Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Well thanks a whole hellovalot!
You lot that told me to go ahead and read the Harry Potter books... I'm holding you 100% responsible for the dark circles under my eyes!
I can't remember the last night I got more than 5 hours sleep!
I just finished 'The Goblet of Fire' last night... and the next HP book is sitting on my night table... daring me to try to ignore it and go to sleep this evening. It's perched there, taunting me, like some malignant vial of literary crack!
Very funny! Tell the dyslexic guy to read the series of addictive books that never ends!!!
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
A question of service
Shortly after we moved to Israel my daughter asked me an interesting question. She wanted to know if I thought she should do Shirut Leumi (national service) or go into the army when she turned 18.
For those not familiar with some of the background issues that might prompt such a question, a little explanation might be in order.
Technically, at age 18 everyone in the country is drafted into the army... boys for three years and girls for two.
However, in reality there are a number of exemptions of which various members of Israeli society avail themselves. The one that comes into play here is the exemption provided to religious women. They were given this blanket exemption because many of the army units have very close intermingling of the sexes and living conditions that are not optimal from a modesty standpoint. There are also those for whom women in the army is simply not religiously permissible. Full stop.
While not mandatory, many of the young women who opt not to serve in the army end up volunteering for one or two years of shirut leumi (national service) instead. This national service can be anything from working in a hospital... to teaching underprivileged kids in a development town... to monitoring security cameras in an underground bunker. A few even do their service abroad as counselors in foreign youth programs.
It is worth noting that because there are more women in the army than are absolutely necessary for staffing needs, non-religious girls can also request not to serve... but they are technically not entitled to the exemption. I suppose a lot of whether a secular girl can actually get out of serving in the IDF has to do with luck and protekzia (contacts).
For some religious girls the choice of army service vs shirut leumi is clear cut and there is no question about what they'll be doing. However, many young women from the national religious segment of the population, like my daughter, see both as viable options.
So, when Ariella asked me what I thought about the subject I told her I honestly didn't have a clue... but promised to ask some of my trempisti'ot (female hitchhikers), since I frequently give rides to both female soldiers and girls going to and from their nation service assignments.
After a few months of talking with these young women I found out that those who are wavering between doing army service and shirut leumi usually do the following:
During the year before an Israeli teenager is drafted there is a bit of competition among the various branches of the military for the best and brightest to fill the most prestigious and demanding roles in the IDF. At the same time there is quite a bit of competition among the candidates for these positions. So these undecided religious girls go through the interview process with the various army units and take all the requisite tests just like everyone else and then wait to see what kind of a 'package' they are offered.
If they are offered something challenging/rewarding... and if it is something that will not clash with their religious sensibilities, then they might choose to waive their exemption. If it turns out that they will likely end up answering phones and serving coffee for two years, many opt to do something of more value to the country (and personally rewarding) through shirut leumi.
One young secular woman I spoke with was a little miffed that religious girls had the choice of whether or not to serve. She also resented the competition for the plum positions in the army since the non-religious girls who weren't selected didn't technically have the choice of opting out of a less desirable job.
I don't know how I feel about that argument since no institution in Israel exists as a pure meritocracy. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone else who is related to the person making just about any decision that matters in life.
The army is no different.
Not only are strings pulled all the time, but even after a kid goes into the army every parent has the phone number of their child's commanding officer... just in case they feel he/she is being mistreated!
So back to my research for my daughter's question.
I spoke with girls who had performed their national service in development towns doing all kinds of essential social service work with poor or underprivileged kids and adults. I spoke with girls who had been assigned to security positions in sensitive civilian monitoring facilities... and I spoke with girls who had done their national service with the Jewish Agency helping with the education and absorption of new immigrant families.
I spoke with a religious female soldier who taught Merkava tank crews how to load and fire... and another who served as an army spokesperson... and still another who served in Air Force intelligence. I spoke with a girl who taught young soldiers from 'problem backgrounds' how to read and write so they could become productive members of society after the army. Another soldier I spoke with taught Hebrew to soldiers who were new immigrants and taught them about the culture of their new country. They all said that they had been able to maintain their religious standards while in the army, although the tank instructor said that she couldn't wear skirts inside the tank.
I told my daughter about all of these women... but I also told her about one woman in particular.
Every once in a while I have to go to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv for meetings. The first time I went there I excused myself from a meeting to use the restroom and promptly got lost. While trying to find my way back to the meeting I wandered into the office of an IDF Major who was standing next to her desk and reading through some papers. She was wearing a skirt whose hem touched the floor, her sleeves came down to her elbows, and her hair was completely covered with an army-green scarf tied in a fashionable manner. She was so obviously religious... yet she was also a mid-ranking IDF officer holding a responsible position in the Ministry of Defense.
I told my daughter about this woman, not because I have the faintest idea what she actually does, but because of something I hadn't thought of while talking to all of these other women.
The Army is an incredibly important part of the social fabric of Israel. The experiences people have in the army - for good or bad - stay with them throughout their life. More importantly, the army is the one place where people from all backgrounds are forced to live and work in close proximity to one another... so it is a fantastic educational opportunity.
These days religous and secular don't have much interaction beyond finger-pointing. In the early days of the State it was much more common for religious and secular populations to overlap. Today mixed religious/secular neighborhoods are a rarity and there is a growing distrust along this fault-line in Israeli society. The army is perhaps the last opportunity for religious and secular individuals to meet and find out that 'those religious/secular people' are not the enemy at all.
In the mean time, Ariella isn't in any great rush to make her decision. After all, she isn't even 12 yet, much less 18! But the fact that she and her friends are thinking and talking about such things tells me that I need to take her questions seriously.
I'm proud of her for asking any question that shows she wants to find her place in Israeli society... but I'm especially proud when a question of service is not about whether to serve... but rather how.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Please take a moment...
Those of us living in Israel take for granted the relatively minor inconvenience of having to wait in line to enter pretty much any place where large numbers of people gather. At the entrance to malls, bus stations, restaurants, etc, you will find the ubiquitous security guards with their electronic wands waiting to check anyone who enters for weapons or bombs.
If we are in a hurry we will mentally curse the plodding pace of the minimum-wage security guard... and if not, he or she probably doesn't even register on our mental radar.
This strikes me as strange since so many of the bombings over the past few years have been averted, or at least minimized, by the brave actions of these under-appreciated people. I am truly surprised that it has not become a cultural norm here to single them out more often for praise and recognition... or even a simple hello.
We glorify the body guards who protect heads of state for their willingness to 'take a bullet' for their 'principle' (the person they are protecting)... yet we don't really consider the statistical odds of these secret service agents and 'shabknikim' actually having to do so during the course of their career. Yet the lowly mall, bus station or restaurant security guard in his/her loose-fitting blue or beige 'bowling shirt' (for lack of a better description), working for little pay and absolutely no recognition, has at least as good a chance of being injured or killed.
The two security guards in yesterday's attack did an impossibly brave thing and prevented a human bomb from making his way into a crowded bus station. They knew the bomber looked suspicious. He had been pointed out to them by a bus driver, and they still pursued him and used their presence to force him away from the crowds. They were standing right in front of him when he exploded!
How can anyone be that brave?
Think for a moment about the people who merit a formal greeting during your typical day: The barista who sells you your coffee... the waitress who brings you your lunch... the bus driver along your regular route... the flower guy/girl where you pick up your weekly bouquet for shabbat. All of these people get your attention - if only for a moment - when you make eye contact, acknowledge them as a fellow human being, and say hello... good morning... good afternoon... Shabbat Shalom.
How many times have you sullenly submitted your bag or backpack for inspection while carrying on a conversation with someone... never acknowledging the person who is searching for danger amongst your reading glasses and lipsticks? How many times have you opened your bag while staring stoically into the mall where you wish you already were? Did you say hello to the security guard? Did you say 'thank you'? Did you say 'Kol hakavod'?
That person in the ill-fitting over-garment has agreed to do much more than take a bullet for you. He/she has agreed to be burned... blinded... mutilated by flying shrapnel... all so you can sip your cappuccino in relative security, or wander through the mall as if you lived in a country where people don't turn themselves into walking bombs. He/she has agreed to do this for minimum wage.
Please take a moment and stop your conversation... stop staring longingly into the mall... put aside thoughts of your impending dinner... and look the security guard in the eye and say 'hello', 'thank you' or 'kol hakavod'.
In the mean time, may Lu'ay Abu Juma and Pavel Strotskin be granted a speedy recovery from their horrible injuries.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Well that didn't take long!
[a rare post from the office]
A few minutes ago (8:30AM Israel time) what appears to have been a suicide(homicide) bomber blew him/herself up at the entrance to the Central Bus Station here in Beer Sheva. Initial reports are saying that 10 people are wounded... several seriously.
[update: They are now saying 20 wounded have been brought to Soroka Hospital]
I normally drop my regular trempistim (hitchhikers) off at the entrance to the Central Bus Station between 8:15 and 8:25AM, but today my wife needed the car so we all went with someone else. This other driver doesn't spoil the soldiers quite as much as I do and generally drops them off nearer to the University (where he works), and they then take a bus from there to the Central Bus Station.
