Thursday, May 29, 2003

Slowest Common Denominator

When was the last time you took a bath? A nice long luxurious bath?

Who has the time? We’re all too busy, running from this place to the next. Over-achieving to make an extra buck. Trying to raise the kids.

A quick shower, maybe a bit longer just before Shabbat. But no, that would be wasting and, despite the strong rains this winter, there’s still a shortage of water in Israel.

But I’ve been forced to take baths. To slow down and smell the soap bubbles. And you know what? It’s amazing.

That’s just one of the many surprising side benefits that have come as a result of breaking my ankle a few weeks back. Indeed, breaking my ankle may have been one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Now, I’ve been working from home, so it’s not like it’s been party time from noon to midnight. There are plenty of reports to write and conference calls to sit in on.

But I have also had the opportunity to relax in the hammock we have set up on our terrace and leisurely examine the sunset. To sleep when I'm tired. To spend a whole lot more time with the kids than when I was commuting daily to and from Tel Aviv. To have family lunches and dinners and story time.

And of course, there’s no need to wear pants.

After a few weeks of this, I can’t but help ask myself: have I been living my life the way I should? The way I could? What kind of toll has getting home every night at 9 or 10 PM had on me? On my family?

It’s truly amazing how we can fall into a rut and not even know it. We do the same things day in and day out. We interact in the same good (and bad) ways with our colleagues and family. We even eat the same food without ever realizing how bored we are with it (I’m talking about the cafeteria fare at work, not Jody’s cooking, OK?)

Life is too short, too precious. We in Israel know that so well. But the economy…it’s not like there’s any choice out there, right? You should be happy with what you’ve got. Hold on tight because the alternatives are all worse.

But are they? I’ve been working quite productively from home, thank you. Probably more productively than I was in the office where there are constant interruptions and meetings that could have taken place just as easily over the phone…or email. And I’ve worked at home before in other jobs in the past too.

Adapting, making the best of what initially seemed a bleak situation is one of the things my broken ankle has taught me. My work has only been one of the situations I’ve had to contend with.

For example, there’s exercise. It’s an important part of my daily routine. But aerobics are kind of out of the question now. So I shifted to what Jody calls “body sculpting” (we “he-men” call it what it is: “lifting weights”).

Except I don’t have any weights. So I got a couple of two-liter bottles of mineral water bottles and started doing bicep curls with them.

Combined with eating less (again, no cafeteria with an endless supply available every day), I’ve actually lost weight. Go figure.

Sex, too, can fall into regular patterns. Without going into details, let’s just say that someone should write the “Kama Sutra for the Temporarily Disabled.”

Maybe it will be me.

Beyond my own little world, though, my broken ankle has given me a new perspective on others with disabilities. This being Israel, I thought not so much of people born with limited mobility but of people who have had physical abilities they took for granted all their lives snatched away unexpectedly.

I thought of the growing number of terror victims and, in particular, those who are reported on the news as being in “moderate” or “stable” condition. Those who are now having to re-learn how to walk, how to write with the other hand, how to see with one eye.

And I thought of my father.

My father, who was stricken with polio at 17. A good looking, athletic kid who loved playing soccer. He fought back, recovered, and has been able to lead a remarkably normal life. But he’s always moved slowly. Carefully. The strength he had was simply not there anymore.

I remember as a child always being so annoyed that we couldn’t get places faster. That we had to move at the slowest common denominator. I wonder if my own kids are frustrated when they get stuck behind me on the stairs as I clomp down one step at a time. Can they too learn something too from my broken ankle? Something that will help them feel more compassion for the differently-abled among us?

I broke a bone in my foot once before, when I was in college. But I didn’t have the patience to appreciate all of this then. I was in too much of a hurry. To get to class. To get better. But I’m not 20 anymore.

The other day, a friend told us a harrowing story. He was in the Golan Heights on a tiyul many years ago and had gotten lost, separated form his group. He wandered into a field and didn’t notice the sign: Danger of Mines. Keep Out. It happened so quickly, he said. The boom was so loud. Both his feet needed to be amputated. But here he was, telling us the story. He’d adapted. He was still walking, however slowly and surely.

My God, what an inspiration.

It’s time for my bath. I could relate to this all as a great big pain. First, I have to wrap my leg in double plastic bags, then secure a rubber band to the top to make sure no water seeps in. It takes a lot of coordination to lower myself into the tub without falling.

But no, this is a gift. A change of pace. A moment of grace. It won’t last forever, and too soon I’ll have to go back to quick showers, commuting, in-person meetings that should have been phone calls, and restricted quality time with my family.

Or maybe not.

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Eurovision and the Jews

For Israelis who are convinced that anti-Semitism remains rampant, especially in Europe, there is no better proof than the Eurovision Song Competition.

Eurovision is an annual rite that most North American readers of this column are probably completely unaware of. It started in 1956 as a small song contest between a few Western European nations. Since then, it has expanded to encompass most of newly liberated Eastern Europe, as well as a few more far-flung countries such as Israel and Turkey.

