Sunday, August 31, 2008
A few thoughts on McCain's VP choice
[I am about to depart from a long-standing practice of not discussing my political choices within earshot of wife. It isn't that we have such different politics, but rather that we have been very careful not to unduly influence each-other's choices.
So honey… if you want to maintain the mystery in this particular facet of our marriage, this would be a good time to click away.]
This past week John McCain, the boring old white guy who will be heading up the Republican ticket this fall, made himself – and this race – a whole lot more interesting.
Don't get me wrong, I like John McCain. I like his political record of integrity and leadership. I respect his personal record of service and honor. And I have no doubt that he would make an excellent chief executive if elected.
However, one of my big problems with the Republican Party has always been that they tend to leave their best fruit on the vine until it is well past its prime… in much the same way that the Democrats seem to take particular pride in serving up political candidates who are roughly analogous of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Again, to be clear, I have nothing personal against Beaujolais Nouveau. It's just that I agree with many wine critics when they call this trendy young wine 'simple' and 'immature' (Wine critic Karen MacNeil once compared drinking Beaujolais Nouveau to eating raw cookie dough).
The Democratic Party has just finished finalizing the nomination of Barak Obama, a bright, articulate Senator whose entire platform seems constructed of the word 'change'. And given the inability or unwillingness of the Bush Administration to explain their vision, and to unify the country behind them, a promise of 'change' is actually a damned fine campaign strategy for the Dems.
But for all his unquestionable qualifications (I have been very active in slamming those who perpetuate/forward unfounded scare emails alleging BHO is some sleeper agent of international Jihad), Obama is an untested lightweight when it comes to the international arena. He's also untested when it comes to leadership (being a Senator is a team sport). More than that, too many of his stated positions on international relations seem constructed to allow for future back-peddling. And lastly, suggesting the notion that 'no harm can come from talking' become a national policy is being proven wrong even as I write this as Iran continues to talk its way into the nuclear arms club.
So, I was not a bit surprised when I read that Sen. Obama had selected a well- seasoned old white guy (Sen. Joseph Biden) as his running mate to bring some depth to the ticket.
While Biden wasn't a foregone conclusion, the idea of a 'fill in the blank' old white guy was. In much the same way that Dubya needed to put Dick Cheney on the ticket in order to gain some foreign policy cred… Obama knew that the world beyond America's borders is far too turbulent right now for undecided voters to simply trust a young charismatic Commander-In Chief to get up to speed with 'on-the-job training'.
Quite simply, for all the comparisons between Obama and JFK… Kennedy got off extremely lucky with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and history has shown that the Cuban/American relations might never have been pushed to the brink of sparking WWIII if not for Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year.
A friend of mine who is a well-connected political consultant in the US, emailed me a few weeks ago with his prediction of who McCain would choose as his running mate. He tossed the name Carly Fiorina out with the observation that she "might even put California in play".
In my one sentence response I wrote, "I know it will never happen, but I would love to see him pick Sarah Palin (http://gov.state.ak.us/ )".
Now before you go thinking I am some kind of political genius, let me make a confession (yes, this is also for the benefit of my political consultant friend who is probably still stunned that I nailed it). I had only heard the name Sarah Palin a few weeks before I named her as my preferred Republican VP choice. I'd read about her on a friend's blog (who, at the time was doing a private rain dance for Palin's nomination), and I decided to do a bit more reading to find out who she was.
What I read resonated nicely along many (but not all) of the issues that are important to me:
1. Gender: First and foremost, she is a woman. I'm not normally one for arbitrary gender, ethnic or religion-based political moves, but the idea of a woman on the Republican ticket really resonated with me. For all his good qualifications, McCain often comes off as distant, and even cold. A qualified young woman as his VP suddenly paints the team in warm, saturated colors. I also knew that Obama pissed off a lot of his base by not putting Hillary on the ticket. Many of those votes are now in play.
2. Age: Did I say she was young. Gov. Palin is 44! Every election year the major parties alienate younger voters by not giving them a reason to see the process as relevant to them. Obama took a giant step away from this untapped younger demographic when he selected Biden (an old white guy) as his VP choice. McCain (another old white guy) took a giant step towards these young voters with his selection of an athletic young woman who runs, fishes, admits to having smoked pot (when it was briefly legal in Alaska) and who delights in 'sticking it to the man'.
3. Shaking things up: In this case, 'the man' Sarah Palin has been sticking it to is the Republican Party… and she has made her way to the top of Alaskan politics by cutting away all the old-boy trappings of the way Republicans had been doing business there for years. She was elected on a platform of change, and within hours of being elected she went to work ruthlessly cutting pork, eliminating waste, undoing last-minute political appointments made by her Republican predecessor and even putting the Governor's private Jet up for sale on eBay! I guess being new, nobody told her she couldn't do all that.
4. Abortion: We saw in the last election that the republicans were able to line up the 'red states' along a seam-line composed of issues collectively known as 'family values'. One of these things which decided the election was that, like it or not, a large part of the voting public is anti-abortion. For the record, I am very much in favor of protecting a woman's legal right to seek a safe abortion. However, this is only because my religion very clearly places a higher value on the life of the mother, and requires the termination of the unborn fetus in cases where it endangers the life of the mother. I don't view abortion as an acceptable form of birth control. So, you can well imagine that reading that Sarah Palin was very firmly in the anti-abortion camp bothered me deeply. However, I can respect McCain's decision to bring a woman on-board to give voice to this issue since IMHO, his lack of a uterus completely disqualifies him to offer a public opinion on the matter. I say let the public debate be about the issue, not whether a bunch of old white guys are qualified to talk about, or decide, the issue.
5. Drilling: Although I regret the unfortunate imagery in having this one follow the last, just as it makes perfect sense to have a woman give voice to the party's stance on laws related to a woman's reproductive organs, it makes perfect sense to have Alaska's Governor speaking about the issue of drilling for oil in America's largest, and most pristine state. In this case it is interesting to note that McCain has been consistently against drilling, while Palin is all for it. Just as with abortion, I shut up and listen when someone with a personal stake in the outcome of the discussion starts talking. Ultimately, I would like to see America weaned off foreign oil altogether and develop alternative energy sources... but in the short term it makes sense to kick the Saudi habit as soon as possible and develop a dependable domestic supply.