When I called my next door neighbor's daughter (one of the soldiers who was with us this morning) to check if she was OK, the first words out of her mouth when she answered the phone (with sirens blasting in the background), were "It was lucky you didn't drive today!"
She had arrived at the bus station about 5 - 10 minutes after the blast.
This is a very small consolation because for every close call story this morning there are still those innocent victims who happened to be in the wrong place when the bomber pressed the button.
This attack is the much-anticipated opening salvo in the next phase of the 'war of phases'.
Allow me to save you a little time today and tell you what will be happening:
The US will condemn the attack in a perfunctory statement issued by the State Department. This will be followed mere sentences later in the prepared text by a call for Israel to show restraint and consider the long term goals of peace and stability in the region before responding. After a day or two without another attack, Israel will be called upon to provide some sort of 'confidence building gesture' to reward the PA's 'reigning in the extremists'.
Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary.
May we finally call this a war and conduct ourselves accordingly? Please???
Friday, August 26, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XX*XVIII) [intentionally dull edition]
When Photo Friday was still in its infancy, I encouraged readers to submit suggestions/requests for pictures they'd like to see posted here. Most of the requests were interesting choices, and I did what I could to track down the images. But a few were so unimaginative and well, dull, that I couldn't imagine anyone would really want to see them.
Of this genre of 'dull' photo requests, several people really outdid themselves by asking for a picture of a camel.
I would have never said so, but at the time I couldn't help thinking that this kind of request revealed a basic lack of knowledge about life here in Israel... and perhaps even a lack of imagination. I mean really... are there still people out there who think that just because Israel is located in the middle east that we have camels wandering around?
I soon realized that there are, in fact, a good number of camels wandering in plain sight along my commute as I approach Beer Sheva. And thanks to the patience of my regular trempistim (hitchhikers), I actually stopped on several occasions to photograph them. But when I loaded the pictures onto my computer I couldn't help thinking again that they didn't make for particularly compelling images. They were... dull.
Since I am not the sort of person to poke fun at readers (with a few exceptions), and I really couldn't imagine ever wanting to post a picture of something so trite, I simply filed the camel pictures away and went in search of more interesting images.
I have to say that after experiencing sensory overload these past few weeks, I now realize that there is a time and place for everything... including relatively dull images. If ever I have wanted nothing else but to sit and stare at something that don't make me want to cry, yell or pull my few remaining hairs out... this would be the week.
Without further ado, I present to you a small sample of the northern Negev Desert's Bedouin-owned camels. Please note that they live a quiet life and aren't called upon to do much more than stand around and soak up the silence of the hot desert air.
To the people who asked to see pictures of camels: I am sorry I privately belittled your requests. I could never have imagined how much I would one day want to sit and stare at something so wonderfully dull. The only thing that cold have possibly made these images more soothing to an overstimulated soul is if I had the PhotoShop skills to put the late Bob Ross and his easel in the foreground of one of the photos, painting the scene and soothing my soul with his calming manner:
"We don't make mistakes here, we just have happy accidents. We want happy,
happy paintings. If you want sad things, watch the news. Everything is possible
here. This is your little universe."
~Bob Ross (October 29, 1942 - July 4, 1995)~
Thursday, August 25, 2005
The continuum of good and bad
I have been guilty of taking a binary approach to far too many issues in my life lately. I think it's one of the reasons I'm so stressed all the time. In my world, something is either good or bad... sacred or profane... I or 0. Binary.
There are so many things in our world that are so clearly good or bad that we have little problem defining them in binary terms. For instance, who would argue with the statement: Terrorism is bad... charity is good? Easy one, right? That kind of question is as basic as the two positions on a light switch. On or off... there is no middle position.
But perhaps we need to shake ourselves loose from the idea that the switch has only two positions. Maybe even such easy questions require a dimmer instead of an on-off switch to answer properly.
Allow me to muddy the waters a bit:
Hamas is technically a charitable/social welfare organization that is tasked with providing necessary services to the Palestinian population. True, many, if not all of these services are supposed to be provided through the staggering amount of money that the International community continues to dump into the big slot machine known as the PA. But part of Hamas' popularity among the people on the street comes from their ability to deliver many of these services when nobody else will.
Obviously their sponsorship of, and direct participation in attacks on Israel make them quite popular amongst a segment of the Palestinian population as well. But the fact that they are also involved in charity work is a simple proof that the most basic assumptions of good and bad that I mentioned earlier are not really such perfectly binary choices.
Let's go to the other end of the spectrum for a moment.
To many, the International Committee of the Red Cross represents all that is right in the world... the pinnacle of what is meant when we say 'Good'.
If someone is taken prisoner, who do you call to go in and make sure they are not being mistreated? The Red Cross. If a tornado cuts a swath through your trailer park or your house is washed away in a flood, who is there within hours bearing blankets, food and a ride to a warm shelter? The Red Cross.
In fact, my parents were recently in a bit of a bind after my mother broke her arm in a canoeing accident on the mill pond behind their house. My mother is the only driver in the house (my father is legally blind) so they were effectively stranded. So the local Red Cross chapter arranged a driver to take mom to her doctor's appointments and physical therapy sessions!
This should be a clear 'check' in the 'good' column. Correct?
Well, the International Red Cross' reputation has taken a few hits over the years. They refused to intervene on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust, and this remains a big black mark against them. Since that time they have been dragged a little further down the good-bad continuum in the eyes of many people because of their refusal to recognize and accept Israel's Magen David Adom (MDA, or the Red Star of David, is Israel's 'version' of the Red Cross-type national organizations) into the international organization.
The International Red Cross recognizes all of the other national chapters of the Red Cross. Even after they had voted in 1949 (in a secret ballot) to refuse recognition/membership to Israel's Red Star of David organization, they quickly went on to officially recognized more than 25 chapters of the Red Crescent Society (the 'version' that exists in the Muslim world), as well as the red crescent symbol.
Inexplicably, over half a century later the ICRC still refuse to even consider recognizing the Red Star of David. The official reason is that the Jewish Star is not one of their symbols.
Really... I'm not making this up.
The Red Crescent wasn't one of their symbols either, but once the ICRC accepted it, it became one their symbols. So in a bit of circular logic, by not accepting the Red Star of David they are providing the only reason for excluding the entire Israeli MDA and it's good work from membership in the international organization!
Obviously Hamas and the the ICRC are still light years apart on the good-bad continuum, but my point remains that in nearly everything we see as either 'good' or 'bad', there are shades of gray... settings along a dimmer instead of an 'on-off' light switch.
As Israelis and Jews, we hate that we are judged quite subjectively by elements and events that we don't consider at all representative of who we really are. Yet we have little trouble taking a very simplistic/monolithic and, yes, subjective view of others.
We label The UN, 'The Arabs', the ICRC, The Olympic Commitee and even the other countries in the Eurovision song contest as either 'good or 'bad'... I or 0.
Are we the only complex society in the world? Are we the only ones who deserve to be judged only by our 'good' attributes?
We cried foul when the Arabs wouldn't accept 'Jewish blood' from us when their own emergency blood supply ran dry. They could only see Israel/Israelis as either good or bad... so the 'good-bad' switch remained firmly in the 'off' position.
Yet I won't buy so much as a plum from a Palestinian fruit stand 5 minutes from my house because I can't differentiate between the good and bad people within their society.
How different is it that they fear we might give them tainted blood... and we fear they might attack anyone who stops to shop in an Arab village? Before anyone attacks my analogy with statements like, "But we have never given anyone tainted blood, while they have killed innocent shoppers in Arab villages", let me remind everyone that they no longer hold the monopoly on terrorism. Tainted blood is only one way to kill an enemy... and we no longer have the right to say that Jews/Israelis don't act that way.
I am not quite emotionally ready to go looking for the 'good actors' among the societies that have sworn to destroy my tiny country. But intellectually I know that such people must exist. I need only look at my own society to see plenty of nut-cases and extremists (on the left and right), as well as good, altruistic, brilliant people, to prove this to myself.
Many of Israel's PR problems, and our own perceived position along the world's good-bad continuum, stem from the fact that we demand that the world look at us as a whole. "We are Israel... see us as a whole and accept us as we are!" But you have to admit, there are parts of that 'whole' that are not particularly 'good'. Perhaps we need to make fewer excuses for the bad actors in our own midst so that the good becomes unmistakable.
I'm not saying that we need to be 'even handed' (I hate that term), and place everyone fairly in the center of the 'good-bad continuum'... some people and actions deserve the judgment/placement they have receive. I'm simply saying that we may need to look more closely at the factors by which societies deserve to be defined before assigning a relative good-bad rating. Maybe we need more 'sort-of-good' and 'pretty-bad' in our rating system.
