Thursday, August 31, 2006
I'm just saying...
Someone I love like a sister emailed me last night to ask for some advice. I suspect she turned to me because I just happen to be the world authority on all things relating to Judaism and the Hebrew language (admittedly a heavy mantle to bear at times). I take these sort of requests seriously and hate the idea of letting her down, so I'll share my thoughts in hopes you'll help me out.
First the question.
Uh, actually, first a little back-story and then the question.
[Back-story: Over the past few years, this person has become quite active in a reform synagogue (ironically, the one in which I grew up). She and her family have been attending shabbat services and taking part in various activities and classes offered through the temple. One of the organized groups within the temple social structure is focused on the needs of 'gay and lesbian' members of the congregation]
OK, now the question:
"We're trying to come up with a name for our 'gay' group in our Congregation... currently it's called Kulanu. (which means ALL OF US)... none of us in the group are crazy about this name. It's not easy to say or remember.
Not sure we want "the Queer group" either. Is there a Hebrew word that you might suggest that would be more reflective of a gay/lesbian Jewish group?"
There are so many places my mind wanted to go with this that I spent almost 20 minutes just shooting down bad ideas. So here's what remains of my thoughts since receiving her email:
My first instinct was to ask myself why such a group even exists. If the reform movement has been welcoming to gays and lesbians (which, without question they have)... why mess with that. If one warm corner of a cold cruel world actually says, "Hey, you guys are our kind of people and we want to make you feel at home amongst us", why in the world would they want to create a distinct sub-group within the congregation to set themselves apart? After years of trying to be just like everyone else... why voluntarily hyphenate yourselves?
But on the heels of that thought I recalled my own reaction to some of the more shrill members of my old synagogue when I set about recreating the long-defunct 'Men's Club'. Several women expressed their opinion that such a group was anachronistic, exclusive and sexist... and that the very idea was contrary to the desire for unity we all professed as our goal.
But I answered that the same could be said about the 'Sisterhood' which, unlike the Men's Club, had never fallen dormant. I demanded to know why they didn't object to the existence of a group that by its very name was exclusive and sexist?
I suspect this comic opera of an argument has taken place in countless synagogues around the world... and that no two librettos will read exactly the same. But the way it went with us was that I assured the nay-sayers that as President of the Men's Club I would welcome with open arms (metaphorically speaking) any woman that wanted to pony up the required membership dues.
In the end there were no takers and the Men's Club remained an exclusively male bastion. But the fact that I had officially set aside the requirement for a 'Y' Chromosome somehow made everything OK.
However, the issue of a gay & lesbian group within an openly accepting religious environment seems to take the opposite tack. Instead of creating an exclusive group where others aren't welcome (I imagine that any congregant would be welcomed into the group regardless of his/her 'orientation'), they are making themselves a distinct and separate entity in one of the few places that has actively treated them 'just like everyone else'.
Before I go on I want to caution any of you who are already sharpening your mental pencils. I'm not interested in how anyone feels about gays or how you think any particular religious group should relate to gays. I don't use this space to comment on Jews who have made denominational choices that allow them to enjoy BLTs and lobster [~drool~]... and I'm certainly not going to allow anyone else to do so.
Everyone makes their own deals with G-d. Perhaps I'm simply not a very good negotiator. :-)
If you want to read an excellent (IMHO) and sensitive discussion of homosexuality and orthodoxy, go read what Mcaryeh has to say on the subject. However, today's post is not even tangentially related to that discussion.
What we are discussing here is why a group that has had very limited success in gaining unconditional acceptance and equality anywhere else in the world would turn around and deliberately set themselves apart from a community that has said quite unconditionally to them:
"Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
(Ruth, Chapter 1- verse 16)
Anyway, that's where my mind went after reading her email... and I admit it is way beyond the scope of what I was asked. If you have ideas on the subject, feel free to share. Or... if you don't want to wade into such turbulent waters but have a name in mind that you think might be fitting for this group, that would also be a welcome contribution to the discussion.
For the record, I hated 'Kulanu'. It sounds like one of those tropical umbrella drinks. I was thinking more along the lines of either 'Keshet' (Rainbow) or 'Gesher' (Bridge). But then again, if they really want an easy-to remember name that is also in Hebrew... why not co-opt the accepted term already in use by the Israeli media?:
Don't thank me... I'm a giver. =;~>
The comment board is open.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Go ahead and charm me
I've mentioned on several occasions that I cringe each time someone sends me a request to have their blog linked on by blog-roll. I cringe because I don't like confrontation... and I hate being forced to say something potentially insulting.
For me, being asked for linkage is what I imagine girls must go through when being asked out on a date by a guy to whom they feel absolutely no attraction. There is really no graceful, face-saving way out of the situation... and it usually ends with someone's feelings being hurt.
To be fair, many a woman has been shamed into going out with someone simply because they couldn't figure out a nice way to say 'no', only to find out during the date that the guy was a total prince charming hidden in somewhat, um, unconventional green packaging.
The same can be said of a few bloggers that I now consider required daily reading. I may have initially become aware of them because they guilted me into blog-rolling them, but I now occasionally neglect my family just to see what they have to say.
The problem with blog-rolls (and blog reading) is that there is only a finite amount of time one can devote to one's daily reads. Often times I waste precious time clicking over to visit blogs I enjoy only to find that they haven't been updated... and that time could have been spent checking out someone new who just posted fresh content with which I would have fallen instantly and madly in love.
I've decided to try a change in blog-roll format and criteria.
I've replaced my static blog-roll with a more dynamic one. Instead of just the 40-or-so blogs I read consistently I will be adding many more new sites over the next days and weeks. However, not all of them will show up on the site.
The way it works is like this: The list will automatically move recently updated sites to the top (provided your blog automatically pings Blog-rolling when you update or you if ping manually here)... and those that have gone days or weeks without an update will be pushed temporarily off the page.
I figure this is a better system for all parties involved. It allows me to read only the freshest content by a much wider selection of writers... and it allows writers to whom I might normally have given the 'can't we just be friends' brush-off a fair shot to show off their stuff.
Just to be clear, this still isn't going to be an open casting (cattle) call. If you just started a blog and have only a handful of halting entries... give yourself a little time to find your stride. It will be better for all involved.
Most of the people I will be adding to my reading list will be...
... bloggers/journalers who regularly leave interesting / thought-provoking comments on treppenwitz. My rationale is that if they have interesting comments they may also have interesting posts.
... bloggers/journalers who have already linked to treppenwitz and who stop by to visit once in a while. This is dangerous turf and I don't want to give the impression that reciprocal linking is either the criterion or goal here. But I will admit that many times I follow links in my referrer logs to sites that link to treppenwitz and spend an hour or two deeply regretting that I don't have the time to add them to my daily reading routine. With a rolling blog-roll, I might just have more time to enjoy these hidden treasures.
... bloggers/journalers who are NOT at all like me. You've probably noticed that very few of my regular reads are right-of-center religious settlers. The reason for this is that I think that particular demographic (myself included) suffers from a severe lack of input and information from outside sources. The time I have spent reading sites written by left wing, secular, and even non-Jewish people has helped broaden my horizons beyond measure. So if I don't include you right away in this expansion roster... the reason may be our similarity, not that I don't like what you have to say.
So there it is. This is (hopefully) a win-win for everyone. Of course, I may decide to go back to the old system if this one becomes unmanageable. But I really don't see a downside to giving us all an opportunity to kiss a few more frogs... and for a few more of these potential 'Prince Charming's to get their chance to be kissed.
[Note: Yes, I am aware that a few of my favorite bloggers don't ping blogrolling so I'll have to figure out a work-around for them]
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
A small consession (in the grand scheme of things)
We've been here a little over three years now. Probably as good a time as any to take stock.
The road leading here was considerably longer than those three years, of course. We didn't just wake up one day and get on a plane to Israel. There was money to save... a house and cars to sell... an excruciating-yet-liberating process of selecting what to pack and what to discard.
But the longest part of the aliyah process, by far, was the mental preparation.
Long before we walked into the Jewish Agency in Manhattan and opened our 'Tik' (file), Zahava and I were already mentally living in Israel. But at the same time we also knew in our hearts that we would always be Americans. To carry off this balancing act we had to make a lot of difficult decisions... some of which we are still making to this day.
Take for example the requisite 220v lower east side shopping spree we carried out in the spring before we moved. Did we really need the ginormous GE self cleaning oven with the sealed burner range top? Of course not! But Zahava and I had become accustomed to preparing food in a particular way, and in particular quantities... so the oven/range was a conscious decision not to mess with that part of our life.
The same can be said about the big Maytag washer and dryer. Could we just as easily have waited until we arrived and bought a smaller European model here? Of course... but the reason we didn't go that route was that with younger children (and a baby on the way) we had become accustomed to doing large loads of laundry a couple of times a week. Smaller machines would have meant doing laundry pretty much every day... and the sparkling whites promised by the built-in heating element in the European washers just wasn't a strong enough selling point to offset the convenience of the big Maytag.