Eurovision is a big deal in these parts. Big in ratings: it regularly attracts an audience in the hundreds of millions. And big in embarrassment. The gaudiness of the groups chosen to represent their respective countries is excelled only by the blandness and superficiality of the songs.

Of course, that defines much of pop music in general these days. But Eurovision takes its mission to new levels of kitsch.

To succeed in the world of Eurovision, you'd do best to imitate Abba, which won in 1975 with Waterloo. Now I know that Abba has a big hit Broadway musical and is all the rage these days, but suffering through 26 second rate Abba-clones in succession pretty much epitomizes the definition of middle-of-the-road.

The payoff for coming out on top, however, is that the winning country gets to host the next year’s show. This has proven to be an excellent opportunity for national promotion and is perhaps the reason the contest is supported so strongly on the governmental level. Between each song, the host country is allowed to air 30-second snippets displaying the country’s rich history and tourism opportunities. This year’s winner, Latvia, treated us to a series of picturesque travelogues from host city Riga.

Israel, remarkably, has won the competition three times now, back to back in 1978 and 1979, and most recently with notorious transsexual Dana International singing "Diva" in 1998.

But we followed Dana with a series of mediocre songs, the only one of which that was even half-memorable an upbeat ditty called Happy Birthday sung by Eden, a half-Ethiopian, half-Black Hebrew group (I guess someone figured that, other than another sex-change operation, the only way to distract the world from the fact it was still Israel performing was to throw in a bit of politically correct multi-culturalism).

Which brings us to the question of Eurovision and anti-Semitism. The fact that we have won three times admittedly deflects a little steam out of the argument made by our more paranoid pundits that Israel couldn’t possibly win because Europe hates the Jews.

Still, whenever Israel scores too low, those same pundits whine that it’s all political. That's when we hear sputtering like:

Look, Norway gave Israel only two votes. That must say something.

Or: What’s the deal the Netherlands?

Oh, we can always count on Germany to give us the guilt vote. And the Eastern European nations are usually friendly friendlier than so-called Old Europe.

But has anyone ever considered the possibility that maybe some of our songs just suck?

No, it couldn’t be as straightforward as that, the pundits cry. True, Dana won in 1998. But that wasn’t on the basis of musical talent. Rather, the world was still flush with feel-good Oslo-era sentiment, and we were simply being rewarded for our political flexibility. Right?

Give me a break, guys! It’s just a silly song contest. Sure, winning fills us with national pride, but reading into every little thing can make you stark-raving Euro-crazy.

I'm not denying the existence of anti-Semitism by any means. The number of incidents in metropolitan Paris alone should give anyone concerned about the future of the Jews in Europe serious thought for pause.

At the same time, I've got to ask: why are we in the Eurovision contest at all? We’re clearly not a part of the European continent.

Well, maybe this year’s entry from Israel explains it.

Words of Love” by Lior Narkis was sung not only in Hebrew but English, French and Italian by a Ricky Martin-wannabe surrounded by five Israeli babes with the letters L.O.V.E.U. emblazoned on their chests.

Is Israel's participation in Eurovision really about our desperate need for acceptance from Paris and Rome?

Despite the continuing absurdity and said bigger geo-political questions, Jody and I never miss the show. We wildly cheer on the Israelis and laugh at everyone else. This year, eleven-year-old Amir joined us. It’s become a regular family rite-of-passage in the Blum household.

And how did Israel do this year? Truth be told, ours was an acceptably Abba-esque entry and lead singer Narkis acquitted himself with Israeli bravado. I thought it had a real chance. Especially in contrast to Croatia’s blatant Britney Spears rip-off (oops they didn’t do it again) and Austria’s Alf Poier, a novelty act in which a hyperactive singer in a black beret crooned to cardboard cutouts of cows and other Alpen animals.

Maybe it made more sense in German.

In the final tally, Israel placed a disappointing 19 out of the 26 entries this year.

Still, we didn’t do as badly as Britain which failed to score even a single point. Soon after the contest ended, BBC commentator Terry Wogan claimed Britain was a clear victim of “the post-Iraqi backash,” being penalized for the U.K.’s staunch support for Gulf War 2.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones crying discrimination at Eurovision.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Teenager Too Soon

It came at us out of nowhere. I swear we never saw it approaching. And like two trucks on a narrow curve in the middle of the woods, the resulting crash has indelibly altered our lives.

Amir has become a teenager.

Too soon.

After all, he’s only eleven. That’s still over a year away from his bar mitzvah when, according to Jewish tradition, he officially becomes a young adult. But even at eleven, his behaviors already show the tell-tale signs a full-fledged teenager-in-training.

There are the emotional mood swings. I’m happy. I’m sad. No I’m happy again.

