I noticed a pretty mosaic set into the Jerusalem stone wall. It is a very nice representation of what appears to be 6 of the 7 'species' attributed to the land of Israel; Bonus points to anyone who can not only name the 6 pictured, but also tell me which one is missing (unintended trick question):
The Last of these requests (that I'll post today, anyway) was for something typically 'Friday' (some asked for shopping crowds, others for particular Friday preparations for Shabbat... others for street scenes).
The following is perhaps the single most common sight in Israel on Friday. Whether one lives in the most religious community or a completely secular enclave, bringing home flowers for Shabbat is a given. As Shai pointed out last year in his wonderful 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.” However, the unspoken part of that truism is 'oy vavoy l'cha' [there's no good translation of this expression, but think; 'G-d help you!'] if you show up without flowers!
Nearly every big intersection and bus stop has people selling beautiful bouquets of flowers. It is one of the little Israeli things I will never get tired of seeing:
So, I have a request of my own this beautiful Friday: Go buy some flowers... even if you're not in Israel. For that matter, go buy some flowers even if you're not Jewish!
Is there a weekend that won't be improved by bringing a little beauty into the house?
Thursday, February 17, 2005
What would you like to drink?
The question isn’t ‘would you like something to drink?’ No, that makes a ridiculous assumption… of course you want something to drink!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’ve mentioned a few times over the past month that I’ve been running around the country for nearly non-stop meetings. One of the nice things about this is that it has allowed me to observe the subtle, and not-so-subtle differences between American and Israeli meeting etiquette.
Having grown up in the US and worked in 'Corporate America', almost all of my experience with meeting etiquette and the social norms of the business environment are based on that model. So, I’ve become fascinated by the differences I’ve seen as I make the rounds of 'Corporate Israel'.
To be sure, Israel has adopted many of the finer things that one might find in boardrooms from New York to Silicon Valley; hi-tech multi-media equipment, gleaming asymmetrical conference tables, and deeply cushioned chairs.
But there is one aspect of the Israeli business meeting that Corporate America could stand to emulate: The fine art of making business guests feel at home.
Every single time I've had a meeting with someone here in Israel it is expected that the first few minutes of the meeting will be spent preparing hot or cold drinks, and that at very least cookies and nuts would be passed around.
Even companies with relatively modest facilities will always make sure that someone offers you these nice little touches of hospitality, and I’ve found that it throws everyone completely off their game if you say ‘no thank you’. They’ll ask a second and sometimes even a third time just to make sure they heard you correctly.
When everyone had been served their coffee or soda, invariably I’d get a worried look from somebody (as if I maybe I'd misunderstood the question), and a final ‘are you sure…’ would be stage-whispered before the subject is allowed to drop.
After the first few meetings I made a conscious effort to stop saying ‘no thank you’ and began politely accepting tea… coffee… seltzer.
The transformation was almost magical! It’s as if they are saying ‘We can be as ruthless with one another as we want in a few minutes… but right now we’re all Jews and that requires that we have a little something to eat or drink… preferably both. Will you please take something already!!!’
I've been to plenty of meetings in the US where a lavish selection of food and drink was provided, but the refreshments were just, well, ‘there’.
Fancy platters of pastries sat largely ignored, and it was sort of expected that ‘real players’ would be aloof from the whole need for refreshment. If and when food and drink were consumed it was almost grudgingly done mid-sentence, with all the warmth of refueling one’s car. The only people who ever got excited by the conference room spreads were the people who came in after the meeting to scavenge from the leftovers.
However, the genuine hospitality that Israeli businesspeople extend to guests as a matter of habit is much more reminiscent of the way I imagine Europeans conduct business. Even among the shiny trappings of the high-tech world it is nice to see much the same expression of hospitable concern that you would find in someone’s home.
I’m not expressing myself well here, but what I’m trying unsuccessfully to convey is how pleased everyone is when they are allowed to be hospitable. It is part of the culture and part of their responsibility as the host.
I'm just now starting to understand that accepting these gestures is one of the guest's responsibilities.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The final results of the JIB awards were announced… and there were a few surprises:
Post by a Jewish Blogger
1st "Meirav was Two" - Meryl Yourish
2nd "Young and Old Keep Making Aliyah" - Kumah
3rd "Things My Shaliach Never Told Me" - Chayyei Sarah
I don’t know what to say, except are you kidding me???
There can only be one explanation for an upstart like treppenwitz taking a gold, two silvers and a bronze amongst a field of much bigger, better and more established blogs/journals: Most of the people who voted must be residents of Dade and Broward counties in Florida. Nothing else makes sense!
