Thursday, July 31, 2008
Bounced checks may have a silver lining
During the year preceding Israel's disengagement from Gaza, I was shocked to hear all rational discussion of the move's pros and cons being shouted down in the name of patriotism and 'the greater good'.
Those (real) patriotic Jews who used their sweat and blood to build thriving Israeli communities in Gaza (at the behest of their government, I might add… not against its wishes) were suddenly being painted as subversive elements who represented the very antithesis of patriotism (ironic, isn't it?).
Anyone who tried to put on the brakes to slow the run-away Sharon locomotive was told that they needed to simply accept the government's more-than-generous offer of compensation and "move back to Israel". 'Father knows best', was the theme of the day.
Amazingly, at the time there was even a fair amount of griping heard from certain quarters who felt that the compensation packages being offered were too generous and that it wasn't fair that the Gush Kativ evacuees should be able to look forward to brand new 'luxury villas' when so many 'real Israelis' were living in crowded apartments in Israel's center.
Well, here we are several years after the dust has settled on the Gaza disengagement, and the evacuees (both those who left voluntary and involuntary) have been almost entirely abandoned. The promised housing and employment solutions never materialized, and even the meager financial compensation has been hopelessly mired in endless red tape and confusion.
As if to add insult to injury, the Palestinian workers who were previously employed by the Jewish farmers of Gush Katif are now starting to sue the indigent evacuees for 'wrongful dismissal and non-payment of workers benefits'… and our government (which was entirely responsible for the mess) won't even pay for the mounting legal fees to fight such frivolous suits!
One would think that those who pushed so intensely (and vocally) for these evacuees to do the patriotic thing and blindly follow their government's orders would now be at the forefront of those looking into why the government has essentially abandoned these Jewish refugees. But one would be wrong.
While I am not particularly surprised by the deafening silence from the 'You have to trust the government and do what is necessary for the greater good' crowd, I'm a little sad that the nation as a whole seems to have such a short collective memory.
Each time some politician starts making noise about giving away Judea and Samaria (the 'West Bank'), their shiny new plans all begin with dangled promises of 'Judas gold' offered as incentives to 'settlers' (I giggle when I think of us suburban yuppies being called 'settlers'... as if we're out draining swamps and planting Eucalyptus trees!) to leave our beautiful homes and communities voluntarily.
Happily, this time around there are no takers. While the nation as a whole may have conveniently forgotten the broken promises and the thousands of Gush Katif evacuees who are still unemployed and living in temporary living arrangements… the so-called-settlers have not (the latest calls for a State Commission to investigate the broken promises not withstanding).
The memory of the government's bad check (and bad faith) is still quite fresh in the minds of those who are now being offered 'incentives' to move.
Moreover, the names that were used to try to discredit the population of Gush Katif ('right wing fanatics'… 'religious zealots'… 'gun-toting settlers'… 'Messianic militants'), drape poorly on the shoulders of the much more heterogeneous population of Judea and Samaria. This time around it will be much more difficult to use the anti-religious card (though I'm sure they'll try) to divide and conquer, and even harder to convince anyone to 'just trust the government and do the right thing'.
Bouncing checks is usually considered a bad thing because of the negative impact it has on the recipient as well as the erosion of confidence it engenders in anyone else who might be offered a similar promissory note. But in retrospect, I think the Sharon/Olmert government's kited checks and broken promises to the Gush Katif evacuees may actually play an enormously positive role in the way - and more importantly, pace - that things evolve in Judea and Samaria.
Regardless of how many (if any) communities the government wants to uproot in pursuit of a final status agreement with the Palestinians, nobody can reasonably expect anyone or anything to move quickly or without serious deliberation.
Like the new draconian banking regulations that are coming into fashion in the U.S. after years of playing fast and loose with promissory notes, the reckless fiscal record of previous Israeli governments towards the Gaza evacuees will (hopefully) force everyone to perform the necessary 'due diligence' before running headlong into new agreements where someone (or everyone!) might get screwed.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Um, yeah... I'll get right on that
(Note: this was not addressed to me personally. It is an email that is circulating on the web.)
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The Great Undeclared Soap Wars
An epic battle of a long, grueling war was lost this morning after weeks of careful planning and strategizing on my part. The victor, in this latest struggle, was my lovely wife Zahava.
Anyone who shares a domicile with another person probably already has an idea where this is headed... but I'll spell it out for the rest of you. But first a little background:
Once upon a time, back in my single days, I shared an apartment with a room-mate who, for reasons of avoiding 'lashon harah', will remain nameless. This room-mate and I had agreed at the outset of our cohabitation to share equally in all expenses, including rent, utilities, cleaning supplies and food.
This last item proved far more difficult to divide equitably since, unlike the others (which were roughly monthly in nature), food was an ongoing – nearly daily - expense. At some point we agreed that we would both do shopping, and at the end of the month, after totaling up our grocery receipts, whoever had laid out more cash would be reimbursed the difference by the other.
However it quickly became clear that while the money would eventually balance itself out… the actual 'pain in the a$$' factor of going shopping hadn't been sufficiently taken into account, and wasn't being divided equitably at all.
We quickly established a routine whereby I would come home from a gig at 1 AM with my mouth all set for a cold glass of Coke… only to find the fridge innocent of that dark, bubbly beverage. I knew I'd bought some the previous morning, and sure enough… there on the counter stood the empty bottle.
This happened again and again with nearly everything I liked to eat and drink. And it didn't make me feel better that at the end of the month my room-mate happily coughed up the huge disparity in our shopping bills. I had, in essence, become his personal shopper (or mother… I'm not sure which).
So, we (I) introduced a new household rule. Whoever finished something had to go out and replace it that very same day.
Sadly, while my room-mate may have been somewhat lazy, he wasn't stupid. This new rule led to my opening the refrigerator and routinely being met by half a dozen bottles of various drinks with a half inch of cloudy back-wash on the bottom… or finding multiple Doritos bags in the cupboard, each with one lonely chip rattling around inside.
Time after time I was defeated by my wily opponent... and I never did manage to level the field before moving on and finding an apartment of my own.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with soap, Zahava and some sort of war?
Well I'm glad you asked! You see… much as you hope it would, this sort of childishness doesn't end when you toss out your last room-mate and finally get married.
As in most households, our shared master bathroom has a shower stall. And in that shower is a soap dish. Zahava and I have had an unspoken agreement for the past 16+ years that whoever uses up the soap will go to the closet and replace it with a fresh bar.
Well, since we were married, my lovely bride and I have been in the grips of what I have come to think of as 'The Great Undeclared Soap Wars'.
Happily there is no lack of soap in our house. But for some reason there seems to be some resistance to actually putting a new bar into the shower when the old one has eroded past the point of usefulness.
We're talking about the simple task of throwing out the limp sliver of old soap and getting out a new bar. This is apparently so distasteful that whoever has to do it has come to look upon it as some sort of crushing defeat.
At some point, perhaps 8/10ths of the way through a bar of soap, the two of us inexplicably become raving lunatics. We will continue to use the dwindling wafer-thin soap for shower after shower… smugly returning the now-transparent sliver to the soap dish in hopes that it will completely dissolve when the other person tries to use it.
Well, this morning I got into the shower… and made a tactical mistake. I actually picked up the sliver of soap and, without actually estimating how much was left, attempted to use it.
If I had been thinking clearly I would have certainly gone to plan 'B' (i.e. using the bath gel, or even shampoo, instead of using up the itty-bitty bath soap). But I was groggy and wasn't thinking clearly… and before I knew it I felt the little slip of soap completely dissolve without a trace.