6. Gay rights: Just as I was bothered by Palin's stance on abortion, I was initially put-off by her stance on Gay rights. Ironically, this issue is an issue where my religious views do not line up with my political ones… nor do they have to. Unlike abortion, where Jews have a vested interest in making sure the legal option is available in cases where it is religiously mandated, Judaism's views on homosexuality have no bearing whatsoever on whether or not same sex marriage should be regulated by the government. Quite simply, we have no dog in the fight (i.e. it will not affect Jews one bit if the state empowers a gay couple to legally call themselves husband and, um, husband), so it is hypocritical of us to try to influence the outcome for or against gay marriage. To put it in terms that are, perhaps, closer to home… for Jews to come out against Gay rights would be as repugnant as non-Jews trying to bring legal obstacles to the construction of Eruv's in American communities. At first blush, Sarah Palin is quite clearly against gay marriage. She has spoken out against it and voted against it. But not so fast! As Governor, her first veto was used to shoot down legislation that would have denied same sex domestic partners the same public employee benefits, such as health insurance, enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts and married couples. It would appear that Gov. Palin is capable of taking a nuanced approach on complex issues! In fact, her willingness to express opposition to same sex marriage yet use her veto to defend gay rights gives me hope that she might also hold nuanced views on abortion.
7. Israel: I've had a good chuckle over the past few days as I've seen Jewish democrats rushing to send out emails claiming that Sarah Palin is anti-Israel. The sum total of the support for these claims comes from the fact that she hasn't yet visited Israel, and that almost ten years ago (early in her political career) she helped Pat Buchanan campaign when he visited the Alaskan town of which she was mayor. People, deep breath please. Sarah Palin has been Governor of Alaska for two years, and she was elected on a platform of eliminating junkets and public waste. Not jetting off to the middle east is not a sign that she is anti-Israel. It means she is serious about keeping her promise to her constituency to stay at home and work for them. And as far as the whole Pat Buchanan thing goes, aside from the two sharing many (though not all!) conservative values, he was in a position to do far more for her fledgling political career than she for him. During (and since) Pat's brief swing through a small Alaskan town where Sarah Palin happened to be the Republican Mayor, she hasn't embraced a single one of his more controversial and divisive platforms, and certainly hasn't echoed any of his well-known sentiments about Jews or Israel. If anything, it is Buchanan who is now trying to jump on Palin's coat-tails, not the other way around.
So there you have it. I'm not going to be campaigning for her (at least not here on treppenwitz), but I figured that a post about something that was on my mind would be in order. Feel free to share your [respectful/polite] thoughts.
Zahava… if you are still reading this, I don't expect you to reciprocate and tip your hand.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Larry Derfner finally goes too far
I have no idea why the Jerusalem Post keeps paying Larry Derfner for his inane and wrongheaded columns. Maybe it is so that he will serve as a lightning rod for criticism and make some of the other less-inspired J-Post staff appear more polished by comparison. But that was really their problem. Until today.
Whether by accident or design, Larry Derfner has finally spilled the beans on the not-so-carefully hidden agenda of the so-called 'peace camp' (of which he counts himself a member).
In his most recent column entitled 'Livni's the one', Derfner repeatedly refers to Livni as the peace camp's 'great white hope'. Is he so out of touch with reality that he doesn't realize the racist origins of that phrase? I, for one, think it was quite deliberately employed.
'The Great White Hope' was a 1967 play by Howard Sackler that presented a fictionalized version of the story of an African American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, who was arguably the best fighter of his era. Because of the racism of the times the image of a black boxer beating white opponents was deemed so explosive that a law was passed making it illegal to transport boxing films across state lines, and therefore any white boxer who had a chance of unseating the black champ was referred to as 'the great white hope'.
It didn't matter that Jackson had won his championship fairly and was the best fighter of his day. All the white racists saw was a black man beating up white men (and dating white women) and it was intolerable.
For Larry Derfner and his fellow racists in the peace camp, anyone who comes from the right is an intolerable choice. He comes right out and says as much with his statement chiding his fellow peaceniks over their suspicion of a former Likudnik who "still hasn't gotten over the Altalena", as if the deliberate murder of Jewish Irgun fighters (many swimming helplessly in the water) by Jewish Hagana troops under the command of St. Yitzhak Rabin, was some sort of regrettable traffic accident!
Now I don't like Tzipi Livni. Not one bit. She was never an idealogical Likudnik (as was born out by her defection to Kadima and her enthusiastic support of the disengagement) and she was the architect of Israel's disastrous surrender terms under UN Security Council resolution 1701 which gave Israel nothing but empty promises, and handed Hezbollah a victory.
But reading Larry Derfner chiding his fellow peaceniks over their reluctance to embrace Livni because she comes from that more colorful party is just a bit too much.
The Likud came to power in 1977 largely on a wave of dissatisfied working class Israelis whose origin in Mediterranean and middle eastern countries put them at a real and/or perceived disadvantage to their fairer skinned Ashkenazi countrymen in nearly every arena where the two groups competed.
It is incredible to me that in 2008 Larry Derfner is using not-so-subtle of racist code words that sound like 'anything but Likud' but really amount to 'we need someone who is a white dove... like in the old days'.
I don't know about you, but the doves - white or otherwise - have had their full innings. We have indulged their unilateral gifts and confidence building gestures. We have made endless 'painful concessions' and exposed the soft underbelly of the country to an unreformed enemy that calls for nothing but our destruction.
To Mr. Derfner, anyone who is not a peacenik right this very minute is pro-war. It is not unlike the way the anti-abortion crowd uses the term 'pro-life' to label anyone who can fathom a reason to legally abort a fetus as 'pro-death'.
That is Mr. Derner's right.
But there isn't a single Israeli I have ever met - right or left - who prefers war over peace where a real choice exists. Nobody wants to fight (or send their children to fight) when there is a possibility not to do so. But when the enemy continues to wage war and call for our destruction, it is not a character flaw or an unfortunate ethnic tendency to want to protect oneself.