While we were shopping we regrettably fell into the trap of buying all sorts of crap we really should have waited to purchase in Israel such as microwave, vacuum cleaner, TV, cordless phone... and a million and one other small appliances.
As new immigrants you get a big break on most of this stuff anyway... and in retrospect is seems kind of unpatriotic to have given our carefully hoarded money to a Manhattan store rather than a few Israeli businesses.
But I digress.
The real point I was trying to make was that Zahava and I recognized in advance that we were jumping off the high-dive into the scary end of a very deep cultural pool. Neither of us was fluent in the language and we had no family living in Israel. Having some of the familiar touchstones of our American home-life waiting for us when we returned at the end of a busy Israeli day seemed like a reasonable concession to make in our efforts towards acculturation/absorption into Israeli society.
Another area where we made a conscious decision that provided a small comfort zone but likely hampered our transition into the culture was the community where we bought our house.
Many people we know opted to move into almost exclusively 'anglo' communities where they could carry on comfortably in English. To a certain extent, we went this route as well, knowing that Efrat had a large number of immigrant families from English speaking countries.
But when we went shopping for a house in Efrat, we intentionally purchased our home in a neighborhood where more than half of the families were native Hebrew speakers... and where we noticed with satisfaction that even the children from 'anglo' families spoke Hebrew amongst themselves when playing together.
Again, we did this knowing full well that we would forever be seen by our neighbors as 'the Americans'... but that the upside would be that our children would grow up entirely Israeli.
I honestly worry about other communities in Israel where second and third generation Israeli children of American stock still speak only English (much as second and third generation Dominicans in Washington Heights still speak mostly Spanish and heavily accented English).
Whenever I overhear our kids speaking to their friends in flawless, unaccented Hebrew, I cast aside any misgivings about having to break our neighbor's ears with our grammatical mistakes and halting speech. My embarrassment at being a 'greenhorn' is a small price to pay for my children's smooth transition into Israeli life.
But even as we struggle mightily with big things like language or the trivial things like the metric system in our daily lives... in the privacy of our home we still maintain some vestiges of our old way of doing things. Even though I know how many liters of fuel my car takes and the kilometrage I'm likely to get in the city and on the highway, I don't have a clear sense how these things stack up on the 'good/bad' scale as I would if we were talking about gallons or mileage.
One exception to this partial cultural dumbness is my new hobby; beekeeping. Since I never gave any thought before as to how many pounds of honey a typical beehive should provide, I'm perfectly comfortable thinking of the honey yield from my beehives only in Kilos.
But there are some areas of our lives that have been harder to convert. The most obvious example is that we still measure our recipes using 'cups' and 'teaspoons'. Any new recipe from an Israeli friend sends us scurrying to the computer to do a quick conversion to more manageable measures.
However, such issues with measurements are admittedly mostly laziness on our part. After all, these are fixed amounts that, with a little effort on our part and a simple one-step calculation, we should be able to to tackle without too much trouble. But because tackling the more troubling issue of temperature requires a two-step calculation, we have only the vaguest sense of what various temperatures expressed in degrees Celsius (Centigrade) actually mean.
For the record, I'm not a complete idiot. I have a pretty good idea of what is hot and what is cold when I hear the weather predictions at the end of the news. But that's mostly because I hear the range of temperatures listed next to locations in the country which provides a ready key to anyone who knows basic Israeli geography. But when one of the kids gets a fever, I have no real sense if a particular temperature is hot enough to warrant a trip to the doctor or if it is perhaps hot enough to smelt copper ore.
Go ahead show me that smug smile... but think about how your eyes glazed over the last time you heard a temperature expressed in degrees Kelvin. Not so funny anymore, right?
Anyway, inside the house we continue to be a Fahrenheit family and use the handy computer conversion whenever we needed to relate vital temperature info to the pediatrician. But outside the house I have gamely tried to make the leap to Celsius.
For the past three years I have had the little 'outside temperature' indicator on my car's dashboard set to Celsius and have made a concerted effort to take note of the number and relate that to how it actually feels outside. I honestly wanted to be able to instinctively understand the range of local weather the way I had in our old life. I wanted to be able to know without thinking that this temperature meant sweat... and that temperature meant to send the kids out with sweatshirts.
But after three years I have to admit defeat.
This past week while we were up north on vacation I reset the car's outside temperature indicator to Fahrenheit. I did it mid-trip because it was hot outside... but I had no earthly idea how hot it really was. While we sat in front of Falafel Zehava in Beit She'an I repeatedly glanced at the Celsius temperature and it had absolutely no connection to what I was feeling outside the car. So I reached up and switched it to the more familiar scale and suddenly the world came into focus. It was 102F outside. That I understood!
When I made the switch on the car's on-board computer I felt a little guilty. I didn't point it out right away to Zahava or the kids, and even contemplated switching it back once we got home. But now that it has been a week, I realize I've made another small concession.
In the grand scheme of things it really doesn't matter. But just as with our big comfortable American appliances and Pyrex measuring cups graduated into nice safe ounces... I feel like I have reasserted control over a tiny part of my life that had been flapping freely in the breeze.
This newfound clarity has freed up a small part of my brain that can now concentrate on becoming more proficient in Hebrew... becoming a more assertive negotiator of Israeli commerce and traffic... and, of course, being the kind of father who knows whether to dress his kids in shorts or sweaters in the morning.
It'll just be our little secret, mmkay?
Monday, August 28, 2006
I can't believe I'm dragging Star Trek into this!
OK, I'll lay my cards on the table. It won't be pretty, but it's better than what you're probably thinking based on the title of this post.
No, I'm not a Trekker, Trekkie, or any variant thereof.
Truth be told I used to watch the original show because of the scantily-clad women that Captain Kirk got to kiss on seemingly every episode. When the later incarnations of the show came on the air I saw great promise in the totally hot casting of the the Chief of Security (Tasha Yar, played by Denise Crosby) and the Empath Counselor (Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis). But Crosby quickly left the show and Sirtis proved to have little to offer in the way of on-screen romantic fireworks beyond a low-cut uniform.
So there it is. I'm a pig... but not a Trekkie pig. OK?
But because most of you seemed to have taken the central idea in yesterday's post and run with it in a completely unexpected direction... I feel like a follow up is warranted. To do this I'd like to use a handy devise that Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) employed with great success in his scripts: Taking taboo cultural problems that exist on earth and making them 'safe' for discussion by assigning them to fictional aliens.
The most 'problematic' race dealt with in the early Star Trek episodes were the Klingons. They were warlike, tribal, belligerent and their motivation was completely beyond the understanding of Star fleet officers. Sound familiar?
Initially the Klingon were a handy catch-all enemy (like the Romulans) against whom Kirk and the Enterprise could consistently wear the white hat. But in later, more socially-sophisticated versions of the show we see that the vast cultural gulf between Klingon culture and the norms of the Star Fleet Federation seem to have been mostly bridged because Klingons are now counted among the officers and crew of Star Fleet ships. It might be worth thinking about how that happened and apply the lessons here.
The Klingons were a handy hook on which to hang the terrestrial cultures we perceived as hopelessly warlike and bent on conquering us. But it wasn't until much later that the script writers got around to dealing with them as a soluble problem and a potentially approachable race of people with whom relations were possible.
Another race that was initially meant to serve as an ongoing threat to the Federation were the Ferengi (not coincidentally the Arabic word for Western traders). Although the Ferengi quickly lost their real sinister role and became almost comic caricatures of the most loathsome human traits of avarice and dishonesty, they remained an interesting discussion point on how cultures that assigned completely different values to process and result could not only coexist... but have ongoing relations once they understood each-other's ground rules.
I think I am pretty safe in saying that to most westerners, Arab/Muslim cultural norms are as inscrutable and unapproachable as those found in the Klingon and Ferengi cultures. In fact, most of the negative traits westerners point to as reasons that Western and Levantine culture will never be able to peacefully co-exist are found in these two fictional alien races.
That having been said...
In my responses to yesterday's comments I tried to bring people back from the semi-hysterical place they instinctively wanted to run with the topic of cultural relativism. For the sake of clarity here are the ten main points I tried to make:
1. A hint to my mindset when I wrote the post can be summed up as: Western vs. Levantine definitions of 'Intellectual honesty' and 'fair play'.
2. The post wasn't meant as a condemnation of cheating. It was meant to draw attention to the huge chasm that exists in the cultural values that actually assign moral value to - and define - things like cheating, lying and shame.
3. In my post I assigned no single motivation to the way the Arab had 'solved' the puzzle... I just pointed out a cultural acceptance of certain shortcuts as expedient to reaching the desired solution.
4. One of the reasons polygraphs work is that most westerners have a physiological reaction to potentially being caught in a lie. We sweat... our heart races... our breathing changes. However if there is no corresponding social taboo to most kinds of lying in Arab cultures, there is no shame to measure. In such a culture, the spoken word (such as the claim by an Imam that Jews have poisoned a village's well or blown up the Dome of the Rock) can be absolutely true while it is being said... and yet the next day when all the villagers who drank from the 'poisoned well' are alive and well and the Dome of the Rock still stands in Jerusalem, there are absolutely no repercussions. Quite simply it was true when he said it but now it's not. In such a culture not only is there no shame associated with most lies, but one is considered a bit of an idiot if he/she doesn't say the most expedient thing to achieve a specific aim/goal. What this young man did with the puzzle was a form of lying (according to my standards), but his openness about how he did it proves that he was completely unaware that he had broken any social barrier or rule.
