Sunday, January 31, 2010
So happy to be back home...
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Fix that while you're at it...
The last few days of a two week trip are always the hardest for me... especially if there has been a lot of airline travel involved.
I landed in Delhi this evening (for the second time this trip!) after a long delay on the ground in Goa, and promptly fell asleep in the courtesy limo sent by the hotel to pick me up.
I never do that. I am a suspicious person by nature, but I am especially vigilant when I am abroad since there is no way of knowing who has access to my itinerary. So when I woke with a start as the car pulled to a stop in front of the hotel's stairs, I knew I was both lucky and exhausted.
My company has a special check in on the top floor (on the hotel's 'Corporate Club' floor) but for some reason, even though I explained this to the bellman, he insisted on steering me to the front desk.
When I tried to explain to the woman at the front desk that I preferred to check in upstairs where they knew me, she ignored me and began processing my check in. Being too tired to argue, I just handed her my passport and credit card.
She asked me if I preferred a smoking or no smoking room and I began getting annoyed. It was past my bed time and I'd been in transit all day... and the damned hotel had my profile on record. All she had to do was read the freaking screen. But I didn't say this... I just gritted my teeth and said. "Non-smoking please".
She handed me the electronic room key card and wished me a mechanical and entirely insincere good evening.
This hotel is one where you need to flash the room key across the elevator panel or it won't take you to your floor. Naturally she had neglected to program the key so I stood there in the elevator unable to do more than wave impotently at the panel and stab the button with no result.
I stormed back to the front desk, and when she was finished with the person she was checking in, I politely explained that she hadn't programmed the key. She took my key card, programmed it and returned it without so much as an apology... as if this second act was part of the check-in ritual.
I went back to the elevator... successfully accessed my floor... and finally found myself outside my room.
The doors in this hotel are such that you have to push a little button above the handle and then wave your card in front of the reader to activate the lock. However, when I pushed the button (with the card nowhere near the reader) the door swung inward revealing a darkened interior. It had been open.
I generally pay attention at the de rigueur security briefing I get before each trip abroad, so as the door was swinging inward on the meager force of my button push, our security officer's instructions rang in my ears as if he ware standing behind me:
"Under any circumstances you should open the door all the way before entering the room to makes sure nobody is behind it. But if you are entering your hotel room and anything feels 'wrong' about it, push the door all the way open to the stops with all your strength and step quickly back out into the hall. If someone is behind the door or waiting inside, that should throw them off balance long enough for you to get away easily."
I shoved the door as hard as I could and heard a satisfying 'bang' as it hit the stop. I looked at the darkened doorway for a moment and decided I wanted a new room. If the door hadn't latched for the last person who had been there (presumably the hotel staff who had cleaned the room), it might not latch properly for me.
When I went back to the front desk I was beyond annoyed. I went to the woman who had checked me in and asked her to call the duty manager, and stood studying the crowded lobby until he arrived.
I explained about asking to check in upstairs on the club floor and being ignored.
I explained about being asked about my room preference when I had gone to the trouble to join the hotel chain's member club and had specified all of my preferences in advance (including an additional time when my secretary had made the reservation).
I explained about being given an un-programmed key card and standing like an idiot in the elevator.
I explained about arriving at the room and finding it unlocked/unlatched.
The duty manager apologized and offered me an upgrade to a suite for my trouble.
Now, I sometimes get upgraded for being a frequent guest or because of the company I work for. But I really didn't want him to think I was being a petulant @sshole just to get a better room. I just wanted what I was supposed to get. No more and no less.
So I turned him down. I told him I just wanted a room with a door that locked when it closed.
He turned to the woman behind the counter and said something to her in Hindi and she quickly programmed a new key and handed it to him. He then escorted me to my new room.
When we arrived, he opened the door, taking pains to ensure it was locked properly before activating the electronic key... and waved me inside to inspect the room.
It was the standard room (which is really very plush) but the first thing I noticed was the smell of stale smoke. I quick look around the room confirmed my suspicions... there were ash trays everywhere.
Now I was beyond any semblance of politeness. I told him to have my bags taken back outside and to have me checked out. I told him if the suitcases were not outside by the time I got a taxi, he could send them to the (insert name of another hotel chain). I was too tired for any more crap. With that I left him in the room and took the waiting elevator to the lobby.
He must have caught a faster elevator, because by the time mine reached the lobby he was waiting for me, wanting to know what was wrong. I told him that even though my profile had specified a non-smoking room, I had humored the desk clerk and repeated this request. Yet she had still put me in a smoking room.
Then a thought occurred to me and I asked him if the first room I had been assigned had been a smoking room too. When I told him the room number he said yes, it was.
That's all I needed to hear. I wished him a good night and went out to the front of the hotel to get a taxi. If I wasn't asleep in the next hour I was seriously going to lose it.
The duty manager chased me outside and literally begged me to come back and let him give me a new room. I knew I was being unreasonable, but muscle fatigue from the flights, lack of sleep and hunger had ganged up to deprive me of my usual good humor.
After a moment of meditation on just how big a jerk I must have appeared to him, I forced a smile and told him that I would give him one more chance to make things right.
He took me back inside and instead of asking the desk clerk to do it, he want around and began programming things himself. I interrupted him and reminded him that I did not want an upgrade. At that point it was more about proving to him that I wasn't fishing for better conditions with my tirade.
He must had been doing just that because I watched as he canceled something and began a new series of typed commands. Within a minute he had my new card and had taken me up to my room.
The new room was just fine. Locked door, sweet smelling, no ash trays... everything I needed in a hotel room.
While he was still in my room, he made a call on his cell phone to arrange to have my bags transferred from the original room (where, by this time they had been delivered) to where I was staying. I listened to his side of the conversation, not understanding the Hindi, but following the context when he mentioned the old room number and the new one in English.
After a brief pause he turned to me and told me that the bellman had confirmed that the door lock was not functioning properly... and that the door seemed to have been kicked open because the door stop had broken off and the handle had gone through the wall.