In all seriousness, this was a fantastic few weeks of discovery for me.
I discovered so many wonderful new (to me) blogs and journals that I'm going to have to completely revamp my ‘Good Readin’ list.
I discovered that my readers don’t take direction very well (I seem to remember giving you clear instructions about who really deserved your votes!).
I discovered that when all is said and done… there is still a tremendous amount that remains to be said… and done.
Thanks again to Dave of Israellycool for all his hard work. Thank you to all the talented writers who keep their readership informed and entertained, day after day. And thank you to all the people who surf their way through the Jewish Blogosphere each day for giving us a reason to write.
Here's to another year of sharing our thoughts... and mingling with our heroes.
It's not you... It's me.
How many times has that little white lie been used (thanks Dave for unknowingly suggesting the title)? Well, I have not been responsive to some of your comments, and I wanted to say for the record that it really isn't about you... there seems to be some sort of a technical problem on my end.
Usually when someone leaves a comment I get an email notification right away. I don't always respond right away because; a) some of your comments require a little reflection on my part before responding; and b) I actually do have a job, and I like to use the time spent responding to comments as little breaks throughout my work day... not the other way around. :-)
However, either gmail has been a little pokey about letting me know that there are comments, or TypePad has not been sending all of the notifications to gmail in a timely manner. Either way, the net result is that I have been missing some of your timely comments. Please don't think I'm blowing you off... it's me, not you.
Also, with all my venting about 'the blogger who shall not be named', I completely neglected to mention that this past Shabbat chez treppenwitz was host to yet another blogging celebrity; Rahel of Elms in the Yard. I've mentioned Rahel before, but for those of you who are new, you will see and hear a whole new world over there on her thoughtful, well-written journal.
Rahel's musical presence in our home was a joy and inspiration for our children, and the grownups got to thoroughly enjoy her calming influence on the household (Zahava even got a massage!) throughout the weekend.
As with many of the bloggers/journalers I've had the privilege to meet, I don't share the exact religious heading and political worldview as Rahel, but I'm a much richer and wiser person for having spent some 'quality time' schmoozing with her. It's important to be reminded that there are as many correct answers about some things as there are people asking the questions.
Lastly, for those whose take on Sunday's apparently controversial topic differs from mine... let me say for the record that I respect your opinions and will not try to sway you from them. The sum total of my knowledge concerning the person in question is based on a few, brief, unfortunate incidents... so I must leave the door open on the possibility that I am wrong. I also want to make it perfectly clear that I am not interested in metaphorically running anyone out of town on a rail. This is a big town and there is plenty of room for everyone. If I was wrong, time will tell. If I was right, then this particular cowboy will probably shoot himself in the foot without any help from little old me.
Anyway, enough housekeeping... more (non-controversial) goodness coming up.
Monday, February 14, 2005
Does this make me look fat?
Back in the early '80s Somalia was trying to shake off the effects of a costly defeat in a war it had started with its neighbor, Ethiopia. The main reason Somalia lost the war was because the Soviet Union and Cuba sent both troops and military aid to Ethiopia.
As a result of the defeat, Somalia experienced a political sea change and swung from a pro-socialist outlook to basically hating the Soviets and all they stood for. The Soviet navy was banned from Somali ports and my ship, which had been hanging out in the North Arabian Sea and Indian Ocaen, was sent to make a political visit in the port of Berbera, Somalia.
When we got there it was about 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. In the middle of the day even the camels and goats refused to move, so I was fascinated to see that the dockworkers were able to function in spite of the blistering conditions. Then I noticed that all the men were wearing light cotton wrap-around skirts (for lack of a better word). Several of us asked around and were able to purchase a few of these skirts (basically a long piece of dyed cotton) and we wore them for the duration of our visit (when we weren’t required to be in uniform, of course).
I have to tell you, after the first little discomfort of walking around in what was basically a man-sarong, I started to see some merit to the concept. Ventilation is a beautiful thing, in moderation. Instead of my thighs wanting to ignite from sheer friction, I was suddenly cool as a cucumber (OK, admittedly an unfortunate choice of imagery)! However, despite visiting dozens of other desert and tropical countries around the world, I never had another opportunity (or the nerve) to break out my man-skirt.
I love the concept, and it actually seems quite practical (hey, you can even order it with the ‘Beer Gut Cut’!), but I really think it’s a look that very few men can carry off, um, manfully.
In the advertisement all the models are doing manly things (welding, construction, etc.), and wearing big hobnail boots to ward off some of the ‘swish factor' involved. But no matter how you package it, what we’re talking about here is a skirt. With pleats.
