Thursday, June 30, 2005

Summer Color Wars

“We’ve got a problem, boss.”

“What is it, my esteemed chief marketing guy?”

“It’s with our brand.”

“Our brand? What could be wrong with that? It’s incredibly simple, ultimately recognizable and licensed to companies around the world.”

“It’s been expropriated.”

“By who?”

“The Israelis.”

“That doesn’t sound like a problem...more visibility for us.”

“No, you don’t get it. It’s been adopted as the national identity for a particular group of Israelis...those opposing the country's upcoming disengagement-from-Gaza plan.”

“We’re not political. We’re just a cell phone operator.”

“I know that and you know that, but now anything Orange is being associated with anti-disengagement.”

“Can they do that? We’ve got a copyright on orange, don’t we?”

“I don’t think you can copyright a color, sir.”

“Tell me...what’s going on. Exactly.”

“Well, you can’t walk more than half a block without running into something orange. An orange ribbon tied around a car antenna or on a kid’s backpack. An orange headband on a little girl. There are orange flags and orange baseball caps.”

“Don’t go overboard here. Are you telling me that all these people are making a political statement?”

“It’s hard to tell, really. Some people might just like the color orange.”

“Right. I saw a man the other day wearing an orange t-shirt. He didn’t look like he was advertising an agenda.”

“But at the same time, there are stores now that have draped their windows in orange to pick up extra business. And I read an article about a woman who says she deliberately makes sure to wear something orange in her clothes every day. It’s getting so you don’t know if the security guard wearing an orange vest or that teenager bouncing an orange basketball is doing it intentionally or what. And don’t even get me started with the orange wristbands.”

“Like the yellow Lance Armstrong ones...that sounds, no, this is a public relations disaster!"

"It gets even worse. Now the Israeli political party Balad is threatening to sue the anti-Gaza protesters."

"Whatever for?"

"They claim that Balad has been using the color orange since 1999 in its election campaigns and now their 'freedom of speech and assembly' has been limited."

"Good there an alternative color to all this orange?”

“Yes, there’s blue.”

“Blue, that’s good. Blue and white – the colors of the Israeli flag. Patriotic and neutral.”

“Unfortunately not. Blue has become the group identity of anyone in favor of the disengagement plan. There are blue ribbons on all the cars and backpacks that don’t have orange ones."

"Anything else about blue I should know about?"

"Yes. It’s also the color of our biggest competitor – Pelephone.”

“Did they see this coming? Where are they getting their information? Is this another example of that Trojan horse spyware scandal?”

“It looks like a coincidence, sir.”

“Well, has anyone started to boycott our phone service?”

“No, that’s the thing. Right now, in Israel’s summer color wars, orange is the big winner.”

“We’re winning?”

“Well, the color is. There are twice as many orange ribbons and stickers and flags and headbands as blue ones. The blue ribbon people said it was because their manufacturer couldn’t produce ribbons fast enough at the price they wanted. But that sounds kind of like a lame excuse if you ask me.”

“So maybe we can turn this to our advantage! Sign up the anti-Gaza pullout supporters to only use our phone service.”

“Hmmm...that could work. And when the demonstrators block the highways with nails and oil like they did this week, they could throw a few of our Orange phones into the mix as well...”

“Don't you think that's being just a tad cynical?”

“...we just need to make sure that the Orange warranty doesn’t cover acts of civil we're not liable.”

"Come on, not everyone in orange is organizing mayhem on the streets. You're giving a black eye to their cause."

"Don't you mean an orange one?"

“I think we need a different plan.”

“I'm listening...”

“We need to disengage entirely...from this whole color war. There’s nothing holy about orange. We're just going to have to rebrand ourselves.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Green is nice.”

“No, that’s taken by the environmentalists. And also the right-wing Women in Green.”

“Both of them? How about red?”

“Some rabbis say only prostitutes wear that color. We’d be limiting our market.”


“Jerusalem Post columnist Saul Singer already suggested that as a blending between orange and blue.”

“Orange and blue don’t make purple...oh, never mind, we’ll do our own mix then – a rainbow.”

“Then we’d be banned from heard about the whole business with the mayor and the parade, didn’t you...”