Zahava was still snoozing happily in bed when the enormity of my loss hit me. I was half tempted to yell for her to get up and bring me a new bar of soap from the cabinet. But rules are rules… and whoever uses up the soap has to replace it. So I stepped out of the shower onto the cold bathroom tiles and retrieved a new bar of soap… unwrapping it unhappily as I went.
There was little comfort in my return to the steamy-hot shower because I knew that as soon as Zahava went to take her shower she'd see the new bar of soap sitting there in the soap dish… and victory would be hers!
War is hell.
Monday, July 28, 2008
A true giver is gone
Some of you may remember I posted a video of 'The Last Lecture' given by CMU professor Randy Pausch late last year. If not, go watch it.
Randy lost his battle with pancreatic cancer yesterday. The world is a poorer place today for his absence.
I miss the New York Times. There, I've said it. I'm not proud of myself… but there it is. For most of my adult life I've had a love/hate relationship with the 'Gray Lady'.
Starting with my first subscription when I was in University, I loved certain aspects of the paper… and hated others with equal fervor. Although doing the times crossword puzzle in ink over breakfast in the school cafeteria was considered an obvious bit of showing off… back before the Times had figured out a way to better fix their inks to the paper, it was considered a genuine mark of erudition among the intellectual set to show up to the breakfast table with ones fingers smudged with printer's ink.
Just seeing those small smudges on someone's fingertips would indicate who was likely to offer the most lively and well-informed conversation… even if it did include the inevitably wrong-headed coverage of Israel.
After university I changed apartments too often to justify arranging home delivery of the Times, but I made sure to pick up a copy a few times a week… and always took pains to make sure a copy of the weekend edition was laid in for lazy Sunday morning reading.
But looking back, I realize that the love/hate nature of my relationship with the times was (and is) truly only skin deep. You see my feelings towards the paper were almost entirely based on the political content of the front (news) page and back (editorial). Their coverage of the Middle East has been nothing short of infuriating over the years… causing me to cancel my subscription several times during fits of pique. However what existed inside the paper (and in the myriad sections & supplements throughout the week) were consistently informative and entertaining.
While we still lived in Connecticut, I can't count the number of Sunday mornings that Zahava and I took the kids to my parent's place for brunch. After the meal everyone would retreat to different parts of the house with their favorite section of the Times. Periodically someone might emerge to seek out a family member in order to exchange a section of the paper or share an interesting tidbit… but inevitably they would retreat to cozy solitude.
I also recall a particularly fancy Saturday night affair I once played with my band at the Waldorf Astoria that went into the wee hours of Sunday morning. As the tired guests trickled out of the ballroom and collected their coats, they were met by a pleasant parting token that had been arranged by their thoughtful host; There, near the top of the curved staircases that lead down to the lobby were bags of fresh H & H bagels… and neatly stacked copies of the Sunday New York Times!
Since moving to Israel I have found that I am less well informed about world events than I once was. This is because, even after digesting several Israeli news sources, one is left with a sense of tunnel vision… meaning everything here is seen through the 'fish-eye' lens of 'how does it affect Israel?'
So for all its aggravating liberalness in hard news coverage, and its maddening tendency to embrace editorial viewpoints antagonistic to many of the things I hold dear, I miss the Times.
I miss the feel of it in my fingers and I miss the well-informed feeling I had when I would finally set it aside. I miss reading David Pogue's latest take on technology, and I miss looking for hidden 'Ninas' in Al Hirschfeld's fabulous caricatures.
I have a long weekend visit to the states scheduled for mid-August. I will be staying at the family compound on the beach in Connecticut and catching up on some long-overdue family time. But one of the small pleasures I am especially looking forward to during my stay is an honest-to-goodness free Sunday… curled up in the morning sun in my favorite Adirondack chair with the Gray Lady.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Just an observation
Has anyone else noticed that most civilized countries don't list any designated 'negotiators' among their dignitaries? Last time I checked, none of the EU members, the U.S., nor any top tier Asian nations lists among their top political echelon anyone described as a 'negotiator'.
Yet if you look at the countries and entities who seem to have appointed themselves as designated thorns in the side of civilization, each of them has several prominently placed 'negotiators' listed on their letterhead.
For example, the Palestinian Authority has the perpetually shrill Saeb Erikat as their chief negotiator, the North Koreans have Kim Kye-gwan named as their chief nuclear negotiator and the Iranians have Saeed Jalili, installed as their top nuclear negotiator.
Doesn't it seem just the tiniest bit odd that these entities profess a desire for nothing more than peaceful coexistence yet seem to have mounted what amounts to pre-emptive defense strategies, complete with designated council, designed to block all attempts at indictment?
These oleaginous negotiators are invited by the world to sit smugly at polished conference tables wearing bespoke suits and sipping mineral water while playing us for the fools that we apparently are. Their intention seems to be to use the trappings of diplomacy to the same ends that the PLO, Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang used grenades, AK-47s and hijacked passenger airliners back in the '70s.
In short, while they seem to have climbed a few rungs up the sartorial ladder and mastered the mind-numbing language of diplomacy, these self-described 'negotiators' seem to be nothing more than the same old practitioners of extortion, writ large.
Instead of doing their negotiating via angry communiqués handed out of hijacked airplane cockpits or published in left-wing Italian newspapers, they now deliver their ultimatums across polished conference tables in blasé Oxford-accented tones.
I know from looking back over this essay that I must sound like some 'old-money' country club snob who doesn't much like the idea of having to share his pristine fairways and greens with nouveau riche refugees from the public links. And I have to admit that there may just be a tiny bit of that in my present discomfort.
But by the same token, membership in this country club known as the family of civilized nations does come with a rather significant initiation fee. That fee is called conformity to the norms of civilized behavior… and one shouldn't be allowed into the club without paying it.
The population of North Korea would quite literally starve to death if the world didn't routinely step in with hand-outs. Yet over the course of the past two decades their own government has invested a staggering amount of money and resources in a nuclear program that has been proved to be military in nature. Now that they have the bomb, their negotiators sit smugly across from the world and ask calmly, 'What will you give us not to use it… or give it away?'
Iran is the world's fourth largest producer of crude oil and has the second largest reserves of natural gas… yet their 'negotiators' sit poker-faced at the negotiating table daring us to refute their claim that they need nuclear power to provide their developing nation with electricity. And all the while, as their well-dressed negotiators offer to consider responding (at some future date) to ever-tastier concessions and offers from the world, their leadership crows to the press about each new milestone in uranium enrichment... a program that can only be leading towards the development of nuclear weapons. And like the North Koreans, the Iranians require that the world simply take their word for any present or future compliance.
And the Palestinians… what of the Palestinians? They have raised 'negotiating for the sake of negotiating' to an art form. They have been offered sweeter deals than they had any right to expect… several times over. Yet each time they have come up with ever-greater (and unreasonable) demands.
At Camp David in 2000, Ehud Barak decided to do what many Israeli leaders have only dreamed of doing: He offered the Palestinians 97% of the land they had been demanding, and threw in a 3% make-up of sovereign Israeli lands to balance the difference. He offered them East Jerusalem as their capital and control of Judaism's holiest site; the Temple Mount.
Barak offered them all this (presumably) based on the assumption that if they turned him down the world would finally have to admit that even their stated goal of statehood is not enough… and that nothing short of Israel's destructions would end the negotiations for the Palestinians. Their response to Baraks generous offer was the second (Al Aksa) Intifada which has continued, for all intents an purposes, to this day.
So getting back to the semi-official role of 'negotiator' among the thug-ocracies of the world, any thinking person is required to ask some unpleasantly direct questions:
- What, exactly, are they negotiating?-
- Are their demands reasonable (especially in light of the price for not granting them)?
