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
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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.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

In Their Beds

It is a parent’s worst nightmare. To wake up to the news of the terror attack on Kibbutz Metzer last week.

By now you already know the story: a terrorist broke into the kibbutz and entered a house. The mother, 34-year-old Revital Ohayon, was reading bedtime stories to her two boys, Matan and Noam. She tried to shield the children but he shot her, then shot the children, point blank, in their beds. Two other people were killed before the terrorist fled.

Parents around the world have many nightmares to contend with when it comes to their children – drugs, kidnappings, unsavory boyfriends and girlfriends.

Parents in Israel have additional concerns: putting your kid on a bus to school and not knowing if it will blow up. Trying to encourage your kids to eschew the fun of going to hang downtown with their friends, or to a mall, a cafe, anywhere there’s a crowd that a terrorist would target. Is it any wonder that so many teenagers here have cellphones?

But this attack calls up entirely different fears. Unlike suicide bombers, which are by their nature anonymous, this attack had all the hallmarks of the cold-blooded hit man. (It is the exact opposite of what I wrote last week about “Marla’s Killers.”)

The terrorist most certainly looked those children in the eyes before shooting. Did he think about his own children? Did images of his own brothers and sisters flash before his eyes? Or was he so brainwashed by his handlers that he no longer saw Matan and Noam as human beings?

We don’t want to descend so far into despair as to start using the “H” word – that only cheapens the Holocaust and gives too much credit to our adversaries. But when was the last time that our enemies were able to shoot us at point blank range?

In other cases, employees or long-time acquaintances have turned their guns on us. Maybe pogrom is more appropriate, since often times it was the Jewish villagers’ own neighbors, people they knew well, who initiated or joined in the massacres.

The terrorist who killed the Ohayons didn’t know them personally, but the Palestinian village across the valley certainly did – it has been widely reported that these twinned communities were in the vanguard of promoting peace and coexistence. They had even been instrumental in trying to move the location of the Security Fence, a fence that would have separated the communities but would also have likely prevented this atrocity.

What do we tell our own children when they hear the news? At first, we tried to protect them, turning off the news when it was became too personal or too frightening. Indeed, for a while, I listened to the 7:00 AM News in English on headphones while I went about making the lunches for the day. But then Amir got upset because he said everyone else in school knew what was going on and were talking about it, and he was left out.

Merav, however, has become increasingly afraid in her own home. On too many nights, she refuses to go downstairs to her room alone, convinced that terrorists may be outside.

“What are you afraid of, honey,” I ask.

“I’m afraid they will put a bomb in our apartment building.”

“They’re not interested in our apartment,” I try to comfort her. But inside I think: who knows? With each new escalation, there are new strategies. Can’t get a bomb on the bus? So drive a bomb-laden car next to one and explode it. So who’s to say that at some point they won’t start targeting private apartment blocks in southern Jerusalem?

Last night, Jody wanted to lock our bedroom door. “What good would that do?” I asked. We might be safe, but how would we save the children? Not that Revital Ohayon was able to.

“Please don’t bring these things up right before bed,” I pleaded. I have a hard enough time sleeping as it is.

Still, I am appalled and furious that I even have to think of these things. I am transported to images of camps and ghettos in Europe, of mothers smothering their children so they wouldn’t cry out. Is this what we have come to, here in our own land?

What can be done? This is not 1942 and we are not helpless. We are here. We are not going anywhere. Though this horrible stinking situation may harden us, we will survive.

But will our children?

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo

“Right, Abba, falafel is Israeli?” That was my 11-year-old Amir, asking a question with far more to it than either of us realized.

The truth is, most of the people who live in this region do interesting things with hummus and boiling oil. But one thing I’m almost sure of: none of neighbors prepare falafel quite the way they do now in Tel Aviv.

We had heard about this new phenomenon for a while…start with the basic falafel, pita and salad, then add upscale items like pesto, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes. Yuppie Falafel. New Age Falafel. Hi-Tech Falafel. Sure, but how would it taste?

A few weeks ago, we visited the Falafelim Shop at 86 Ibn Givrol Street in Tel Aviv, just opposite Rabin Square. We parked in a lot that said “off limits” (Jody was feeling adventurous, I was sure we’d get towed). As we got out, we saw a memorial and a plaque reading “Yitzhak Rabin was murdered at this spot.”

After all these years, we had never paid our respects to the site itself. Back in 1995 we were already too old to be true candle children, though I am quite fond of Aviv Gefen’s music.

The memorial itself consists of a set of large black squared-off stones with a light shining from underneath. It’s a modern version of the eternal flame that hangs over the bima in the synagogue. It was impressive, though one of the kids thought it looked a bit too much like charcoal barbeque briquettes.

