Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Jacuzzi Loop

On Friday as I was preparing for my morning run, my wife Jody called to me from upstairs. “Can you take a couple of letters and drop them at the post office?” she asked. “They’re birthday cards to be mailed to the States.”

“Do I have to?” I whined back, giving off a kvetch that would make my five year old proud. It wasn’t that I was opposed to doing Jody a favor. It’s just that I have my regular running route. It’s one that I’ve carefully crafted to avoid having to cross any busy streets or wait at a lengthy traffic light.

My route consists primarily of an oversized oval through the upscale parts of Baka and German Colony in the direction of downtown. On my return I usually do a quick loop around our immediate neighborhood. Think of it as taking a leisurely jog round an Olympic sized pool, finishing up with a quick loop around the small Jacuzzi off to the side.

The problem with Jody’s request was that the post office was already in the “Jacuzzi Loop” – and that was supposed to be at the end of my run. I wasn’t about to say no of course. So I fashioned a compromise: I would try a new loop in a new place. It was actually kind of thrilling. Something fresh to keep this creature of hobbit on his furry toes.

My new loop took me in the direction of Liberty Bell Park. As I headed towards the expanse of grass, basketball courts, and one strategically placed replica of the U.S. Liberty Bell, I took notice of the traffic. Fridays mornings in Jerusalem, with everyone rushing to buy last minute groceries, flowers and the weekend paper before the Sabbath begins, are more often than not bumper to bumper.

That’s when I found myself running past a #14 bus that was going nowhere fast. As I passed it, I felt a sudden, inexplicable fear. Now, I’ve been neurotically careful not to ride public transportation for the past three and a half years, since the most recent violence began in earnest. But a disturbing thought gripped me. What if a bomb exploded on the bus at the precise moment I was passing it on foot? I’d be no more able to escape harm than if I were sitting inside.

I put on a little extra speed and I was clear of the bus. Nothing happened. I got back home, lifted a few weights and jumped in the shower.

Two days later, on Sunday morning, I was preparing to go out again when I heard the news. A suicide bomber had blown himself up on a #14 bus. Where? Just in front of Liberty Bell Park.

Exactly where I had been running on Friday.

It never ceases to amaze me how coincidence, fate, and especially what seem at the time to be minor decisions, can have such profound repercussions in the long term.

In 1988, Jody and I were living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jody was downtown one day and in a hurry to get home from work. She got to the corner of one of those massive six-lanes-in-all-directions California intersections and was just about to cross when the light went yellow. For a split second, she debated scurrying across anyway, but then stopped short.

Just then, a bus went careening out of control and plowed into the people who were still in the middle of the street. Three people died as Jody stood in stunned shock.

Flash forward 16 years and I couldn’t help shake this thought: what if Jody had asked me to drop off the letters on Sunday instead of Friday? I very well could have been running past the #14 bus that exploded, not the one that passed safely by.

I completed my run and was walking up the stairs to our apartment when the phone rang. Jody picked up. It was our friend Lisa. She had called to see how I was. Why me of all the people she knows in Jerusalem, I wondered?

I heard Lisa explain to Jody that she had seen me on Friday, running just in front of Liberty Bell Park while a #14 bus was stuck in traffic. And she was worried. Was I at home? Was I OK? She didn’t know that had been the first time I’d ever moved my Jacuzzi Loop to Liberty Bell Park.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can happen anywhere. But it seems like it’s amplified to an almost unbearable degree in Israel today where even the smallest decisions can have tragic consequences on a daily basis.

If you misplace your keys, will you miss one bus and catch the “wrong one?” What would have happened if my cousin Marla Bennett had stopped to talk to a friend in the corridor at Hebrew University on July 31, 2002? Would she have arrived at the cafeteria just late enough to miss the bomb that killed her?

It’s impossible of course to think like this. Playing the “what if” game will drive you crazy big time because all of it is so utterly unknowable. And you can turn the tables just as easily – sometimes the smallest decisions can turn out wonderful: a chance meeting where you meet the love of your life and live happily ever after.