He then dialed the engineering department and began giving instructions to someone in Hindi.
I could have played dumb, but interrupted him and explained that I had probably broken the doorstop when I got spooked by the door being unlatched. He looked at me for a moment and said, "Oh right... you're Israeli. I guess I can't blame you for that... especially after 26/11 [what they call the Mumbai terror attack here].
I explained that I would be happy to pay for any damage, but he shook his head and turned his attention back to the phone conversation. Now he switched to English and instructed the engineer to have the lock replaced... and finished up with, "... and fix the doorstop and wall while you're at it."
He wished me a pleasant evening (and seemed to mean it) and let himself out.
I've just had my cup-o-noodles, a granola bar and two bottles of water... and I aaaaaaaaam outahere!
Monday, January 25, 2010
floating at sunset
in the arabian sea
gentle blood warm waves
Like a box of chocolates...
Dinner at the Mumbai Chabad house on Shabbat is a very Forrest Gumpian experience in that you really never know what you are gonna get in terms of company.
This past Friday night I found myself sitting next to /across from two Members of Knesset and the Israeli Consul General (stationed in Mumbai and her family). There were also a lot of students, post-army pack-packers, and assorted businessmen spread around the gigantic table... and of course the requisite friendly Chabadniks. But the dinner discussion was even more lively than usual due to the addition of some political primary sources to the mix.
It didn't hurt the liveliness of the table talk that one of the MKs was from Kadima and the other from Israel Beteinu. :-)
On a sadder note, after several trips to Mumbai since the attack, I finally got up the nerve to visit Nariman House, the site of the original Chabad House. Having left india just a few days before the attack, I wrestled for months with a minor case of survivor's guilt. And when I came back to Mumbai afterwards, I just couldn't bring myself to go have a look.
But since I was going to be in the Colaba Market (in which Narriman House is located) picking up some gifts, I decided I really had to go put my ghosts to rest.
As I turned the corner onto the narrow street where the former Chabad building sits, the first thing that caught my eye was a series of bullet holes on the wall of a bakery across the street. Each bullet hole was circled in red paint... and above them on the wall was the following hand-painted message in English and Hindi:
Taped on the gate of the house is the following note:
The Hebrew says (roughly) :
Beit Chabad Mumbai Shalom
We are currently operating in a different location.
Please write your name and email address in the guest book that is held by the guard.
Our email address is....
For information or to make a donation visit www...
Thank you, Yossi.
Clearly, while they want to make Jews feel welcome and direct them to the new (temporary) location, they are being very cautious not to publicize the address. So if you want to visit, you sort of have to be able to work out the Hebrew... and you have to contact them via email so they can call you to speak to you before telling you how to get there.
Nariman house itself still sits locked up and under 24 hour guard. The Chabad organization is still fund-raising to restore it, but it isn't clear whether the Indian government will make it easy. Apparently there is a prevailing sentiment in political circles here that Chabad was the primary target in the attack and had acted as a magnet for the terrorists. This is the same logic that is widespread in Europe which posits that Israel's presence is the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the region.
The Indian Government has even gone so far as to deny the request of the current Chabad couple to have their visas renewed, forcing them to return to Israel for the time being until things sort themselves out. while they are away, a rotating crew of Lubavitch students is holding down the fort at the make-shift Chabad house... welcoming a mixed lot of local and traveling Jews every day of the week.
Needless to say, donations to Chabad of Mumbai are always appreciated.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Nice to know, but...
I'm in Goa for the next couple of days at a resort that can best be described as making the Garden of Eden look threadbare and limited.
I rarely get to take advantage of the facilities when I'm here, but since I arrived early on a Sunday I figured why not check out what's availible. So, as I was sitting out on the poolside veranda of my room (yes, you read that right) perusing the resort facilities brochure, a little tidbit of information jumped out at me.
In among the mouthwatering description of the six international-themed restaurants, private beach, spa facilities, gyms, organized activities (meditation, yoga, pottery, cricket, volleyball, henna design, cooking classes, etc.), I noticed the following paragraph:
"The resort houses a fully functional laboratory with a professional microbiologist and quality analyst on staff 24/7 who ensure international norms are maintained at all times. All consumable items are of the utmost international quality and are prepared and served within the highest hygienic standards."
You know, while that is certainly comforting (I mean, who really wants to contend with a raging case of 'Delhi Belly'?), I have to think the folks in marketing could have found an unobtrusive spot in the back of the booklet for that information... alongside, say, the schedule of mosquito fogging and what to do in case of a fire.
Seriously, I don't ever want to see the words 'microbiologist' and 'Cuisine' on the same page. I'm just saying.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Not so comfortable with that...
Once in a while my travels in India will bring me into contact with members of the older generation who remember life under the British Raj.
WhIle there is ample evidence that the country as a whole has no problem referencing and even actively channeling certain cultural touchstones from that era, I can't imagine that anybody is particularly keen to recall or relive the level of subservience that was common (even obligatory) between the local people and representatives of the colonial power.
So it catches me off guard - and honestly makes me uncomfortable - when a taxi driver, shop attendant or doorman calls me 'Sahib'.
It happened again last night as I got out of the cab. When I poked my head into the window to pay the fare, I responded with a modern phrase I learned recently; 'Jai Hind' (roughly, 'Victory India'). Probably equally inappropriate for a foreigner to say... but I wanted to convey a soft protest that in this day and age, a white foreigner shouldn't be kowtowed to... especially by someone who is old enough to recall meaner times.
File this one under cultural confusion.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Huh? wha... ?!
My flight from one coast of the Subcontinent to the other landed after midnight, followed by an hour drive to my hotel in a suicidal taxi. I think drivers here use their car horns the way dolphins and bats use sonar (i.e. for echo-location).
I checked into the hotel, showered, and finally fell into bed by 2:00AM (after making sure to arrange a wake up call so I wouldn't miss my morning meeting).
