Friday, April 22, 2005

The Magic of Pesach

Pesach is probably the most magical of Jewish holidays. And that really bugs the heck out of me!

Before we go any further: here’s a spoiler alert: just like in a movie review, if you don’t want to know too much about the way I really think about some of the more obscure Pesach traditions, stop reading right here.

For those of you still with me, OK, first of all, what do I mean by magical? I’m not talking about the warm fuzzy feeling you get when the family is all assembled and someone inevitably blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

No, I’m talking about doing things that just don’t make sense.

I was raised in a Jewish home that worshiped at the temple of science. And although much has changed for me since those days (clearly, Israel wasn’t on the agenda growing up...more about that another time), many of my core values have remained, paramount of those being: if you can’t explain it logically, then don’t do it.

I have no problem with the main objective of Pesach. It says it clearly enough in the Torah: you shall not eat any of that there leavened bread for the week (loosely paraphrased I admit).

And clearing out the hametz, the formerly 100% kosher pitas, rolls and bagels that become off limits once the holiday begins, can be given a nice philosophical spin. For example, the physical labor of removing hametz is like cleaning up our souls, taking stock of where we stand as Jews and human beings.

And some of the customs can be loads of fun for both kids and adults alike. In our house ,the highlight of all the preparation for Pesach is the night before Seder when we hide small pieces of bread around the house and the kids search them out with a feather and a flame. Then we reverse and the kids hide and the parents go looking under pillows and behind books.

It’s maybe the world’s first institutionalized game of hide and seek...with a nice educational bent.

The stories we retell from the Haggada are timeless and never fail to engender new insights. The Jewish people’s slow descent into slavery and eventual emergence from Egypt to freedom is just as relevant today as it was then. The commandment to see yourself as if you were actually there in Egypt is sublimely powerful.

But then there’s the magic.

Every year, I have to gather up all the silverware in the house and trudge over to the local mikve where two young men stand over an enormous cauldron of boiling water. I hand them the silverware and they dunk it in the water. And then – magic! – the silverware is suddenly kosher for Pesach. I get to pay a pretty penny for the privilege, too.

But what happened there, that’s what I want to know? Scientifically, I mean. Did the molecules of hametz embedded in our every day knives and forks and spoons somehow re-fuse into another metal with entirely different physical properties?

Is their some hidden chemical process going on that only the sages of long ago knew about but that modern research has failed to detect? Last I checked, most of us were still ordinary Muggles and alchemy is on the curriculum at Hogwarts not Harvard.

Same with the whole business regarding glassware. Apparently, if we soak our glasses in water for three days, changing the liquid every 24 hours, suddenly the glasses are no longer hametzadik but kosher for the holiday? What’s up with that?

I put the glasses in, I take them out. Same glasses, guys!

I sometimes think that if an alien from outer space were to look at Jewish customs this time of year, he’d shake his three heads in disbelief and tell his commanders that this part of space would be a fine place to build a hyperspatial expressway.

So given all my griping, you might ask: why do I still do it? I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve received some divine wisdom and now pouring scalding water over our kitchen countertops suddenly makes sense. Or that there’s a logical reason why we can’t just use the same old dishes after a couple of hot rinses in the dishwasher.

Some would say I need more faith. But I’m fine with the vast majority of Jewish tradition. For me, the real reason is much more prosaic. This is what you do in the community I live in, and I’m not ready – nor interested – in separating myself over a relatively minor matter of some occasional magic.

Hypocritical? Not really. I don’t "believe" in paying a marginal income tax rate of over 60% either but that’s what you do if you want to live in Israel. There are plenty of other things I find wacky in religion and life that alternatively amuse or annoy me. It’s part of a bigger package which I rather enjoy.

So I put up with a little magic. Because as the Pesach Seder starts, it’s often times me who blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

May you have a happy and kosher Passover!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Three Minutes

I admit it: I’m a bit obsessive compulsive. No surprise to regular readers of this column.

When I set out to make a purchase – whether it’s a new piece of computer equipment or a vacation – I more often than not spend days doing research on the Internet, talking to anyone and everyone I can find. After I make a decision, I may change my mind. After I make the purchase, I’ll probably regret at least some part of it.

