Sunday, December 29, 2002

Nation Under Construction

On Sunday morning, the new Trans-Israel Highway became Israel’s first and only toll road. But for the past few months, I, along with 50,000 other drivers, have been riding the road also known as Highway 6 for free and it’s been quite a thrill: wide open vistas; fresh concrete as yet unblemished by the mangling of a million tailgating trucks; that special status of being one of the first to do something new in our small country.

Now, I shouldn’t exaggerate: as adventures go it's still a very small one, and the highway itself is very much a work in progress: traffic on the segment from the Ben Shemen interchange with the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway to Nachshonim (near Petah Tikva) only flows in one direction: North. Everyone else has to crawl on the chronically under-construction Highway 444 with its notorious curves and potholes.

Some of you are probably thinking: Big deal. It’s just a road. It goes from here to there. End of story. But it’s more than that.

Despite the economic downturn and the war and all of our other maladies and discomforts, this country has somehow been able to mount massive public works projects in every which direction. Indeed, Israel these days feels like one giant construction pit.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway alone passes no fewer than four major building projects: the interchange with the Trans-Israel Highway to start; the new entrance to the city of Jerusalem which will straighten the treacherous Motza curve before linking up with the Begin Highway near Ramot; the extension of the train from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport, which has required an entire highway to be moved to the left to accommodate an underground rail tunnel; and of course the massive new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport, dubbed Ben Gurion 2000, although clearly by a cursory look at the calendar, they’re running just a tad late.

Here’s a confession. It’s totally politically incorrect, I know. But I love construction. I love the process of building something from nothing, of transforming a landscape from one mode to another. Sure, I should be standing up and defending the land, demonstrating against the defamation of the countryside, the destruction of vital resources and open space, and the Trans-Israel Highway in particular which, it is said, will lead to unnecessary suburban sprawl and contamination of coastal aquifer.

But, I can’t help it. I’ve always been like this.

Growing up, I remember when the then-new Interstate 280 was being built just around the corner from my house on the San Francisco Peninsula. It obliterated an older road that had leisurely wound past several small storefronts, a horse stable or two. I remember the bulldozers, the new on and off-ramps slowly snaking towards us, and the great green exit signs going up. It was thrilling.

Despite the exhiliration, I never felt any real ownership over that Insterstate. In Israel, though, connection with the land is an integral part of the national ethos. That’s my lamppost, my traffic circle, my security checkpoint, my big pile of mud.

But there’s another element to the connection. It’s what all the construction going on says about where we’ve come to as a country. We’re no longer building the infrastructure of the state. The initial roads and buildings and institutions have been laid down. We have reached the stage of adding to the base, improving on what we started with.

You see, it’s already possible to drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Now we’re widening the road and taking out the dangerous curves. We can take the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv today. Now let’s make it better and extend it to the new and improved airport.

This is more than a state of construction; it’s a state of mind:

We have the shops; now we have to improve customer service.

We have the synagogues and the mikves and the religious courts; now let’s bring them more in touch with 21st Century reality while promoting respect for tradition without coercion.

We have the Jews; now’s the time to move past the surly sabra exterior and fully actualize that compassionate core we all know is lurking somewhere inside.

And perhaps most important: we have a state; now we have to strengthen it, make it more secure, reform our political system, weed out corruption, and grant respect and freedom for all citizens as well as those under our protection and care.

Many years ago, before I had ever visited Israel, I imagined a land filled with sand dunes and shantytowns, a struggling third world nation. I’m sure there are some, despite the images they see on television and the Internet, who still think this way. How wrong I was and they still are.

We are a thoroughly modern nation at our most crucial juncture, the point where we grow from simple survival to maturity and confidence. Despite everything going on, there is no more exciting and worthwhile time to be here.

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Thursday, December 26, 2002

The Great Mikve Revolt

On Saturday night, I got a chance to peer into that inner sanctum of religious Jewish womanhood: the mikve. No, I wasn’t playing Peeping Tom. I went to the movies.

Filmmaker Anat Zuria recently completed a fascinating, informative but decidedly downbeat documentary on mikve in Israel called “Tahora” (“Purity” in English). Funded in part by the New Foundation for Cinema and TV and originally shown three months ago on Israel’s Channel 8, “Tahora” had its theatrical premiere several weeks ago at the Jerusalem Cinemateque. A subsequent article about it in the Jerusalem Post led to a flurry of defensive pro-mikve letters to the editor.

This past Motzei Shabbat, the film was shown again at the Kehillat Moreshet Avraham synagogue in East Talpiot to a packed and curious house of mostly English speakers.

A quick backgrounder for the uninitiated. Traditional Jewish couples do not touch at all when the woman is menstruating. At the end of the woman’s period, an additional seven days is tacked on. This 12-14 day period is known as nidda. It culminates with a trip to the mikve, a small indoor pool where the woman dunks three times and is pronounced “kosher,” ready to return to her husband.

“Tahora” focuses on three women (four actually, if you include the ever-present voice of the director) who each have their own intimate struggles concerning their relationships to the mikve.

Natalie is going through a process of questioning much of her traditional upbringing following a painful divorce. For her, mikve has become a symbol of unbending Rabbinical authority over her personal and private status.

Shira is engaged to be married and receives her first lessons in “Taharat Mishpacha” (Family Purity) from her overly enthusiastic mother; Shira’s reactions range from detached bemusement to outright disgust.

Katie, the only “Anglo” interviewed, has no problem with the mikve per se, but her menstrual cycle, along with intermittent"spotting," is such that her strict adherence to the laws of Taharat Mishpacha leave her with virtually no days to be with her husband physically. In one scene with her doctor, she even considers taking the radical step of a hysterectomy to get around the problem. In another, she visits Shani, a sensitive Jewish Law consultant who calmly advises her to wear colored underwear as a possible solution.

“Tahora” explores these issues and others thoroughly, with both discretion and candor. However, there is clearly an agenda. The director herself said as much when the film premiered. “I did not believe that I was unclean during my period and did not believe that I was pure when I left the heavily chlorinated mikve.”

After the movie, Jody and I reviewed our own 14 years of mikve observance which, in contrast to what we have just watched on screen, has been almost entirely positive.

Maybe it’s the immigrant experience again.

Jody’s first mikve, and our first six years of regular monthly visitations (minus pregnancy and nursing), was in a small redwood house, really more of a cabin, set in a secluded grove of trees in Berkeley. There was a tastefully appointed waiting room, decorative tiles throughout, and plenty of privacy. This I know because Berkeley, being a small Jewish community, it was also the mikve for dunking dishes and men.

The mikve shown in the film, on the other hand, is our local Baka watering hole. Old and colorless, with exposed pipes, peeling paint and a cold concrete waiting room, Jody went there only once before deciding it was far too dreary. Now she uses the mikve in nearby Katamon, which is more reminiscent of our Berkeley days, albeit in a functional sort of way.

In Berkeley, too, Jody was called upon to serve as a mikve attendant, the woman who checks the other women and makes sure their nails are clean, their backs are free from stray hairs, and there’s not a spec of make-up remaining.

Jody always loved these responsibilities. She created a sense of camaraderie between the women who ran into each other in the waiting room. Done with care, under the tutelage of the right attendant, mikve can be like a secret club where the members all have very special and pleasurable roles to fulfill once they leave.

In the movie, by contrast, the mikve attendant is coarse and perfunctory, and the woman being checked stands naked before the attendant, scowling throughout the process. Indeed, no one smiles throughout “Tahora.” A trip to the Berkeley hills would definitely be in order.

There is more to mikve than just the physical facilities, of course, and the plight of Katie is particularly poignant as she has been trapped by a Rabbinically-added “fence around the Torah” – the seven day waiting period – which was not part of the original laws from the book of Leviticus itself. And, as Katie comments in the film, “Seven days is no small number.”

The Rabbis defined numerous other laws pertaining to mikve and Taharat Mishpacha, many on the draconian side, so much so that the Rabbanut requires brides-to-be to attend a course in the ins and outs of, well, not going in and out.

When I was first studying all of this 17 years ago, the prohibition that always stood out for me was that somewhere it says that a man and woman in nidda cannot even pass a baby between them, lest a stray touch lead to untoward behavior. To this day, I have yet to fathom how such a couple gets a crying child from one parent to the other. Do they place the infant on the cold floor first?

Other laws that the film presented as particularly restrictive include the fact that a couple may not touch from the moment the woman goes into labor until many weeks later, when the bleeding has stopped.

Perhaps it was these rulings that led to the great mikve revolt in Egypt, which was put down by none other than the Rambam, Maimonedes, himself, who ruled that a rebellious woman who refuses sexual relations with her husband loses her financial rights and can be divorced, a ruling that stands to this day. While the revolt is well documented, the reasons the women rebelled are not. Could it be that the theory and beauty of mikve has gotten out of sync with its practice?