The neat thing is that when I asked for my wake up call, the hotel clerk asked if I would also like a follow-up call in case I fell back to sleep (they must know me)... as well as how long a delay I wanted before the follow up call.
The next question was even kewler; "Would you like a pot of fresh brewed coffee and a newspaper delivered to the room with the follow-up wake-up call?"
Aaaaand the survey says: Yes. Yes I would!
I went instantly to sleep, confident that my morning would be pleasant, albeit too soon.
After what felt like 30 seconds I was jarred awake by a knocking at the door. I couldn't see my watch in the darkness (the heavy drapes were still drawn), so I got out of bed and stumbled to the door to peek through the peep hole.
Standing there in the hallway was a uniformed room service attendant with a coffee tray and a folded newspaper. All I could figure through the fog was that I must have slept through two wake up calls, so I let the guy in... gave him a small tip and sat down to have my coffee and figure out how late I actually was.
When I could finally focus on my watch (two cups later) I realized that it was still 20 minutes before my first scheduled wake-up call!
Apparently they are still working the kinks out of the coordination between the wake-up service and the room service folks.
Oh well, it was a nice thought. And the coffee is actually excellent. But I really could have used that extra 20 minutes (plus the 15 minute roll-over period before the second call).
I guess I'll check out the Cricket scores and Bollywood gossip in the 'Hindustan Times'.
Monday, January 18, 2010
A sure-fire cure for self-pity
This morning I was feeling a tad sorry for myself. Here I was not even two days into a two week business trip and I was already starting to feel congested and sniffly. Not only that, but I was tired and sore from the two flights I'd already endured (with a prospect of at least another nine to go before I sleep in my own bed).
And on top of it all, I was hungry. Not hungry, as in I haven't had anything to eat... but rather hungry, as in, I haven't had anything good to eat.
Road trips are kind of a culinary desert which kosher-eating Jews have to cross. Everyone has their own formula for surviving the desert... but I usually bring along (or send ahead) Manot Chamot (cup-o-noodles), Cabanos (kosher peperoni stix), tuna, granola bars, etc.
But by the second day of must trips, all I can think about is the luxury of being able to stand in front of my open refrigerator in my own kitchen, running up the electric bill while deciding between four different kinds of yummy left-overs.
So, this morning as I was having these self-pitying hungry thoughts, and thinking to myself how truly unsatisfying a cup of coffee and granola bar were, I spotted a plate of clementines on a glass table by the window and happily peeled one for myself.
I took the peeled clementine, sat down on the crisp, high thread count cotton sheets of the king-sized bed, and leaned back into the stacked goose-down pillows to watch the morning news on the large screen plasma TV on the wall... all the while grumbling to myself that the vitamin C in the fruit might help keep my cold from getting too bad... but these sure weren't as good as Israeli clementines.
When I stood up to get another piece of fruit, I happened to glance out the window of my well-appointed suite and noticed a little make-shift shanty-town in the park across the road where literally hundreds of people were living in shacks made of cardboard, wood scraps, plastic sheeting and other stuff salvaged from who-knows-where.
Here's a closer look (as if you really needed one to know where this post is headed):
These people aren't living like that for a week or two. They aren't enduring that mess with the smug assurance that in a few days a soft bed and the good life will be waiting for them. For them (and for a big chunk of the world's population), this is it. That's as good as it's gonna get.
Heck, if any of those people across the road could afford a TV set or the electricity to run it, they'd probably look at the news coming from Haiti right now and think to themselves, 'Holy cow, I may not be rich, but at least I'm not there!'.
I sometimes forget how ridiculously fortunate I am, and how different my life could be in the the blink of an eye.
So if anyone is looking for a sure-fire cure for self-pity... I have a little something that will snap you out of your funk in a hurry. Don't thank me... I'm a giver.
And speaking of giving, forget all those websites popping up like mushrooms after a rain asking for donations for Haiti. Give to the organizations that have been around in good times and in bad... providing disaster relief around the globe and taking a bare minimum of overhead for themselves. I don't need to paint you a picture... you know what to do.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
So this should be an interesting couple of weeks...
Posting from an Internet kiosk in the Bangkok airport. Am exhausted due to flying on a red-eye flight full of people who were so jazzed about being on vacation that sleep didn't enter into the equation. Just as I finally drifted off I was tapped on the shoulder by someone to let me know they were about to start Shacharit (morning prayers) in the back of the plane.
My section of the plane was pretty evenly split between young scantily clad Israeli back-packers and over-dressed Israeli Haredim. I actually had to switch seats with someone to keep a little 20-year-old hottie with a belly shirt, navel ring and body art, from tripping a middle-aged Hassidic couple's circuits. Don't ask.
The Haredim are apparently part of an organized tour of Thailand. The funny thing is that they were all given bright green ball caps to wear so they won't lose track of one another during the tour.
I'm guessing that they won't have much trouble spotting each other... although I have to say, the ladies propping the baseball caps on top of their already stacked sheitel (wig) and pill-box combo makes a nifty trifecta.
I'll check in later... must. find. coffee.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
I don't know whether to be relieved, insulted or confused.
After a lot of soul searching and reflection, I wrote (and rewrote!) a post about my impressions of what is going on in the UK.
Again, the thoughts presented in the post were not truths, accusations or anything more than what I personally felt after visiting with a lot of different Jews in the U.K..
Since the post was published, many former Brits (and an assortment of other people) have weighed in with their impressions. But unless I've missed someone, not one single British Jew (i.e. someone actually still living in the U.K.) has commented on that post.
I honestly don't know what to think about that. Either I'm so far off base that my post doesn't deserve to be dignified with a response... or I've hit so close to home that everyone wants to simply sit quietly until someone changes the subject to something a tad less awkward.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Everyone has their own version of a rain dance
A cowboy proverb of long standing that would be pretty hard to dispute (based on empirical evidence, anyway) goes as follows:
'Timing has an awful lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance'
With all due respect to the 'Great Father' of Native American religions, I have a little fathering experience of my own... and I can assure you that my mood at any given moment has as much to do with whether my kids' requests get granted as the content and/or framing of their requests.