And the little things that set him off (God forbid the hot water should run out in the middle of his shower – you do not want to be within a three block radius at that point). For that matter, the very fact that he takes a shower regularly (and needs deodorant afterwards) is an even clearer sign of being a teenager.

There’s the sullenness. The rebelliousness when asked to do anything. The sudden lack of interest in anything other than action movies, video games and loud music. Can you say “Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?”

No, this is coming out too harsh. He’s still more of a “tweenager.” He can still be seen in public with his parents without undue embarrassment, and he still demands that we tuck him in at night. He doesn’t roam the streets until the wee hours, and there’s no peer pressure towards cigarettes or harder substances.

Jody and I have debated at length what this newly minted teenager really needs.

“More limits,” Jody says. Sounds good. But what if it’s really greater freedom that’s required?

Apparently, we’re not alone in confronting the early onset of teenagehood. The other night, Amir’s school invited both children and parents to the performance of an educational play called “Tragedies and Miracles.”

The show was intended to address some of the frustrations and raging hormones that have turned so many of our once-compassionate children into angry tigers, ready to pounce at any provocation, as they head down the twisting road to inevitability.

The plot was seductively simple: Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Amos is soon to be bar mitzvah. But no one understands him. He fights incessantly with his mother and ultimately declares that he won’t participate in his own coming-of-age celebration.

Just as things are getting impossibly hairy, Grandpa comes to visit. Stereotypically wiser and able to see what those more intimately involved in the struggle cannot, Grandpa weaves a complex story of his own childhood into Amos’ day-to-day reality.

He tells his grandson that he never had a bar mitzvah either. Amos is incredulous, until Grandpa explains it was because he was too busy fleeing the Nazis.

Just before he leaves home, Grandpa’s mother gives him a tallit, a prayer shawl, to remember her by.

He never sees her again.

Grandpa is the kind of surrogate parental figure every kid wants, and he very nearly pulls Amos out of his funk. That is, until his mother returns home from work and the fighting begins anew. But their moment of connection has worked its dramatic magic. Amos communicates his fears and frustrations for the first time in years. And his mother listens. The bar mitzvah is back on.

Melodramatic? Absolutely. But teenagers with raging hormones are not necessarily looking for subtlety.

We talked about the play in the car on the way home. Does our family bicker as much as Amos and his mother? We're certainly better communicators. Still, is it really necessarily to suffer through unspeakable tragedy in order to appreciate what we’ve got? There must be a better way.

We decide to choose a new method to deal with Amir’s emotional outbursts. Instead of sending him for time-outs, which have clearly not been working, we’ll try focusing on rewards. A week with no hitting = a meal at Burger King with Abba. Or maybe a night out at the movies. A win-win situation. For both son and father.

It's only been a week, but the plan seems to be working. Amir’s already earned his first Double Whopper Meal. He's counting on this being a regular gig. It might get a tad expensive, but who's complaining? We’ve still got another seven years of a teenager in the house.

From there on, it should be smooth sailing. Then all we’ll have to worry about is Amir in the army...

Monday, May 19, 2003

TV Zombies

We almost didn’t make it.

It was a few weeks ago, on a day when the kids didn't have any school, and we had planned a family outing.

Now, those of us who keep Shabbat in Israel chronically complain we have little or no real weekend. We get two days off, all right, but it’s Friday and Saturday, not Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday is Shabbat, and so not a day to get out in the car to explore nature. And Friday…well, most attractions shut their doors early on Fridays (usually by 2:00 PM). Combine that with Shabbat preparations and all the errands that need to be done before the sun goes down, and there just aren’t many days the whole family can get out into nature.

So this outing was all the more important.

We didn’t know exactly where we wanted to go, but it had to have trees, picnic benches and preferably some swings and a slide. And we were determined to make it happen.

But when push came to shove, somehow the day just didn’t get going fast enough. There were breakfasts to be made and dishes to be done. Laundry needed to be washed and folded. I found myself spending too much time futzing with my new ADSL wireless modem. Jody wanted to go to the gym and I really needed a run (this was before I broke my ankle). Before we knew it, the day was half gone and we were still in the house.

Isn’t that the way it goes so often in our frazzled and overly-programmed 21st Century lives, not only in Israel but wherever you may live in the world?

And what were the kids doing all this time? Watching TV, the last-chance babysitter.

Or first choice babysitter, depending on your perspective.

Now I don’t know about your house, but in the Blum family, when the kids watch too much of the tube, their eyes start to glaze over. They become intolerant of any distraction. They lose all sense of derech eretz, of proper interpersonal behavior.

In short, they turn into TV Zombies.

It started off slowly. This one’s leg touched the other one’s arm. That one was making annoying snorting noises. The boiling point was in sight but not imminent. Jody and I knew this would soon be a problem.

And still…

The lunches weren’t packed. Aviv didn’t have his shoes on. Amir was complaining he had no clean underwear.