Maybe we need to consider installing a dimmer where there is currently only an on-off switch.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
David's Ping Pong Ball
[I apologize in advance to any scientists out there who will almost certainly be cringing as my shaky grasp of nuclear physics becomes apparent.]
I remember very clearly that when I was in 4th or 5th grade my class was shown a short film in science class that was supposed to explain to us how nuclear fission worked.
The narrator explained that if you sent a neutron into the nucleus of some unstable/heavy atoms, it would force them to give off energy, as well as a lighter atom known as the fission product). It had a nice diagram that looked something like this:
Then the narrator went on to show us how nuclear energy (and nuclear weapons) do this on a grand scale. He did this by showing a room whose entire floor was covered with spring-loaded mouse traps... each of which had a ping-pong ball balanced delicately on it.
He then proceeded to toss in a single ping pong ball.
We watched in awe as the single ping-pong ball was able to trigger the nearly instantaneous ejection of nearly every ball in the room as the traps were triggered in a run-away chain reaction.
Clearly, this was a wonderful teaching aid because I remember it clearly almost 40 years later. But I also remember the follow up discussion where our teacher taught us how such reactions could be controlled. She told us that by spacing the traps further apart or putting something between them to block or slow down the balls shooting around the room, you could control the speed and frequency of the reactions.
It finally occurred to me yesterday that this is directly related to why I get so anxious about the current ease with which we can all receive and share information on the Internet.
We are all like these heavy, unstable atoms sitting in close proximity to one another... and we are constantly bombarded by 'neutrons' of information (jokes, rumors, urban legends, news, images, petitions, etc.) that are tossed casually into the 'room' where we all sit. The resulting chain reactions are both rapid and uncontrolled.
How many times have we forwarded or posted a rumor that turned out to be embarrassingly false? We shrug and blush at having allowed ourselves to be tricked into wasting our energy (our 'ping-pong ball') on something that turned out to be wrong.
Our inboxes and comments sections fill with stuff that we quickly eject out into our virtual neighbor's inboxes and comments sections. What portion of the stuff we pass along would you estimate is 100% accurate?
I would posit the following: The speed/interval at which a person forwards a piece of information that has come into his/her possession is inversely related to cumulative accuracy of all information emanating from that person.
[If someone hasn't already laid claim to this axiom, I'd like to name it 'David's ping-pong ball'. ;-)]
I always chide my friends for sending me urban legends and rumors without taking the time to verify their veracity. Inevitably everyone complains that it takes too much time... that I'm a kill-joy... that if it's so important to me than I should check to see if it's true.
In short, they feel like we are all standing around some water cooler shooting the breeze, so verification is optional.
But we are not in some corridor chewing the fat with a few friends. We are in this enormous room filled with limitless potential energy/ping-pong balls, just waiting to be released.
This situation is the dream of anyone who has ever created a chain letter, an urban legend or a fund-raising drive. But for the dissemination of accurate information, it is a disaster waiting to happen (over and over).
In a nuclear power plant the fuel rods are surrounded by carefully cooled water that acts as a moderator to the chain reactions that want desperately to take place. It slows down, and in some cases blocks, the neutrons from reaching the nuclei of the heavy, unstable atoms of the nuclear fuel... and allows the plant operators to keep everything under control.
Unfortunately, there is no moderating substance here in the real or cyber world.
In some dictatorships the government acts as a moderating force... carefully controlling what the masses know. But in a free society only common sense and self-discipline can serve this moderating role.
Many of us impose artificial restrictions/self-moderation on ourselves and take the time to check sources... look on Snopes... do keyword searches on all the relevant news media sites, etc. before passing along information. And even then we preface our shared info with things like "I just read this in on Haaretz but you should check back there again since this is clearly a developing story and not all the facts are known". But most of us don't do this.
This is why the Imams have such an easy time whipping their faithful into a frenzy that quickly spreads to the streets. This is why the smallest rumor of misdeed or 'atrocity' is instantly on the lips and blogs of everyone with a stake in the outcome of a struggle.
This is why cooler heads seldom have the opportunity to prevail.
Because without a moderating force, uncontrolled fission takes place and all the ping-pong balls are launched into the air before anyone has a chance to say "hold on a second... let's look at this logically!"
The acid throwing story is a perfect example.
As soon as I saw it I wanted desperately to try to slow things down. I did my own checking and found nothing on any of the news services. I called the army spokes-person's office and even called Soroka hospital. Nothing. So I begged (OK, lashed out at) several people who were writing about it to pull their comments until they could verify the information.
But within 24 hours the uncontrolled chain reaction had taken place and everyone - including the news media - were repeating it as fact. It is worth noting that the rumor started a full day before the alleged incident ever took place... so whether this was an unfortunate coincidence or a case of life imitating 'art', we may never know.
Once it was in the papers a second wave of chain reactions swept the world because now even the 'fact checker types' could give a citation for their information.
The problem is that Acid was never thrown.
I've already beaten to death the ramifications of what could have happened as a result of the run-away fission of this rumor.
However it gets worse. It now turns out now that something dangerous was thrown.
The latest news reports say that tests on the clothing of some of the soldiers indicate that Caustic Soda was the substance used to try and repel them. Caustic Soda (better known as Lye) is not an acid. In fact it is the exact opposite of an acid... it is a very corrosive 'Base'.
The most common place one is likely to find Lye in a home is in commercial drain cleaners. It can burn skin and do damage to mucous membranes (such as eyes) if it isn't washed off quickly.
Lye in common household products isn't as instantly disfiguring as vitriol, but it is certainly quite dangerous. The big difference is that instead of being a premeditated attempt to maim or kill... someone (or several someone's) likely grabbed every household liquid they could get their hands on that they thought might be noxious or unpleasant for the people sent to evacuate them.
This does not at all excuse the attack! But it opens up the possibility that it was a combination of irresponsibility, ignorance and hooliganism rather than a deliberate attempt to cause bodily harm.
How does this relate to the fission/ping-pong ball analogy?
If the acid rumor had not gone 'super critical' so quickly and expended it's energy prematurely... there is a chance that the truth could have been discovered and disseminated much sooner in a helpful and productive manner.
More importantly, instead of being an unfortunate footnote (as it seems now to be), the public and troops could have been given the opportunity to be justifiably outraged into taking corrective/protective action instead of simply being too emotionally drained to care!
Instead, many people will now walk around for a few days mumbling "Oh, it was 'only' caustic soda", when in fact there is no 'only ' about it. These few extremists, whether by accident or design, picked up and threw a substance that could have burned or blinded any of our brothers, sisters, fathers or children serving their country in Gaza.
There is a fine line between passive resistance and active opposition.
We may not agree on exactly where that line may be... but on this sort of physical resistance /attack on the troops I think we can come pretty damned close to a national consensus. Anyone who is not party to such a consensus throws in his/her lot with the extremists /criminals and let them answer for such a position!
Terror could never have paralyzed a nation in the 19th century the way it can today because information simply did not have the ability to be transmitted quickly enough to the masses to provide a 'critical mass' on which the resulting hysteria could work.
But today, we all sit in front of our computers like heavy atoms... ready to instantly 'go critical' and unleash our energy in an uncontrolled chain reaction at the slightest provocation... with the click of a button.
This is as potentially dangerous as real uncontrolled nuclear fission.
In the absence of some substance to act as a moderator, we have only our judgment to prevent run-away chain reactions.
You'll notice that the government doesn't rely on the Internet to warn the public of air or missile attacks. They use a siren. It is a low-tech device that can be centrally controlled and is used only in the case of real emergencies.
In all the years I have been using the Internet I have never once received information so urgent/time-critical that it could not wait a few moments while I thought it over or checked a source or two.
Not once! Think about that.
This isn't to say that I haven't fallen prey to the temptation to prematurely fire my 'ping-pong ball' out into the void... but I can honestly say that it has very seldom happened.
We are all, metaphorically speaking, fissable material. The information and rumors that constantly bombard us are the neutrons. It is entirely up to us whether we release our energy in a controlled, productive fashion... or whether we abandon all attempts at self-moderation and allow every random neutron to trigger a run-away chain reaction that consumes us all.
The only difference between useful and destructive energy is how effectively we slow down and control the fission that creates it.
Please think twice before firing your ping-pong ball out into the void.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Nachamu Nachamu Ami...
Translation: "Console, console my people..." *
These are the first words in the Haftara (the section of the Prophets that is read after the Torah) on the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B'Av (yesterday).
Tisha B'Av is the date on which many of our national tragedies have occured... chief among them the destruction of the first and second Temples that once stood in Jerusalem... and the subsequent exile of the Jews from their land.
In the wake of recalling such national traumas of destruction and exile, we now begin a period of consolation.
I would never compare the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and subsequent exile of my nation to recent events. But if ever a nation - an entire nation - were in need of consolation... ours would be it.
May all who made the difficult decision to uproot part of a nation's dreams be consoled.
May all who endured the trauma of walking (or being carried) away from their life's dreams be consoled.