I don’t know what we would do if we were in Katie’s position. Our circumstances are not as dire and we find the monthly separation and then coming back together invigorating. Still, “Tahora” raises important points and I am delighted to see that it has spurred discussion. This is the only way things can start to change.

There is one convention I’d change on the double, though. Mikve should be free. Right now, it costs 20 shekels for a shower, 25 for a bath (that’s around $5 a dunk).

You’ve got to hand to us: only the Jews would institute a sex tax, where you can’t be together unless you pay a clerk. But on the other hand, we used to pay $25 back in Berkeley.

Now there’s a reason to make aliyah: it’s cheaper to make love in Israel…

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Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Middle Earth, Middle East

For months now, Amir and I have been stuck on Lord of the Rings, anxiously anticipating the premiere of the latest installment – “The Two Towers” – which opened in Israel on Thursday.

Mind you, there are worse things to be stuck on. Director Peter Jackson has transformed J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy and adventure classic of the third age of Middle Earth into what, in my opinion, stands as the greatest movie epic of the new century, with stunning graphics and sweeping battle scenes.

Underneath it all, though, are the core values that make this three-part trilogy so enduring: belief in one’s abilities against staggering odds; the ultimate triumph of good vs. evil; and the power of loyalty and fellowship.

In short, it was a perfect father-son outing.

Still, I had tried to keep Amir’s expectations low. Not about the movie, but when we could actually find time to go. I had to find a way to duck out early from work, drive back from Tel Aviv and still make it to a 5:00 PM show, so I told Amir I just couldn’t guarantee which day it would be.

Amir was relentless.

“We’re going tonight, Abba, right? Right?”

“I don’t want to promise, Amir.”

But how could I disappoint him. So on Sunday afternoon, three days after the film opened, I set out for the Ayalon Freeway, bracing myself for that most hideous of fates: mid-afternoon Tel Aviv traffic. As soon as I got in the car, the cellphone rang.

“Are you in the car, Abba?” He could hear that I wasn’t at my desk.

“You are, you are!”

“Yes, Amir, I am.”

Yesh!” cried Amir. I could feel the phone itself reverberate with giddy delight.

I picked Amir up at home, and we got to the theater literally five minutes before five. The theater was already crawling with fans.

“Which rows are still available?” I asked the cashier. In Israel, for some reason, movie theaters assign seats.

“Back two rows, in the middle,” came the reply. The show was nearly sold-out.

For some reason, Israelis love to sit in the back. The theater can be completely empty and the cashier will still bunch everyone up on top of each other in the second to last row and no one will think of moving seats.

“I also have Row 2 in the middle, or Row 5 at the very end,” she offered.

I imagined my eyes from Row 2, in short order exploding from the pounding action on screen. I reluctantly opted for Row 5: it was indeed on the very far end, next to the wall with no aisle.

We grabbed our seats and, folded our hands, looked at each other and, with great anticipation…sat through 20 minutes of commercials.

The audience was restless. I swear if they saw that Pepsi commercial where the spike-haired young Turk business-punk wins over his Japanese clients while seducing a woman with a cola bottle one more time, I was sure they would rise up like a mob of enraged dwarves and begin hurling axes and arrows at the screen…and one another.

But once the movie was underway, all of this was forgotten. Amir and I were on the edges of our respective seats (and sometimes on each other), hearts pounding, rocketing from one resounding clash to another.

And then, a rare quiet moment. But what’s this? Two of the characters are speaking in “Elvish,” and the subtitles are in Hebrew only! Panic-stricken, I turned to Amir. What did they say? Every word in a film like this is of crucial importance.

Once, I had been on a business trip to Tokyo at the height of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" fever. The movie version, “Fire Walk with Me,” had just opened in Japan, a full two weeks before it would in the U.S. I couldn’t wait to see it. And then, in the most crucial expository scene with the little man in the Black Lodge who speaks backwards, the subtitles were in Japanese only!

Amir translated for his poor immigrant father.

During the intermission (Jerusalem theaters still maintain the quaint custom of forcing a break, usually right in the middle of a romantic scene or critical point of dialogue), I began to ask Amir questions. I am a fan, but Amir is the super-fan. He’s read the first two books; I’m still only a third of the way through the first.

“Why are some of the orcs smarter than others?” I said.

“Abba, no orcs are smart.”

“OK, well, why are some of them less dumb. And what happens to Sarumon in the end?”

“Do you really want to know?” Amir the expert was beaming. “Go on, I like it when you ask questions.”

And suddenly I realized something had happened, something that goes beyond our shared passion for great science fiction and fantasy. Amir now knows more about certain things in this world than I do. And so the child begins to teach the parent. It could be a line straight out of Tolkien.

Never before in my brief role as a parent have I not had all the answers. Sure, I’d sometimes play dumb for effect, but here Amir really was the more knowledgeable of the two of us. And it’s not just with this movie.

Both Amir and Merav already, at ages 11 and 9, know more about Jewish texts than I do at 42. Amir can read gemara with Rashi script. Merav has her parshiot and halachot down cold. Jody and I have caught ourselves bringing some obtuse government form in Hebrew over to one or the other and asking them to translate. Merav regularly rolls her eyes at my accent. Even Aviv has surpassed me with basic makolet Hebrew.

I know I still have lots more to teach them. That the tables haven’t turned entirely. It’s too soon to put me out to pasture entirely. But it is a humbling experience all the same. Their adulthood is drawing ever closer. Have I had enough time to shape them into gracious and thoughtful human beings? Or was that just my own hubris, to think that such molding was even a possibility?

The lights go down. The movie is starting up again. The battle for Rohan is still ahead of us. It appears the time of the Elves may not be over after all.

I just hope there’s no more Elvish to translate.

For a more political perspective on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, read my good friend Alan Abbey’s commentary in the Jerusalem Post or this one from Karen Durbin in the New York Times.

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Sunday, December 22, 2002

Assimilation: a Sabra Perspective

My essay “Five Rules for Staying Alive" – published at the beginning of the month in response to the terror attacks in Kenya – generated a lot of response (review it now by clicking here). It seems my anti-assimilation message touched a nerve.

However, it’s one thing for me, someone who chose to throw his lot in with the Israeli people, to talk about how the events in Mombassa strengthen my resolve to stay in Israel. But what about someone born here?

I recently had a chance to talk this over with Irit, a colleague from work. Irit is a sabra, through and through. Her response surprised me.

In “Five Rules for Staying Alive,” I wrote how, if the choice before me were to assimilate completely into the non-Jewish world in order to avoid danger, then that’s not something I could live with.

Irit, on the other hand, said she would jump at the chance.

It wasn’t just a theoretical discussion. After her son Tomer was born, Irit proposed to her husband in all seriousness that they do just that: go off to someplace where they could raise Tomer with no connection whatsoever to Israel, to the army, to terror.

The difference is that while I might be able to slip off and disappear into the great American melting pot, I don’t want to.

Irit wants to, but can’t.

“What am I supposed to do?” she explained to me. “I look Israeli. I sound Israeli. I act Israeli. I’ll for sure speak Hebrew with my son. We have relatives in Israel and we don’t want to cut him off from them. We would never be able to blend in completely.”

And even if they tried to the best of their abilities to blur their heritage and culture, dropping Hebrew, abandoning family, moving to Mississippi and substituting “y’all” for “nu,” what then?

“I’d be afraid that my kids would have nothing in common with me,” Irit continued. “They’d be so American, but that’s not my background. I’d always be the immigrant mother.”

“That’s exactly how we feel in Israel sometimes,” I countered. “Merav is always complaining that her parents embarrass her with their accents and all their English-speaking friends.”

“The difference with you, Brian,” replied Irit, “is that you want your kids to be more Israeli than you.”

Of course she’s right. We moved here quite purposefully, in order to start a new line of the Blum family in Israel. For family back home, this has always seemed a betrayal, a not-so-subtle slap in the face. Their parents struggled to immigrate from their Old Country to North America in order to enjoy greater prosperity and freedom. And then what do we go and do? It seems like we’re turning our backs on everything they worked so hard for.

We’re not. We greatly value our North American upbringing, the values of democracy and equality. If anything, we’d love to see those values catch on more in Israeli society.

And while maybe once I thought that opportunities were limited for Jews in a non-Jewish land, that a Jew - let alone a religious one - could never grow up to be President of the United States, with Joseph Lieberman set to run in 2004, who knows?