“Fine, fine! Then no color at all. Black.”

“That’s the ultra-orthodox.”

“Is there any color in this crazy country that’s not political?”

“Gray hasn’t been used by anyone.”

“Kind of dull isn’t it?”

“In a summer of color wars, dull might be just what we need.”

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Queen Jeneane

Queen Jeneane was sitting on the newly constructed deck to her beach house barking directions to her son who was puttering about down on the sand.

“Move it over there,” she called out. “A little to the right. No, bring it back a bit. Yes, there, that’s it”

Her son, a burly shipputznik-looking kind of guy, was lugging what looked at first to be a large red porta-potty, trying to find a suitable place to settle it into the blowing sand that stretches for miles on this mostly pristine beach.

When she saw us, Queen Jeneane immediately broke into an ear-to-ear welcoming grin. “Come, sit down please,” she beckoned.

As we approached, her appearance was incongruous to say the least. She was wearing a frumpy flowered house dress (or maybe it was a night gown). Her face was so tanned and cracked from age it looked as if chunks were doing to fall off at any moment. An aging beach bum, she was. Yet her hair was tightly bound up in the head covering of a very religious woman.

And her home...she had taken what started as an ugly stucco pre-fab, not much more than a mobile caravan plunked down within a stone’s throw of the water, and renovated it to hold its own with the best of beach houses around.

Two small bedrooms, a clean white kitchen and a living room that opened like a giant picture window onto the deck facing the beach. A lovely red pergola, the paint only recently dried, covered the comfortable lawn furniture where Queen Jeneane hastened to serve us ice tea and Mandelbrot punctuated with fruit and nuts.

As we soaked up the sun and hospitality, we could have been at any beach town in the world. But we weren’t. This was Shirat HaYam, literally “Song of the Sea” (taken from the book of Exodus), a tiny outpost in Gush Katif, the area in the Gaza Strip slated for disengagement in less than two months from now.

Shirat HaYam was established four and a half years ago following a terror attack on a school bus near Neve Dekalim in the Gush that had claimed the lives of two Israeli adults and left several children paraplegic. 16 families live in a row of converted quarters formerly used by the Egyptian army.

What was I doing in Gaza, let alone in one of the most controversial Jewish communities in the entire Strip?

It started earlier in the week when my new reporter friend from the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to join him on a day of interviews he’d arranged. We were going to meet “normal” people he said - just like me - who happened to be living in a location even more in the news these days than my humble Jerusalem. We’d be accompanied by a photographer and translator. All that sounded good to me.

There was more to it than that, though. It had long struck me as odd that for all the time I’ve spent thinking and talking about this summer’s disengagement from Gaza, trying to formulate an opinion...I had never actually been to the place.

I did a quick poll of friends in synagogue over the weekend. Not a single person I asked had ever set foot inside Gush Katif, the main settlement block of the Gaza Strip. My survey, though far from scientific, included both relatively new immigrants like myself and native born Israelis.

So when the opportunity arose for a quick apolitical visit not under the auspices of an organization with an overt agenda like, how could I say no?

The visit itself was filled with contradictory images.

We saw lovely near-palatial homes with large lawns which sat only a few blocks from dilapidated buildings that looked like they’d been abandoned long ago...or perhaps they’d never been lived in at all.

We met adamant ideologues who were clearly going nowhere, no matter what the government said, and pragmatists who were ready to leave but with a heavy heart.

One woman told us how the boys of her community would fight the disengagement by heading into the local synagogue, donning their tallitot, and taking the Torah out of the ark to read. How could soldiers forcibly remove Jews from a synagogue holding a Torah, she asked?

We saw the famed Gush Katif hothouses that grow much of Israel’s produce, clean well-tended playgrounds, and lots and lots of sand – yes, the communities here really are built in the dunes.

Back at Shirat HaYam, Queen Jeneane was holding court. She explained how she was here alone; her husband is still manning the farm they own in the Golan Heights.

“We came to show our support,” she said and motioned for a young girl in her late teens, maybe early twenties to join us. “She arrived just last week from the Old City of Jerusalem.” There were many others like her from around the country throughout the Gush, she said cheerfully.

