Thursday, December 23, 2004


We recently took off for a short vacation in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, with a group called Shabbat B’Teva. Literally meaning “Sabbath in Nature,” the group wraps hiking and tiyulim around a Shabbat atmosphere.

The idea of getting out of the nasty cold of Jerusalem (for those of you who’ve never visited, it actually snows here in the winter) to bask for a few days in the relative warmth of the desert was too appealing to refuse.

Eilat is a five hour drive by car from Jerusalem. Thursday, on the way down, we stopped several times, first at the Dead Sea (no, we didn’t go in – remember the disaster the last time?) and then at the Flour Cave, where the walls of the surrounding canyon are so chalky, you can give yourself a natural facial...minus the lemon juice and cucumbers, of course.

The next day, we hiked through the Black Canyon just north of Eilat in a setting as close to a lunar landscape as I imagine you can get here on planet earth. The canyon shifts from bare yellow sandstone to craggy black volcanic rock.

The air was clean, the sky an unwavering blue, the temperature just right. It was truly exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the Eilat Field School where we were staying, it was late Friday afternoon and we were happily weary, ready for Shabbat.

A “field school” is a kind of Israeli version of a youth hostel run by the Society for the Protection of Nature. The family rooms are spartan, furnished with bunk beds and scratchy starched sheets that for some reason are always a tad too short.

Meals are eaten in the field school’s cafeteria-style communal dining room, together with any other groups that may be staying at the same time.

When we sat down to dinner, we had the place to ourselves. We said Kiddush and broke bread. As we were getting up to hit the entrée buffet, two Egged tour buses pulled up and began unloading their cargo: 100 or so Israeli tourists.

The Israeli group found their seats. They were a rowdy bunch, decidedly not-religious. Just then, the leader of our group announced it was sing.

Now on Shabbat, it’s traditional to sing during meals. I have no problem with that; we often indulge ourselves. But I found myself vaguely uncomfortable with the prospect of doing this in front of a roomful of strangers.

Growing up, singing was something you did in private or in a place where it was sanctioned and expected: on a stage, at camp, in synagogue. You didn’t get up in the middle of a school cafeteria and start belting out your praise for God.

Well maybe you did...

There’s an expression we used to use to refer to people who were overly kiss-y in public. Remember? PDA – for public displays of affection. Well, on this night, in the Eilat Field School, I was experiencing something slightly different. We’ll just call it PDJ.

Public Displays of Judaism.

So there we were, performing for an audience who hadn’t bought a ticket. We sang Yom Ze Mechubad while the Israeli group piled potatoes and fish on their plates.

They ate their fried chicken rings while we crooned Dror Yikra.

I tried not to look, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I was most afraid of. Yes, the Israeli tourists were throwing idle glances our way. We were disturbing their meal. I just knew it.

The singing went on and on. Just when I thought we’d exhausted the repertoire of Shabbat zemirot, someone in our group started up with Israeli folk songs.

Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).

Arik Einstein’s Ani v’Atah.

And then I noticed something I didn’t expect. The Israeli group was nodding. A few were, wait a minute…what was this…they were singing along. Now there was someone clapping. And another.

The song ended. And then the Israeli group did the impossible. They actually started the next one.

U’faratzta,” they sang. “Yama, v’kedma, tzafona v’negba.”

Our group happily joined in.

My wife Jody turned to me, oblivious to my agonized internal monologue and commented “Israelis just love to sing.”

We ate our dessert, said grace after meals, and headed back to our rooms to get the kids to bed.

The next day, after morning prayers, we hiked up nearby Mt. Zefachot before returning for Shabbat lunch. The scenery didn’t disappoint. From the highest point, you could see four countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt and even the tip of Saudi Arabia.

But my thoughts kept straying back to the night before. And I wondered: what would today’s meal bring? Would the two groups sit together and bond during Shabbat lunch? Would there be more singing?

Was this a small step towards bringing bridging the gap between immigrants and sabras – those Israelis who are prickly like cactus on the outside but sweet and communal at the core?

And most important: would I overcome my aversion to singing in public?

We may never know. When we arrived back at the Field School on Saturday afternoon, the dining room was empty, the tour buses gone from the parking lot.

The other group had already checked out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Out of Context

We were recently invited to a bar mitzvah “weekend” at the resort hotel of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, a few kilometers from where we live at the southernmost edge of Jerusalem.

The bar mitzvah weekend is an alternative to the usual custom in our community where the bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) is called to the Torah in synagogue, with a festive Kiddush held afterwards followed by a lunch or party in the evening.

With the bar mitzvah weekend, though, guests are invited to stay over (often at the bar mitzvah family’s expense) at a hotel. The family gets to create exactly the environment they want in a more intimate space, and the guests get a three meal catered break from the weekly routine.

We were really looking forward to it. That was, until Amir got sick.

Our eleven-year-old, Merav, had already made her own plans to spend the Shabbat with a friend in town (it was a bar mitzvah after all...boys, ecchh).

“I guess we should cancel and stay home,” I said to my wife Jody as thirteen-year-old Amir flushed the toilet for the eleventh time that hour.

Jody had a different idea. “Why don’t I go with Aviv and you stay home with Amir?” she suggested.

I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. Over the years we have taken great pains not to be separated as a family for Shabbat. Even when I used to fly overseas for business sometimes as often as twice a month, I’d always try to get back by Friday. And from California, let me tell you, that was one heck of a transcontinental shlep.

And now Jody was suggesting that we separate...right in the same city?

Still, she had a point. Why should we both miss out on the weekend? Six-year-old Aviv would have a great time (he loves hotels). Besides, our friends wanted us there.

“OK, how about this,” I countered. “You go to the hotel and I’ll stay home with Amir Friday night. Then if Amir’s feeling well enough in the morning, I’ll walk over for Shabbat services by myself.” It was under an hour to Ramat Rachel on foot.

“Would that be OK, Amir, if you stayed by yourself for a few hours?”

Amir just looked green.

“Right, we’ll play it by ear,” I said.

As Jody packed up her bags, though, I realized that all that togetherness meant that this weekend would be charting new territory. You see, I had never spent a Shabbat alone with one of my kids.

Which wasn’t a bad thing. It’s just...well, what would we talk about? Sure, Amir and I have never been at a loss for words. Still, I felt vaguely uncomfortable. The context was confused.

Which raised another question: what would we do, just the two of us, at the dinner table? Would we still sing Shalom Aleichem, the song welcoming the Sabbath angels to our house, without the rest of the family, I wondered? What about Kiddush? And the motzei over the challah?

There was no time to ponder. The sun was already setting. I put food on the hotplate, just like a regular Shabbat.

But Amir wasn’t hungry; all he could eat was rice and applesauce anyway. And I thought: maybe we should just skip the whole thing. Take a week off. Why go through all that bother?

And that felt even worse.

“Come to the table, Amir,” I said.

Amir was on the couch reading “New Spring,” the prequel to Robert Jordan’s wildly popular “Wheel of Time” series, his eyes still glazed from a week of nausea.

“Do I have to?” he mumbled.

“Yes,” I commanded, sounding more sure of myself than I really was.

Amir came. And we began. We sang Shalom Aleichem to our regular rousing tune. To my surprise, Amir joined in, as enthusiastically as his flu-weakened body could muster.

Then we turned to the empty chair where Jody usually sat and sang Eishet Chayil. Amir pretended to give his mother a massage. “That’s my job!” I joked.

While I wolfed down a piece of chicken and a couple of small potatoes, Amir poked at his rice and we talked. About whatever came into our heads.

We discussed the price of college and the new Nintendo DS Amir’s so crazy about. I pontificated on an article I had read recently in Wired Magazine about the economics of digital media distribution.

At the meal’s end, I even insisted that we sing the grace after meals, something about which I am habitually ambivalent. Amir didn’t complain.

And it struck me that the rituals which I thought would have less resonance without the full family gathered around...actually meant more. They provided a starting point, a common ground between father and son. In the very situation where I’d anticipated laziness, I found myself more stringent.

After dinner, we retired to the living room, both of us curling up with our books (I was a third of the way through The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s harrowing best seller about growing up in Afghanistan).

After a few pages, I put my book down, looked up and tried to put voice to the thoughts I was having.

“Amir,” I said. “Did you think that we were going to do all that?”

“All what?” he asked, lifting his eyes slightly.

“You know, the Kiddush and motzei and stuff?”

Amir’s answer was as simple as it was telling. In little more than a few quickly exhaled words, he validated thirteen years of parenting and varying adherence to tradition.

“Yeah of course,” he said. “Why not?”

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Donut Quiche

(Just in time for Hanukah, here's a special encore presentation of one of my - er - tastier columns.)

I know they’re bad for me. But I can’t resist.

I’m talking about donuts, of course. Whatever shape, size or variety, I go do-m’shuga-nut over them. And at this time of year, as Hanukah season descends upon us, Israel is overflowing with that uniquely Jewish version, the sufgania.