So I have to believe that when we beseech G-d for rain, his current disposition towards us probably has as much to do with whether the skies are going to open up as the specifics of whatever fancy prayers or dances we might offer up.
Gilad and I studied all of the section of the Talmud dealing with fasts (Masechet Ta'anit) during the year leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, much of which deals with public fasts in times of drought. It contains lengthy discussions and debates over when fasts should be declared, what types of rain are good and bad, who should fast, how long fasts should go on, what happens if someone wants to end a fast early, etc..
Fascinating stuff, but I treated it as purely an academic exercise since I couldn't imagine modern Rabbinic leaders declaring a public fast over lack of rain in our day and age. Silly me.
It seems that Sephardic Chief Rabbi (Rishon LeTzion) Shlomo Amar has declared tomorrow to be a public fast due to growing signs that another winter is about to pass with far less rain than is needed to provide the country with desperately needed water.
Personally, I think that encouraging Jews to treat one another with just a modicum of 'Derech Eretz' (i.e. with respect... and maybe even love) would go much further to appeasing G-d in the face of withheld blessings such as rain.
But then, who am I to argue with a Chief Rabbi?
So yes, I'm planning on fasting... and I encourage others to do the same if they are able.
But I have also taken an additional step to bring on the rains: Last night I had my car detailed. That, more than other single thing I know, has been proven to bring precipitation within 24-48 hours.
Everyone has their own version of the rain dance.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
A week in
[A potentially offensive post. I apologize in advance. You've been warned]
Every week the table outside my synagogue is cluttered with 'parsha sheets' and other printed material dealing with the Torah portion of the week. This week has been no exception.
In one of the sheets, a gentleman named Yosef Y. Jacobson makes a fairly obvious point that those who read the Bible in translation miss the multi-dimensional nuances of the meaning-rich Hebrew text. As an example he draws the reader's attention to a line in this week's parsha (Va'eira) which is typically rendered as follows in English translation:
"Therefore, say to the children of Israel: I am G-d, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of egypt; I shall rescue you from their slavery; I shall redeem you."
Mr., or perhaps Rabbi (he wasn't identified with an honorific), Jacobson points out that the Hebrew word 'Sivlot' which is usually translated as 'burdens', can also be translated as the plural of 'tolerance'... as in "I am G-d; and I shall take you out from [having to] tolerate Egypt". He goes on to say that "burden and tolerance are connected, since tolerance is a form of burden carrying; of accepting a challenging reality."
His point is that while we usually view the story of the Exodus from Egypt as a tale of redemption from physical slavery, it is also very much (maybe more so) a tale of deliverance from psychological bondage. We lived for generations having to tolerate our status as a hated minority in Egypt, having to go through the sort of mental gymnastics known to all hated minorities in order to tolerate our dismal placement at the very bottom of society.
If you think I'm wrong, then why was it so hard for Moses to convince the Jews to leave Egypt? If you were in prison and someone opened the door and told you to run, would you ask questions? Would you need to be convinced??? And even after the Israelites were out, why did so many of them rebel against Moses and suggest to him that they had it better when they were in Egypt?
Although I am woefully ill-equipped to offer any original scholarship on religious texts (which is why I seldom do so), I have offered this preamble because it gives a perfect a lead-in to my thoughts after having interacted with a very wide cross-section of the British Jewish community for a week.
First of all, I should point out that I am writing this in full knowledge that this post, like any sweeping generalization, will be fundamentally wrong on a number of levels... and will offend many who read it.
I freely acknowledge that a week is really insufficient to gain more than an initial impression. But impressions - especially first ones - have value, and are often to be trusted.
I also need to mention that having grown up in the U.S., I have absolutely no idea what it's like to live in a country with a relatively small Jewish community. Even if you happen to live in a small American Jewish community, the overall American Jewish population is numbered in the millions, and is extremely vocal about political matters... especially where relations with Israel are concerned.
Any time an election rolls around in the US, if there are even a few Jews among the potential constituents, it is incumbent upon the candidate to give a full public accounting of his past voting record and current views vis-a-vis the State of Israel.
In places where there are large blocks of Jewish votes at stake (think New York, Florida Illinois and California), American candidates actually go to embarrassing lengths to prove their unqualified support for the Jewish State... even to the point of peppering their speeches with Yiddishisms and Borscht-belt humor (picture gray-haired Presbyterians and Quakers trying valiantly to pronounce Chutzpah and Tuches).
In short, being pro-Israel in the U.S. is seen as having political value.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when I found the tiny U.K. Jewish community (less than 300,000 strong as of the last census), to be absolutely absent from public discourse in support of Israel. In England, there seems to be a political price to pay for being pro-Israel... and if anything, there seems to be value on the side of those who are critical of Israel.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Jews in the U.K. seem to be fairly equally split between being actively critical of the Jewish State, and being apologetically supportive of it (albeit in the safe privacy of their homes and synagogues).
Those who are apologetically supportive often utter phrases like "Of course I love and support Israel, but...", at which point they will list off Israel's real or imagined human rights abuses and crimes of occupation, all of which, they will tell you, make it extremely difficult for them to defend Israel to their non-Jewish friends and co-workers.
Those who are openly critical of Israel simply dispense with the preamble about supporting Israel and launch right into a barely controlled rage about the apartheid-like imprisonment of the Palestinian people, and present thinly veiled justifications for all manner of terror against Israel by the Arabs. This is all the more shocking because it is delivered in extremely cultured, terribly polite, perfectly constructed paragraphs that only well-educated Brits seem able to manage.
For the most part, the British Jewish community seems to keep their collective heads down and try to fit in with their countrymen as best they can. Sadly, in many cases this means trying to be more British than the Brits.
Not only is there a serious problem with passive anti-Semitism in the UK, but active anti-Semitic attacks seem also to be quite prevalent and on the rise.