5. Being process AND goal oriented is of value only so long as all people trying to reach the same goal agree on the basic ground rules. If this had been a hedge maze I suspect the young Arab man would have pushed his way through the branches rather than try to find the 'correct' path to the end. Again, if we can agree that he wouldn't have seen such action as cheating, we can't blame him... only wonder at how two such different cultures can pursue larger, more important goals when the two sides don't understand each-other's rules and processes.
6. Think about how you react when there is a piguah and CNN puts on a talking head from Israel and a talking head from the PA. Doesn't it make your blood boil when you realize that one talking head is stating cold hard facts and the other is saying whatever he/she thinks will advance his/her cause (without any regard to what you and I would call 'the truth')? Those PA talking heads aren't evil or corrupt (in the narrow sense relating to the words leaving their mouths). They are simply acting according to cultural norms and values that you and I can't even begin to understand. I chose the example of the puzzle (specifically how the Arab man seemed to show no misgivings about how he had 'solved' it) as a 'safe' opportunity to examine this cultural disconnect. One of the biggest obstacles to the west ever having a meaningful dialog with the Arab world is that nobody dares examine this cultural disconnect or how to overcome it.
7. The young Arab man in my post may be a wonderful father and husband. He may give charity in his community and be extremely moderate in all his views. But he comes from a culture that assigns no shame to ignoring what westerners consider to be hard and fast rules... and in fact doesn't fully understand the western obsession with rules and 'fair play' at all. This really isn't about whether he is a good or bad player in the scenario. It is about the fact that he plays according to a completely different set of rules.
8. The post was meant to draw attention to the disconnect between two cultures... one that says such a 'solution' to the puzzle is cheating/shameful, and another which says that the the object is to complete the picture puzzle without rules or limitations. One is a process oriented solution and the other is a results oriented solution. The value is only what each culture assigns to it.
9. Regarding the 'instant gratification theory: I suspect that the sole gratification the young Arab man anticipated from the puzzle was it's completion. The very idea of taking satisfaction from the process probably didn't occur to him. I obviously am guessing here... and using only my own cultural tools to make that guess.
10. Regarding the assertion that the Arabs aren't "playing by accepted Western rules of cultural, governmental and economic normalcy": First, they are playing by rules... it's that they are rules that we don't fully understand (or perhaps are willfully ignoring). Second, why should the Arabs be expected to play by western rules? Who is to say that our rules are 'normal' or that they are universally 'accepted'? Perhaps, as many suggest, we should try dealing with them entirely according to their own rules.
OK, I've had my say. What I had hoped was that we could have a discussion of different rules and values to those rules. If it will help keep things calm, feel free to talk in terms of Klingons or Ferengi instead of Arabs or Muslims. It's enough to admit that their culture is foreign to us and that ours is foreign to them. Now what?
Can anyone take the issue of how to approach the cultural disconnect and discuss it outside the minefield of political correctness we've created for ourselves here in the Middle East?
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Cultural puzzles... and disconnects
However, around lunchtime Gilad started complaining of, er, lower abdominal pain (a euphemism I've employed here to describe a private condition only boys/men can fully appreciate). We immediately called our family pediatrician, but the earliest he could see Gilad was 3:30PM.
No problem... I figured I'd bring Gilad over to see the doc and have him home in time to leave for the 5:30 sound-check at the venue.
When our turn arrived to go into the examination room I watched as our very easy-going and kid-friendly pediatrician did his usual respectful-but-thorough examination, and became increasingly alarmed as I noticed that the more he poked and prodded... and the more he listened to Gilad describe where it hurt (and where it really hurt)... the more brisk and businesslike he became.
He explained to us that he was "pretty sure" it was nothing serious and that it was probably the kind of non-specific injury/inflammation that would sort itself out in a day or two. But that was clearly a preamble to what he really wanted to say. He went on to tell us that he couldn't completely rule out another, more serious condition.
Let me just say for the record that few things focus a man's attention like the words 'testicular torsion'. If that pairing of words doesn't make you groan and break into a nauseous sweat, then you either have no heart... or you lack another, more pertinent, bit of anatomical tackle.
Our pediatrician quickly put his familiar kid-friendly face back on... but there was no mistaking the underlying urgency as he wrote us out a referral and 'suggested' that any time in the next hour or two would be a good time to 'just stop by' the emergency room and have an ultra-sound done to rule out a torsion.
We're a one-car family, so on the way out of the doctor's office I dialed Zahava and told her to find a sitter for Yonah (Ariella would have been the obvious choice, but she was going to be at a Bat Mitzvah all evening), and that instead of me taking the car, she would have to drop me at my gig on the way to taking Gilad to the emergency room. I explained that my sound check was at 5:30, and that if the ultra-sound turned up anything serious I would skip out on the concert (scheduled for 9:30) and meet them back at the hospital within 20-30 minutes.
I won't keep you in suspense... after several hours of endless waiting in Sha'are Tzedek's pediatric emergency room and finally getting the ultra-sound, the testicu... um, the bad thing... was ruled out and Gilad was allowed to go home.
I got this welcome news as I was walking onstage to perform.
The reason I've dragged you through this fairly private family medical drama is because of a side-story that occurred while Zahava and Gilad were cooling their heels in the E.R. waiting room. I could have just told you this side-story, but that would have begged the obvious question; 'what the heck were Zahava and Gilad doing in the E.R!?'.
Like all Israeli hospitals, Sha'are Tzedek's patient population is quite diverse. By this, I mean that the crowded waiting room in the 6th floor pediatric E.R. offers a fairly accurate cross-section of Israeli society with sick/injured representatives from the secular and religious sectors of both the Jewish and Arab communities.
At one point during the interminable wait, a volunteer came by and passed out games and puzzles to the kids and pre-teens in the waiting room. Gilad received a neat little plastic puzzle with sliding pieces that - when unscrambled - would create a picture of a ladybug. In fact, here it is:
Gilad worked at the puzzle half-heartedly for a little while but didn't get very far.
As the hours passed and new families replaced those who had been summoned through the swinging doors to be examined, Gilad generously passed the puzzle to one of the newcomers seated nearby. From there it made the rounds of the room but few people were in the mood to set aside their worry or discomfort long enough to really apply much thought to the puzzle.
A few Jewish patients gave it a go but didn't really make much progress. Then it was handed over to the young father of an Arab patient seated across from Zahava. She was astounded to watch as he quickly abandoned the frustrating slide and seek method of solving the puzzle and unhesitatingly went on to pry the plastic tiles out of the frame and reassembled them in the proper order to create the picture. As the last piece was snapped into place he looked around at those who had been watching him and smiled triumphantly while proudly holding it up for their inspection.
To be clear, this young Arab man made only a cursory attempt to create the picture by sliding the puzzle pieces the traditional way. And once he abondoned the traditional method, he didn't try to conceal his somewhat non-traditional method of 'solving' the puzzle from others. There was neither guile nor shame evidenced in what he did, and he was as proud of the end result as anyone would have been had they completed the picture of the ladybug in the way the puzzle's manufacturer intended.
This story isn't intended to cast aspersions on one approach to problem-solving over another. I've simply shared this story of the ladybug puzzle... and the underlying cultural puzzle it represents... because I am pretty sure Zahava has inadvertently stumbled upon the roots of the hopeless cultural disconnect extant here in the middle east.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Thanks for an 'interesting' thank-you
As part of her weekly 'Friday Tip-o-Day', my blog-daughter Weese paid an interesting tribute to her blogfather (moi).
I'm sure her intention in using me as the object of her lesson in sharing digital photographs from analog sources was to thank me for asking her to guest blog on treppenwitz. But in so doing, she shared a rather, uh, dated photo from our high school yearbook (we both graduated from Trumbull High School in 1979).
I have to say... not many people could have gotten away with this. But considering Weese has a heart-o-gold and we have a long history of mutual respect and admiration... I've decided to find her use of what is probably the least flattering yearbook picture ever taken, um, endearing. :-)
So go ahead... gaze upon the 18-year-old treppenwitz (if you dare).
Friday, August 25, 2006
Photo Friday (vol. LXXV) [Refreshed Edition]
Before I dive back into treppenwitz, I want to take a moment to thank Weese, Doctor Bean, Elisson and Tanya for guest posting here while I was away. Not only are they busy people with lives and commitments of their own... but most of them have their own blogs to keep up as well. A huge thank you, guys!
So where were we this week? We ended up going up to the northern border after all.
There are a couple of ways to reach the upper Galilee and Golan from where we live, but we opted to go through the Jordan Valley rather than fight the coastal traffic. With the exception of a few extra security checkpoints it was pretty smooth.