In the grand scheme of things, all we can do, really, is take the time to fully acknowledge what could have been, and then move on to appreciate what we’ve got – with as much life and joy as we can muster in these difficult times.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

The Giving Tree

Blood and chocolate.

That was essentially the two-word take away from the email we received a few weeks ago from our synagogue announcing the first ever "Tu B'Shvat Bake Sale and Blood Drive."

What Tu B'Shvat - the Jewish Arbor Day, known also as "The New Year for the Trees" - and giving blood have to do with each other, I may never know. But it was an opportunity for our community to come together to help others in need...and eat chocolate brownies all at the same time.

"I think I'm going to do it," my wife Jody announced as she closed the message.

"You're kidding," I said.

"No, really. I've always wanted to. And it's a real mitzvah. Look at this," Jody said reopening the email. "If one member of the family gives blood, the entire family is 'insured' for a year."

More than that, I read. If at least half the households in our synagogue membership donated, the entire community would be covered for a year.

"You should do it too," Jody added.

"Yeah, right," I said, stifling a near shriek. "You know how I am around needles. I practically faint, and that's just when I get my blood taken at the doctor's office."

Jody nodded, remembering the last time when I had to lie on the table for 20 minutes drinking orange juice. And that was for just a drop compared with the bloody bucketful to be collected during our synagogue's blood drive.

"I'll tell you what, though," I said. "I'll come and watch you. Give you a little support. Then maybe I'll think about it."

When Jody, five-year-old Aviv and I arrived at synagogue on the day of the blood drive, I was blown away. The line to give blood was nearly out the door. People were literally pushing their way to the front in their eagerness to part with a pint of essential fluids.

"I've got another appointment," I heard one man say. "Can I cut in front?"

The three of us got in line.

We brought Aviv because we thought it would be educational. He'd learn about the importance of giving blood and see that it wasn't so bad. He tends to take things in stride anyway. If he could handle seeing his mother with a six inch needle shoved up her arm, we figured, maybe he'd become a doctor.

There were three stations in the line before we could progress to the main event. First Jody had to have her hemoglobin checked. This necessitated a finger prick. Apparently only women and vegetarians were forced to undergo this extra procedure. I couldn't watch.

Jody passed. I nearly passed out.

Then a nurse took her blood pressure. She passed again.

Finally Jody had to have her paperwork checked and stamped. No problem there: Jody deals with paperwork for a living.

As we entered the blood room itself, there were at least eight men and women stretched out on cots, attended by four young Magen David Adom workers flitting between them. I noticed a man in the corner next to the cookie table trying to stop his bleeding. His arm was drizzled red; there were drops on the floor marking a gory breadcrumb trail from his cot to his current resting place.

Was this typical, I thought? Maybe I should rush in, Indiana Jones-like, and save my colleagues from near certain agony.

The needle went in and Jody grimaced. I held her hand and concentrated on keeping my…I mean her spirits up. I stared at the ceiling, checked my cellphone, anything to avoid looking down to where the needle was.

20 minutes later, we were hovering over the sweets. Jody flashed her her "I gave blood" sticker which entitled her to two free chocolate chip cookies while I struck up a conversation with a friend.

"So, did you already finish?" I asked.

"No, I can't give blood," he replied.

"Why not?"


I nodded, recalling that he had lived in Africa for several years.

I turned to another friend. He shook his head too.

"Why can't you give?" I asked.

"I'm English."

"So?" Last time I checked, "blue blood" was only a figure of speech.

"Mad cow, don't you know. Israel won't accept English blood."

"Man! Why can't I have one of those diseases!" I sputtered.

Just at that point, Jody sauntered over to me, cookie in hand.

"Nu, how do you feel?"

"A little woozy," I replied. "I'll be OK."

Jody laughed. "So, what do you say? Are you ready to get in line?"

"Maybe next time," I said.