Without going into too much detail about what Jewish law might have to say on this particular subject, there are quite a few ‘rules and regs’ about what women can wear… and if I’m not mistaken, there is also a sticky little prohibition against men wearing women’s clothing.
Not to worry though, you aren’t likely to be seeing me in a skirt anytime soon. To demonstrate how ill-prepared I might be for such a dramatic change in wardrobe, let me share a quick story:
When Zahava and I were dating we attended a costume party/dinner together. We attended this soirée dressed in full Scottish regalia. Unfortunately, there were impromptu skits during the entertainment portion of the evening, and I was one of the people called to sit in front of the gathered crowd as part of a skit. As I glanced around the room, I saw a lot of grinning and nudging going on, and I noticed Zahava gesturing wildly for me to put my knees together. Like most guys, when I sit down I'm used to either casually crossing my legs or sitting with my knees splayed a foot or two apart. I don’t recall which of these two classic poses I selected, but suffice it to say neither was the correct posture while wearing a kilt.
So, coming back to the Utilikilt, as much as I would love to indulge ‘the troops’ in a little R&R out in the fresh air, I don’t think I can bear the idea of having to ask my wife that dreaded question:
"Does this make me look fat?"
Sunday, February 13, 2005
The concession call
I know, I know... technically the polls are still open over at the JIB awards, but we’re not talking about Kerry sitting awake in his hotel room at 5:00 AM wondering which way Ohio is going to go. No, my position in the polls has all the suspense of Ralph Nader’s campaign headquarters on election night. In short, nobody is waiting around for my concession call. :-)
None-the-less, the call we should all be making today is to Dave of Israellycool to thank him for coming up with the idea for these awards, and for doing all the unpleasant scut work to make the JIB Awards a reality. It was a fantastic idea and he carried it off with class and aplomb.
To borrow an expression Dave might recognize: ‘Good on ya!’
As to the JIB Awards themselves, I am very pleased with the way things turned out. I discovered a bunch of talented bloggers/journalers that had never crossed my radar, and I even picked up a few new readers myself. Best of all, treppenwitz got to ‘share the stage’ for a time with some extremely well written blogs. That, by itself, should keep me writing for another year!
Of course I’m sure that most of you are aware that there was one bit of unpleasantness.
I won’t mention the name of the little attention whore who made such a spectacle of himself (I really don’t want to feed either his habit or his ego). Suffice it to say that in his quest for attention/traffic he insulted a very talented (and popular) writer and did a horrible disservice to the other bloggers who were running in the same category. Instead of a contest where second or third place might have held some value (and pleasure) for those involved, the other blogs were relegated to the role of a punch line in a very un-funny joke.
If this guy had a shred of decency he would use his farewell post to apologize to Dave, the other bloggers in his category and the entire blogging community for being such a thoughtless, self-centered ass.
Kroikee!!! Did I say that out loud?!
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XIV) [Respect Repositories]
Not that there aren't still some very compelling photo requests still outstanding... but this week I'm going to invoke the well-known 'It's my ball so we'll play by my rules' rule and do something a little different.
Yesterday, while Zahava and I were waiting outside the Principal's office for our 'team meeting' to begin (let me tell you, I've logged some serious time outside of Principal's offices in my day) I noticed three seemingly unrelated 'repositories' and for no particular reason these three things suggested an interesting pattern to me.
The three 'repositories' were:
1. A 'Geniza' - Which literally means 'A hiding place', but is actually a place where anything of religious significance that is no longer suitable for use is placed. Old prayer books, discarded pages with G-d's name written on them, invalid mezzuzas, etc., are the kinds of things one would place in a Geniza. Most religious schools and synagogues have a Geniza, and periodically the contents are taken out and buried in a designated spot in a Jewish cemetery. Long-lost rulings of Jewish law and historically-significant documents have been unearthed when ancient Genizas have been discovered... with the Cairo Geniza being arguably the most famous.
2. 'Pniyat Talmidim L'Minahelet' - Which roughly translates as 'turning to/referring to the principal by the students. This is a simple wooden box for students to leave private (even anonymous) messages for the Principal. I really like the idea that the students have this direct line of communication.
You see, all three were within a few feet of one another... each was designed to receive something specific... and each, in its own way, was designed to offer a measure of respect.
The Geniza is designed to show the utmost respect to religious items that have outlived their practical usefulness. Its presence at the school is a valuable lesson to the children about the difference between respectfully putting something aside and thoughtlessly discarding it.
The note box for students to communicate with their principal is a valuable tool which shows that the principal respects the student's thoughts and desires... and also that the students might be a bit awed by the principal (and would benefit from a respectful distance in their direct communications).