While I was at Limmud I noticed that security was being handled by an organization called CST. They were literally everywhere on campus, guarding all the doors, wandering the grounds, checking IDs of everyone going in or out. On the one hand, it was nice to see them taking security so seriously. But on the other, we were in the middle of Coventry on a closed university campus during Christmas break. Did anyone even know/care that there were Jews in the area?!
When I asked someone about this they explained that CST was the organization that guarded the synagogues all over London (and presumably in other places in the UK) and that 'normal' life for British Jews was not something an American or Israeli Jew could easily understand.
I was shocked. In the US there are occasional hate crimes against JCCs and synagogues... mostly of the spray-painted Swastika sort. But in England I was seeing a relatively small Jewish community where blanket security was required everywhere that Jews gathered in any numbers.
I was further shocked when I got to London and started wandering around Golders Green. No, I'm not talking about the Salt Beef Sandwich at Blooms (which was a crime of a different sort... don't get me started!). No, I'm talking about the fact that in literally every Jewish shop, restaurant, bakery, Judaica store, etc. there was a little display on the counter next to the cash register where customers were encouraged to take one of the following cards:
This kind of card could only exist in a community that feels threatened and vulnerable. They may not be in imminent physical danger (although the need for cards such as these suggests otherwise), but you'd have a hard time convincing me that the U.K. Jewish community isn't experiencing a social, emotional and psychological threat. They are clearly tolerating a great deal of anti-Semitism as they go about their daily lives... trying to act as if everything is fine.
I hate to make the comparison to pre-war Germany, because the analogy is patently unfair. Certainly England is not going to start loading her Jews onto cattle cars anytime soon. But at the level of anti-Semitism that German Jews were forced to tolerate in the late '20s and early '30s (i.e. well before the really physical threats to their safety materialized), they reacted by keeping their heads down, and managed to convince themselves that they were more German than the Germans... that everything was basically okay.
Which brings us back to Egypt and Mr. (or Rabbi) Jacobson's observation that the difference between a physical and psychological burden hangs on the nuanced translation of a simple Hebrew word.
Personally, I think that much of the left-leaning, knee-jerk anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the UK Jewish community today can trace its source as much to British Jewry's need to fit in (i.e. to be more British than the Brits), as to any of Israel's real or imagined misdeeds. England's Jews seem (to me) to be captives of anti-Semitism ... forced to tolerate an oppressed status without fully acknowledging it to themselves.
When I left the U.K. I did so with a profound appreciation for the relative freedom I have experienced throughout my life; both in my American youth, and in my Israeli adulthood. Once one has tasted such freedom, the barest whiff of oppression can't be mistaken for anything else.
I'm going to stop here because I sense I've probably already said far too much.
Monday, January 11, 2010
A Limmud Post (1st of several, I'm sure)
Okay, I've been back for a while and have been putting off writing about Limmud. I'm not sure why since I had a really good time. As I've said previously, seeing so many Jews from different backgrounds bending over backwards to find common ground (the highest common denominator, so to speak) on which to meet was truly inspiring.
Certainly in the U.S the Jews of different stripe mainly keep to themselves and rarely seek out each other's company. And in Israel... forget about it. If you are the tiniest bit more or less religious than your neighbor you are either a fanatic or a heretic.
So yes, even though there is certainly plenty of room for improvement in the day-to-day relations between the Orthodox, Conservative (Masorti), Reform, Liberal movements in the U.K.,... the fact that everyone agrees to get along for a finite period of time each year is nothing short of astonishing (to me, anyway).
I also enjoyed meeting many individuals during my visit to the U.K. Several people embarrassed me by doing essentially what I did to Ruthie Blum (i.e. rushing and gushing), but I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't extremely good for my ego to meet enthusiastic treppenwitz readers.
I was also impressed by many individual acts of genuine warmth and hospitality. Many people extended offers to host me for shabbat on future trips, and a treppenwtiz reader of long standing (hi Alex!) even picked me up in Coventry on the way back from a family outing and they drove me all the way back to London. As if that wasn't enough, the next day he and his perfectly charming daughter (hi Elana!... loved the brownies you baked) took me on a walking tour of central London (The Monument, Tower Bridge, St. Pauls, The Globe Theater, Millennium Bridge, etc.).
For context, it would be like a native New Yorker agreeing to give up a rare day off from work to schlep you to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. So yes, on an individual basis I have loads of really nice things to say about many of the Jewish Brits I encountered.
I have a really intense post on some of my more general impressions of the U.K. Jewish community that will have to wait a day or two (still needs to be toned down a bit). But in the mean time here is a brief synopsis of my Limmud sessions:
The four sessions I gave at Limmud, could best be summed up as follows:
1. Aliyah Session: Sparsely attended by a (very) few people who were genuinely interested in moving to Israel, as well as a couple of ex-pat Israelis who seemed to be there in order to cast aspersions on my characterization of the cultural obstacles western olim routinely encounter. At one point one of these Israelis took me to task, saying that "We Israelis aren't rude, abrupt or pushy. And besides, Israelis act that way because we are under so much pressure due to the security situation, our kids serving in the army and the constant threat of war." I tried to point out the logical flaw in denying that Israelis act a certain way and then offering an excuse for the behavior... but she'd had her say and made an early exit.
2. Blogging Session: A respectable crowd of people who were genuinely interested in the subject matter. A lot of excellent questions with the inevitable one checking to see if I felt blogs could be used as a propaganda tool. I sidestepped that altogether, fearing it would lead to a debate of whether carrying water for Israeli on the Internet might be considered a violation of International Law or even a war crime. :-)
3: Settlers & Settlements Session 1: An extremely well attended session during which I laid out the historical and legal background that I had found almost universally lacking from European criticism of Israel's presence in 'the territories' . I was not particularly surprised to find that nearly all of the attendees considered themselves far more knowledgeable on the subject than the presenter. I was interrupted numerous times by members of the audience with barely relevant statements (i.e. not really questions) such as "That's a bit racist don't you think?", as well as some rather 'unique' interpretations of the British Mandate articles. The only thing that got me out of this session relatively unscathed was the fact that there was so much material to cover and little time for discussion. That's what the second session was supposed to have been reserved for.