So when we were invited to a bar mitzvah in the town of Efrat, just south of Jerusalem in Gush Etzion, I knew I was about to start obsessing. But it wasn’t about what to get the bar mitzvah boy? Rather it was: how were we going to get there?

We used to visit our friends in Efrat all the time. But that was before September 2000. At first, everyone freaked out. Rocks were hurled at buses on and near the Tunnel Road; shots were fired regularly.

Egged outfitted its buses on that route with bullet special reinforced windows, families stopped traveling together in the same vehicle, and many of our friends who made the commute regularly actually began wearing bullet proof vests.

Then things quieted down. In truth, there’s been nary an incident on the Jerusalem-Efrat road for most of the past four years. Bus patronage slacked off as our friends all went back to their cars, even without the bullet proof vests. But that doesn’t mean something couldn’t still happen. Tomorrow. To us.

When we first invited to the bar mitzvah, I immediately said “let’s take the bus.” That had to be the safest alternative. But it was expensive. And so inconvenient.

“What’s more inconvenient, taking the bus or being dead?” Jody asked in a not-so-flippant way.

“But something could happen to the bus too,” I countered, playing devil’s advocate and contradicting my initial position. There was at least one deadly attack where a roadside bomb detonated under the bus; when the passengers rushed out to safety, terrorists were waiting and began to gun them down.

Then there was a plot that fortunately was uncovered before anything happened where terrorists armed with bomb belts planned to hijack a bus to Bethlehem. But that couldn’t happen on this line...half the passengers are soldiers or otherwise heavily armed.

“You’re driving me crazy,” Jody said. “It’s really six of one, half dozen of the other. Let’s just make a decision and do it.”

But by Friday morning, the day we were supposed to head out, I hadn’t gotten any closer. I had already searched the Internet to see if there had been any increase in terrorist activity on that highway in the past few days. There hadn’t.

I started grilling friends.

“Car for sure,” answered one person.

“Yes, the car,” said a second. “We do it all the time.”

I called up a friend in Efrat who was notably me. I knew she used to wear a bullet proof vest when she drove in her private car.

“Take the bus,” she said.

“ don’t.”

“It all depends on what you have to do. We have friends in Ofra,” she said referring to another settlement north of Ramallah, “and I wouldn’t dream of driving there. But they do all the time and don’t think twice.”

I went out for a run. Maybe that would clear my head. But all I could think about was what’s the point of staying in shape if life is so tenuous?

It’s not easy being me...

On the way back I ran into my neighbor Marc. I posed my usual question.

“What’s the problem?” he chided. “We just drove out to Efrat with the whole family last Friday.” Then he added: “But I certainly wouldn’t drive home at night.”

That was the key. That small bit of extra information was enough to tip my thinking and allow me to make the mental shift. We would drive.

Just not at night.

I called my friend in Efrat. “We’re driving!” I said with a triumphant lilt to my voice.

“I think all of the attacks in our area have actually been during the day,” she said.

“I don’t want to hear it. Children, let’s go.”

We piled into the car and headed out. Before we knew it we were on the Tunnel Road. Large concrete walls had been built to shield it from bullets and stones.

As we arrived at the army checkpoint, one of the kids asked, “Abba...have we passed the place where they throw stones?”

I paused. Then responded honestly: “No, we’re actually entering it right now.” I had told them about rocks but had kept the stories about gunfire to myself. A responsible parent practices selective disinformation.

I checked my watch. It was 4:18 PM when we passed the checkpoint. As we pulled into the entrance of Efrat, I turned to Jody. “Do you remember if I put on deodorant today after my shower?” I asked. I was all wet. We passed the settlement’s security fence.

My watch read 4:21 PM.

Three minutes! That was it. Three minutes of dangerous road. That was what all this obsessing was about? And yet, I thought again, it only takes three seconds to...

We unpacked and got ready for Shabbat. The bar mitzvah boy acquitted himself superbly and we had a very relaxing time. On Saturday night, we hung out with friends while the kids all watched a video together.

“So,” the bar mitzvah boy’s father said as we were getting ready to head back home on Sunday morning. “Do you think you’d be willing to come and visit us even if it’s not a bar mitzvah?”

“Hmm...” I thought. It was such a short trip and I felt foolish for all my procrastinations and posturing.

