Monday, February 19, 2007
Wisdom from unlikely sources
One of the difficult aspects of making aliyah is the inevitable process of parting from friends and family. Of course phones, video-chatting and the elusive promise of discount air-fares help take some of the sting out of this leave-taking... but the truth is that the physical distance can't help but impact one's most precious relationships.
Among our closest friends in Connecticut were the Rabbi of our synagogue and his wife. Our kids were also quite close with theirs, and the proximity of their house quite literally 'right around the corner' made for an effortless, comfortable friendship.
As luck would have it, just when we were putting our aliyah plans onto the fast-track and worrying about how to begin the process of telling our friends, the Rabbi and his wife confided in us that he had accepted a 'pulpit' out of state and that they would actually be leaving before us.
I have to admit that watching them packing up their belongings and putting their house on the market was less painful for us since we were sharing many of the 'moving pains' and could commiserate with them over the things we would both miss about the wonderful community we had shared for so many years.
One poignant story from this period that sticks in my mind was related to me by the Rabbi shortly before they moved. It occurred while the movers were packing up the truck with our friends' belongings which had been lovingly packed into countless cardboard boxes over the previous weeks.
Midway through the process of loading the truck the Rabbi walked into his house and met one of the movers carrying a large box that was obviously quite heavy. The mover asked, "Hey Rabbi, what's in this one? It weighs a ton!" The Rabbi took a quick look at the code he and his wife had written on the box in 'magic marker' (to help ensure the myriad boxes would end up in the proper room in their new house) and replied, "Oh those are just some of my books."
The mover paused in mid stride... a sad, knowing smile on his face, and said "Well wouldn't you know it... my mama was right after all. She was always on me about books. She said 'if you don't read them, you'll end up carrying them'. He then shuffled off towards the truck, swaying under the weight of the boxed volumes.
There are countless lessons one could take from this story... but chief among them is probably, 'Listen to your mother'.
[If my old Rabbi/friend is reading this, please know that we think of you often and miss you and your family deeply. Oh, and in case you were wondering what inspired this post today... pitchers and catchers reported for spring training this week. Bring it on. :-) ]
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The rental cello... an Israeli story
[Some stories just have to be shared... this is one of those.]
My company recently finished a long and complex project in which we had partnered with a German company. This project required several engineers and specialists from the German company to spend extended periods of time here in Israel.
On one such scheduled visit that was to last three weeks, one of the German engineers decided he wanted to bring his 13-year-old daughter along with him. It would be a mini-vacation for her, and he figured she would keep him company in this strange desert city of Beer Sheva.
However, as this German engineer was preparing for the trip, a problem arose. It seems his daughter is an accomplished cellist and was scheduled to perform at a festival two weeks after they returned to Europe... so she would need to practice daily while she was in Israel. The problem was that her instrument was extremely valuable and their insurance company wouldn't cover it in a 'war zone'.
The German engineer contacted my coworker and explained the situation... and asked if there was anywhere in Beer Sheva to rent a cello for three weeks.
My coworker did some asking around and quickly discovered that finding a rental cello in Beer Sheva would be only slightly less likely than finding a lake... so he expanded his search. After umpteen phone calls to friends and associates he finally received a lead... the phone number of a place in Jerusalem that repairs violins.
He called the repair shop and spoke with a pleasant individual who owned and managed the place. The problem was presented and the question asked: 'Did he have a cello that could be rented to the young visiting musician for three weeks?'
Without missing a beat, the repair shop owner replied that it shouldn't be a problem, and gave directions to his shop. My coworker promptly relayed the news to Germany via email and the plans for the father-and-daughter trip went forward.
Fast-forward a few weeks.
The day the German engineer and his daughter arrived in Israel my coworker and his family hosted the two visitors at their home for dinner. Over the meal it was agreed that they would drive to the Jerusalem workshop the next day to pick up the rental cello.
The hour-and-a-half drive to Israel's capitol went smoothly and by late morning they were all standing in the 'violin repair shop' chatting with the owner... a mid-thirty-ish Israeli with a ponytail.
In truth the place was far more than a violin repair shop. It was a workshop filled with violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Repair was only a tiny portion of what went on in this shop as the owner was the third or fourth generation in his family who had been crafting and repairing classical string instruments by hand.
Every wall, nook and cranny was filled with stringed instruments of every type and vintage...the smell of wood and lacquer were heavy in the air... wood shavings littered the floor... and several work tables were strewn with components of unfinished instruments.