However, driving time wasn't the real reason I opted to go through the Jordan Valley. You see, a little known fact (although I'm sure others will argue) is that the best falafel in Israel can be found in a little place in Beit She'an right next to the small parking lot that serves as the town's central bus station. Its name - Falafel Zehava - doesn't even begin to describe the culinary goodness that waits inside for those wise enough to stop in this furnace of a town.
Falafel Zehava (which is run by two sisters, the younger of whom is named [surprise] Zehava) also has exquisite shwarma, world class shakshuka, and spiced meatballs in a tomato sauce that would make an Italian weep for joy. But the highlight of a visit to this place is the incredibly fresh, perfectly crisp/moist falafel. All of these treats are served with a welcoming intimacy that makes one forget literally hundreds of travelers step in out of the 100+ degree (F) heat to enjoy their food every single day. We also stopped there on the way back, and the sisters not only remembered us but asked after some of our friends who had stopped in to eat on our recommendation.
Our home base for the weeks was a place called Horeshat Tal, a pretty campground/national park just north of Kiryat Shemonah in the upper Galilee that has small tributaries of the Dan River meandering amongst the campsites. We were there during a bit of a heatwave, so it was inevitable that we would occasionally wade into the streams and cool off.
I won't go into it here (because it will take me off onto a political rant) but wherever we went during the week we saw burnt fields/forests, damaged houses and other evidence of the punishment from a month of rockets. But we also saw that life was returning to normal and most of the people who had left during the bombardment were back and picking up the pieces of their normal lives.
For most of the week, water became sort of a theme... and because of the heat, all our day trips involved hikes in or near water.
The first day we met up with some friends who were staying on the other side of the Golan for an easy trek through Nahal (stream) Magdresse (sp?) in the Golan Heights. It was roasting hot out so we were glad the path was actually involved a walk in knee deep water under the cover of trees and bushes growing from the banks.
Here Yonah bravely leads the way:
Further up the water deepens a bit:
The next day we stayed closer to our base and our friends from the previous day joined us for a hike down a section of Nahal Senir (which is either part of the Hatzbani or Dan river or some combination thereof since they cross near there). Here are the kids early in the trek:
At one point I found a spot in the rapids where I could wedge myself between some rocks and enjoyed a 15 - 20 minute nap while the cool water flowed around and over me. Heaven:
That evening after the kids were settled in at the campsite, Zahava and I snuck off to a little place called Dag Al HaDan, (literally “Fish on the Dan”). The Dan is the river which flows THROUGH the restaurant and the entrance alone is like something from a story book!
The long, heavily forested driveway has low-hung globe lantern-style
lights which illuminate the path into the dense forest setting. As
you exit your car, you can hear the gurgling of several small streams,
and the rustle of wings. There is a lovely path over a narrow stream
densely populated with geese, swans, ducks, and fish of all sizes.
Once over the bridge, the maitre’d escorted us to a hewn table nestled under fig trees that were dotted with lit lanterns. Waiting for us there by prior arrangement were our friends Imshin and Bish who were also vacationing with their kids on the northern border. We spent a pleasant spell enjoying their company over delicious desserts and perfect coffee, and left feeling (as we always do when parting from these lovely people) that we really need to find the time to see them more often.
Our last day in the north was spent in Tiveriya (Tiberius) where we treated the kids to an afternoon at a water park/beach club right on the Kineret (Sea of Galilee). The place has an incredible array of pools and water slides and also had a private sandy beach on the lake itself.
Yonah took advantage of the clear calm water and set about teaching himself to swim:
There are a lot more pictures but I'll have to post them in their own photo album over there on the right sometime next week.
That's it for now. It's great to be back... and now that I've (hopefully) regained my sanity I can't wait to write some semi-coherent posts.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Madonna, look out!
[Submitted for your approval, O Treppenwitz readers, from the Elisson Archive, a post about pop culture’s infatuation with what people think is Jewish mysticism...]
You, Britney Spears, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher don’t know what you’re messing with. Kabbalah is not for the weak-minded!
It’s remarkable what you can find on eBay these days. I came across this old Marvel comic book from the early 1970’s which features a “hero” (if he can be called that) called the Golem. Possibly the first comic book character straight out of Jewish legend. But what really caught my eye was the story title: “The Devil-Hordes of Kaballa!” Stan Lee (né Lieber) having one of his little inside jokes.
Kabbalah, of course, is the body of knowledge having to do with Jewish mysticism. It consists largely of speculation on the nature of divinity, the Creation, the origin and fate of the soul, and the role of human beings. It consists also of meditative, devotional, mystical and magical practices that in years past were taught only to a select few; for this reason, Kabbalah is regarded as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism. The word “cabal” - a group of conspirators - is derived from Kabbalah, owing mainly to the mystical and secretive nature of the latter.
Some - probably most - aspects of traditional Kabbalah are so wound up with Jewish religious belief and knowledge that they are meaningless outside of that context...but at the same time, there are other aspects that have been studied and practiced outside of Judaism for so long that they have evolved their own distinct identity. As Colin Low puts it in his Kabbalah FAQ website, “you do not have to be Jewish to study [these aspects of Kabbalah], any more than you need to be English to study the Law of Gravitation. However,” Low continues, “if you choose to study Kabbalah by name you should recognise that Kabbalah was and is a part of Judaism, and an important part of the history of Jewish people, and respect the beliefs which not only gave rise to Kabbalah, but which are still an essential part of Jewish faith.”
These days, of course, anyone who is hooked into the Great American Drivel Manufactory can tell you that the hot new spiritual trend taking Hollyweird by storm is - you guessed it - Kabbalah. Madonna, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, and
Bitchney Britney Spears - they’re all rushing off and tying red strings around their wrists and consulting with them radical rebbes.
What a country. Madonna Ciccone Ritchie, a nice Catholic girl, is writing children’s books based on rabbinic teachings. And meanwhile, Britney rushed off to get herself a Kabbalah-inspired tattoo - never mind that tattoos are a no-no according to the Torah. I’ll bet it’s real cute...and spiritual, too!
So: back to my comic book.
Those “Devil-Hordes of Kaballa” - could it be that, 30 years ago, Stan Lee could see all this coming? Perhaps these “devil-hordes” are all those happy Left Coast trendoids struggling to penetrate the cosmic mysteries. They say Kabbalah is notoriously difficult even for the most learned scholars. Traditionally, you couldn’t even begin to study it until you were 40 years old (20, by some authorities). And there were old stories that you could go stark raving nutso if you weren’t fully prepared.
Hey, maybe those old stories are right. I hear that Target has actually run out of $30 red string bracelets due to high demand. Stark. Raving. Nutso.
[Well, since I'm supposed to be posting here, but utterly buried in writer's block, I'll repost one of my favorite Treppenwitz entries. I think of this story every single time the Spice G... oh, I've said too much!]
I am the morning DJ...
With apologies to Harry Chapin, I couldn’t resist borrowing the title of today’s post.
With all the traveling around the country I’ve been doing lately for meetings, my iPod has been getting quite a workout. I play my iPod through my car stereo by way of a nifty little item called an iTrip. Basically, the iTrip (which is a bit bigger than a AA battery and plugs into the iPod’s headphone jack) transmits to any free FM frequency you select.
Although the iTrip was the ‘must have’ holiday gift item in the UK this year, it is also illegal because it violates the British ‘Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949’ (essentially you are creating a low-powered FM radio station when you use it).
Fortunately, the Israeli broadcast authorities have not yet weighed in on the legality of the iTrip. I guess they've been too busy trying to shut down the hundreds of illegal radio stations run by Arabs and Hasidim (no, they aren’t working together… but it’s still an interesting aggregation of lawbreakers at these two ends of the spectrum).
So, here I’ve been, driving from one end of the country to the other… minding my own business, and listening to selections form the nearly 600 CDs that I’ve loaded onto my iPod so far.
If you were in the car with me you’d be surprised at the eclectic mix of country, classical, jazz, rock, zydeco, Israeli, Mediterranean, funk, fusion, folk, gospel, and klezmer music blasting from my car speakers on any given trip.
But since I’m alone, what do I care what others think, right? Funny you should ask, since I recently had to redefine my definition of ‘alone’.
While driving on Route 6 (the new Israeli north/south toll highway), I noticed a car that was annoying everyone by exactly keeping pace with me. If I sped up, he sped up. If I slowed down, there he’d be… right next to me.
Not only was this off-putting for me, since I like to maintain a large defensive ‘bubble’ of empty space around me when I drive, but it was annoying the crap out of the drivers behind us who had to cross three lanes of traffic in order to pass us.
When I finally used an internationally recognized hand signal to inquire about the exactly nature of his problem (picture holding your hand up to ask a question and then rotating the pinky and thumb quickly back and forth), he surprised me by answering with two very surprising signals of his own:
First came a hand signal that would only be recognized by Jews who are in the habit of attending synagogue on Yom Kippur. Although he wasn’t wearing a kippah, this 20-something man gestured by beating his closed fist against his chest, the Jewish sign for contrition... he was apologizing.
Then he surprised me even further by taking the same hand with which he had been beating against his chest and extending his index finger to point towards to his ear, and then pointing directly at me.