When Larry Derfner starts openly using racist phrases to draw the line between the left and right, I think it is time for him to lose his bully pupit and be fired. This country has enough problems without journalists tossing around language intended to imply that this country needs to be placed back in the capable hands of 'the right kind of people' in order to save it from the war-mongering savages of the Likud.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
It's no trouble... really!
We are nothing if not creatures of habit. When my family finds something we like we tend to come back to it again and again. This especially applies to when we eat out.
Every time we go to the north of Israel we make a point of driving through the Jordan valley, even if it would be faster going another route. The reason is a little falafel joint in Beit She'an called Falafel Zahava.
Tourists and Israelis who don't know any better often pass this unassuming eatery by in favor of the air-conditioned places in the mall next door (including a kosher McDonald's). But Zahava's is quite simply the best food in the country.
Aside from unbelievably fresh falafel and salads, Zahava makes great shwarma as well as world class meatballs (served in fresh baguettes).
We get to Zahavas only a couple of times a year, but each time we come she greets us like family. They must get hundreds of customers every day, but she not only remembers us, but also recalls what we like and where we're from!
On our way up north this time we piled out of the car and were met at the door with shouts of "Oy mami... look, our friends from Gush Etzion are here and we just ran out of meatballs!!!. Can you wait a little while, I'll make some up special for you."
We decided to have Falafel for lunch and ordered the meatballs subs to have for diner once we reached our destination. Needless to say, the food was incredible... even better than we remembered. While we ate, a tour bus full of Americans pulled up and the Israeli guide ushered them over to Zahava's. As they lined up to order I whispered in the tour guide's ear, "You know it really isn't fair bringing them here... any falafel they'll eat in the future can't possibly compare to this". He smiled sagely and nodded in agreement.
However, the real experience of the vacation came on our way back home. We had planned to stop at Zahava's for a late dinner after a long afternoon in Tsfat and then push on for home. However, we stayed in Tsfat much later than expected and didn't reach Beit She'an until after 9:00PM.
As the lights of Beit She'an came into view we tried to prepare the kids for the possibility that Zahava's would be closed. And sure enough, when we got out of the car and walked up to the place, Zahava and her sister were just doing the final 'sponja' (the Israeli version of mopping) of the floor and taking out the trash. When she saw us we got the usual warm greeting, and without hesitation she asked us what we were hungry for. She assured us that it was no trouble to 'warm something up' and ran to put on an apron.
Anywhere else the owners and staff would have waved us away with a short, "Sorry, we're closed", but not Zahava. Even though she and her crew had been on their feet in the blistering Jordan Valley heat all day, she greeted us like we were the first customers of the day.
Yonah and I each had an incredible chicken shnitzel in pita with hummus and salad, Ariella had Shwarma and Gilad had two (!) meatball sandwiches. (My) Zahava wasn't really hungry but asked if she could just have a small salad. Before the words were out of her mouth, Zahava was preparing a big plate of fresh salad fixings with tehina, pickles and olives for her.
We all sat out at the tables in the cool evening air enjoying our food while Zahava, her sister and a younger guy (who might also be a relative) finished cleaning the place to a glistening shine. All the while, an older woman sat at a nearby table beaming at us as we ate.
We finished just as Zahava and her sister were putting the finishing touches on the place and started locking up. She came outside and checked to make sure we'd enjoyed out dinner. When we thanked her profusely for staying open to make us dinner, she turned to the older woman at the next table and began speaking in an unfamiliar language. After a few moments she turned back and said, I was just telling my mother (in an Iraqi dialect of Arabic, it turns out) that you come to me all the way from Gush Etzion... the real Israel. Her mother leaned in, grabbed my wife's face and gave her a big kiss ... and if possible, beamed even more brightly at all of us.
We wished each other a sweet and prosperous new year and parted ways. It was a special moment and warmed us all the way home. I'm already trying to think of an excuse to pass through Beit She'an again soon.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
A few vacation pics... since you asked
[Yonah gives Miss Manners an aneurysm]
[Ari and Yonah in Tsfat]
Monday, August 25, 2008
Our tents are pitched a few feet away.
I'm sitting in a folding camp chair, ankle deep in the middle of a fast-flowing upper-Galilee stream catching up on a stack of unread 'New Yorker' magazines.
Ariella is reading a book a few feet downstream.
Zahava is catching up on a stack of her magazines a little further downstream.
Gilad is swimming in a small man-made pond nearby with a bunch of other teens/tweens.
And Yonah has the run of the place... tossing pebbles into the many streams and pools.
Meanwhile, a few early leaves twirl down on BBQ scented breezes... carried along with the happy sound of relaxed vacation chatter in Hebrew and Arabic.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Lately I've been having little conversations with Yonah, our four-and-a-half-year-old son, about some of the fundamentals of making blessings (called 'brachot' in Hebrew).
For those not in the know, Judaism has blessings for pretty much everything (even for the Czar!). I'm not going to give a long lesson on the types or structures of the various blessings, but suffice it to say that observant Jews view brachot as one of the main things that separates us from the lower life forms; specifically, our ability and willingness to acknowledge a higher power for the things we experience and enjoy... before (and sometimes also after) we enjoy them.
One of the things about making brachot is that you need to teach kids early on that one should try to minimize the time between making the blessing and doing whatever it is you are making the blessing on. For example, one shouldn't speak between reciting the blessing and eating something since unrelated speech would constitute an interruption.
Yonah is famous in our home for washing his hands before eating bread... reciting the blessing... and then chattering away about everything under the sun before actually eating the bread. Since bread isn't really high on his list of priorities, no amount of explaining has had much of an effect on his inability to remain quiet between blessing and action.
So yesterday in shul (synagogue), I decided that maybe I could use something a little more attractive in order to see if I could get the message across.
I'm not the shul candy-man, but I usually keep a bag of saltwater taffy with me so that I can give Yonah a little treat wen he's behaving nicely. I did this for both Ariella and Yonah, too, when they were younger... and (I hope) it gave them sweet associations with coming to pray.