But despite our warm and enduring affiiliation with the place that nurtured many of our most cherished beliefs, we also feel that our line somehow skipped over this other Promised Land. So if we have the opportunity to bring up our children here, along with the desire (not a small thing in and of itself), how could we look ourselves in the mirror each morning and say – yes we believe in it, yes we can do it, but maybe someone else can take this particular one on.

And truth be told, I don’t believe Irit entirely. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe there really are a lot more Israelis than I realize who would love to just get the heck out of this place. But every Israeli I ever met in the U.S. always talked (usually in Hebrew) about how much they missed their homeland, how they were going back, soon, soon.

And many have returned. Is it just that one’s core culture extracts an irresistible attraction? Or is there something more, something yearning even in the soul of the most hardened I-Hate-Israel Israeli that knows what we have here is special and worth preserving?

Everyone has choices. Irit could still leave. She and her husband are both highly educated, their children still young. But she doesn’t. She professes existential misery, but she doesn’t seem all that miserable to me.

And so we muddle on together, immigrants and veteran Israelis, building our lives in this dangerous land, some of us believing that what we’re doing is critically important to the future of the Jewish people, and others just believing that this is home.

And, as we continue to assimilate steadily onward into Israeli culture, the distinction between these two motivations blurs ever further.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

Circulation System

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been doing a lot of promotion lately about the audio version of This Normal Life on Jerusalem Post Radio. Unfortunately, as of this week, the Jerusalem Post took a decision to shut down their entire radio site.

As I understand it, was costing the Post more than they were making. The audio is still being hosted for a little while longer, so if you want to hear what we did in the last couple of months, click here now.

I really enjoyed doing the audio version – it took me back to my university days when I was an announcer on our college radio station. I played the latest New Wave (back when it was new, not now as part of those fashionable Flashback 80s lunches on alternative rock stations around the world), and I was quite active in radio theater.

So, I’d like to put it out to you, dear readers. If you have the ability to stream audio from your website or server, I would be glad to continue recording This Normal Life every week (I have the equipment at home). I would then send the resulting MP3 files to you to stream.

Alternatively, I could look into streaming the audio directly from this site. If you'd be interested in helping out with this (or for that matter with any of the other costs associated with running This Normal Life), please click the Amazon Honor System icon on the right hand side of the site where you can make a voluntary donation (hey, it’s the public television pledge drive model brought to the Internet - call us now or this site goes dark).

Seriously, JpostRadio was fun while it lasted, but it was also part of a strategy for building up the circulation for This Normal Life. In the past month, This Normal Life has also started to appear at Israel Insider and Jewsweek, two online news sources that reach tens of thousands of readers. According to SiteMeter, which tracks hits to the site, this has more than doubled the number of visitors to This Normal Life.

In addition, many of you have received an email from me inviting you to subscribe to the email version of This Normal Life. It’s completely free and many readers have written to tell me that they find it particularly convenient having the column waiting for them in their inbox. Click here to subscribe today.

The email version is what the industry calls “push” marketing, in contrast to “pull” where you have to come to the website and pull down the latest column. Receiving the column this way also makes it much easier to forward a piece that you found particularly moving to others on your email lists.

Please feel free to pass on This Normal Life as much as you like. The only thing I ask is that if you do forward it, just make sure to include the tagline with the web address ( so that others can find This Normal Life on the web.

By the way, since I started promoting the email version, subscriptions have also doubled!

Let me take this brief opportunity to thank you all for your continuing support. Knowing that I am touching so many people around the world and providing a personal perspective of Israel that goes beyond the headlines you read in the New York Times or hear on CNN is what this is all about.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming…

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Greener Grass

My friend Ben’s nephew had his bar mitzvah last month. The event took place in New Jersey, and Ben flew home for a visit.

Ben is a member of our synagogue where bar and bat mitzvah’s are generally modest affairs. The most exciting food at the kiddush is usually warm Jerusalem Kugel. The cakes are cookies are a bit better than at a normal kiddush, and if we’re really lucky, we get herring. I once saw egg salad and tuna but never bagels. And meat, well, what is meat again?

After the Torah reading and candy throwing, there may be a lunch, and there’s usually a party in the evening where the bar or bat mitzvah kid repeats the talk given in shul (my favorite: “Thank you for not making a fountain pen”). His or her friends write a funny song set to an old show tune, and the parents embarrass the kids by going all gushy in public. Dress is casual, though sneakers are frowned on.

So the bar mitzvah Ben attended in New Jersey was a paradigm of culture shock. Ben knew what he was getting into: the invitation read “black tie optional.” That was more than “no sneakers.” Ben had a very nice suit, from Land’s End no less.

“You’re not wearing that to the party are you?” asked his father.

“Why not?” Ben asked.

“Here, I’ll buy you a new suit,” Dad offered.

“This one is just fine,” countered Ben.

Fast forward several rounds: Ben is at the reception, in his Lands End Suit, staring down a smorgasbord – a table filled with every type of delicacy: carving stations for roast beef, sushi, chicken wings, Chinese. And this is just the appetizers. There was a full meat meal after that.

And then the piece de resistance, the “Vienese Table,” a desert cart that is brought out in darkness then illuminated dramatically to carefully choreographed oohs and ahhs.

Ben related that at his wedding, also in New Jersey, they too had this Vienese Table; their Rabbi, who hailed from California, which is not known for Vienese Tables, was apparently unfamiliar with the custom. So when the lights went out, he muttered to Ben: “Oy, a power-failure!”

For Ben, there was an added element to all this extravagance: this was a life he could have had, had he chosen to stay in New Jersey. Indeed, his family has always viewed him as hovering somewhere between being a fool and a traitor for leaving all this behind. This trip was his first time back in this milieu since he moved to Israel over ten years ago.

So before going, Ben was nervous: would he feel the pull of what he’d given up? The friends he would meet there, many of whom he had known since childhood, were all probably making ten times in a month what Ben makes in a year in Israel. In the New Jersey suburbs, he most certainly would have owned a home whereas in Israel he still rents. He might even have had more than one suit hanging in his closet.

As he imagined strolling the smorgasbord, Ben wondered, would he taste the corned beef and sushi and quietly hope that this whole Israel thing was just one big dream? That he would wake up one day, like Bob Newhart next to Suzanne Pleshette at the end of Newhart’s second TV series in the 1980s, and realize that he had never left the first show?

How green would the grass shimmer after a weekend in his own garden of temptations?

I think many of us in Israel have had these feelings at one time or another, ranging from subdued musing to outright envy. On our summer trips back “home,” Jody & I often wonder what would have been for us if we had stayed in California.

One time I saw David Schwimmer as we dined in a fancy restaurant with family. Had we “stayed,” we could have driven there ourselves in matching Hummers before returning to cocoon at home in front of our DVD home theater with super sensational surround sound. Some of our friends really do that. We’re not so different, are we? Why did we give that up? Or at least give up the possibility?

Most of us who have moved to Israel have taken steps down on the career and financial ladder. There was a time, in the midst of the era, when it looked as if one could do as well, if not better, in Israel than in the States.

Now, times are tough everywhere, and I’d be disingenuous to posit that everyone in North America is doing so great, just as it would be untrue to claim that everyone in Israel is living on the poverty line (although a recent survey reveals that one in five are). Moreover, we’re not exactly starving. It’s just that we wonder…what if…how green is that grass?

In our early days here, we’d suppress these feelings with a smug rationalization that claimed some sort of superior spirituality here in Jerusalem. But as we matured, we began to appreciate the value in alternative lifestyles. We make our choices, and one choice is not necessarily better than another. Just different. Slowly but surely, we are learning how to embrace multi-hued grass in psychedelic shades of blue and yellow and red.

Maybe it’s also that I have everything I really want: my wife, my kids; a roof over my head. Sure I’d like to own the roof, but if that’s not to be my lot in life - whether here or there - am I so much the worse for it?

And so, we have no regrets. This Normal Life that we live is the one we have chosen and the one that we truly desire. Cautiously, I probed Ben on his return. After all that he had just been through, how would he respond?

To my relief, he felt the same.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Scenes from a Weekend

1. Dr. Mosquito
Historic old Rosh Pina is situated just 20 minutes down the hill from the city of Tsfat where we spent the latter part of our Hanukah vacation. The neighborhood, part of the larger town of Rosh Pina, consists of two main streets dating back over 100 years and lined with historic buildings that have been turned into boutiques, galleries and restaurants. The old synagogue still functions, and the lovely tree-shaded cobblestone streets are a pleasure to stroll, even in the heat of day.

The predominant culinary option, for some reason, is Italian, and the tempting smells wafting from the numerous café kitchens, especially when set against the mellow canvas of gently rolling hills, combine to create a sublime sensory cocktail that transported us, however briefly, to some forgotten village in Tuscany (or so we imagined, having never actually visited the place).