May all who were duty-bound to endure the trauma of escorting (or carrying) their brothers and sisters from Gaza be consoled.
May all of us who watched this traumatic chapter in our nation's history playing out before our eyes be consoled.
This is not a time for celebration. Nobody won... and each of us has lost so much more than homes or land or ideology.
* "Console, console my people says your G-d..."
Friday, August 19, 2005
I just got back from my synagogue. It is one of the largest in Efrat and it was packed with men women and children who took time from their busy Friday to stand together and recognize the power of words. We read Tehillim (Psalms) together in hopes that our meager words might help G-d decide what to do about Elroi Refa'el ben Galia Glynis whose life hangs precariously by a thread.
His father stood before us with tears streaming down his face and asked G-d to please take into account the good things all of us have done in our lives... and to please transfer these 'credits' to his son's account. He never mentioned a word about anger, or blame, or who had set the tragic events in motion that had led to the wounding of his son. In fact he begged G-d in a trembling voice to please erase from the minds of the tankists who had accidentally fired the shell that had wounded his son, all thoughts that they might have endangered a precious life.
I stood in awe that with so much hanging in the balance, Eli Mizrachi was using words to plead with G-d, not only for his son's recovery... but for the mental well-being of the young men who must surely be beside themselves with self-loathing and guilt.
We treat them so casually... but they are powerful beyond measure.
The title of this post is a word that has fallen mostly out of fashion. It is the medieval term for Sulfuric Acid (H2S04) as well as a range of other caustic acids and chemicals. But people haven't really used the term to describe the physical chemical since Victorian times.
However, as an expression, vitriol continued, for a while, to be used to describe any abusive or venomous language used to express blame or censure or bitter deep-seated ill will. But even that has become less common as more and more people discount the lethality of words.
The real vitriol was sometimes used as a horrible weapon to blind, disfigure, and effectively end a person's ability to carry on a normal life in the company of his/her peers.
The results of tossing around verbal vitriol is only slightly less horrible. The use of intentionally damaging invective is, to me, every bit as unforgivable an offense as tossing a vial of Sulfuric acid into someone's eyes.
When Imams hurl verbal vitriol from their pulpits about Jews poisoning wells or storming the Temple Mount, they intentionally send their followers into the streets armed with hate so corrosive that it must passed from mouth to mouth lest it consume the person who holds it in his heart.
When the faithful followers repeat it to their friends, and to their children, they plant in each heart a puddle of burning hate for whoever would poison their people and storm their holy places.
When someone knows with the certainty of a burning heart that Jews are poisoners of wells and destroyers of holy places and meets a Jew on the street, it becomes an act of self defense... even a holy mission... to kill such a dangerous person.
Our graveyards are full of innocent people who died as a direct result of vitriolic words poured into too many hearts.
When a blogger calls all people in orange her enemy, and in a fit of frustrate rage attributes to the entire right wing the worst imaginable attributes. She passes the vial of vitriol to every receptive heart that reads her words.
I have spent a couple of weeks writing directly and indirectly about words and their power. But many bloggers continue to throw around the most irresponsible and destructive words imaginable. And they hide behind the "I see your point but I stand by my words" because everyone with a computer and a blog is entitled to express their opinions, right? Right???
Over the past few days the rumor started circulating in the Jewish/Israeli blogosphere that the extremists in Gush Katif had started throwing acid in the faces of soldiers and police who had been sent to remove them.
I was horrified and outraged when I read this. I had already lost patience with the outsiders who, after squandering a 30 year opportunity to move to Gaza, finally decided that their life wasn't exciting enough and decided to go where the action was. So I immediately started searching the news sites. Nothing. When I found no mention of the acid attack(s), I called Soroka hospital and the Army Spokesman's office to ask for confirmation and nobody had heard anything about it.
Yes, these extremists were destroying property... using force and violence completely beyond the pale to resist being removed... and they were even throwing paint, and water and turpentine. Make no mistake... raising a hand against a soldier or policeman who is carrying out legal orders... throwing objects, and even a case of trying to unseat a policeman or soldier from a ladder, were all inexcusably reckless and dangerous.
But they were not premeditated, potentially lethal attacks! Nobody was intentionally trying to wound or (G-d forbid) kill anyone!
Then yesterday Ynet and the Jerusalem Post picked up on the rumors of the acid attack(s). From hour to hour the reporting went back and forth between a single attack and a series of attacks... yet no specifics were given and no victim(s) were named.
For something this serious it was unimaginable that Army spokespeople wouldn't be making statements and hospitals issuing status reports. I knew in my heart that this was a case of the vitriol spreading and doing it's deadly work.
Finally this morning the Jerusalem post confirmed my fears when it published a story saying that it had not been acid, but that paint and paint thinner had been used.
This is not for a moment to excuse the use of any material or force to resist the troops sent to carry out the unimaginably difficult task of disengagement. But to maliciously start... and irresponsibly spread... the lie of settlers using acid to attack soldiers was potentially as dangerous as a real acid attack.
Let me explain...
If you are a soldier and you receive reports through the media and from friends who read blogs, stating that instead of relatively passive resistance to your efforts you will now face a disfiguring or even lethal attack... you are much more likely to contemplate the use excessive force.
All it would take is for one such soldier to see a settler about to throw a a bucket of paint, or thinner, or even water... and he might think his life is in danger... and he might shoot to defend him or herself
And then a fire would be lit that few could extinguish.
Word would spread that soldiers were shooting the settlers and a settler might shoot back.
Word would spread among the soldiers that the settlers were shooting and they would receive orders to return fire. Before anyone could stop the tragedy from being played out there could easily be countless dead and wounded lying in the streets of Gush Katif... all because someone hated the settlers so much that they wanted to believe them capable of such an attack... and so they willingly passed the vitriol from hand to hand until it was accepted as fact.
I have remove several people from my blogroll/ favorites list because of their irresponsible and hateful use of words. I will never read another word they read... even if the word is 'apology'.
I'm done with them.
The same goes for anyone whose comments I've seen seeded around the blogosphere like little vials of acid, defending, excusing and even encouraging such vitriol. I'm done with them as well. I won't read them, and I consider their words to be completely suspect now.
Calling everyone in orange your 'enemy' is vitriolic no matter what the context, or what modifiers come later. An enemy is someone you fight and who wants to do you harm... and is deserving of being attacked.
Calling the misguided, and disruptive (even criminal) extremists who infiltrated Gaza out of some belated and suspect love for Gush Katif, 'insurgents' is vitriolic and suggests that these people intend to wage an armed struggle against the government and the soldiers which the government sends to carry out expulsion orders. Insurgents are a clear and present danger to the country and deserve no quarter.
Starting, and even repeating a rumor of an acid attack simply because you believe someone capable of such an attack is also vitriolic... and could potentially have lead to tragic confrontations between frightened soldiers and equally frightened settlers.
Because of vitriol... because of WORDS... people could have died. What then? Would a retraction by the Jerusalem Post bring them back? Would a heartfelt apology or justification on a blog bring them back? Would any number of words ever bring back those precious lives?????????
I have already written to both Ynet and the Jerusalem post demanding that they investigate how such claims could have been printed without confirmation from IDF spokespeople and medical personnel. My guess is that they will find that the rumors (perhaps originating in the blogosphere) became so widespread and pervasive that an irresponsible editor decided to just run with the story. After all, with the world's media on their turf it wouldn't due to get scooped!
What will it take before people recognize the terrible power that words posses. Would that editor wait outside the largest Mosque in Ramallah for the crowds who have just received their weekly dose of vitriol? I think not... but that would be a fitting way to let him/her experience first hand the lethality of vitriol.
I'm sorry there is no Photo Friday today... but in this case I felt it was worth pointing out that words are sometimes worth a thousand pictures.
* Source: Here
Thursday, August 18, 2005
What's in a name?
I received a comment yesterday that reminded me that I'm not always as careful as I should be about explaining things to the extremely diverse group of people who wander through here.
I mentioned in passing that the parent's of the wounded soldier I've been talking about have decided to give him an extra name. With all the disengagement (disestablishment) stuff going on, and yet another right wing Jewish extremist doing a spot-on impression of a bloodthirsty terrorist, I simply forgot that many of you might not be familiar with this custom... or even the more basic naming issues in Judaism.
It is worth pointing out that my knowledge of this subject is paper thin in some places, and I would not mind at all if some learned people chimed in with corrections or additions to my meager efforts.
Without going into too much detail (and without clarifying the different naming traditions found in the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities), here is some very basic information:
There is a lot of superstition surrounding names in Judaism. Some traditions state that naming a baby for someone who has died will be a blessing to the deceased, and will impart some of that person's positive traits to the baby. Others name for living people for similar reasons.
There is also the issue of when to name a baby. A girl is named in the synagogue at the first Torah service after her birth... and a boy is named at his Brit (circumcision) which normally takes place on the 8th day after his birth.
