Sunday, September 29, 2002

Guns and Torah

As we arrived at Baka’s Kehillat Yedidya, for this year’s Simchat Torah festivities, we were greeted by a large number of soldiers, most armed, all in uniform. It wasn’t clear how they had gotten to us or why they were here. Had they been assigned to protect us? Did every shul have a cadre of dozen or more members of the IDF? Or were they, perhaps, here to simply enjoy the services?

Truthfully, we didn’t need the extra guns…there are already quite a number of shul members who arrive on Shabbat and holidays packing heat. I’ve never served in the army here (got here when I was already 34 and the army not only didn’t want me, but refused to enter me into their database in order to exempt me). So I don’t know the nuances of different types of weapons. But we always have a few pistols, a couple of Uzi’s (one slung over the shoulder of a kid with long wavy hair where he should be sporting a tallit). And there’s Dan with this scary looking unit he wears on his belt that I can only describe as a pistol on a tripod.

Back in March when things were so bad, all of Jerusalem’s synagogues started asking those members who had guns to rotate davening with guard duty. We locked any unnecessary doors and gates. Some shuls hired guards. I remember how visitors - back when we used to have visitors here - would comment how unnerving it was to them to see so many soldiers strolling nonchalantly down the center city pedestrian walkway. And this was back in the “safe” 80s. I imagine they would have been doubly unnerved seeing today’s unholy mixing of guns and Torah.

I, on the other hand, have always felt calmed by the army presence. I am happy to be frisked before entering a coffee house. I am comforted passing a police checkpoint on my way into the Talpiot Industrial Zone to grab a Whopper at the kosher Burger King. If this is the life we must live, then I can gladly suffer such dichotomous absurdities.

Still, on this particular night of Simchat Torah, I felt on a state of higher alert. Kehillat Yedidya attracts a very large number of worshippers for the holiday, given its pluralistic approach where women can freely dance with the Torah, unlike most other Orthodox synagogues.

Usually I recognize everyone. Not tonight. My mind began to wander. Could someone in disguise slip past the soldiers, like at the Park Hotel in Netanya? My eyes scanned for anyone with a coat amidst the sweating dancers, someone with a belly too bulky who didn’t look pregnant or well fed. No one. Thank God. There was one teenage boy who had a really funky afro with a very small kippa on top. Was that really his hair? It looked like a wig. And that kippa, it was just too small. Could he be a terrorist? Do pimples distinguish between Jew & Arab?

The night passed uneventfully. We celebrated. We shmoozed. We waved flags. I put Aviv on my shoulders. I quickly took Aviv off my shoulders. I never did find out why the soldiers were there. They didn’t dance. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves, like it was the first time they were ever at Simchat Torah celebrations.

Maybe that was the point. War brings people together in the most unlikely of ways. Tradition and music take things to the next level, providing common ground.

Next year, let it be Guns & Roses.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Post Zionism

1. Update: Mini-Israel opened. Mini-Israel closed. Apparently, they were operating without the right permits, and had insufficient parking to boot (true: anyone arriving after 10:30 AM this week had to take a shuttle bus from an offsite location). It was fun while it lasted. Hope to see them back soon...

2. A number of my friends at the Jerusalem Post have started a new band. You got to love the name. They call themselves..."The Post Zionists."

Shabbat Shalom - Brian

Thursday, September 26, 2002


The model of ancient Jerusalem at the Holyland Hotel has been a popular tourist attraction for as many years as I can remember. I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually take the idea one step further. And so we now have Mini-Israel.

Mini-Israel is anything but. It covers several hillsides and is filled with scale models (1:25) of famous sites from all over the country. Criss-crossing the attracion in a Star of David pattern, we started in mini-Haifa, walked past mini-Akko, hiked to the mini-Galilee with a snowy mini-Hermon on a more distant hill, peered into an as-yet-waterless mini-Sea of Galilee, before heading towards mini-Jerusalem.

There was the Dome of the Rock, looking as big as life (though not quite). On the other side lay the Western Wall, filled with tiny worshipers evenly divided between Haredi, modern Orthodox and the awkward tourist variety complete with cardboard kippa. Interspersed throughout the site were workshops where the Mini-Israel staff were hard at work painting more and more miniature people.

