Thursday, November 13, 2008
This post is going to really make me sound like a total tourist... but what can I do.
I am currently experiencing olfactory overload. Pretty much anywhere one goes in the world, the smells are bound to be different from the familiar ones from home. But India is just tripping all my circuits.
This is not to say the smells here are bad. OK, some of them are tear-your-hair-out horrendous, but most of the aromas are actually quite pleasant. It's just that they are so strong and pop up so suddenly throughout a walk down a typical street that my brain can't manage all the sensory input.
Take for example my walk back to the hotel from my meetings yesterday. I would have normally taken a taxi, but the ride over had been in one of those tiny natural gas burning taxis that makes someone my size have to sit with his head in his lap in order to fit inside. So yeah... I opted to walk.
The walk began in a congested area of Mumbai near the main naval base. Each shop I passed had its own unique and powerful 'offering' to the street atmosphere, and after a little while I decided to walk in the street rather than continually get clobbered by the smells.
Then I noticed that I was walking in the slipstream of a group of young women who had fragrant flowers woven into their hair, and the smell (although delightful) was making me gasp for breath after a block or two. So I crossed the street (taking my life in my hands from the traffic). Almost immediately I passed a Hindu temple and the incense and floral smells coming from inside were like walking through a wall.
I walked over to the synagogue to daven (pray) the afternoon service and was not surprised to find that there was no minyan. No big deal... I knew from my last visit that they normally only have a minyan on Shabbat... but it is a beautiful 150+ year old building that has seen a lot of history, so I enjoyed just being there. However the interior of the place had its own mix of smells, from the mustiness of the books to the perfumed memories of more than a century of female worshipers drifting down from the ladies gallery above. By the time I left, my nose was running and my eyes were actually tearing from the assault.
Then on the way back to the hotel I took a detour down a side street to do some shopping and passed an open sewer where a bunch of men - dressed only in filthy loin cloths - were working with picks and shovels. The words 'open sewer' in reference to any place in the world are enough to make most readers reflexively wrinkle their nose. But this sewer line in the heart of Mumbai had last seen the light of day when it was laid down during the British Raj, and it seemed determined to broadcast its rich and ancient history to all passers by. I almost fainted from the unexpected assault.
Quickly crossing the street (looked the wrong way and nearly got mowed down by a taxi) I passed a leather tanning yard, a fabric dye works, a leather goods store, a perfumery and a chemist, in rapid succession. With the exception of the tanning yard, none of the smells were particularly bad. But the massive olfactory stimulus was starting to make me cringe and twitch as though someone were touching me with a live wire.
By the time I neared my hotel I felt like I was one big olfactory receptor and imagined I could smell people walking blocks ahead of me. Even walking into my hotel and navigating the lobby was full of new inputs. The flowery perfumes of the saree'd clerks were like stepping on a landmines as I passed the front desk, and the pools of water with blossoms floating on the surface that had been placed throughout the lobby all competed for my nose's attention.
The ride up in the elevator was shared by a group of Korean guests who all seemed to have recently dined on pure garlic and curry, and when I stepped off the elevator a pretty maid was just lighting a lamp in the hallway that contained water and essential oils designed to give off a pleasing aroma (I think it was sandalwood) . I staggered down the hall to my room.
When I got inside my room and closed the door behind me, all I could smell were the fragrances of the soaps in the bathroom. And when I finally threw myself on the bed the aromas coming from the bowl of fresh fruit on the side table was nearly unbearable.
When I went to sleep last night I was tempted to take the earplugs I keep with me in case of chatty seat-mates or engine noise on planes, and shove them up my nose. But in the end I simply buried my head in the cool, crisp (and thankfully unscented) sheets and went instantly to sleep.
This morning I seem to have recovered just a bit. The fruit bowl smells only like a collection of pleasantly ripe fruit... and the bathroom soaps and shampoos were no more threatening than the ones I keep at home.