A little light bulb went on above my head. He apparently had been using the scan function of his car radio and had stumbled across the frequency on which my iTrip was broadcasting. This was amazing to me on a few levels... mostly because the broadcast range of the iTrip is about two car lengths (which explains why he stayed in the lane next to me), and also because it required him to have figured out that the music was coming from my car!
I still don’t know if he put together the connection between the odd broadcast and my car because he was familiar with the iTrip and had seen me fooling with the iPod between songs, or if he simply made a fantastic deductive leap (I assume it was the former), but for the next 50 minutes I got to play DJ to a (mostly) appreciative audience of one.
Once or twice I tried out an obscure bit of opera or a Buxtehude organ selection and he signaled his luke-warmness by holding his hand out palm down and alternately raising and lowering his thumb and pinky ('cosi-cosi').
When we got to the end of the highway near Hadera, he signaled to turn right and I moved into the left lane. As he turned east towards his destination he opened his window, stuck out his hand and waved. Another universal signal transmitted and received.
Anyone who knows me is aware of my passion for music... but I am just as passionate about communication. When cultural/linguistic barriers crop up to block effective communication it frustrates me to no end... and when signals are clearly sent and received, I’m a happy camper!
So sharing my musical selections for almost an hour was fun in a DJ-ish sort of way... but those few brief bits of improvised sign language were an unexpected highlight in an otherwise uneventful day.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
'yet another guest post'
“Hi, (*ahem*) Hello.”
((tap, tap, tap)) “Is this thing on?”
“Hi, I am weese and I am a guest-blogger.”
-- “Hi, weese”
When David first asked me to guest post I was immediately filled with terror.
David is such an excellent writer, he has such a huge following, he is so political, so intelligent, so Jewish and so tall.
I am none of these things… I suppose… even the antithesis. Being a short Italian, non-political, agnostic, lesbian…really- could we be any different.
I like to pride myself on being David’s least political reader. Really, I am. World politics mean nothing to me, I am even a little uncertain on most geography. Go ahead and challenge me… I’m not even really sure where Idaho is.
And so I immediately began to worry about the post.
What would I write, how would I be clever enough to entertain an audience who did not seek me out. Ooo the pressure.
Also, I worried that the government start watching us now that I am posting on the blog of such an influential Jewish blogger during such trying times ... tho secretly I hope they do - you know our government really just watches us from those satellites for the lesbian sex. I am certain they will be disappointed to find us doing laundry and vacuuming instead.
So, finally… well… I decided to simply not care. Here you are my captive audience, (captive in that …you are still reading aren’t you) and so I will just be me. I will simply write in my carefree, rambling style about our daily, boring life of raising kids in the suburbs with dogs, lawn tractors, car trouble and the wacky antics that ensue.
I will entertain you with my ‘regular content’. I realized that even if you, the reader, were completely bored perhaps even repelled by my writing style or subject matter… that you would still return to David’s blog tomorrow and the next day, as you always have. My little post wouldn’t disrupt your routine. I am but a blip on the blog-dar.
This soothed me.
Now I could sit down and actually compose a post – something meaningful, with some humor… maybe even a picture, because I do so love pictures. Hmm, but what picture to post. I mean, you don’t know me. A single picture could be meaningless. If I post a picture of myself I could appear self-centered. David’s pictures are so … interesting, or topical, sometimes thought provoking. I looked around, I eyed the dog, I considered the gardens, I picked up the camera…then put it back down.
I decided to bag the picture and stick to my own silly brain-dump sort of prose which I am known for. It’s what I am good at. Its why some people visit my blog. (well, that and because they think there will be lesbian sex.)
But now look… I have blathered on for so long a time I haven’t even gotten around to my ‘regular content’… or have I.
Not my story
[Another one from the archives while I'm out recharging my batteries]
Yesterday morning I was in Zichron Yaakov on business. I hadn’t been there since the summer of 2002 when Zahava and I visited this charming little winery town (the Carmel Mizrahi winery is its cornerstone), and I had nearly forgotten about this picturesque community overlooking the Mediterranean.
My surreal meeting (which warrants a journal entry of its own, I assure you) ended around lunchtime, and my colleagues were anxious to try out one of the trendy little restaurants in the center of Zichron. I wasn’t particularly hungry so I opted to wander around and look in the shops instead.
After I had exhausting the complete gambit of arty boutiques that seem to populate every ‘wine community’ in the world, I wandered over to the old 19th century synagogue which Zahava and I had visited during our previous trip.
I was really hoping that the caretaker, an elderly holocaust survivor, would be somewhere in the synagogue... but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. I was deeply disappointed because I had really wanted to ask him some details about a story he had told us during our 2002 visit.
As I wandered around the old synagogue, I started to worry that perhaps he had passed on... he had to have been in his late 80’s when we met him.
As I was passing the wall full of memorial plaques on my way out, I decided that even without the few details he might have been able to provide, I wanted to share his story here. As I said in the title of today’s post; it’s really not my story, but it is a story very much in need of telling:
This caretaker, originally from Slovakia, had lost his entire family in the holocaust and had spent the final months of the war as a laborer in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
Each night while he was in the camp, he shared a wooden bunk with another man of about the same age named Jacob Katz. Jacob Katz had been taken from his wife and daughter. And while he was fairly certain that his wife had been killed, he stubbornly refused to believe that his teenage daughter ‘Magda’ was dead. Each night Jacob took a picture of his daughter from its hiding place and kissed her goodnight.
After some time, Jacob Katz and his bunkmate created a ritual whereby they would both kiss the picture and say goodnight to Jacob's beautiful blonde daughter, Magda.
As the allied troops advanced towards Auschwitz during the final weeks of the war, the camp guards began making preparations to move the inmates, and decided to kill the ones who were too sick to walk. Unfortunately Jacob fell into this category, and he was led away to be shot... all the time thinking that he was being taken to the infirmary. His longtime bunkmate heard the shots that waited for Jacob at the end of this terrible ruse.
Jacob’s bunkmate survived the war and made his way to Israel where he raised a family on a Moshav not far from Zichron Yaakov. In his retirement years, he became the caretaker and default tour guide for the old synagogue in Zichron, and was happy to do the countless small tasks that came with that role.
One day while the caretaker was puttering around the small lobby of the synagogue, making adjustments to the memorial plaques on the wall, he noticed a group of three women standing nearby. There was an elderly gray-haired woman, a middle aged woman, and a pretty teenaged girl with blonde hair. It was this teenager... the identical image from that long-lost photograph... that completely took his breath away.
He went over to the small group and interrupted the two older women to ask the older of the two if her name was Magda. When she said yes, he asked her if she was the daughter of Jacob Katz. She said yes, but wanted to know how the caretaker knew who she was... she couldn’t remember having met him before.
Through his tears the caretaker explained the story of how, though they had never met, he had kissed her goodnight countless times when she was a young girl.
It turns out that Magda had also come to Israel after the war and had never found out what became of her father. She explained that he had been taken away by the Nazis and she had assumed he had been killed... but she never knew the time or place of his death. That afternoon she finally learned of her father’s fate, and that his thoughts were on her up until the very end of his days.
And she, along with her daughter and granddaughter, got to meet a living link to Jacob Katz... a man who, during the darkest days of his life, had given her countless kisses goodnight.
As I said, this was really not my story to tell, but walking around the quiet synagogue in Zichron Yaakov (which fittingly means ‘the memory of Jacob’), I was suddenly afraid that the person from whom I had heard the story might no longer be around to tell it. I really hope I’m wrong about that... and that he was simply taking a much-deserved afternoon off. But if not, you now know one of the millions of stories that exist in this tiny country of mine... stories that too frequently are left untold as the last of the ‘holocaust generation’ takes its leave to ask the important questions of the only One who can possible answer.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Threats, real and imagined
One of the things that makes childhood such an exciting time
of life is that the Big People - adults - wield real physical power over us.
When you’re a kid, you take that kind of thing seriously.
In our house, nothing brought about Instant Obedience quite as effectively as the classic Daddy Threat: “I’m gonna get out the belt!” Never mind that, in all the years I lived under the same roof with my father, not once did he ever actually get out the belt. It was the mere suggestion that such a powerful piece of weaponry would - could - be brought into play. My brother - the other Elisson - and I would not have snapped to attention any faster had Dad threatened to get out his .44 Magnum. (Which would have been a neat trick, since he has never owned a gun in his life.)
When a less serious threat was called for, other weapons - more versatile weapons - in the Parental Arsenal would be trotted out.
“Keep it up, and I’m gonna give you a frask im pisk!”
Ah, the old Frask im Pisk. That’s a smack in the mouth, for the 0.0002% of y’all that may be Yiddish-impaired: a serious sanction reserved only for the most egregious infractions. Fortunately for me and my brother, our folks were not big users of the frask im pisk. Strong medicine, that.
“I’m gonna give you a potch in tuches!”