After Yonah had been in shul for a little while and had said his morning 'Shema' prayer, I took out a taffy for him. But before I let him have it I explained once again that once he made the blessing he couldn't talk... he had to put it in his mouth right away so G-d would know what he was saying thank you for. I also explained about taking G-d's name in vain, and that it wasn't nice to make a blessing without actually doing whatever you were talking about in the blessing since that was also bound to be a bit confusing (not to mention disrespectful) to G-d.
[Ed. Note: Before anyone steps in to correct me, first go try talking theology to a four year old. Nuff said]
Yonah nodded dutifully (keeping his eye on the taffy only slightly less intensely than our dogs watch me when I handle chopped liver), made a nice blessing, and popped the taffy into his mouth without the slightest hesitation.
So far so good.
A while later when he came back inside from a short play session, I decided to check to see of the lesson had been retained. I took out a taffy and asked him if he wanted it. After receiving the obvious answer I asked him what he needed to do before he ate it. Without missing a beat, he made a beautiful, clear blessing (...'shehakol') and held out his hand urgently to indicate that he needed to put it in his mouth without delay.
I had actually been expecting him to simply answer that he needed to make the blessing, but seeing that he seemed to have gotten the message I dutifully popped the taffy into his mouth.
Yonah rarely stays in shul for very long so I wasn't surprised to see him leave a few minutes later. But within two minutes he was back... this time with two friends. They lined up in front of me, and without hesitation recited a loud clear 'shehakol' blessing and started urgently pointing at their mouths as if to imply that if I didn't hurry and give them each taffies, the sin would be on my head!
Somehow I think Yonah has taken the wrong message from this particular lesson.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Clearly a free
lunch dinner isn't enough for some people
There really is no pleasing some people.
From the instant the J-Blogger's Convention was announced (heck, even when it was still in the rumor stage), people were already criticizing it for what they thought it was... as well as for what they thought it wasn't.
Apparently, having attendance (in person or on-line) open to anyone who cared to register wasn't egalitarian enough for some. It seems these people wanted engraved invitations... and threw not-so-private pity parties and hissy fits when 'only' an informal email invite was sent.
Then there were those who complained (on their blogs and in the press) that the panels were overwhelmingly composed of right wing religious bloggers and that the conference's entire Raison d'être was to advance that demographic's sinister agenda.
Yet, as free as many were with their criticism, throughout the months of hard work that preceded the convention, none of these nay-sayers stepped up to offer their help or advice to the small handful of dedicated individuals who were tasked with pulling this thing off.
Nobody - not one person - from among the critics made the slightest effort to bring sponsors on-board who might have influenced the conference's flavor or texture. Think about that. Stephen Leavett of WebAds, and a few other people, busted their humps to bring paying sponsors like Office Depot and Sun Microsystems to the table so the convention would have some gravitas... not to mention to ensure that Nefesh B'Nefesh wouldn't be perceived as holding the dinner check for ransom to their 'agenda'.
And while we're on the subject, what the hell is so objectionable about NBN's agenda? The last I heard, bringing Jews to Israel was supposed to be a good thing. Consistently bringing large numbers of well educated, fiscally-established Jews to Israel who can contribute to the economy in this generation instead of having to wait until the next, is an incredible windfall for the Jewish State. Having more than 95% of such immediately productive and industrious Jewish immigrants actually stay in Israel is unprecedented!
One pundit accused NBN of screening potential immigrants so that mostly right wing religious Jews would make aliyah... and of encouraging new olim to eschew 'consensus communities' within Israel 'proper' in favor of settlements outside the 'green line'. What utter nonsense!
Another blogger accused NBN of being "deceitful" in the way they selected the panelisst for the convention. Aside from not asking him to speak, he felt that NBN had conspired to stack the panels with right wing Messianists. Mind you, this accusation was leveled after the members of the two panels - containing a fairly eclectic group of bloggers - had already been announced and published. Not only that, but several bloggers (including Dov Bear and Jack) who would have added even more diversity to the forum, had already declined NBN's invitation to fly to Israel for personal reasons.
I came home from the Convention full of both positive energy and constructive criticism.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, having met dozens of people I only knew from their writing. I got to participate in both panels... and a former (and perhaps future) Israeli Prime Minister walked in during my remarks, shook my hand and sat down to listen to what I had to say. Where I come from, that's a memorable evening!
But I also came away from the convention with lots of clear ideas about where things had not been well managed, and in some cases had gone quite wrong.
For instance, as much as securing the participation of a former Prime Minister was undeniably a feather in the cap of the convention organizers, they obviously didn't prepare him for the visit. Mr. Natanyahu should have been prepped so that he could have crafted his remarks to be more inclusive of the incredibly diverse physical and virtual audiences he was addressing, instead of holding forth as though he was speaking to a Likud rally in Dimona. He has both kinds of speeches in his bag... it was just a matter of a little advance prep on the part of Nefesh B'Nefesh.
The same can be said about the length and scope of Bibi's remarks. He should have been told that he had 10-15 to talk about his vision of blogging's role in the Jewish and Israeli media landscape. Full stop. Again, he wasn't properly prepared by the organizers, and as a result, ended up using up time that most people would have rather seen allotted to the panel discussions and Q & A periods.
As I read the various post-convention blog wrap-ups, I became sadder and sadder... and most of my positive energy evaporated.
One guy, who I'd seen smiling as he enjoyed an evening of free food, drink and entertainment among people he would not otherwise have ever had the opportunity to meet en masse, chose to title his morning-after post "The Failed 2008 Jewish Bloggers Conference". He wrongly assumed that NBN's "...aim was to bring together 20 to 30 bloggers in order to discuss how blogging can be used to help with Israeli hasbara ("public relations")." , and went on to make a bunch of random criticisms of the event, less than 50% of which were even close to being fair or accurate.
Others were closer to the mark in their criticisms, but ignored the big picture; specifically that no matter how off schedule, disorganized or somewhat off-balance the conference may have been, someone (actually, a whole bunch of someones), had expended a lot of time and effort to make it happen... and it hadn't cost a single blogger a red cent!