But the day is young and I haven't ventured out of my room yet. Watch my twitter feed for olfactory updates.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The title of this post is Hebrew for 'Indian Film'. Aside from the literal translation, 'Seret Hodi' is an expression that is often used in Israel to describe a situation that is fraught with confusion, exaggerated emotion and/or poor planning.
Obviously there is some not-so-subtle bigotry in the way the expression is used... much the way Americans toss around the phrase 'Chinese Fire Drill' to describe similar situations, without a thought to whom it might offend.
Anyway, unlike its American cousin, 'Seret Hodi's origin is a bit more accessible.
Any non-Indian who has ever seen an Indian Film has probably been struck by how impenetrable some of the plots twists are and how many of the roles seem to be over-acted to the extreme. This seems to be a hallmark of 'Bollywood' productions, and seeing as the Indian film industry dwarfs Hollywood's output by a significant margin, one can't really argue with success.
As a foreigner in India, I am constantly struck by the confusion of bright colors, random traffic patters and impenetrable bureaucracy I encounter here. But since it seems to make sense to the locals, I'm obviously the one with the problem... not them.
But I must say that one place that I love the confusion is in the local newspapers. Each city has literally dozens of newspapers that are published throughout the day. They contain a jumble of local and International news printed side-by side with entertainment gossip, fashion dish and sports intrigue.
There are actual sections for each kind of news... but so far as I can tell, the editors seldom respect their own internal organization guidelines. And best of all, each article, whether about an International news item or a Bollywood star's off-screen romantic betrayal, is given the same dead-serious treatment by the writers.
Oh, and Israel could take a lesson from these Indian papers. While Israeli newspapers make it seem that everything outside our borders is of secondary interest/importance... the Indian newspapers provide an amazingly well-proportioned reporting of local and world events and seem genuinely interested in what happens outside their borders... even if it doesn't directly affect them.
More later (maybe).
Monday, November 10, 2008
On the road again
Posting may be spotty, but stand by for some pictures. I've been in transit since yesterday evening and just now arrived at my hotel.
Yes, that hotel. The one with the bathtub disguised as a swimming pool and monkeys playing on the balcony at night. Oh, and if you read all the way through that old post, you'll see I've broken a big promise to Zahava.
Stand by the Local Culture Report (I wanted to call it 'The View From Here', but two of my favorite bloggers each think they own that phrase. Who am I to tell them they're wrong?).
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Empty words from an empty person
Last night President Shimon Peres stood up at the Rabin memorial and said "Next year, in this square, I want to see that part of the nation that doesn't see itself as a part of this memorial event. That part of the nation that was not involved in that horrible night [when Rabin was assassinated] and that did not pull the trigger”.
I speak for nobody but myself, but this is what came to mind when I read those words:
You are a fraud, Shimon Peres. You took office with a promise to heal old wounds and bring about a national reconciliation. From that time until this, you have barely even given lip service to that admirable goal. Instead you have studiously ignored every violent act by leftists and anarchists and branded every misdeed from the right as the harbinger of 'the next inevitable political assassination'.
You have never been interested in a national reconciliation, so it puzzles me why you would bother even mouthing the words at this point in your career.
In your famous Haaretz interview with Daniel Ben Simon following your loss in the 1996 elections, you divided our people neatly into two camps; 'Israelis' and 'Jews'. According to that interview, the Jews are those who don't have "an Israeli Mentality". You counted yourself then among the Israelis, and sneered down your prominent Semitic nose at the Jews.
Tell me President Peres... what has changed since then? Have you and your friends come to a new way of reckoning our people? Have you arrived at some new formula for doling out legitimacy? If not, why would you think that 'the Jews' would suddenly come to your party?
Make no mistake, we feel the same loss of national innocence that you do when we look back at that tragic night. But we have never been allowed to publicly grieve for a murdered Prime Minister who was just as much our leader as yours. That privilege has been reserved each year for you and 'the Israelis' who use the occasion to point accusatory fingers towards the right... daring us to profane the night with a harsh word for your St. Yitzhak... and hunkering down at the podium as if the bullets might begin flying again at any moment.