4. Settlers & Settlements Session 2: Designed to be the follow-up to the first session whereby an honest discussion could take place among people who now had access to the same body of historic and legal knowledge, as well as an understanding of what constituted inflammatory language. The only problem was that not one single person in the crowded second session had been to the first session. Some suggested I simply repeat my first session, (which actually would have been the safer option), but for better or worse, I really wanted to hear what others had to say about settlers and settlements. I knew how I felt... I wanted to engage others in a discussion of how they felt! Mistake. First of all, I had a hunch a particular person would be there... and he was. I won't mention him by name, but he is a co-founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI). You can google it and know who I'm talking about. He dominated the discussion, prompting one guy in the back to tell him to shut up and let the presenter get a word in. But for the most part, nobody seemed particularly interested in whatever historical or legal claim Israel might have to be in the West Bank... not retain the territory, mind you... just to be there. I ended the session by reading my 'Ibrahim's Mirror' piece in hopes it might provide food for thought. Somehow I doubt I changed any minds. :-)
More Limmud stuff in future posts.
Thursday, January 07, 2010
little lot addictve
It's called VPIKE and it will basically take over your life for the next few hours... so prepare yourself.
Basically, when you enter an address you will see an actual photograph of that place. There's a little map with a little man on it - you can move the little man up and down the block if you need to and spin him around to look in all direction.
I've been looking at pretty much every neighborood I've ever lived.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
I got your compensation right here [gestures lewdly]
How cute... a member of the newborn Iraqi parliament has just issued his government's first official anti-Israel screed. This is surely an encouraging sign that they are ready to take their place among the mature-but-dysfunctional Arab governments of the region in attacking Israel as a means of distracting their populations from just how bad things are at home.
This member of Iraq's Parliament - Mohammed Naji Mohammed - made a startling announcement yesterday, demanding that Israel should be made to pay compensation for the Osiraq nuclear facility that we destroyed in 1981.
Well guess what Mohammed? You might find this surprising, but I agree that we should give the compensation issue serious consideration. But in fairness, Israel isn't exactly alone in causing death and destruction. So let's just take a closer look, shall we?:
IRAQI ATTACKS AGAINST ISRAEL:
Gulf War I - Iraq launched an unprovoked Scud Missile attack on Tel Aviv and surrounding areas during the 1991 Gulf war in which Israel was not even a combatant. We were pressured by the U.S. to absorb the missiles without retaliating, but for weeks life in Israel - school, work, sleep, etc. - was lived in sealed rooms with gas masks within easy reach. Without America's pressure, your country would be a smoldering crater where Iranians and Kuwaitis could conveniently dump their trash.
1973 Yom Kippur War- Iraq sent 30,000 troops, 400 (approx.) tanks, 500 armored personnel carriers (APCs), 200 fully equipped artillery units and 73 combat aircraft to participate in the unprovoked surprise attack on Israel (on the holiest day of the Jewish Calendar) with the intention of wiping us out. Your tanks were especially deadly to the beleaguered Israeli forces trying to push back the Syrian advance in the Golan Heights. Just when our army was starting to gain a foothold on the heights, the Iraqis attacked the exposed southern flank and forced a temporary retreat of the leading forces to keep the IDF from being encircled.
1967 Six Day War- Iraq sent a full infantry Division, two squadrons of fighter-aircraft (Hawker Hunters and MiG 21s respectively) and an undisclosed amount of armor. You even managed to get one of your Tu-16 bombers shot out of the sky as it was trying to bomb Tel Aviv. Again, an unprovoked attack on a peaceful nation with the intent to wipe us out of existence.
1948 War of Independence- Iraq sent 18,000 Infantry troops (including four infantry brigades, one armored battalion and associated support personnel) to take part in destroying the Jewish State. This was the start of your murderous involvement in repeated attempts to push us into the sea. You had no dog in the fight and stood to lose nothing by our existence. And yet... our Jewishness apparently provoked you beyond all reason.
S AGAINST IRAQ:
June 1981 - Israel, fearing that if your country joined the nuclear club would use nuclear weapons in subsequent conflicts (you hadn't missed a war with us, yet), chose a quiet Sunday morning (when we figured all the worker would be home) and sent eight F-16 multi-role fighters and six F-15s escorts to bomb your nuclear reactor. As a result of our caution and planning, only ten Iraqi soldiers and one French scientist were killed in the attack.
So let's review, shall we? Your country has actively and enthusiastically participated in most of the unprovoked armed aggression waged against Israel since the day it came into being (even though we had no argument with you). We, on the other hand have only attacked you once, and then only to prevent you form carrying out your repeated threats to destroy us. This says nothing of the Jewish assets that your government happily confiscated from the fleeing Jewish population and the priceless Babylonian era Jewish heritage that you stole or destroyed.
So, if we do a rough calculation of property destroyed and life lost as a result of our countries' respective armed aggression against one another... assign updated values, taking into account the fluctuation in currencies... potential earnings of all the dead and the cost of lifetime care for all the injured parties... carry the 2... adjust for inflation... hmmmmm, it seems to me you guys owe us approximately 1000 times what we owe you. Incredible, no?
Cash or Credit card will be fine. Sorry... no cheques. You know, we'd even call it even for some of the remaining Jewish treasures from the Babylonian era that you haven't managed to destroy. Deal?
Oh BTW, it's worth mentioning that Iran also attacked the Osirak facility the year before Israel did, causing extensive damage and killing an unknown number of personnel. I'm assuming you are also seeking compensation from Iran, yes? If so, be sure to let us know how that turns out, mmkay?