Perhaps because there is a longer delay in a boy's official naming... from the time that a baby boy is born until he has has his Brit, he is considered (according to some) to be particularly vulnerable to 'bad things'. I'm not specifically talking about any one 'bad thing', but some would call it the 'evil decree'... others the angel of death... and still others subscribe to the whole Lilith thing (go here for more info about Lilith).
So whatever the basis, many people have the custom of not mentioning the real name of the baby until the official naming ceremony. Others go so far as to use a false name for the baby until the real one is given in order to 'trick' the 'bad thngs' that might be out looking for him/her.
If several people have recently died in a family, some communities have the custom of giving a baby a secret name (which, according to some customs is never spoken) in addition of the real one in order to deceive the angel of death.
In a similar vein... if someone is extremely ill, many have the custom of officially giving that person an extra name in the hopes that altering his/her identity will somehow alter the 'evil decree' against them. For those with only one name this might mean adding a middle name. For those with two names it might mean the addition of a third one.
This is what I was referring to when I mentioned that Elroi's parents had decided to give him an extra name today.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) states
"Four things can abrogate the decree of man and they are: charity, supplication, change of name and change of action."
People around the world have been giving charity in his name... praying for him... and doing good deeds in his honor. But as his condition remains basically unchanged his parents have decided to do the one thing that others can't do for their son.
When a baby is named they are given their name as follows:
[Baby's name] BEN/BAT (son/daughter of) [father's name]
This is also the name one is called in the synagogue. But when someone is sick they are referred to as:
[sick person's name] BEN/BAT (son/daughter of) [mother's name]
I suppose that the nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship is the reason for this change in the way we refer to a sick person (feel free to tell me I'm wrong).
So while this wounded soldier's name on his 'dog tags' may be 'Elroi Mizrachi', this is not the name he was given at birth, the name by which he is called in the synagogue or the name we use in our thoughts and prayers now that his life is in danger.
Again, I apologize for mentioning this before without explaining it earlier.
UPDATE: This morning he was renamed Elroi (pronounced el-rowee) Refa'el ben Galia Glynis' (there were two versions of his mother's middle name circulating before but I have checked with his father and this is the correct spelling).
As I've said before... I don't care if you use a book of Psalms, Rosary beads, chicken feathers or incense... please find a small place for this innocent young man in your prayers. If organized religion isn't your thing, please just say his name a couple of times softly to yourself... and think good thoughts.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
I know this may sound odd (big surprise)... but when I was in elementary school a few of my friends and I took an absurd amount of pleasure in memorizing the spelling of extremely long words.
I'm not clear on why we did this... perhaps it was to be able to win the kiddie equivalent of bar bets. But the irony is that I was (and still am) hopeless at spelling even the most basic words.
Whenever our class would march single file to the library to take out new books, my little band of spelling buddies and I would sneak over to the big dictionary that lay open on its high wooden pedestal next to the librarian's desk.
We would giggle at our daring as we looked up forbidden words like 'breast' and 'penis' directly under the nose of the stern old librarian. Once we exhausted our repertoire of 'dirty words' we usually began hunting for the unusually long ones.
As a result of these searches (and the accompanying memorization sessions), I can still spell extremely relevant words such as 'Czechoslovakia'... but I still can't spell 'restaurant' without a spell checker. Go figure.
But the most impressive word that my little band of friends learned to spell back in 5th or 6th grade was, without a doubt, 'antidisestablishmentarianism'.
For some reason, being able to spell this 28 letter word at the drop of a hat was something that made us insanely proud of ourselves. I even once tried to impress our teacher by throwing it into a book report without having the slightest idea what it meant.
Needless to say, she was less than impressed.
From that day to this I have never forgotten this mostly useless word. If you woke me in the middle of the night I probably wouldn't be able to tell you the ages of my children... but I could absolutely spell that word.
So yesterday evening as I was driving home listening to the news about Gaza, my mind started doing a little word game:
disengagement = disestablishment
antidisengagement = antidisestablishment
antidisengagementarian = antidisestablishmentarian
antidisengagementarianism = antidisestablishmentarianism
I wasn't even aware that I was doing this parallel progression in my head until I suddenly realized that one of my favorite childhood spelling words had finally become (almost) relevant to a topic about which I'd been writing... and I hadn't thought to use it once!!! I mean, how many times in a lifetime does such an opportunity come along?
OK, true, antidisestablishmentarianism was a word which was originally coined to describe the opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England. But since it doesn't contain any specific linguistic reference to the church, it could just as easily refer to the opposition to any other disestablishment... say, the settler enterprise in Gaza (or anywhere else for that matter), right?
I know... I need to find some real problems to occupy my mind.
Anyway, when I got home I was going through some of yesterday's emails on our community chat-list and I stumbled across a heartbreaking email from a close friend. It was addressed to the entire community, and gave an update about the wounded Lieutenant's condition.
I read with horror as the email began, "There is no chance in his condition... ".
My hear sank. I couldn't breath... and the tears started to come.
Then a few inches further up the column of emails another one from the same friend caught my eye because it contained the word 'correction' in the subject line.
When I opened it, it said, "sorry about the spelling mistake in my last email... what I meant to write was 'there is no change in his condition'".
Strange how spelling - of large words and small - has taken on a new significance in the past couple of days.
[Update: Yesterday Elroi's blood pressure went up slightly while his father was holding his hand and speaking to him. While he remains in a coma, the doctors speculate that this might mean he is somewhat aware of his surroundings. I know this may sound like grasping for straws... but sometimes straws are all there is to grasp.]
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Drawer of shame
We've all seen those glittering displays of gewgaws and tchotchkes next to the cash register... tempting the impulsive idiot that lives inside each of us to part with just a little more of our hard-earned cash. I won't try to make a list of my regretable purchases here... but we all have a special 'drawer of shame' where we hide these impulse buys from our spouses and friends.
Go ahead and pretend you don't know what I'm talking about.
For the most part I've been able to curb my impulse demons while waiting on line at the store. However, my time spent 'online' is quite another story! When I'm poking around the blogosphere looking at what other people have on their sites I become the worst sort of impulsive idiot.
The stuff I can't resist are flashy blog tools and assorted scripts that 'might come in handy'. And the 'drawer of shame' where it all seems to end up is the sidebar of my journal.
Recently while visiting a fellow blogger's site I noticed a flashy little do-dad on her sidebar that showed a list of pretty flags representing the countries from which her traffic was coming. When I did a little poking around I discovered that this shiny new toy was free.
Guess how many nanoseconds between reading the word 'free' and pasting the script into my sidebar? As the not-very-PC expression goes; I was on that script like a bum on a ham sandwich!
Once it was installed I started reading the fine print. Big surprise, the 'free' part was only for 14 days, after which it would still show up... but it would be intermittently pushing ads at my readers.
OK... I figured I would leave the pretty flags there for the two week trail period and then remove it. After all, while I had a pretty good handle on where treppenwitz's traffic was coming from... I figured it would be neat to see the information represented by pretty, colorful flags.
Guess what? I don't have a very good handle on who is coming here. What's more... I was so fascinated by how little I knew about my readership that I am now on day 15 with it still in my sidebar.
Please allow me digress for a moment.
I knew most of my readers live in the US. Big surprise. But I had always figured Israel held the second place position.
Australia! Huh... whodathunkit?
Another few surprises from a clear blue sky; France, Sweden, Czech Republic and Switzerland! Besides the language barrier to comprehending my long-winded ramblings... how did you guys (or girls) end up here? Inquiring minds want to know.
Anyway, like most impulse purchases, the shiny new toy turned out to be slightly less 'essential' once I'd gotten my hands on it than it seemed at first glance. The script made my site load extremely slowly... and since the 14 day trial period expired, anyone visiting now has a better-than-average chance of seeing ads in the sidebar rather than the colorful column of pretty flags.
So, if you're curious about it... take a quick look because as of this evening I am deleting the script.... bye bye flags!
I may decide to allow ads at some point in the future (to help defray the cost of hosting), but it will be on my terms and according to rules that I set... and not pushed by some tired old script that I grabbed on an embarrassing impulse while browsing around the blogosphere.
Go ahead and judge me, but how many of you have virginal sites (or computers, for that matter!) that are completely free of glittery buttons, scripts and toolbars that've been impulsively snapped up while poking around the Web?
I thought so.
Maybe it's time to clean out that 'drawer of shame'.
Monday, August 15, 2005
It couldn't possibly hurt
I usually drive to Beer Sheva on Sunday mornings with a very full car. Between the students / academics going to Ben Gurion University, and the many soldiers that need to reach their bases in the south, every seat is usually booked up by Thursday evening.
However, yesterday I left Efrat with an empty car.
First of all, university is not in session and students are off doing whatever it is that students do during summer break. Secondly, yesterday was a fast day and many people who didn't absolutely have to work took the day off. And lastly, because of the disengagement and associated security concerns, very few soldiers have been given weekend passes to come home.
Still, it was odd to walk out to my car on a Sunday morning and not find the young woman from next door (an IDF spokesperson), or the young paratrooper from across the street, or the young lieutenant from a few doors down, all waiting patiently on the curb.