We traipsed into the desert towards mini-Eilat, and back up to mini-Tel Aviv, cruising down Dizingoff, looking up at the Shalom Tower (impressively high even in miniature), wondering where the Azrieli Center was, before finally strolling on the Tel Aviv beachwalk and commenting that we were looking at exactly where we had gone swimming just the night before.

Mini-Israel just opened this week and it’s not done yet. There will eventually be lots of movement: trains & cars zipping back and forth on the mini-Ayalon, rhythmic shuckling up and down while praying at the Kotel, and an electrified Teddy Stadium with spectators cheering in unison (do Israelis do The Wave?). The Dead and Red Seas are still lifeless, though the mini-Mediterranean is wet and wild at least in the vicinity of mini-Caesarea.

If this were a hi-tech company, they'd spin all this as a "feature," not a bug. You get to see a work in progress, enjoy a 40% discount on entrance fees, and you are left with a strong incentive to come back. After all, you really can’t enjoy the mini-Bahai Gardens without, well, the mini-gardens!

The park is located near Latrun: get off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, head towards the Latrun museum area and keep going straight until you see the tiny buildings and tiny people. Call 08-9214121 if you get lost.

Haaretz had this write-up in Tuesday's paper.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

Old City Tour

In order to revive the deciminated tourism industry, even for just a bit, a large number of tours in English are being offered this Chol HaMoed Sukkot week by the AACI Tourism Project. On Sunday, we took a delightful 3-hour walk with tour guide Laura Nelson-Levy. Her tour was billed as "The Old City Four Quarter Tour for Kids." Laura was a wonder. She had 4 or 5 families with the kids, ranging in age from 2 to 11, greatly outnumbering the adults. Armed with a briefcase-full of yellowing archive photographs, maps, diagrams and postcards, Laura did an impressive job of speaking to the kids on their level and keeping it interesting for the adults too. There were a number of rest stops and snack breaks, and even time for a visit to the Old City's solitary and somewhat run down playground.

We started in the Armenian Quarter, stopped in at a church that was in full session, reverberating with other-worldly chanting that was just begging to be turned a Euro-trance dance hit. We hiked up on rooftops, walked the length of the Cardo, peered into pits, pondered ancient rocks, and gazed longingly from an overlook onto the Western Wall. We ended with a walk through the now quiet streets of the Christian Quarter until we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Interestingly (though unfortunately not surprising), of the predominantly religious group, no one - except us - was interested in going inside. So we continued on as a private tour to view the stunning art & architecture of the Church.

The whole of the Old City seemed subdued, quiet, calm. It has been years since I've walked in the Muslim Quarter. We felt somewhat apprehensive going without a guard and a gun...after all, Arafat's headquarters is being besieged again in Ramallah, thousands are protesting in Gaza, the UN is making resolutions. But we felt safe. Maybe it was the closed-circuit cameras - over 300 of them at a cost of $5-15,000 each, Laura explained - positioned throughout the Old City, peering down at us, invading our privacy while presumably increasing our safety. Were the cameras judging our choice of ice cream back at Jaffa Gate (I had an ice cream Snickers was yummy).

Unfortunately, all the cameras in the world haven't been able to bring back the tourists' cameras to Israel. Hence, devoted and professional guides like Laura Nelson-Levy are not making ends meet. If you're looking for a guide, and especially one who knows how to speak to multiple age groups (Laura has six kids of her own), why not drop her a line:

Sukka on the Roof

Continuing the lazy theme of last week, I dare say we must have the easiest sukka in the world to build. Our apartment is on the top floor and has a large terrace covered with a pergola. All we have to do to build the sukka is cover the top of the pergola with "schach" - the leafy covering that is usually made of palm fronds (we use the permanent stuff that "rolls out" - think of it as the sukka equivalent of a fruit roll vs. the real thing). The whole process takes no more than 15 minutes to complete with two intrepid kids who don't mind climbing to jaw-dropping heights and doing the rolling and tying (warning kids: don't try this in your home).

All this reminds me of the story of the Sukka on the Roof, one of the few tall tales I remember from my abbreviated Jewish education growing up.