Nefesh B'Nefesh came into existence because a few people were troubled by the trends they were seeing in western Aliyah and decided to do something about it. North American immigrants were arriving in dribs and drabs, ill-prepared by their well-meaning Israeli shlichim for the extent of the culture shock... and an alarming percentage of these brave, patriotic idealists were going back where they'd come from with their dreams unfulfilled and shattered.
The hallmark of NBN's efforts has been their willingness to try new and untested methods, and to take calculated risks. They found independent funding from non-traditional sources among American Christian groups who were Israel's natural, yet largely untapped, allies. When the source of that money offended the sensibilities of certain influential parties, NBN went in another direction and re-framed the philanthropy of American Jewry for Israel from a paternalistic sympathy/guilt check for victims, to a venture capital pitch for building modern Israel one immigrant at a time.
Throughout its existence Nefesh B'Nefesh has been unafraid to try new things and explore new opportunities... anything, so long as it lined up with their goal of bringing American Jews - the modern incarnation of the wealthy, comfortable Babylonian Jews - back to Israel. Where Ezra and Nechemia had been largely unsuccessful, NBN has far more tools at their disposal to try to dislodge North Americans from their comfortable suburban Diaspora. And for better or worse, they are also unafraid to employ new tools... even when they don't fully understand them.
Several bloggers made the observation that the NBN staff seemed puzzled by the bloggers, and that they didn't seem to understand our medium. This is probably true to some extent. But NBN didn't try to strong-arm anyone, and to my knowledge never asked any of the panelists, moderators or participants in their flights to adhere to any 'party line'. They simply said "Here is an opportunity to see what we do, from the inside. Write what you feel."
Even the topics for the panels were left intentionally vague.
The first panel discussion was designed to appeal to small and medium sized bloggers who wanted to grow their 'brand', build traffic and make a name for themselves. I have no doubt that had Bibi's shpeil been kept to a reasonable length, the Q & A session for that panel would have brought out some excellent tips, ideas and strategies from both the panelists and audience members. As it was, we only got to deliver our opening remarks and hear a token (3, if I remember correctly) number of questions.
The Second panel was called 'Building Israel one post at a time'. Some took this to mean 'promoting' Israel (i.e. doing hasbara for Israel... or perhaps for NBN). I took it very differently and crafted my talk accordingly.
I understood it to mean that the sum of our blog posts - meaning not just mine, but also those of people who are very different kinds of Jews/Israelis - combine to create a large mosaic-like picture of how Israel appears to the outside world. With that latter understanding, I honestly thought that the point of the panel was to dispel the idea that a single sort of blogging about Israel was right or wrong. Rather, that the J-blogoshere, with its incredible diversity, was successfully presenting a rich, nuanced and above all, honest panoramic 'film' of Israel and Israelis. In the past (by way of comparison), even Israel's most strident and well-informed supporters had only glimpsed caricatures of noble victim-hood and clichéd postcards from 'the holy land'.
It's now well past 4 AM... nearly a day and a half after the Convention... and I'm still more sad than angry over the uncharitable things people have had to say about the event.
Maybe Nefesh B'Nefesh was naive to try to embrace our 'hobby' or 'community' (whichever view you hold) before fully understanding what it is we do. But that naiveté was never accompanied by heavy-handedness or demands for any kind of alliance or conformity.
Someone pointed out to them that ten thousand conversations a day were taking place on blogs and comment boards related to Israel and Judaism, and they thought to themselves, "I wonder if these people realize the potential they have at their fingertips".
They invited us inside their world without preconditions. The gave us an oleh-eye view of the most emotional and potentially traumatic part of their work, and asked us to honestly report what we saw.
They threw a party for us - without even fully understanding who we are. They didn't place any conditions or restrictions on the attendees or press who showed up, and placed no demands on the panelists or presenters who spoke.
They laid out a nice spread of food and drink for the people who showed up in person, and paid G-d knows what for the bandwidth to be able to beam the event out live over the web to over a thousand virtual attendees. They arranged for an articulate member of the foreign ministry to address the crowd and even managed to have a former leader of our country show up.
Bibi wasn't just Likud's Prime Minister when he was in office. He was Israel's Prime Minister... just as Olmert, for better or for worse, is also Israel's leader. Heck, if they'd gotten Yossi Beilin to show up, that too would have been a coup. No, I don't agree with much of what he has to say, but he is a very bright man who I will likely never meet... and I would have welcomed the opportunity to sit in the same room with him and ask him what he thinks bloggers should be doing.
But for all the effort and planning that went into this event, it wasn't enough.
Clearly things could have been done differently... almost certainly better. But what about us? As guests, didn't we have some responsibility to our hosts?
We all showed up, ate their food, drank their drinks, burned up their bandwidth, used their nicely appointed office to network and meet friends; old and new. And when we'd had our fill and our fun, we went home, turned on our computers and proceeded to trash the only host that - purely because of who we are and what we do - has ever bothered to invite us out as a group.
They didn't expect any of us to 'put out' on the first date. Heck, in dating terms, Nefesh B'Nefesh was the perfect gentleman... not even asking for a chaste peck on the cheek for all they'd done. All they asked was that we show up and help them, and each-other, to better understand this quirky (qwerty) medium.
Clearly, that rarest of commodities; a free
lunch dinner, just isn't enough for some people.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
A friend from down the hall
Two AM on a Thursday morning sometimes brings difficult choices. I have an exam in a few hours in macro-economics that I will almost certainly tank. I am also the executive editor of the Commentator, Yeshiva University's undergraduate newspaper, and we need to have our final edits (saved on a 5.25” floppy!) to the printer first thing in the morning or we won’t have the printed paper back on schedule. It’s my senior year at YU and I’m sitting in the Commentator Suite, a dorm room shared by Lance Hirt and Danny Mann, the Co-Editors-in-Chief of the paper, and the Macro-Ec test is taking a back seat.
Lance is slaving away on a balky 386 computer, putting the finishing touches on an editorial… and Danny and I are going over lists of articles to make sure nothing has been left out or overlooked (something is always overlooked).