In the battle between inertia and action, inertia was winning. And we began to think: maybe they’d be OK after all watching TV the rest of the day. I could finish installing the modem. Jody could spend extra time preparing for her class. It was a little chilly after all outside. Maybe…

And then…

“Move over!”

“I can’t see!”

“Imma! He hit me.”

“She started it.”

“Get away from me!”

Don't tell me this has never happened in your house.

I don’t know if I was even conscious of the change that clicked inside of me. But somehow, I went from passive to active mode. I raced down the stairs.

“Turn that TV off now!” I barked.

“But it’s our favorite show!”

“Just a few minutes more.”

“Please!”

And then, mustering up an uncharacteristic level of enthusiasm, I began barking like a cheerleader with a mission.

“Shoes on. Forget about the underwear. I’ll throw in some fruit and cheese. Move it, troops! We are getting out!”

And somehow we did it. 15 minutes from the moment of the click, the entire family, stunned and more than a little confused, piled in the car and headed out of the city. Now the only question was: where to?

We had heard that there was a nice forest near Bet Shemesh that we’d never been to before.

It took some time for the change of venue to set in. But we put on a happy face. We were going to have fun.

We found the President’s Forest quite easily. No sooner had we entered than we knew our luck was turning. The forest was gorgeous, shaded by hundreds of pine trees and filled with picnic benches and, yes, swings, slides, and even a few teeter-totters.

The kids forgot what they had been fighting about and immediately jumped on the playground equipment. Jody and I set out the lunch on the cleanest table we could find. We all played science experiments on the teeter-totter (Jody and Aviv on one side, me on the other – look everyone, we’re balancing!)

After lunch, we went driving further into the woods.

“Hey what’s that?” one of the kids asked.

It looked like a big rock, but it was very well formed. There was a little plaque next to it with the title and name of an artist. A sign a bit further indicated we were on the Sculpture Trail. An unexpected surprise.

Indeed, all through this forest were tens of rock and metal statues, some jarring, others blended almost imperceptibly into nature. There were lions’ faces and Picasso-like twisted beauties, more than a few stoned mushrooms (my expression not the artists'), and a sculpture with twelve metal rings called “Jacob’s Sons.”

We twisted and turned for some ten kilometers, truly enjoying each other’s company, singing songs, hurtling out of the car periodically to make new discoveries. It’s amazing the kind of effect nature has on kids…and their parents. Why does it take us so long to realize it each time?

You know, we almost didn’t make it. But I have a feeling the next time we suggest a family outing, the kids may very well jump at the chance.

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The President’s Forest is located just north of Bet Shemesh. From the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway, drive until the Shimshon Junction and turn west onto Highway 44. After about 3 kilometers, you’ll see the entrance to the forest on your left. Follow the signs for the Sculpture Trail and exit at Kibbutz Tzora on the other side.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Scouting the Normal Life

Scouts. Blums.

Growing up, these weren’t words I would ever have imagined using in the same sentence. It’s not that I have anything against the Scouts. It was just that I never seemed to fit into those institutions that were so much of the American mainstream. I always preferred playing the rebel. I had my own drum to beat.

And now, here I am, all grown up and in Israel, and my daughter is a full-fledged patriotic Girl Scout.

It’s not the same, of course. In Israel, youth movements are a much bigger deal. Nearly everybody joins one.

In addition to Scouts, there’s Bnei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair, Ezra, and I’m sure many more I’ve never heard of. Some are entirely secular. Others all religious. Scouts has branches for both and is the fastest growing youth movement today: membership in the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Federation grew 60% from 38,000 in 1997 to 60,000 in 2002.

And nine-year-old Merav loves it. Twice a week she goes to meetings. Jody and I have no clue what goes on. As far as we can tell, there seems to be a lot of singing. And chocolate. They had a contest for best performance which they invited the parents to, and Merav’s grade won. They sang about falafel. And chocolate.

A month or so ago, the Scouts went on their first camping trip. That’s what Scouts do, after all. But for Merav, it was her first overnight outdoors. Under the stars. Sleeping bag with rocks under your tush.

Mind you, I’m no stranger to camping. It was part and parcel of my childhood as well. At Merav’s age, I went to a full-fledged overnight summer camp. We slept in cabins, but the experience was still packed with the requisite camp singing (“Who Built the Ark? Noah Noah!”), oatmeal (they forced us to eat it in order to get to the doughnuts), and confused hormones (Dear Abby, Is it OK for a fifth grader to ask a fourth grader to the Friday Night Dance?).

When we went for our big overnight hike, it was along the banks of the Navarro River, a lazy tributary flowing through Mendocino County into the Pacific Ocean. It was scenic. It was pleasant. But it wasn’t infused with meaning.

When Merav’s scouting troupe headed out for their hike, though, their destination was the infamous Burma Road.

That’s the thing about Israel. Even if you find a nice wooded campsite in order to have fun, it’s still dripping with history and symbolism.