The used battery drop-off (and it's close proximity to the other two repositories) is a clear sign that the school and it's students respect the environment and believe that the end of something's useful life does not end our responsibility to it (or the world around us).
Patterns exist in everyday life, yet we rarely notice them. This pattern seemed especially relevant to me and reinforced many of the things I love about the education my children are receiving here in Israel.
The sins of the fathers...
... are too often visited upon the sons.
Those who remember this journal entry from the beginning of December will also remember that I promised to keep you informed of our collective progress. To be painfully frank, there hasn't been much.
This morning at our request a concerned group (including the school principal, the school 'yo'etzet' [sort of a counselor/advocate], the school psychologist, Gilad's primary teacher, Zahava and I), met to discuss what we could do to get Gilad out of the academic hole he seems intent on digging for himself.
This wasn't some textbook case we were talking about... nor some theoretical problem. This is my son... a little boy so very much like his father that throughout the description of his problems, I couldn't help feeling that I was a fly on the wall listening to a bunch of grownups speaking with my parents about me.
However, the thing that pulled me off the wall and placed me back in the parent's seat was the unanimous optimism of everyone involved.
Opinions and observations were shared... notes were compared... and options were weighed. I was extremely pleased with the enthusiasm and optimism that each of these professionals conveyed, and I didn't sense for a moment that anyone felt the problem couldn't be solved (or at least bypassed).
As I drove to work after the meeting, I realized that there was an important difference between the meetings through which my parents surely suffered and the one I had just attended. The difference was not in the love for the suffering child or the desire on the part of everyone for the child to succeed. But rather the main difference lay in the current understanding of the underlying learning /attention problems that children like Gilad face.
I faced my academic demons almost entirely alone. My teachers labeled me an 'underachiever' and my parents said (in frustration) that I was lazy. They were both right, in a way. But putting a label on the symptom did nothing to help identify a cure, or set me on the road to success.
The obstacles that blocked (and to some extent continue to block) my path may be entirely different from those that Gilad faces. However, I came away from today's meeting with the feeling that everyone involved was committed to helping my frustrated little boy... and not just finding a suitable name for whatever is keeping him from succeeding.
As I said in December... I'll let you know how we do.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
I voted (did you?)
Remember… if you don’t vote, the terrorists win!
I’ve been chastised by some of my readers for not making mention of the awards during the nomination round a few weeks ago. At the time my excuse was that I had no idea which category might be broad enough to contain my unwieldy subject matter, so I decided to say nothing.
In the end I was nominated by some very nice people in the following categories:
Then I got more grief from the same readers (as well as my wife) for not mentioning the awards during last week’s preliminary round of voting. To be more specific, some readers were bothered that I hadn’t mentioned the awards… and my wife was miffed because I used up our one vote (both our computers use the same IP address) on blogs other than my own.
I responded to the readers who wanted me to post a plug for treppenwitz that I was uncomfortable with the "vote for me… vote for me" aspect of the awards. As I understand it, the goal of the awards was to draw reader’s attention to blogs that might otherwise have gone unnoticed… not just to reward the most popular blogs.
As for dealing with the flack from my wife… I agreed to let her cast our collective home vote as she wished, and I would vote my conscience from work.
Well, I’m a bit stunned to find that treppenwitz is a finalist in all four of the categories for which it was nominated. This is particularly amazing to me because my journal doesn’t fit well into any of the four categories. It is a trapezoid peg that a lot of good-hearted people seem hell-bent on shoving into a round hole.
Another issue that had me casting my vote for others is the simple fact that in each category there are at least one or two blogs that are far better written than mine.
Don’t get me wrong… if there had been a category for ‘Best overly-optimistic, stream-of consciousness blog lacking a central theme or structure and which makes far too frequent… and mostly incorrect use of ellipses (not to mention parenthetical asides)’…then I would be out actively campaigning!
But since the powers-that-be wisely decided not to create that perfect category for treppenwitz, I feel honor bound to tell you about some of the folks who deserve your vote:
Best New Blog:
Chayei Sara is a sensitive, compelling read that conveys its message with humor, sarcasm and occasionally tears. Sarah puts herself out there for all to see, and has single-handedly put a face on the pain of being single.
Random Thoughts, otherwise known as Jack’s Shack, is an honest, straightforward, no-holds-barred look at the world through Jack’s eyes. He is a talented, prolific writer who even occasionally audioblogs (yes, you actually get to hear his random thoughts in his own voice).