- Will giving in to their demands bring peace and stability to the region/world… or will it only create more demands?
- If any, or all, of the demands are met, is their any way of turning back the clock in the event that the entities represented by these 'negotiators' fail to live up to their end of the bargain(s)?
Just an observation on my part (so take it for what it's worth)… but when a country or political entity 'lawyers up' and begins trying to negotiate a sweet deal before it has crossed anyone's mind that charges should be brought… it should serve as a flashing neon sign that someone is up to no good.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
An Unholy Union
Yesterday the Knesset passed a new law that, at first blush, seems to be a good thing:
Since the founding of the State, successive Israeli governments have been illegally funding haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools with a wink and a nod. Technically, in order to qualify for state funding a school had to conform to certain minimum standards including a mandated curriculum that included core subjects such as math and English. But somehow this never happened and a parve sort of money laundering was allowed to take place.
The rationale for this illegal funding scheme was cloaked in the government's desire not to entirely marginalize the haredi community. By funneling funds to them through back channels, the government maintained a certain (albeit tiny) amount of political leverage with the patrons of beneficiary institutions, and could use that leverage for well-timed horse-trading whenever a hot-button religious issue came within government purview.
So, on paper, it made sense to try to do away with as many illegal and undocumented government expenditures as possible, and to improve the transparency with the way funds are distributed. It also made sense to try to use a financial carrot to woo a traditionally distant sector of the population closer to the bosom of mainstream society.
However, rather than force some semblance of token compliance from the haredi sector in return for bringing government funding their schools out into the light of day, the government completely caved. And they caved on such a grand scale that yesterday's vote comes off smelling far worse than most previous back-room deals (of which there have been countless).
First off was the fact that the government has normalized the state funding of haredi schools without any need for compliance with core curriculum requirements. This means that these schools can not only continue to churn out graduates who are entirely unprepared to navigate the economic landscape of the society that enables their very way of life, but they can even continue teaching a curriculum that denies the very legitimacy of the country that supports/protects them.
Before anyone rushes to condemn me for being anti-haredi, let's test this formula on another segment of the population that is equally at risk. Instead of looking at the haredim, let's ask ourselves if the Israeli government should be supporting Israeli-Arab schools that refuse to conform to core curriculum standards, and which teach (preach) the illegitimacy, and even the need for the destruction, of the State of Israel.
Still think the government should break the link between funding and adherence to a government-mandated curriculum?
As if that weren't enough, it now appears that the Knesset Speaker, Dalia Itzik may have pulled a fast one with the timing of yesterday's vote. According to what I've been seeing, it is highly unusual for the final reading and vote on a bill to take place on a Wednesday when Knesset attendance is traditionally very low. Such votes are usually held on Mondays, since that is the day when Knesset attendance peaks.
There are accusations that Speaker Itzik made a deal with Shas (one of the haredi parties) to hold the final reading/vote during a lighly attended Wednesday session since it would be highly unlikely to pass in the presence of the full Knesset. This deal was allegedly struck as payback to Shas for it not having received a plum appointment in the latest distribution of cabinet largess. It will remain to be seen how (or if) Itzik responds to the finger-pointing.
Even if the political maneuvering surrounding the timing of the vote turns out to be within the bounds of legality (however distasteful it may have been), the very idea that some government-funded Israeli schools will be required to jump through hoops in order to live up to Ministry of Education guidelines while others will be free to do as they wish, is (IMHO) a recipe for disaster.
At some point the government is going to have to face up to the fact that it can no longer allow two of Israel's fastest growing minorities - haredim and Arabs - to compete to see which can serve as the heavier albatross around the country's neck.
Israeli Arabs are becoming increasingly disconnected from mainstream society, and are becoming correspondingly radicalized. The lack of oversight in their schools' core curricula, combined with a complete exemption from national service, practically guarantees that the next generation will grow up with no sense of connection to the state, and will be indoctrinated on a curriculum of hate and Jihad.
Likewise, the haredim, with their blanket exemptions from any sort of national service (note I didn't say military service) and complete autonomy (impunity) to dictate an anti-Israel curriculum devoid of marketable knowledge/skills… well, it's plain to see that the situation will only get worse, not better.
What we saw yesterday was an unholy union between players that are normally at odds with one another: Dalia Itzik (A ferociously secular Laborite) and the ultra-orthodox haredi sector, for whom Itzik's brand of secular Zionism is anathema (on both the secular and Zionist score).
I have a feeling that this particular bride is in for a rude awakening… and that the rest of the family (Israeli society) will suffer the consequences of this hasty, ill-advised union for many years to come.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
A whole video about treppenwitz
No, I didn't make it, but it is actually about treppenwitz* - the wit/wisdom of the stairs (what, you didn't realize treppenwitz was an actual word???). Bonus that t is actually a cute video with a nice message:
*Treppenwitz: The striking reply that crosses one's mind belatedly when already leaving, on the stairs. People are often angry because they did not have the fitting answer directly during a conversation.
The German term is old, but it was made popular by W. Lewis Hertslet who published his book in 1882 entitled 'Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte'. In that book, he writes: "Like to a petitioner who is just leaving after an audience, a piquant, striking words occurs to history almost always delayed." (German language Source)
Hat Tip Chayyei Sarah (I wish she would rediscover blogging)
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Making the dream a reality (part II of a series)
So where were we yesterday? Ah yes, it was the evening of September 11th 2001… and even as Zahava and I stood on our front porch looking at the newly installed American flag hanging there (along with the other new flags fluttering from porches all along our street), we'd already decided to begin the process, in earnest, of creating a new life for ourselves and our children under 'our' flag… the blue and white flag of the State of Israel.
But how, exactly, does one begin that process? What is the starting point for such an enormous undertaking?
Sure, making the decision to actually begin is cathartic, to say the least. But figuring out where to begin is terrifying in its complexity. Thankfully some friends, to whom we'd confided our decision to make aliyah, told us about an organization called Nefesh B'Nefesh that had recently been established to assist Americans with the process of making Aliyah.
At first I was a bit suspicious. These Nefesh B'Nefesh people had to have some sort of angle or ulterior motive since the Jewish Agency was already doing exactly the same thing.
Or so I thought.
After doing a bit of research, it became apparent that the two organizations – one an official part of the government's mandate to bring and absorb immigrants, and the other a privately funded/managed group unencumbered by preconceptions or bureaucratic oversight – actually complemented one another quite nicely.
The Jewish Agency offices, with their network of hard-working 'Shlichim' (emissaries), still provided the necessary governmental mechanism for processing requests for 'Oleh' (immigrant) visas under Israel's Law of Return.
For its part, Nefesh B' Nefesh had taken upon itself the task of providing a manageable road map for potential Olim to follow… essentially providing an orderly framework within which we could fast-track our Aliyah plans. And most importantly, the NBN staff was made up of Anglo Olim who had already been through the process of relocating to Israel.
Looking back, I can't state strongly enough how important this last point turned out to be.
There is a genre of 'war story' common to almost all western immigrants to Israel, known as 'Things my 'Shaliach' never told me'. Some, whose Aliyah experiences may have been bumpier than the norm, might even amend that to 'Lies my Shaliach told me.'.
In fairness, nearly all the typical problems associated with acclimating to an entirely new culture seem to have been unceremoniously dumped at the feet of the Jewish Agency with the rationale that, had they done a better job of preparing their charges, the process of being absorbed into Israeli society would have been much less painful.
It's hard to argue with that assessment, but as Nefesh B' Nefesh's founders understood all too well, if the Jewish Agency's emissaries were perceived as unhelpful by the foreigners they were supposed to have been helping to become Israeli… it was mostly because the majority of the Shlichim had never had to experience that transition themselves.