That’s a smack on the ass - a very versatile threat, for it could be issued in perfect seriousness...or it could be meant completely in jest. Compare and contrast the potch in tuches with “I’m gonna kick yer ass!” The former is almost deceptively playful, while the latter is an unalloyed warning. When we were threatened with a potch in tuches, we could never really be sure whether it was a real threat, a threat made in jest, or mere posturing. One thing’s for sure: nobody was in a hurry to find out.
The best threat, though, came from my Uncle Gerry, of blessed memory.
Back on our Snot-Nose Days, when we would horse around to the point of becoming annoying, Uncle Gerry would warn us: “I’m gonna give you a funge in the knibber!”
To this day, nobody has ever, to my knowledge, figured out what a funge was, nor what part of the anatomy the knibber represented. But when we were little, nobody wanted to find out, all too late, that a funge was “an ashcan-sized exit wound, similar to that left by a hollow-point projectile,” and that the knibber was another word for “skull.”
We all have Parental Threats that we remember fondly...or maybe not so fondly. But Parental Threats are threats whose overarching purpose is to enforce discipline, a necessary component of growing up to be a civilized human being. Parents who avoid disciplining their children end up with children who behave as though they were raised by wolves…and so a Parental Threat is, in its own way, an expression of love.
There’s a big difference between a Parental Threat and a Real-Life Threat, as anyone living in Israel is well aware. Those Real-Life Threats are not intended to make us better human beings. They are intended to make us dead human beings.
Real-Life Threats, like Parental Threats, are issued with varying levels of seriousness of both intent and risk of harm. They might range from “I’m gonna punch you inna nose” (the Schoolyard Bully) or “We’re gonna wipe you off the map” (Mahmoud Ahminadinnerjacket). But in the case of a Parental Threat, failure to carry out the threat is not necessarily a sign of ill-resolve or of weakness. The parent is always physically capable of harming the child, even if he or she would never think to do so.
Real-Life Threats are different. If a threat is not outright bluster - which in many cases it is - a Real-Life Threat is a true threat, either to life, liberty, or economic well-being. Real-Life Threats cannot be ignored.
What can you do about Real-Life Threats?
You can ignore them, and hope the threatener goes away. This works only if the threat is empty bluster, with nothing to back it up. But if they’re threats made with serious intent, you ignore them only at grave risk.
You can wait until the threatener makes good on his promise. By then, it is generally too late to avoid some damage or (G-d forbid) loss of life. But once the provocative gauntlet has been tossed, immediate, forceful action is called for. Anything less, and more threats will follow. It’s one of the things they teach you in Negotiating 101.
You can act preemptively against a credible threat of serious harm. This approach has its risks, however, and leaves the threatener the option of crying, “I was only kidding!” The whole issue of whether preemptive action is ever justified is its own tightly packed can of worms, however, and it is best opened in a different post.
But regardless, the one thing that will remove a threat - once action is decided upon - is to remove the threatener, or pound him into submission such that no new threat can even be contemplated. Sadly, this is what Olmert’s foray into Lebanon failed to achieve...and why, despite my best hopes, our people’s resolve is likely to be tested again by those enemies who pose a Real-Life Threat.
Lessons Buffy Can Teach Us
Hello! This is Doctor Bean. I was thrilled when David asked me to guest-post here at Treppenwitz. I’m honored that he would entrust his loyal readers to my whims.
My wife (she calls herself ball-and-chain) and I have recently become addicted to the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It ran for seven seasons from 1996 to 2003 and developed a huge and loyal fan base – a cult following, you could say. During that time b&c and I were essentially living under a rock. We were never big TV watchers, and during those years we were pretty busy having babies. So while we heard of the show, we never saw a single episode until a few months ago. Now that were hooked we’re watching every episode in order on DVD. We’re about half way through the fourth season.
The acting is great. The stories are great. The dialogue is great. Writer/producer Joss Whedon’s weird sense of humor is very evident. But the most compelling thing about Buffy is the very serious themes with which it deals. Without giving away too many plot details, here are just some of the lessons Buffy teaches.
Evil is real. It is implacable and permanent. It can not be reasoned with because it has reasons of its own. It can not be negotiated with. You can appease it, you can join it, you can retreat, or you can fight.
Fighting evil frequently involves violence, sometimes lethal violence.
Heroes don’t choose to be heroes. They are chosen for the job. They never want it; it’s forced on them. They are the right people at the wrong place. When the Almighty gives the Prophet Jonah his mission, Jonah does the rational thing – he runs away and hopes He will chose someone else. Churchill happened to be Prime Minister when Hitler ravaged Europe. The passengers of flight 93 did not wake up on their last day hoping to save the Capitol Building from terrorists. Buffy would like to go to high school, date, and hang out with friends. But fate picked her to save the world.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing the right thing despite the presence of fear.
Women can be heroes too, e.g. Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.
Everyone has good traits and bad traits. The worst villain has redeeming qualities and the greatest hero is deeply flawed. But in the struggle between good and evil there is no fence-sitting. Each one of us eventually picks one side or is pushed off the fence. That’s one of the best things about the show. Each character is so complex. Two of the worst villains, Faith and the mayor, have a genuinely touching warm relationship, but ultimately they are unredeemed.
Sex, outside of very narrow parameters, is a bad idea. In a popular culture that frequently celebrates casual sex, it’s refreshing to see a show in which the vast majority of sexual encounters have profoundly negative consequences. Some are nearly cataclysmic.
Victory is complicated. It requires a confluence of the right people, the right skills, the right technology, hard work, and some luck.
The show is frequently too dark and too sexual for kids, but if b&c and I aren’t the only ones on the planet who haven’t seen it all, and if you like your horror with lots of humor and wisdom, check it out.
Entertaining the Troops
[A little something from the archives while I'm away recharging my batteries]
This morning I assumed I'd be alone in the car since I had to go to my company's main offices in the center of the country and none of my 'usual customers' were off from the army. However, as I passed through the Elah valley I ended up picking up three soldiers from the Givati Brigade (you can spot them by their distinctive purple berets).
In case you hadn't noticed, I have a bit of a soft spot for the men and women doing their national service in the IDF.... and whenever I can, I try to make their lives a little easier by bringing them drinks and snacks... and by giving them rides.
The Givati Brigade is one of Israel's elite, front-line infantry groups. They are highly trained, and have been one of the primary IDF units serving in Gaza for quite some time now. All three of these soldiers wore Sergeant stripes on their sleeves and had the serious look of people who have left their childhood far behind.
By the bits of conversation and phone calls I overheard, I figured out that one of their officers was driving down from the north, and they were meeting him so that they could all go together to join the rest of their unit already at the staging area outside of Gaza.
The attitude among these serious young men was quite different from the way I've heard soldiers joke with each other on the way to their training bases. I suppose it goes without saying that the destination really sets the tone for the trip.
As we turned off the twisting road that wends through the valley and got on a smooth-surfaced highway, I picked up my trusty coffee mug to take that first wonderful sip.
Just as the caffeinated elixir passed over my tongue and made its way towards the back of my mouth, a little tickle developed at the back of my throat.
Under normal circumstances I could have kept the coffee from rushing down the now-open windpipe... any two-year-old has mastered this little trick! But for some reason I got the timing wrong and a big hot mouthful of Sumatra's best made a mad dash for my lungs.
I probably don't need to tell you what happened next. We're all men and women of the world, aren't we? We're all familiar with involuntary bodily functions such as gagging... coughing... spraying coffee all over the steering wheel, dashboard and windshield, right? No? Just me???
Well it all happened so fast that it was like that scene from Pulp Fiction where they accidentally shoot the guy sitting in the back seat. One second the car was full of composed, silent grownups. The next second the interior of the car is tinted 'cafe au lait'!
I didn't have time to be embarrassed because instantly the car erupted in brays of laughter! In that same millisecond, the years dropped from the soldier's faces and they rolled against each other, slapping their legs with tears running down their cheeks.
As quickly as I could I pulled the car over to the side and parked on the shoulder.
Looking around, I could no longer see the serious combat veterans who had silently shouldered their way into my car. In their places sat the three little carefree boys they had once been... the kind of boys who would laugh at someone farting... burping in the back of a classroom... or coughing/spraying a drink out of orifices normally used for breathing.
After I got the bulk of the coffee cleaned up it was less than a twenty minute drive before I dropped the soldiers at the junction where their officer's car sat idling... pointed south towards Gaza.
As they got out of the car, they each thanked me for the ride... but their smiles and giggles told me that the thanks were also for the unplanned entertainment.
Well, nobody can say I'm not about improving the morale of our troops!
Monday, August 21, 2006
Enough: a 100-word story
My people, they are a stiff-necked people.
Been that way for thousands of years. Back in the Sinai days, Moses had it all figured out. You think he climbed up Mount Nebo to die, giving up on his dream to enter the Promised Land just because God told him to?
He simply couldn’t stand any more of the constant bitching, whining, and nagging.
“It was better back in Egypt.” “This manna sucks! I want meat!” “I’m thirsty!” “We’re all gonna die!”
So Moses said, “Enough, already!”
Can’t say I blame him. Other people may complain, but Jews harp.
Holidays with Uncle Phil
With the month of Elul bearing down on us, it won’t be all that long before it’s Rosh Hashanah 5767, followed by the Big Parade o’ Yomim Tovim.
