Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Happy Pur-o-ween

So, the other day, the kids were asking, “Right, Halloween is just like Purim, only Jewish?” “Right,” I replied, and this is what I told them:

“Once, long ago in Shushan, there was a King named Achashveros who loved throwing costume parties. One year, he said to his wife, Queen Vashti, ‘I want you to wear this Mutant Ninja Turtle costume.”

“’No way,’ replied Vashti. ‘That is so last decade. The only thing worse would be to dress up like a Power Ranger. Echhh!’

“The king didn’t say anything, since he was himself planning to come as Red Ranger this year. Instead, he banished Vashti from the palace and sent her to work in a distant Toys R Us store at the Shushan Super Savers Mall, selling costumes for the rest of her life.

“Now, the King couldn’t show up to his own party without a date, so he put out a call throughout the city for a new Queen. The judging would be based on the most inventive costume.

“Meanwhile, over in the Jewish Quarter, a young woman named Esther was reading the Friday papers. ‘Uncle Moti,’ she called out suddenly. ‘Look at this, I could be the Queen!’

“Her uncle was excited. ‘You can borrow my sack cloth and ashes costume. I wear it every year!’

“‘No,’ replied Esther. ‘I have a better idea. I”ll go as…a...queen! I have a funny feeling that little Jewish girls of the future are all going to want to dress up to be Queen Esther.’

“Arriving at the palace, the judges were so taken by her chutzpah that she was crowned the winner on the spot and taken to meet the King.

“At about the same time, the King’s Chief of Staff, the wicked Haman, was riding around town as he always did dressed up in his Batman costume. He was in charge of the pre-party ritual of collecting candy from every citizen of Shushan and giving it all to the king. As his Batmobile arrived at Moti and Esther’s house, Moti refused to give Haman any candy.

“Infuriated, Haman declared that from this moment forward, Moti and his people would have to give five times as much candy as ordinary citizens of Shushan. Unfortunately, that meant us, the Jews. Haman worked up a decree and got the King to stamp it with his secret decoder ring. Fortunately, Esther had a plan.

“The annual costume party was held, and at the end, it was time to count up all the candy each member of the royal house had received. Esther invited Haman to come into her room. She spread all her candy out on the bed and told Haman that they should swap candy bars while lying down together. Haman, spying a Snickers bar he really wanted, readily agreed.

“At just that moment, the King burst in. Seeing Haman lying on the bed sharing candy bars with the Queen, he banished him to the same Toys R Us he sent his former wife Vashti.

“Esther revealed the rest of Haman’s evil plot to destroy her people, but the King threw his hands in the air and said, ‘My hands are tied.’ Esther, resisting the temptation to blurt out ‘No they’re not,’ demonstrated her royal smarts and proposed that the decree not be repealed but modified.

“‘Instead of the people giving candy to the palace, why don’t we distribute candy to the people,’ she wisely suggested. ‘They would all dress up and come to the front gate of the palace, then we would give them candy based on how clever their costumes were. And the Jews would get five times as much candy as everyone else.’

“‘Splendid idea,’ declared the King. And so, on the 25th day of the month of Cheshvan, which corresponds to the 31st day of the month of October, 1,385,653 pieces of candy were given out to the people of the city. However, the Jews received 5,792,884 pieces.

“And that, you see, is how the Jewish holiday of Halloween came to be. Now, goodnight kids. And goodnight moon…hmm, there’s another idea…”

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Marla's War

A little over a month ago, The Jerusalem Post ran an excellent piece called “Giving The War Its Name.” In it, they asked eleven prominent scholars and thinkers from across the political spectrum what the current war we are embroiled in ought to be called. The answers they received were quite compelling:

- Shalem Center Fellow Michael Oren suggests naming the war for the last attempt at any real dialogue between the sides with “The Camp David War.”

- Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz goes further back to the very start of dialogue with “The Oslo War.”

- Norman Podhoretz, Editor Emeritus of Commentary Magazine, also picks up the Oslo theme, but with a more pronounced pejorative: “The War That Oslo Wrought.”

- Meretz Party member and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Naomi Chazan focuses on the intertwined relationship of occupation with “The War of the Occupation.”

- Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board of the US Department of Defense, honors Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, and Shlomo Ben-Ami with “The Idealists’ War.”

- Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab focuses attention on questions of sovereignty, calling it “The War for a Palestinian Land.”

- Dore Gold, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, claims that this war has actually helped Israelis recover moral clarity and conviction, hence “Operation Justice Recovered.”

- Israel Channel 2 Commentary and Jerusalem Report correspondent Ehud Yaari opts for a simple numerical calculation: “The Sixth War.”

- Author and Mekor Rishon columnist Amnon Lord also takes a numerical approach, giving us "Meoraot Tashsa” where “Tashsa” is the Hebrew date acronym for the year the war began.

- Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Yisrael B’Aliyah party Natan Sharansky doesn’t mince words or blame, calling it “The War Against Peace.”

- And finally, noted novelist and political essayist A.B. Yehoshua examines the issue of borders from two perspectives – where to put a border, and whether to have one at all – with “The War of the Borders.”

An interesting exercise, to be sure. But all of these names, quintessentially objective in nature, seem more suited to operations of intense limited duration with many casualties at once. That’s how I always thought of war growing up.

The war we find ourselves in now, by contrast, stretches on seemingly without end and claims its dead and wounded in tortured trickles, 5 here, 10 there. By its very nature, this focuses us on the individual.

And so, for those of us who have been personally affected, the war must have a personal, subjective name. No, names. This war has as many names as those who have been lost to it: "The War That Took Ari," "The War Where We Lost Yoni," "The War Where Dalit & Yaakov Were Shot."

And for Jody & me, it will always be Marla’s War.

Tomorrow marks three months since Marla was killed. If you haven't read about Marla yet, you can find essays and links by clicking here.