Walking past the memorial was eerie. You could easily imagine Yitzhak Rabin descending the stairs directly in front of us, and Yigal Amir casually strolling from just about where we parked the car while the cameraman on the roof behind us recorded it all. That all this was just off busy Ibn Givrol Street, at the foot of a rather ugly office building…well, maybe I’m just used to thinking about grassy knolls, limousines, and wide-open vistas.

But this story was supposed to be about the falafel shop across the street. It's just that in Israel, it seems, you can't even go out for falafel without getting a history lesson.

When I first started reading reviews of the new Yuppie falafel, I envisioned an upscale restaurant with lots of glass and chrome and waiters wearing black and white serving seasoned hummus on fine china.

To my surprise it’s just an ordinary corner falafel stand – you order on the street, take it out and eat, or sit down at one of a few small tables set up near the back door of the tiny kitchen

We ordered and sat. I had the pesto falafel. Jody had the goat cheese. There is also a Greek falafel with feta cheese, and a Mexican version with avocado, salsa, coriander and corn salad. The kids had plain balls, tehina and pita.

Now for the verdict: our falafels were awfully good. They still tasted like falafel, but crossed with the kind of sandwiches we get at the other big Yuppie trend in Israel – the upscale sandwich shop where goat cheese and pesto are used liberally. My favorite is Shraga in Jerusalem.

But goat cheese and pesto on falafel? Could this be the beginning of the twilight for the plain hummus ball, a sort of bedtime for the humble garbanzo?

At Falafelim Shop, they have one type of ball; the emphasis is on the different sauces and spreads. At another Yuppie falafel place up the street that I haven’t tried yet, they embed some of the spices in the balls themselves – red balls are Mexican, green balls are pesto. There are orange balls too, but I can’t figure out what they are…sweet potatoes? Pumpkin? Maybe it’s better to just imagine the possibilities…

Hey, I’ve got an idea: let’s export the new Yuppie falafel. Maybe this would be the real trick to reviving the now mostly discarded vision of a New Middle East. Yitzhak Rabin might not approve, but I’ve got a good feeling about this.

Goat cheese with your falafel, Saddam? Some pesto on your’s, Bashir?
NEW to This Normal Life: You can now listen to this story on Jerusalem Post Radio. Click here to launch your media player and hear the story!

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Our Bench at Ma'alei Gilboa

San Diego came to Jerusalem a few weeks ago. A mission coordinated by the San Diego Jewish Academy and the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County spent a week in Israel. As part of their visit, they visited the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies where Marla studied. A short memorial service was held. Jody and I spoke, as did a number of Marla’s friends and teachers.

Two tributes stood out and I wanted to share them with you. Appearing below is a moving, straight from-the-heart short story by Marla’s closest companion, her boyfriend Michael Simon. Entitled “Our Bench at Ma’alei Gilboa,” it had many in the room reaching for tissues. The second is a gut-wrenching poem by Amanda Pogany, Marla’s best girlfriend in Israel. You can read it by clicking this link. Both are reprinted here with permission by their authors.

"Do you want to keep walking?"

Marla asked me this question late last October, as we stood with a group of Pardes students at the conclusion of our tour of Kibbutz Ma'alei Gilboa, on the top of Mount Gilboa, overlooking the Beit She'an valley in central Israel.

I had spent nearly 8 weeks hoping for an opportunity to spend quality time with Marla Bennett. From - literally - the first moment I saw her, at the entrance to Pardes, I had wanted to go out with her, or at least to get to know her better. I had even asked her to coffee a few times, but on each occasion circumstances had prevented her from spending time with me outside of Pardes

So, when she asked, "Do you want to keep walking?" I did not hesitate.

"HELL, YES!" I thought. "Sure." I said.

We walked around the rest of the kibbutz, to areas we had not visited on our tour. We stopped by the cow shed, and I attempted to engage a few of the cows in conversation. My "moos", which seemed (to me) quite authentic, elicited no response from the cows. They elicited little response from Marla. I'm still not sure whether she was amused, entertained, or just wondering, "Why did I ask this guy to keep walking with me?"

We kept walking, and along the way we began to talk about our feelings toward Israel and our experiences there during this difficult time. About the possibilities, or likelihood, of one day making aliyah. Marla said she was not sure about it, but she told me about her cousins (Jody and Brian) who live in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. They met at Pardes, got married in the States, had children, and then moved to Israel. She could imagine, or dream, a similar future for herself.

She told me that she wanted to have four children. I told her that I thought three was a good number.

We stopped on a bench overlooking the valley and sat there for the rest of the afternoon. Marla told me about San Diego, about her Mom and Dad, her sister Lisa, and her beloved Grammee. She talked about Berkeley, and I told her about Stanford, and we teased each other for the first time (of many) about our college rivalry. We discovered that we both loved the Bay Area and hoped to live there again sometime.