Sufganiot (that’s the plural) are a very simple but tasty version of the classic donut. Start with fried dough, don’t even bother digging a hole, then inject jelly or caramel (my preference) directly into the middle. Finish off by coating the creation with plenty of powdered sugar.

Sufganiot season starts earlier every year, in some cases kicking off just after Sukkot in October. By December, they are ubiquitous. At my eleven year-old daughter Merav’s class Hanukah party, I watched in awe as a large white van from a local bakery drove up to the school gates, opened its doors and revealed platter upon platter of white frosted mass-produced tempting and scrumptious sufganiot.

There are sufganiot in the kitchens at work, sufganiot at kiddush in shul, and sufganiot at the checkout counter of every supermarket from here to Haifa.

All of this reminds me of when our family was in the North America two summers ago and I became obsessed with finding the ultimate donut:

A Krispy Kreme.

I had heard that this chain serving hot and fresh donuts had taken the region by storm and was even trading on the stock market (look it up here)!

I had also heard their donuts were to die for. And I had never had one.

So the running theme of the summer was Dad’s obsession with finding that illusive Krispy Kreme. But on highways from Toronto to Cleveland to Chicago, our holy grail eluded us. It wasn’t until I was out shopping late one night, in a forlorn suburban mall in the middle of nowhere, that I chanced upon a freestanding Krispy Kreme franchise, beckoning to me from the middle of the nearly-empty parking lot.

Apparently, the big deal about Krispy Kreme is that when the sign outside is lit, that means hot donuts are rolling off the assembly line that’s a prominent feature in every store.

The sign was lit.

I approached the store and, through the windows, I could see hundreds of just-baked lightly browned donuts rolling out of the ovens, then floating down a river of boiling oil before being tenderly flipped and arriving at the end of their journey: an earnest Krispy Kreme employee offering free samples to us, the lucky consumers who had timed our arrival just right.

I sampled. I smiled.

Maybe it was because it was hot. Or because I had waited so long for this moment. But I declared to my fellow consumers, and maybe to God herself, that these were the absolute best donuts I had ever tasted.

I proceeded to buy a couple dozen for my wife Jody and the kids.

As much as I fawned over the Krispy Kremes last summer, I still have a special spot in my heart for the Krispy's more humble Israeli cousin. I think it must be the scarcity: you just can’t run out to get a hot sufgania in the middle of July. You won’t find one. You really have to wait for Hanukah to come near.

Which gives me an idea: why not create a year-round sufgania phenomenon. We’d have to modify the formula a bit. Turn it more into a full meal. And stuff the sufgania with more than jelly

How about spinach, broccoli and zucchini? Creating something more like a quiche.

Or fill it with chopped meat or schwarma or chicken schnitzel. We could replace the tired boring pita and the no-longer-trendy baguette with the hottest new trend: the fried dough sandwich!

From Beersheva to Binyamina,, this could be all the rage. Think of the entrepreneurship. The satisfied customers. The profits.

Shuki’s Falafel, move over. Here comes Brian’s Donut Quiche!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Still in De-Nile

After all the whining I did in my last column, In De-Nile, I thought it only befitting to provide an update, however embarassing it may be.

What happened was this: I was just about to throw out my old broken phone headset when I noticed a small knob that I thought I'd checked before. The knob had somehow slid into the "mute" position. I moved it out of mute and, lo and behold, the headset works perfectly.

Which makes my previous column ironic, at best; at worst, well...I won't go there. But it also leads me to a point that I've been thinking about a lot lately. That is: can writing right wrongs? Or put more simply, if something nasty or unpleasant happens, can you make it better by writing about it?

Remember when we got locked out of our house a few weeks back? I started writing the story about that long night even while I was still suffering on my neighbor's couch. And before I even knew the ending, since the events were still unfolding in real time.

Same with that less than than stellar camping trip we took earlier this year; I knew as it was happening that I could salvage the experience by crafting it into a story.

So now I have another worry: that I am using you, my dear readers, as my surrogate therapist. My thinking has been that, as long as you laugh at my trials and tribulations, I can deal with them too!

Is that OK?

Well, why not? After all, I'm just trying to make the most of a tough situation, right? Or has my own life become just more grist for the story mill...

What do you think? I'd like to open it up for discussion. Click the Comments button on the website. Or send me an email at

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, November 25, 2004

In De-Nile

One of the hardest things about living in Israel for Western immigrants is not having access to the vast consumer marketplace we grew up with in North America.

I know, that sounds pretty trivial and maybe even a little petty. After all, we are living in another country. We freely chose to put 5,000 miles between us and the nearest Disney Store. But sometimes it can be downright hazardous to your health.

For example, last week my phone headset broke. I use this simple audio device all the time to keep my hands free to take notes when I’m interviewing people long distance for the various newspapers I write for.

No problem, you say. Order it online. Or head on over to the nearest Fry’s or Best Buy and pick up a new headset.

Except that the superstores that make life so convenient in North America just don’t exist in Israel.

Ah...Fry’s. I like to call it conspicuous consumption on steroids, but that barely begins to describe the place.

The Fry’s I used to shop at in the “old country” is something like three football fields long and maybe as many wide. Fry’s started off years ago selling electronic gear for geeks. Now they hawk everything from music CDs to refrigerators, 42-inch plasma screen TVs to candy bars.

And, yes, telephone headsets. Racks and racks of them.

Well, while we don’t have Fry’s in Israel, we do have Office Depot. I headed on over to our local store. I still had a good 90 minutes before the 4:00 PM interview I needed to conduct by phone that afternoon. I figured it would take a couple of minutes to sort through several models.

I figured wrong.

Ein lanu,” the perfunctory Office Depot clerk said. Meaning, “We don’t carry that.”

How could that be? I was sure I’d seen them at the Office Depot, wait a minute; that was in Los Angeles.

“Maybe try the Home Depot,” the clerk offered. It wasn’t far. So off I went, from depot to depot.

Ein lanu.” No headsets there either. “Have you tried the Sakal store?”

No, I had not tried the Sakal store. But I would now.

The Sakal store was closed for repairs. Mamash ein lanu.

By now I was getting a little panicky. The clock was ticking: I had little less than an hour until my phone call at this point.

What about the electronics store down the street? I headed towards my car. It had been raining off and on all day, and now it was coming down pretty hard.

The closest spot I could find was a couple of blocks away. I stepped out and – splash – I made contact with one of Jerusalem’s infamous puddles.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that the streets aren’t paved evenly or bad drainage, but trying to stay dry while crossing a street in this city when it’s raining is like playing hopscotch on your heels. Eventually, someone falls.

I felt the water seep in through my tennis shoes. It was cold and slimy (note to self: buy those waterproof boots already).

As I sloshed unto the Lior Electric store and held up my old broken phone headset, I heard a familiar refrain – now, don’t everybody shout it all at once – ein lanu.

“Any idea where I could find one?” I asked, desperation starting to mix with the mud in my sneakers. I was down to 50 minutes.

I could go on with the story for took another five stops, seventeen puddles and a street that flowed like a concrete swamp before I finally found a cell phone store that sold headsets. It wasn’t even what I wanted. But it would have to do. I had only 30 minutes left.

I ran back to the car and gunned it towards home. Only to find myself stuck in a long line of traffic waiting for a light that seemed to never change. But the digital clock in my dashboard sure did.

20 minutes. 10 minutes.

As we inched our way forward, fingers tapping nervously on the steering wheel, I thought to myself, would it be so much to ask for a CompUSA and a little valet parking? It's not that I'm in denial about the place in which I live; it's just that on a day like this, it felt more like wading through the Nile.

I made it home with minutes to spare before the scheduled time of my interview. I bolted up the stairs to my home office and plugged the headset into the phone. Hallelujah, it worked! I dialed the number...

...and was promptly shunted off into voicemail. I checked my email. There was a quick message. “Sorry, have to reschedule. Hope it wasn’t any kind of inconvenience.”

Inconvenience? Now why should it be an inconvenience?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Music and Meet

I was asked by a colleague to help out on a friend’s website. Nothing fancy, just a little advice to help the guy get up and running.

And, oh yeah, could I do it for free?

As it turns out, the website happens to be for a good cause, so I took up the challenge. After several hours over a period of weeks, I got to know the website owner pretty well. One day he dropped me an email.

“My daughter is having a bat mitzvah party at our house. We would be honored if you and your wife could attend.”

Well, Jody and I are always up for a simcha. And the bar mitzvah dad is a pretty funky guy, so I figured it would be a happening event.

But as we drove out to the party, in a moshav (communal village) perched on a picturesque hill about half an hour due west from Jerusalem, Jody and I started to feel uncomfortable.

“Do you think we should have brought a gift?” Jody asked, worriedly.

