Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Chaos and Quiet

One of the questions Jody and I have been asked again and again on our return from just over ten days in India was: has it changed you? Do you feel you’re a different person as a result of the trip?

The answer surprised even us. How could such a quick trip have any kind of long lasting psychological influence? But it did. And here it is in a nutshell:

We, in Israel, have nothing to complain about.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The impulse towards national and self-improvement is one of our most basic human drives and we should never cease trying to make the world a better place. But Israelis – and even more so the substantial Anglo immigrant community in Israel – are known to kvetch about every little thing. You know what I mean:

The streets are filthy.

There’s too much noise.

Everyone’s corrupt.

Well, let me tell you, we’ve got it made in the shade. Israel is a paradise, a Western wonder compared to so much of what we saw in India.

Which is not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves on our trip. We did. Tremendously. Every day provided a full curriculum in exotic fascination. There is no place in the world like India for the sheer sensory overload. The overwhelming and non-stop newness of everything around us provided a buzz like no other.

But that only enhanced our appreciation of home.

For example, I was walking to synagogue with the kids on the Shabbat after our return. And I was struck by the incredible quiet.

Now I know that most visitors to Israel complain of the exact opposite - that Israel is such a noisy place. And it's true. There' s no denying it. Israelis are loud. Storefronts blast disco and people in general speak several decibels higher than their North American counterparts.

It’s just that everything is relative.

In India, for example, there were times we couldn’t hear ourselves speak above the din of trucks barreling over potholes while leaning on their horns non-stop in what we discovered after a few days in the country was actually a form of polite discourse, a way of saying “Look at me, here I come…aint I fine?”

In the crowded streets of Varanasi, the power grid is so outdated that many of the shops have their own generators out front to ensure enough electricity. That’s right, gas engines chugging away without even a car frame to muffle the ruckus.

Sure, you could argue that my experience of quiet back in Israel took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, where in Jerusalem at least, the traffic is significantly less that at, say, rush hour on a Monday.

But back in Varanasi, Jody and I had gotten out one morning well before dawn on our way to a sunrise cruise along the Holy Ganges River. Even at that ungodly hour, the streets were packed with touts and hawkers and rickshaw drivers puttering in all directions, all desperately driving...usually directly towards us.

No question about it, Indian streets are colorful and exciting. They’re also incredibly chaotic, run-down and dirty. Everything you’ve heard about the preponderance of stray animals is true. The authorities report some 35,000 ownerless cows and 5,000 unclaimed monkeys in Delhi alone. And you know, when a cow’s got to go, a cow’s…well, you get my drift.

Same with people. I was amazed to discover the urban Indian phenomena of the outdoor urinal. A block of concrete and a gutter, smack dab in the middle of a marketplace. Privacy? That’s something for prudes. Everything in India, it seems, happens on the streets.

In makeshift storefronts just inches from the speeding taxis, we were alternately astounded and intrigued by exactly what you can procure on an Indian street corner. We saw one man getting a shave, another having his teeth cleaned by a roadside hygienist, and yet a third waiting patiently while a man with a solitary iron pressed shirt after shirt for waiting customers.

Back in Israel, we strolled through a park that I used to deride for being full of broken down playground equipment and dirty sand. No complaints now. This park was a picture of sophisticated design and planning, full of decorum and order.

Same for the streets. Jerusalemites moan all the time about the endless state of disrepair of many of our roads. In India, we decided at one point to take a “shortcut” to bypass the congestion in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The map said we’d save over 50 kilometers of driving. Let me just say that you have never experienced potholes until you’ve been on a Bharatpur-Mathura “Highway”– if you can even call it that.

Now, no one can deny that not everything’s rosy in Israel. Unemployment and taxes are too high; poverty is rising, and hunger and homelessness are, sadly, no longer unknown. Our economy isn’t recovering at the same pace as our NASDAQ cousins overseas, and everyone knows we have some serious problems with our neighbors. But I never saw a beggar with no legs, an eight-year-old boy with leprosy, or a wild pig rummaging through my recycling.