There once was a man in New York who built a sukka on the roof of his apartment building. A particularly cantankerous neighbor caught wind of what was going on and decided he didn't like it one bit. He demanded that the man take the sukka down immediately. When the man refused, the neighbor took him to court, requesting a quick verdict. The court deliberated and decided that yes indeed, the sukka would have to come down. They dutily informed the man "you have exactly 8 days to do it." And the man just smiled, as he knew - which by now you've figured out as well - that Sukkot lasts exactly 8 days.

One of the perils of a rooftop sukka is falling planters. Well, that's how it was this Sukkot day. We have some plastic planters full of flowers and dirt and rocks on our terrace wall. We also have a hammock which the kids like to use as a swing. It's an unusual hammock. A single person sitting up style hammock, rather than the more common lying-down-and-fall-asleep-in-the-sun variety. One of the kids (who shall remain nameless) was swinging a bit too vigorously and knocked the planter off the wall. Normally, a mess but not the end of the world.

Except that down below was the neighbor's sukka, standing proudly in their first floor backyard. The planter crashed through the top of their sukka, leaving a gaping hole in the schach and raining down debris on their table, on their bed, on the leftovers from the night before. We were totally freaked out that their sukka would be rendered 'psul' - not usable for Sukkot - a terrible thing to be responsible for given they had about 15 guests coming in just a few hours. The mother wasn't sure the halachic status of a sukka attacked by falling daisies since on Shabbat you're not supposed to "fix" things, so she waited until her grown children and their families came home from shul. We swept up the mess and went off to synagogue ourselves.

As the day went on, we found numerous occasions to peek over to see what was going on. I saw the mother taking out a tray with kiddush cups...had they just eaten in the sukka or were they cleaning out more of the mess? Now they were moving out the chairs....the sukka must be ruined. How could we live with ourselves? No wait, the men are removing their this some new water ritual we missed while playing hooky from Hebrew School? Now someone is bringing in a mattress...if they're sleeping in it, the sukka must be OK, right?

It appears now that this was no halachic catastrophe and the only thing hurt was our son's pride and his bank account, as he had to pay for a new planter and a couple of plants.

And oh yes, the hammock is now off limits to anyone under the age of 40.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

The Hunchback of Etrogim

We got our lulav and etrog yesterday. We used to make a big deal and go down to Mea Shearim, linger over some 50 stands or, while we fingered the lulavs, palmed the etrogs, and sniffed the myrtle. It was all so sexual. Then we got old and lazy. And we answered the phone.

Immediately after Rosh Hashana, the neighborhood boys start calling. Would you like to order your arba minim (your lulav and etrog)? I'll deliver, two days before sukkot. One guy includes a case. Another will come by with willows too. 80 shekels for a basic set. Or 90. Early bird gets the worm, which means that we went with the kid down the courtyard rather than the shul member's son who called first last year. Snooze you lose.

So the set arrives last night. I eagerly open the kosher-certified sealed box containing my etrog. One of the disadvantages to the lazy method is you can't handle the merchandise in advance. Last year, we got the most perfect etrog. Pear shaped, evenly-bumpy, fit in the hand like a good computer mouse (now you know where my head is at).

This year I open the box with equal anticipation. But my new seller doesn't have the same stash. Or maybe it was just bad luck. His supplier's style is more squalid. I take out of the box this lopsided, plug-ugly citron that I have since nicknamed the Hunchback of Etrogim. It's kosher, sure - the stem is there and all, but this sad specimen looks like the runt of a litter straight out of 102 Dalmations meets Rabbi Quasimodo. Good thing first day sukkot is on Shabbat this year...we can keep our little prodigy to ourselves.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Yom Kippur Groupies

Every year, for the past seven years, we have been regulars at the “Leader Minyan,” a heavy-duty Carlebach chevra that meets for the High Holidays and during the year on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh. Officially known as Amiqa DeBira, the Leader Minyan was founded by brothers Avraham and Zelig Leader and Zelig’s son Ebn (it has nothing to do with the congregation being being ‘leaders’…so now you know).