But what I really meant was maybe next time I'll actually look at the needle. I have a feeling that getting me to the point where I'm ready to give is going to take a long, long time...

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

All Shook Up

When the house shook this morning, I thought: oh no, not again. Not another café blowing up five minutes from where I live.

But the shaking didn’t fit the usual pattern. It lasted too long (20 seconds) and I didn’t hear a boom. There was no smoke rising, no sirens in the air.

Within a few minutes, the news was already reporting that an earthquake had hit Israel and could be felt as far away as Jordan and Syria. Centered just north of the Dead Sea, the quake measured 5 on the Richter scale.

No sooner had the momentary panic subsided then I marveled at how ironic our day to day reality has become. There are new terror alerts sometimes hourly, the last two weeks has seen the entire country thrown into chaos by striking local authority workers, and the world media continues to vilify us even as anti-Semitism rises to levels not seen since the 1930s.

And now we have earthquakes. What’s next? Frogs? Boils? Darkness? How much more do we have to take?

For most Israelis, though, the thought of an earthquake may be a little scary but it’s still more of a novelty. If anything, it’s a chance to think about something other than the regular news.

The media tried to make the most of it.

“Yaron, you’re in Ramat Aviv, in one of Israel’s tallest buildings, right?” the radio announcer intoned in his most serious voice.


“How did it feel to be so high up.”

“Well, I only live on the third floor.”

“Oh…well you must be scared. Have you evacuated the building yet?”

“No, I’m talking to you from my living room.”


“We turn now to Assaf in the Emergency Room at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Assaf, are you seeing any injured, any people suffering from trauma?”

“No, not really.”

Click. Click.

My wife Jody and I have a very different relationship to earthquakes than the average Israeli. We both moved to Israel from California – the center of earthquake country. Coming to Israel was supposed to be a relief.

You see, growing up, earthquakes were our terror. We lived in dread, maybe not on the same level as we do now in Israel, but the worry was always there, underlying our daily concerns and activities. Still, it wasn’t until 1989 that we experienced The Big One. The Loma Prieta quake topped 7.1 and caused extensive damage: buildings were condemned, freeways needed to be torn down.

Jody and I were living in Berkeley at the time. On the day of the quake, we were supposed to get together with friends across the Bay in San Francisco. I planned to meet Jody there a little late since I was working and Jody had the day off.

When the earth started to move, I knew that Jody was probably already on her way. She should have been, by my calculations, about half way across the Bay Bridge. I headed out from the office, though I wasn’t even sure if the roads were going to be open. That’s when I heard the news: the center of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Cars had gone tumbling down, there were reports of deaths.

I was beside myself. What if Jody was crossing into the City at that exact moment? This was in the days before cell phones, so there was no way to be in contact. Not that the lines would have worked anyway.

I raced home. No Jody. I really started to panic now. Indeed, I had done a real number on myself and was convinced that my wife of only a little more than a year, the mother of my children-to-be, was gone.

For some reason, I decided to drive over to the synagogue. Maybe to look for consolation.

Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that the quake occurred during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot during which Jews are commanded to eat their meals in temporary outdoor "booths." We had planned on dining with our friends in San Francisco, but Jody decided she was too hungry and so she stopped by the shul’s sukka to wolf down a quick sandwich.

When I walked into the synagogue, there she was. A little shaken but with all her limbs intact. It was as poetic a reunion as you can imagine. To this day, I credit the Jewish calendar with delaying Jody’s journey onto the bridge just long enough to save her life.

While this morning’s earthquake in Israel was nowhere near as dramatic, the geologists warn us not to get too complacent. We’re due for a Big One of our own. The last major quake in Israel in 1927 registered a sizable 6.3 on the Richter scale and wiped out nearly the entire Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Safed in the northern Galilee.

It’s been several hours now since the quake and there have been no aftershocks to speak of. By tomorrow, it will be business as usual: the garbage men are threatening to join the strike that has paralyzed much of Israel, Jewish schools in Paris will be burned by new antisemites, and there will of course be more warnings of terror attacks.