Think about it… Israelis who have known no other culture but their own were being sent abroad by their government and asked to help foreign Jews make the necessary preparations to uproot themselves and start over in a new and alien culture. These well-meaning Shlichim couldn't begin to understand the myriad and complex needs and fears bottled up inside each and every potential Oleh/Olah.
I know from my early conversations with representatives of the Jewish agency that most detailed questions about conditions, rights and accommodations in Israel were met with the standard line: "Smoch aliai… al tidag… atah tireh, yehiyeh b'seder" ('Trust me… don't worry… you'll see, it'll be fine').
I have to tell you that from these short Hebrew phrases have sprung some of the worst nightmares for new Olim.
There is an old saying that 'Israelis are masters at extricating themselves from situations that any normal people wouldn't allow themselves to get into in the first place.' This is a back-handed salute to the typical Israeli's ability to think tactically in the face of a near-complete cultural inability to think strategically.
Most western Olim are hard-wired differently. We are taught from an early age not to take unnecessary risks… to anticipate obstacles and avoid them… to prepare contingency plans, and where possible to select not just the shortest route between two points… but also the most logical.
Questions related to employment, education, living accommodations, health insurance, banking, and even specifics about which (and what type of) appliances to bring, were perceived as completely nonsensical to the typical Shaliach Aliyah since they knew from experience that the answers depended on far too many unknown variables to even venture a guess.
In their defense, these Shlichim couldn't fathom a nice way to explain to a typical American that 50% of their success or failure in achieving any given milestone along their Aliyah route might depend on what sort of day a particular 'Pakid' (clerk/functionary) was having when their number came up. So when faced with such ridiculously specific question about events that would be taking place months, or even years, in the future… they simply fell back on the tried and true 'You'll see…It'll be fine'… knowing that this too had an accuracy rate of approximately 50%.
So when Zahava and I initially contacted Nefesh B'Nefesh and found ourselves speaking with people who could draw upon their own aliyah experiences, as well as native knowledge of the real and perceived hurdles facing American Olim… well, everything suddenly felt like it was getting off on the right foot.
I can't place enough emphasis on the importance of those first baby steps down the long road that ultimately brought us home.
To be continued.
[By now the cat is out of the bag in terms of where this series is heading:
Nefesh B'Nefesh is sponsoring the First International Jewish Blogger Convention in Jerusalem. The conference itself will be held on the evening of Wednesday, August 20th and will include an opportunity to meet and greet fellow bloggers, timely and (hopefully) useful panel discussions… and of course good food (hey, we're Jews, right?)
However, the day before the convention, yet another Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight full of American Olim will be landing in Israel. And on board that plane will be several Jbloggers (myself included) who will be providing their readers with a unique, inside perspective of the aliyah experience.
Those who would like to attend the Jblogger Convention (in person or participate online) must register in advance. Everything you need to know is here.
Looking forward to seeing everyone there.]
Guns don't kill people...
... apparently tractors kill people.
Another heavy equipment terror attack just occured on Jerusalem's crowded streets. Another Arab terrorist is off to meet his 72 virgins. I can only pray that they are all male... and none too tender about their first time.
I really have nothing constructive to say about this.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Dreams vs. Reality
Long before Zahava and I were introduced to each other, we had both decided we would only date people who wanted to live in Israel. This certainly placed a lot of potential partners off limits (and don't think I didn't catch hell from friends thought I was just being difficult!), but we had both come to the conclusion that it would be silly to start a relationship with someone who didn't see their life's journey leading to the same destination as ours.
Many people limit themselves in similar ways when it comes to dating; Religious practices, the number of children they want, political affiliations and even preferences for/against pets... and countless other things can be deal breakers for the finicky dater.
Oh sure, you could conceivably learn to become more or less observant. You could strike a bargain on the number of kids you'll have (G-d loves when people do this. That's why he created fertility specialists!).
You can learn to ignore a spouse's politics, and there are certainly plenty of people who find themselves five years into a relationship, vacuuming up piles of hair from a Labrador retriever they swore they would never own... all for the sake of love. But moving to another country... another culture... another world!..., that isn't something one can easily come to terms with, no matter what combination of time, devotion or arm-twisting is brought to bear.
Sadly, in the 5 years since we moved to Israel we have seen several families return to the US because one spouse was never completely on-board with the idea of aliyah.
In our case we were both completely sold on moving to Israel. When we got married we had a bright shiny 'Five Year Plan' that included saving some money, having a couple of kids and then making the move. But we quickly found out that the dream of making aliyah and the reality of making it happen are very different animals.
Somewhere around year seven or eight we found ourselves sitting on the back deck of our Connecticut home, grilling steaks with good friends and watching fireflies flit across our spacious back yard. As the cicadas went to bed for the night and the crickets took over on ambiance duty, we looked at each other and asked ourselves what had happened.
There were plenty of valid excuses on which to hang our continued presence in the US; We had both gone through financial set-backs over the years in the form of untimely lay-offs (thankfully not at the same time), and there were other family and financial things that had landed in our laps. But none of that had kept us from trading our Brooklyn Co-op for a nice house in the 'burbs.
Just a few days short of our 10th wedding anniversary we finally admitted to ourselves the folly of our 'five year plan.' It wasn't that we didn't want to move to Israel... we did! Desperately!!! But we had created a complex constellation of stars that were supposed to perfectly align before we actually went:
- We were going to save 'more' money
- We needed to pay off student loans
- We wanted to have more professional experience
- We were going to become fluent in Hebrew
- We had to make sure the kids weren't too young
- We had to make sure the kids weren't too old
- We had to give our respective families time to come to terms with the idea of us moving so far away
I'm sure there were other things holding us back... but looking over our shoulder from where we are today, I can assure you it was all a bunch of crap. None of that stuff ever falls perfectly into place... or if it does, we fail to notice it and take the next step. And as time flies by it just gets harder, not easier, to extricate oneself from our comfortable urban or suburban lives once they are well underway.
Face it, you never seem to have enough money to make aliyah. I have never met anyone who could tell me what the right amount of money is to have in the bank before moving to Israel... and who actually attained that amount and then got on a plane. Chances are, if there ever was such a person, he/she probably had the letters 'CPA' after their name. But for the rest of us mortals, having enough money to close up shop and make aliyah is like a drunk having enough booze to call it a night and go home.
Obviously I'm not saying one should move to Israel penniless and become indigent. 'B'siyata Dishmaya' (placing one's faith in heaven) is all well and good, but must be balanced by taking a certain amount of personal responsibility for one's welfare.
But few people are wise or disciplined enough to set a price tag on their aliyah plans and stick to it ruthlessly. There will always be new things to buy, vacations to take and tuitions to pay. And all those things become like roots and vines, robbing you of your mobility and your solvency.
Remember that date I mentioned earlier, when things finally hit us... the date just a few days short of our tenth anniversary? That date was September 11th, 2001.
As I stood in my midtown office watching the smoke rising from lower Manhattan, I called my wife in her Connecticut design studio. After sharing our horror over the still-unfolding events of the day, I finally said, "Sweetie, what the hell are we waiting for?" And she knew exactly what I was talking about. It was one of those moments of perfect understanding.
That was the turning point. At the time, the 'Al Aksa' Intifada was in full swing and Israel was groaning under a tsunami of terror that, on a per-capita basis, was like experiencing a 9/11 attack every few weeks!
But that evening, after I'd finally made it home and had finished hanging a big American flag from the neatly painted white porch of our Connecticut house, Zahava and I sat down to discuss starting life over again... under a different flag.