During my drive to Beer Sheva I listened to the news on the radio and heard that several soldiers had been injured in an 'incident'.... four lightly and one (an officer) seriously. All had been taken to Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva for treatment. No further details were given.
An hour later, while I was sitting in my office, the news was reporting more details of the incident and the condition of the soldiers.
Apparently a Palestinian sniper had been firing into Kfar Darom (one of the Gaza settlement s scheduled to be evacuated in the coming days) all night from a multi-story building.
This unprovoked attack set two independent responses in motion: A squad of soldiers was dispatched in an armored personnel carrier towards the site... and a tank was instructed to fire on the sniper's position. Apparently due to poor coordination between these two responses, one of the tank shells hit the armored personnel carrier as it passed near the building.
The four lightly wounded soldiers were treated and released from the hospital... but the officer, now being reported as a 22-year-old lieutenant, was in serious condition with multiple system traumas.
By noon I had decided that I'd had enough of my office... I had a headache from fasting (no coffee!)... and I just wanted to stretch out on my couch. As I was leaving Beer Sheva Zahava called me in the car to ask if I had heard the terrible news. Before the next sentence had even left her mouth I knew who the wounded lieutenant had to be... it was the young man from a few doors down who frequently hitched a ride with me on Sunday mornings.
The young soldier who lies unconscious in the ICU at Soroka just a few minutes from my office is not just a blurb on the news or a helpful statistic to balance some even-handed article in the international press.
He is a handsome young man who lives down the street and always smiles and says hello when he passes me or my kids.
He and his father join a bunch of men from the neighborhood every Saturday night for an impromptu minyan (prayer quorum) outside my garden gate so we don't have to walk the extra 200 meters to synagogue.
He is the polite young man who, no matter how many times I tell him to come to the house and wait in our kitchen on Sunday mornings because I'm always, always, always running late... invariably sits patiently on the curb next to my car leaning against a backpack full of freshly laundered uniforms and some of his mother's home-baked snacks for the week ahead.
As I listened to the morning news today I cringed to hear yesterday's tragedy being referred to as a 'friendly fire' incident. The callous terminology doesn't have any effect on the health or welfare of the young man who's head and body have been savaged by shrapnel. But the term 'friendly fire' gives the mistaken impression that only friendly forces were involved... and this is simply not the case.
Yes, I am aware that friendly fire happens in war all the time... but the term still bothers me because it removes the incident from the context of who actually set the events in motion!
This wasn't some training accident (of which there are, unfortunately, too many). The Palestinians have been promising all along that they intend to make sure the withdrawal takes place under fire... and that is precisely what they have been doing. Mortar shells, kassam rockets, roadside bombs, infiltrations... and sniper attacks have all continued (and increased) as the disengagement draws near. It is obvious that the Palestinians intend to claim a military victory on the eve of disengagement... and so they should.
Whether one is pro- or anti-disengagement, there is no denying that our 'partners for peace' would be blind not to see disengagement as a big pay-off for years of terrorism.
We're not talking about some fringe group within the Palestinian camp misreading the signs here. The 'grand pooba' of the PA himself has spent the past two weeks making speeches about "First we take Gaza... next we take Jerusalem!". There isn't much ambiguity in such a statement.
You can mark your calendars boys and girls, this is the big kick-off for the next Intifada... and this one will make use of all the lessons they've learned so far from our 'measured' approach.
Instead of kassams and mortars falling on Gush Katif and Sderot... they will begin raining down on Gush Dan (greater Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem. This is the big push, and the PA will be pulling out all the stops to make sure the next concession they force from us will be a big one.
Personally, I am beyond caring. We will certainly have to respond on a massive scale... probably much more widely than operation Homat Magen in the spring of 2002. And when we do the world will scream bloody murder that we are targeting civilians (aren't they all civilians?) and perpetrating a massacre. In a sense they will be right. Many people on both sides will die.
As heartless as my assessment may sound, I actually think I am understating the next phase of the Palestinian 'war of phases'. But Sharon says he knows what he's doing... so I guess we'll find out one way or another since we don't really have a choice.
I really don't care. I'm concentrating on the small victories just now.
I want to come out to my car on a Sunday morning some time soon and see a handsome young lieutenant sitting on the curb, leaning comfortably against a backpack filled with freshly laundered uniforms and his mother's home baked treats. That's the victory I'm looking for.
So, if you go in for such things, please include Elroi (pronounced 'el-rowee') ben Galia Glynis in your prayers.
And if religion isn't your bag... please just say his name quietly to yourself and think good thoughts. This is one of those situations where it couldn't possibly hurt.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Neither memory nor shame
Last night while sitting on the dusty stones of Herodion with Ariella and Gilad listening to Echa (Lamentations) being read, my mind wandered.
Who were the Jews who sat here on the stones of Herod's desert palace watching the smoke and flames of Jerusalem's destruction in the distance to the north? Could they have imagined in the midst of their grief that almost 2000 years in the future Jews would be sitting on the same dusty stones recalling the devastation they were witnessing?
More importantly, if they could imagine such a thing, would it make them happy or sad? I asked myself these questions because we don't seem to have progressed very far as a people from that time to this.
Many, if not all, of the factors that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews still exist today. As has happened many times in our history, there is once again a rift within the nation along cultural and religious lines. The antipathy between religious and secular, and the struggle between our own culture and those of the nations around us are nearly as old as Judaism itself.
But because we are incapable of destroying ourselves, our modus operandi has always been to invite the world to adjudicate our struggles... and to destroy us in the process.
Many otherwise well-educated people are under the mistaken impression that the Roman Legions marched into this part of the world as invaders and conquerors.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Romans were invited in by the Jews to help adjudicate an internal dispute between the supporters of the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus... each of whom felt they had a stronger claim to rule.
But the dispute between the supporters of the two brothers (groups called the Sadducees and Pharisees) was about much more than just the throne. It was a class struggle between rich and poor... cultured and provincial. It was a fight between those who wanted to embrace outside cultural influences and those who wanted to resist them. Even among those for whom religion still held value, there were bitter battles being fought at the time over the role of the Temple and Torah law in daily life.
In truth, neither side really wanted a fair adjudication of the dispute from Pompey... they each simply wanted Rome to provide muscle against 'those other Jews'!
Time and again we fight these same battles to rule over one another using culture and religion as our weapons of choice. And each time we do so we invite the world in to watch and cheer (and even participate) as we tear ourselves apart.
Every time we perform this tragedy on the world's stage, we are so blinded by our hate for each other that foreign ridicule, and even rule, seem infinitely better than letting 'those other Jews' have their way.
And here we are on another Tisha B'Av... once again reading about the destruction wrought by baseless hatred and Jew fighting Jew... and learning nothing from the lesson.
Once again we are inviting the world to come and sit in judgment of us... and once again a foreign army sits at our doorstep waiting hungrily for the time when we will be at each other's throats and won't notice them marching in.
Isn't 2000 years enough time to have learned even one small lesson?
As we walked down the steep sides of Herodion last night I pointed out some foxes that sat with bright eyes watching the silly Jews walking quietly through the dust. We had just read how such foxes had wandered on Mount Zion after the destruction of the Temple, and here they were still... watching us and wondering what other morsels we might leave to them.
Where is our memory? Where is our shame?
Friday, August 12, 2005
Photo Friday (Vol. XX*XVII) [shopping cart edition]
I know, I know... boooooring! But this is something that is so simple that I've been fascinated with it ever since moving here.
Every trip to the grocery store in the US starts with navigating your car through the obstacle course caused by countless shopping carts blocking nearly every parking spot. The problem is that once a person has loaded their purchases into their car, there is no incentive to return the shopping cart.
So, to make sure that there are carts available near the entrance to the stores,the owners are forced to hire 'Cart Cowboys' to constantly herd the carts back into their 'corral'. This costs money... which increases overhead... which is added onto the cost of every item the customer puts in their cart!
The first time I went to an Israeli grocery store I went to take a cart out of the corral and was stopped in my tracks. The carts were chained together with some sort of locking device.
Someone waiting behind me to take a cart noticed my confusion and rather than explain the solution simply pulled a 5 shekel coin from his pocket (worth about $1.20 these days)... inserted it into the slot.... and pulled the cart free.
OK, I'll admit that the person probably wasn't trying to be instructive or helpful... he was probably just in a hurry. But the lessen was learned, and I pulled out a 5 shekel coin fof my own and put it in the slot of the next cart:
... and pulled it free. Once the chain holding the carts together is released, the coin is locked in the slot and can't be removed until the cart is nested inside another with the metal tongue on the end of the chain inserted in the back of the lock:
Whoever thought up this nifty cart-lock anticipated the Israeli penchant for finding shortcuts around obstacles. I know this because I spent several minutes trying to figure out if there might be a way to beat the system. In the end I concluded that the chain was just short enough so you couldn't insert the tongue of a cart in its own lock... and there is no way to maneuver another shopping cart close enough to use its metal tongue unless the carts were nested fully inside each other (impossible if there are groceries in both carts.