You look out at Rabin Square and wonder rhetorically where the other part of the nation is... but did you even bother to invite us?
You tell the assembled throngs that the absent part of the nation did not pull the trigger that horrible night, but look behind you at the speakers who were chosen to address the crowd. Is there a single one among them who hasn't answered every angry complaint from the right with the accusation: "Those are exactly the kind of dangerous words that proceeded Rabin's assassination"?!
Sticks and stones thrown at Israeli soldiers on a daily basis by 'anarchists' from the Israeli left are ignored as a legitimate way of expressing displeasure with the government's decisions. But when so much as names are thrown from the right, you and your friends take cover behind the memory of a lunatic who acted on nobody's behalf but his own
No matter how insincere your wish last night may have been, President Peres, I share it. I too wish that one day a memorial for a murdered leader might include all of the people he served, and not just those who would usurp his legacy for their own political gains.
I would be among the first to arrive at Rabin Square if I felt welcome... and the last to leave. I would listen to Israeli leaders speaking unabashedly about our Jewish country, and I would place my energy and talents at their disposal.
But until the day arrives when the current crop of empty people ceases uttering their empty words, I and the part of the nation you consider to be hardly better than murderers will stay away and apply our honest efforts elsewhere.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The many paths that praise can take
Many years ago I was in an airport magazine shop and needed something mindless for a flight. I wasn't looking for anything too heavy... and I settled on a little soft-cover book called 'Life's Little Instruction Book'. It was a collection of life wisdom that the author, H. Jackson Brown, had compiled and written down as a gift to his son.
Although I liked much of the advice the book contained, one of the things in the book that has always stuck with me was one that said to "let your children overhear you saying complimentary things about them to other adults". I've always tried to do that... but until this week I didn't realize there was a corollary.
Here's the back-story:
When I was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem back in the mid-80's, I became friendly with a guy who was in Israel studying in a one year yeshiva program. We had quite a few friends in common and it was natural that when we both ended up at Yeshiva University to finish our degrees, that we would remain friends.
Once we were studying together in New York, he introduced me to the rest of his family, and his parents made a regular practice of inviting me to their home for shabbat and holidays. Being both an OOT (Out Of Towner) and a BT (Ba'al Tshuvah), I was delighted to have a surrogate family with whom to spend weekends and holidays .
Not only were these frequent visits to my friend's family a welcome opportunity to get off campus, but it was an invaluable learning experience for me since I hadn't grown up in an observant home.
During these visits, my friend's father would always find a way to teach me something new... but he always did so in such a way that it was as if he was reminding himself and I simply happened to overhear.
On many occasions he would point out some matter of Jewish law or observance... correct himself...and then say something like "That can't be right... let's check the source". And before you knew it he would have a few books open in front of us and he would be explaining - to himself, of course - whatever point of Jewish law or observance he was really trying to teach me. But instead of making me feel like a backward student... he always made me feel like a peer with whom he was simply double-checking a fact.
To say that I felt like a 'Ben Bayit' (member of the family) in my friend's house would be an understatement.
As time went on I became very friendly with all the extended members of my friends family. And as we moved on with our lives and got married... I made the acquaintance of their spouses as well.
Fast forward to the present and I find myself in Efrat, living a short walk from my friend's older brother's family. Zahava and I have become quite friendly with them... we've shared many meals together and have even celebrated a few family 'simchas' together.
When I spoke at Gilad's Bar Mitzvah this past week, I had a long list of 'thank-yous' to the family and friends who had helped us arrive to this particular time and place. And when Gilad and I made a 'Siyum' (completion ceremony) on one of the books of the Talmud I was especially effusive with my thanks to the friends who helped us through our year of study together.