Holidays are times for families to get together. There has been a lot written in the American press about holiday angst, and it has been the topic of several films in the last few years...but, almost without exception, the major angst-inducing holidays are not Jewish holidays. At least, that has been my experience. Your mileage - and life story - may differ.
When I think about family get-togethers, I tend to think about Pesach more than, say, Rosh Hashanah, or Sukkot. Or Tisha b'Av, for that matter. Pesach is a family-centric holiday, and Pesach was a holiday that we never failed to celebrate, even if in our own half-baked (you should excuse the expression) manner. And when I think about Pesach, I always think about my Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge.
Regular readers of my site may remember Uncle Phil, my mother’s older brother. My first experience of loss took place when Phil took his family and moved from New York to Florida...right about the same time the Brooklyn Dodgers made their move to Los Angeles: a double whammy! It was a real trauma for me at the time, because I loved my cousins – the move meant that we would see them once a year instead of every week. I can still remember watching their car pull out of our driveway for the last time. I was five years old.
But because our visits became less frequent, they took on the aura of something special...something almost exotic. Our annual weeks-long visit to Florida meant an overnight with my cousins and the chance to sleep in a bunk bed. A bunk bed! As a little kid, I loved bunk beds, probably because sleeping in one was a once-a-year event. Summer camp, and later, college dorm living, would eventually cure me of any nostalgic affection for bunk beds...but for the young Elisson, a night in a bunk bed was an adventure. I’d be in one bunk and my cousin Andy in the other, and we’d swap stories late into the night.
Years later it was at Phil’s house that I watched the Apollo moon landing. And it was on Phil’s boat, out in Biscayne Bay, that I learned the truth of the proverb, “Jews are a desert people. They should not own boats.” But that’s a story for another blogpost.
Phil used to run a hobby shop, selling chemistry sets, stamps and coins, and what-not. The hobby stuff eventually disappeared as the business mutated into a scientific equipment exporting firm, but I loved that little shop. What kid doesn’t love a hobby shop?
My uncle had a neighbor back in the 1980’s who worked as an artist for the Archie Comics Group. And one day, Phil showed up as a bit player in a “Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch” comic book. The name of the story (from Number 76, the November 1982 issue) was “Professor Pither’s Pill” – an innocent enough title until you realized that the Professor had a lisp. So Archie Comics was not above slipping a little excretory humor into their books if you looked closely enough.
In the story, Sabrina her own self goes walking into Phil’s hobby shop and has a brief conversation with him. And, I gotta admit, Bob Bolling (the artist) nailed Phil perfectly. Too bad all this was before Sabrina got popular enough to have her own TV series.
But we were talking about Pesach, weren’t we?
Those lengthy Florida vacations we took back in my Runny-Nose Days inevitably meant spending part of Passover with Phil and Marge, who would host a memorable Seder meal. Already wound up from the excitement of seeing my cousins, I would eagerly await sundown on Seder night – a chance to drink a few sips of the Elusive Fruit o’ th’ Vine, to eat matzoh slathered with charoset, and to eat gefilte fish with a load of horseradish sufficient to water the eyes and shorten the breath.
I loved those Seders. Not that they were “ritually correct” in any significant way. Yeah, we did the major stuff. We read the Haggadah – well, the first half, anyway. We ate the matzoh and bitter herbs. We dipped the vegetables in salt water. But I’m sure there was a lot we glossed over. I mean, my family’s level of Jewish Observance was such that we would, like as not, order in a pizza for the second Seder – if we had ever bothered to have a second Seder.
But we always had fun Chez Phil ’n’ Marge. One night, our cousins’ dog, an evil-tempered shtick dreck dachshund yclept Rembrandt, bit a chunk out of my kid brother’s hand. Yes, Rembrandt: the model of the Temperamental Artiste, creating Living Sculpture. It made for an exceptionally exciting Seder, and Bro still carries the scar. Maybe the rotten little beast did not care for the brisket...
And, after all these years, I still carry the sense-memories. Pesach, Rosh Hashanah - it matters not what holiday it is. Every yontiff, as the perfume of simmering chicken soup wafts through the house and the pong of freshly-opened Gold’s horseradish attacks the sensitive nasal lining, those memories bubble up from deep inside me, and I remember with love all of those Seder meals long past. All of those grandparents who no longer walk this planet. My mother, SWMBO’s father, both of blessed memory.
And I think of the ones who are still with us - like Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge - keyn ayin ha-ra - and I treasure them.
The fine line between consumer and voyeur
[A little something from the archives while I'm off recharging my batteries]
I was over at the mall earlier in the week picking up something for the office during my lunch break and decided to take a quick look around for a new pair of sunglasses. I haven't gone shopping for sunglasses in ages, but since I finally seem to have lost the pair I brought with me to Israel I figured 'what the heck'.
Most Israeli malls have between 5 and 35 stores dedicated exclusively to selling sunglasses. I suppose this is because sunglasses are such an essential part of the Israeli wardrobe. Anyhoo... I had maybe 15 minutes to kill so I picked one sunglass store at random and did a quick walk around to see if anything seemed likely.
I've already expounded on Israeli 'tastes' in outdoor eye-wear so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that I found nothing that I could imagine myself wearing in public.
As I was walking towards the door one of the pretty young store employees asked me if I needed help. I told her that I hadn't found anything I liked and she helpfully mentioned that there were more styles in the front windows of the store.
I went out into the mall and walked back and forth looking into the store window. After a couple of minutes of looking I actually spotted a pair that looked nice.
1. I tend to like smaller sunglasses rather than the large wrap-around ones favored by most Israelis, and the pair that had caught my eye seemed to be a women's style. I figured this out because they were perched on the sculpted face of a female mannequin.
2. The pretty sunglass store employee had followed me out into the mall and was standing next to me ready to offer helpfully advice. This wouldn't normally have been a problem, except that the pretty young girl cleared her throat and mentioned in an embarrassed tone that I was no longer looking at her store's merchandise.
Sure enough, I had unknowingly drifted a few feet to the left and was now standing in front of the neighboring store's display window. In my defense, all of the mannequins in the window were wearing sunglasses... but I probably should have noticed that they weren't wearing much else. I was looking longingly at a nifty pair of sunglasses poised on the face of a scantily clad lingerie mannequin.
I probably wouldn't have been quite so embarrassed if:
a) ...the store employee hadn't been so young and pretty.
b) ...I hadn't been old enough to be her father.
c) ...I hadn't been wearing a kippah on my head.
d) ...the lingerie on the mannequin had been even somewhat tasteful.
This last point was probably what did me in.
Israeli lingerie shops are not very um, subtle. In the US there is a pretty broad spectrum of tastefulness in lingerie shops. At one end of the spectrum are lace emporiums such as Victoria's Secret... and at the other end there are, er, less classy shops such as Frederick's of Hollywood.
So I'm told, anyway. [ahem]
If one were to continue walking down the 'class spectrum' from V.S... passing F. of H. ... and then continue walking for, oh, about ten years, one would eventually arrive at the typical Israeli lingerie shop.
On the many occasions Zahava and I have gone to a mall with our kids I have been tempted to cover their eyes as we pass these lingerie shop windows. The 'fashions' (if one can call them that) on display in these places are what I imagine a sex offender might dream up for hookers to wear. Except, of course, that no self respecting hooker would ever wear this stuff!
Again... a supposition on my part. [ahem]
In the blink of an eye, by simply taking two or three steps - maybe 4 or 5 feet in all - in the wrong direction, I had gone from being a discerning consumer to being a creepy middle-aged voyeur.
So here I was standing next to a pretty young store clerk in a crowded mall, in front of an unbelievably graphic lingerie display... and blushing so deeply that I could feel myself starting to sweat.
Under any other circumstances I probably would have just turned and made a run for it (and then never shown my face in that mall again). But the kooky thing is that I really, really liked those sunglasses.
So, in an attempt to pretend that I hadn't made a really embarrassing mistake I said to the pretty young thing, "Oh, I know this isn't your store... but you see those (pointing directly at the sunglasses on the mannequin)... do you have any like that?
Not only did I not immediately appreciate how that sentence might sound if the girl happened to miss my hand gesture towards the sunglasses... but as if to confirm this, the pretty sunglass store employee asked icily, "We're still talking about sunglasses, right?"
That was all I could take.
It may be that the sunglass store had the exact sunglasses I was looking for... and had maybe even supplied all the sunglasses to the lingerie store... [side point: who wears sunglasses with push-up bras and thongs???!!!]... but I'll never know. At that point I looked blindly at my watch, did a fake double take and mumbled something about being late for an important meeting.
As I hurried away I felt as though every shopper in the mall had turned to watch the creepy guy in the yarmulke who had been leering at the hooker-wear in the store window.
I think I might just be able to manage for a little while longer without new sunglasses.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Southern fried Yiddishkeit
Jews in the Southern United States used to be pretty thin on the ground, but they have had an impact on local culture that goes back well before today’s popularization of that famously Jewish food, the bagel.