[This is the first in a series of treppenwitz posts that will conclude with a (pleasant) surprise ending. Stay tuned.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
A Full-Service Insurance Agent
[The following is a conversation I had this morning with my insurance agent]
Me: Good morning Matti, It's David Bogner. Do you have a couple of minutes?
Matti: Of course!
Me: Great, I want to arrange medical travel insurance for my two older kids for their trip to the U.S..
Matti: No problem… basic medical coverage with hospitalization (G-d forbid) like last time?
Me: Yup, that'll be fine.
Matti: OK, how long will they be out of the country?
Me: Just over three weeks… let's call it 25 days total, OK?
Matti: All right… and when will they be leaving?
Me [trying to sound casual]: Hmmm, let me think… I'm pretty sure they should be in Rome waiting for their connection to New York right about now.
Matti [after a pregnant pause]: Okaaaaay, I'm assuming you want me to fax the policy information to your office instead of dropping it off at your house so Zahava doesn't find out you forgot to arrange the kid's travel insurance.
Me: No, that's OK… you can drop it off at the house on your way home. She already knows.
Matti: Oh, too bad. If you need a place to stay tonight let me know.
Friday, July 18, 2008
A (re)post from Gilad's father
A day or two after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped I wrote a post spelling out why the Israeli government should not consider the feelings of a captive's family when formulating policy. I an re-posting the second half of that essay today because, as we now consider what to do about Gilad Shalit, I fear we will repeat the mistakes of this past week:
I am also a father of a Gilad. In a few short years my Gilad will be donning the uniform of his country and will potentially be asked to walk in harms way.
I know with absolute certainty that there is no price I would not pay to secure the release of my son if (G- forbid) he were ever taken hostage by the enemy. I would endanger the lives of 100... or even 1000 other people's sons, and would throw open the doors of every prison in the land if it would mean having my precious son home again safe and sound. I would even gladly exchange my own life for the chance to let my son marry, have children and enjoy a full life of his own.
This is the reason why fathers should not make the decisions in such cases... and why the depths of an individual father's love for his son should never be considered by the government in matters of national security. The government must be strong when the soul of every mother and father in the land screams out that this one life must be saved at any cost... because the alternative is to allow ourselves to become a nation held hostage.
Such is the power that kidnappers hold over a nation of parents, and our only hope of fighting this repulsive tactical weapon is to have our government return to the wiser days of refusing to negotiate... and to responding in such a terrible and disproportionate manner that the the stings take way any value the honey might have once held.
The value of the hostage is not set by the kidnappers, but rather unwittingly by those who want the hostages freed. If the government allows itself to think like a mother or father, it exponentially increases the potency of this cowardly weapon and assures that it will continue to be employed.
The only way to potentially save the lives of countless future Israeli hostages is for our government to take away the value of the currency the enemy thinks they possess. The latest [Iranian] threat of Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is just further blackmail intended to hold the Israeli government hostage and tie its hands in the face of clear and present danger. This unconventional threat too must elicit such a violent and disproportionate military response that no enemy would ever dare rattle this saber again for fear of total annihilation!
As much as it pains me as a father to say this, our government must act as though there is no hostage being held, and punish our enemies so severely that they could not possibly consider taking another one of our citizens captive ever again. We must pretend that there are no weapons aimed at us and return to the days when an Israeli death was answered with 100 enemy deaths... and 10 with 1000!
A scorched earth policy must be employed without mercy if we are to avoid finding ourselves in this situation again.
We all watched the ineffectual Jimmy Carter taken prisoner in his own White House by a few Iranian 'students' and how the mistake he made by acting as a father instead of as a head of state provided the blueprint for the potent tactic the Arab/Muslim world has used against the sentimental west ever since.
Kidnapping is the supreme test any government can face in time of war and I fear our government will fail miserably. Our leaders will likely negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit... and in return 50 or 100 security prisoners will be handed over to rejoin their brothers in arms to fight another day.
When this happens, mothers and fathers around the country (myself included) will hug their children and cry tears of joy at the happy outcome that our wonderful government was able to provide to the parents of Gilad Shalit.
But our joy will be short-lived as the price on the head of our own children will have suddenly increased 1000-fold the moment our government hands over the ransom.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
An Elusive Prophecy
A few people have suggested that written reactions (here at Treppenwitz) to Israel's challenges tend to sound vaguely apocalyptic or Conan the Barbarian-esque (e.g. "We must crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentation of their women", etc.).
So, to provide a somewhat softer, and perhaps more balanced, perspective on yesterday's events, I've asked Zahava to weigh in. Here's what she had to say:
There are so many conflicting thoughts swirling around my head today, that it is more than a tad overwhelming. Of course, the dominant feeling for most of us is simply profound grief.
I am so very sad for the families of Ehud Goldwasser (z"l) and Eldad Regev (z"l) – their memories should be a blessing. After two long years of hoping and praying, these families now bear the horrific task of releasing hope, and must now mourn the loss of these courageous, dearly loved young men.
I am also so very sad for the rest of us. This is a national loss – a national tragedy.
I can't comprehend the scores of issues factored into the decision that ultimately resulted in our trading five live convicted terrorists for the remains of two soldiers. And I don't have the energy, or desire, to try to contemplate them in writing here. I think that rehashing disagreements over this 'done deal' is futile. Clearly we were damned no matter what we did. I can only hope and pray that our government acts to ensure that we never again find ourselves in such an untenable position.
More important for me, at this point, is the relative quiet in which yesterday's events took place. I want to know why there was no outrage from the rest of what we (erroneously) refer to as the "civilized" world? How is it that the Lebanese government was able to hold a celebratory home-coming in the streets of their capitol for a man who murdered a 4-year old and her unarmed father, and whose actions are directly responsible for the suffocation of a 2-year old, and there is no outrage or condemnation from the family of civilized nations?
How is it that the rest of the world managed to refrain from comment on this?
For context, consider for a moment the level of protest and condemnation that would erupt in the western halls of power if a convicted murderer anywhere else in the world was released and publicly feted in a state ceremony, and held portrayed a hero for his crimes. Now consider the new levels of outrage if it came to light that a kidnapping/murder were carried out with the sole intention of gaining leverage to negotiate the murderer's release?!
Whatever nation celebrated and rewarded such primitive, barbaric behavior would be marginalized and permanently ostracized from civilized political discourse.
But amazingly, the moment you slap "Israeli" as a modifier in front of the words "murder victim", the world falls strangely silent…. or worse, uses horribly twisted logic to justify 'militancy', 'resistance'… anything so as not to call it by its real name; pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder.
I can only hope and pray that the world's resounding silence regarding our national loss, and the glee with which the Lebanese people are celebrating it, has not gone un-noticed by the Israeli public. I pray that this telling silence will serve as a wake-up call to our fractured society… and a clear message to all that unity and cohesion hold our only hope of protecting and preserving Israel and her citizens.
Throughout all this, one thing remains crystal clear to me: Until such time as Israel's existence is finally recognized and her people are accepted as full and legitimate global citizens, Isaiah's elusive prophecy; 'Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more', will remain nothing more than a bunch of empty words carved in stone outside the United Nations, designed to allow apologists for murderer's to sleep at night.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Let the enemy decide the rules
By the time this is posted the so-called 'prisoner swap' will have been completed. But we really need to be honest about this… it wasn't really a prisoner swap. Prisoners are alive.
Only monsters hold dead bodies for ransom… and only fools trade live prisoners for dead bodies.
One can argue forever about whether or not the unprovoked cross-border attack in which Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were captured was reason enough for Israel to have gone to war. But once that Rubicon was crossed and we'd accepted the attack as a 'Casus Beli' and sent troops into combat, there was no excuse for not using all means at our disposal to fight the war until our enemy was begging for terms of surrender.