They say that travel is broadening. For Israelis, it’s a chance to see palaces and monuments far grander and more opulent than anything back home. Unfortunately, when they return from from their trips to Europe and America and the Far East, those same Israelis are compelled to kvetch with even more fervor about what they they now see as their small dingy little country.

For us, India had the exact opposite effect. That’s not to say I’ll be complacent the next time a wedding hall collapses due to the contractor bribing City Hall so he can open without a permit. Nor should we stand idly by when we read of another 50 dead on the roads because of unnecessarily aggressive driving and unimproved highways.

But for all our complaints, our troubles are nothing in comparison with those in other parts of the world. It’s not just a line that “we made the desert bloom.” We did and it’s gorgeous. Rather than kvetching, we should be counting our blessings.

As we usher in 2004, I know I will be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The First Time

For parents, there’s a first tine for everything. First time diapering a new baby. First time talking about the birds and the bees.

Tonight was my first time sitting up until the wee hours of the morning, worried sick, waiting for my about-to-turn-teenage son to come home.

Twelve-year-old Amir had gone to our synagogue for a party with the other eleven to fifteen year olds. It was the first night of Hanukah vacation and there was no school the next day. I understood from Rafi who was in charge of the evening that they were going to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean.” We gave Amir a key and left him with his buddies.

Now, if the kids started watching the movie by 9:00 PM, I figured they’d probably be done by 11:00, maybe midnight at the latest. As Jody and I brushed our teeth and got ready for bed, I decided I’d wait up until he got home. Just to be on the safe side.

At 12:30 AM, there was still no sign of Amir. I wasn’t particularly worried, more annoyed. It was too late to call any of the other parents: if their kids weren’t at the party they’d be peeved at me for waking them up.

I could swing by the synagogue and check up on him. But that would knock down his status among his friends at least a couple of notches. And I’d probably be branded as hopelessly overprotective.

Besides which, Jody warned me that the second I set out in one direction with the car to find Amir, he’d come walking home…from a different direction. And if I chose to walk, well that’s the moment he’d wind up getting a ride and go the other way.

So I waited, now alone (Jody conked out by 1:00 AM), on the couch near the front door. What started initially as bemusement was rapidly turning into anxiety.

What did I have to worry about, though? Unlike North America, there’s no real fear in Israel that a child will be kidnapped. Israeli teenagers are out until all hours of the night hanging on street corners and nobody thinks to rein them in. It’s part of the laid back lifestyle that we relish here.

And by and large they’re good kids. Sure, there's some drinking and smoking going on, but as far as I can tell (and admittedly I'm not out there on the streets with them), it's a lot less than when I was a kid growing up in suburban California. I didn’t want to do anything to place my own kid outside this mostly positive cultural norm.

On top of which, it was Hanukah, a holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s national drive towards freedom and independence some 2000 years ago. What a fitting metaphor for strengthening teenage self-identity. Against such a backdrop, who was I to play Greece, the regional heavy during Hanukah's Hasmonean era.

It’s just that this was the first time.

As my agitation grew, I channel surfed. I found an awful reality-cum-documentary called “The Price of Fame,” featuring celebrities being hounded by paparazzi. Unfortunately, watching the likes of Pierce Brosnin and Shannon Doherty take a few punches at cantankerous cameramen didn’t do much to take my mind off the matter I didn’t want to contemplate:

What if this time something was wrong?

There have been isolated incidents, some of them with horrible endings, like the mind-numbing story of thirteen-year-old Koby Mandell who set out to play hookie from school one day and never returned.

Finally I couldn’t take it. Just before 2:00 AM, I gave in, grabbed the car keys and took off for the synagogue. In the scant three minutes it took me to get there, I scanned the streets for any sign of Amir. There were a lot of kids wandering about, in pairs, in groups. But no Amir.

The lights were still on at the synagogue. Rafi looked confused.

“Didn’t you see Amir,” he said. “He left just a minute ago.”

Of course he did. Just as Jody predicted: walking in the exact opposite direction than I drove.