Best ‘Life in Israel’ Blog:
On the Face is a journal written by Lisa, a young, witty Tel Avivian. She nails things with a journalist’s eye for detail without the typical journalist’s detachment or self-importance. She is a central character in her compelling story and is not afraid to portray herself as human. I actually wish she had started posting her most recent ‘How Lisa Came to Israel’ series before the nominations because that would have been a shoe-in for the ‘Best Series by a Jewish Blogger’ category.
Not a Fish is an extremely well written blog that allows the reader a glimpse at the often-conflicted views of an Anglo who has had the benefit of having lived in Israel since elementary school. Politics… literature… parenting… religion… nothing is out-of-bounds. The author, who writes under the name Imshin, is one of the original Anglo-Israeli bloggers.
The View From Here… the name says it all. Harry pulls no punches when discussing Israel’s place in the world… its culture (or lack-thereof)… and of course its television shows. The straight dope from a straight shooter.
I would add Allison’s ‘Unsealed Room’, but she is more correctly placed in the Best Israel Advocacy Blog category (why she wasn’t also nominated for the Best Politics, Current Affairs, Academic Blog category I’ll never know!).
Best Personal Blog:
Chez Miscarriage. It doesn’t get more personal than this folks. Besides being a fantastic writer, this lady (she calls herself GetupGrrl) makes her readers laugh, cry and rant along with her at every turn in her quest to have a baby.
I’m a huge fan of other blogs in this category such as Celestial Blue and Chayei Sarah… but I’m sorry, nobody comes close to Chez Miscarriage. It was just bad luck that the rest of us have to compete with that kind of greatness.
Best Series by a Jewish Blogger:
Here again, there are just too many good one’s from which to choose!
Harry’s hilarious commentary on the ‘Ambassador’ TV series is priceless… pure gold. I’ve never seen the show, but I wouldn’t dream of missing one of Harry’s posts about it. That should tell you something about the way this guy writes.
‘Pop Culture Entry’ is an ongoing Friday phenomenon over at Shai’s place. These aren’t some dashed-off movie reviews or half-baked cultural observations. Shai spends G-d knows how many hours compiling a truly scholarly weekly dose of Israeli culture. The only way you could learn more about old Israeli Movies and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories of the Israeli entertainment and political arena (hard to separate the two, actually) than reading Shai’ pop culture entries would be to actually grow up here.
‘Shabbat’ was not a long-lived series, but it was compelling none-the-less. It was Sarah’s diary entries for the singles shabbaton from hell. For two breathless days, the entire Jewish blogosphere cringed in unison as Sarah described the horrible things to which singles must subject themselves in order to try to find their soul mates. Plenty of frogs in this story…and a decided lack of princes.
Well… what are you still doing here? Go vote!
Monday, February 07, 2005
A tale of four Davids
This past June I posted a journal entry entitled 'Messy' in which I unwittingly described two Davids who knew of one another (but had never met) helping to bury a third David.
For those who didn’t read that post, it was about the funeral of my friend Pesach’s brother, David Daniel Wolicki (z"l) which took place in the Samarian town of Karnei Shomron on a sunny afternoon in early June. The deceased, a husband and father, was taken from this life at the impossibly young age of 40 by a random bolt of lightning, known in medical circles as a cerebral hemorrhage.
At the time I went through a silent struggle over how G-d could allow this kind of thing to happen. I remember hugging David’s brother and staring across the room at David’s young widow and her uncomprehending children … all the while furious at G-d for causing such a tragedy, and terrified that the still form laying there wrapped in funeral shrouds could just as easily have been me.
I found out about the third David because one of the comments I received on that particular post came from David of Israellycool. As I mentioned earlier, though we had never met, we were both among the crowd of people who escorted my friend’s brother to his grave. At the time it struck me as a ‘small world’ kind of coincidence that two bloggers named David (who read each other’s work regularly) had unknowingly stood next to each other at the funeral of a third David in a small Israeli town far from where we each called home. I’m certain the significance of all three David’s in this story being young fathers was not lost on the two of us who were fortunate enough to return home to our families at the end of that terrible afternoon.
As time passed I came to a shaky understanding with my Maker and managed to get on with my life. The rationalization that made it possible for me to go on was to imagine the events of the world as if they were taking place at a neighbor’s beautiful house.
It might pain me to pass by one day and see a gaping hole where once stood a perfect wall. But it is not my house, and it is not my place to ask if my neighbor has a plan. It may be that He opened the hole in a fit of rage and decided to leave it as a reminder. It may be that He intended to add a room or two to his dwelling or install a picture window. Again, it is His plan and not my place to intrude or inquire. All I could hope for was that one day I would pass His house and understand why He had created such an ugly wound in such a beautiful house.