“You know what,” I said. “I think we just might.”

I’m not promising I won’t obsess about it all over again. But in three minutes, it seems, we’d come a long way.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

No News is the Best News

Merav is out of the hospital and feeling a bit better. That should be cause for celebration. So why do I feel so confused?

These past weeks – how many has it been, six already? – have been pure hell. For us and for our extended families. Eleven-year-old Merav has probably been the least affected. She had the good sense not to dive into the endless “what’s causing it” debate that has been the organizing topic of every phone call and conversation we’ve had.

And that’s the thing: six weeks later, we still don’t know what caused Merav to get so sick she was admitted to Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center for a week and to be out of school for much longer. She was tested for everything under the sun, and just about everything was ruled out, from hepatitis to parasites to gall stones and liver disease.

Our doctor says the jury is still out. Could be something chronic...or a rare virus that modern medicine just doesn’t know how to identify yet. Time will tell.

Or it may not.

As we’ve hovered in this seemingly perpetual limbo-land, one thing is for sure: we learned a lot about the Israeli medical system...and about how people relate to illness.

Dr. F., who took on Merav’s case as a personal challenge and at one point even convened a brainstorming session of 15 of the top pediatric specialists in Jerusalem, is notoriously non-invasive. His medical philosophy is to strive at all costs to avoid doing tests that could have complications, even if it means waiting it out for weeks with only slight day-to-day improvement.

Family and friends were less patient. Why hasn’t she had a CT scan, they asked? An Upper GI? Liver biopsy? Colonoscopy? All of these would have given us valuable data about possible chronic inflammatory disease that might be the root of Merav’s illness. But each has its risks.

CT scans involve a strong dose of radiation at a time when a young girl’s body is at a critical state of internal development. Liver biopsy can lead to infection or bleeding. Colonoscopy, well, that’s just plain nasty.

Add to that the fact that Merav does not deal well with invasive procedures in the first place. Just getting blood taken was traumatic. And it had to be done daily when she was in the hospital.

On one of her first blood taking expeditions, a particularly inept nurse must have poked her in half a dozen spots before finally having to get blood out from near her femur.

Next time out, it took a full hour of cajoling plus liberal application of Emla, a topical anesthetic, to get the job done.

Blood became our new language. One thing that just about anyone who enters the medical system can tell you is that you become intimately familiar with a wide range of information you never before knew a thing about...and will probably (hopefully) completely forget in a few month’s time.

I can recite the key indicators from Merav’s blood results by heart: Bilirubin down from 4.6 to 0.9. CRP up to 13.8, but dropping steadily to 8.9, then 3.2 and now 1.0. ALP, AST and GGT still high but falling too.

Despite her aversion to blood tests, we couldn’t help wondering: was biding our time being medically prudent...or ultimately irresponsible? Like everything having to do with parenting, it’s a fine balancing act.

Indeed, when Merav was at her sickest, Jody and I found ourselves going against our doctor’s advice, lobbying for taking a more invasive route. It’s natural, I suppose: there is probably nothing worse than seeing your child in pain, especially pain that lasts for weeks unabated. The knee-jerk response is to do something, anything.

But what if it turned out to be just a virus that needed an inordinate amount of time to pass? Or, given that we still didn’t know which haystack we were looking in - let alone which needle - we wound up ordering the wrong tests? What would be the ramifications of that misjudgment?

We tend to place our physicians on all-knowing pedestals. But as one friend said to Jody, “With all of the diseases out there, I’m amazed when they actually do know what’s going on.”

Merav still suffers from stomach cramps, though the pain is definitely down, her energy is up, and - most important - that plucky, playful attitude and presence that we missed so much around the house these past weeks is back for at least several hours a day.

Now that she’s home from the hospital and stable, we’re even starting to think about more mundane things, like getting her back to school.

“Not yet,” Dr. F. told us during an outpatient visit to his pediatric clinic as we reviewed her latest blood numbers. “She’ll let you know when she’s ready.”

Typical of his non-invasive approach. Merav liked that answer and gave him a slight smile.

And so we continue to wait and see. Because in our case, despite the constant chorus of concerned voices demanding a diagnosis, the truth is: no news really would be the best news.