I raced back home, turned the key and…the door had been bolted from the inside.

Good news: that meant Amir was home.

Bad news: I was locked out.

I banged on the door and Amir appeared looking entirely innocent and pure.

“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said. “All the lights were on. Where were you anyway?”

“I went out to find you,” I started to explain.

“Were you waiting up?”

This was the moment of truth. How could I convey my concerns without laying a guilt trip?

“So…did you have a good time?”

“Yeah,” Amir replied. “We watched two movies. But the older kids ordered pizza and they didn’t give us any. They made us smell it.”

“That wasn’t very nice,” I said, then added in my most compassionate parenting voice. “Listen, Amir – I don’t mind if you stay out late. It’s no problem at all. Really. I just want you to call and let me know when you’re going to be back. OK?”

Yet even as I mouthed the words, I realized this is just the beginning. He’s still going to need a curfew. Limits. Rules of disengagement.

But not tonight. He can’t know how concerned I was.

He knew anyway, in that intuitive twelve-year-old way. Something was not entirely right and my nodding nonchalance was a coded call for future compliance.

This also gave Amir, as budding an entrepreneur as any twelve-year-old, a unique opening. Playing on his poor father’s moment of vulnerability, he said with a wry smile, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to get me my own cell phone.”

“A cell phone, huh”? I replied, recalling the numerous times he’d already asked and I’d steadfastly resisted. But times had changed. He was getting older. And the street and his friends would beckon again.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

And we both grinned as we silently acknowledged that this, too, was a first time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Overly Sensitive New Age Guy

Amir and I went to see the final installment of the Matrix trilogy the other night. Going to the movies is one of the things Amir and I do, and I have to say it’s really a pleasure to have a child old enough to see the kind of movies my wife wouldn’t go near: you know the shoot-em-up action, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks my aging adolescent mind still craves.

Now, when I go to the movies, it’s for the experience: the big screen, the Dolby surround sound system. Otherwise, I’d be just as happy popping a DVD into my laptop.

The experience Amir and I had at the movies the other night, though, was pure torture.

If I had to call it, I’d say this was quite possibly the worst audience I had ever been in. And as an avid movie buff, I’ve been in some bad ones.

It didn’t help that I was without a question the oldest person in the auditorium. The crowd of mostly pre-teenage boys talked –no, shouted – through nearly the entire film. I’m glad they were enjoying themselves, but…

And then there were the cellphones. Constantly ringing. Followed by more loud talking. The kid next to me must have answered some caller five times in a row, each time belting out in Hebrew “I’m in the middle of a movie.”

Did it occur to him to not answer? Or turn the phone off? Never.

Did it occur to his parents not to buy him a phone?

There were times during the film that I literally could not hear what was being said.

I know this kind of thing is not unique to Israel, although I think we have it worse here than some places around the world. In California I once saw an usher actually escort a pair of incessant movie-talkers out of the theater. Now that's service!

And in North America, you can always change seats. In Israel, however, your place is reserved and Israelis take their seat assignments seriously. They’ll blab away for two hours on the cellphone, but they wouldn’t think of disobeying the seat rule. Go figure.

OK, I admit I’m what you might call an overly-sensitive new age guy. I don’t allow talking when we’re watching a TV show at home either. But that’s all in the family. And I can usually press the rewind button.

When it’s strangers, though, in a public place, I have to weigh my response much more carefully. Because you never know when the way you react to something is going to leave an indelible stain on your kids.

And herein lies the problem: what does a parent do when he is being driven to distraction…but doesn’t want to pass that bad trait down to an impressionable child?

If Amir picked up on my agitation, or if I flew off the handle and started screaming at some pre-teen to shut up (in my bad Hebrew no less), Amir could develop his own low tolerance for movie noise when he gets older.

What kind of role model would I be?

It’s not just in the movies, of course. The parent’s dilemma is constant. We are human. We just don’t want our children to know that.

Well we do, of course, but only the good stuff. Not our nutty, neurotic bad habits. You know, the things we do and know we shouldn’t.