It was days before the first UN-brokered ceasefire of the 1948 War of Independence, and the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had become unsafe, subject to Arab snipers aiming down into the valley. According to the ceasefire agreement, any roads that had already been built would be allowed to stay. But no new ones. The result of this would have been to effectively cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the country.

So the Israelis, working in complete secrecy, built an alternative road going up from Sha’ar Hagai towards the Shoresh region through seemingly impassable mountains. Then, hours before the ceasefire was to take hold, they unveiled their feat to a reporter, thus creating unchangeable facts on the ground. The story became part of the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow starring Kirk Douglas.

The message to the newly initiated Scouts, I hope, was clear: you can do anything you put your mind to. Or have to. If life throws you what looks like an insurmountable lemon, turn it on its head and brew up some sweet lemonade.

What better way to kick off a lifetime passion with camping and hiking? And of connecting to their new homeland.

Participating in activities like camping is also an essential part of living a normal life, despite all the madness around us. There's nothing like it, really, for helping to build a healthy personal - and group - identity.

When I look back at my childhood and try to put my finger on what made the difference, what provided the spark that would eventually put me on a path towards Israel and aliyah, I can only point to my formative camping days (sorry mom and dad, it really was your fault that I got interested in Israel).

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I was in an all-Jewish environment. Or maybe it was the camp nurse’s cute daughter, Audrey.

Merav, of course, doesn’t need that kind of identity building. She gets it daily just by living here. But if camping out under the stars with her Scout troop strengthens her resolve, how can I complain?

Here’s one more element of only-in-Israel Scouting:

Since the trip took place during the time when the Israeli Home Front Command still deemed it necessary for law-abiding Israelis to carry gas masks, those poor Scouts had to hike for miles on end with their regular backpacks slung over one shoulder, and brown cardboard boxes encasing their gas masks across the other.

The image of some thirty nine-year-old boys and girls out in the woods with gas masks is both wickedly amusing and profoundly disturbing at the same time.

“It didn’t bother us,” Merav explained. “We used the gas mask box to block the thorns from the bushes.”

Now that’s the sort of positive can-do ever-prepared attitude I’d expect from a Scout.

My nine-year-old Israeli Girl Scout.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Ankles and Hearts

The irony has not been lost on me.

It was the day when I published what has turned out to be one of my most popular columns – the one called “Running the Land.” I went out for my morning run as usual, feeling particularly pumped up.

I was in an area where there’s a very narrow path. The path winds through a nicely landscaped area with rocks and flowers. Friends of ours were out on their bikes for family tiyul. Not wanting to run right into them, I took a gentle swerve to slide gracefully out of their way. I called out something cute like “Hey, quit hogging the sidewalk you guys!”

I didn’t see the drop-off of the pavement into the rock garden.

But I did hear the crack.

It came from somewhere inside. And before I could stop myself, my ankle splayed out in an erratic movement entirely incompatible with running. I fell, hands and knees forward, practically crashing into the littlest one’s bike.

Lying there sprawled on the ground, not yet feeling the pain, my mind switched into paranoid panic mode.

First thought: I’ll never run again. And:

This is it. I’ll be crippled for life.

But then I thought about my last fracture, some twenty years ago in college. I had been DJ'ing in the college disco and had put on a hardcore punk single I was sure no one would dance to. When they did, I got so excited, I leaped from the DJ booth...and landed the wrong way. I had a cast for close to two months.

Truth be told, my biggest problem then was showering. I couldn’t get the cast wet. And there were no tubs in my dorm. I had to use the one in the housemother’s apartment. I’d knock on the door at night and ask timidly “Is this a good time.” I probably only bathed twice a week. No wonder I never had a girlfriend in college.

But I got over it. My ankle healed then and it would heal this time too.

And it could have been worse, Jody reminded me. What if it happened just prior to our summer vacation to the States. Or during the trip.

“It’s probably just a sprain,” said Dr. Levitt at the Family Medical Center. Another comforting voice in the wilderness of my mind. “Yes, I’m sure of it. But let’s take an X-Ray anyway. Just in case.”

20 minutes later: “Well, I’ll be darned.”

“What?”

“It’s a fracture, all right. You’re going to need to see a specialist.”

By the end of the day, my entire lower right leg and foot, down to the toes was encased in a shiny new cast.

“Can we draw on it?” Merav asked immediately upon seeing me resting on the couch, remote in one hand.

“No, honey,” I replied. “They gave me this new plastic cast. You can get it wet but you can’t decorate it.”

“What’s the fun of that?” Merav puffed, then whirled out to go over to her friend Sarah’s house to play.

Aviv took stock of the situation and offered his own five-year-old consolation.

“Don’t worry, Abba,” he said. “It will pass and you’ll be able to run again.”

“Thank you Aviv.” I said in response to his always earnest approach to life. “Thank you so much.”

“And if you forget," he added, "Ask me and I’ll tell you again.”

And then he promptly marched downstairs to kick a ball around in the courtyard.