Instead, our feckless leaders dabbled and deliberated and argued over whether to even call what they were waging a 'war'. They squandered every advantage they held at the start of the war by installing lawyers and politicians to select bombing targets instead of allowing the IDF officers in the field do what they'd trained their entire lives to do; win!
We waited weeks to commit ground troops to battle, and when we finally did, we watched them being shuffled aimlessly around southern Lebanon without objectives or support.
Worst of all, we were forced to watch helplessly as Hezbollah conducted carefully orchestrated press tours painting Israel's pinpoint bombing as monstrous… while Ketyushah rockets were fired indiscriminately all over northern Israel.
Throughout the short summer war we heard voices from around the world - and even from within our own country - who argued passionately for restraint. "The Lebanese people are not the enemy", they declared. "Hezbollah is the enemy!"
These useful idiots pleaded for the IDF to spare the poor, hapless Lebanese who were caught between Israel's mighty army and Hezbollah's well entrenched forces… pointing out that the Lebanese deserved mercy because they are a modern, secular people just like us.
'Moderate' Lebanese blogs were linked, and the grand old days when Beirut was known as the 'Paris of the East' were invoked repeatedly… while doctored photos of burning Beirut neighborhoods became like fixed wallpaper behind the media's talking heads who dutifully read Hezbollah scripts about Israeli atrocities.
Ignored was the fact that these cosmopolitan Lebanese had watched approvingly for decades as Hezbollah set up rocket batteries and supporting military infrastructure in their towns and villages. Ignored was the cover and support these poor secular Lebanese willingly provided to Hezbollah for a generation.
Nobody seemed particularly worried about Israel's blameless civilians who were forced to live in bunkers under relentless bombardment. Israeli casualties were chalked up to 'the fortunes of war' while Lebanese casualties were paraded before the world as martyred innocents.
And when it came time to accept a shameful ceasefire that amounted to nothing more or less than surrender, Israeli leaders again failed (doomed, actually) the captured soldiers by refusing to establish enforceable terms for their safe return.
From the first moment of the attack that sparked the war, Hezbollah/Lebanon refused to abide by any modern conventions of warfare. Not a single tenet of the Geneva conventions was honored by our enemy… yet we were inexplicably expected to fight the good fight according to the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
And even after the war's end, we had to have our face rubbed in how brutally we'd behaved by a couple of clueless Israeli journalists. Under cover of convenient foreign passports, they traveled illegally to Lebanon in an effort to show how nice and normal these wonderful Lebanese people are… as if to say 'How could we have ever entertained such aggressive, warlike feelings towards people who are so much like us???' Jane Fonda could have done no worse!
Where are these journalists now that their so called 'story' has come to its dénouement with the docile, cosmopolitan Lebanese we took such pains to spare holding massive state-sponsored celebrations for the return of heroes whose only fame comes from murdering Israeli civilians. Could their silence indicate that even they are having a little trouble putting lipstick on this particular pig?
When attacked by a wild animal you don't negotiate or ask what rules it wants to use in the fight. You strike it down without mercy and without remorse. If you are attacked by a pack of wild animals you fight savagely and without restraint until all of them are dead or neutralized. To do otherwise doesn't mean facing ignominious defeat. It means you move down the food chain and become an entrée!
The only way Israel can regain its deterrence in the region after this recent debacle is to make it clear to all that, from this day forward, we will play by whatever rules our enemies are willing to honor.
No Rules = No Restraint.
If our towns and cities are fair game… so are yours. Don't complain that our weapons are better, or more powerful. You should have thought of that before attacking us.
If you portray the killing of civilians as heroic, then we will surpass you in heroism. Don't cry to the world about your precious civilians and then prepare a national celebration to honor a monster who deliberately destroyed a family, and whose final act before being captured was to gleefully crush the skull of a small child against a rock.
If our soldiers won't enjoy the protections of the Geneva Conventions… neither will yours. A dead prisoner will be worth a dead prisoner in any exchange. If we run out of dead prisoners to trade, we will make more. As you've ably demonstrated today, live prisoners can be unapologetically turned into dead ones quite easily.
If this is the only way we can force our enemies to keep our POWs alive and to feel some accountability for their welfare… then so be it. Otherwise our long-neglected death penalty will be dusted off and employed without hesitation or sentimentality. And since those who attack us refuse to wear uniforms or insignia, henceforth they will not be entitled to the niceties of a trial or POW status. Those we capture in the field will be summarily executed.
For more than 60 years Israel has dreamed of being accepted among the family of nations and being allowed to live peacefully within secure and recognized borders. Yet again and again we've been forced onto the battlefield by our neighbors, and required by the world to engage a savage enemy as if we were chivalrous knights.
It is worth noting that even at the Battle of Agincourt (fought between the French and English in 1415), the accepted rules of Chivalry were set aside when one side was faced with an untenable choice between chivalry and victory:
After repelling two French attacks against their vastly outnumbered army, the English held more enemy captives than they themselves had soldiers in arms. Upon seeing the French massing for a third attack the English King, Henry, ordered his men to begin killing the prisoners since he could not spare the soldiers to guard them… and if left alone the captive French knights could easily join the next French attack using weapons that still littered the field.
However, as soon as the next French attack failed to materialize, he ordered the execution of prisoners to be stopped.
Modern scholars nearly universally condemn Henry for his order to execute the French prisoners. After all, the rules of the day required that those asking for quarter be granted protection without question. However it is interesting to note that at the time, neither the French nor any contemporary commentators seem to have had a problem with Henry's decision. It was the only logical thing to do under the circumstances.
Given a choice between victory and chivalry, Henry chose victory.
In this day and age Israel can do no less. We need not hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct than our enemies… especially in conflicts not of our making. Until we learn this simple lesson, we will have to endure many more shameful ceremonies such as we witnessed today.
Make no mistake; there will be another war in the not-too-distant future. Our recent capitulation has all but guaranteed that. Our appeasement and public displays of weakness have served only to whet the appetites of our enemies as they publicly proclaim that what the world witnessed today is proof that relentless armed struggle is the only way to confront and destroy the Zionist entity.
I can only hope that when the next war comes, we will have leaders in place who have the wisdom to first win the war… and only then, try to negotiate terms for peace.
May the families of those who were miserably failed by their government be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Yet another reason I’m glad we’re finally home
According to a report I read this morning, the Bloch family, living in a Chicago Condominium building, received some bad news recently from the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Apparently there were three apartments (condos) involved in the case, one owned by the mother and father and two others owned by their two children.
While the family was out at the father's funeral(!), the condo association of the building where they lived decided that this would be the appropriate time to enforce 'Hallway Rule #1' (which prohibits hanging anything outside the doors of the condos) and removed the mezuzot, from the doorposts of all three condos.
The family sued the condo association for damages as well as the right to reaffix the mezuzot to their doorposts as is required under Jewish law. But the court ruled that the condo association was within its rights in having removed the items. In their ruling they wrote:
"The hallway rule ... is neutral with respect to religion. It bans photos of family vacations, political placards, for-sale notices, and Chicago Bears pennants. We cannot create an accommodation requirement for religion. Our job is not to make the law the best it can be, but to enforce the law actually enacted."
However, the judges were not unanimous in their decision. A dissenting judge wrote:
"Hallway Rule 1 operates exactly as a red-lining rule does with respect to the ability of the owner to sell to observant Jews. The [condominium] association might as well hang a sign outside saying 'No observant Jews allowed.'"