Like drinking straight out of the bottle. The soda just tastes better that way. Come on, you know it does.

Or sneaking chocolate when no one’s looking. We tell the kids it’s for special occasions. So how come Abba gets to have sweets whenever he wants to?

How about arriving at synagogue late again because the bed is just so darn comfortable?

Or saying “just a minute” when I know with near certainty that I won’t be done with whatever it is I'm doing for at least another half an hour?

Then there’s remembering to turn lights off and should I even mention washing hands every time after using… no, better not go there.

You get the picture.

Not knowing which will be the behaviors that may send our kids to years of psychotherapy can, well, send their parents to years of psychotherapy.

And so I sat there at the Matrix and I took it. I didn’t call the theater staff, or wave my fist, or yell out “Quiet please!” into the cinematic darkness.

But afterwards, I blurted out my frustrations and the resulting parental quandry to Jody while Amir was in earshot.

“Really, Abba?” was his comment from the other side of the room. “I didn’t even notice.”

Should I brave the movies again? This week, the final installment of Lord of the Rings opens around the world…including Israel. Should we go the as soon as we can? Wait until the crowds thin out? Or hold out for the DVD? Click the comments button on the website or send me an email. I’ll abide by your votes!

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Kindergarten Pluralism

Sometimes in life you have to define yourself. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but every once in awhile it’s what’s expected of you.

All the more so in Israel where life is too often lacking the shades of gray taken for granted in North America.

I’m not talking about the more obvious definitions like married-single, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, oleh (new immigrant)-sabra (veteran Israeli).

No, it’s the complex ones that get to you, the ones that would never be raised in polite company overseas but that are part of our daily discourse, finding their way point blank into first meetings…and even job interviews.

Are you right-wing or left-wing?

Likud or Labor?

For peace or for war?

Religious or secular?

This proclivity towards extreme labeling starts early. In kindergarten, in fact.

Every year Jody and I attend three separate parent-teacher meetings for each of our children. By now we know what to expect.

There will be an introductory lecture by the teacher on the burning issues of the year: daily schedule, security arrangements, permissible sandwiches (please no chocolate spread the teachers beg every year, apparently to deaf ears – otherwise why would the same request come up again and again).

Next there may be an inspirational story or a Bible lesson. An impassioned plea to join the Israeli equivalent of the PTA. We pass around some diet Sprite and a few cinnamon rolls and then we’re out of there, free to gossip about whether Merav’s teacher commands enough respect to handle a difficult class, or whether Amir is going to be sufficiently challenged by his junior high school curriculum.

At Aviv’s kindergarten, there was a surprise. Something totally unexpected.

Midway through the usual pleasantries, the teacher, Nirit, opened a discussion on who would be leading the daily prayers. Why not have the girls and not just the boys be in charge, she suggested.

Now Nirit looked to us like a pretty traditional religious Israeli. With three kids under the age of 3 ½, we certainly weren’t expecting any out-of-the-box thinking. We’d already given her a nice neat black and white label.

But there it was. Something new.

Jody and I looked at each other. Could this be true? Had we inadvertently sent our child to Jerusalem’s only pluralistic Orthodox kindergarten? Maybe there was hope for the next generation after all to overcome label-itis.

“So, does anyone object?” Nirit asked.

A hand shot up. Then another.

“Girls don’t lead prayer,” one mother said definitively.

“They’ll get all confused,” said another. “What, they should lead prayer here but not when they go to the synagogue?”

But Nirit was ready. “We’re not talking about a question of halacha, of Jewish law,” she said. “They’re much too young for that. All I want to do is give them a richer, fuller experience.”

You go, girl!

“No, no,” another parent shot back. “Next they’ll be asking why girls don’t wear kippa (headcovering) and tzitzit (ritual fringes).”

“So let them ask!” replied a more progressive English-speaking mother.

I looked around the room and sized up the tenor of the debate. The parents who were the most vocal against Nirit’s proposal were the least observant, at least in outward dress. Bare headed fathers and tank-topped mothers. The ones in favor lined up squarely in what one would normally define as more stringently Orthodox. More grays. I was getting altogether confused.