“Didn’t the work I did count?” I replied.

“I don’t think so...” Jody said, quickly reviewing in her mind what she knew about Israeli bar and bat mitzvah etiquette.

“You know, we don’t even know the bat mitzvah girl’s name,” I said.

“Have you ever met her father?”

“No. I’ve only spoken to him on the telephone. But I know what he looks like.”

“We should have at least brought an envelope,” Jody said.

“Want me to turn around?”

“No...let’s try to enjoy ourselves. Maybe we’ll meet someone interesting.”

The setting for the party was low-key and laid back. The afternoon summer sun was making a slow descent. A large pergola, ensnared in vines, served as a gateway to a lawn where several musicians were playing soft jazz.

Two large barbeques set up under the pergola were churning out burgers, kebabs and chicken wings at a satisfying rate.

“You must be Brian,” the bat mitzvah dad called over to me as we sauntered into the scene. I introduced Jody. He introduced his wife and some of his nine children.

“Did you figure out that Photoshop problem we were talking about?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Not now,” he said. “Get some food before it’s gone. And enjoy yourself.”

We sat down and ate our meat. Sitting at the table with us was a young girl, maybe 14, with braces and long wavy hair. She was all by herself. We said hi.

A bongo player had joined the band, seamlessly transforming their sound from jazz to jam with a little bit of Guster thrown in for good measure.

I turned back to Jody. She was deep in conversation with Tmima, the 14 year old.

“So what’s it like living here?” I heard Jody asking.

“It’s very pretty. We have six dunams of land,” Tmima answered, glancing towards the stunning view which stretched all the way to the Tel Aviv beachside. “Where do you live?”

“Jerusalem,” I told her, joining in.

“That sounds nice,” Tmima said. “It’s so boring here. There’s nothing to do at night.”

“Aren’t there other kids here on the moshav? Do you have a scout troupe or anything?” I asked.

“Well, I go to Bnei Akiva. But there are only six of us. And we don’t get along very well.”

“Do you have family here?” Jody asked. “In Israel, I mean?”

“No one. Other than my parents and brothers and sisters, of course.” Tmima said.

“We had three cousins here,” I offered. “But one of them was killed two years ago.”

I have no idea why I said that. It’s not something that comes up regularly in conversation anymore. At that particular moment, enjoying the view and the food and the cooling air, thoughts of Marla, our cousin who died in the bomb at Hebrew University July 31, 2002, seemed far away.

Or maybe they weren't. Maybe on some level I thought that in a land where everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by terror, that this would be a way to bond with an Israeli teen.

We both were silent for a moment.

Then Tmima said, brightly, “So what do you like to do? When you’re not working, of course.” She had snapped back from a moment of awkwardness just about as fast as the average Israeli bounces back after an attack. I don’t know anymore if that’s a good thing or a symptom of denial. After so many years, it just is.

We talked a little longer, and eventually Tmima got up to hang with her friends – all six of them, I suppose. Jody and I settled back to listen to more music which had now taken a definite Shlomo Carlebach turn. Smoke from the barbeque occasionally drifted across the lawn.

As we said our goodbyes a few hours later, Jody grabbed my hand. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t turn around?” she asked.

“Mmmm...” I mumbled, wordlessly agreeing with her.

Because between the music and the meat, you never know just who you might meet.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

An Elvis-Sized Hangover

If this story seems a little bleary, it’s because I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night. Seems we were locked out of our house.

By our kids.

Mabye it was our own fault. My wife Jody and I decided a few months ago that the kids were old enough to stay home without a babysitter when we went out. After all, Amir is thirteen and already does some babysitting for pay.

We were invited to our friend Alan’s birthday party at the Elvis Diner. That’s right, just a few minutes outside Jerusalem on the highway to Tel Aviv there’s an authentic circa 1950s American diner with a pure Elvis theme.

Elvis pictures on the walls.

Elvis music on the jukebox.

Even a great big golden Elvis statue on the way in.

OK, so to the best of my knowledge, American diners have never and probably still do not serve humus and tomato-walnut salad with the French fries.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that we had such a good time, we didn’t get back until well after midnight. We told the kids not to wait up.

So they didn’t.

But when we got to the door, the bolt was on. Not the one that opens with the key, but the swinging handle bolt that is 100% secure from robbers or other undesirables and can only be opened by someone on the inside.

It was surely an oversight, a habit before bed by either Amir or his eleven-year-old sister Merav. I was peeved, though, because I had specifically said before we left “Remember not to put the swinging handle bolt on.

So fine you say, just knock on the door. Yes, you would say that if you didn’t know what sound sleepers our kids are. Nothing wakes them up.

Remember the story last year about then five-year-old Aviv when he walked into a window and cut up his knee? We took him to the emergency room to get stitched up and on the way over he fell asleep in the car.

He slept through the shot to numb the pain. He slept through the stitches. In the morning, he woke up, looked down and said, “Hey, what’s all this on my leg?”

The irony of course is that while we have truly relished the fact our kids are such good sleepers – especially when other parents tell us about multiple wake-ups all night long with their youngsters – on this night, the blessing became a curse.

But still we tried. For a solid hour and a half, we stood outside the door knocking, ringing the bell and calling over and over from my cellphone to our house phone. I could hear all three handsets ringing all over the house. I must have called close to a hundred times.

At one point Jody went out into the courtyard and started lobbing rocks up at Amir’s second floor bedroom window.


Our neighbor Marc was still awake and offered to smash a window for us. “That should wake someone up, right?” he suggested helpfully.

With our kids, not bloody likely. Plus what would the neighbors think? Oh yeah, he was the neighbors.

“Maybe the terrace door is unlocked,” Jody said referring to the third floor terrace that we share with Marc’s apartment.

“No,” I said. “I made sure to lock it before we left so nobody could get in.” I just didn’t know it would be me on the other side.

Eventually we gave up and Marc offered to let us hang out at his place for the four hours remaining until the kids would be getting up to prepare for school.

Jody nodded off pretty quickly. Me, of course…I couldn’t sleep. I tried watching TV. I rummaged through Marc’s video collection. Pretty sparse. A few old thirtysomething episodes. Seen those.

I scoped out the bookshelves. There was a lot of George Eliot and Kurt Vonnegut, but nothing trashy. I don’t have anything specifically against staying up late. I’ve got about a zillion books I want to read. Videos too. But they were all on the other side of that locked door.

Night slowly turned to daybreak.

At 6:20 AM, my cell phone rang. It was Merav.

“Abba? Where are you?” she asked. She sounded on the edge of panic.

“Come to the front door and open it,” I commanded.

All three kids – Amir, Merav and Aviv – opened the door to see me standing there, still dressed in my clothes from the night before. As they unlocked the door, realization set in.

I was ready to get nasty. To give them a talking to about never ever using that bolt again. About the misery they’d put me through. But there were tears in Merav’s eyes. Amir was standing in his bathrobe, a mix of sheepishness, guilt and relief all mixed up on his face.

Only Aviv seemed unaware of what had really happened.

“I got up first,” he said, starting into his usual blow-by-blow but ever so playful recitation of his actions, “and I saw that you weren’t in your room, so I looked upstairs and then I told Amir and he called your name but you weren’t here...”

“We thought maybe there was a terror attack,” Amir said.

“Or that you were in an accident,” Merav said, then added, “If you died, how would we know?”

I couldn’t stay mad.

Jody tramped in a few minutes later rubbing sleep from her eyes. I pulled her off to the side and, after I explained what was going on, we did some quick damage control, reassuring our potentially traumatized children.

OK, so what can we learn from this experience? That maybe thirteen is just a bit too young to babysit into the wee hours of the morning? For sure, that we shouldn’t come home after the kids have gone to sleep.

And that in a place like Israel, where terror is part of the daily language, we need to consider all sides of the emotional equation.

“ was the party?” Amir asked just before leaving for school.

“Ask me later,” I said. I might have been able to work my way out of my mental funk, but there was no way around the Elvis-sized hangover I'd gotten from this unplanned all-nighter.

Now pass the humus and fries, OK?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Doing the Para-Macarena

Twenty-two years ago, on my birthday, I jumped out of an airplane. How I got up the courage, I still don’t know, but I have had nightmares about it ever since.

It wasn’t the freefall to earth that got me: I had a parachute on after all and it was hooked to the plane so that it automatically opened after all of about three seconds. I rather enjoyed the feeling of gliding slowly to the ground, suspended by only a billowing roll of thin cloth.

Nor was it the landing that freaked me out: I had spent the previous day practicing how to bend your legs and roll in order to break your fall.

Rather, it’s the replaying over and over in my mind of the jump itself. That moment when I pushed myself out the door of the plane into the void, so many miles above the earth. It has at once been a source of consuming terror and ignoble bravery.

How did I do it? I have often wondered. And:

Could I ever do it again?