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
A random encounter at Limmud
You already know from an earlier post that I spent part of one evening while I was at Limmud washing clothes at the University laundromat. What I didn't share was a random encounter that occurred there... the kind of encounter that can only happen when Jews get together:
When I walked into the laundromat, there was only one other person in the place... a guy a few years younger than me with a close cropped beard wearing a floppy leather Aussie 'outback' hat.
Me: Hi, glad to see I'm not the only one doing laundry tonight.
Other Guy [glancing at my name tag]: Hi David, I see you're from Israel. Where do you live?
Me: I live in Efrat.
OG: That's amazing, I'm learning at Yeshivat Hamivtar right next door to Efrat!
Me: Oh, so that means you live right on the other side of the hill from my bees. I have a few hives next to Migdal Oz's Cherry Orchards.
OG: Those are your hives?! I've walked past them dozens of times and wondered whose they were. I've been wanting to talk to you for ages. Just the other day I was looking at a bunch of Rosemary covered with honeybees... I guess they were yours. I want to find out about beekeeping...
And from there I made a new friend... one of many I met at Limmud. I'll share more Limmud stories and anecdotes over the coming weeks.
Monday, January 04, 2010
"A child gives birth to a mother" * (... and a father, grandparents, aunts, uncles...)
[a guest post by Zahava]
16 years ago today, at exactly 7:04 pm on a snowy Tuesday evening, we got to meet the sweetest, most delicious little girl in the world.
Ariella, you blessed Abba and me with the first precious gift of parenthood, and in one blink of your big beautiful eyes, turned an extended group of people into a family of grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Ari, with your sweet disposition, rose-petal skin, and magical gaze you captured everyone's hearts – and to this day, you continue to impress and enchant us!
Happy Sweet-16! Abba and I love you very, VERY much, and can't believe our good fortune to have had so special a person make us parents for the first time.
* Quote by Vithal Venkatesh Kamat
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Baruch Dayan Emet
[A guest post by Zahava]
There are some people who are such an integral part of the foundation of your life that you can’t imagine that they won’t always be there. My Grand-Uncle 'Chick' – my maternal grandmother’s (z”l) younger brother – was one of those people. 'Uncle Chick' was a great bear of a man – over 6’2” with a thick crop of bright white hair over dancing eyes. He passed away last night (he was the last of his siblings to leave us), and his passing marks the end of an era.
My earliest memories of my Uncle Chick are of a flour-dusted man in baker’s white clothes – cigarettes neatly folded under the rolled sleeve of his t-shirt – dropping off piping hot rye bread and fresh flaky Babka in our kitchen as he stopped by on his way home after the night shift at the bakery.
Back then, our whole family lived in Boston, within a stone’s throw of one another. My maternal grandparents lived upstairs, my grandmother’s oldest sister and youngest brother lived across town, and Uncle Chick lived just one town over.
My grandmother and her siblings were very close, and I remember long informal visits in each of their various homes. Inevitably, I’d end up on Uncle Chick’s lap, snuggling into his coarsely whiskered face. When my brother came along, Uncle Chick's lap – and his heart – easily expanded to easily accommodate both of us.
His hearty laugh was as big as his powerful frame, and he never tired of good-hearted but relentless teasing. As a small child I didn’t realize that the toughness and the teasing were a cover – a shield of sorts to help him hide the demons of his youth.
Uncle Chick had served in Patton’s Third Army (infantry). He’d seen some horrible fighting and had been one of the young soldiers to liberate the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He’d served alongside his younger brother; a sensitive boy whose mind didn’t survive the horrors the two of them encountered in Europe.
When I was a teenager, and learning about the Holocaust, I asked my uncle about his experiences. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. It was the only time I ever saw his eyes lose their twinkling merriment. I understood then, and deeply appreciate now, the strength it took him to revisit those horrors. My grandmother said she’d never heard him talk about the end of the war, but he knew how important it was to a young American Jewish girl to understand her place in the spectrum of our people’s history, and so he’d granted me that wrenching interview.
When I was in college and my peers were spending their spring breaks soaking up sand, sun, and beer – I spent my spring breaks visiting my grandmother and her siblings in their retirement villas (they lived near each other in the same complex).
More often than not, it was Uncle Chick who met me at the airport. He’d toss me over his shoulder like I was one of those long-ago-delivered loaves of rye, grab my bags and tease me incessantly until we got to my grandmother’s. Just before I’d get out of the car, he’d remind me to be a “good girl” and help my grandmother while I was in for the visit. He knew I didn’t need reminding, but he couldn’t let go of his role as the protective brother.
When David and I met, Uncle Chick and Aunt Sarah were still spending their summers at their vacation cabin in southern Maine. After we got engaged, my uncle asked us up for a weekend in the woods so he could grill my future spouse and determine his worth.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to describe my uncle’s boundless energy. I am still not sure what David expected, but will never forget the surprised expression he wore when my then 75-year old uncle ripped the door open of the still slowing car, grabbed me from the passenger seat, flung me over his shoulder and disappeared into the moonlit woods screaming “she’s my niece, and I’ve got her now!” as my amused aunt apologetically approached David explaining that my uncle had really been looking forward to our visit.
Needless to say, we had a wonderful time with them. They loved David, and the feeling was more than mutual.
The first few years following our wedding were a strange mix of sorrow and joy. After a two-year fight, my mother succumbed to her terrible battle with cancer, leaving her children, her spouse and her elderly relatives with gaping holes in their hearts. Our Ariella, just 2 months old at the time of her Savta’s death, was the welcome distraction everyone needed. Cuddling his great-grand niece in the crook of his arm, Uncle Chick comforted me during the shiva with stories of my mother as a little girl, a teenager, a young mother, and finally as a loving adult niece.
Not surprisingly, Uncle Chick deftly took on the role of Great-grand-uncle to Ari, and upon his arrival Gili. Even less surprisingly, the kids loved him as fiercely as David and I.
Though he was very sad to say good-bye to us before our Aliyah, he was loving and supportive. We kept in touch – not nearly often enough – by phone. As he aged, Uncle Chick’s hearing loss sapped him of the patience for phone calls. The last time we spoke was last June, when I convinced him to share with Ariella the bits of family lore stored within the sole surviving family member of his generation.