The owner of the shop brought my coworker and the two German guests tea and asked how he could be of assistance. My coworker reminded him of their phone conversation and all attention turned to the young woman in need of a practice cello.
The owner sized her up with his eyes and grabbed a cello that had been standing in an open case near his workbench. "Try this one to see if it's a fit" he said in a mishmash of English and German, handing her the instrument.
The young German girl sat down and began to expertly tune the cello and rosin the offered bow. After making a small adjustment to the height of the bottom peg she began to play one of the Bach Cello Suites. The instrument sang beautifully in her hands and the owner looked on appreciatively... clearly surprised at the young musician's skill.
After a few minutes he stopped her and had her try two other cellos... one which was slightly larger and finally a third that seemed older than the first two.
When she began to play the third cello the room was suddenly filled to overflowing with the sound coming from the instrument. The first two cellos had sounded nice to my coworker's untrained ears, but the third seemed to make everything in the room vibrate and resonate with each note played.
The girl stopped abruptly and stared in disbelief at the instrument. A few rushed words in German were translated to English by the engineer and then into Hebrew by my coworker for the shop owner:
"What kind of cello is this? I've never heard or felt music like this in all my years of playing!"
The owner of the shop beamed with pride and replied that it was nearly 300 years old and was one of his favorites. In fact, it was normally kept locked away and the only reason it was out on the shop floor was that he liked to make sure all the instruments were inspected and played regularly. He explained that he had just finished making a small adjustment to the placement of the bridge under the strings and was preparing to put it away when they had arrived.
In a very business-like manner the owner said with finality that this was the instrument she must use while she was visiting Israel. The father hesitated a bit and began to politely protest at the idea of taking responsibility for such an old and valuable instrument... and clearly he was worried about what kind of rental fee such an instrument would command.
The owner waved off the objections and told him to take the instrument for his daughter. "After all", he reasoned, "she has a festival to perform in, so she needs to practice on an instrument worthy of her skills."
All attempts by the German engineer to fix a price for the rental were waved off by the owner. The only thing he would say was "We can talk about money when you come back in three weeks".
Being unused to the informality of Israeli business practices, the German really wanted to sign something or at least leave his credit card information, but the shop owner waved all this off and simply ushered the group - including the beaming young cellist now holding the instrument in its case - to the door and wished them a good day.
The three week visit passed quickly and on the day before they were scheduled to leave, the German engineer asked my coworker if he would take them to Jerusalem again and act as translator/adviser when they returned the cello.
When the three of them walked into the Jerusalem workshop together the owner greeted them like family and asked how the practicing had gone. The young cellist gushed in a combination of German and English over how much she had enjoyed playing the instrument. Again - as when she had first complimented the cello - the owner of the shop beamed like a proud father.
After a little small talk over tea, the German engineer whispered nervously to my coworker that it was really time to set the price for the rental and be on their way. My coworker dutifully asked the shop owner several different ways in Hebrew about the cost of the cello rental... but after each attempt, the conversation wandered off track leaving the question unanswered.
Finally, in frustration, my coworker turned to the German engineer and whispered "I can't seem to get him to set a price. I don't know if it's because hasn't decided on a price or if he is simply waiting for us to suggest one. What do you think?"
The German shrugged helplessly having no idea what to make of these crazy Israeli business arrangements... much less the present impasse.
Suddenly, the shop owner stood and picked up the cello case that had been sitting next to one of the chairs like an extra member of the group. He opened the case and took the instrument out. But instead of looking it over for scratches or damage as one would expect him to do, he handed it to the young woman and said "Play something... let me hear what you've been practicing for the festival."
The young cellist moved her chair back a bit to give herself some room and quickly checked the tuning. Once settled, she closed her eyes and launched into a passionate classical piece (my coworker was so taken by the beauty of the playing that he forgot to ask what piece it was as he had after their first visit to the shop).
Her playing was spectacular! My coworker described the sound of the soaring high notes making his face feel warm and the sonorous low tones making his chest ache (in a good way). When she was finished they all applauded loudly and the young German girl smiled shyly... clearly pleased with her performance.
As she put the venerable instrument back in its case, the German engineer made one last attempt to raise the issue of the rental price with the shop owner. The owner smiled and said "But your daughter just paid the rental fee! There is nothing more to talk about... have a good trip back to Germany."
The German engineer couldn't believe his ears but he didn't have a chance to even thank the shop owner as the pony-tailed craftsman had turned away and was busy addressing the young musician:
"I'm so glad that this old cello had someone worthy to play it. I hope you'll come back to Israel and visit... the cello will be waiting. Good luck with your festival!"