What about the disengagement? Why was she investing money, now of all times, into fixing up a place she knew she’d just have to leave very shortly?

Queen Jeneane motioned to the heavens and held up her palms. I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a symbol of faith...or an expression saying “don’t bother me with the details, kid, I’m busy building.”

Nor could I say definitively that this was indicative of the opinions of the rest of the community...or just one woman’s approach. Ever animated, it was hard to imagine Queen Jeneane being described as one of the “normal” residents we had ostensibly set out to meet.

Eventually it was time to go. We still had another meeting before making the two-hour trip back to Jerusalem. And I wasn’t keen on being out in Gaza after nightfall.

My reporter friend had one last question. It was one he’d repeated over the course of our long day.

“How can you justify staying here?” he asked gesturing towards the sprawling Palestinian town on the other side of the chain link fence that was built to protect Shirat HaYam. The intonation in his voice made clear that he was referring less to the issue of security than that of democracy and demographics.

Queen Jeneane chuckled. “What we need here is a kingdom. Like in the old days. A Kingdom of Israel.”

We all looked at each other. Was she cooking up a plan to become Israel’s first Empress of the Sea, I wondered?

“Oh no,” Queen Jeneane said with a twinkle in her eye. “But I know a lot of nice boys who’d love to be king!”

Sunday, June 12, 2005

More Cheese Please

“What are we going to do today?” six-year-old Aviv demanded as he shoveled in his tenth spoonful of cornflakes in as many seconds.

It was shortly before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot last year and the kids were off school. Then ten-year-old Merav and twelve-year-old Amir were now looking up from their breakfasts as well, waiting for my pronouncement.

But I was ready. I had concocted the perfect plan.

Now, one of the traditions of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. So I declared in as animated a way as I could: “We’re going to a cheese farm!”

“A what?” asked Amir with more than a hint of cynicism.

“I read about it in the paper. There’s an organic goat farm that sells these incredible cheeses. It’s only a few minutes outside the city. Wouldn’t that just be perfect?

But to my surprise, the kids were into it. I should have known; they like just about anything that has to do with eating.

So later that morning, we took off for the Har HaRuach Goat Farm in the hills just outside the village of Nataf, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem.

Har HaRuach is run by Haim and Dalia Himelfarb who studied cheese making at Israel’s Rupin Institute. The farm is an ecological project and the goats are left to graze in a natural meadow year-round. Even the milking is done in a highly goat-friendly way.

The newspaper article said that the road “is a bit rough” in spots. That was the understatement of the year. Rocks the size and shape of small fax machines were strewn all along the road.

But the payoff was worth it. There at the top of the hill was a charming dining room…and a take-out window. We had our choice. I opted for the latter, in no small part because I found the idea of a take-out window in the middle of the woods so utterly incongruous and amusing. Add a drive through window and I’d be set for life.

Dalia was manning the counter and insisted that we try a taste of all of the cheeses, plus the yoghurt made from that morning’s 4:00 AM milking and some sweet and spicy goat-cheese pesto. We nearly filled up just on the sampling.

But it was smart marketing: we wound up ordering four containers: a smoky-hard goat-cheese camembert; a semi-soft local creation called “Itla,” spreadable lebana drizzled with olive oil and zatar; and a cheese named after the nearby village of Nataf which had large chunks of raw garlic inserted throughout.

We had thought ahead and brought our own fresh pitas which fortunately didn’t bother Dalia. The bill came to NIS 73, just over $16.

Picnic benches were scattered throughout the pines just below the restaurant. Amir, who had been skeptical throughout (“I don’t really like goat cheese,” he confided quietly just before we arrived) took one bite of the garlic-infused Nataf and was in hog heaven. So to speak.

Aviv favored the lebana while Jody and Merav went for the Itla. I was the sole fan of the camembert. Their loss.

As we soaked up the cheese on a perfect spring day, our conversation turned to the upcoming holiday. Shavuot symbolically marks the day the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt.

“So, does anyone know where the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot comes from?” I asked.

Blank stares.

“Um…I think it had something to do with when they left Egypt, they didn’t have enough time to take any meat...” Merav ventured a guess.