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Are You the Same Person You Were Two Weeks Ago?

I haven’t written about Ari Weiss yet. Ari was killed in Nablus several weeks ago. His family made aliyah from Texas to Ra’anana and his father, Stewart, is a well-known Rabbi there, heading up the city’s Jewish Outreach Center.

I haven’t written about Ari yet because I never met him or his family. But many of my friends in both Ra’anana and Jerusalem did, and from what I have heard, the impact of Ari’s death on Ra’anana’s English-speaking community has many similarities to the impact of Marla’s death on our community here in Jerusalem.

Ari’s story was made all the more tragic in that he had just been profiled in a Jerusalem Post article two weeks earlier. In a conversation with his mother from Nablus where he was posted, Ari complained that he and his troop-mates were hungry. They didn’t have enough food. His mother, Susie, set out to bring them food and she asked various restaurants and food vendors in Ra’anana if they could donate some of their left-overs.

The response, which is chronicled in this article by Jerusalem Post staffer Eli Wohgelanter, was overwhelming: Susie was inundated by donations, and the article quickly made its way around the Internet as a particularly uplifting, inspiring tale of the Israeli sabra cliché come true: prickly on the outside but ever soft and giving on the inside.

Two weeks later, Ari was dead.

Ari’s father sent out a particularly moving Dvar Torah via email which he has given me permission to reprint here. The Dvar Torah ends with a question:

“I know that I am not today the same person I was two weeks ago. Are you?”

These words are among the truest I have read; they encapsulate poignantly how all these senseless killings affect us. The same can be said after Marla’s death. Or after any of the hundreds murdered: “I know that I am not the same person as I was two weeks ago, two months ago, two years ago …”


Everything changes.

The death al Kidush Hashem of our beautiful son Ari Yehoshua zt"l has created a prism through which every experience, every event, every thought must now be filtered. Each day, when I pray, the words strike home at me in a way they never did before, and I now see things which had eluded me in all the years previous.

So, too, the Torah I learn is the same, yet completely different from the Torah I knew before. Some p'sukim now are incomprehensible to me; yet I understand some things now much clearer than I did before.

An example of this is a halacha regarding the mitzva of the Ir Miklat, the City of Refuge (of which Nablus, where Ari fell, was one). Chazal (the Rabbis) tell us that the man-slaughterer who flees to an Ir Miklat in order to escape a vengeful next-of-kin must stay there until the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) dies. Then, he is free to go and will not be harmed.

I could never really understand this. What connection is there between a murderer and the spiritual head of the nation? Chances are the two never met, and certainly the Kohen had no part in the murder. Furthermore, why should the avenger relent when the Kohen Gadol dies?

But now I know. The Rabbis suggest that when the spiritual light of the nation, the one who achieved atonement for all the people dies, there is an overwhelming spirit of both grief and unity which grips Am Yisrael. No one would dare to compound the national agony with yet another murder, and so the manslaughterer goes free, unafraid of being targeted for harm.

While Ari may not have been the Kohen Gadol, he was without a doubt a pure and holy neshama (soul), who reached the highest level any Jew can reach in this world. He was kadosh (holy), a Rabbi Akiva of our times, and his death has engendered a new level of kedusha & achdut (unity) in Ra'anana, Israel and throughout the Jewish world.

Now we must expand upon the unity we are feeling, we must accelerate our love and devotion to each other. How can we compound our tragedy with quarrels, ill will or petty differences between us? We must breathe in this pure air of kedusha that surrounds us, and be energized to go forward, to create, to love, to smile, to see others in only a good light, to build, to live life with the same optimism and ahavat ha'briyut (love of humanity) which Ari exhibited.

I know that, Baruch Hashem, I am not today the same person I was two weeks ago. Are you?

In addition to Rabbi Weiss’s Dvar Torah, I also want to call your attention to two other powerful pieces.

Rolinda Schonwald, a Jerusalem author and close friend of the Weiss family, wrote a powerful poem about this tragedy. You can read it by clicking here.

And Sherri Mandell, mother of then 14-year-old Koby Mandell, relates Ari’s death to her own son’s tragic murder in this article. She writes of how Ari’s mother thought originally she could relate to Sherri’s pain. “Now she knows that she had no inkling. It is pain that you keep drowning in, over and over.”

Rabbi Stewart Weiss can be reached at:

Here are some other links to articles about Ari’s murder:

Eulogy by Ra'anana Mayor Ze'ev Bialsky.
Profile of Ari in Haaretz.
Jerusalem Post Report from Ari's Funeral.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Chesed from Yemen

The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies hosted its fourth annual “Day Away” fundraiser last week. The theme this year was “Jewels of Yemen” and it focused on the traditions and culture of Yemen, with a special focus on the late Yemenite scholar Rav Yosef Kapach and his wife Rabbanit Bracha Kapach, widely known for her many acts of chesed (kindness).

For Jody and me, it was also a chance to return to the place where we first met and fell in love.

17 years ago, the Pardes Institute was a small rabble-rousing school that bucked the establishment and allowed men and women to study Torah together. Even more radically, the course structure proudly mixed modern thinking with traditional texts. The Institute’s spokespeople were not shy in declaring that a Gemara class was likely to include liberal mixes of Shakespeare, Freud and Woody Allen along the more expected Rashi and Tosefot.

Located in a run-down building next to Jerusalem’s Ulpan Etzion, with no discernible heat to speak of in the winter, Pardes allowed Jody & I to study together in “chevruta”. We met in 1985; by 1988 we had gone from study-partners to life-partners.

Flash forward to 2002: Pardes has grown up (and so have we). The school has moved to more well-appointed digs in the Talpiot Industrial Zone, complete with heat and air-conditioning, and sponsors elegant fundraisers like last week’s Day Away. Taking place in Nachlaot’s Ma’ayanot Synagogue, the event mixed lectures, a return to chavruta study, and more experiential activities.