But this was a challenge to the status quo and the nay-sayers had made it clear that they were going to defend their position even if they themselves never stepped into a synagogue.

It reminded me of the old joke about a Jew who survives a shipwreck and is marooned on a desert island. He immediately sets out to build himself a place of worship and constructs two synagogues. One that he attends and one he wouldn’t be caught dead in.

I would have laughed if I hadn’t been rooting so hard for Nirit.

Trying to make peace, Nirit offered: “If there is one person who objects, we won’t do it.”

“I’m against it,” repeated the most outspoken mother, not unexpectedly.

And then, in a voice dripping with venom: “After all, we’re not reformim!”

And there it was. The ultimate put-down in a world of black and white. The only thing worse than being Orthodox to a stridently secular Israeli? It’s being reform.

Never mind the fact that most of the parents who invoke the cry of reformim have never actually met a Reform Jew, nor do they know anything about what the different denominations stand for. It’s us vs. them. Labels at their most simplistic and accusatory.

Indeed, the put down has become so common in Israel we barely take notice of it. But how different is this invective from the curses hurled at Jews over the centuries by those who have never met one of our tribe? Why do we have to stoop so low?

But once the reformim clause had been put in play, there’s no way to win. At least not today.

Debate and game over.

We walked out of the parent-teacher meeting feeling defeated…but also cautiously optimistic. If Nirit had the tenacity to try for such a cataclysmic culture shift once, she’ll try again.

She’ll probably get shot down the next time too.

But after a few tries, maybe she’ll find that sympathetic crowd of parents. Or maybe word will get out and families will gravitate to her.

This is how change happens.

And apparently it starts in kindergarten.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Lost Jews of Jaipur

I was walking across the street in the Old City of Jaipur on the third day of our trip to India. I had just bought a bag of ladoo, a sticky Indian sweet shaped like a small yellow golf ball.

As I focused my attention on searching for a store sign in English in order to bargain my way to another scandalously cheap Indian silk, I fingered the bag of ladoo, trying to remove the goodies one at a time.

I guess I wasn’t being as careful as usual when – wham! – culture shock hit me straight in the leg. The hard metal side of a bicycle rickshaw careening down the road at breakneck speed slammed into my side and rolled over my shoe.

Reeling from the pain and surprise, I wobbled over to the nearest shop. As I sat down, large globs of red began welling up on my pants. The shop owners quickly pulled out a scarf and we applied a makeshift tourniquet to what I could now see was a nasty little wound.

Once I was all wrapped up, the owner wasted no time. “So, what would you like to buy?”

I grunted some sort of response which, in my current condition, apparently was understood as that universal code for “not now,” and I stumbled back into the road.

Now you have to know just a little about traffic in Indian cities to appreciate what I was up against. In this part of Jaipur – as in much of India – there are no sidewalks. Indeed you’re lucky if there’s a divider of any sorts separating the two “lanes” of traffic.

Instead, the streets are packed with all manner of vehicle and creature: cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, people, cows, pigs, dogs, even monkeys darting across the vehicular madness. And they’re all moving in the same direction, cutting in and out, looking for that tiny opening to get an inch ahead.

And did I mention the honking?

In my present condition, the very thought of finding my way through this cacophony was daunting. It was at that moment that a large white taxi pulled up beside me.

“You going to the Amer Gate? Hop in, I’ll give you a ride. No charge.”

Right, I thought. I’d been in India just long enough to know that once I got to the destination, the driver would undoubtedly badger me for a few rupees.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“Come on, I give you a ride,” he persisted as he drove alongside me. Given the congestion, his taxi couldn’t go any faster than my pedestrian limp.

After a few minutes of this, I broke down and agreed.

“No money,” I repeated to the driver as I hopped in.

“Of course not,” he replied. “My Jewish father always told me to treat people fairly.”

Whoa, Nelly. This was not what I expected to hear. I immediately began to rack my brain for information on Jewish communities in India. There are Jews in Bombay and Calcutta, even a Chabad House in Delhi. But to the best of my knowledge, Jaipur did not have any indigenous Jews.