“That was the matza,” Amir corrected her.

“Maybe they didn’t have meat plates?” I joked.

“They didn’t use dishes,” Amir and Merav both shot back in unison and then dipped their pita into their cheeses to drive home the point.

All the joking, however, didn’t diminish the fact that here we were, chowing down on some delectable dairy products...and we hadn’t the foggiest idea why. It was terribly embarrassing.

Before I could chastise our lameness, a faint sound of tinkling interrupted. The goats were returning from the pasture in time for their 3:00 PM milking.

Talk about saved by the bell.

We packed up our cheese and went to watch before tackling the bumpy ride home.

All the way back, though, the question of “Why Dairy?” kept eating at me. I proposed a contest. We have several computers at home. We would divide into teams and scour the Internet. Whoever came up with the best explanation would get to finish off the remains of the cheese at dinner.

Amir and I headed for the computer upstairs. Merav and Jody took control of the downstairs machine. We came back together and shared the results of our research.

From Team Merav:
Shavuot was when the Jews accepted the Torah which means it’s also when we learned about separating milk and meat and the various laws governing animal slaughter. Before that, what else could we eat but dairy? OK, but that sounded a little too much like my joke about the dishes!

Israel is known as the land of milk and honey. But then why don’t we eat honey cake on Shavout instead of cheesecake and blintzes?

From Team Amir:
The gematria (the practice where each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value) of chalav – the Hebrew for milk – is 40, the same number of days that Moses was up on Mount Sinai. Maybe, but a whole holiday based on what essentially comes down to an ancient magician’s card trick?

Receiving the Torah was a form of rebirth. So we celebrate by eating baby food. Namely: milk.

Even Amir shook his head at that one.

Finally, it was Jody who found what we all agreed was the most acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, explanation.

According to the mystical book of the Zohar, for the 49 days of the Omer period – the amount of time between Passover (leaving Egypt) and Shavuot (receiving the Torah), the Jews needed to be in as pure a state as possible. Abstaining from eating meat, which is inextricably connected with death, facilitates such purity.

“But wait a minute,” I said. “If Shavuot is supposed to be the night we got the Torah, then we should be celebrating by eating meat. The 49 days of purification are over. Time to break this flesh fast. Let the party begin!”

“Meat, meat, meat,” the two older kids began to chant and we all burst out laughing.

Except for Jody who turned to us and, with a single withering look that encapsulated exactly why it is so difficult to change 3000 years of tradition, said simply:

“So, what am I supposed to do with all that lasagna?”

To reach the Har HaRuach Goat Farm, drive out of Jerusalem, exit at Abu Ghosh and follow the signs to Nataf. Turn left when you see the sign for Ya’ar Polin (which memorializes Polish victims of the Holocaust) and follow the (very) bumpy dirt road uphill until you hear the goats. The cheeses have a kashrut certificate; the restaurant does not. You can eat on the picnic benches adjacent to the farm or continue further up the road to the scenic look out point which also includes a children’s playground.

Himmelfarb Farm at Har HaRuach: +972-2-534-5660. Fax +972-2-570-9312

Thursday, June 02, 2005

This Normal Poetry

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle. He was in town for a few months to try to get the “real story” behind the headlines. He’s been a regular reader of this column and figured I might be able to share some insights.

Besides which, he offered to take me out to lunch, his treat. We went to Olive and I ordered this chicken dish in a mango-pineapple-coconut sauce which was to die for. I can talk for hours if you give me a good meal.

“So what do you do on an ordinary day?” the reporter asked me.

“Well....I get up in the morning, help get the kids off to school, make lunches and that sort of thing,” I started. Then I usually go for a run and work out. Shower. Eat breakfast. Then I go to work.”

“OK,” the reporter said, looking a bit befuddled though, at this point in the conversation, I didn’t know why. “And what do you do at work?”

“I’m a writer, you know that, so I guess I spend most of my day in front of the computer...writing, using the Internet, sending emails. When I need to conduct an interview with someone in the States for an article, I do it via my broadband Vonage phone that gives me a phone number in New York that rings through to here. No one has a clue where I’m really located!” I laughed.