Most of the car ride back to Beer Sheva was spent discussing this odd transaction. The German engineer asked over and over if this kind of thing was typical in Israel... and my coworker tried to explain that while he wasn't terribly surprised by the outcome, there really was no such thing as 'typical' in this country.
In other words, if he was asking if Israeli's always conducted business this way... the answer was 'no'. But if he was asking if most Israelis were nice and more than a little bit sentimental... the answer was 'yes'. The Engineer and his daughter just shook their heads and smiled.
Only in Israel can a priceless cello be rented for a song.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
With warm hands... not cold (lessons in giving)
I've learned many lessons from my parents over the years, but none so important as how to give generously without the recipient(s) feeling as though they are taking.
The 'small gestures' of support that my sibs and I have received from my parents over the years (a 'little' help with a down-payment on a house... a hand-me-down car just when the family vehicle unexpectedly dies), have been offered as casually as one might offer a back-rub to a tired spouse or a drink of water to someone who has just come in from doing yard work in the hot sun. This is to say, the gestures are deeply appreciated, but at the moment they are given - and received - it seems so natural as to require only the most perfunctory 'thank you' and a smile.
I should begin by pointing out for the record that my parents are two of the most positive, life-affirming people I know. They live almost entirely in the present and completely savor the important things in life such as family, fine dining and travel, in a manner I hope to be able to emulate.
However, this isn't to say that their generosity has never gone off into morbid territory. Heh heh... in fact, I haven't fully gotten over the last time it did so... mostly because it was so out of character for them. It was at one of our frequent family get-togethers (who remembers which... Hanukkah, Thanksgiving...?), when my mom sprang the ultimate buzz-kill on her unsuspecting brood:
"Dad and I were talking about this, and we've decided that we don't want any of you kids arguing over 'things' after we're gone. So we want you all to take these 'sticky-note' pads and go around the house putting your name on the stuff you want to inherit. That way we'll know what to put in the will."
This announcement was met with a few seconds of incredulous silence.
First of all... I don't think there are too many people out there who relish hearing the words "after we're gone" in any conversation with their parents. But that aside... who the hell are they to decide whether we'll fight with each other after their gone? I mean, think about it... if they couldn't stop us from bickering while they were - ARE! (tfu, tfu, tfu) alive, they sure as heck aren' t gonna have much luck trying to play 'UN' after they've shuffled off this mortal coil at (IY"H) 120!
I don't recall exactly what anyone said said after my mom dropped her little bombshell... but I do recall that all of us rejected out of hand the idea of selecting our inheritance with sticky notes. I also seem to recollect telling them that I didn't want to inherit anything from them, and would prefer that they spend their last dollar in the world on something they'd truly enjoy... on say, their 120th birthday!
But seriously, I don't know how many others out there have gone through similar lapses in judgment with their kids ... but if any parents are reading this, please spare your progeny some emotional trauma and avoid making a big production out of your hypothetical-yet-inevitable departure. Rest assured... your absence will be unbearable no matter what you do or say now, so don't even go there.
However, this isn't to suggest that you not deal with how to distribute your stuff. Just don't ask your kids to tell you what they'll want after you're gone... it's probably best to just rely on your own observations and intimate knowledge of your family... and like my parents (apart from that momentary insanity with the sticky notes) give as much and as often as you can with warm hands rather than cold.
For instance, if you know that one child admires art... find an opportunity to 'notice' an empty spot on a wall at their house and let them go 'shopping' for a picture or painting at yours with which to fill it. If another child appreciates good furniture, you can always leave him/her the choice pieces in the will... but also be aware of a cheap or aging piece in their home that might be replaced by one of yours right now.
Does one of the kids have a special love of cooking? Take stock of your overstuffed cupboards full of pots and pans and casually ask them if they can 'help you' unclutter your kitchen. You might be surprised to hear how they have always had incredibly strong emotional associations with a particular roasting pan, cupcake tin or serving piece that you thought of only as a 'tool'.
On the other hand, jewelry can be a potential stumbling block since it is not only intrinsically valuable, but it can also have different sentimental value to different people. Again, the best advice I can offer is to give, wherever and whenever possible with warm hands rather than cold... using intuition and intimate knowledge as your guide.
For example, a relatively inexpensive piece of jewelry that is worn frequently may be a treasured heirloom in the eyes of a child or grandchild who associates it with the essential 'you'... while a gaudy jewel-encrusted bauble or heavy gold piece that you were always too worried or self-conscious to wear out of the house may have no sentimental value whatsoever to those you will one day leave behind.