Amiqa DeBira is the kind of place you either love or hate. Shabbat services never end before 2:00 PM, what with all the spirited singing and dancing and drawn out m’shberach’s at Torah reading time. Those who don’t appreciate the intimate joy that this kind of over-the-top davening brings are quick to deride its unholy length, rolling their eyes judgmentally and commenting how they like their prayer short and to the point. To each his own. We love it.

The minyan is always a blast. But it especially rocks on the High Holidays when Ebn (who has been in Boston for the past several years completing a PhD and studying for Rabbinical Ordination) returns to Israel to lead services.

Ebn’s style is unique. He scores the service like a rock opera, bringing the music at times to crescendo, dipping down to melodic introspection, rocking out with an infectious beat, and finally soaring with a repeating wordless chorus on a par with the best of Genesis in its heyday.

Arms flailing, dancing at the bima, he mixes Israeli pop tunes, snatches of reggae, classic folk (Greensleeves is a favorite), Sefardi nigunim, the best of Carlebach (but not only Carlebach as in the other Carlebach minyans), and urban rap (his hip hop adaptation of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ during last year’s Rosh Hashana services is missing only the scratching on an old 45).

There are those who say Ebn is too over the top. That he is more self-aware than selfless. I say he is Yom Kippur’s first true rock star and we are his groupies. Were he not in Boston, we would follow him anywhere. We are awed when he enters the room, breathless with anticipation as his deep baritone belts out Kol Nidre, and high on life during the all-together, arms-bonded dancing at the end of Kaddish (I always used to tell people it went on for a full 20 minutes, but this year I timed and it only lasts 7).

For those who still imagine that prayer must necessarily be composed of old men wailing and shuckling, and that Yom Kippur is a somber day of reflection, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Yom Kippur is the happiest, rockin-est, dancin-est day of the year. And I know a shul-full of pre, post, and wanna-be hippies who’ll testify to that!

There’s more on the growing number of “happy minyans” in this Jerusalem Post article.

May you be inscribed in the blog of life!

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Two Contrasts
1. We are sittng at the Shabbat table debating whether DebkaFile is right 80% of the time and wrong 20% of the time, or the other way around. According to Debka, the war on Iraq started some months ago and US/British/Turkish allied forces are already in control of the airspace in all of western and some of southern Iraq. We discuss whether Iraq will send biological, chemical or radiological weapons our way, and whether this time they'll avoid the taboo of 1991 and target Jerusalem too. Later, I am downstairs with my neighbor comparing Internet plans and whether we should upgrade to ADSL or cable modem.

2. On the way home from the park, 11-year old Amir asks: "What do you think I should do this year on Yom Kippur? Ride my scooter or fast?"

Friday, September 13, 2002

Hebrew Roots
During the 3:00 AM tour of Nachlaot (see posting below), the gabbai at the Syrian Great Synagogue explained how the residents of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1800s had to leave and set up residence outside the walls because of a cholera epidemic. I never realized that the word was pronounced in Hebrew "choleh-ra." The Hebrew word for sick is "choleh." Does the word "cholera" originally come from Hebrew? If anyone knows, please click the comments link below.
Jerusalem Nightlife
Very early this morning, I accompanied Amir and his entire sixth grade class on a 3:00 AM tour of synagogues, alleyways and the ever present smell of freshly baking bread in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Apparently this is quite a tradition among Jerusalem students, one that I didn't know about since I didn't grow up here. It goes on every night for a week. There must have been thousands of kids, from 3rd grade through high school walking the narrow and picturesque corridors of this classic Jerusalem neighborhood. Some had guides, some were alone. There were haredim, zion'im, hilon'im, Russian speakers, English speakers. It was really quite the scene. We stopped in at the Great Synagogue of the Aleppo Syrian community at one point to say slichot. At another point were chased away by an angry bearded resident who said we were making too much noise. We tried to visit a few other batei knessiot but they were too full of other pre-dawn sojourners.