On our recent family vacation to Turkey, I had the opportunity to find out.


Skydiving for wimps.

You take off from a boat, not a plane, and remain tethered by a steel cable the entire time. At only $35 a pop, it sounded like the perfect way for me to confront my fears and live out the thrill of sailing high in the sky again.

Plus it was my birthday. Fate was surely speaking to me.

“This is your destiny, Luke.”

Still, we put it off until the last moment. The first day at our Turkish resort, we lounged around the pool, watching the other parasailers on the distant horizon. On our second day, we lounged around the pool some more. On the third day, Amir spoke up.

“I thought you said you wanted to go parasailing, Abba?” Apparently he’d decided he wanted to go too.

Invigorated by my thirteen-year-old’s enthusiasm, we trudged down to the parasailing office on the beach. But when we got there, the man at the desk shook his head. “Too windy...” he said.

“Oh well, we wouldn’t want to do something that isn’t safe,” I said, turning like the cowardly lion back towards the pool.

“ send up a tandem, that is,” he finished his sentence. “But it’s OK to go up solo.”

Before I knew it, Amir and I, plus his ten-year-old sister Merav, six-year-old little brother Aviv and my father-in-law Ron, were all riding the choppy waves in the parasailing outfit’s little red boat.

“You want to go first?” I asked Amir. I figured I’d gauge how tough it was for him before making a final decision.

Amir suited up. The parasailing apparatus, consisting of nothing more than a flimsy chest harness and a canvass seat that looked like it had been ripped off of a broken swing set, didn’t put me any more at ease. I stifled an instinctive desire to call out to Amir: “Stop, don’t go!”

It was too late anyway. He was already taking off. Before I could even look up, the parasailing operators were strapping me in.

Efficient little devils, these guys.

Despite the distance, it was clear Amir was having fun. As he was reeled back in to the boat, he gave me a thumbs up. “It was so great, Abba! You’re going to love it.”

Just at that moment, Aviv started to wail. “I’m seasick,” he screamed.

This was my chance to back out.

“Go,” my father-in-law told me. “I’ll take care of him.”

I stepped tentatively towards the platform where I would replace Amir and be connected to the rainbow colored parachute that was inflated by the wind and speeding direction of boat. Hands guided me swiftly and then, with a whoosh, I was airborne.

The take-off, the equivalent of my skydiving jump, was smooth. So smooth that my fears quickly piped down and I found myself soaring high above the water. A feeling of gentle calm and quietude that I had not expected washed over me. The resort grew smaller and smaller.

I was alone.

No people. No trees or forests like when you go for a hike by yourself. I tried to get in touch with powers beyond me. The peace of the moment spoke to me, saying: this is your a dialogue, communicate with me...

I closed my eyes. And a song planted itself firmly in my consciousness and demanded my attention.

It was the Macarena.

The resort entertainment staff had been playing the incessant ditty at the pool earlier, trying to provide the right environment for a game of water polo.

And so, here I was, when I should be thinking about God, absorbed by a Ricky Martin dance tune.

At that moment, there was an unexpected jerk. I looked up at my parachute: it was tipped off to one side. At least I think it was. Was it about to separate from my harness, I wondered?

I glanced down. I was no longer over the ocean but directly above a tall spire at the top of the resort’s main restaurant. If I fell now, would I plunge straight into the dessert buffet? Would the Jello cushion the blow?

The jerking jolted me again before settling into a gentle tug. I realized then that I was being pulled back in by the pulleys on the boat.

Down I went. Too fast it seemed. I was still over land. Now I was near the beach. Coming closer to the shoreline. And closer. My feet skimmed the bald head of a man in the water. Then the whole lower part of my body splashed into the water.

The boat sped up and I was catapulted back into the sky. I was close enough to see the parasailing skipper laughing. This was apparently an old standby and I had literally fallen for it quite nicely.

As I was tethered back to the boat, I made a soft landing. Aviv was whimpering now and fell into my arms as I stumbled back to my seat. And there was Merav, all suited up and ready for her turn. So brave…and only ten years old.

“How was it?” Merav demanded. “Was it scary?”

“Piece of cake,” I said. “Enjoy yourself.”

And away she went. No fears. Total joy. And why not? What was there to be afraid of?

Now, all I have to figure out is what we should all do for my next birthday. I’ve always been a little intimidated by rock climbing...

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Wrong Thong (or Why God Made Men Nearsighted)

Sometimes you just need to get away.

That’s how we’d been feeling after planning and executing three intense weeks of family activities centered on thirteen-year-old Amir’s bar mitzvah this past summer. All the details, the organizing, the meals and parties had taken their toll and we were just plain pooped.

That’s how we found ourselves at a five star all-inclusive resort in Antalya on the “Turkish Riviera”

The best way to describe the Hotel Papillion is that it's like a Club Med, where one price covers everything. Waiters take your drink orders at the pool and the mini-bar is free...and restocked daily (that alone is worth the price of admission). There are bountiful all-you-can-eat meals dished out three times a day, a waffle stand, ice cream cart and lavish entertainment spectacles served up every night.

After so much activity at home, for once we planned absolutely nothing. We would do nothing. We would think about nothing. We’d just relax around the glorious pool reading our trashy novels while the kids shimmied up and down the two enormous water slides.

When ten-year-old Merav precociously announced “It doesn’t get any better than this,” we knew we’d come to the right place.

That was until Merav noticed.

“What is that lady wearing?” she asked.

Or not wearing, as the case turned out to be.

“Ummm...that’s called a...a thong,” I answered, not sure whether to avert my eyes…or hers.

“Oh, like the shoes,” Merav answered matter of factly, her logical brain in motion. “Does it hurt to wear?” she continued.

“I really wouldn’t know, sweetie...hey I’ll race you to the waterfall,” I said, trying to change the subject.

I whipped off my glasses and we jumped into the water, both of us shrieking with delight. We then swam to reach the bridge that connected the waterslide area with the pool bar.

“Pssst...” Merav whispered. “Abba, look over there. That woman...she isn’t wearing a top!”

Apparently, our vacation paradise wasn’t 100% all-inclusive after all.

“Where?” I demanded, too urgently I realize in retrospect.

“Don’t look,” Merav said. “That would be cheating on Imma.”

Not that I could anyway. Without my glasses, I’m as blind as a bat in a bad bikini. Still I wondered: had I inadvertently stumbled upon the real reason God made some men nearsighted?

“Doesn’t she know she’s naked? Merav asked.

Clearly this was going to be harder to explain than the time last summer when, while vacationing in California, we accidentally wandered onto a nude beach. Then, at least, it was just for an hour. This time, we were here for three whole days.

With Merav waiting for an answer, what I said next was going to be crucial. I had to choose between talking tough and laying down some biblically-inspired laws of modesty, or offering up a bit of touchy-feely parenting advice.

I went for the politically correct.

“You know, Merav,” I said, “in some parts of Europe, it’s very common for women to sunbathe this’s not what we would do but that doesn’t make it bad. Different people do different things. As long as no one gets hurt and we all respect each other...”

“Well, if you ask me, it’s gross,” Merav interrupted.

“Oh, well, yes. That too,” I said. But secretly I was delighted she was grossed out.

Despite my best efforts at framing the world through the kind of "I’m OK, you’re OK" lens I grew up with, my daughter had formed her own views. And as far as modesty goes, she was erring on the side of suitable bathing attire. Which was just fine for me, her protective father.

“So what should we do?” I asked.

“I don’t care so much,” Merav answered. “I just won’t look.”

“That sounds good.” I said, “Neither will I.”

Just then, Merav was struck by a flash of insight...and horror. She had worked out a workable approach for father and daughter. But as she thought of her thirteen-year-old big brother, she turned to me with true concern:

“But what about Amir?” she asked.

“It’s OK,” I said, letting out a breath. “He’s nearsighted too!”

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Save My Spot

He looked like a regular guy. His short cropped hair, half frame wire glasses, t-shirt (not too designer, not too sloppy) and well worn sandals all suggested a cafe patron with at least a moderately worldly frame of reference. So when he asked Jody to “save his spot” at the Rami Levy supermarket checkout line, it was hard to refuse.

“Save my spot” is one of the hardest things for the Western immigrant to Israel to get used to. It can occur at nearly any time in just about any public place: the line at the post office, the pharmacy, the bank. An optimist would say it’s simply a way of maximizing limited resources. You reserve your spot and then continue shopping. As long as you get back before your turn, no one gets hurt.

Others would call it plain chutzpah.

Usually we shrug it off and try to go with the flow. There are bigger battles to fry. And to protest this quintessentially Israeli behavior is to admit that we have not – nor may we ever – fully integrate into life here in our new home.

Plus the man with the wire frame glasses had a gentle look that said “trust me, I’m not here to screw you. I’m just covering all my bases.”

Well, looks can be deceiving.