If you know a particular watch, pair of earrings or necklace has always caught a family member's eye, casually hand it to them over lunch... not as their inheritance, but as a spontaneous gift of love. I so enjoy seeing Ariella turn up with a 'new' pair of earrings that Zahava has given her in a private moment of love. I know that she will always cherish not only the physical item, but also the memory of when, and how it was given.
I hope that as my kids get older and have families of their own, they will be as effortlessly generous with their children as mine were - ARE! (tfu tfu tfu) - with me.
I know that Zahava's mother would have preferred to also do things this way with all of her little (and big) treasures, but the rapid progress of her ovarian cancer barely gave her time before she passed to write up a coherent list of what each of her children and grandchildren (some not yet imagined, much less conceived) should receive.
Just remember... the one thing you have that can never be equitably divided is the real and essential you. This is one of those odd mathematical miracles that will (with luck) bequeath to each of those you will eventually leave behind the feeling that they were the sole beneficiary.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Home Sweet Home
Thank you to everyone for your patience with my spotty posting while I was away these past couple of weeks. A more loyal and supportive group of readers a writer couldn't hope for!
I can't tell you how nice it is to be home. My flight landed a few minutes before 4:00AM on Friday morning and after only a modest wait for my bags and the short line to clear customs, a waiting car took me on the hour drive to my house in Efrat.
Stuck to the front door was a handmade 'Welcome Home Abba' sign which Ari and Gili had prepared.
On the door was also a formidable lock.
Note to self: In the future, make a note of where you put the house key so that you won't have to dump out the contents of your suitcase, laptop case and carry-on bag in the front yard at 5:45AM in order to gain access to your sleeping house.
Once inside (6:05AM), I got a proper welcome from the only member of the family who was awake at that hour; Jordan the wonder dog! I stowed my bags out of the way and went around the house looking at my sleeping family.
Ariella and Gilad were snuggled deep under their comforters and each got a soft kiss on the forehead. Yonah was in his bed doing his impression of a sleeping sky-diver with all his covers having been long-since kicked onto the floor. I re-covered him and went to snuggle in next to Zahava.
The last thing I remember before drifting off to sleep was Jordan jumping up onto the foot of my bed and curling up behind my knees... and resting her head on my foot.
In a few hours there would be time for kisses and hugs and lots of gifts to give. But for now I was back where I belong... safe among those that I love.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
The significance of routines
I'm sometimes surprised at the extent to which my children notice my little routines and semi-secret rituals. For instance, one of the big kids is certain to comment if I fail to shake the packets of Splenda and flick them with my finger-tip before tearing them open for my coffee... or if I open a can of soda without tapping the top first.
But the other night I realized that there was another set of eyes in the house taking note of my every move and gesture.
I've mentioned in the past that one of my evening rituals is to make a tour of the house to check that the doors are locked, the lights are out and that everyone is completely covered with blankets.
This last bit is particularly important since all of our kids are pretty active sleepers. Rare is the visit to one of the kid's bedrooms that doesn't require at least a small tug on the corner of a blanket. Yonah takes the cake when it comes to being an active sleeper. Even before he is fully asleep he has usually kicked off his blankets and knocked his toy cars and stuffed animals to the floor. As a result, if I happen to get up for a drink while Zahava is doing her pre-bedtime NY Times crossword puzzle I will usually make an extra side-trip to Yonah's room to redistribute his toys and cover him up.
This little ritual - whether coving up Yonah or one of the big kids - always ends with me giving the sleeping child a kiss on the cheek. It never occurred to me that any of them might be aware of this... after all, the kiss was more for my enjoyment than for theirs. And besides,they would always be fast asleep when I made my 'rounds'.
Well, the other night I went upstairs to the kitchen to get a drink for Zahava... and after giving it to her, I decided to duck into the nursery to re-cover Yonah. Sure enough, his blankets were on the floor and I could just barely make out his sleeping form on the mattress. I covered him up quickly and stood there for a few seconds letting my eyes adjust to the darkness so I could see where his toys and stuffed animals had fallen.
Just then, I noticed two dark little eyes staring up at me from the pillow. I wasn't sure if he was really awake so I stood silently in the dark waiting for him to return fully to sleep. After a few more seconds had passed and he still hadn't closed his eyes I turned to tiptoe out of the room so I wouldn't further disturb him.
Suddenly a groggy little voice from behind me said, "Abba... my kiss."
I guess one of my secret rituals wasn't so secret after all.