Many regional department store chains got their start as Jewish-owned dry-goods businesses. Go to any medium-sized Southern city and you will find that there remain clothing stores with distinctively Hebraic-sounding names. Not all of these survive – in many cases, all that is left is some faded paint on the side of a downtown building, memorializing a family livelihood long gone.
When I first moved away from the Northeast back in (gasp!) 1974, I had to adjust to a whole new paradigm of Jewish life. In Houston, there was a thriving Jewish community, but it was a mere drop in an ocean of Texas gentiles. And the familiar accents were replaced by something...different. “Y’all come on over – we’re havin’ a barbecue this Shabbes. The gantzer mushpucker will be there...except for Cousin Sidney. He’s a smuck.”
Yeah, hearing that Texas accent was a little freaky...as was, a few years later, hearing Yiddish phrases spoken by people from Memphis in what was by then a familiar Southern drawl. It became clear to me that the South had had an impact on its Jews just as its Jews had had an impact on it.
I thought of that peculiar Southern Jewish cultural amalgam as I was making breakfast one day last week.
There’s an old Romanian dish that still serves as classic Comfort Food to Eastern European Jews: Mamaligeh. The spelling varies, but the concept is the same. Cornmeal mush, AKA polenta, served up in traditional fashion with cottage cheese and sour cream. Here’s a typical recipe:
4 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
½ cup milk
2 tsp butter
Combine water and salt in a large, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add cornmeal in a thin stream (like falling rain), stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly with a long-handled spoon. Mixture will become a thick mass and pull away from the sides of the pan. To avoid lumps, don't stop stirring until done.
Add the milk and butter; stir to mix. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Once you’ve cooked up a mess o’ mush, serve it with lashings of cottage cheese and sour cream. Delicious!
Well, a few days ago, She Who Must Be Obeyed decided to breakfast upon Cheese Grits – a Southern favorite, and no chewing required! [no chewing permitted, thanks to jaw surgery eight weeks ago.] And that’s when the little Lightbulb o’ Inspiration lit up above my noggin.
Grits are corn. Cornmeal is corn. So why not have Southern-style mamaligeh?
I simply substituted grits for the cornmeal in the “standard” mamaligeh recipe, lobbed in some cottage cheese and sour cream, and Bingo! A breakfast dish – also great on a Sunday evening, by the way – with roots in the Deep South and in Eastern Europe...and packed with Vitamin Y.
[*The word “yiddishkeit” translates as “Jewishness,” as many treppenwitz readers know. It refers to both the religious aspect of Judaism as well as its cultural accoutrements. On the Yiddishkeit index, Fiddler on the Roof is a ten; Miracle on 34th Street is about zero.]
Sus scrofa airbornicus
Let's see... What to write. What to write. I'm well out of the habit of blogging, you know. Politics is out. The Israeli situation has been done far better than I could do it, and no one cares what's happening in the US. (But feel free to expound on what you'd like to do to pedophile schoolteachers, if the urge strikes you.) Religion? No. My beliefs would confuse you even more than they confuse me, which is a lot. That leaves us with... Snakes on a Plane!! Er. No.
I can't write tearjerkers like David (but now I can surreptitiously add the kleenex alert logo to his entries! Kidding, kidding.) So what's made me smile this week? I saw a real, honest-to-goodness Citroen 2CV, with the sardine can top open, on the way to work one day. Nearly the last really unique old foreign car that Detroit hasn't tried to foolishly modernize. The grocery store finally started carrying Ben and Jerry's Vermonty Python ice cream. That cute cashier was totally flirting with me. The funky growth on my dog's elbow turned out to be a fibroid adenoma, which is benign, my new favorite word.
Oh, right. And this.
One tiny and rare counterpoint to David's last Photo Friday - the many people in San Francisco and DC, and elsewhere around the world, who think the poor widdle terrorists got a bad deal, when they finally got smacked back, after years of provocation. In the cesspool of appeasement that is Hollywood, these few dozen brave people stood up for Israel. (And I highly doubt that anyone would be silly enough to tell Nicole Kidman that she'll never work in that town again.) Let's read that again, shall we? "...terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas."
That makes me happy. Now get out your umbrellas. I believe we have pigs on the wing.
Long in the tooth
[A little something from the archives while I'm off recharging my batteries]
The title of today’s post is actually an old expression originally associated with horses. It seems that one of the best ways to get a sense of a horse’s age is to look in its mouth. As a horse gets older its gums recede, exposing more and more of the root… thus making its teeth appear longer. This is also the origin of the phrase ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth’… since it would seem rude to check the age of a horse one has just received as a gift.
So what, you are probably wondering, is today’s fascination with teeth… and age?
My 10-year-old daughter Ariella - our first baby - lost her last baby tooth. This is yet another sign in a ling line of signs I’ve been ignoring that my baby is growing up.
As the resident tooth fairy, I am now in possession of the last tangible remnant of her childhood… bought and paid for like all the ones that came before. As I turn the tooth over in my hand, I can’t help feeling that I should have seen this coming. Like a predictable plot twist in a movie, there was plenty of foreshadowing and hinting… yet I didn’t notice.
I’m the guy in the theater who is always surprised into spilling his soda, no matter how obvious and telegraphed the bombshell. I could watch ‘The Sixth Sense’ again today and still be surprised at the end. And don’t even get me started about the trauma that was waiting for me one hour, 12 minutes and 37 seconds into ‘The Crying Game’!
Men in general seem to resist looking ahead, apparently preferring to revel in the comfortable present. I suspect that many fathers share this willful lack of foresight when it comes to their daughters. We smugly presume that they will always remain our little girls… and then spill our sodas when we catch sight of the young women they inevitably become.
This past summer our extended family spent a week in a huge old house on a private island on the southern coast of Cape cod. The setting among the dunes and beaches was magical, and the kids loved being so close to the ocean.
Late one afternoon after the rest of the family had returned from the beach, Ariella and I set off down the sandy path to have our own dip in the Atlantic. While I watched this child wade confidently into the surf, I was reminded of the afternoon, almost exactly nine years before when I carried this squalling baby into the ocean a few miles south of where we stood (on Martha’s Vineyard) to give her first taste of the sea. These two unremarkable events only a few miles apart, yet separated by most of her young life, triggered that special sense that parents seem to have… one I’ve always thought of as ‘the cinematographer’s view’.
As if holding up long strips of movie film to view individual frames, a parent sometimes has the ability to look at separate moments in time, and to superimpose them momentarily over each other… comparing, contrasting, and bursting with pride and astonishment at the graceful miracle we helped create.
As I stood on the beach drying off… enjoying that tight-skinned feeling that comes from that secret mixture of salt and sand and sun… I watched Ariella go through her ritual of drying herself. My heart skipped a beat as she instinctively made a wrap-around dress out of one towel, and then a turban of another… precisely as I’ve watched her mother do a thousand times.
When did this womanchild learn to do this?
I noticed with a fatherly combination of pride and alarm that she no longer looked anything like a little girl. She unknowingly carried herself across the sand with a swaying feminine gait, and the angles and lines of her athletic physique whispered barely audible hints of evening gowns and perfume in her future. But the hug she gave when she reached me, burying her face against my salt-tightened skin, still had that fierce, almost panicky power that it had nine years before as she clung to me in her sea-sodden diaper.
As we walked hand-in-hand up the path from the beach to have dinner with the rest of the family, I had no idea that a small tooth in her mouth - the last of its kind - was beginning to work itself loose. If I had, I doubt I would have given it much thought. After all, from the first time I sprinkled a trail of purple glitter from her windowsill to her pillow, the tooth fairy had become such an old pro at handling teeth that one more would be all in a night’s work.
In typical fatherly fashion… I didn’t anticipate the significance of this tooth until I had removed it from under her pillow.
Ariella often (but not always), leaves notes for the tooth fairy. At first they were earnestly scrawled notes asking what the tooth fairy did with all the teeth (“…do you build castles out of them?”). Then they became slightly more sophisticated messages, with veiled hints at the knowledge that the tooth fairy might have a secret identity… known only to certain wise little girls.
Truth be told, the tooth fairy is a wonderful example of the willing suspension of disbelief. There would be nothing to be gained by any of the participants ruining the little charade… so we all continued to play our roles.
But this last tooth was wrapped in a note that was a bit different. Like the contrast between the adolescent girl on the beach and the earnest little girl hugs, the note was a study in contradictions. On the one hand it was written in a beautifully mature hand on a piece of paper towel she had dyed to look like some kind of cloth. But the note broke my heart with its innocent statement that could only have come from someone still partly entrenched in childhood:
[Dear tooth fairy. This is my last tooth! Ariella]
I am heartbroken that Ariella and I will no longer be able to continue this little sham. No, she and I are now on the same side of the pillow, and for her there is no longer a reason to suspend her disbelief. For Ariella, the tooth fairy went away yesterday… never to return. So why am I the one who’s sad?
When I started this post, I was working under the assumption that the title ‘long in the tooth’ would be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ariella’s march into adolescence… but I see now it was a subconscious (and all too accurate) reference to her father.
Why didn’t I see that coming?