He had maybe twenty items in his basket and he wanted to see if he could get through the "Seven Item Maximum" Express Line. That should have been a red flag right there.

He trotted off and was gone for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Jody and her basket slowly inched forward. It was a Thursday night and the store was overflowing with pre-Shabbat shoppers.

Jody spied the man with the wire frame glasses moving from check out lane to check out lane, trying to secure a space. The Express Lane wouldn’t let him in. He pestered the customer service desk.

And then, when Jody was finally next in line to check out, the man returned. He didn’t say anything but it was clear he expected his spot back.

Now, maybe there’s an etiquette in spot saving, something that, not having grown up here, we just don’t have the cultural background (some would say baggage) to pick up on. But it seemed clear to Jody that a fifteen minute sojourn was pushing it.

She gave him another quintessential Israeli gesture: she shrugged.

To no avail. The man in the wire frame glasses inched his cart up to Jody’s and angled it in such a way that there was no way to gracefully avoid confrontation. Someone had to back down.

The woman in front of Jody, who was now transferring items from her cart to the checkout counter, turned around and snarled at the man. “Go in back of her,” she said. “It’s only fair.”

“I was here first,” the man said. It was so incredibly childish that Jody let out a laugh. Like two kids wrangling over who gets the last scoop of ice cream.

This only increased the man’s determination. He pushed his cart forward again.

“What does it matter to you?” he said to Jody. “It’s not like you’re giving up on something you already had.”

“Be a gentleman,” the woman in front said.

Now, a native-born Israeli would have pushed back or turned to fisticuffs. A native-born Israeli would have yelled and made such a fuss that the man and his no longer charming cafe culture wire frame glasses would have been caustically embarrassed into retreat.

Jody let him through.

With a sneer, he drove home this battleground victory, hissing under his breath “Americans are so inflexible.”

How he could discern Jody's country of origin was anybody's guess. She hadn't said a word the entire time. But this latest declaration was too much for the woman in front who had taken the role of Jody’s defender.

“She’s just as Israeli as you or me,” she snapped. One look at Jody’s basket filled with Israeli brand milk and pizza and cornflakes and frozen chicken would confirm that assertion.

Jody was still too stunned by the whole incident. All she had intended to do was shop. She hadn’t gone scrapping for an international incident.

And then, the man with the wire frame glasses left his cart in place...and went off to shop some more. Unbelievable! Jody thought.

He returned just as the woman in front had placed her last item on the conveyer belt and was getting her credit card ready. He moved into place, quickly bagged his twenty items, paid, and triumphantly took off, having beaten the system...and his fellow shoppers.

Jody was loading her goods onto the conveyer belt when she spied him making a hasty return. She girded herself for another confrontation. But the wild beast look that had so taken over his visage had subsided. He was holding out his hand.

“I hope I didn’t upset you,” he said.

“Well you did,” Jody replied. She wasn’t letting him off the hook for ruining her day quite so easily.

“Oh, well..” he said, hesitating for a moment. “Well, um...then Shabbat Shalom!”

And that was it. As far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. Bygones should be bygones and any animosity from this point forward would be as inappropriate as...well, his behavior just a few moments ago.

What could Jody do? Not return the greeting? That would be so un-Israeli. And she’d already been accused of that. But maybe there was something to learn here. About how Israelis deal with conflict. Or muster an apology.

She’d think about that later. For now, there was only one thing to say.

“Shabbat Shalom,” Jody wished the man with the wire frame glasses. She shook his hand and he smiled. Jody suppressed another laugh and smiled back.

And then they walked their baskets through the sliding glass door and out into the parking lot together.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Second Exodus

I’ve never visited the Sinai. And now I fear I never will.

The nearly simultaneous bombings that killed 33 last week at the Taba Hilton and the beaches at Ras al-Satan delivered destruction to a destination regarded by many Israelis as a refuge, an oasis in the desert where one could get away from the stress of life in pressure-cooker Israel and luxuriate on one of the most fabulous beaches in the world with the some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling around.

Or so I’m told.

But the bombs also had the effect of closing the world off just a little bit more to Israelis. Sinai now joins other former Israeli tourist havens that have seen their symbols of public Jewish life targeted in the last few years and as a result are no longer perceived as safe.

Places like Mombassa, Kenya where an Israeli-operated hotel was bombed in November 2002. Or Istanbul, Turkey where attacks at two synagogues killed over twenty just under a year ago. These days, just wearing a Star of David in Paris can be dangerous.

But Sinai...there was something special about the place that called to me more than all the others, even though I’ve never been. Maybe it’s because you can drive there, in your own car even. To give you a sense of proportion, you can get to Taba from Jerusalem in less time than it would take to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or New York to Washington DC.

Then again, maybe it’s our history. Tradition has it that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The Jews wandered that same desert for forty years after leaving Egypt.

It’s no wonder then that perhaps the most striking image from the aftermath of the bombs in Sinai was not the pictures of rescue workers digging through the rubble for bodies and survivors – we’ve seen that too many times before right here in our own neighborhoods in Israel.

Rather it was the mass exodus from Egypt. The buses that were sent into Sinai to bring some 15,000 Israeli tourists home in a matter of hours.

The symbolism and religious irony are unavoidable.

And one more thing: we were supposed to be in Sinai. We actually had plans with two other families to make the trek during the intermediary days of the Sukkot holiday and go camping…on the very beach that was bombed.

We chickened out only after the Israeli Foreign Ministry in September issued an unprecedented warning based on “concrete” information regarding terrorists targeting Israelis in Sinai during the high travel season.

Would that everyone had been so cautious.

And yet, how can you live like that? Tourists stopped coming to Israel because they said it wasn't safe. Now Israelis can’t travel abroad because it’s too dangerous. It’s not possible to guard and protect everything. At what point do you draw the line and say “it’s out of my hands.”

Is canceling vacation plans giving in to terrorism? Or is it just plain prudent?

Shortly after the bombs in Sinai, I received an email from a Egypt. We had often joked that we’d meet each other at the half way point between Jerusalem and Cairo where he lives. That is, on the beach in Sinai.

In his letter he wrote:

“I am so sorry for what happened in Egypt yesterday in Taba. I understand that many innocent Israeli people died, which is for sure very bad, and not acceptable by anyone or by any religion. Let's hope together that God brings peace in our region.”

His words of heartfelt concern struck a deep chord inside of me, saying that, even as this world becomes increasingly perilous, there is still hope. Even when the borders are closing tighter and tighter, and when it would seem that no Israeli would be crazy enough to ever visit Egypt again, there can still be understanding between people.

I still hope to visit Sinai someday. And sip tea with my friend from Cairo.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Rock Hashana

Every family has its disagreements. Especially when there are teenagers around. Some are relatively simple and generally mundane. Like:

Should a thirteen-year-old have an enforced bedtime?


Can he play on his new laptop whenever he wants?

Others, though, are more spiritually profound. The burning question in our house at this time of year is: which synagogue should we attend for High Holy Day services.

I know, I know, this is a dilemma you are probably scratching your head over and muttering “say what?” It was the same for us back in the old country: we were members of a single synagogue and that was where we went. After all, isn’t that what we paid all those dues for?

In Jerusalem, though, we have our regular synagogue and then there’s the hippy-happy super-sized Amiqa De-Bira, AKA The Leader Minyan.

By super-sized, I mean super-long.

I’ve written about this remarkable place before (click here to review “Yom Kippur Groupies”) and how, with all the high energy singing and dancing, High Holy Day services more closely resemble a rock concert than a traditional shul. And like a concert, the davening (prayer) goes on for a good 3-4 hours more than our regular synagogue. Think a Grateful Dead show vs. The Backstreet Boys.

But there’s something about The Leader Minyan that speaks to me on a very deep level. I relate to the davening there more than any other place. No wonder it’s been my High Holy Day home away from home for nine years now.

But that’s me. And then there’s my teenager.

“I don’t want to go there!” Amir blustered when I informed him of my plans.

“What do you mean...why not?” I replied, taken slightly aback by the intensity of his conviction.

“Listen, Abba, I speak Hebrew,” he said. “I can understand the prayers when they’re done fast.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t understand the words when they’re said so slowly. I really didn’t enjoy it when we went last year.”

He had a point. Just saying the first word of the Shema at the Leader Minyan can take up to 30 seconds.


“Try not to think of the words, then,” I ventured. “Let the music roll over you. Get into the communal beat. Think of it as more than prayer. It’s an experience!”

“Abba, really...” was all he said, but his withering look didn’t hold out much promise for compromise.

“What do you propose we do then? Do you want to go to our regular shul alone?”

“I hate sitting alone,” Amir said.

“Why don’t you try coming with me, and if you still hate it, we can cut out early.”

“I don’t know...” he said.

“Sleep on it and we’ll talk in the morning.”