I told her about my brother, and sister-in-law, my nephew Benjamin, and my niece Devorah -- and how I adore them all. About my dream of being a father and having my own family.

She sat on the bench and told me that, one day, when she has her own house, it would have a kitchen with lots of light. It has to be filled with light. I would later learn that Marla loved to, as she put it, "decorate little worlds in my mind."

I listened - with rapt attention - to everything she said. But the whole time I was sitting on that bench, watching beautiful, smiling, radiant Marla Ann Bennett, listening for the first time to her stories and her hopes and her dreams, I kept thinking, "I could marry this woman." I had never before heard those words in my own mind and heart.

Two weeks later, we went on our first date.

Six months after our first date, Marla was brushing her teeth and I was standing nearby. Suddenly, she put down her toothbrush and said, "There's something I think you should know." "OK…" I said, wondering whether this was going to be a good "something" or a bad "something." "You should just know that, when I get engaged, it's going to be with Grammee's wedding ring" (This was definitely a good "something."). I said, "And I should just know this because…?" "It's just something you should know," she said, flashing a cute little grin.

So…in August, during my visit to San Diego, I had planned to ask Grammee for that ring. And I had planned to ask Michael and Linda for their blessing and permission to marry their daughter.

Instead, in August I flew from Israel to Southern California accompanying Marla's body, and I met Grammee on the day of Marla's funeral. As I hugged her, I told her what Marla had told me about the ring, and Grammee held up her hand. "It's this ring, kid." She was wearing it for Marla.

The ending of this story was supposed to go something like this: A year after our first visit to Ma'alei Gilboa, Marla and I return there for Shabbat in late October. On Shabbat afternoon, I ask Marla to go for a walk, and we visit the cows, and walk around the kibbutz, and then end up back at our bench. In the place where she first told me her dreams for the future, I drop to one knee and, with Grammee's ring in my hand, I tell Marla that I believe that she is my soulmate, and that I am hers, and I ask her to bind her future together with mine.

The real ending of this story goes like this: A year after our first visit, it is a beautiful October Shabbat afternoon on Ma'alei Gilboa. As the sun sets and Shabbat fades away, our bench, with its sweeping view of the Beit She'an valley, is empty.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Marla's Killers

They convicted Marla’s killers this week.

Four men, Wa'al Kassem, 31, Wissam Abassi, 25, Muhammad Odeh, 29, and Al'a a-Din Abassi, 30, were part of a Jerusalem-based Hamas cell that was responsible for, among others, the July 31 attack at Hebrew University, the March 9 bombing of the Moment Cafe, the May 7 suicide bombing in a pool hall in Rishon Lezion, and the attempted massive casualty operation at the Pi Glilot fuel depot north of Tel Aviv. All told, these four depraved individuals caused the deaths of 35 innocent Israeli civilians.

I have been following their stories for some time, from the moment they were arrested in September through the trial when the details of the attacks came out. The prosecution is asking for up to 35 life terms in prison for these men. There had been calls for the death penalty, but these have passed. There were names called and near-fistfights in the courtroom.

During the trial itself, we learned where the bomb was made and how it was transported to the Hebrew University’s Frank Sinatra Cafeteria. We learned, too, that the bomb didn’t work the first time. So it was removed, repaired and returned. Such a calculating approach. In a different context, this kind of attention to detail would be seen positively as taking pride in the quality and craftsmanship of one’s work.

This is supposed to be the moment where justice is done. The bereaved families confront the killers of their children and loved ones, look them straight in the eye and know with certainty that they will spend the rest of their days behind bars.

But something is wrong. I can’t seem to connect these four with Marla. Maybe I’ve watched too much television: murders are supposed to have a one-to-one connection, where the murderer knows his or her victim, where there is a personal motive. With terror, it is all so removed.

Marla's killers didn’t know their victims personally. They weren’t even around when it happened, detonating the bomb by remote control with a cellphone. If I yelled at them “You killed Marla,” they wouldn’t even know whom I was talking about. I’m supposed to want revenge. But how can I feel fury if the other side doesn’t know me or the victims?

As these thoughts - thoughts that no one should have to think - rattle around in my overtaxed brain, I realize that I preferred not knowing the details, not knowing the names, not being able to picture their faces. I was comforted more by the anonymity, of being able to cling to a core belief in the pure randomness of the act.

“Things happen.” “A cruel act of God.” “Wrong place at the wrong time.” Like a car crash on a dark and rainy highway where no direct blame can be placed. But these are all rationalizations that allow us to detach ourselves from the fact that four real people woke up one morning and set out to murder, and one of those killed was our dear cousin.