This morning I met David (Israellycool), and his lovely wife and beautiful children at the Brit (circumcision) of our mutual friend's 8-day-old son. Neither of us was particularly surprised to hear that the baby was given the name David (actually ‘David Daniel’) after the uncle he will never meet. David and I stated the obvious to each other - that it was much better to meet on happy occasions.
Funny... two fairly eloquent people reduced by emotion to mumbling well-worn platitudes!
The father of the newly named baby and I hugged and spoke in the hoarse whispers that men use when tears threaten. I told him that all children are special, but it seemed to me that this newly named little boy might possibly begin to repair a terrible hole that had been torn in the world.
Again, I can only seem to state the obvious. Maybe treppenwitz has rendered me incapable of expressing myself coherently without a keyboard under my fingers.
I’m still angry at G-d for creating such tragedy in the lives of the people who loved David Daniel Wolicki (z"l) and who needed him to live the long and happy life he certainly deserved. But now that some time has passed and I can discern a plan taking shape from amidst the ruins, I can allow myself to be comforted. My neighbor's house is not yet whole... but I think I know what He plans to do about the hole. I hope this new life can begin to comfort others as well.
Life is unpredictable and fragile. Eight months ago to the day, David and David helped to bury a David. We should have known that before too long another David would come along to help console us all.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Looking back over my archives of the past few months it would seem I have been eating my way through the blogosphere. By this I mean that I have been fortunate enough to meet many of the people I regularly read for meals in my home or in various Israeli eateries.
The most recent participants in this ongoing gastronomic shmoozefest were the esteemed Mo Chassid, Ben Chorin and Chayei Sarah, with whom I recently shared a delicious breakfast at Cafe Hillel. Noa, of Jerusalem Revealed, was also supposed to join us, but an exam (she's a nursing student at Hadassah) kept her away. :-(
One of the interesting things about this trio of talented writers is that each of them blogs under a nom de plum, maintaining the thinnest imaginable pretense of anonymity. By this I mean that anyone who reads them regularly and hasn't yet figured out who they are simply isn't paying attention (I know, I know... to each his/her own). Be that as it may, it was an honor and a pleasure to join them on Jerusalem's trendy Emek Rafa'im street for good food, coffee and conversation.
As we took our seats in this comfortable eatery (that had been the site of a tragic bombing only a year ago), I looked at my dining companions and silently took stock of my good fortune to associate with such active and disciplined minds.
The pleasant aroma of freshly-pulled espresso shots competed quietly with the murmur of the morning crowd for my attention. Meanwhile Stan Gets played Jobim bossa novas quietly from the overhead speakers, and Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz sat splayed conspicuously a few tables away... simultaneously crowd-watching and allowing himself to be be seen by the watching crowd.
As I've mentioned before, Ben Chorin (a pseudonym that translates roughly as 'Free Man') is a neighbor of mine... at least physically. I make this distinction because I don't consider myself Ben's peer in any other respect. While we may share a love of the Judean hills and a fondness for the combination of bourbon and schmaltz herring, the topics about which he writes make my scribblings seem downright pedestrian by comparison. Mind you, he's not for everyone... this is not the freshman intro-level course. But if you are interested in Jewish topics on a rarefied level, you'd be crazy not to blogroll him.
Chayeh Sarah is also someone with whom I would suffer in certain side-by-side comparisons. While Sarah blogs anonymously, she makes no secret of her training and vocation as a journalist (and even occasionally links to articles with her own byline!). Here too I gladly stand aside and give credit where credit is due. I may write a pleasing passage from time-to-time, but Sarah has all the discipline, focus and innate curiosity that I lack... all necessary ingredients in someone who wants to scratch out a living from the fourth estate.
Although I have been following various incarnations of his online writing for almost a year now, MO Chassid's face over the breakfast table was a new one for me. For those not familiar with him or his oxymoronic pen name, MO Chassid stands for 'Modern-Orthodox Chassid', two groups that most would consider to be mutually exclusive. However, his writing makes it clear that there is much the Modern Orthodox and Chassidic 'worlds' could (and should) learn from one another, and that one would do well to emulate a subset from the best qualities of these two groups. When I found out MO was going to be visiting Israel on business, I jumped at the opportunity to meet him in person.
Now that you have a sense of who was sitting at the roundtable (OK, it was square, but the self-important literary reference was irresistible), I should probably share a bit about the topics such able minds discussed during this momentous meeting.
Prepare to be disappointed.