The latter included pita making in a traditional taboon (a black cauldron where the dough is thrown on the side and then scraped off after has cooked to an appropriate crispness), and a full-on Yemenite henna ceremony with the bride-to-be in elaborate dress and globs of mashed henna passed around and spread on the hands of all who wanted. Jody took a little; it had the consistency of playdough and the smell of spinach. She ground the henna round and round in her palm, then scraped it off, leaving only a faint residue on her palm. She held back the temptation to whisper “I’ll never wash this hand again…”

There was also a traditional Yemenite meal held outdoors in the courtyard of the B’Sograim Restaurant and catered by Moshe Sasson of Eucalyptus, one of our Jerusalem favorite eateries. The lunch featured Mehawaj, a codfish appetizer, Ma’aluta, a thick meat soup, and a wheat dish with the odd name of Harris.

There were also a variety of Yemenite breads served throughout the day: Lahuh, a soft flat bread which has the texture of a sponge and looks like a waffle; Saluf, a particularly thick and chewy pita; a sweet fried bread whose name has escaped me but that is meant to be dipped in a mixture of halva and caramel; and Kubana., a tall bread, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, that reminded me of the Sourdough bread from back home.

But the highlight of the day clearly was the appearance of Rabbanit Kapach herself, who spoke eloquently of her life of service through chesed. Married at age 11 in Yemen to her cousin (in order to keep him from being drafted into the Yemeni army), they made their way to Israel in 1943. Rabbanit Kapach quickly established herself as “the woman who helps the elderly, the poor and the frail.” Today, she heads Keren Segulat Naomi (named after her mother), a charity organization that provides, among other things, basic staples to over 5,000 elderly and needy individuals each Pesach.

As I listened to Rabbanit Kapach, her actions seemed so genuine, so pure, it’s no wonder that both she and her husband have both won the Israel Prize for Life Achievement. As I thought about my own life, what few acts of true chesed I might have done over the years seemed paltry and insignificant in comparison.

Even worse, whereas Rabbanit Kapach’s work is a true paradigm of the selfless act, I would be insincere in claiming that my thoughts have been as pure. Or pure at all. Can I say that I have never thought: ‘maybe I will receive something in return for this action? Maybe there will be a payback for this chesed?’ Can any of us claim to never have entertained such self-serving musings?

But then, there is Midrash Zuta which we studied during the day. In the Midrash, Elijah the Prophet appears before a poor but pious man. Elijah says to the man, “You are granted seven good years; when do you want them, now or at the end of your life?” After modestly refusing Elijah twice, the man finally replies that he must consult with his wife. He does, and she says to him “Bring them (the seven good years) today.”

Immediately, their poverty evaporates. His wife then says, “Let us engage in acts of kindness. Perhaps God will add even more (good years).”

Such a calculating approach, such blatantly impure thoughts… certainly this should result in a negative outcome at the end of the seven good years But no, according to the Midrash, God looked at their acts of kindness and “extended his goodness.” How can this be?

How could it not be? This is, of course, a large part of what attracted me to traditional Jewish practice, and to Pardes itself, in the first place: the emphasis on action and not words. You can be the biggest shmuck, think the worst thoughts, but as long as your actions are in the right direction (and you keep your words to yourself since words can hurt with the same intensity as action), your acts of kindness are worthy. Even mine.

As Jody and I talked this through in our chevruta, I realized that the entire Day Away had, ironically (or intentionally?) been transformed into its own personal chesed from Yemen: a thought-provoking opportunity that got the two of us back together as study partners for the first time in so long.

The entire event was coordinated by “A Day Away Productions,” a family venture of our neighbors Elyssa Rabinowitz and her father David Moss. If you’re interested in having them plan a similar event for your organization, you can contact them at:

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Great Race

I had intended to post something lighter today. But then a suicide car bomb exploded next to bus #841 at the Karkur Junction between Hadera and Afula. The bus was traveling from Kyriat Shmona to Tel Aviv on Highway 65, the Wadi Ara road that has already seen 8 suicide bombings since war broke out two years ago. 14 were killed and 42 injured.

This one hit us hard. Over the past few months, the number of bombings has dropped from the horrible days of March, when it was one or two a day, to the present situation when a serious attack occurs once a month. Not that that’s OK. But we’ve been able to rationalize it out of our daily thoughts.

The last attack on a bus, 10 days ago at the Bar Ilan Junction, was “small” by comparison, killing “only” one person. That's not OK either. With every murder a complete world is lost. After Marla, we know that as well as anyone. But were it not for the sensational story of the driver who saved the day by pinning back the bomber’s arms allowing most of the passengers to flee, it would barely have registered in the international media. And, not hearing the story over and over on the BBC, we would have neatly compartmentalized our feelings and filed them away.

Not this time. The large number of the dead and wounded, the nature of the attack (a bomb-laden SUV driven beside the bus) brought back all of our old fears:

Don’t ride buses. Keep far from cars, big cars especially. Stay off the streets entirely.

And more: Maybe we should leave? Go somewhere safer. Ra’anana? Des Moines? Australia?

Then introspective panic: How can we be doing this to our children? They didn’t ask for this kind of risk. Will this be the trigger that pushes us past the breaking point?

But then I received this comment on my “Gilo, DC” posting two days ago from my friend David Janus who lived in Israel with his family up until a few years ago:

“After the first couple of attacks,” he wrote, “My father (who was never a huge fan of our living in Israel) called to check in (the first two shootings were within blocks of the kids' school). I told him we were fine and that, if this keeps up, we were going to have to move back to Israel, where it's a bit safer. I don't think he appreciated the humor… Maybe we're just destined to live in places that are subject to periodic outbreaks of random violence.”

The nature of fear and the steps we take to increase our perception of safety are deftly analyzed in this article in the Washington Post, "Be Afraid of Being Very Afraid."