But for a brief moment, an act of God - not men - took our minds off our more prosaic concerns. For that, I suppose, we ought to be thankful. Not enough to wish for more earthquakes. But enough to recognize the unique dynamic that is life in Israel.

Not to mention being reminded of the importance of the Jewish calendar!

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


I was holding the baby when we heard it.

Jody and I had been asked to be kvatterim at the brit mila (circumcision) ceremony for our friends Josh and Chaya’s new son The kvatter, a special honor given to friends or family during the brit, takes the baby from the mother and passes him to the father just prior to the main event.

“What was that?” Jody asked. We had both heard the boom from outside the synagogue. It was loud. And close.

“Probably just a garbage truck going over a pothole,” I responded, looking down at the baby who was still asleep, blissfully unaware of what was coming next – in the next few moments of his own life and in the world at large.

As the mohel prepared his knife, cell phones began to ring. Still, I didn’t think anything of it. This is Israel. The day the cell phones stop ringing is when I’ll get nervous.

The mohel readied his knife, the father cried out “Shema Yisrael,” the mother cringed, and two minutes later, the baby was sucking down a wine-soaked wad of gauze while we headed down to the dining hall. That’s when we really heard. A suicide bomber had exploded himself on a #19 bus no more than two blocks from where we were now piling egg salad and bagels onto our plates.

I looked around. All over the room, people were now speaking in hushed tones on their phones to their kids, their wives and husbands; making sure everyone was OK. The #19 bus is a popular route that runs right through the center of town. Whether deliberate or coincidental, the bomb exploded nearly in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. Only a block away from the Moment Café which had been blown to smithereens less than two years ago.

So what were we supposed to do now? Go on with the celebration? Eat the peanut butter-chocolate squares with happy abandon while five minutes away people were lying on the cold sidewalk bleeding and dying?

Josh, the new baby’s father, stood up to speak. Would he say something about what was going on outside? How couldn’t he? Instead, with a smile on his face, he launched into a seemingly obscure philosophical discussion on the nature and meaning of the circumcision ceremony.

“We all know that the brit mila is commanded to take place on the eighth day,” he said. “But what happens if it doesn’t? When should it happen?”

The answer seemed obvious. As soon as possible. And that indeed was one prominent rabbinical opinion. But it’s not what the Rambam, the great Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, had to say. Writing in the 12th Century, the Rambam felt that the brit simply needed to happen at some point before you die. Because the significance of the circumcision is merely as a stepping stone along the way from this life to the world to come.

This seemed all wrong. I’d always believed that brit mila was the first act of entering into a life-long covenant with the Jewish people, a covenant that was meant for living, not death. The Rambam’s view seemed almost like it would better used by the suicide bomber and his handlers to validate their sick beliefs.

We finished our bagels and wished Josh and Chaya well before heading home. We had to take the long route back to our apartment. The streets were clogged with cars all doing the same thing, as police directed traffic away from the scene of the attack.

As we drove, we briefly stopped next to a #19 bus. About half full, it was one of the Egged bus company’s shiny new bright green buses with enormous picture windows. I caught myself studying the passengers, wondering where they were going and what they must be feeling at this exact moment. As we passed it, I took note of the driver in his uniform, a very uncharacteristically Israeli suit and tie, and I managed a slight smile.

And then it occurred to me: if that bus had been running ahead of schedule, or if the bomber had been late getting out of the house that morning, this could have been the bus. All of these people would be dead, injured of traumatized for life.

That’s when I realized the meaning of the Rambam’s words. He wasn’t trivializing life but sanctifying it. Rambam’s approach actually emphasizes the importance of living every moment to its fullest, as if it may be your last. Because you never know when your number will be up.

I pray that the eight day old baby I held that morning, a baby who entered into the covenant at the earliest moment allowed by Jewish law, will live a long, peaceful and purposeful life. And I pray that the eleven beautiful souls who left us on that same day lived their lives full of joy and love and passion, never taking for granted a single precious moment.