As quiet and intense as Lance is over there driving the 386, that’s how excited and animated Danny is across the desk from me, checking and re-checking his lists. To watch him on deadline night is like snacking on coffee grounds and sugary food. As he reads through his list he repeatedly bounces a tennis ball off the wall, catching it effortlessly time after time without actually looking up. He’s a bundle of highly focused energy, humming like a live wire. And he occasionally grabs my list to cross-check something… giving the ball an extra bounce off the floor or ceiling in order to buy the extra few split seconds while both his hands will be engaged.
During that wonderful year that I lived down the hall from Danny on the second floor of the ‘morgue’ (a shortening of the name of the family who donated the money for the building), and served with him on the Commentator staff, I got to see him in every mode and mood imaginable; exited, sad, gleeful, tense. But always Danny was going places… headed in a definite direction.
It is now 2008 and I once again find myself ‘down the hall’ from Danny with an important deadline looming. And as always, Danny is going places.
We are both on board the August 18th Nefesh B’Nefesh flight from JFK to Ben Gurion, and Danny is sitting a few rows behind me with his wife and four kids, heading towards their new life in Israel. I wander by a few times during the flight to see how they’re doing, and his wife Cindy, and their kids seem as relaxed as if they are on their way to a long-anticipated vacation. But Danny, as intense and excited as ever, is the same bundle of energy I remember from our undergraduate days.
In the intervening years Danny’s natural intellect and focus have served him well as a partner with a high profile New York law firm. But, with lots of close family and friends living in Israel, the dream of Aliyah apparently loomed large for him and his family.
As we pass over the coast of Turkey on the final leg of our shared flight to Israel, I watch Danny flipping through the channels of his in-flight entertainment system and I can clearly picture his younger incarnation mentally preparing to muscle through the next challenge… and the next and the next.
And as always, I know he’ll be fine. Danny is more than up to the challenge. I just wish I’d brought along a tennis ball to give him for the flight.
Monday, August 18, 2008
A total fanboy moment
Sitting in the King David Lounge at JFK waiting for word to go down to the Nefesh B'Nefesh flight (the campers went down a few minutes ago) and I look over to my right and spot Barbara Sofer (a wonderful and prolific writer who, among other accomplishments, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post).
I see she's also wearing a VIP badge and will be on the flight with us. I go over and barely restrain myself from gushing ('I'm a huge fan'... 'love your writing'... etc.).
I'm a shameless fanboy when it comes to good writers.
It’s raining bloggers!
You can’t hold an International J-Blogger Convention without some spontaneous pre-event events. For instance, there is the Shabbaton being held this Shabbat in Queens (followed by a Sat. night Melava Malka). And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a pre-pre-event event where a few bloggers decided to get together for dinner.
But even that wasn’t enough for some (including your host), so some private and semi-private blogger meet-ups were arranged.
MOChassid, Ben Chorin and I get together nearly every time MO comes to Israel, so one of the first things I did when I arrived in New York was arrange to meet him for dinner. Unfortunately, we made plans for the same evening that several other bloggers (Ezzie, Jameel and Gil) were getting together. Luckily the place we picked was right across the street from the place they chose, so when we finished with dinner we crossed the street to join the others for dessert (where we were joined by even more bloggers!).
But something even stranger happened on my way to meet MOChassid for dinner.
I was a few blocks form my sister’s place on the Upper West Side when the skies opened up. I mean a real torrential downpour.
Coming from Israel, I was completely unprepared for the sight of rain in the summertime, so I ran for the first awning I spotted and found myself looking at a familiar face just a few feet away. He seemed to recognize me as well… so after a moment we smiled and said hello.
The funny part is that the other person was a blogger who calls himself ‘Orthodox Anarchist’. We have never met before, but have traded barbs in the virtual world and had long ago agreed to disagree (to say the least). Yet here we were hiding out from the rain under the same awning… exchanging pleasantries.
This week it’s truly raining bloggers.
PS... as I post this, I am sitting in the King David lounge at JFK's El Al terminal with Jameel (of the Muqata), Gil (of Hirhurim), Robert (of Seraphic Secret). Esther (of My Urban Kvetch was here a moment ago but she seems to have wandered out to meet some people in the real world. [shrugs]
Sunday, August 17, 2008
So yeah... the angry post
Long story short, my lovely wife has saved me from myself (once again)... so there won't be an angry post (at least not the one I've been sitting on for the past week).
Here's pretty much all I have to say on the subject at this point:
The subject: The angry post was in response to an article that appeared in last weekend's Haaretz newspaper. It accused the J-Blogger Convention of being one-sided (right wing religious), and the organizers of being deceitful.
The cause for my anger: IMHO, the 'journalist' who wrote the
hatchet job piece acted unethically on several levels, not the least of which was not revealing 100% verifiable facts (to which I directed him) about the actual statistical make-up of the convention's panelists that would have turned his story into a non-story. There was also the little problem of him feeling the need to print that I live in the west bank while not mentioning where anyone else quoted in the article lived. WTF!?
The reason I'm not posting my rant: Several other bloggers have already done so (in a much more balanced manner than I cold have managed), and one in particular attracted the ire (and bile) of the same ego cases/spoiled brats who put the bug in the journalist's ear in the first place.
So, thank you honey. Once again you've demonstrated that it is a much better idea to use the car's brakes than the air bag.
P.S. Do I really need to remind you to register for the Conference? Even you folks who plan on attending online from the comfort of your den need to register in order to gain access to the feed. I'm just saying...
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Love takes a hit
Dear [place appropriate name here]
I find it strange when people write to say they 'love' my blog and then go on to suggest we exchange links . Because nearly every time this happens, I go check out their site and find that, despite 'loving' my blog, they haven't linked to it.
Are you seriously telling me you love my blog... and in fact are a huge fan... but you won't link to it unless I first link to yours?
I guess love has really suffered some setbacks in recent years.
Recalling better times,
"Laying the groundwork for an insanity defense since 1961"
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
A Harpie at 30,000 Feet
I like to think of myself as a wheels-up, wheels-down kinda flyer, meaning that when I travel by plane, I go to sleep when the wheels go up… and wake up when I hear the mechanical bump of the wheels locking back down.