The educational highlight of our visit was a stop at the restored office of Dr. Gideon Mer, known also as “King of the Mosquitoes.” A pioneer in developing treatment against malaria (particularly important here so close to the Hula Valley swamps that the early pioneers painstakingly drained), Dr. Mer apparently chose to infect not only himself, but his wife and children in a prolonged effort to find a cure.

A plaque by his desk reads, in all seriousness, that his enthusiasm was “infectious.”

2. Israeli Showers
What is it about Israeli showers anyway?

For our weekend in the north, we stayed on the campus of Livnot U’Lehibanot, the work/study program for English-speakers that served as my introduction to Israel nearly 19 years ago.

The accommodations at Livnot have always been spartan – one big room housing a half dozen students or, in our case, a family of five. We never minded – we were there for spiritual enlightenment not for goose-feather comforters with Toblerone miniatures under every pillow.

Still, in recent years, the accommodations have been upgraded considerably. Heat has been put in, and private bathrooms were installed in every room, each with tasteful ceramic tiles on the floors and walls.

But then there’s the shower…if you can call it that. It’s basically a nozzle, a drain, and a curtain that comes three-quarters of the way down. With no separation from the rest of the bathroom, the water sprays all over everything, splashing the toothpaste and mirror (if there was one) and forcing one to roll up one’s pants and wade through a veritable brook bubbling with shampoo and soap just to use the toilet.

Merav entered in socks the first time and let out a shriek that must have been heard all the way to Afula. At the conclusion of a shower, you must squeegee the excess water towards the drain.

The thing is, it’s not like this was a circa-1950s shower. It was almost brand-new. Now tell me, would it have been so difficult to put in a lip – a small ledge to keep the water in its place?

Mind you, this is not the only place I’ve seen this. Other low-cost accommodations such as field schools and even Kibbutz Guest Houses employ the spray and squeegee method. This clearly seems to be by design. Is it part of the Zionist manifesto, to deny basic comforts in order to build sabra character?

Now here’s an idea: why not craft a snap-on rail that you can take with you when you know your accommodations will be under five-stars. It could be sold direct to consumers or to the guesthouses and hostels themselves.

You can just call me King of the Squeegee Busters.

3. Hiking in an Age of Uncertainty
One of the highlights of our weekend in the North was a lovely hike we took with two other families along the banks of the Jordan River. Before going, we debated whether it was safe in this day and age to go without “neshek” – a gun or rifle. We were 18 hikers in all, including 12 children between us, and none of was packing heat.

We decided to go anyway.

As we descended towards the riverbank, we passed a van parked suspiciously in the midst of clump of weeds and bushes. It appeared to be recently abandoned.

Chaim, the leader of our group, examined it carefully. The doors were locked and there was a card with a prayer in Hebrew on the dashboard. A new-ish sweater rested over the passenger backseat. It certainly all looked Israeli, but maybe the van had been stolen and there were terrorists just beyond the clearing. I wondered: do terrorists lock the doors before they set out on a murderous expedition?

Chaim pronounced the van OK. I was still nervous but didn’t want to spoil the fun. Jody had already gone ahead and wasn’t part of the deliberations. Were we being ridiculously foolish, or is this what you have to do in order to live your life in times of inane uncertainty?

As we passed the river, we spotted the van’s owners: a couple of merry-makers firing up a barbeque in the woods. As I breathed in the overcooked puffs of their holiday kebab, I breathed out a silent sigh of relief.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Paradise Lost

This isn’t supposed to happen here.

All of Israel was glued to the news this week as thousands of police and volunteers combed the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kyriat Yovel looking for 22-month-old Hodaya Kedem Pimstein who had gone missing from the front yard of her father’s house over the weekend. It was the top news story, pushing aside the local election coverage and the latest pronouncements from Al Qaeda.

By now, we know that it was Hodaya’s father who drowned her in a bathtub and buried her body in the woods between Moshavs Ora and Aminadav. Soon, I’m sure, we will be treated to his “explanations” and tearfully blurted-out blusters of regrets.

But for days now, the one thought on many a mind, one that we didn’t dare utter out loud, was: have child abductions by strangers now come to Israel?

When I first arrived in Israel in 1984, I remarked to myself that the country seemed to be pleasantly stuck in an idyllic suburban America 1950s bubble. Women could still walk through a park late at night alone and not fear from attack. The country was well known for its open, free environment; where kids of all ages walk could around safely, ride buses at ages as young as six, and where the plague of milk carton missing child photos had yet to become infectious.

Nearly 20 years later, this is still the case. Because Israelis, beneath their gruff exterior, are always looking after each other.

Dismissed as a joke, it's a truism for anyone who lives here that a child walking with his or her parents on a cold day and dressed too lightly will invite unsolicited comments from half a dozen sabras, all chastising the parents for unnecessarily exposing their child to a wide variety of potential calamities.

When Merav and Amir were younger, we were in the very large Park Ra’anana, and they became separated from us. We weren’t worried because we knew the rest of park was looking after them, and lo and behold, at one point, a grandmotherly type came trotting up to us asking, in an angry tone that we could see right through, “are these yours?”

We have never experienced the kind of fear that our friends in North America tell us about: constantly looking over your shoulder at the mall, in the supermarket or at the amusement park when out with the kids. I can’t imagine an Israeli tying his child to him with a kiddie leash as I once saw on a trip to California.

Lately, we have had plenty of fears for our children – those same buses that our six-year-olds rode with pride are now presumed guilty until proven otherwise. We avoid crowds and pizza parlors that don’t have armed guards stationed outside. But Amir, Merav and even little Aviv still wander the streets of Baka on their own, to karate lessons, to school, or to the nearby community center for story hour.

So the very whisper into our collective consciousnes that little Hodaya might have been abducted by a stranger was enough to throw the delicate balance we rely on way off-kilter. With everything that's going on around us, we need something left to feel safe about. I am not ready to accept that all of my 1950s paradise world has been lost. Not yet, not now.

These fears, of course, are mostly irrational. Even in America, child snatching is nothing compared to the public perception of it. I once heard an NPR report where people on the street were asked how many child abductions by strangers they thought there were in a year.

A million, suggested the first interviewee.

Hundreds of thousands, offered the next.

The actual number: less than 100. The rest were almost all victims of family disputes. So to think this would become an epidemic here if it isn’t even one in the truly wild West is just giving in to paranoia. But then we’re pretty good at that these days.

The case of missing Hodaya, along with Nur Abu-Tir, the six year old Arab girl from Umm Tuba in southeastern Jerusalem who also seems to have disappeared as a result of inter-family fighting, gripped the nation in some ways even more than a bus bombing. Maybe because we can still block out attacks of mass proportions. It’s possible – difficult, but still possible - to say “I wasn’t there. It’s over. I can take precautions.”

But from your front yard…that's just too close.

Some in the media speculated that maybe this was the latest terror tactic – that Hamas was now going to start abducting children when their parents aren’t looking.

But at least for now, this is not the case. Our kids can still walk around in relative long as they don’t congregate together.

Hodaya’s father should be locked away for life. While it's not the first such tragedy in Israel, I hope never to hear such disturbing news again. We have enough problems without our family killing its own.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2002


We spent the last weekend of Hanukah in the Upper Galilee hills. Our base of operation was the Old City of Tsfat and, on Shabbat, the whole Blum family took an introspective hike into the ancient cemetery that lies just below its narrow winding streets.

The cemetery rests on the hillside, and you wind down a steep hill, passing graves that seem be strewn in no particular order. Some are so old there is no indication of who might be buried there. Others have been painted blue which in Tsfat tradition helps ward off the evil eye.

At the center of the cemetery is the grave of the renowned 16th Century kabbalist, The Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, and nearby is a mikve that bears his name. Jody, Merav and Aviv pooped out after the grave, but Amir and I continued on.

It’s been a long time since Amir and I had any quality time outdoors together. Sure, there have been errands and movies and Pizza Fridays. We make a point to have dinner in a restaurant every once and a while. But to be out and about in nature, just the two of us, was a real treat.

I remember when Amir was a year and a half and we were still living in Berkeley, Jody was sick with a cold and she kicked us out of the apartment. With a spirit of shared adventure, Amir and I headed for the big city: San Francisco.

For some reason, I decided we should go free and easy, unencumbered by such trivialities as diaper bags or bottles or sweaters. I wanted to feel the breeze through our t-shirts, to raise our hands in the air and say – we are men, we are free! We don’t need any material possessions to bring us happiness. All we need is each other.

I parked the car near the Embarcadero Center shopping center and we hopped on a cable car – Amir’s first (and I think also his last to date). He was still toddling, though he toddled pretty well. So off we went exploring.