But what is "safety?" What is "security?" I am reminded of our vacation in North America last summer. On the day we landed in Toronto, July 4, there was that shooting at the El Al Ticket Counter at LAX that left two Israelis dead. Two days after we left Toronto, a religious Jew was killed in a pizza parlor by a skinhead. We went on to Chicago where we met our friend Dean who, three years ago, was gunned down while leaving shul on a Friday night in Chicago. He took five bullets; two still remain.

And then there’s Bali, Finland and Paris. Snipers, anthrax and shoe bombers. What has happened to the world we live in? We were supposed to have total world peace by now. That’s what I was led to believe when I was growing up. I demand a rewrite!

This reaction, honest and certainly understandable, is based on a particular assumption: that life is a great race to be finished at all costs. Michael Even-Esh, who edits Xlivnot – the alumni email newsletter for past participants of the “Livnot U’Lehibanot” ("To Build and Be Built") program in Israel, wrote the following just after Marla died:

“The purpose of life is not to finish 'the race' and say - when you're old, lying on your deathbed surrounded by your family – ‘ah...I made it...I didn't die by terrorism or war or crime or even lung cancer...I died from natural causes...I won the race!’”

Rather, he continues, “The most important thing in life is to live it right, to live it with meaning, to live it with purpose, to live it with gusto…As A.J.Heschel said: ‘ without wonder is not worth living.’ Notice that he didn't say 'life without death is not worth living.' But wonder.”

These words made a profound impact on Jody and me in August, and I think they are just as relevant today, after every attack, after every event that doesn’t fit our comfortable preconception of a life goal based on striving for security above all. By no means is that to say that security and safety should be ignored. I’m not about to take my family for a leisurely drive through Tul-Karem or Ramallah.

But what’s important, and what I think I’ve been pretty consistent about when writing this column, is the question of how you live your life right now. If you were to die tomorrow, could you say: “I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished, with who I’ve loved, with what I’ve left for the future and future generations?”

I’m not saying I’m there yet. Or that I’ll ever be there. But isn’t that something to strive for, now more than ever, in a world that is increasingly dangerous and shows no signs of turning towards the long-suffering path of universal peace anytime soon?

Monday, October 21, 2002

Supportive Cast

Last Thursday was the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Hard to believe it’s been seven years. The two main television channels were filled with talk shows and documentaries; the radio mixed in an appropriate percentage of somber and patriotic songs with the latest from Avril Lavigne and Monika Sex. And at Meravi’s school, her fourth grade class was in charge of leading the annual memorial ceremony.

It was a beautiful affair, tasteful and understated. The class was dressed in matching blue and white and interspersed the reading of passages about Rabin’s life with the songs we have come to associate with the former Prime Minister: Naomi Shemer’s “Tomorrow,” “Bab-el-Wad,” “Cry to You” from Aviv Gefen. The whole school from Grades 1-6 sat, remarkably well behaved, on the floor of the multi-purpose room.

I don’t remember either leading or attending these kinds of ceremonies in elementary school when I was growing up. Maybe there weren’t appropriate events to memorialize: the one with the greatest parallel – the Kennedy assassination – was already buried by the grisly reports emanating from Vietnam. And Memorial Day had long since been transformed from a day of remembrance to one of foot-longs and watermelon.

We did take stage a few times, though. In the fifth grade, at Meadows Elementary School, I was in the supporting cast of the annual Christmas play. It was a Mommy-kissing-Santa-Claus cliche of a story, written by our class’s teacher, Mr. Bratt. I played the long-suffering husband.

But the big deal for me was that, at one point in the show, I was supposed to kiss my wife goodnight, and I had a big-time crush on Bonnie Posluch, the girl who was playing her. Imagine my dismay when she turned her cheek, thwarting my anxiously anticipated moment of supreme pre-teen validation. A stage kiss perhaps? I don’t think so…

Puppy love aside, when I think back to my formative acting experience and then compare it with my daughter and her class, I marvel at how things have changed, how my children's formative experiences are qualitatively so different than my own. As they led the school in “Jerusalem of Gold” rather than "Jingle Bell Rock," it was abundantly clear how at least this one family’s collective Jewish soul has evolved in ways entirely unexpected…and most welcome. We have gone from a small role in the supporting cast to being an integral part of a truly supportive cast: an entire nation of shared interests and history, on this day remembering one who is no longer with us.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Gilo, DC

The sniper in the greater Washington DC area, and people’s reactions to the danger posed by him (or her), is eerily reminiscent of our life here in Israel. In particular, it reminds me of when the sniping started at the Southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, which overlooks Bet Jalla, not far from Bethlehem.

When our friends and family outside of Israel heard about the shooting, they immediately assumed that we were within firing range, that all of Jerusalem was in immediate and constant danger.

We countered with a joke that made its way around these parts it’s not all of Jerusalem, you see; it’s just a particular neighborhood of Jerusalem that’s in danger. Actually, it’s not the entire neighborhood, it’s just the part that borders on the Bet Jalla valley. Actually, it’s not all of that part of the neighborhood, it’s just this one street. Actually, it’s just Dudu Schwartz’s house next to the Feinberg’s and across from the makolet. Actually, it’s really only the window in the living room on the second floor that’s in danger, and then only if you’re sitting on the left side of the couch.

In both Gilo and DC, there is truth, and non-truth in the joke. Yes, you have to know where to stand, but terror is by its very nature indiscriminate. What allows you to live with it is your level of intimacy with a place.

I don’t have that kind of intimacy with the U.S. East Coast. So, despite my daily Israeli experience with terror, I still wouldn’t go anywhere near the great states of Maryland and Virginia or the District of Columbia right now. My knowledge of the DC area is like DC folks’ knowledge of Jerusalem topography, so as far as my feelings are concerned, the entire region as a whole is under siege.