As I headed off to bed, though, my thoughts were nowhere near as clear as my fatherly advice implied. Was I being selfish, I wondered? Too rigid? A bad father? Or was I just being clear about what I needed to make the holiday meaningful? Was that so terrible?

When I stumbled out of bed in the morning, Amir was already dressed, sitting on the living room couch, ready to go.

“I’m going with you,” he said. “I’ll give it another try.”

My heart skipped a beat. As much as Amir didn’t want to be alone, neither did I. Having my newly bar mitzvahed son at my side, I knew, would be something special.

Still, Amir had not transformed overnight. He sported a scowl that reeked of “obligation” and only grudging respect all the way on the walk over.

When the chazzan started off the morning service with an extended bbbb-aaaaahhh-ruuuuu-chhhhhh, I wasn’t sure this was going to work.

The service meandered slowly from soulful to spirited. Amir looked impassive but, in time, not so defiant. At a particularly rousing section, I turned to Amir.

“Did you hear what the chazzan just did? How he built that repeated coda into a crescendo until everyone was near bursting, totally ready to explode?”

Amir didn’t say anything but I could see that, ever so slowly, his disdain was dissolving under the relentless drumming of 200 congregants pounding away on their chairs, prayer books and even the walls. I looked down. Was that his foot starting to tap ever so slightly?

The congregation belt out another song at the top of its collective lungs, singing as if the world’s survival depended on our words reaching a receptive inner ear. A quick glance at Amir: he was singing too.

I turned to him, trying to figure out the right words of encouragement that wouldn’t seem too overbearing, but he beat me to the punch.

“I can see why you like it here,” he said simply. OK, it was a statement, still “you,” not “we”. But a step forward. I ventured a hope. My son may yet “get me.”

The first part of the service ended and we broke for a community Kiddush consisting of honey cake and cherry juice (there was more, but that's what I had).

Not wanting to push my luck, I said to Amir, “So should we go now and catch the rest at our regular shul?” Better to leave on a high, wanting more, I figured.

“No, I’m enjoying it here,” Amir said.

“Really?” I asked, though at this point I didn’t doubt it.

And then he added: “You know, you were right. Last year, I really was too young to experience it.”

I guess we won’t be having a disagreement over where to go for Yom Kippur this year.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The A-Ha Moment

As soon as I heard that sixteen family members were coming from overseas to Amir’s bar mitzvah, I knew we had to do something special.

First of all, sixteen people coming to Israel in these days when the country is still perceived as a threat to life and limb is worth celebrating with a significant dose of joy and appreciation.

But once they got here, what would we do with everyone?

Sure, the main event – the bar mitzvah itself – was a good start. And there was a party the following night.

But I wanted to create something that would provide our visitors – some of whom were on their first ever trip to Israel – more of a taste into why we love it here, why raising a bar mitzvah boy in Israel is so meaningful to us, and why we stay...despite all the difficulties (and make no mistake about it, life here is difficult).

In short, I wanted to give our guests an A-Ha know what I mean: that point when a click goes off in your head and you just “get it.”

And so my wife Jody and I began planning.

We organized several days of day trips around the country. There were group meals to order for the days we were in town. Kugels and herring to buy for the Kiddush on Shabbat.

I worked with the band to play just the right mix of bar mitzvah music and rock and roll at the party. I built a PowerPoint presentation of embarrassing baby photos while Amir practiced reading his parsha (the Torah portion of the week).

All this while staying on top of airport arrivals that spanned a full week, then dealing with the crusty bed and breakfast proprietor who routinely botched most of our reservations.

This was one serious logistical operation.

As the week progressed, though, our planning paid off. The parade of pre-bar mitzvah events proceeded without a hitch and I began to hear what I had dreamed of for so long: those tell-tale sighs, murmurs and oohs. Little by little, the magic of this place was working. Our guests were really “getting it.”

The only problem was: I wasn’t getting mine.

You see, I had been so busy with all the planning and the coordinating that I got lost in the details. The bus driver needed directions. Restaurant reservations had to be confirmed. The band didn’t know if they could work Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi into the rock set. Deadlines…timelines...

Where was my A-Ha Moment?

Shabbat morning finally came. The big day: the reason for all of this. We arrived in shul on time (for once). But I was still in host mode.

The gabbai needed to know who to call up for aliyot to the Torah, and in what order. Did everyone have a tallit? Had all the herring been properly toothpicked?

And so I wasn’t at all ready for the wave of emotion that practically bowled me over when Amir finally took to the bima to say the blessings on his own aliyah for the very first time.

I had imagined this as just another event among the many that had taken place or were still to come. But it wasn’t. When he concluded his final blessings and everyone started throwing Hershey’s kisses and other sweets at him, I felt like he had crossed a threshold.

During dinner the night before, Amir asked if he could lead the zimun, the invitation to the benching – the grace after meals – that you’re only able to do if you’re thirteen or over.

I was unsure.

“Why not?” Amir asked. “I’m thirteen already.”

The truth was, I didn’t know what the Jewish law said in this case. Could he do this before the bar mitzvah ceremony itself? Or was this something that needed to wait?

Ultimately, I decided I wanted to do it myself, one time at least, as our entire family was gathered for the festive meal.

The next morning, as Amir ducked under his tallit to avoid the hailstorm of projectile candy, I realized why I had hesitated.

His becoming bar mitzvah wasn’t just another event. He had, in a single instant, been transformed. Like at a wedding. One minute you’re single, the next you’re married. He had gone from boy to man with the utterance of a word.

And I was so proud of him. It wasn’t the same feeling I’d have if he’d studied hard and aced an exam. Rather it was because he had joined me in the world of adults. He’d become my equal in the responsibilities placed on him by the Jewish community.

And that’s how I finally got my own very personal, very special, quite extraordinary A-Ha Moment.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Last Tuck-In

For 13 years, I knew this day was coming. I’m not talking about my son Amir’s upcoming bar mitzvah. No, this was a moment of much more intensity.

The last tuck-in.

If you have kids – or if you ever were a kid – you know what I’m talking about. That special time of quiet bonding, books and cuddles, just before bed.

At first, the ritual fell mainly to mom: despite noble intentions, I just didn’t have the right equipment. I stepped in when bedtime evolved into story hour.

Instead of books, though, I created a whole set of make-believe characters whose tales I told every night. I never knew what I was going to say before I sat down on the bed. I’d look around the room for some inspiration – a new toy, a pile of dirty socks, a Barney doll – anything could trigger that night’s drama.

Over time, a whole oeuvre of characters developed. At the center were Frieda and Ernest, two pre-teens who lived in Paris and for some reason spoke perfect English. They had an inventor uncle named Giuseppe in Pisa, and another uncle who explored the jungles of Africa. Uncle Giuseppe was always getting into trouble, and Frieda and Ernest always seemed to save the day.

Did you know for example that it was Uncle Giuseppe who made that famous Italian tower lean...and Frieda and Ernest who stopped it from collapsing all together? Or that thanks to Uncle Giuseppe’s amazing time travel machine, Frieda and Ernest were responsible for the first Thanksgiving?

Well, now you do.

Eventually, my stories were supplanted by books. Amir and I read the whole “Indian in the Cupboard” series, various Beverly Cleary books, The Borrowers, Peter Pan and John Christopher’s sci-fi Tripods trilogy.

By the time we got to Harry Potter, Amir was reading on his own. His voracious appetite for literature soon pushed out any time for me to read to him. He was growing up and wanted to do it himself.

But that was OK. I just shifted my story telling and book reading attention to his younger sister and brother.

But no matter what the content of the routine, there was one thing that always remained: the tuck-in. A kiss and a hug before lights out.

Until a few months ago.

At nearly 13, Amir has already passed me in height. He hates it when I say how big he is, but I’m going to do it anyway: he’s huge. His body is 13 going on 30 and I’m not talking about the movie. He’s got the largest shoe size...and the biggest hands in our house. I’m dreading the day when he outgrows the bunk bed he shares with six-year-old Aviv and we have to get him his own room.

Where’s that Brady Bunch attic when you need it, anyway?

Along with his size, his bedtime has gotten later too.

But still, whether it was 11:30 PM, midnight or later, when I heard the call of “Abba, come down for a tuck-in,” I was there. Even if I was already nicely bedded down myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I loved every minute of it.

So imagine my surprise – and distress – when Amir announced one night that he could put himself to bed.

“I don’t need a tuck-in,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I answered. “Of course you do.”

“No, Abba, I don’t. I’ll put myself to bed. You don’t have to wait up tonight.”

He sounded so considerate, so mature.

“Really?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Abba.”


“I think you need the tuck-in more than me,” Amir said.

Of course he was right. But what’s so wrong with that? Giving up the tuck-in is a major milestone in a father’s life. Like the first day of school. Or sending your kid off to the army. He might have warned me. Given me some notice.

Something like: “Abba, listen, I’ll be giving up tuck-in’s in three weeks time, so get ready.”