“Uh huh,” said the reporter, now looking more crestfallen than bemused.

“And then around 6:30, maybe 7:00 PM, I try to stop work,” I continued cheerfully, “have dinner with the family. Get the kids ready for bed. Maybe watch some TV. Every so often Jody and I will go out to eat with friends or catch a movie.”

The reporter stopped me. “What you’re describing sounds just like a suburban San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it does.”

“So why are you here?”

I stared at him blankly. For a moment, I was speechless, despite the mango-coconut chicken.

The truth is, I didn’t have a good answer. Because if that’s all we’ve done, built a normal life, one that could exist anywhere, then why not do it in Walnut Creek or Danville? Why put up with all of the difficulties of Israel…the outrageous taxes. The rotten public services. The insane driving. The diminished job possibilities.

Is all that tsuris worth it, if all we’re getting is a normal life?

OK, that’s not fair. We have a rich Jewish life that you’d be hard put to duplicate anywhere else. But there are big cities outside of Israel where life is easier than in the Holy Land, still Jewishly-rich, and nearly as normal.

I found myself trying to fashion an answer in my mind to this reporter of what a supposedly super-normal life in Israel would look like.

If I walked to the Kotel every day for sunrise prayers, would that qualify for beyond-ordinary status?

If I demonstrated in front of the Knesset in order to influence the only Jewish State in the world on issues of social justice, would that constitute a life lived purposefully?

Maybe I should be flying one of those orange-starred anti-disengagement flags on my car window…or sporting an opposing bumper sticker in favor? Would an overtly political statement add more meaning than religiously watching 24 and Star Trek: Enterprise?

My dilemma reminded me of the time, several years ago, when we were coming back from a summer in California and I found myself not only able to imagine what it would be like to live there...but surprisingly intrigued.

But this was different. Then it was about wanting a lifestyle I didn’t have here. This time, I’ve discovered I already have the lifestyle...and am wondering what’s it all for?

Finally, I gave the reporter the only answer I could. One that seemed true enough.

I moved to Israel because I always felt like an outsider in the U.S. Because the calendar and the holidays and the passions that most captivated me didn’t match the calendar and holidays and passions that the rest of the country was operating on. In Israel, I said, I feel part of society. I’m on the inside.

“So you have a lot of Israeli friends?” the reporter asked. “You go to local theater performances and lectures?”

“Actually, no...” I said, more to my napkin than to the reporter.

What was this, an interview or a therapy session?

Later that day, as I was describing the interview to my wife Jody, it struck me that I’m just as much an outsider in this country as I was in the old one. There, the calendar was out of synch. But here, a combination of being an immigrant and suffering from perpetually poor language skills have kept me from fully engaging in all that society offers.

In the midst of what was shaping up to be a mid-life, mid-aliyah crisis, I found myself asking a not insignificant question: which is the bigger trade off? Where would I rather be an outsider?

As if to answer my unspoken question, eleven-year-old Merav announced that she had written a poem for a school assignment. She had never written a poem before. She stood up and with a dramatic flourish began to read.

I don’t know if it was just that I didn’t understand the Hebrew, but the language sounded sophisticated, mellifluous even. Putting aside my obvious bias and pride in my daughter’s first attempts at creative writing, the words were certainly well beyond the simple ones that I know from the local makolet. It even rhymed!

Whether or not we have the next Yehuda Amichai in house remains to be seen. But what was even more important to me were the insights – her poem was a first person monologue about what it’s like to be an eleven-year-old in Israel. The fact that she was able to express in writing so many of her fears and joys, concisely and with feeling, filled me with unbridled nachas.

I praised her as much as I could without sounding like a fake, which I certainly was not.

An hour later, she had written three more. And it occurred to me that she was teaching me something about the true nature of the word “insight.” Insight is the ability to communicate a personal perspective from deep within. I may be forced into the role of frustrated outsider wherever it is I seem to go, but my Israeli-raised daughter is unquestionably an insider.

Is that what it’s all about, then? The immigrant parents move to a new land and sacrifice so their children can feel they’re a part of something, that they belong?

No, that’s not it, not entirely at least. But it’s a good start.