So now justice has been served. The dramatic Law and Order chapter of the story has been neatly wrapped up and the credits are rolling.

Offstage, though, I am left to sort out my feelings, deal with the pain that lasts long after the season finale, and to wonder why, if justice has indeed been served, I still feel so rotten.

Here are some links to stories about the trial and conviction:

- Jerusalem Post and Haaretz articles on the conviction this week.
- Details on how the attacks were planned and carried out.
- Jerusalem Post and Haaretz coverage of scuffles at the opening of the trial.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Homeland Security

When sniper fear was at its height in the DC suburbs, someone humorously “adapted” a traditional Jewish prayer, and the resulting ditty began making its way around the Internet, eventually winding its way to us in Israel via the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. There is a long form and an abridged version, the latter of which reads:

"May it be Your will, Lord our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that the sniper from Washington should not be a Jew."

At about the same time, in an article by James Bennet in the New York Times, an unnamed senior Israeli security official is quoted regarding the recent indictment of a Bedouin soldier in the IDF on charges of spying for Hizbullah:

“I hate to say it,” says the officer, “but I almost wish it were a Jew. That would have made this easier.”

Jeff Rosenschein, a good friend and an avid reader of this column, points out that the juxtaposition of these two comments forge a strong statement about the differences between living in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Outside of Israel, no matter how comfortable and integrated we may feel, there is always a nagging whisper of insecurity lingering in the backs of our minds, ready to pounce like a cat if we let our collective guards down. It’s the kind of below-the-radar paranoia that results from being a minority, at least on some level.

I’m sure not everyone feels that way, but it was very much a part of my North American Jewish consciousness, that I was always ever so slightly on edge that the perpetrator of some horrible crime would turn out to be Jewish. The converse is never true. Can you imagine anyone saying, “I hope the sniper turns out to be an angry Hasid?”

Inside Israel, by contrast, we have come far enough, and gained enough of a feeling of security and self-confidence, that we are able to wish that the bad guy is a Jew. This stems from the fact that most of us, I hope, are sensitive to the concerns of the minorities around us; we don’t want people to say, “See, they’re all like that.” Because we know how it felt when we were in that position.

Now maybe the unnamed officer didn’t have such pure motives; maybe he was more worried about operational problems this incident is going to cause for the army. Maybe he knows too much. It doesn’t matter. The point is that our homeland is where we feel the most secure.

A very different commentary on that frequently used term these days: “Homeland Security.”

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Something Worth Fighting For?

The Labor Party walked out of the government at the end of last week. And I thought: what great news!

I mean, here I am, trying my hardest to demonstrate in this column, in my own small way, how Israel is a normal country, a country like any other, and along comes Labor and they go and prove it as clear as can be. Who could have asked for more?

Labor walks out and shows the world that not everything here is about war and terror and killing. How so? Labor didn’t walk out because of a disagreement over how to treat Arafat. Or over the best method of retaliation after a particularly horrific bus attack.

No, this was about pure old-fashioned values: the distribution of wealth between different sectors. Pensioners and poor farmers on the periphery vs. middle class settlers in the West Bank.

This was a fight that said that some things are still worth fighting for. Yes, the Labor party walked out and allowed us to feel good about democracy again, about our entire political system.

And that’s the way it played out on CNN, on the BBC. “The Labor Party has walked out over an ideological difference of opinion on the amount of funding for settlements.” OK, that still brings us back to the conflict, but not on the level of raw blood and guts. At least not today.

All of this would be reason for rejoicing except for one small thing: the real reason Labor walked? It has nothing to do with values and everything to do with pure politics.

Did Labor really care about the issues? Of course not. It was all a ruse, engineered by jaded politicians to bolster their chances in upcoming internal primaries. The ploy was as cynical as today’s column is turning out to be.

And don’t think the Likud didn’t do their share. This wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t perceived as good for the Jews by spin-doctors on both sides.

But the result is that, here we are in the middle of the most grueling war we’ve experienced since the birth of the state - a war of attrition right on our doorsteps, in the centers of our cities - while at the same time we’re sitting on the cusp of another looming conflict, one that could be even more deadly and devastating.

But on TV and on the streets it will be all campaign slogans and patriotic jingles being spewed forth in every which direction as elections draw ever closer.

Here’s an ironic image: a Scud carrying non-conventional weapons is stopped from its intended target when it slams into a campaign billboard at the entrance to Tel Aviv, sticking its chemically-tipped warhead, Pinnochio-like, through the oversized nose of a smiling politician.

Wait a minute: political backroom maneuvering, grandstanding in the halls of parliament, putting the elections and political gain before the public good... that’s not unique to us at all. You know, maybe we are normal after all.

It’s just not the kind of normal that I was hoping for right now.