But no...he wanted me to go cold turkey on the tuck-in’s. Well, I wasn’t having any of it.

Our tuck-in’s may be going the way of Frieda and Ernest and a book before bed, and my son may soon be a head higher than his poor old father. But darn it, tonight wouldn’t be the last tuck-in. I would make my final stand.

Amir and I faced off in the hallway. But looking (up) into his eyes, it didn’t feel so much as father and child. Rather as two men acknowledging a change...and the specialness of the moment.

It may have been the last tuck in. But it was also the beginning of something new.

“Go on, get into bed and I’ll wait,” I said. “I’m not that sleepy anyway.”

Amir's bar mitzvah is this Shabbat, Parshat Ki Teze, August 28. Feel free email a mazel tov and I'll forward it to him. This Normal Life will be taking a break for a couple of weeks while we celebrate with family here in Jerusalem.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

A Strapping Young Man

It is unquestionably one of the oddest sights in all of Judaism. I’m talking about tefillin, AKA phylacteries. If you’ve never seen them, it’s pretty jarring. Jet black and square, made of a single piece of leather molded under thousands of pounds of pressure, and worn on the head and arm during daily morning prayers.

To the Western eye, it just looks weird.

Still, when I started becoming more interested in traditional Jewish rituals some twenty years ago, I took on the mitzvah of tefillin myself. And after awhile, it didn’t seem so wacky. I got used to it. It seemed even normal.

Eventually, though, my overall commitment to prayer began to waver, and with it my dedication to putting on tefillin every morning. The reasons for this change are between me and God. Or my therapist, I suppose. But I was OK with it. A little nostalgic, but OK.

Until last week.

You see, my son Amir is about to become a bar mitzvah. At the age of 13, he will be considered a man in the eyes of Jewish law. And religious men (well, most of them anyway) wear tefillin when they pray.

I could have just given Amir my old tefillin. But that would be saying that I’d given up entirely. I prefer to think of it as "taking a break." Like Ross and Rachel from "Friends." Or Israelis who go for an extended trip to North America but, when asked, always say they’re "just visiting."

So off we went to shop for tefillin. That’s when sticker shock set in. I had no idea tefillin was going to be so expensive!

First there’s the leather itself. There are thick ones and skinny ones, and naturally the thicker the better "for everyday use," explained Rivka, the tefillin saleswoman at Oter Israel in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood.

Then there’s the quality of the calligraphy on the parchment that’s stuffed inside the tefllin. There are five pieces of parchment in total, each with lines from the Torah. A top-notch sofer can jack the price of tefillin up to thousands of dollars.

Let me tell you, for a guy who’s ambivalent about tefillin in the first place, that was a lot to shell out. But Amir was into it.

"Why not order tefillin now for your younger son?" Rivka offered. "Lock in the price."

One tefillin at a time, I thought.

$550 later, we walked out with a beautiful pair of perfect, unblemished tefillin

Now, custom holds a bar mitzvah boy may begin putting on tefillin thirty days before the big day.

"Do it with me," Amir said.

My heart skipped a beat. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? Of course he would want me to do it with him. It’s a father’s responsibility. Like teaching your child to swim.

"Abba, do you even have tefillin?" six-year-old Aviv wise-cracked, overhearing our conversation.

"Sshhh..." I said feeling guilty and embarrassed at the same time. Most kids from religious homes catch at least an occasional glimpse of their fathers praying. But what could I do?

We agreed to start bright and early the next Sunday.

Fortunately, there’s another custom where the day a bar mitzvah boy first puts on tefillin, there’s a little celebration. And since we’re Jews, we celebrate with food.

Jody went out and bought a dozen fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox spread from the just opened Tal Bagels store on Emek Refaim Street. That was a nice enough reward.

Or was it a bribe? And for whom?

While Jody laid out the spread, Amir and I got out our tefillin. Amir looked at me expectantly. "Which side goes up?" he asked, holding up the arm tefillin.

I looked at the tefillin hesitated for a moment, then began. "The strap goes towards…the back...yes, that’s right," I said referring to the long black leather strap that comes out of the tefillin box and is wrapped seven times around the arm before making a loop-the-loop on the hand to spell out the Hebrew letter "shin."

"Here watch me," I said.

Amir tried. His tefillin fell right off his arm.

"Pull it here tight enough that it stays on, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation," I instructed.

"Ow, that hurts," Amir complained.

"It will get better. Your straps are still stiff. After a few weeks, the leather will soften up. Like a good pair of shoes. Now continue like this."

And as I started circling the straps of the tefillin around my arm, memory shot back like an Arrow missile chasing a Scud. I guess all those years of tefillin-wearing were like riding a bike. The spokes might get a bit rusty, but you never really forget.

I put on the head tefillin. So did Amir.

"It’s a bit crooked," I said.

"So’s yours," Amir responded.

"It is?" I said, and we picked up a small mirror to examine the placement.

"It’s supposed to rest on the hairline," Amir said, remembering what he’d learned in school.

"I can’t see yours, Amir. You’ve got too much hair."

"I can see yours, Abba."

"Very funny."

We adjusted and straightened and pulled and then after what seemed like a half an hour, we stood opposite each other. Both of us wearing tefillin. A father and his nearly thirteen-year-old man-cub. Suddenly playing on the same field.

"Where do you usually start praying?" Amir asked, opening the prayer book and waiting for a page number.

"I usually..." But there was no "usually." There was only the past...and the future. And as I looked into Amir’s eyes, so eager and full of enthusiasm, so mature and yet so new to all of this, there was only one answer.

"Let’s start at the beginning," I said.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Invoking Marla

I had been having problems with my computer. Small but annoying things, like you can’t be on the Internet and print at the same time.

So one night, after the kids had gone to sleep, I decided to upgrade the operating system. I’d done it plenty of times before on other computers. You just pop in the Windows CD and follow the instructions.

Or so I thought.

When the blue screen of death appeared, I got worried. When the computer froze up the second, third and fourth times, I started to panic.

I called my friend Craig.

“Have you backed up all your data?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said. I’m smart enough to know that things can and usually do go wrong with computers.

After some discussion, Craig took a pessimistic tone. “I think you’re going to have to reformat the hard drive.”

I had already anticipated this as a possibility. But before executing the Reformat command, I decided to just double check that my data was indeed OK on the backup CD.

I took it downstairs to Jody’s computer. A single CD with my most valuable data on it. All my stories for this column. Email communications for the past three years. Tax documents.

And then I dropped the disk on the floor.

OK, just pick it up, Brian. Don’t move. No funny stuff. Easy does it…

But as I turned the rolling office chair to pick up the disk, the chair’s legs moved unexpectedly and ran straight over the disk. I grabbed it.

Two huge skid marks across both sides. I put it in the CD drive. No response.

I tried again. OK, now I could see the files. I tried to copy something.

“Error: Can’t read from disk.”

Then it went dead completely. And I let out a scream.

It was as close to blood curdling as I know how. The kind the villain emits in the movies when the priceless jewels fall out of his hands into some deep dark void. All I could think of was: All my data. Dead. Gone. Forever. I needed that scream.

As soon as I did it, though, I realized it was a mistake. Ten-year-old Merav woke up from her adjoining bedroom. “What happened?” she cried out from her bed.

Twelve-year-old Amir, still awake in his bed had been listening to the whole thing and was sharing in my panic. “Abba, your data going to be OK. It has to be. Won’t it Abba?”

I was starting to feel faint. The blood was rushing from my head.

Jody came running downstairs. “Calm down,” she implored, the voice of reason. “It’s just a disk. I’m sure there are ways to get the data back. We’ll call someone. There are programs to fix these kind of things, aren’t there?”

And then she invoked Marla.

“It’s not like someone died,” she said.

Her timing couldn’t be more on-target. It's been two years this week since Marla Bennett, our cousin, was murdered in the attack at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002.

Immediately, I felt like an idiot. Getting so worked up over “things.” Possessions. Data could be reconstructed. Worst case, I’d just have to recreate the stories, or write new ones. Email addresses could be retrieved.

I was taken back to a morning a few weeks earlier. Merav and Aviv were fighting about something before heading off to school. Nothing major; just the sort of quibble that breaks out periodically between siblings. But Aviv started to cry, and Merav was sent to her room.

When her time-out was over, Merav immediately grabbed her backpack and violin and stormed out the door without saying a word.

Now, since Marla died, I have made a point of always giving a kiss and a hug before anyone trots off to school.

I caught up with Merav on the staircase. And I invoked Marla, too.

“Is this really worth it?” I asked, “getting so angry over a little fight. Imagine if on the morning that Marla died she had a fight with her boyfriend and had left without saying goodbye and then she was killed. That would be the last thing the two of them would remember; that they left angry without saying I love you.”

Merav got it. Kids are so much quicker than adults on the important stuff.