We snuck into fancy hotels and poked around the gardens. I bought Amir an orange juice, which he promptly spilled on an elegant couch at the Fairmont. We looked in gutters and pushed the buttons at traffic signals and counted yellow cars. We window-shopped for shoes and stereos. We chased cats and birds and each other.

At one point, Amir decided he needed to use the bathroom. Except he didn’t tell me. Fortunately he was wearing a diaper. Unfortunately, as you may recall, we were deep into our Zen-inspired practice of unencumberance. I won’t go into the details, but I must admit I was right proud of my creative solution.

As we jumped another cable car and headed towards Union Square, the day was waning but Amir was still going strong. We paid a quick visit to the giant FAO Schwartz toy store, then rode a BART train one stop and we were back at the car.

As he climbed in, Amir spontaneously threw his arms around me. Maybe he just needed help getting into his car seat. But I took it as a silent understanding that we had just shared something special. That, even at a year and a half, he knew this was not just another afternoon of Barney. We reported back to Jody on a highly successful adventure.

Nine years later, we were wandering through a cemetery in Tsfat, once again unencumbered. No water bottle, no backpack with sandwiches and tissues, no sweaters from Imma “just in case.” But the bonding now was more as adults, as equals.

We talked and joked. We tried to figure out why most of the graves had rocks on them instead of flowers like in North American cemeteries. Would the dead be offended by living plants, Amir wondered?

We saw a brightly colored bunch of flowers in the distance. Too brightly colored. We moved closer: they were plastic. Was this halachically acceptable?

We peeked into the ancient mikve of the Ari. The mikve itself is just a small hole tucked into the hillside big enough for just a single person to dunk at a time. We dipped our hands in. The water was cold and the rocks around it slimy.

“If we put our fingers in, will all our wishes come true?” Amir wondered.

“Yes.” I answered. “Of course,” though I remember once learning that the magic of this mikve was geared more towards finding a spouse. Amir commented that his sleeves were wet.

The sun was bearing down and the sweat was beading up beneath our Shabbat shirts by the time we arrived back to Jody and reported on a highly successful adventure. Just the two of us. Free men again.

And Amir threw his arms around me.

This time I’m sure it was the exhaustion talking, his way of saying “hold me up, I can’t walk anymore.” No matter. Whether he was falling into me out of recognition of something that had passed beyond the two of us, or he was just falling, I felt the same shared silence that had once meant so much.

You know, when I look at Amir now, he seems so big to me. He has an adult body already, and formidable strength (four years of karate will do that). It’s hard to believe he was once a little pisher who did that and more in his diaper.

And too soon he will be a teenager, where this kind of quiet bonding will no longer be cool (though to his credit, he’s a very huggable 11 year old boy).

But I have no doubt that, someday, when he goes on his first man-to-man tiyul with his own son, he’ll connect with something that reminds him of our adventures together. Of cable cars and cemeteries. And memories still to come.

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Sunday, December 08, 2002

Kiddie Court

The tour guides at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem have been hard at work creating a new self-guided tour specifically geared for children. On the third day of Hanukah last week, we got to go for a specially-arranged test run.

The Supreme Court is a remarkable institution, housed in perhaps an even more remarkable building. The tour provides insight into both these elements. The building’s design mixes old and new, light and shade, interior and exterior spaces to create a flowing metaphor which contrasts justice and compassion. The metaphors begin as soon as you enter.

At the top of a long staircase, there is a two-story high window wide enough for two-dozen spectators that looks out on the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem with its narrow winding streets and picturesque red-roofed houses.

The printed guide explains in easy-to-understand kids’ language that this was designed on purpose to create a feeling that we are both inside and outside at the same time. Symbolically, this is meant to remind us that legal decisions made inside the court influence the lives of the people outside. It is impossible to be “cut off” from the world at large when you must pass this enormous picture window every day upon entering.

Just to the right of the window is an imposing wall made out of Jerusalem stone.

“It looks like the Kotel!” cried out our 4-year-old Aviv.

He was right on target. The stones have been put together, one on top of each other without mortar, as with the Western Wall in the Old City. A gutter runs along the bottom of the wall and in it, set down about a foot, lays a mirror, creating the impression that the wall extends deep below. The wall also protrudes slightly outside the picture window, further emphasizing the inside/outside metaphor.

Directly opposite the mock-Kotel are two starkly modern walls, one fashioned as a straight line, the other shaped as a semi-circle. This begins a motif that is repeated throughout the building. The straight line is meant to represent “law,” as it says in Psalms 119:13 “You are righteous…and your laws are straight.” The circles represent “justice” to show how a judge takes the law and flexibly interprets it, as it says in Psalms 23:3 “He leads me in circles of justice…”

The use of biblical quotations to shape the conception of the building is a large part of what makes this Supreme Court so fascinating and so unlike any other court building in the world. It is a uniquely Israeli creation.

If it is possible to feel Jewish pride about a government building, this is it.

Rising from the center of the Supreme Court is a large pyramid. Again lines and circles - three concrete slabs rise towards the heavens with circular windows carved into each side to allow natural light to filter in. From the outside, it looks like a little bird pecking its way out of a large and exceedingly misshapen egg. Inside, it frames the court’s main library.

The highlight of any tour to the Supreme Court – for kids and adults alike – is the courts themselves. Visitors enter an imposing space dominated by another long wall of Jerusalem stone, this time with five “gateways” carved into it. The reference is to the judges who used to sit at the gates of the city: “You will appoint judges and officers in all your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

And yet, each gateway functions as a kind of time portal: as soon as you step inside, you are immediately thrust into a thoroughly modern courtroom complete with microphones and computers.

Keeping with the casual nature of Israeli society, visitors are allowed to just step in and observe, even while court is in session. We sat quietly in the back while a black-robed attorney argued animatedly in defense of an entirely too impassive prisoner. Maybe it was the armed guards who sat on either side of him in the locked prison box.

The tour ends with a visit to the Courtyard of the Arches, a colonnaded outdoor plaza reminiscent of Jerusalem in Roman times with a pool in the center designed with (you guessed it) a circle and a line. The stone for this courtyard was mined from the Mitzpe Ramon area since the “Law” (The Ten Commandments) was originally given in the desert.

And one final biblical citation: the water in the pool is kept clean and clear to reflect the sky as it says in Psalms 85:12 “Truth will spring up from the earth and justice will be reflected from the heavens.”

Whether you’re in town for a visit or you’re a local with some unexpected free time, this new self-guided tour makes it easy to visit for the whole family. The tour is currently in English but will be translated into Hebrew shortly.

For a virtual tour, check out these sites, which include aerial photos and blueprints:

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Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Dr. Surfer Punk

My wife Jody attends a class every Sunday morning with a remarkable teacher named Aviva. Their topics are freewheeling and rarely traditional. The class of all women has made some strong bonds over the course of the last few years, and Aviva has invited all of them, plus their husbands, to the weddings of three of her four children.

We attended the last of these weddings at the end of the summer (see "A Jerusalem Wedding"). For Shabbat, Aviva’s whole family went for Sheva Brachot to a settlement coincidentally named Har Bracha. You may recall from the news that terrorists broke into Har Bracha and began shooting. Aviv’s daughter and son-in-law, Dalit & Yaakov, were among the injured.

The topic of the class this year is miracles. Aviva sees miracles in everything – whether events be big, small, good, or bad. So Aviva spent much of the class describing the miraculous results of that night. One story in particular stands out and I repeat it here in the spirt of the miracles of Hanukah.

In the shooting, Dalit has taken six bullets and has been rushed to the hospital. Her parents arrive and meet with the doctor. It is late Saturday night and the doctor does not inspire confidence. He has greasy spiked hair and these big gold bangles or chains or something, hanging on his arm. There is a nonchalant affect to his attitude, like he doesn’t quite know what he is doing or he’s just rolled out of bed. He seems too young, or too hip-hop.

He is Dr. Surfer Punk.

Dr. Surfer Punk casually shrugs his shoulders and tells Aviva that he doesn’t know what he is going to be able to do about Dalit’s shoulder. Apparently, a bullet from a Kalashnikov has ripped through her shoulder and upon exiting has left a massive hole. Aviva describes it as akin to a shark bite.

Dr. Surfer Punk explains that he isn’t sure if there is enough muscle tissue left to close it up. Aviva looks at the doctor and starts thinking, Oh my God, no way, no way, this guy does not know what he’s doing, this is insane.

Meanwhile, Dalit whispers to her mother her deepest concern at this critical moment.

“Imma,” she says, “Do you think anyone knows I’m pregnant.”