Maybe this is a natural reaction to danger in far away and “foreign” places. To most Westerners, all of Bali is off-limits; every corner in Belfast is a risk to life and limb; the entire country of Serbia is a ticking time bomb. It’s not right, it’s not logical, but it’s the way we think.

Just as it’s natural to draw comparisons. Janine Zachariah is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. She lives in the DC danger zone, but also spent five years in Israel. In an article in Wednesday’s Post, she wrote: “Home Depot parking lots and gas stations in the DC suburbs are (now) the equivalent of unguarded outdoor cafes and buses in Jerusalem. You (just) don't go there.”

But there are also differences between Gilo and DC, important ones. Danny Gordis points out in his latest Israel Dispatch that eventually the DC sniper (or snipers) will be caught and life will return to “normal” in that part of the world. Here, there is no one sniper, there are thousands and there is always another waiting to take his or her place. Our nightmare will not end so soon.

My brother is visiting the Washington DC area right now. Logic says he’s more likely to be killed in a traffic accident on the way back to his hotel than by the sniper. But my gut hopes he’s not pumping gas next to a Home Depot.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Get on With it Already

We all know it’s coming. So what’s taking so long? The war with Iraq, that is. I’m not saying if this is a good or a bad thing or whether I’m in favor or opposed. But it seems so obvious, so inevitable; I wish they’d just get started already. That way they could finish sooner and we could get on with our lives.

As it is, all the war talk is getting really unnerving. Spokesmen alternatively pronounce our gas masks either up to the task or woefully out of date. Which is it? Should we get new ones or remain comfortably numb in our lack of up-to-date knowledge?

And what about Iraq: it either has the capability to hit us, or the U.S. and Britain have already knocked out that capability in covert preemptive strikes. Will Iraq use non-conventional weapons of mass-destruction, or not, since that would be admitting it had them? Will they aim for Jerusalem this time (never mind the mosque, it can always be rebuilt), or continue to target just Tel Aviv and the center of the country? Will Saddam Hussein go for broke if he feels he’s losing, or is he destined for a nice exile on the beach somewhere safe…like Bali?

And what about smallpox?

Sorting out the various pronouncements is made even more difficult by all the official dis-information being spread around like chocolate spread on last Shabbat's challah. I’ve even convinced myself and a few friends that Thomas Friedman is secretly on the payroll of the US State Department.

All this speculation can really drive you crazy. Yesterday, we checked out our communal bomb shelter. It’s still filled with junk, having been used as a storage room for most of its years. Now, we tenants are all making a quick effort to clear it out. We’ll take that coffee table if no one else wants it.

Even without all the junk, the shelter still seems awfully small for all of us, and someone’s got to clean that toilet, it stinks. Then again, are we even supposed to be using this kind of shelter? It’s meant to withstand the impact of missiles and bombs, but for chemical weapons, we’re supposed to lock ourselves into a sealed room, which this isn’t.

Maybe we should consult the new English language War Preparation Guide prepared by the City of Ra’anana Municipality. It's indelicately named chapters give you everything you need to know about "What to Do in a Shooting Incident," "What to Do When the Siren Sounds," and "What to Do During a Chemical or Biological Attack."

There was an announcement on the English news recently: “The gas mask distribution center in Kfar Saba will be closed to the public today and tomorrow. It will reopen on Sunday.” For those of us living here, sometimes you just have to pause and take a step back. Could you ever have imagined, growing up in California or New York or Chicago, that such an announcement would be made, nonchalantly, like it was an everyday occurrence?

So, Mr. Bush, I really don’t care about your need to build coalitions or get the exact right wording on your resolutions. You’ve got the stamp of approval of both houses of Congress. Russia is leaning in your direction. We all know you’re going to do it. So stop driving us crazy over here and get on with it already

And maybe if you time it right, it will give us a good excuse to end the local authorities strike!

Post-script to the strike: remember how I said someone would declare the garbage not being picked up a security hazard. Click here to read all about it. Just remember where you heard it first!

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

A Cure for Jewish Lifecycle Dissonance

I attended the funeral of two colleagues' father yesterday. This was not a terror victim. Zvi Kantor was 82 and had been in and out of the hospital for some time with various ailments. But it was still very emotional.

The funeral was held in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in North Tel Aviv. About 300 people, many from the office (including some of whom had recently been laid off) stood by solemnly, enveloped in an immersive humidity that signaled the last stage of a “hamsin” before the rains come.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a true Israeli funeral; most of our friends here are English-speakers and Marla was buried in San Diego. I think what impressed me the most was how natural these things are for Israelis. Everyone just “knew” what to do.

After initial prayers were said, the body was carried to the gravesite. Cemetery officials shoveled dirt into the grave, and members of the community naturally knew to join in. After Kaddish, everyone assembled bent down, it seemed in near-complete unison, to pick up rocks which we placed on the grave before filing slowly past our colleagues to express condolences.

There was none of the awkwardness that accompanies lifecycle events in the non-"frum from birth" Jewish world I lived in outside of Israel. Where the community’s Rabbi would give painstaking instructions and explanations for every act, where the Hebrew words of prayer would be read hesitatingly, where people would anxiously look to their neighbors for clues as to what to do next.

Outside the funeral hall, there was no box of tattered white kippas embroidered with the name of some unfamiliar Bar Mitzvah boy from many years before waiting at the door. The men all had their own and knew to bring them. And this was a mostly Tel Aviv crowd, definitely not religious. Amazing.

Certainly the language makes a difference. I see it with my kids and the way the words just trip off their tongues naturally. Perhaps, also, with all the terror we’ve lived through, people have more experience with funerals.

I think that the real difference, though, has more to do with the fact that the Jewish rituals are the national rituals here. There is no dichotomy between the majority culture and our private Jewish one. The common frame of reference is not funerals from the Sopranos or weddings from Friends.