At one point, we took a break in an area known as the "three wells." This is an semi-enclosed courtyard with three wells that were shared by all the residents of the street up until fairly recently. Our guide explained that the residents also used to share a single oven and everyone would cook together on Shabbat. One precocious sixth grade girl (Amir called her annoying, I thought she was adorable...generation gap rears its ugly head again) said to the guide: "So did they cook milk and meat together?" (meaning in the single oven they had). "No," said the guide, "They only had meat. That's all anyone ate back then." To which the girl replied in a pronounced accent of the exagerated exasperation of a budding vegeterian: "What Cutzpah!"

The tour ended at 5:45 AM when we all returned to our starting point just off Bezalel Street. Seemingly out of nowhere came enormous trash bags filled with lachmaniot (sandwich rolls) and bags of choco, apparently also part of the late night tradition as we saw other groups getting the same "breakfast."

And who says Jerusalem doesn't have a nightlife?

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Ghost Chain
When Marla died, she had use of our car since we were away for July. On the day of the Hebrew University attack, she had our car keys in her purse. Amidst all of the panic, identification of bodies, requests for dental records, international mourning, memorial ceremonies and cleaning out her apartment, no one had really paid any attention to Marla's purse.

Now that the shloshim has passed, Jody called the Jerusalem police lost & found department. She was wondering if anyone had found our car keys, and any other materials belonging to Marla. She was directed to a special office dealing with terror victims. They checked and yes, they did have a set of keys on a Toyota chain with a remote control clicker. Jody was asked to come in.

The police station is on Russian Compound. We have pretty much avoided downtown Jerusalem for the past two years. Jody parked in the underground parking at Kikar Safra and walked, warily, towards the police. After a bit of navigation inside the compound, she found the right department. There was a whole section just for items found in the Hebrew University cafeteria. In addition to our keys, there were notebooks, various backpacks, and a sketch pad with some beautiful drawings. I don't know if Marla was an artist. Perhaps it belongs to someone else who can no longer claim it.

The clerk seemed freaked out by the keys. They were covered in caked, dried blood and other elements of death I, on later examination, didn't recognize (is that the bits of flesh they always talk about on the TV...I don't know...I don't want to know). Don't touch it, admonished the clerk, apparently not knowing the basic laws of 'oxygen kills HIV' chemistry. Jody pulled out a plastic bag that had previously held some fruit and put the keys in it. She returned home and tried to scrub out the blood. It didn't all come off. The clicker lit up intermittently.

A ghostly reminder of the impact of that terrible blast on even the smallest of objects.

Click here to read a number of stories, tributes and links on Marla's death.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

AACI Memorial
We attended AACI's memorial gathering yesterday to pay tribute to those Americans and Canadians who lost their lives in Israel this past year. The turn out was overwhelming - over 400 people - and the number of new names on the list similarly too long - 24 dead this year out of now about 200 total since AACI began counting. The Jerusalem Post had a reporter there.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Commemorating Defeat
Daniel Schorr had an interesting essay on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday this week. He reviewed the discussions over whether 9/11 should be made into a national holiday. His conclusion: no. As far as he knew, there are no cultures or peoples who have created a holiday specifically to commemorate a defeat. Imagine such a day years later degenerating into picnics and frisbee tournaments.

As a publicly acknowledged Jewish newsman (he specifically pointed out during a different broadcast that his usual Saturday morning commentary spot was being recorded on Friday due to Rosh Hashana), Dan seems to have missed his own people. We have a real knack for creating days to commemorate defeat. Starting with Tisha B'Av which remembers the destruction of both the first and second temples as well as various other calamities. Nope, no victory there. And what about Holocaust Memorial Day - while ultimately the Jewish people were not defeated, the Holocaust certainly defeated 6 million precious individuals among us. And, in keeping with the current "holiday" season, let's not forget the just passed Fast of Gedaliah which commemorates the killing of a Jewish governor in ancient Judea.

To our credit, no one picnics on Tzom Gedaliah or Tisha B'Av (kind of hard when you're not allowed to eat!). Perhaps 9/11 should similarly be remembered with sack cloth and ashes. Or is that just too ironically morbid?

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Har Bracha Shooting Coverage
This article appeared in the NY Post about Dalit & Yaakov Rand who were hurt in the terror attack I wrote about earlier in the week.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

Post Script to the Wedding
Last time, I wrote about a wedding we attended on Monday. It wasn't my intention for this blog to become particularly political or news-oriented. At least not so quickly. That's why the slogan is “Life in Israel, Life in General.” And yet the news and the crazy terror-infused lives we are compelled to live these days has a sick way of intruding.