But the morning after the Bar Mitzvah, as I was driving to work, I realized that I owed a special thank you to my friend and his family for the many small pushes they'd given me in the direction I would eventually take in life.
And As I drove through the Judean hills past landmarks and towns that are mentioned in the Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings), I realized I should really try to repay some of the kindness I'd received from this special family. After all, so much of my Jewish education had come from them.
But I knew that they would probably wave off such thanks and say things like 'Oh please... it was nothing'. These are the sort of people who might even be embarrassed by such praise.
Then I looked in the rear view mirror and caught site of one of my passengers. This young man wore the olive green uniform of an IDF soldier and his skin was tanned from his service in the south of the country. But his face reminded me immediately of his father... and in some ways of other members of his family.
So I proceeded to tell this young soldier stories of the meals I'd eaten at his grandparents table. I told him about Gilad's Bar Mitzvah which his parents had attended, and I told him that likely the reason I was able to make a siyum with my son was because of the lessons I'd learned at his father's, his uncle's and especially his grandfather's side.
And in so doing, I know this young man will tell his father and uncles... and they will tell their parents. In in this way my thanks will be delivered in such a way that it will mean the most.
So yeah... about that corollary.
Yes, I highly recommend that you let your children overhear you saying complimentary things about them to other adults. But there's something even better:
Praise people to their children and grandchildren when they're not around. The kind of praise that might make them blush with embarrassment if delivered to their face, will certainly warm their hearts if delivered via those they love most.
And judging by the knowing smile on the face of this young soldier... I'm guessing it makes the messenger feel pretty good as well.
Monday, November 03, 2008
Chicks with Sticks
A friend of Zahava (Okay, she's my friend too!) recently sent me an email about a worthwhile project that she and some of her buddies have been working on. The group is a knitting circle calling themselves 'Chicks with Sticks'.
They get together about once a week (if I'm not mistaken), and knit while swapping family stories and gossip. For this reason, some of those who know them have dubbed the group 'Stitch & B*tch' (behind their backs, of course).
Anyway, one of the more noble projects these industrious women have taken on is the task of knitting black knitted winter hats for IDF combat soldiers.
At first the group would send the finished hats with one of the women's sons who was on active duty. But now that he has finished his service, they've been distributing the hats via an organization called 'A Package from Home' that sends care packages to soldiers serving in combat units... especially to 'Lone Soldiers' (immigrant soldiers who don't have family living in Israel).
Now that this thing has really taken off and the demand has gone up almost as fast as the temperatures have dropped, my friend thought it might be nice to invite knitters from around the world to participate in this wonderful project.
In her own words:
Hey hat knitters,
Winter has come and all the hats you sent in recently have been a *huge* success . About 175 hats were distributed through Barbara Silverman's fabulous organization, "A Package from Home" and went mainly to units serving in the Golan, where it's nice and cold now.
Another 25 hats were personally distributed in Hebron recently, where it's been cold and raining, as well as tense on the military front. The soldiers were delighted! It seems the hat that is now included in the basic clothing set the soldiers receive is made of a synthetic fleece-type fabric that's really not warm and snug enough for outdoor duty in the winter. The knit stocking caps are exactly what they want and need, and we would like to try and get many more of them to soldiers this winter.
Here are some photos of your hats in action just last week:
As you can see, your hats are really out there, being worn by people who need them. You are providing the physical warmth and emotional support our soldiers crave.
So, for any of you knitting aficionados (both chicks and non-chicks are welcome to participate) out there who'd like to knit a hat or three for an IDF soldier, Click Here to download a Word document that spells out everything you need to know.
If anyone has questions or trouble downloading the document, just leave a comment here and I'll get back to you right away.
Brrrr.... it's getting chilly out there. What are you waiting for?
UPDATE: Hmmm, I need to talk to my wife more often. It seems Zahava designed the nifty label that gets sewn into each one of these hats before they are given to the soldiers. Here's what it looks like:
[Loose translation: Knitted for you with love and warmth. From The Connecting Thread]