He told us stories of his immigrant parents Raphael and Zlata (my namesake). How they met when my Romanian Great-grandfather was on leave from the Czar’s army in my Great-grandmother’s hometown on the Russian/Belarus border. He told Ari of her Great-great-grandparents decision to leave for the goldeneh medina; and of their 5 year separation while my great-grandfather worked to save for the passage of his wife and the young daughter born after he’d left.
He told my daughter about her Great-grandmother – about how much he enjoyed growing up the next sibling to the giggling tomboy twins. He shared the romantic courtship of her great-grandparents, and reminded us of how much he missed not only his dear sister, but the brother-in-law who had become his best friend, and my daughter’s own namesake.
He told Ariella of his delight when he became an Uncle to his second niece in 5 days after his twin sisters shared their special bond by having daughters 5-days apart, practically ensuring that the cousins would grow to be as close as their mothers had been.
At that point in the conversation, my uncle’s voice grew husky with grief. He explained to Ariella how very much he missed his sisters and brother, his first and second wives, and his own son who’d passed away a few years ago. Children, he said, were not supposed to die before their parents. He suddenly sounded so old… so far away… so frail.
After he finished up on the phone with Ari, he told me that my brother often downloaded pictures of my kids and brought them to him. He couldn’t believe how big everyone was – couldn’t believe that his sabra great-grand-nephew would be starting kindergarten at the end of the summer. He told me that my mother would have been proud.
Before he hung up, he told me he was tired. Tired and old. I didn’t want to hear it.
“You’ll never be old, Uncle Chick!” I tried to reassure him.
“Kid,“ he said gently, “you can’t stop the grains of sands from running through the hour-glass. You happy?” I told him I was. “Good.” He replied. “You were always a good girl. I gotta go now honey, I gotta rest. It’s hard for me to talk on the phone, but I am real glad you called. Ariella sounds like a beautiful young lady. Your grandmother and your mother would have enjoyed her very much. Make sure you enjoy her too.”
“Of course I will,” I mumbled through tumbling tears. “You’re right, she is a beautiful young lady. She misses you. We all miss you very much.” “I miss you too, honey,” came the soft reply. “Well…. Give David and the boys my love, honey… I’ll ask your brother to bring me more pictures when he brings his kids for a visit…. Love you.”
“I love you too.” I whispered into the receiver knowing it was too late, that he’d already hung up.
I love you Uncle Chick. You were a GREAT Great-Uncle – the best a girl could have. I miss you so very, very much.
How to call Iran's bluff
The impasse that exists today between Iran and the rest of the world can be summed up in the following two points:
A) Iran claims it needs a nuclear program for peaceful purposes; specifically for the production of electricity.
B) The rest of the world is deeply worried because one of the byproducts of a peaceful nuclear program - spent nuclear fuel - contains material which can be used as the building blocks for a nuclear weapons program.
Let's forget for a moment that Iran is sitting on one of the world's largest supplies of natural gas, a clean, easily handled fuel that comes out of the ground ready to use (i.e. it requires little or refinement) and could keep the lights on in Iran (and in all of her neighboring countries) for thousands of years using 19th century technology.
The crux of the issue is one of trust. Iran is basically saying that they have a right to produce electricity using nuclear energy if they so choose. It is a matter of pride for a developing country to be able to use a more sophisticated source of energy if they are able.
Think how you would feel if you could afford a nice Viking stove and chef-worthy assortment of tin-lined copper pans... but you were told that you had to do all your cooking in aluminum pans on a cheap two burner range and a glorified toaster oven.
Obviously this is a hopelessly flawed analogy since, other than killing them with envy, you couldn't threaten your neighbors with your Viking stove. But if Iran is indeed interested in peaceful nuclear energy and has the technological and financial means to manage it, the world's refusal probably feels a bit like the kitchen scenario I've described. Why should they be forced to use Victorian era Steam-Punk gear when they can afford and manage the space-age stuff?
The big sticking point is that the world has no way of knowing - until it's too late, of course - if Iran's nuclear aspirations are entirely peaceful. Once the genie is out of the bottle and Iran has enough fuel for a couple of bombs, there is no going back. See North Korea for an excellent example of genies that will never go anywhere near their bottles again.
Up until this past week I honestly thought this problem lacked a solution (other than a military one, of course).
And then I read an article in Wired Magazine that made me slap my forehead and wonder aloud what the hell is wrong with the world that they haven't figured out the obvious way to call Iran's bluff:
Pretty impressive, huh? Simply put, Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel that has the following advantages over Uranium:
- It is much less radioactive (and therefore easier to handle) than Uranium.
- It doesn't require nearly as much processing as Uranium to make it ready for use, and needs no enrichment.
- It is far more abundant in nature than Uranium (4-5 times, by most estimates, and fairly equally dispersed around the globe).
- Spent Thorium fuel is safer to handle and needs to be stored for only a few hundred years after use rather than several hundred thousand years as with our current spent nuclear fuel.
- It lends itself to a type of reactor that is far safer to operate (i.e. much less prone to meltdown).
- Spent fuel from a Thorium reactor is unsuitable for producing nuclear weapons.
So the question most of you are probably asking is, 'why isn't everyone using Thorium instead of Uranium in their nuclear power programs?'
And the answer is simple:
100% of the countries which have nuclear energy programs either have nuclear weapons programs or have agreements to sell/transfer their spent nuclear fuel to countries that do. Thorium was looked at during the cold war era, but discarded for the simple reason that it couldn't supply the basic ingredient required for building the bomb.
India is the only country that is seriously studying Thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel at this point in time. But it seems to me that the obvious way to call Iran's bluff on whether their nuclear aspirations are 100% peaceful is to tell them to prove it by building Thorium reactors rather than Uranium ones.
This is such a no-brainer that I can't believe nobody has thought of this before.