When Zahava and the kids came along I had to make certain accommodations to this routine so that I could do my fair share of wrangling the children (and to avoid being stabbed by Zahava with the airline-issue dull butter knife during meals).
But this trip to the states I knew I’d be flying solo, so I was looking forward to examining my eyelids from the inside for the entire 11+ hours from Ben Gurion to JFK.
But then I encountered Haim’s family… specifically his wife.
Haim, and his three delightful children were seated in the row directly behind me. His wife (whose name I still don’t know… and hope never to) was seated across the aisle directly to my left.
It seems Haim and his kids are my kind of travelers; relaxed, quiet… and if left to their own devices, comatose. Haim’s wife; not so much.
As soon as we boarded I watched with trepidation as Haim and his kids filed into the row behind me. But I needn’t have been worried. Without a word, each of the kids allowed themselves to be changed into pajamas and placidly accepted blankets, pillows and stuffed animals from their father.
Before the doors of the airplane were even shut, Haim was tucking his kids in… and they were miraculously showing sings of actually going to sleep.
Then Haim’s wife announced her presence.
From across the aisle and one row up, she began what would become an unbroken string of imperative commands:
“Haim… the bear pajamas are Ruchi’s and the clowns are Esti’s.” You need to change them or they wont be able to sleep.”
The two nearly identical children had not made a peep of displeasure about the pajamas theyd been issued, and showed no sign of doing so… but the tone of Haim’s wife’s voice left no room for doubt… changed they would be or nobody was going to be getting any sleep.
Once the kids had been changed, the next command was passed down from on high:
“Haim, they don’t have the right stuffed animals… they’ll never be able to sleep (this despite the fact that one of the kids was already asleep and none of the kids had made a peep about the stuffed animals they’d been given).
But to his credit, Haim silently went about switching animals and children… glancing at his wife for confirmation as he did so.
Even after the kids had drifted wordlessly off to sleep, the harassment continued:
“Haim, Yitzy’s head is at an odd angle… fix it or he’ll be paralyzed for life!”
“Haim, they’ll be bringing the food soon, wake up the kids!”
“Haim, don’t let them eat that this late at night, they’ll have gas!”
And on and on and on…
By the midpoint of the dinner service everyone within earshot was visibly wincing with each shrill command aimed at poor Haim. And to his credit, I never heard Haim’s voice. He silently complied with each and every directive.
After one particularly forceful shout of “Haim!” an Israeli man in the row in front of me lifted his plastic cup of diet coke in tribute and said “L’Haim!”
From that point on, those of us who were within the range of this Harpy’s harangue answered each shout of ‘Haim!’ with a raised glass (real or imaginary) and a soft salute of “L’Haim!”.
The best part is that she was so intent on sending each criticism and correction towards its intended target that she seemed not to notice the mocking salutation that was being offered by her neighbors.
At the end of the flight when the plane was at the gate and the ‘fasten seatbelt’ light had been extinguished, the normal bustle of people retrieving their belongings from the overhead was drowned out by the now-familiar bark of “Haim… check to make sure you aren’t leaving anything behind. The kids will never forgive you if you leave their stuffed animals on the plane.”
An unspoken thought passed among the small group of us who had witnessed the saintly and uncomplaining Haim’s trip through the seventh sphere of hell… an uncharitable thought of leaving someone else behind. Then the Israeli man who had been in the seat in front of me turned to us with a wink and raised an imaginary glass in tribute. And on cue we all intoned, “L’Haim”.
Monday, August 11, 2008
A long-overdue bit of feedback from the management
I am pleased and proud that so many of you take the time to come here. While you are not the primary reason I started this thing called treppenwitz, you are certainly among the primary reasons I haven't gotten around to stopping.
I love writing about the stuff in my head... and I love reading what you think of that stuff. While I don't always get a chance to respond to every comment (much as I really, really want to), be assured that I read, and genuinely consider, every single one.
I write primarily for myself. I want you here and encourage you to leave feedback to what you read here. But I am sharing my thoughts with you... not sharing myself.
Our relationship is one of words and ideas. Be assured, I have learned far more from the collective 'you' than any of you have learned from me. However (and this is a really big 'however'), when your comments cross the line from addressing something I've said, into that very personal territory called 'judging me', you lose my ear, my interest and my patience. I am not a child in whom your stated disappointment is likely to produce contrition or improved behavior.
For instance, if you feel that something I've written is insulting, demeaning, or just plain wrong... let me know. Chances are pretty good that you are 100% correct and either the criticism is expected (and deserved), or I made a decision that what I had to say was more important (at that moment) than the risk of insulting or demeaning someone... or of being wrong.
So yes... go ahead and tell me when you agree as well as when you disagree. But if you go beyond my comment, and move on to me... well, we have a problem. You see, I don't know you and you don't really know me (much as you think you do). When you read a few posts (out of more than 1000 I've posted) and decide, based on that small sampling, that I am anti-this or pro-that... kindly keep it to yourself. You are almost certainly wrong.
When you finish one of my occasional rants that includes some ill-advised language or offensive sentiments, and you feel disappointed in me... keep it to yourself. To feel disappointment in a stranger you (possibly) admire is perfectly valid and appropriate. To express that disappointment in a direct comment is to cross some important lines.
If you enjoy coming here even half as much as I look forward to your presence and contributions, then I'd say we have a pretty wonderful thing going on here. But I am not open to emotional blackmail. If you think that at my age, threats of boycotting or solemn finger-wagging is going to change the essence of who I am, you are, sadly, trying to teach the wrong pig to sing.
[And no... this is not the angry post I was sitting on yesterday. That one is still incubating quite nicely beneath my ample posterior.]
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Hungry & Grumpy
That pretty much sums things up.
I'm sitting on a very angry, contentious post at the moment... but Tisha B'Av is not the time to publish such a thing. Maybe later I'll be less angry... and the topic will appear less contentious.