But afterward I thought: is it fair, is it right to invoke Marla? To “use” her death in such an obvious, almost cliched way, to teach a point about living? Is there a minimum level of injustice, I wondered, that is appropriate for invoking Marla, so that we don’t cheapen her memory?

Or is that the point? That any way that Marla, through her death, can help us to grow to be better people is worthwhile.

About my data. Fortunately, I hadn’t reformatted the hard drive when I went to check the CD, so the data was still there and I was able to retrieve it with the help of some high-priced technical support. The operating system was successfully restored and the computer is pretty much back to the way it was.

But I received some new data that hadn’t been there before.

That nothing is worth getting desperately upset over. Unless it’s someone you love, and then no program in the world can retrieve that data.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The Snorkeling Rabbi

Last night we marked Tisha B’Av, the fast on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. The day commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem along with a mixed bag of just about every calamitous event to befall the Jews in the last 2000 years, everything from when the spies gave their damning report on the land of Canaan to Moses and the Israelites in the desert, to the day that World War I started.

The weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av itself are similarly solemn, treated as days of mourning and subject to the same prohibitions: some men stop shaving, weddings are postponed and many avoid eating meat except on Shabbat.

Three years ago, however, as Tisha B’Av approached, my family and I were doing our best to forget the often crushing history of our people.

It was nearly a year into the violence that began in September 2000, and we had gone on vacation with my father-in-law and his wife to Hawaii. A beach-front condo and ten days of lolling on the beach lapping up the perfect waves off the Maui coast were just what the doctor ordered.

We were in desperate need of a break.

And that’s just what we got. We enjoyed glorious sunsets, watched several kitschy hula shows and wolfed down some of the freshest fish we’d ever eaten (with no kosher restaurants on the island, it wasn’t hard to mind the no-meat rule).

Maui was about the farthest place away from Israel – both physically and spiritually – we could imagine.

And you know, we might just have succeeded in our quest to passively assimilate, however briefly, into the tropical landscape if it were not for the Snorkeling Rabbi.

Jody saw him first. It was the morning before Tisha B’Av. We had gone to check out a new beach on the north side of the island. And there he was, climbing out of the water like a moving mirage in goggles and flippers. A vaguely familiar face.

“Rabbi Joe?” Jody gasped.

“Jody? Brian?” he replied, equally dumbstruck.

Here we were, ten thousand miles from home in Jerusalem, and out of the waves comes our Rabbi friend from two blocks away.

Suddenly it wasn’t quite as easy to blend in. We were hanging out with a Rabbi now.

Not that he looked the part. In his funky Hawaiian bathing suit, I imagined he might be feeling just as awkward as we were about being spotted. 

“So…are you enjoying Maui?” Rabbi Joe asked.

“It’s amazing,” Jody said brightly.

I was staying out of it, still trying to look inconspicuous.

“But what are you doing here?” Jody asked.

“Oh we come every year. This is like our second home.”

We talked for awhile about which were the best beaches for snorkeling and where to watch the hang gliders and which hotel to stay at the next time we came.

Then Rabbi Joe said he had to get going. “Tonight’s Tisha B’Av,” he said. “Are you coming to shul?”

“Shul?” I sputtered. “You mean there’s a synagogue here…in Maui?”

“Well, more of a small congregation that meets in someone’s house. But we’ll be reading Eicha,” he said referring to the Book of Lamentations that’s traditionally read on Tisha B’Av night. “You should come. Here, hand me a pen. I’ll write out the address.”

His reached out an arm which was still sparkling from a few yet-to-be-evaporated drops of salty ocean water. “Maybe you can join us for the break fast tomorrow night?” he added.

Now, I’d like to end this story by telling you we made it to synagogue that night and heard the solemn chanting from the Book of Lamentations, buffeted by the sweet winds and the sound of the sea at sunset. And that we then broke bread the next night with a group of Hassidic hippies on the beach.

But we had to pack. We were out of there the next day.

Or maybe it was that we weren’t ready to head back to the harsh reality of our people just yet. We needed one more night of escape…even if it was Tisha B’Av.

Of course we fasted. On the plane ride home, that meant we had to miss out on the scrumptious airplane food (no great loss there). The time change worked in our favor ending the fast three hours earlier than it would have if we had stayed in Maui.

Two days later, after a short stop in Los Angeles, we were on a plane heading back to Israel.

We run into Rabbi Joe all the time now…in Jerusalem. And when we do, we always laugh about that day the Snorkeling Rabbi came in from the beach and gently reminded us where we had come from…and where we were going.

May you have an easy fast…wherever you are in this ever-suprising world.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Putting Up with It

Six-year-old Aviv loves mini-golf. On the computer, that is.
It seems that many of the big candy and cookie conglomerates have discovered that if you create a virtual game online, and then strategically sprinkle images of
Oreos, Lifesavers and Jello Pudding Bites throughout, you can dramatically increase brand awareness and what marketers call “stickiness.”
Without all the mess involved with real candy.
Popular sites like
CandyStand and NabiscoWorld offer a wide variety of interactive treats – including pinball, bowling, virtual snowboarding, and of course, the aforementioned mini-golf. Heck, even good old Planters Peanuts has its own slam-dunk virtual basketball game on the web. 
In our house, Aviv is the leading consumer of these sites, and golf is his clear favorite. But lately it has been getting to be a bit much - mini-golf every single day. "Want to go out and play with your friends?" we would ask. The usual reply: "Nah, I'll just play some more on the computer."
Clearly, we needed to get this kid out of the house. So when we asked the kids where they’d like to go for an afternoon outing, Aviv didn’t hesitate.
“Do they have real mini-golf in Israel?” he asked.
Well actually, yes, they do. Several in fact. The closest was in
Tel Aviv, at the far end of HaYarkon Park.
The day we went, Amir wasn’t feeling well, so it was just Jody, Aviv, ten-year-old Merav and me.
Now, I was a big fan of mini-golf when I was a kid. I remember the long putting greens, with turning windmills and other colorful obstacles that attempted to stop the ball from getting to its appointed destination. For some reason,
mini-golf in the “old country” was always located just off a busy highway.
That was about the only similarity between mini-golf in California and Tel Aviv. Instead of a green course, Tel Aviv’s Mini-Golf had what I can only describe as cracked concrete with patches of green on raised platforms. There were a couple of moving obstacles but they were all broken. It was fairly pathetic. Don’t believe the
picture of the course on the Internet.
Aviv and Merav didn’t notice for a second. As soon as we got our clubs ("one ball per team," explained the bored teenager with three rings in each ear and another in her nose), they were bounding to the course.
Now Merav is very diligent about game playing. And even more so about rules. Aviv, on the other hand, has his own style when it comes to mini-golf. I’d describe what he does more like “gliding” than putting. When he moves his club, he doesn’t whack and release. Rather, the club gently continues with the ball, all the way down the course, in a single fluid movement.
Maybe that’s how they do it online. But Merav picked up on this breach of protocol immediately.
“You can’t do that Aviv. It’s cheating,” she cried.
Aviv ignored her.
“Just let him have fun, Merav,” I said.
“Well, that doesn’t count as swing,” she declared. “Make each stroke count for six! Give him a score of 300 or something.”
“It says here you’re supposed to stop at five,” Jody, our record-keeper, explained. (She’s like her daughter, also a stickler for rules.)
“Put up with it... or stop putting,” I cracked. No one laughed (but then again they never laugh at my jokes).

Merav walked back to the concrete course in a huff. And so the two of them played what essentially were two separate games. Merav played golf. And Aviv played something…I’m just not sure what it was.
Over the course of eighteen holes, Merav eyed Aviv…and the score card occasionally, but Aviv’s lack of conformity was too maddening for her to grace him with any sort of meaningful attention on for long.
Every so often, another group of players would cut in ahead of us. Israeli mini-golf etiquette, apparently, doesn’t include going in order. We saw teams zig zagging through the course, grabbing the next available hole. It was like standing in line at an Israeli supermarket. Or trying to get on a bus. 
And then it happened. On the 16th hole: the unbelievable. Aviv “glided” a hole in one. OK, it wasn’t really a hole in one, as his club never left the asphalt. But Merav put aside her competitive bravado and ran over to give him a big hug.
“You did it, Aviv! I knew you could.” Then turning to Jody, with a look of slight concern, she asked “So what’s the score now?” As if a single successful “scoop” could throw off the entire balance of the game.
But Jody was smarter than that. “Score?” she asked. “Oh I stopped counting long ago.”
Merav gave Jody one of those exasperated “oh mother” looks, but this time it didn’t seem to throw her. She turned to Aviv. “So did you enjoy mini-golf?” she asked him.
“Yes, I guess,” he replied, seemingly hedging his response. Then he added brightly: “Now I’ve got to go back and try it again on the computer!”
Oh well, we tried…