Now alone in front of the TV, with my ankle throbbing and despite my better instincts, negative thoughts crept back in. Maybe the orthopedist put the cast on wrong. Maybe I’d be one of the tiny percentage of patients who didn’t heal properly.

“Try to keep things in perspective,” Jody said.

And then, as if to emphasize the point in the most dramatic way possible, she added “Oh, I talked to Linda Bennett finally. She’s coming for Shabbat lunch.”

Ouch.

Linda Bennett is Marla’s mother. She had arrived in Israel two nights earlier for a week-long national UJA mission. It was her first time here since Marla was murdered last July.

One thing was for certain, I wasn’t going to get any sympathy about my ankle from Linda.

And if I did, I sure wasn’t going to accept it.

As Shabbat lunch unfolded, my now profoundly mundane cares were eclipsed by the pain we shared together. There were a few tears. But many more happy reminisces. And a surprising reserve of inner strength that I would have thought impossible in such circumstances. I barely thought about my ankle at all.

But as Linda was leaving, I did think about the difference between broken ankles and broken hearts.

Ankles heal. They’re may end up a little weaker after a fall, but the bones nearly always come back together. It passes.

Broken hearts, on the other hand, ironically can grow stronger than they were before following a tragedy. But they never heal.

As we hugged goodbye, I thought quietly to myself: we should all be so lucky as to have the privilege of breaking an ankle every now and then.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Independence Spray

When did Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, get so violent?

I’m not talking about the heightened security alerts aimed at stopping suicide bombers. Or the inevitable reprisal attacks on Gaza or Jenin.

No, the violence I’m talking about is a matter of shaving cream.

Shaving cream in the hands of babes, that is. Pre-teens brandishing oversized cans with super-strength nozzles, ready to fire on any unsuspecting bystander.

Yes, this is the new tradition of Yom Ha'atzmaut. Never mind the barbeques in the JNF forests or the patriotic sing-along evenings. For many years now, the best known custom of the holiday has not been what you do with your buddies, but what you do to them.

It started with plastic hammers, which were used for bonking people on the head. In the late 1980s, the hammers were supplemented by silly string. A form of release, I suppose. Like at Purim, a way of letting your guard down and forgetting for a moment what type of neighborhood we really live in.

But how did it evolve to shaving cream? Or “snow” as it’s known in Hebrew?

I did a quick Google search on the “origins of shaving cream on Yom Ha’atzmaut.” I got some odd responses. Such as:

“Rav Gorin permitted shaving and haircuts on Yom Ha’atzmaut” on the same page as “don’t forget to send ice cream to a friend.”

Huh?

While the Internet wasn’t much help, I’m afraid the reality is that our new custom of Independence Spray has more to do with the matzav again – the “situation” in Israel that we blame everything on.

Indeed, with insanity and danger lurking at every bend, kids need an outlet to blow out pent up frustrations and anxiety. The psychologists and social scientists would probably tell me to lighten up and stay inside if I don’t like it. This is good, I hear them pontificating. This is necessary for the Israeli soul.

But there is something about the way these kids target the lesser-abled among their peers, the way they chase them mercilessly across the playground, projectile hurling white froth at high velocity. In the hair. In the eyes. Drenching kids who sometimes fight back with snow of their own but just as often run crying to their parents.

When I am in the midst of the shaving cream scene, it doesn’t at all seem like simple fun and games. It is too intense. It’s almost as if the kids with the cans are emulating how they imagine their parents would act if they were pointing a gun at the head of a terrorist.

In our neighborhood, Ground Zero is the Efrata School playground. Unfortunately that’s also where our synagogue holds its annual Independence Day prayers. We went last year and all three kids got sprayed. All three departed in tears. I swore I would not return.

But Jody wanted to go. The prayers on Yom Ha’atzmaut are meaningful to her, she says. And she relishes every chance to be with community. So do I. But not at risk of life, limb, and permanent clothing stains.

So Jody went. And I felt guilty. We hate splitting up, especially for important holidays and celebrations.

After about half an hour or so into my last stand at home, I called down to Amir (who took the brunt of the spray last year and also refused to go back) and told him I was having second thoughts. Maybe it will be better this year, I suggested.

I proposed we go for a walk. We would explore the neighborhood – that seemed like a clean patriotic act for Independence Day.

We strolled through the streets of Baka and talked. About the nature of freedom. How proud we were that our small little country had reached 55. Practially middle age!

As I suspected (and planned) our route took us in the direction of the battlefield, er, the school playground.

The scene was too familiar: tens of vendors were set up outside selling hundreds upon hundreds of spray cans. There were glow in the dark bands, too, and cotton candy and popcorn by the bag. A real carnival atmosphere.

Except for the police. At this point, still early in the evening, there were probably more law enforcement officers than revelers. Who were they here to protect us from? Terrorists…or each other?

We entered the school yard. So far so good. No major incursion by spray can wielding ruffians. Our tension lifted a bit.

Too soon.