In any event, I wish those of you who are fasting today an easy time of it. And to those who are not... please order a quadruple Vente Breve Cappuccino, and have me in mind. :-)
Friday, August 08, 2008
Israel as 'Giving Tree'
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the book 'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein. Notice I didn't call it a children's book... because there are many layers of complexity to the book, and as one grows older (and even... perhaps especially as one goes trough the various stages of being a parent), new messages and meaning are revealed.
The storyline of the book follows a young boy that is given ever greater gifts by his favorite tree as he, and his needs, grow... until one day the tree has nothing left to give.
I sometimes feel like no matter how lucky we are to be living here, or how idyllic our lives are in this most special corner of the world, that I am like that little boy; demanding ever more from a country that has already given me so much.
This morning, being a weekend here in Israel, I was able to spend a few minutes with Yonah (our youngest) before walking him up to his bus stop to wait for his ride to kaytanah (day camp). It was a perfect morning... not too warm and not too cool... and with just the right amount of gentle breeze blowing to tousle Yonah's honey-colored hair as he tossed his multi-colored kippah happily from hand to hand.
Just as we arrived at the bus stop we caught sight of his bus coming down the street and Yonah began enthusiastically waving to the driver - David - who is a beloved pillar of Yonah's care-free existence.
As the bus pulled up and opened its heavy door, David called out a greeting to Yonah that was clearly the opening line of a well-rehearsed banter between them and Yonah pointed excitedly back towards me saying (in a perfectly accented Hebrew I will never be able to duplicate) "Look, my abba brought me here this morning!"
As David the bus driver shouted a warm greeting to David the father, the precious boy we shared between us lept happily up the steps into the waiting bus and was swallowed up in the shouted greeting of his friends.
I waved one last goodbye to Yonah even though I couldn't see him clearly through the thick, tinted windows of the bus and imagined he was waving back at me.
As the bus pulled away I stood for a moment awash in my good fortune to be living at this time, in this place... and made a conscious effort to enjoy and appreciate my incredible luck at being a citizen of a Jewish country where little Jewish boys greet Jewish bus drivers and then join their Jewish friends on their way to a day camp full of Jewish kids and counselors who have been given such gifts that they rarely (if ever) feel the need to acknowledge them.
Standing there watcing the bus drive away I felt like that kid in 'The 'Giving Tree' book who has taken and taken and been given literally everything he has ever asked for. Yet I wanted to ask for just one more thing (isn't it always 'just one more thing'?);
But as the thought entered my mind, I wondered; am I being selfish and demanding when I send my silent wish into the warm morning air... a wish that maybe, one day, my son will be able to ride to his care-free summer day camp on a bus that isn't armored and fitted with bullet-proof windows?
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Offending the offensive
According to a report I read this morning, Saudi Arabia is calling for a boycott of the Nissan Motor Company over a recently aired Israeli TV commercial for a 'new 'green' (meaning energy –efficient… not green colored) Nissan car.
Here you can see it for yourself:
Apparently they consider the depiction of traditionally garbed Saudi Sheiks pounding their fists on the offending car and shouting "Hawks should peck at you day and night", to be overtly racist.
During the press conference, the traditionally garbed Saudi spokesman Hani al-Wafa told MBC TV, a Saudi-run station headquartered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates that, "We need to apply punishments [ed note: It's not clear if he means boycotting or beheading here]... against these things.
In order for Nissan to keep its interests in the region, it must apologize."
He went on to add that, " Hawks should peck day and night at anyone who buys or rides in one of these new energy efficient cars".
OK, I made that last part up… but you have to admit it's pretty damned funny listening to the people who lead the world in cultural insensitivity and abusive rhetoric complaining about insults to their 'culture'.
We can't possibly invent a cheap alternative to oil soon enough to suit me… primarily so we can all enjoy watching these corrupt goat-shaggers reverting to what they do best. [hmmm, did I say that out loud?]
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Just another reason to dump those day school tuitions and make aliyah!
[A guest post by Zahava]
The cast: Yonah (age 4-and-a-half) and Zahava (age none-of-your-business) The topic: ברכות (brachot / blessings) The setting: Early morning breakfast
I'm standing in the kitchen while Yonah finishes dressing in the living room. As I finish making his breakfast, I call out to him: "Yonah, I'm buttering your toast. Go in and wash your hands and make על נטילת ידיים ('al netiyat yadaiim' is the blessing over washing your hands)."
"Okay Ima", comes the unusually compliant reply.
Yonah comes into the kitchen, washes, makes a nice ברכה (bracha/blessing), takes his plate and sits down at the table.
It is early, and I am weaning myself from coffee for Tisha B'Av (the upcoming fast of the 9th of Av), so I am really only giving him half of my attention. That is, until I hear him making the blessing over the bread ending in; "...המוצי טוסט מין הארץ" (hamotzei toast min haaretz / who brings forth toast from the land) instead of "המוצי לחם מין הארץ" (hamotzei lechem min haaretz / who brings forth bread from the land). The idea of a kid not even five years old actually understanding (and thinking about) the words of a blessing enough to ad lib just blows me away!
What?! You're still sitting there? Go fill out an application for Nefesh B'Nefesh right now! :-)
Oh, and while we're on the subject, you're all registered for the NBN International J-Blogger's Convention on August 20th, right? I'll be there with trep.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Ain't Technology Grand?
These pictures were taken yesterday from my sister's iphone... sent to my cell phone.. and uploaded directly to my blog. I posted them on my way to work this morning (someone else was driving). If this actually works I'll be shocked.
The photos were taken yesterday by my younger sister Elizabeth, who treated Ari and Gili to a tour of the Moma (Museum of Modern Art, for you non-New Yorkers), followed by rowing in Central Park and a delicious (from what I hear) dinner.
I'm so jealous!
Monday, August 04, 2008
When curiosity trumps propriety
I found an interesting new website this morning via the New York Times (in the Technology section). It's called Criminal Searches', and it allows you to do exactly that. For free!
Now, I'm all for the right to privacy and such... but as my kids get closer to dating age, it's nice to know that, with a click of a mouse, I can do a quick little background check (at least in the U.S.) on just about anyone.
Oh, and I'll save you the trouble... I have a clean record. But go on ahead... I know there's someone's dirt you're just dying to play in.