When relative strangers who respect one-another gather for conversation and sustenance, they rarely set out straight-away to create workable solutions for world hunger or peace in the middle east. The boring truth is that we talked about family, about the weather, about food, about current events... in short, about pedestrian things. It was pleasant to sit back and observe occasional flashes of their online personas (MO's compassion, Ben's wit and Sarah's intensity) as these three active minds held forth on various topics and the latest news, but it was deeply satisfying to have them mostly on my turf; talking about the mundane, the street-level observation... the here and now.
Why am I telling you all this? Could you have gone on living your lives without knowing I enjoyed a mushroom quche with three other bloggers? Yes, of course. But I couldn't figure out a better way to tell you that I consider myself rich beyond measure.
These conversations and personal encounters I've been lucky enough to experience are all low-hanging fruit which most readers and writers in the online world walk past every day. Anyone who lacks for the growth and insight that comes from meeting better and brighter minds than his/her own simply hasn't opened the door and looked to see who is waiting right outside. This isn't to say that meeting your blogging heroes is for everyone... but opening one's eyes and learning from them is an education that everyone can afford.
I can't wait for this Shabbat when another online personality will [hopefully] grace chez treppenwitz with her presence ... and unique view of the world.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XIII) [anonymous edition]
This week's Photo Friday requests come to you from beyond that great impenetrable veil. No, not from the world beyond, but from readers who have sent in their requests anonymously or using bogus return email addresses. I know they were bogus because I really do try to respond to people who write in. I can understand (sort of) someone who doesn't want to post their real email address on a blog (although that's what yahoo mail addresses are for), but why use a fake address when sending someone a private email... especially if you are asking for something??? Sheesh!
So while I won't pretend to understand everyone, the fact remains that some of these uber-shy folks asked for some interesting pictures:
First up, some sharp-eyed recluse noticed the clock above our television on the photo Friday that featured our living room bookshelves, and wanted a closer look. The clock is a US Navy issue, mechanically wound Chelsea ship's clock. This sort of clock can be found in nearly every compartment (room) on nearly every US Navy ship. I say nearly because clearly this one has gone missing. :-)
Near the start of Photo Friday someone sent in the following anonymous request: Show us how you keep Zahava warm. Now, I'm sure this person was trying to be a bit naughty... and was probably quite delighted with both his wit, and his ability to formulate his demand in the third person. But after thinking about it for a few weeks I decided that it was a fair request and decided to offer a picture of Zahava's coffee cup. I gave her this cup as a gift when we were still living in the US. It is a very light ceramic cup made to look like those omnipresent paper coffee cup that every New York street vendor and coffee shop seem to use.
Last but not least today is a request from an unknown treppenwitz reader wanting to know what our egg coddlers look like. I suppose that's a fair request since I've mentioned them a few times (although I could have sworn I posted a picture before... whatever). If it turns out you've seen these coddlers (or this toddler) before... no harm done.
Keep those cards and letters coming (although don't forget to sign your name).
Thursday, February 03, 2005
Speaking of good news...
It is 6:00 AM, and I have a thousand topics that I'd like to write about, but only one that is in any way timely. So without further ado, I want to add my voice to the chorus of Israeli bloggers who have already wished a hearty Mazal Tov to Noa (author of Jerusalem Revealed) upon her engagement to Bryan (the boyfriend formerly known as 'B').
A while back, Zahava and I spent a wonderful shabbat getting to know this beautiful, intelligent woman, and we could not be more pleased and proud that she has finally found her equal.
As luck would have it, I had the pleasure of extending my good wishes to Noa in person yesterday evening (I'll let you decide whether or not we did 'the dance'). We met in Jerusalem where we were both attending a preparation session for the speaking tour we will be making to the Metro New York area during the first week of March.
Noa will be speaking at a few venues in Manhattan, and I will be speaking in Southern Connecticut and Riverdale. The trip will culminate with us both speaking at Lincoln Square Synagogue (on Manhattan's upper West Side) on Sunday March 6th. Feel free to contact either of us for more details if you live in the area. I will probably post my speaking schedule later in the month.
Anyway, if you haven't yet done so... go on over to Jerusalem Revealed and show Noa the love. May we all have nothing but happy occasions to celebrate together.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
I honestly never know what inconsequential element people are going to become fixated on when I post anything here at treppenwitz. I may think that I’m writing something insightful or timely about topic ‘X’, only to tune in later to find most of the comments were about some incidental ‘Y’.
Case in point is yesterday’s post about the wonderful evening we had with the, um, the Fish’s (or perhaps more correctly, Not the Fish’s). I wrote a breezy little entry about a lovely evening out with lovely people, and for humor’s sake added in a mention of a fleeting moment of awkwardness when Imshin and I greeted one another.