Had I inadvertently stumbled on a new tribe missing since the days of the first exile? The Lost Jews of Jaipur perhaps?

We got to talking. His name was Daniel. That sounded promising. He had three children: Jasmine, Jennifer and Justin. His wife’s maiden name I learned, too, was Emmanuel. None of this sounded like any of the Indians I had met so far on my trip.

Now maybe this was all a crafty line to sell me on his services. Maybe he had already "marked" me as an Israeli by my looks.

If so, it worked beautifully.

Before the short ride to our destination was over, I had agreed to take Daniel on as my driver and guide for a tour the next day. I needed to rest my injured leg and the thought of a leisurely car trip sounded like a nice break.

Daniel picked me up the next morning promptly at 9:00 AM. My wife Jody had come down with a fever and was unfortunately stuck in bed, so it was just the two of us on the nearly three hour drive to Pushkar, a city located deep in the Rajistani desert.

Daniel and I talked about everything Indian – poverty, travel, business, dreams. I learned about Indian wedding customs and he learned a little about Jewish tradition too.

As we neared Pushkar, I finally broached the subject I was dying to know more about.

“So, how is it you have a Jewish father?” I finally asked.

“His name is Gideon Flachsmann,” Daniel explained. “He's a businessman who lives in Switzerland.”

“OK…” I said, trying to put the pieces together.

“I met him a few years ago when I was giving tours,” Daniel went on. “He adopted me and bought me this taxi.” Daniel’s real father, I learned, had died of a heart attack when Daniel was just a kid.

And so Daniel, it would seem, was not representative of any lost tribe after all. So much for my great discovery. Still, it was intriguing to imagine some wealthy Hasidic Jew taking a liking to a poor Indian taxi driver and pulling him out of his poverty.

We got out of the car and wandered the sleepy streets of Pushkar together. The city reminded me vaguely of the Old City of Safed in Israel’s Upper Galilee.

Not long after we entered, I spotted a large poster reading – in Hebrew – “Come Spend Shabbat in Pushkar with Chabad.” Then I noticed that many of the restaurants had proudly written on their signs – “We serve Israeli food.”

This day was getting weirder and weirder.

Daniel explained to me that Pushkar had become a haven for Israelis. He didn’t know why, but just then, two black-hatted, black-suited men rode by on bicycles. Probably looking for a mincha minyan – a prayer quorum for the afternoon service.

Daniel and I visited a few temples, sniffed some incense and bought another bag of ladoo before we sat down for dinner at the Sunset Cafe, a pure vegetarian restaurant along the banks of the artificial lake the city is built around.

The steps leading down to the shore were filled with Israelis, banging on drums and playing other instruments in what looked to be a regular nightly jam session. If not for the exotic view and the ever wandering cows, it could easily have been the Tel Aviv beachside.

As the day faded and we ate our cheese paneer, Daniel pulled out a small photograph album. There was his adopted father with a big gray beard standing next to Daniel, his wife and their three kids. So it wasn’t a line after all.

But what was this? Mr. Flachsmann all dressed up in a turban and flowing orange robes, a dot of color globbed just above his eyes.

His adopted father, Daniel explained, was a long-time devotee of the Hindu God Shiwa. In fact, the reason for his original trip to India was to purchase a chunk of land in the holy city of Rishikesh, often described as “the Yoga Capital of the World.” Rishikesh was also the place where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Mr. Flachsmann has since established a popular meditation center and ashram there.

As the sun set on the bongo-playing Israelis, nothing that day turned out to be exactly as it initially had seemed. Daniel’s father was not a dancing hasid but a new age Indian guru. And I had not discovered the mysterious Lost Jews of Jaipur.

But I had made a new friend. And, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

In addition to being a fascinating guy, Daniel is a very knowledgeable and sweet guide and driver. If you’re traveling to Rajistan, feel free to email him and ask him his prices. You can reach him at Or visit his website at Tell him Brian from Jerusalem sent you.