The same is true throughout the calendar: the national holidays are also the Jewish ones. And when a family member dies, the bereaved automatically get the full seven days of shiva off by law. There’s no tug to return to work early. No need to take vacation days or sick leave to make up the balance. Living in Israel, it seems, might very well be the most effective cure for Jewish lifecycle dissonance.

Zvi Kantor was an amazing individual. He raised his children on four continents: Israel, Latin America, Europe and Australia. He spoke 8 languages, had much of Shakespeare memorized, and lived an observant life up until the end. A true rennaissance man, he had personally-dedicated copies of both "Sridei Esh" by the ultra-orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, and "Cholot HaZahav" (Sands of Gold) by ultra-secularist Israeli writer Binyamin Tammuz.

I am glad that I got a chance to honor him by being there for my friends Ossie and Haim. And I am glad that, ironically, in his death, my own faith in why we are here was once again reaffirmed.

Monday, October 14, 2002

Three Strikes You're Out

Fall is strike season around these parts. I don’t know what it is about this country that makes us so strike-prone. I understand that Italy is pretty strike-crazy too, so maybe it’s the sun baking out of our brains any remnant of good sense.

Whatever it is, it’s like clockwork: come the first rains, the local authority workers strike, the government workers join in and close down the Income Tax Authority, the Interior Ministry, the Employment Service and more. They stop picking up the garbage and the kindergarten assistants (though fortunately not the teachers who are paid by a different ministry) walk off the job. This year’s strike involves 100,000 local authority workers and 40,000 government employees.

I suppose we should feel blessed: there was no main school strike this time. That one is a real killer. One year, we raced back to Israel from a vacation with family in the States, intending to arrive just before school started. No school. For three weeks. Kids were bouncing off the walls with virtual jet lag that lasted forever.

As the strike grinds on, unlikely solutions are proposed: the strike is a security risk and should be ended by emergency order. With no garbage collection, bombs could be waiting in every trash can, set off no doubt by the countless street cats inhabiting those same bins. Two years ago, the strike spanned Rosh Hashana, totally negating the holiday greeting “may you have a sweet new year.”

As bad as it is now, it gets really hairy when the sympathy strikes start in. The worst is the airports authority, which one year shut down all flights for days on end. That was at a time when I was traveling a lot for my start up, and we were scheduled to make a presentation on a stage at a big conference in California. People were camping out at the airport, hoping for an open window. I stayed at home until it was announced that one flight would be allowed to depart, an El Al flight on Motzei Shabbat. Which just happened to be my flight. It was enough to make one believe in God. Or El Al.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the workers. On the contrary, I think that most employees in this country are woefully underpaid, teachers in particular. But I remember when my father, a newspaperman at the San Francisco Examiner for 35 years until he retired a few years ago, went on strike. All the city's papers were shut down for what seemed to me as a young boy to be an eternity. I imagined my father walking the picket line and collapsing while evil taskmasters forced him to march forever onward with nary a milk and cookie break. (I had a vivid imagination.)

The night before this latest strike opened, Jody got a call from the kindergarten. They weren't going to be able to open gan the next day unless the parents volunteered to take turns as teacher’s assistants. It’s not quite a picket line, and Jody’s work schedule is flexible, so she stepped up to the plate. Aviv was ecstatic. His mother was coming to be his teacher. He even got dressed by himself and he ate a double breakfast of Cini-Mini's and toast. He raced out the front door, and Jody had a blast: she got to observe the gan in action. It was a unique opportunity, a real blessing in disguise.

And there’s one more blessing: the meter maids are also on strike. So, while many of the city's offices may be closed, there’s lots of free parking outside!

Anyone else have any good strike stories? Click the Comments button below and leave them.

Click here for more coverage on the strike.

Friday, October 11, 2002

Under the Trees

It’s like living on a ping pong table, getting battered back and forth between life cycle events – birth, death, bar and bat mitvah, joy, despair, hospitalization, recovery.

We had already gone from Marla’s death in July onto a series of birthdays – Amir & Jody in August, Merav & me in September. A few weeks ago, I attended an absolutely lovely brit mila for a co-worker’s new son. The event was held outdoors, under the trees, at the Neot Kedumim Biblical Nature Reserve – a sprawling botanical landscape located not far from Modi’in and filled with living things found only in the Bible.

The guests assembled outdoors in a pine grove set with tables and balloons and catered quiches, lasagna, salmon and decadent desserts. The weather was warm but not humid; a perfect fall evening. The baby cried, but not too much. The mother looked happy but bleary while the father worked the crowd which included a number of officers in uniform, friends of the family. They named their new son Kfir.

The very next day, I found myself under the trees again, once again in the company of officials in uniform. The weather was warm, but not too humid. This was the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel)’s annual memorial for those North Americans who have lost their lives in the past year, whether by terror, army training accident or car crash. It reminded me of what we say on Yom Kippur: who live and who will die, who by water and who by fire, who at his predestined time and who before his time...

We remembered 24 individuals that afternoon. Marla was one of those remembered, but this time she was not alone. She was joined by her friend Ben who was sitting with her at the Hebrew University cafeteria when the bomb went off.

And then there were the others: Lee, Merom, Hagai, Gedaliah, Matanya and Shmuel, all of whom were killed in the line of duty while serving in the IDF. Moran, who was killed just for taking a walk in Jerusalem. Shoshana, Moshe, and Gila who were killed while riding to home or work on the bus. Lynne and Atara and Esther and Avi who died in their own cars. Rachel, who died eating pizza. Hanna, who died Seder night eating matzah. Asher, who was killed in his bed at school. Roni who was filling in for the lead singer at a bat mitzah. Zvi who died in an army training accident. And of course the other North American victims of the Hebrew University nightmare: Dina, Janis and David. And there are already more, who enter into the next Hebrew calendar year.

A child is born. A young person is taken. Playing cruel ping-pong with my emotions. But this is our life and we must embrace it, live it to its fullest. Two events, under the trees. What will tomorrow bring?