The end result is that shoppers have a powerful incentive to return the cart to the corral... after all, 5 shekels is real money! The only way around having to come up with a 5 shekel deposit is a special tool that some vendors give out as promotional items. Not only do they help solve the problem of not having the right coin in your pocket at all times, but they ensure that you have someone's brand name and contact info on your key ring at all times! They look like this:
I got this one from the salon where several of us get our haircuts (Lydia's in Jerusalem), but there are literally thousands of different versions out there attached to countless Israeli key rings.
The round end of the fob (for lack of a better word) is exactly the same size as a 5 shekel coin, so it is perfect to release a cart from its neighbor. And, because it gets locked in place when the carts are pulled apart, it is a convenient and secure place for your keys while you shop. But, if you want your keys back after laoding up the car... you need to bring the cart back to the corral!
I doubt this would ever catch on in the states... mostly because the largest coin that people normally have in their pockets is a quarter, and most people I know would be willing to walk away from a quarter to avoid returning a shopping cart in the rain. And if one were to develop a cart lock that required 4 or 5 quarters you run into the problem that most people don't normally walk around with a buck-twenty-five in their pocket/purse.
Just one more interesting and helpful factoid about Israel. Don't thank me... I'm a giver. :-)
Thursday, August 11, 2005
Another mystery solved
Some of you may remember that a few months ago I threw out my lower back and started treatments (acupuncture, massage and chiropractic) at my health plan's
spa Natural Medicine Center. I don't really know how I injured my back, but Zahava has always insisted that the problem started immediately after a training exercise for our town's emergency response team. Seeing as I am a virile, manly, especially rugged specimen of the XY chromosome club... I begged to differ.
Last week I had my last treatment, and am delighted to tell you that I have been an upright-walking homo sapien (not that there's anything wrong with that), and virtually pain-free for several weeks now! I'll admit that I won't miss being used as a pin-cushion... but I could get used to having a lunchtime massage a couple of times a week!
Anyway, last night I was stretched out on the couch at about 10:45... reading the last chapter of 'The chamber of Secrets' if you must know... and thinking how nice it would be to get to bed at a decent hour... when the radio for the emergency response team gives off a loud beep, followed by the following announcement:
"All members of the kitot konenut (emergency response teams) respond... this is not a drill... we have a confirmed report of two non-residents moving towards Efrat from the direction of Wadi Nis (one of the neighboring Arab villages)... proceed immediately to the area between **** and **** and await instructions from your individual team leaders... I repeat this is not a drill."
As the message was repeated several more times I found myself magically downstairs pulling on heavy, ill-fitting equipment that had fit so comfortably during the many drills and exercises we've had. As I rooted around for the extra magazines of ammunition and unlocked the cabinet with my M16 I finally noticed through the river of sweat running into my eyes that Zahava had come out of our office and was staring at me with her mouth hanging open and her eyes as big as saucers.
She hadn't heard the full message and asked if it was an unscheduled drill. I explained that it wasn't... and gave her the scant bit of information I had... and fled the house.
What I didn't realize is that the crackling and beeping of the radio had woken up Gilad and he had looked out of his bedroom window in time to see me jog up the front walkway at almost 11:00 PM wearing a bullet-proof vest, helmet and carrying an M16. I didn't find out until much later that as upset as Zahava might have been... Gilad was totally freaked.
The role (and effectiveness) of emergency response teams is a matter of much debate in many communities, but essentially their job is to respond to an immediate threat just long enough to allow the army to arrive. In theory, we're like EMTs who are trained to keep a patient alive just long enough to get them in front of someone who actually knows how to fix whatever is wrong with them.
We are armed and equipped by the army... our training is done on army bases by army personnel... and the majority of our members are reserve soldiers/officers. But with all that... I don't know anyone who would argue that we are qualified to do anything more than 'hold the fort' for those critical first few minutes until the 'cavalry' arrives.
However, once we received instructions from our leaders and were deployed along the ravine where the 'non-residents' had been spotted... time began to stretch.
It seems that in addition to the original report, there had also been a subsequent report by a resident that had seen two suspicious looking people in a nearby neighborhood. My personal opinion is that someone had probably looked out their window and seen a couple of members of the emergency response team running down the street... but even though this new report virtually tripled the area that now needed to be searched, nobody was willing to take the chance of dismissing it.
Both the army and police arrived promptly and were also deployed... but because of the larger-than normal area that needed to be checked, we were told by our team leader (a reserve officer in an elite IDF unit) to remain and begin patrolling several specific areas.
30 minutes turned into an hour... and still my partner and I went from place to place each time we received new instructions over the radio.
The problem with all this patrolling is that all of our training has revolved around an event that, in a worst-case scenario, lasts no longer than 15 minutes.
At almost 2 hours I was dripping with sweat and having trouble figuring out which part of my body hurt most!
The equipment that we wear is perfectly doable for an old fart like me... for 15 minutes, that is. But an ephod (combination ceramic body armor vest and ammunition/equipment holder) weighted down with 4 full magazines of extra bullets, a flashlight, a radio/phone, water bottle and various other junk... combined with a heavy Kevlar helmet and an equally heavy M16 (with two more magazines)... adds up to one tired, sore, sweaty old man!
At just under two hours we were given the all clear over the radio and told to go home.
It's not clear if there was an actual attempt to infiltrate the town or if a couple of the villagers were just out wandering around in a place they shouldn't have been and tripped some of the sensors. It's also possible that the original alert could have been about thieves rather than terrorists... or that someone was simply checking to see how close they could come to the town without generating a response.
In any case, two hours after leaving the house I sloshed back in to find Zahava nearly frantic with worry.
Apparently she had been hearing gunfire coming from outside and thought it had something to do with where I had gone. There has been a lot of 'celebratory' gunfire from the neighboring Arab villages lately (I'm assuming it is related to the disengagement), and I don't really pay any attention to it. But sitting at home alone, the sound of shooting freaked Zahava out something special. I guess I should have called, huh?
Anyway, after going upstairs to give Gilad a kiss and to reassure him that nothing happened, I cleaned up and dove into bed.
And wattayaknow... I woke up this morning with my lower back in spasms of blinding pain!
Great... so in addition to having to admit to myself that I'm so out of shape that I'll have to either come up with a real exercise plan or consider quitting the emergency response team... I now also have to admit to my wife (once again) that I was wrong and she was right. My lower back problems are/were directly related to all the crap I have to carry when the emergency response team is called up.
Another mystery solved.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Not playing by the rules
Yesterday evening as I pulled out of the parking lot at work, I found myself driving down a two lane street which construction had forced to merge into one lane in the middle of the block.
I was supposed to pick someone up at the university and was already running late so I was a bit more aggressive than usual when it was almost my turn to merge.
The car beside me who, according to the alternating order of mergers, should have been next to enter the single lane hesitated for a moment and didn't move forward.
We'll forget the fact that he was having an animated conversation on a handheld cell phone (illegal), and carrying on a simultaneous argument with his wife/girlfriend next to him in the car. We'll even ignore the mental scars with which I'm left after watching him carry on both the cellular and marital discussions while his left index finger remained buried in his left nostril up to the second knuckle (and threatening to go further if necessary)!
We'll ignore these things because the central issue is not his ability to multi-task or his couth... but rather that he didn't move up when it was his turn.
Obviously I did what anyone would do... I jumped ahead of him.
The moment he realized that he had missed his turn to merge, his freier (sucker) alarm must have gone off and he lurched forward until our mirrors were nearly touching. I watched as he rolled down his window to give me a piece of his mind (presumably whatever remained after his digital mining explorations), and braced for the worst.
I was tired from work and not up to a confrontation, so before he could launch into his tirade I rolled down my window... smiled weakly... and said (in Hebrew):
"You're right, sir... don't say it, I already know that you were right and I was wrong! It was your turn and I should have waited for you to move forward. I apologize."
For perhaps 15 seconds he looked at me in total confusion while the cars behind us began to honk.
He finally wagged his index finger (thankfully the right one), at me and said (obviously in Hebrew), "That's not right what you just did!", and pulled quickly ahead of me.
I'm still not sure if he was referring to my traffic faux pas, or the fact that I had denied him the opportunity to yell at me. I suspect the latter because for the next minute or so he was yelling something to either the person on the phone or the woman in the passenger seat, and gesturing at my car behind him.
Hmmm... I'll have to remember that!
Note to self: It throws Israelis totally off their game when you short-circuit their rant with an apology.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Relevant wisdom in unlikely places
There is a very talented elementary school teacher living in the State of Oregon named Christopher Naze. Although we've never met, he was one of my early inspirations in the online journaling world... and for more than two years I have read every word he has published.
Christopher and I come from very different religious and cultural backgrounds, but I keep coming back to read him because he has an uncanny ability to locate essential truths that transcend whatever issue he is discussing.