Well, it seems that this awkward moment caught the attention of many readers… and as a result most of the comments were about ‘the dance’.
HSBC, a bank that does business around the world, has a serious of witty ads about cultural disconnects that feature the tagline; ‘Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge’. They go on to use such examples as 'football in America vs football in England'… 'A handshake in Europe vs Bowing in Japan'…'escargot in Paris vs chicken feet in Beijing'. You get the idea. One reason the ads resonate with the public is that, at one time or another, nearly everyone has made an ass of themselves over some sort of cultural blunder.
I remember from the many times my ship visited Japan that I could never get the whole bowing thing to work for me. It wasn’t as if I ended up knocking heads with anybody, but there were many moments of mutual confusion because Japanese wouldn’t expect a young westerner to bow… so they would usually extend their hand in a typically western greeting. I, trying to be sensitive to local cultural, would try to bow correctly. I later learned that the timing, depth, precedence and length of a bow is a cultural skill that Japanese know from a lifetime of practice, and which westerners rarely if ever get right. When Japanese are nervous or embarrassed they usually try to hide it by smiling widely or possibly even giggling. Lets just say I encountered a lot of giddy Japanese during my many visits there.
Getting back to cultural blunders, these things really can’t help but happen when one culture bumps up against another. The problem among Jews (especially in Israel) is that Judaism has a wide range of religious and cultural norms that can be devilishly hard to sort out. One of the most obvious is the one to which I eluded yesterday when I made mention of ‘the dance’.
For those who are not familiar with the finer points of this topic I’ll review.
Among religiously observant Jews there is a prohibition against unrelated men and women touching one another (some would add the phrase ‘in an affectionate manner’).
Anyway, the reasons for this prohibition stem from two unrelated issues:
1. Menstruation is considered to be a condition that makes a woman ritually ‘impure’. This is not to say dirty, or defiled in any way (a common misconception)… but rather the potential for life was there, and menstruation is a sure sign that that potential has passed. To remove this impurity an observant woman goes once a month to a ritual bath.
2. Touching in an affectionate way, according to Jewish law, is something that is supposed to be reserved for married people (that is, people married to one another… don’t think I don’t know what you were thinking!). There are a whole slew of ‘fences’ that have been built around this issue by generations of Rabbis, but depending on your community and religiosity, it may or may not extend to shaking hands or exchanging kisses upon greeting someone of the opposite gender.
For the sake of context, it is probably important to point out that I grew up in a family that was fairly physically expressive… kisses, hugs, etc. My parents’ friends, many of whom were 60s-era lefties (read: hippies) were also quite touchy-feely about greetings, so I grew up fairly comfortable with the whole gambit of handshakes, kisses and hugs. We’ll set aside for the moment my feelings about the bright red lipstick mark my mother always leaves on my cheek.
When I became more observant I entered a world where greetings rarely, if ever, involved physical contact… and I had to try to sort out how I would personally address this complex issue.
In the end I decided to follow the path of least resistance – a path, incidentally, that almost everyone would agree has only a tenuous basis in Jewish Law. It is generally understood that if one will break a rule by doing something.... and will break another by not doing that same thing, there exists a ‘pecking order’ of sorts by which the less serious prohibition may be temporarily set aside. The most obvious example of this would be driving on Shabbat. No, one shouldn't drive on shabbat, but to bring someone to the hospital it would not only be allowed, but required!
The meager halachic hook upon which I hung my decision was a largely ignored prohibition against publicly embarrassing someone. I reasoned that I couldn’t very well embarrass a woman by letting her stick out her hand or cheek into thin air with no response. So, for a while I would hesitate, upon meeting a woman, in order to let the her make the first move. This would allow me to respond in kind.
Voila! Nobody is embarrassed!
In time, partly because I worked almost entirely with non-Jews and/or secular Jews, I found myself reverting to the touchy-feely-ness of my upbringing, and being perfectly comfortable with whatever greeting customs held sway with the people around me.
The problem here in Israel, is that most people are aware (at least nominally) of the issue of religious folks and touching, and as a result when a religious and non-religious man and woman (or often even two religious people from different backgrounds) meet for the first time, each will hesitate in order to let the other person make the first move. The result is an awkward, flat-footed moment where a man and woman face each over a gulf of tense, empty space and both end up being embarrassed.
I shouldn’t complain, though. True, I may have missed out on a kiss from Imshin (as perfectly innocent as it would have been, I assure you). But it is a reassuring sign of sensitivity in an often-insensitive society that two people from somewhat different places along the religious spectrum would share a moment of slight embarrassment in an attempt to spare one another from, um, being embarrassed.