To read biographies on the 24, as well as all of the over 600 victims of terror in the last two years, go to the Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund. Or click the person’s name above. To read a report on the AACI Memorial event, click here.

Thursday, October 10, 2002


8 years ago on this date, October 10, 1994, we arrived in Israel as new immigrants. It was a dark and stormy night (apologies to Snoopy, but it was). There was electricity in the air, illuminating Jerusalem as we drove over the hills towards our new home. A sign of things to come? After unloading our 12 pieces of checked luggage (3 pieces for each of the four of us - Aviv wasn't born yet), Jody sent me to the supermarket to pick up some essentials. My first full Israeli experience as a citizen of this country.

And I freaked out.

I didn't recognize anything. It wasn't the Hebrew. Rather, it was more the fact that it had taken me years of shopping to get to know and settle on our family's favorite products in the U.S. I knew what type of butter we liked, our favorite dishwashing detergent, which type of juice to buy. But now, I had to learn a whole new language, the language of Israeli consumerism. And I had no frame of reference.

Tnuva, Elite or Osem?
Tara, Strauss or Yotvata?
Milki, Carlo or Dani?
Mei Eden or Neviot?

I walked out into the rain with less than we needed, overwhelmed yet at the same time slightly amused. Fortunately back at the apartment, our friends Ben and Renee had arrived with enchiladas and burritos from Amigos. The food was cold and soggy but still nourishing. We ate on the floor, scooping up the beans and rice with our bare hands, since we didn't have plates yet and I'd forgotten to pick up cutlery at the store.

Ben and Renee didn't mention that the night before there had been a terrorist shooting just outside the restaurant on the Nachlat Shiva pedestrian mall. Two days later, Nachson Wachsman would be kidnapped and murdered. More signs?

But we're still here with no plans to go anywhere. 8's hard to believe. But the really significant date will only come in another 8 years. As my palindrome-crazy wife points out, then our anniversary date will fall on 10-10-10. I hope to still be writing about life in Israel for you on that auspicious date.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Chatan Torah

Simchat Torah is now almost two weeks away, but I’m still kvelling. One of the unique aspects of our Southern Jerusalem congregation, Kehillat Yedidya, is the participation of all members of the community. Yedidya has rightly been known as a pioneer in the modern Orthodox world for enabling women to participate more fully in prayer and in reading from the Torah. Now Yedidya is leading the way in offering that same opportunity to another, too often neglected group:

Our kids.

For the past two years, Yitzhak Avigad and Rafi Rottman have been teaching the congregation’s youngest members to read Torah. Three times a year, these little pitzkulahs, some barely six or seven, are called up – boys and girls together – in front of their peers and parents, with a real Torah, to read a parsha or two. They learn together for a couple of months beforehand and, let me tell you, they are really motivated to come to shul.

Now sure, they would be doing this anyway come bar and bat mitzvah time. But there is something intensely gratifying about bringing this honor to those so young.

Maybe it’s the fact that some of these kids are barely tall enough to reach the mini-bima (the table where the Torah rests). Or perhaps it’s the supremely unselfconscious pride beaming from faces that have yet to be affected by the jaded cynicism of early teens. Or maybe it’s this: for those of us who didn’t grow up in an observant community and who still struggle with Hebrew, they are fulfilling our own dreams of integration and citizenship…at a very early age.

This year, Merav and Amir both read not one, but two lengthy parshiot, and Amir was chosen to be the Chatan Torah – the one who finishes up the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) and then leads the kids’ congregation in kiddush. Standing there, draped in my tallit, looking so big and tall, but still the innocent 11-year old boy I know and love, I knew we were in the right place at the right time.

Yes, even today, with everything going on around us, Jerusalem is the right place and this is still the right time. Indeed, it seems like another lifetime (all the way back in March) when, spooked by the constant bombs and the sound of nightly shooting from nearby Gilo, that we seriously considered leaving, at least for a temporary sojourn in pastures less eventful.

But how could we leave Jerusalem and this amazing community that teaches our young kids Torah, that has welcomed us and supported us so well throughout our eight years of absorption in Israel.

And anyway, think of all the money we’ll save on Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons!

Special thanks again to Yitzhak and Rafi for all that they’ve done over these last years. May their hard work continue to strengthen our children…and their parents.

Monday, October 07, 2002

A Tenuous Existence

I have known David and Shelly Brinn for 18 years now, longer than I have known just about anyone in Israel, and we have been good friends for all of this time. David recently wrote an article, entitled "A Tenuous Existence," for the Portland Maine Press Herald, his pre-aliyah "hometown paper."

Now the news editor for the Jerusalem Post, David picks up the the theme of this web column and talks about his family's own attempt to live a "normal life in the middle of a war." David also quotes me (mid-way through the article) and refers to Marla's oft-repeated statement about having a "front row seat for the history of the Jewish people."

Click here to read more

No More Time for Saving Daylight

Last night, we changed the clocks back to Standard Time. A little early by international standards, but here in Israel, this was a major breakthrough. You see, only in Israel is changing the clocks an issue controversial enough that it can threaten to bring down the government.

Those of us who live here know that, for years, Daylight Savings Time has been a whole lot shorter in Israel than in the rest of the industrialized world. The reason: to allow those who want to rise before dawn to say the Selichot prayers that take place in the month before Rosh Hashana to have enough time to do so.

This argument epitomizes the classic religious vs. secular dialectic with the latter claiming it isn’t fair to cut short afternoon BBQ hours just to accommodate a few pious individuals in Bnei Brak.

Up until this year, the religious parties prevailed, and Daylight Savings Time (or Summer Time as its known here) always ended in early September. This year, however, a deal was brokered and, for the first time I can remember since moving here in 1994, we switched the clocks after Yom Kippur.