On Motzei Shabbat, we received a call from Aviva’s cousin who is also a friend of ours. You recall that it was Aviva's son's wedding we went to last week. There was a shooting in Har Bracha, a settlement near Nablus. Aviva’s whole family had gone there for Shabbat to celebrate Sheva Brachot with the new bride & groom who had just moved there. Upon hearing of the shooting, Aviva’s sister had been trying to get family members on their cellphones but no one was answering. We knew nothing. We were asked to start saying tehillim.

I went to the TV. If they’ve pre-empted regular programming, you know it’s a big attack. That's the way it is here. Channel 1 was showing a big event indeed, but it looked like it was coming from America. Lots of smoke. Emergency vehicles. People running around. My Hebrew being what it is, I couldn’t figure it out exactly. Had Al Qeuda struck again? It reminded me of 9/11 last year when I was in France on that fateful day and the two-star hotel I was staying in only had French TV, no CNN or BBC and I saw images of the trade centers burning while an announcer cried out “Un Castrophe!” but I had no idea what was really going on, whether it was an accident or what.

Anyway, it turned out Channel 1 was doing a look-back at 9/11 and the footage was of the Pentagon. Channel 2 was running a movie. CNN was doing a travel show. BBC was creating one of those shows that Monty Python used to spoof. So it couldn’t have been too bad, right?

Next stop: the Internet. Haaretz in English had a report. There were two injured – Israelis it said (our friends were Americans who had made aliyah…a good sign, yes?) had nothing yet. On a whim, I surfed to Arutz Sheva – a site I rarely visit (unlike many of my American Jewish friends…ask me about that in another posting), and they had the most details. It was a married couple, 23 or 24 years old. From Jerusalem.

Aviva’s sister called back. It was Aviva’s daugher and son-in-law. Not the ones whose wedding we had just gone to, but the daughter, Dalit, whose wedding we’d gone to at Ramat Rachel a year ago. They were in moderate to serious condition but stable. They were already on the way to hospital. The news doesn’t make much of such “simple” woundings, though we know from other friends that they can be devastating requiring long painful recovery. Three years ago, our friend Dean was gunned down while leaving shul on Friday night in Chicago. He took five bullets; two still remain. He has recovered, but is in constant pain all the time.

That all this comes on the heels of our cousin Marla being murdered in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31 makes it all the more unbelievable…and unbearable. At the wedding, Aviva had been comforting us, telling us that Marla had been a real kidush hashem, even if it was difficult for us to see that now, this being in response to my unwillingness to accept a designation which seemed too mystically religious for my secular sensibilities.

After we had “confirmation,” Jody sent out emails with their Hebrew names. We got the kids into bed – first day of school the next day, what else could we do. We had a hard time falling asleep. Many people said tehillim during the selichot services Saturday night.

In the morning, the news reported that Aviva’s daughter was “in the advanced stages of pregnancy.” She sure didn’t look that way at the wedding Monday night. But it sells more papers, I guess. Banner headline: white letters on black or red background – "WOMAN, PREGNANT. SHOT IN CHEST. GORY DETAILS GUARANTEED INSIDE." I remember staring at the “family table” at the wedding which was just across from ours, trying to figure out who all the sons and daughters and sons and daughters-in-law were. Dalit was directly in our line of vision.

Somebody told us after Marla was killed that “now we’re really Israeli.” Does this event make us even more Israeli? When we made Aliyah eight years ago, being Israeli seemed to mean enjoying kosher Mexican food and a national calendar that revolved around Jewish holidays. There was peace on the horizon, I drove in many places I wouldn’t go near today. My brother and I went over the Allenby Bridge on our way to Jordan.

Today, being Israeli demands a whole different level of commitment. Of course, it always did, sure, but we were na├»ve. Or optimistic (you know, by the time our kids get to army age we won’t need an army, all that blah-blah).

So, I guess, now after two years of non-stop violence and two tragedies much too close together, yes, we really are Israeli.