Dalit is still early in her first trimester. The only people who know up to now are Dalit, her husband, Aviva and her husband. In keeping with Jewish tradition and modesty, she felt it too soon to tell the whole world. She prudently had informed the medical personnel, of course.

Well, Dalit goes into surgery. And the hospital lobby starts filling with friends and family all wishing Aviva Mazel Tov: the news of her pregnancy by now is at the top of all the news reports where it has been reported that she is in an “advanced state of pregnancy.” I suppose it sounds more dramatic on television.

The surgery is supposed to take two and a half hours, but it takes four instead. The tension in the lobby is thick and sticky. Aviva is pacing, searching for a miracle to grab onto but seeing Dr. Surfer Punk’s hair and his chains over and over, it’s just not working.

Dr. Surfer Punk emerges. He has been successful. He has been able to repair the whole shoulder, there will only be a tiny pink scar. He is a genius. Yes, a complete and total genius who we have had complete faith in the whole time.

Ironically, Dalit is in her fifth year of medical school and her residency this year is supposed to be trauma. Aviva turns to her daughter and quietly suggests that perhaps Dalit should continue her studies under that lovely amazing highly competent miracle worker, Dr. Surfer Punk himself.

Listen to Dr. Surfer Punk this week on Click here.

Donut Quiche

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. By December, they are ubiquitous. At 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 States last summer 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 North America by storm and was even trading on the stock market! I had also heard their donuts were to die for. And I had never had one.

So the running theme of the summer was Abba’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 forelorn 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 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 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 Ben Yehuda to Binyamina,, this could be all the rage. Think of the entrepreneurship. The satisfied customers. The profits.

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

You can read this article on Israel Insider. Click here.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Five Rules for Staying Alive

I really wanted to go to Kenya.

A few years ago, we became acquaintances with a man named Moshe. Moshe is the spokesperson for the tour company that takes Israelis to Kenya and he has a personal connection with the Israeli owners of the Paradise Hotel in Mombassa.

Many of our conversations revolved around the marvels of Kenya – the stunning beach, the exotic jungle, the once-in-a-lifetime safaris. Plus kosher food, an Israeli ambience, even a semblance of Shabbat. The Paradise Hotel was aptly named.

Now Mombassa has joined the list of vacation spots that are, one by one, becoming off-limits to Israelis…and Western travelers in general.

Last month, the Asia-Pacific division off our company held its annual sales meeting in Phuket, Thailand, a popular resort. Some said this was just plain crazy – a large gathering of Israelis visibly coming together in a popular tourist destination so soon after Bali was a recipe for disaster.

Nothing happened, but in retrospect, the warning doesn’t seem so off base anymore.

What occurred this week in Kenya, though, is far more than just a vacation inconvenience. As Israelis and as Jews (and I am deliberately blurring the distinction), the suicide bomb at the Paradise Hotel and the near-miss missile attack on the Arkia jet as it left the Mombassa airport viscerally drive home the point that we are targeted wherever we are. Whether we’re in Israel or abroad.

This is not a new phenomenon by any means. But until recently, the danger had shifted, at least as far public perception, to being physically present in Israel.

Hence the passionate pleas by friends and family to get out, to come home to where it’s safe. And the equally passionate political arguments that the conflict is all about policies and population, a existential but ultimately domestic Israeli situation which can be sidestepped by the intrepid traveler through a simple change of scenery.

And yet, as Mombassa teaches us, as long as we are identified as Israelis or Jews, we can’t escape; we are targets. Anywhere.

Still, the gut reaction after any terror attack is that we must avoid danger at all costs. This is our paramount responsibility to our children and our families.

Danny Gordis writes about this in his latest Dispatch. He was interviewed recently on NPR and received a number of emails afterwards. He cites one where the writer asks Danny why he and his family stay in Israel. In America, the writer points out, when it was no longer safe to walk the streets in his neighborhood, they simply moved to a safer place.

But that’s the point. There is nowhere to go. I wrote about this in my essay The Great Race from October 22, 2002. And, as the Israelis who went for a Hanukah vacation in Mombassa with their families told interviewers, all they wanted to do was get away from the pressure cooker that is Israel. But the crock-pot of terror followed them.

So, let me take the discussion to the next, most logical level. If we truly want to stay safe, our best strategy is to go underground with our Jewishness. Move to somewhere anonymous like Montana or Mississippi and follow these five simple but effective rules:

1. Never be seen associating with other Israelis.

2. Never speak Hebrew in public.

3. Don’t look or act Jewish. Avoid any public demonstrations of Jewish practice. Halacha, shmalacha.

4. Steer clear of rallies, lectures, Jewish film festivals or any place of Jewish culture or commitment where we might be identified.

5. Totally forget about visiting a synagogue, going to Jewish summer camp or working out at the JCC.

Basically, we need to disappear. Become the Marranos of our generation. As long as we assimilate completely, we can live safely. Then, if we’re lucky, the only danger we’ll face is getting blown up because we look Western…

But, as our nine-year-old Merav loves to say, “What’s the point of that?”

Indeed, are these really our alternatives? To either disappear physically or spiritually? Haven't we heard this argument before?

I don’t know about you, but this is not a bargain I can live with. To deny the essence of who I am in order to maybe buy a bit more time and security in order to survive another day. Could I honestly look myself in the mirror and say that this a life worth living? A life of purpose and meaning?

No, if these are my options, then I would rather stand tall and strong and proud of who I am, and who we as a people are.

And if that puts me at greater risk, then why not live life to its Jewish fullest, here in Israel, as an Israeli, at the apex of Jewish history. Where rescue vehicles arrive in two minutes, not two hours as happened in Kenya. Where we are surrounded by literally millions of others who share in this spirit of defiance. Who share in the pain and take care of each other.

Because there is no alternative.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Swapping Holidays

When we moved to Israel, we swapped holidays.

Gone were Halloween, Veteran’s Day, the Fourth of July. In were the Jewish holidays transformed into national days off – Sukkot, Shavuot, Pesach – not to mention Tu B’Shvat, Israel Memorial Day, Holocaust Day.

I’ve always gotten a kick out of ignoring those holidays we knew so well back home. On December 25, I’ll nonchalantly email someone: "Oh it is Christmas? Just another work day for us here in the Holy Land…” January 1 – well it’s kind of a big deal (we still go by the Gregorian calendar), but at the end of the day, it’s still a couple of hours stuck in traffic on the way to the office.

And then there are the days we totally forget once we move here – Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day “Why isn’t so and so returning my work call,” we wonder. “It’s Monday, they should be at their desk…”

But there’s one American holiday that Jody and I have kept in Israel: Thanksgiving.

Though we do it a bit differently.

Growing up, Thanksgiving was a family day, a rare occasion for everyone to get together and sit around the table eating and shmoozing. But we do that every week on Shabbat and multiple times during the year on holidays. So we’ve turned Thanksgiving into an adults-only dinner party.

I can’t take credit for the idea. A group of friends had been doing it for some years before we made aliyah. But once we got here, they brought us into their circle. We would pool the cooking responsibilities and alternate whose home we would temporarily occupy.

As the war kicked in, we began having trepidations about Thanksgiving over the Green Line, and our friends in Givon (a quality-of-life settlement near Givat Ze’ev) had equal misgivings about traveling to us at night (they’ve since relocated for a temporary break in California).

Thanksgiving Dinner for Adults would start late, after the kids were tucked away and the babysitters settled in. We’d have all the usual fare: gargantuan turkey, stuffing, pecan pie. It was always a guessing game whether the local stores would import cranberry sauce in a given year for the few hundred English-speakers who knew what it was and wanted it.

One year, though, early on in this ritual, when we hadn’t been fully integrated into the group, we were somehow excluded. We didn’t really know the hosts that year and we simply weren’t invited. Not wanting to make a scene, we resigned ourselves to no Thanksgiving that year.

I have to admit I was pretty disappointed. I felt down and lethargic all day. I told myself that I didn’t really care, it’s not our holiday anymore, but still it mattered. It was tradition.

I went to work as usual and was planning on staying late to finish a business plan. At about 5:00 PM, I got a call from the kids. They were on the speakerphone, a little breathless and giggling, speaking almost in unison.

“Abba, you have to come home right now.”

“Why? I’m in the middle of something.”

“It’s very important.”

“Is everything OK? Is Imma OK?”

Giggle, giggle. “Everything’s OK. But you have to come home. Now.”

Reluctantly, I closed the laptop and headed for the car. I was more annoyed than worried, but these are my kids, how can I say no? In any case, I was working in Jerusalem at the time, so the drive home was only about 20 minutes.

As I walked up the steps, something was different. I could smell it. As I opened the door, it became overwhelming…and delightful.