Now, I have nothing against Selichot prayers, and we hardly every barbeque. But I am very glad for this recent development. Turning the clocks back so early really gets my goat for a very different reason: it messes up my TV schedule.

When we’re out of Daylight Savings synch with the rest of the world, all the international television stations we get in Israel on cable and satellite get totally screwed up. So instead of starting at 9:30 PM, Star Trek: The Next Generation comes on at 8:30, right in the middle of bedtime stories. Same with Buffy and Roswell. Richard Quest, that annoying business guy who hosts CNN’s morning show, starts an hour earlier, which is OK because he ends earlier too. But so do the exercise programs, which I occasionally watch when it’s too cold outside to go for a run.

And it goes beyond TV. What time can I call friends and family overseas? It used to be a simple calculation: 7 hours to the East Coast, 10 hours to the West. But now is it’s 6 and 9 hours respectively…or is it 8 and 11? And what about to London? I inevitably mess it up and wake someone, or I catch them right in the middle of Masterpiece Theater, which I thought was on an hour earlier…or was it an hour later?

If this were a Star Trek universe, all of Earth would be using the same time system already and we’d be more gainfully occupied with fighting the Borg and the Breen. But we’re not there yet, and according to the papers, the factions in the Knesset are already gearing up for another fight regarding the ending dates of next year’s Daylight Savings Time.

As for me, I gotta run. There’s not much time to finish grilling the hamburgers before the sun goes down, and the kids are getting hungry…

Thursday, October 03, 2002


It’s been a great source of embarrassment, Jody’s cellphone. Some stare in disbelief, others don’t even recognize her circa-1995 Nokia 2120 for its primary function – communication. “No really, it’s a brick, right?” they cruelly joke.

It was my phone originally, my first, not long after we made aliyah. It has served us well. Our frugal attitude has always been: why spend money if the old is working fine? Let fashion be damned.

But finally, last month, the diburit (the car speaker kit) sputtered out. I didn’t even bother investigating how much it would cost to repair. It was time. And anyway, I wanted to migrate Jody to Orange, my cellphone provider from work, so we could benefit from the low rate of about 2.5 cents/minute between us.

But then came a decision we didn’t expect. You get to choose your number. Well sort of. It’s a crafty bait and switch operation. The “available” numbers are all fine, but the really “good” numbers, cost an extra $12. Well, I wasn’t going to spend my fettuccini money on a vanity number. But Jody was unhappy. The number I’d chosen was just so…plain. And it was missing those crucial repetitions that make numbers so memorable.

You see, Jody goes ga-ga over number combinations. She was heartbroken that our wedding date had to be on Sunday, August 7, 1988, only one day away from the infinitely more pleasurable 8.8.88. Another time she called me breathlessly from the car. The odomoter had just turned over to 55,555. It’s not better than sex. But close.

So I reluctantly called back Orange and asked them to read me some of the “good” numbers. And they were indeed really quite good. There were offering Triple 8’s, a variety of even/odd combinations (767 and 676), and mini-flushes (345, 789).

And then we found it: a palindrome. A number that reads the same backwards and forwards! There was no way to walk away from this. Even I couldn’t forget Napoleon’s immortal words: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”

We got it. And I can’t wait to get home. We’ll light some candles and dial away, again and again, all through the night...

(I’ve been a big fan of the Puzzle segment on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. So I’ll open up my own little puzzle competition here. Who can guess what palindrome we got? You’ve got to know a little bit about which Orange area codes are currently available. And I’ll give you hint: we took 888 for part of it. If you think you have the answer, click the Comments button below and join in.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Marla and Yoni

I was reading the Post on Friday and there was a full page story in the magazine section on Yoni Jesner, the 19-year-old student from Scotland who was killed on the #4 bus in Tel Aviv September 19. My first inclination was to skip over the article…I wasn’t sure I could handle another heart wrenching story of a life cut down so young. Maybe I could just bury my head in the sand, just a bit, just this one time, and defer the pain. We all have our coping strategies. This could be my antidote...I know I'm a news junkie: I have to know it all, as it happens, in real time. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to sleep for the last two years.

But I did read the article. As expected, it talked about what an amazing person Yoni was. The good deeds he did, his commitment to Israel. The hook that makes Yoni’s story noteworthy on NPR and across the international media is that his family decided to donate his organs, and one kidney went to an 8-year-old Palestinian girl in East Jerusalem. His family stressed that saving a life, any life, was what Yoni - who was studying to be a doctor – would have wanted. Scott Simon of NPR saw this as a message of hope.

But the article didn’t focus on this. Instead it described the hundreds who gathered for his funeral in Israel and the memorial service in Glasgow. It talked about how he ran Bnei Akiva, and the Jewish Youth Council, taught Hebrew, helped with adult services in synagogue. He was always concerned about others. He had a unique ability to make people laugh. He was so loved.

The article described the good deeds Yoni did on the very morning of his death: going out of his way to return a cheap pen inadvertently ‘borrowed’ while signing a check three weeks earlier at a used bookshop. And participating in an early minyan at the shiva house for a friend’s father. On the ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Yoni was reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. How ironic is that?

As I read Yoni’s story, I was struck by the similarities with Marla. There were thousands at her funeral, too; hundreds at her memorial ceremonies. She did volunteer work, treated all people as equals no matter what their background or ethnicity, was committed to Israel. She led women’s prayer services. She had a smile that would melt your heart if you were privileged to see it, and so many had that privilege. She too was so loved.

Marla never knew Yoni but I know they could have been good friends. They both had that ability to touch a person at his or her very core. If I hadn’t opened the paper and read about Yoni, I never would have known how special he was. And if not for Marla, I might very well have been tempted to skip over the article entirely. It’s important to read every one of these articles. To try to comprehend the world that each individual lost to us embodied. To feel in our hearts, as we say every year at Pesach, as if we ourselves had been taken out of Egypt.