Apparently in the Condo Association's response to the original suit, there was some telling language used in response to the family's request for damages. Their brief charged that the Bloch family was trying to extract a "pound of flesh" from the group. In response to this, the dissenting judge noted:
" The phrase appears in a literary work by Shakespeare and refers to the character Shylock, a [Jewish] moneylender who was punished by being forced to convert to Christianity. This is hardly the reference someone should choose who is trying to show that the stand-off ... was not because of the Blochs' religion, but rather in spite of it."
I have to say that this sort of thing is one of the many, many reasons we opted to move to Israel. Israel is a pluralistic society that has gone to great lengths to ensure full freedom to other religions to practice and control their own affairs. But Israel is, first and foremost, a (the) Jewish State. Israeli Jews need never worry about nonsense like whether the outward trappings of our religion might need to be hidden away so as not to offend or arouse the goyim.
Israeli Christians can put up crosses and wreaths, Muslims have minarets in all their neighborhoods, and it would be unheard of for an Israeli apartment association to tell tenants that mezuzot are forbidden.
Is it a perfect system? Of course not!
I don't particularly enjoy seeing Jesus nailed to a cross when I walk through Jerusalem's old city… and I certainly could do without hearing our neighboring villages' muezzins screaming about Allah's greatness from their minarets at 4:AM. But I'm sure Christians and Muslims experience a similar moment of 'otherness' when they see the mezuzot affixed to the doorposts of literally every Israeli government agency they visit here. And you know what? I'm perfectly OK with that.
None of Israel's neighbors are nearly as accommodating of religious diversity, and in fact the practice of any faith other than Islam is actually forbidden by law in many places here in the Middle East.
Getting back to the case in Chicago, I'm sure there are other Condo and Co-Op associations around the U.S. that are watching this case quite closely and silently wondering if this might be a handy way of making Jews feel unwelcome in their midst. Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic.
On the one hand, I hate to see Jews discriminated against in any corner of the world. But on the other, if this sort of nonsense makes even a few Jews wake up and realize that they are still 'strangers in a land that is not theirs', perhaps it will inspire them to consider joining us here in the only place that we have ever been able to truly call home.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Sleepless in Tel Aviv
Although I'm officially an Israeli and have lived here for five years (this month), I can count on one hand the number of times Zahava and I have actually gone to Tel Aviv… y'know… just for fun.
That is, until this past week. In the course of less than a week we've been to Tel Aviv twice!
OK, technically the first visit was to Yaffo, not Tel Aviv… but for us country bumpkins, both qualify as going to the 'big orange'.
First we spent a wonderful (but long-overdue) evening with our friends 'Imshin' and 'Bish', experiencing the incredible culinary stylings of Yaffo's famous Dr. Shakshuka... followed by a nice walk around the night flea market (Pishpesh Shuk).
Bish and Imshin are friends who we think about constantly… but sadly, see only once or twice a year. They are down to earth, bright, funny, articulate… and share many of our interests/likes/dislikes. If it wasn't for the teeny tiny detail that they live waaaay over there in Tel Aviv and we live here in Gush Etzion, they would already be on my very short list of people I want most as neighbors. Seriously… my world seems to make just a little more sense after a nice visit with Imshin and Bish… so how much better would my life be if I could schmooze over the back fence with them any time I wanted?
Anyhoo… after a late night in old Yaffo (got to sleep well after 2AM)… we got a call the next day from a good friend of ours (you know her here on treppenwitz as the commenter; 'Marsha from Stamford'). It seems she is visiting from the old country because she is performing a series of concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at Tel Aviv's Hechal HaTarbut and other venues around the country. She was calling to ask if we wanted her to arrange for a couple of primo tickets to be waiting for us for one of the Tel Aviv performances?
Hmmmm, that's a tough one, Marsha... let me think about that for a second... um, YES PLEASE!!!!! Who needs sleep, right?
The IPO was performing a Gala program of J.S. Bach and Ernest Bloch.
The Bach piece, 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' (some might know it as 'Sleepers Awake') is one of my favorites. It is a relatively short peice written for a small chamber orchestra, choir and tenor/soprano soloists, but IMHO the real star of the piece is the oboist. However, the whole composition is the sort of orderly mathematical perfection one comes to expect of Bach which leaves the listener feeling that all is right with the world.
The second piece, Ernest Bloch's Avodath Kodesh (Sacred Service) for full orchestra, choir and operatic Baritone soloist, is an adaptation of Jewish Liturgy to a classical setting.
I've made no secret of my profound lack of enthusiasm for 20th century classical music, but this was indeed something special. As an added bonus, Thomas Hampson, the acclaimed American Baritone, was the featured singer and he gave a wonderful performance.
But for me, the real treat was the idea, of the piece.
As Zahava put it so well, "I spent my high school years in America singing all kinds of non-Jewish liturgical music in choir and feeling like an outsider. It was an incredible feeling to be living in Israel and hear our national orchestra performing a piece based on our religious liturgy, in our language… and to have it performed by a famous non-Jewish soloist and a choir that was largely made up of non-Jews!"
I have to agree with her. This went far beyond feelings of inadequacy over 'I have a little dreidel' not being able to hold a candle to most of the musical offerings from that other holiday that takes place in the early winter. This Bloch piece/performance was/is a mainstream nod to our culture by the rest of the musical world.
The performance itself was quite moving, and the packed house summoned IPO conductor Zubin Mehta and soloist Thomas Hampson back to the stage for multiple curtain calls.
Afterwards, thanks to our friend Marsha (who'd performed with the choir), we joined the artists at a private reception on the upper level of the hall. The food and drink were yummy, but the real treat was being able to rub shoulders with the musicians, singers… and of course Zubin Mehta and Thomas Hampson.
So, for anyone keeping score, that's two nights in less than a week Zahava and I were out late in Tel Aviv/Yaffo… meaning two nights where we didn't get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning.
When I get home from work this evening, I'm going to kiss Zahava and the kids… turn off my cell phone… and climb into bed. No dinner… not web surfing… just sleep.
Note to self: Try to spread out the scintillating big city social engagements a bit more in the future.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The 'Shame' of Hand-Me-Downs
A colleague of mine sat down across from me at lunch the other day with something weighing on her mind. She is an engineer whose heavily accented (but perfect) Hebrew identifies her as having immigrated to Israel from the Former Soviet Union.
I don't know this woman well, but after several years of working together on projects I've made certain assumptions about her based on the way she dresses and the casual remarks she makes about local politics. I assume that in Russia she was called a Jew and that the word was not meant as a compliment by those who used it. Here she seemed pleased to have left the Jewish label behind in favor of the more theologically vague title; 'Israeli'.
As we ate our lunch and made small talk about a project we were working on, I could tell she had something else on her mind, but it was equally clear she didn't know quite how to broach the subject. Finally, as we were finishing up our dessert she just blurted it out:
"David, I brought something from home but I'm not sure what to do with it", she began. "I was hoping you could help me".
With that, she reached into her large purse and pulled out a couple of tattered books and placed them carefully on the table between us. I picked them up and was surprised to find myself holding two battered Chumashim, (bound copies of the Torah - the first five books of the Jewish Bible).
The books were in terrible shape… marked throughout with multi-colored highlighters and had pencil scribbling in the margins. The covers were missing altogether, and several names written and crossed out on the title pages indicated that each of the books had seen more than one owner.
She explained that her youngest had recently finished high school and that she had decided to go through the family storage room, giving away or throwing out all of the old books and school supplies. However something told her that these two tattered books were supposed to be treated differently. She had brought them to me – a coworker with a kippah (yarmulke) - in hopes that I would take them from her and do the right thing.
We religious Jews are an arrogant lot when it comes to making assumptions about our coreligionists. It may be that our secular counterparts are equally arrogant, but I can only comment from my own experience… and arrogance.