The table was set with a festive tablecloth and matching napkins. The china was out. A big turkey was sitting center stage beckoning “welcome home.”

“We made it with Imma,” the kids exclaimed.

In fact, it had been the kids’ idea. They had all pitched in to make a full Thanksgiving meal at home, for just our family, because they knew I was feeling blue.

I don’t think I need to say what I’m thankful for, this year or any other year.

Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are in the world!

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Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Hate Debate

Wow. I am blown away. Flabbergasted. Shaken and saddened at a very deep level.

On Friday,, an excellent online magazine which claims the third highest readership among web-based English-language Israel news sources, began running “This Normal Life.” The first column to be printed was “Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo.” I was particularly excited because they have a "talkback" button and I was looking forward to some feedback from their considerable audience.

I checked on Motzei Shabbat. There were 18 postings. I began to read. The first one set the tone, from “Jerusalem, Palestine.”

“Falafel is an Arabic food, just like most everything you people eat, and the land you live on, temporarily, of course.”

That wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I set out to write a light piece about the joys of placing pesto and goat cheese alongside the humble garbanzo bean. Something that would elicit a smile, a feel-good essay. And as readers of this column know well, I eschew politics and have no interest in getting engaged in this kind of debate.

But I kept reading. The next posting was a nasty counter-argument, purportedly from a reader in Italy:

“Falafel was Arabic. But as always, even when Arabs think of something, others come and make it better.”

Jerusalem, Palestine wrote back: “Israel has no right exist.”

And then from a Jew in reply: “You have no right to live, you filth.”

And from another Jew: “You filthy dog, burn in hell…”

And in response: “Zionism is racism. You are nothing but a land thief.”

There were many more, most of which are too profane to print here. Sandwiched in-between there were also some legitimate comments about the nature of falafel, and a few bemused bystanders, one who wrote:

“Until now the conflict between Israelis and Arabs was about territory, holy places, demography, etc. And now it's also about falafel?”

Indeed, the talkback posters had turned what I thought was an innocent falafel essay into a metaphor for who owns the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an evil game of one-upmanship played out at my expense.

By Sunday morning, the worst offenders were gone. The editor of the site had wisely cleaned up the vitriol and hate spewing forth, leaving only the more reasoned replies, and even those are still quite upsetting (click here to see the posting and the replies).

The responses I received were not personal. They weren’t even really about falafel. Yet, if an article on falafel can serve as a jumping off point for such a “dialogue,” I wondered, what about the more overtly political articles?

I surfed over to an article by Yaffa Ganz, a very decidedly provocative piece entitled Manifesto – “a reminder of who the Jewish people are, why we’re in Israel, and how we intend to stay put.”

153 responses as of Sunday morning! The same cast of characters. The same hate mongering and inane back and forth. Even some of the same profanities (was someone using an automated spam-the-Jews program?) I suppose I should be glad I generated such a proportionally smaller talkback.

I have printed here some of the words of hate that Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo generated, as difficult as they are to read, because they thrust me, without my approval, curiosity or desire, into the broader world of hatred that exists in our world today.

I have heard about these kinds of exchanges online, but I’ve never experienced them myself. Coming from the Bay Area, I had heard about the intimidation during rallies on college campuses, like San Francisco State University, but I wasn’t there. This time I was.

I wish there were clear good guys and bad guys here. But at least on the pure level of this “debate” and the words that appeared on the website, both sides were calling names with equal ferocity. I have spared you the clever similes and references to animals in some of the postings, but suffice it to say that the Jews did not fare better than the Arabs.

I am not about to change what I write in “This Normal Life” or start pontificating on politics now. But I am deeply disturbed and profoundly saddened by the tone of what I saw. If this is how we conduct ourselves in the relatively “safe” environment of anonymous web posting, where hacking is done on the keyboard not with axes or guns, how can we ever expect there to be reconciliation and peace in the Middle East, or in the world at large? Bin Laden's audiotape messages come across as almost statesman-like by comparison.

Halacha prohibits “lashon hara,” evil talk, in part because it is understood that words have the power to cause great harm, equal to physical endangerment. And certainly this experience has taken my core conception of a world where the potential for healing is a shared ideal and set it back a notch.

I don’t have a pat answer or a feel good summary that will make sense of it all. I only hope that by raising this issue, all of us will be able to take our own small steps and actions to counteract the repugnant proliferation of hate wherever we encounter it, online or off. It is our responsibility in times like these.

Maybe this will help: the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles is planning to invest $200 million to construct the Center of Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in downtown Jerusalem. Read the story from Haaretz.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

History in the Making

Morale has been low at the company where I work. Three rounds of layoffs in a little over a year’s time will do that. So the company organized a “Day Away” recently, a "Yom Gibush" in Hebrew.

At about noon, the close to 100 employees in our group took off from the company parking lot in a fleet of banged up Land Rovers and other brands of jeeps on a 10-hour scavenger hunt and gourmet dinner.

We were charged with an innovative range of morale-boosting and team-building tasks: to convince a thoroughly befuddled gas station manager to allow us to pose as attendants filling up a car…in gas station uniforms; to figure out how to climb to the top of a lifeguard tower (without a ladder) in order to take a group picture; to search for buried treasure in the sand dunes of a deserted beach near Hadera (we found lots of garbage but no treasure).

By dinner time, our 15 jeeps pulled into Kibbutz Beit Oren for an outrageously lavish meal: appetizers of sushi and goose-liver pate, duck stuffed with mish-mish (apricot), prime rib, sweet potato ravioli, hot chocolate mousse cake.

The entire event was reminiscent of the “good old days” of hi-tech, when rappelling trips to the desert and weekends away in Turkey and Greece were as de rigueur as shiatsu sessions at lunch. Our Day Away certainly cost a pretty penny, but who’s complaining (actually, after 10 hours in the jeep, I could use the shiatsu just about now).

This being Israel, as we scavenged around the countryside, our driver fed us tidbits of history. We traveled back in time to visit the Roman and Byzantine-era aqueducts near Caesarea. Then we revisited the waves of early immigration to such Northern coastal towns as Binyamina and Zichron Yaakov. We had a brief stop at Ramat HaNadiv, the expansive public gardens surrounding the Baron De Rothschild’s gravesite, before swinging past the Carmel Winery, the largest in Israel.

Then we traveled into the near present and the future. We passed the Binyamina Train Station where a terrorist blew himself up in July 2001 killing two and injuring ten. We moved on a little bit further and stopped in the middle of a field to look at the view. With the pungent smell of burning chickens emanating from the kibbutz factory behind us, our guide gestured into the distance, pointing out for us the Karkur Junction, the site of last month's bus bombing that killed 14.

"See those buildings on the hill," our guide explained. "That’s Umm-El-Fahum. And just beyond there is where the first section of the Separation Fence is being built."

As he continued, I realized this was not just a study of the history of the country at some point in the past. This is history-in-the-making. New events that will indelibly shape the region and people’s opinions are being created daily. They are just as much a part of the history as the degree of the incline of the aqueduct that was so precisely calculated by the Romans to bring water from the Taninim Spring to the cities along the coast.

And then suddenly, at that point, I understood what Marla meant when she wrote: “I have a front row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”

That’s why we’re here. Because we can go to see the places in the Friday paper’s headlines, not just the history books. And those places are just around the corner.

It’s not just the negatives: there is a new minyan in our neighborhood that is pushing the boundaries of “halachic egalitarism.” Over near the airport is a working prototype for the world’s first flying car, being designed by an Israeli. In the hospitals, new discoveries are changing our understanding of schizophrenia, Alzheimer's and other diseases.

These could be anywhere. But they’re not. And we feel a connection, a distinctly Jewish connection.

“There’s no place I’d rather be,” wrote Marla. Would that you were still here to go jeeping with us, Marla, to visit the places in the headlines together.

While our jeep jumped the dunes near Hadera , we also were asked to solve various riddles. Here’s one of my favorites.

Look at the following sequence of 9 letters.


What should be the next letter in the sequence? If you think you know the answer, click the Comments button below.

NEW: Listen to "This Normal Life" on your cellphone! Courtesy of Jerusalem Post Radio. Right now, the piece you've just read - "History in the Making" - can be heard after a short newscast by dialing:
US: 011-972-53-999-400
Israel: 053-999-400
UK (local call): 0906-751-0723

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Suzanne & Gaby

I never met Gaby Sassoon. He died four months ago and was buried in Bet Shemesh. But I owe him a debt of gratitude. He reunited me with my cousin Suzanne.

Gaby was born in Syria in 1946.He left with his family when he was two. It was 1948, Israel had just been born and things were becoming more than a little uncomfortable for the Jews of Syria. The Sassoons moved to Turkey where Gaby grew up.