A jet stream of cream whizzed past us and landed splat in the hair of an innocent little girl. Well, not so innocent. She fired back. Had we just witnessed the opening salvos?

It didn’t take long. Before we knew it, the basketball court was covered in white. The police were cowering.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Amir took a hit.

His first reaction was rage. Then anguish. He turned and ran to the gate, past the vendors hawking the tools of his defeat, across the street, and eventually up the stairs to our apartment. He stripped down to his underwear to free himself of even the slightest hint of a battle that undoubtedly was continuing full force only two blocks from the safety of his bedroom window.

And then we smiled at each other. And laughed. At the absurdity of it all. A holiday commemorating what it means to be free had imprisoned us in our home. Here we were quaking in fear at what was probably no more than a couple of seriously hyperactive kids with non-toxic shaving cream.

We resolved to get back out into the fray and show our neighbors, no our fellow countrymen, what stuff we were made of. We would not be intimidated. We would not be cowed. Yes, that’s exactly what we would do.

Next year.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Running the Land

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is a time to get back to nature. To hit the road. And Israelis are masters of the tiyul.

Getting to know and love this land is done primarily through one’s feet. We walk, we hike, we get to know every rock and curve of the trail.

The acclimatization starts early: already in first grade, kids are going on an annual class trip; by fourth, many are having sleep-away excursions - to the Golan Heights, the Galilee foothills, the Negev Desert.

Me, I get to know the land by running.

I have nothing against walking, mind you. Taking a slow tour of the countryside, smelling the flowers, eating the cheese is fine. But I’ve always been more of an “If it’s Tuesday It Must be Belgium” short attention span kind of guy. Watching the landscape whiz by, whether by bus or under my own steam, is just the ticket for me.

I have run all over the world. OK, that’s boasting a bit: I’m by no means a marathon runner. I prefer more of a gentle jog through urban landscapes. But I have run in some pretty exotic places: past the Spanish Steps in Rome, through Hyde Park in London, along the canals in Amsterdam and past the electronics shops and teeming masses in Tokyo.

But my most satisfying runs are right here, in Jerusalem. In Baka, where I live. Because this is how I connect to the land of Israel.

My route has changed over the years. I used to run on the Tayelet – the Haas and Sherover Promenades. The view there is breathtaking – looking out over the Old City with the golden dome gleaming in the distance. I got to know the Arab gardeners – we would wave and call out Ahalan! to each other. But then Jews started getting attacked and Moran Amit died.

Now I run closer to home. And, as the weather finally seems to have turned from winter to spring, I am out again most every day. I have my usual route and a regular cast of characters and places I see most days.

I pass Ora the Cat Lady, coming back from the makolet (the corner store) with her groceries, invariably accompanied by “Lefty,” the one-eyed cat whose tongue is permanently drooping, half-in, half-out.

I pass the elderly gentleman whose name I once knew but that now eludes me. He is always dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit with matching shoes, all shined up, as he walks towards one of the caf├ęs on Emek Refaim Street.

I pass the slowest falafel stand in the Middle East, run by this guy who either cares deeply about his product or is just plain lazy. But there’s always a line for his humus balls dripping in greasy garlic sauce. In the morning, when I run, the shop has yet to open, but the smells from inside are already wafting downstream, rewarding me for finding the strength to climb that last hill.

I pass the old blind Arab man I have seen walking these streets for 17 years now, still calling out for charity or odd jobs. Back in 1986, he was accompanied by his small grandson. Now he’s with a young man in his early 30s. Is this the same boy, all grown up? I never ask. My pockets are empty when I run.

I pass a pre-school class out for a stroll. About eight kids, the oldest no more than two, are riding in what can only be described as a crib on wheels. A uniquely Israeli invention. In Hebrew it has the same name as chicken coop.

I run to connect.

I run for the exercise.

And sometimes, too, I run to forget.

When the news just becomes too difficult, running becomes a way to tune out. Or to turn on to something else.

I pump my body until it fills with adrenaline. I wait for the endorphins to kick in, to give me that burst of energy that is unlike any other high I know, where it feels that I can go longer and faster than I thought my body possible.

I crank the music in my headphones up at a particularly anthemic moment, and I am no longer in this world.

Running as prayer.

And then, as always, I come back. Just running. Back to reality. And I am surprisingly comforted to see that nothing has changed in those minutes when I left this earth. The world has not transformed from almond blossoms to nuclear winter.

There’s a man sleeping in his car. The backseat is overflowing with pitas. Wake up, I think. Your cargo is losing its freshness!

A young boy with an oversized pair of shears is clipping a single flower – for whom, I wonder. I smile.

A woman steps to the side when she sees me coming. She adjusts her wig. Her stockings are wrinkling.

And I go on and on and on.