A recent example is a short quote he shared on his site a few days ago. The quote was taken from a long article about, of all things, political immaturity posing an obstacle to the Oregon Legislature's ability to govern. As usual, Christopher zeroed in on the money quote:
"We have spawned a generation that does not understand what it means to govern. Ideological lawmakers know what they know and cannot get along with anyone who differs. They are only interested in getting their own way. If a process prevents it they change the process rather than accept its results. They behave like spoiled, indulged children."
~ by Russel Sadler ~
[Taken from an article entitled 'Our Childish Legislature' that appeared on a progressive Oregonian site called BlueOregon.]
Truer words were never written... and they could be applied equally to any political faction here in Israel.
A few days ago I wrote a post entitled 'Reap what you Sow', about the Jewish terrorist attack last Thursday. In the comments on that post Jonathan Edelstein praised the points I had made and went out his way to make sure I understood that the compliment was coming from someone who considered himself 'left wing'.
This bothered me to the point where I responded:
"While I'm flattered by the compliment, I am longing for people to start thinking about themselves less as 'left' or 'right'... and more as 'concerned, thinking people'. If you disagree with someone that claims only to be concerned, and professes to having thought about a problem for some time, you may not agree with that person's solution but you might be a bit slower to immediately discount what he/she has to say. My new resolution is to no longer identify myself as right left or center... but rather that I am simply a concerned, thinking member of society. Anyone who listens to my thoughts on a particular issue will quickly be able to use his/her own label... but at least they will have listened."
My point was that I find labels do more to cloud people's thinking than most are willing to admit.
However, Jonathan misunderstood my reply to mean that I was pretending that 'right' and 'left' did not exist, and went on to list his left wing bona fides. While Jonathan is clearly not a good example of the closed minded, immature political outlook that most bothers me... it troubled me that someone who has proved himself capable of sophisticated and nuanced political discourse found it necessary to cling to the 'left wing' mantle at all costs.
I wish people here in Israel would loosen, just a bit, their fervent grip on political/religious labels and prejudices. This is not to deny the existence of 'left' or 'right' or 'religious' or 'secular' as real or legitimate. I just think that these labels and prejudices often deafen/blind us to small truths that we routinely ignore or dismiss because we view the source with suspicion, or even contempt.
We see over and over throughout our history, and in our Scriptures, that our heroes are often tremendously flawed... and our opponents are sometimes inspired to play an unwitting role in our redemption. Who are we to now pretend that relevant wisdom cannot be found in unlikely places?
Monday, August 08, 2005
Desert trick to try at home
[Yes, I meant 'desert' and not 'dessert']
One of my favorite places to eat in Beer Sheva is a little Yemenite restaurant located on a small one-way side-street in the heart of the 'old city'. The place is a bit dumpy, and the small seating area is open to the street (read: no air conditioning), but the food is fresh, authentic and delicious!
The first time I was taken to this place (I don't know if it even has a name) by one of my co-workers, I was impressed by both the excellent quality of the food... and the copious quantity of fresh-baked breads, salads, soups and grilled meats that crashed like waves upon the table.
The crowning achievement, though, was the Hummus.
Like all the other dishes on the menu, the restaurant made it's own Hummus. I suspect they grind in some peanuts with every batch because there was a distinct nuttiness about the flavor that made it irresistible!
However much this may sound like a restaurant review, I actually wanted to share a bit of desert wisdom that I learned as we were being walked (rolled) out of the restaurant by the friendly owner.
On the way out through the large open entryway of the place I noticed several small clear plastic bags of water hanging by strings from the awning. As we stood outside on the sidewalk chatting with the owner, my eyes were drawn again and again to these small bags of water.
The owner noticed me staring at the suspended bags and offered an amazing explanation about their function.
He said that a Bedouin friend of his had told him that the way the desert tribes keep flies out of their tents is to hang such bags of water at the entrance. Once upon a time they had used small glass bottles of water... but the little clear sandwich bags work just as well and don't hurt when someone inadvertently bumps into them with their head.
Once he'd shared this explanation with us it occurred to me that, despite the restaurant being open to the street, we had not seen a single fly inside. This may not sound like anything worth mentioning... unless you've experienced the fly-potential of Beer Sheva in the summertime.
In this desert town, flies are everywhere! The Souk (open air market) is teeming with the annoying buzz of flies... and nearly anywhere one stands or sits outside these days necessitates a fairly constant waving motion with the hand or a newspaper to keep the flies from alighting on face or food.
But sure enough... the restaurant had been fly-free!
I asked him to explain the science behind the little bags of water and he half-closed his eyes, stuck out his chin and offered a shrug that anyone not born to a middle eastern culture could never hope to imitate. It was the sort of shrug to make the Gallic version seem vague!
After a moment he offered up that perhaps the way the light shines through the water scares the flies away. He was clearly humoring me with his guess, though... because this tentative statement was followed by yet another one of his broad meaningful shrugs... after which he waved us to our car.
I don't know about you... but I'm dying to try this at home!
Sunday, August 07, 2005
Mirty & Ted's (hopefully) excellent adventure
Any short-list of the most talented writers in the Jewish blogosphere would certainly have to include Mirty. I have been reading with a combination of awe and discomfort the amazing distance and clarity with which she crafts her personal narrative.
Without attempting to tell her story here, suffice it to say that Mirty's discussion of religion, family and marriage follows a trajectory of belonging, disenfranchisement, flight and eventual compromise/rapprochement that should sound at least vaguely familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with issues of faith, love and relationships.
The greatness of Mirty's writing is that even as its honesty sometimes makes me cringe... it also imparts valuable lessons to the reader that were clearly purchased at incredible personal cost to the writer.
Mirty and her husband Ted (not their real names) have been on vacation here in Israel for the past couple of weeks... and Zahava and I jumped at the opportunity to meet them for dinner in Jerusalem this past Thursday evening.
However, by Thursday afternoon it became clear that an unscheduled meeting was going to keep me from leaving work as early as I had planned... and Zahava was also working under a last-minute deadline. So I called Mirty and asked if we could bring them down for a late dinner closer to our home rather than eating in Jerusalem. After a quick consultation with Ted, Mirty graciously acquiesced.
What I didn't know is that Ted and Mirty had sort of agreed that they wouldn't visit any 'settlements' during their trip to Israel. I also didn't realize that Mirty hadn't exactly explained to Ted what 'our area' meant when she had run the change in plans by him.
So... after picking them up in Jerusalem, and driving through the first roadblock on the tunnel road to Gush Etzion, the concrete barricades and coils of barbed 'concertina' wire along the winding road prompted a few tense words to pass between our guests.
I'm sure Mirty didn't set out to deliberately mislead Ted. After all, so much of what I've written about the area where I live has revolved around the relative safety and high quality of life. And for his part, Ted was a very good sport... taking the unscheduled foray into the West Bank with good humor and an open mind. But still... passing the lights and minarets of several Arab villages along the way did cause a few, um, lulls in the conversation.
We stopped in Efrat for a few minutes to pick up Zahava and then headed off to one of my favorite little eateries in the world; Gavna.
To really get a sense of this charming rustic restaurant, you should really read the description of Gavna I wrote after our first visit there last year. But if you're in a hurry, picture a little wooden shack in the middle of the woods... sitting at the end of a looooong winding dirt road... perched on the side of a tall mountain...that has, at most, 20 tables (including the ones outside on the porch and down below in the garden).
To his credit, Ted asked me only once if I knew where we were going as we wound through the woods in total darkness. And Mirty asked Ted only once if he was really 'OK with this' during the bumpy ride through the wooded road. I took it as a good sign that Ted took my 'yes' at face value, and quickly answered Mirty with a 'yes' of his own. :-)
The food at Gavna was every bit as good as i remembered (even if the service was a bit, um, random), and Mirty and Ted turned out to be every bit as delightful in person as one would expect from reading Mirty's blog.
Ted is a funny, soft-spoken man whose looks and mannerisms leave the observer with the distinct impression that you are having dinner with a mellow Mandy Potankin. And other than her slight Texas drawl, Mirty was close enough to what I was expecting that I I instantly forgot what I had thought she would look/sound like.
Mirty and I had the inevitable conversation about some of the bloggers we read (and commenters we enjoy), as well as what we each get out of writing. Thankfully this didn't dominate the evening, though, and the four of us talked easily about everything from politics to family to gadgets.
In an unsolicited gesture, Mirty offered to be photographed (I would have never asked), and even gave me permission to post a picture of her here on treppenwitz.
Now, I know some people enjoy not knowing what their favorite bloggers look like... and others are dying to know. So to be sensitive to both camps I'll offer a workable solution:
Those of you who would prefer to have Mirty remain as she has always been in your mind's eye... you should consider this sentence to be the end of today's entry. Thanks for stopping by.
However, those who (like me) have been dying to know what Mirty really looks like... click the link below (I can't remember if Ted gave his OK on having his picture published... so to avoid
hoodwinking misleading him twice, this is just a picture of Mirty & me ).