I'm a bit ashamed to admit that when she explained why she'd brought me the Chumashim my first reaction was rather uncharitable.
In the case of this particular coworker, her occasional political comments and her somewhat revealing outfits had led me to the conclusion that she is one of the many Jews from the FSU who have little use for Judaism. Nearly a century of communist indoctrination and oppression had done its work well, and many of those who came to Israel from the FSU seem more than happy to leave behind the often-derogatory label of Jew.
Outwardly I smiled, but privately I chided her for not knowing the proper way to deal with holy books. I also looked askance at the fact that she apparently didn't want a Chumash - the source of all things Jewish - to remain under her roof after her last child no longer needed it for school.
But then, as often happens, I got a chance to taste the bitterness of my own uncharitable thoughts.
She picked up one of the Chumashim and caressed it reverently in her hand and explained that starting in elementary school, her older kids had used these two books as they'd made their way though the Israeli school system. As the books had been passed down from one child to the next younger siblings, the pages had accumulated copious notes and colored references… and the bindings had long since shed their covers to reveal dog-eared pages from countless trips back and forth to school. But in her experience, a book that had given up all its knowledge was supposed to look like this.
She told me that there was a third Chumash at home on the family bookshelves… in far better condition than these. It had been used by her youngest daughter, the one who had just graduated. Since the baby of the family had somehow managed to avoid the 'shame' of having to use a hand-me-down Chumash, that third copy was still in pretty good shape. So, during her cleaning spree, my coworker had made a practical decision to keep that third copy of the Five Books of Moses in the family.
By now I was blushing with embarrassment, sure that she had somehow read my mind.
First I had rushed to judge her for not knowing how to dispose of a holy book, and then I'd assumed she couldn't wait to rid her home of any vestiges of Judaism.
But in a single moment the enormity of what I'd ignored came crashing down on me like a pile of books. Here was a woman whose family had somehow managed to remain Jewish under generations of oppressive Communist rule. She and her husband - uneducated in Jewish things though they may have been - had decided to come to Israel and had given their children the opportunity to grow up as (and among) Jews.
Sitting before me on the table was ample evidence that her children had digested the Jewish content (however abridged) of their secular Israeli education. And though ignorant of the precise procedure for doing so, this Jewish woman knew instinctively that one didn't simply toss the Torah into the trash bin alongside broken-spined algebra books and crumpled history notes.
As I gathered up the pair of well-read Chumashim from the lunch table, I assured my colleague that it would be my pleasure to take care of them for her. I explained that far too many people didn't understand that such things required special handling and that she had done a very important thing by treating the books with such respect.
As I walked out of the cafeteria with these 'hand-me-down' Chumashim, I felt very small at having initially judged this woman so harshly.
There is really no shame in having hand-me-down holy books, or in someone not knowing precisely what to do with them when they are no longer serviceable. After all, ours is a hand-me-down religion that has survived throughout many lean generations where perhaps only one family in a village owned (or could read) a Chumash. During much of Jewish history the idea of each child in a family owning their own copy would have been preposterous!
I thought about my own home filled with Jewish books, most of them (sadly) in excellent condition. My older children, who received their religious books from me barely used, or brand new from the Judaica store, have already far-surpassed my meager religious learning.
Our youngest will likely never know what a hand-me-down Chumash looks like and, like his older siblings, will almost certainly complete his education with his small collection of religious volumes in relatively good shape. But that isn't necessarily something to be proud of… and certainly no cause for arrogance. It is simply a function of our relative affluence.
But there are different kinds of affluence.
I realize now that for all the fatherly things I could want for my children, I would do well to wish that the holy books I buy for them, as well as those I hand down from my own collection, will one day be as well used and tattered as the two hand-me-down Chumashim my coworker place into my hands.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
… you know it when you see it
Years ago I read a wonderful 'New Yorker' piece by Calvin Trillin in which he discussed his preferred method for measuring the character of out-of-town guests. He would take them down to New York's Chinatown and show them the famous Tic Tac Toe-playing chicken which occupied a place of honor in the front window of a certain restaurant.
It was a standard game of Tic Tac Toe that the chicken would play (and invariably win) against all comers. But there was one immutable rule: The chicken always got to make the first move.
Mr. Trillin would watch as his guests would lose game after game to the chicken, and then he would silently measure their character by how they handled being beaten by a domestic fowl.
Sadly, many of his guests would reveal their personal short-comings with statements like "*Well of course the chicken wins every time... it gets to make the first move*". Or even worse; they might say, "*Of course I lost, but the chicken gets to play every day*!" The flaw in their character was revealed by their arguments over the rules of the game... and their willful denial of the simple fact that they lost to A CHICKEN!
Even if one were to figure out the trick or underlying reason why he/she'd lost… there is a certain humility one should assume (or at least affect) when faced with defeat at the hands (er, feet) of a chicken. It's called '*owning up'*… and, as Calvin Trillin had already figured out, 'owning up' of any sort requires real character.
I mention this because yesterday I found myself reading the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the cash-filled envelopes Ehud Olmert received from American businessman Morris Talansky. Notice I didn't say 'allegedly received' in that last sentence. You see, our Prime Minister now freely admits to having received envelopes filled with undeclared cash. Incredibly, his defense now revolves around the amount of money they contained.
I don't know about any of you, but when I read that, I began shaking my head at how completely devoid of character our Prime Minister seems to be. His basic contention is that there is some unstated rule or trick to the corruption game that must be taken into account when judging him. Apparently there is nothing wrong with taking undeclared sums of money from foreigners in exchange for who-knows-what... so long as it isn't a lot of money!
Forgive me for being crude, but saying, "*Well of course I accepted cash-filled envelopes... but there wasn't that much cash in them*!" is a lot like a practitioner of the world's oldest profession claiming not to be a prostitute simply because she doesn't charge very much! Ironically, with whores there is a measure of prestige that corresponds directly to the amount of money they accept.
Getting back to the Trillin essay I mentioned earlier... our Prime Minister has spent nearly his entire term of office metaphorically standing on the sidewalk outside a Chinatown restaurant losing game after game to a chicken (or flat on his back, if you prefer that metaphor).
But when the moment finally arrived to show some humility... to finally 'own up' to the basic facts of his situation, he revealed his true character by protesting over the rules of the game.
It may be that Israeli law is ill-equipped to deal with the issue of exactly how much money must change hands before a crime can be said to have been committed. It may even be that Ehud Olmert will evade justice yet again in this latest probe into his personal dealings.
But a civilized society should have some mechanism or test for holding its leaders responsible for what they say and do while in office. We should be able to recognize corruption for what it is and give it a name.
And just as with obscenity, we may not be able to provide a perfect definition for it, but we should certainly know corruption when we see it.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Tour de Efrat
Last night I went for a ride around Efrat on the shiny new Trek mountain bike I bought last year. It was the first time I'd touched the bike since last fall.
Once upon a time I wouldn't have even considered a little 40 minute spin a 'ride'. I certainly wouldn't have bothered filling a water bottle for such a quick outing.
40 minutes on the bike is what you do if you are trying to adjust your seat or tweak your derailleur just so. 40 minutes on the bike is just enough time to warm up while checking the tension on the brake cables or getting the feel of a new trip computer.
But a 'ride'? 40 minutes? No way!
I got home from my little 40 minute spin around our (very) hilly town drenched with sweat, wheezing like an asthmatic, with every muscle of my body screaming for a return to the simple 'burn' they'd experienced during the first 3 minutes out.
I'm thinking I should have started a little slower. By 'slower' I mean maybe I should have walked the bike up to the park and spent the 40 minutes sitting on a comfortable bench looking vaguely athletic.
Can someone please help me get out of bed?