When Gaby was 18, he immigrated again, this time to Canada. He earned his BA and worked as a "Knowledge Engineer." But his true passion was his heritage, and over the course of the next 37 years, he became a tireless supporter of Israel and all things Jewish.

He was involved in every imaginable Jewish organization in his new hometown of Ottawa: United Jewish Appeal, Ottawa Jewish Youth Library, The Tamir Foundation, Shalom Welcome Service, to name just a few. He Israeli folk danced and he sang in the Shira Choir. He was a Big Brother. He loved to eat.

A close friend of Gaby’s Anna-lee Chiprout wrote to me with a few words about him. “He loved life and had friends literally all over the world. He could always give us advice about restaurants, hotels, and cities anywhere on the globe…because he had been there himself. He spoke six languages. No matter where we would go, a function, a show, a dinner, he would meet someone he knew. He was one of the most caring and genuine people I know.”

Yes, he was big bear of a guy, a confirmed bachelor, loved by all but sadly by no one in particular until he met my cousin. Together for eight years, they married only three years ago when was Gaby was 52. It was his first time.

Suzanne and I had not spent any quality time together since I was 9 and she was 19. Suzanne got married when I was just a pre-teen and was busy raising two girls. Her marriage was difficult from the beginning; still, it took many years and a lot of courage before Suzanne finally broke free.

There’s probably no more fitting metaphor for freedom than dance, and appropriately enough, Suzanne and Gaby met folk dancing. He brought her into his world.

Gaby was traditional but not stringent or strictly orthodox. Through Gaby, Suzanne set up a kosher kitchen. They had Friday night dinners. Then went to shul. These things were not a part of my life, or Suzanne’s, when we were growing up, but Suzanne grew to appreciate and treasure them. Her daughter Gila and her husband began to keep kosher themselves.

Gaby’s influence was never coercive. Always through example. Always through the natural way that he was with things. This is just what Jews did. This is what Gaby did.

And others followed.

They followed him to Israel and around the world on various programs he led or participated in. They followed him in the numerous organizations he led. And they followed him, friends too many to count, to the hospital where he held court, putting on a brave face as a 24-pound tumor grew in his abdomen. The tumor had been jelly-like. It was able to mold itself around whatever was in its way. Gaby never felt it until it was too late for treatment.

And when he died, it was his wish that he be buried in his beloved Israel. He was only 55, but a full busload of Canadian Jewish community members accompanied him on this final trip, led in part by his widow, my cousin Suzanne Sassoon, to pay their final respects. And that’s how Suzanne got to me, as we met for the first time in so many years, in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel and then later the next day on Shabbat. Because of Gaby.

I never knew you, Gaby. But I thank you all the same.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Lions and Penguins and Goats, Oh My

For six months this year, the streets of Jerusalem were graced by a colorful cast of plaster and stone lions in a variety of artistic depictions. The project, commissioned by the municipality, had some 80 lions - the symbol of Jerusalem - created and placed at strategic intersections around the city.

There were lions with wings, a panoply of psychedelic lions, a lion with a harp, several in stylized cages, and one decked out in the colors and uniform of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team.

Everyone’s favorite, it seemed, was a lion called "Aryeh Aryeh," which had the body of a lion (“aryeh” in Hebrew) and the face of Aryeh Deri, the now-former Shas politician.

The lions were eventually auctioned off to the highest bidder, earning money for the artists and for various child welfare organizations assembled by the city. The prices ranged from just over the starting price of $999 to a high of $22,000 for a chiseled white Jerusalem stone lion known as “Only a Toy.” Sadly, Aryeh Aryeh received just $7,500.

What do you do with a life-size plaster or Jerusalem stone lion once you’ve bought it, anyway? Put it in your living room? In your office? Will it even fit through the door? Do you need an export license from the Antiquities Authority to take it out of the country? And why do it in the first place? Other than the opportunity to donate to a good cause.

Still, the lions were a brilliant gesture, bringing light to a forlorn time in our city’s recent history. Children adored them; they climbed all over them and no one made a fuss. At one point, two lions were lent out to stand guard over the chuppa at a wedding. No lion, to the best of my knowledge, was ever blown up in a suicide bombing.

Tel Aviv actually started the trend in Israel. A couple years back they placed life-size penguins all over town. I really don’t know what penguins have to do with Tel Aviv or Israel. Penguins of peace maybe? More recently, there have reportedly been dolphins sighted.

Street art featuring statue animals is not unique to Israel. Zurich, Chicago and New York have all had cows, moose have gone grazing in Toronto, and bears once appeared in Berlin.

When we used to live in Berkeley, CA., before making aliyah in 1994, our neighborhood animal mascot was no mere statue: we had a family of real live wild peacocks living on our street. Not so unusual on a farm or in a rural area, but in the middle of a city, living in the trees high above, they attracted quite a bit of attention.

As well as controversy, as some of our less “open-minded” neighbors decried the noise and the mess while others enjoyed the notoriety, especially after the baby pea-hens were born. The local TV news even did a story once.

Jody and I were solidly in the pro-Peacock party until the birds took up residence in the trees immediately outside our bedroom window. Their yelping started at 4:00 AM every morning. Eventually the animal protection society captured them and carted them off to a more appropriate environment, with no love lost from this sleep-deprived grump.

The City of Jerusalem says it will be organizing another public art display like the lions. They haven’t decided what animal, but I already have a suggestion: Goats.

In 1987, the city had a sculpture of two yellow goats built high above Emek Refaim Street in our neighborhood. No one has ever been able to explain what exactly these goats were supposed to symbolize, but they have weathered all weather and hover there, silently watching the traffic, unique and alone, to this day.

They deserve some company. I’m thinking of starting a petition to place psychadelic goats made of Jerusalem stone all around town. Want to get involved? Just click the Comments button below.

To see pictures of all 80 lions, click here.
To go to the official Jerusalem Municipality Lion's site, click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Live from Jerusalem...It's This Normal Life

You may have noticed that a new title has appeared in recent days for my web column. I decided to take the “normal life” tagline I’ve been using to describe what I’m trying to do here and to make it a formal part of the title.

Also, I needed a formal title for something new that I’m very excited about.

You can now listen to This Normal Life on Jerusalem Post Radio. I’ll be presenting a 4-5 minute audio essay based on the columns I write here every week on the Jerusalem Post’s Internet radio station. The first installment was posted last week and a second went up today.

- Click here to launch your Windows Media Player and listen to the first piece, “Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo.”
- Click here to listen to the second piece, "Supportive Cast."
- Click here for the website.
- Click here to go the This Normal Life Radio Archive Page where you’ll be able to access all past readings. This link also appears on the right-hand side menus.

One more reason for the name change: I’m trying to build readership for the column by looking into opportunities for syndication – both in online and traditional print media (read: newspapers and magazines). If you have ideas of where this column could appear, or contacts that could make it happen, please be in touch by clicking my name below and sending me an email.

The response I’ve gotten to This Normal Life has been overwhelming. There have been hundreds of visitors since the word began getting out, and while that may not seem like much according to web standards, this is not a massively-promoted selling heavily discounted Viagra.

Here’s a brief sampling of some of the wonderful words of encouragement I’ve received:

Rebecca Friedman of New York:
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us. I enjoyed reading your stories and musings. I am so glad that you have found a way of expressing yourself through the difficulties….When some choose to stay in Israel and take on hardship as part and parcel of daily life, it is so affirming of life's higher purpose.

Scott Lawrence of Jerusalem:
Thank you truly for your thoughts and postings. You help me put into perspective many of the day-to-day events we all experience. Keep the faith.

Mayer Abramowitz, referring to the essay “A Cure for Jewish Lifecycle Dissonance”:
The piece you sent me is absolutely fabulous, not only as a eulogy but an affirmation of faith, tradition, family, Israel.

Carey Brown, one of Marla’s roommates during her first year in Jerusalem:
I just looked at your web page and wanted to thank you for sharing all of your writing. One or two articles had been forwarded to me via email in the past few months and I found them very touching then…but reading them in diary format, as you are struggling to deal with the pain of her death, really hit home for me.

Liz Levine of San Diego:
I must tell you how touched I was to receive your postings. Thank you for creating such an informative and moving site.

David Leek of Australia:
I read your postings regularly and they’ve given me at least some understanding of what every day life in Israel must be like. Your “Great Race” posting really touched me. I read it just after the tragedy In Bali. I too “demand a rewrite.”

Eric Friedman of Los Angeles:
I have spent the past hour or so reading article after article and link after link….Your articles are very moving

Thank you all for your support. Please keep reading and getting the word out on This Normal Life.