Why do I run? Because it’s the most consistent, most normal thing I can think to do in these highly abnormal times.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Addicted to Overdraft

We Israelis are addicted to overdraft. I don’t use the term figuratively

Just as the tobacco companies have systematically over the years added a variety of highly addictive agents into cigarettes, the Israeli banking system has its own built-in means to ensure that consumers fall, and then stay, helplessly mired in that unique Israeli form of debt: the overdraft.

You only have to look at the statistics to understand the extent of the problem: A mere 5% of Israelis are not in “minus” by choice. Of the rest, 75% are regularly in the red and 20% want to be but can’t (i.e., the bank won’t extend them the credit).

In 2001, Israelis paid nearly US$2 billion in interest on their overdrafts. That works out to somewhere between a half to a full month’s salary per year per person, just for the interest. With an estimated 30% of all divorces coming as a result of financial issues, this is serious business. And it’s just as serious for the banks, who are equally intent on keeping the money flowing in.

How did all this happen? It’s a result of a particularly unique aspect of the Israeli banking system.

In essence, as soon as the Israeli consumer deposits a minimum of three salaries into the bank, he or she is automatically extended a line of credit equal to a month’s salary. No need to ask, no need to apply. Your salary has effectively doubled overnight. Or so that’s how it’s pitched. Who wouldn’t want that?

It’s so insidious, in fact, that you actually have to ask not to receive the credit line. Why bother? Because you get charged for the privilege of being able to rack up interest payments of anywhere between 14-23%, whether you use it or not.

But as we’ve already seen, Israelis love to use it.

And why not? In Israel, there is no stigma attached to being in overdraft. Israelis will proudly tell you that they’re deep in the red and by exactly how much. That’s right after they ask you how much your salary is, not to mention your mortgage, school fees and one of a thousand other questions that would be deemed insultingly personal anywhere else in the world.

To illustrate the point, recently my wife Jody went in to the bank to ask for more details regarding the interest payments on our own overdraft. She had heard the banks quietly offer loans with a lower interest rate that could be very helpful with our own overdraft. The teller looked at her like she was a lunatic. And then she offered Jody an even higher credit line.

“One and half times your monthly salary,” she said in sweet earnestness.

“You don’t understand,” Jody pleaded. “I’m trying to get out of overdraft.”

But the two of them were speaking entirely different languages.

One more thing, not unique to Israel, but very different from North America: there are no real credit cards. They’re all essentially debit cards, automatically plunging your checking account further into the red on a specific day of the month. As a result, you don’t have the luxury of choosing the amount of your monthly payments, or using one credit card to pay off another. And because your line of credit is so easily extended, you can barely even bounce a check, for crying out loud!

You wind up feeling so completely out of control, you figure why bother even trying? Is it any wonder then that, according to Globes columnist Judy Maltz, in any given month a typical family with one breadwinner spends over 35 percent more than it takes in.

In the last year, as a result of cuts in salary, a worsening economy, and the depreciating shekel, Jody and I decided it was time to do something about our growing overdraft addiction. We’re not in as bad shape as many of our friends, but even still, we checked ourselves into self-imposed rehab and started practicing some serious budgeting.

The main act: looking at every little expense and snipping wherever possible. Nothing was sacred.

Out went the bottled water service. Turns out we could save 13 shekels per bottle. Multiply that by two bottles a week, and it comes out to more than 100 shekels a month.

Fridays have traditionally been pizza day in our house. We already cut out buying the kids sodas last year (we bring our own which I’m sure annoys the hell out of the pizza guy, but since we’ve been coming for so many years he doesn’t say anything). Now we go only once a month and the rest of the time we eat what’s in the freezer, bought at the supermarket for half the price.

Jody became a master at bargaining: she got the afternoon childcare down by 15%. Our Internet provider: down 50 shekels a month. Karate lessons, off 20%. Even the doctor and the dentist were willing to make a deal to keep us. It seems that business is bad all around and everyone is willing to negotiate. Or maybe it was always this way and we just didn’t know.

We started using cash instead of credit cards. We stopped eating out in cafes and we more often brown-bag it or picnic. A romantic evening now consists of a walk around the block in the rain. Since we started turning off the lights, I bump into furniture more often. We wear sweaters indoors.

We’re making progress. And we don’t plan on living the monks’ life indefinitely. It’s going to take time, but we’re confident that the numbers are eventually going to line up the way they should.

Do we feel deprived? Not in the least. For the first time in our eight years here, we are acting like adults, taking control of our finances. We may be odd-balls, voluntarily disqualifying ourselves from the most popular club in town, to the disapproving disbelief of our neighbors, but we feel good. We are empowered.

And when everything else feels out of control in the Middle East, a little empowerment can go a long way.

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Over the course of the last year, Jody has become an expert at budgeting. So much so that she is now offering her expertise to the public at large. She teaches a class called “Household Financial Management: Mastering the Israeli System.” If you are reading this from Israel and worrying about your own overdraft, the next class starts May 12.

Contact Jody directly at jodyb@netvision.net.il or visit her website at www.jodyblum.com.