Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Chaos and Quiet

One of the questions Jody and I have been asked again and again on our return from just over ten days in India was: has it changed you? Do you feel you’re a different person as a result of the trip?

The answer surprised even us. How could such a quick trip have any kind of long lasting psychological influence? But it did. And here it is in a nutshell:

We, in Israel, have nothing to complain about.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The impulse towards national and self-improvement is one of our most basic human drives and we should never cease trying to make the world a better place. But Israelis – and even more so the substantial Anglo immigrant community in Israel – are known to kvetch about every little thing. You know what I mean:

The streets are filthy.

There’s too much noise.

Everyone’s corrupt.

Well, let me tell you, we’ve got it made in the shade. Israel is a paradise, a Western wonder compared to so much of what we saw in India.

Which is not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves on our trip. We did. Tremendously. Every day provided a full curriculum in exotic fascination. There is no place in the world like India for the sheer sensory overload. The overwhelming and non-stop newness of everything around us provided a buzz like no other.

But that only enhanced our appreciation of home.

For example, I was walking to synagogue with the kids on the Shabbat after our return. And I was struck by the incredible quiet.

Now I know that most visitors to Israel complain of the exact opposite - that Israel is such a noisy place. And it's true. There' s no denying it. Israelis are loud. Storefronts blast disco and people in general speak several decibels higher than their North American counterparts.

It’s just that everything is relative.

In India, for example, there were times we couldn’t hear ourselves speak above the din of trucks barreling over potholes while leaning on their horns non-stop in what we discovered after a few days in the country was actually a form of polite discourse, a way of saying “Look at me, here I come…aint I fine?”

In the crowded streets of Varanasi, the power grid is so outdated that many of the shops have their own generators out front to ensure enough electricity. That’s right, gas engines chugging away without even a car frame to muffle the ruckus.

Sure, you could argue that my experience of quiet back in Israel took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, where in Jerusalem at least, the traffic is significantly less that at, say, rush hour on a Monday.

But back in Varanasi, Jody and I had gotten out one morning well before dawn on our way to a sunrise cruise along the Holy Ganges River. Even at that ungodly hour, the streets were packed with touts and hawkers and rickshaw drivers puttering in all directions, all desperately driving...usually directly towards us.

No question about it, Indian streets are colorful and exciting. They’re also incredibly chaotic, run-down and dirty. Everything you’ve heard about the preponderance of stray animals is true. The authorities report some 35,000 ownerless cows and 5,000 unclaimed monkeys in Delhi alone. And you know, when a cow’s got to go, a cow’s…well, you get my drift.

Same with people. I was amazed to discover the urban Indian phenomena of the outdoor urinal. A block of concrete and a gutter, smack dab in the middle of a marketplace. Privacy? That’s something for prudes. Everything in India, it seems, happens on the streets.

In makeshift storefronts just inches from the speeding taxis, we were alternately astounded and intrigued by exactly what you can procure on an Indian street corner. We saw one man getting a shave, another having his teeth cleaned by a roadside hygienist, and yet a third waiting patiently while a man with a solitary iron pressed shirt after shirt for waiting customers.

Back in Israel, we strolled through a park that I used to deride for being full of broken down playground equipment and dirty sand. No complaints now. This park was a picture of sophisticated design and planning, full of decorum and order.

Same for the streets. Jerusalemites moan all the time about the endless state of disrepair of many of our roads. In India, we decided at one point to take a “shortcut” to bypass the congestion in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The map said we’d save over 50 kilometers of driving. Let me just say that you have never experienced potholes until you’ve been on a Bharatpur-Mathura “Highway”– if you can even call it that.

Now, no one can deny that not everything’s rosy in Israel. Unemployment and taxes are too high; poverty is rising, and hunger and homelessness are, sadly, no longer unknown. Our economy isn’t recovering at the same pace as our NASDAQ cousins overseas, and everyone knows we have some serious problems with our neighbors. But I never saw a beggar with no legs, an eight-year-old boy with leprosy, or a wild pig rummaging through my recycling.

They say that travel is broadening. For Israelis, it’s a chance to see palaces and monuments far grander and more opulent than anything back home. Unfortunately, when they return from from their trips to Europe and America and the Far East, those same Israelis are compelled to kvetch with even more fervor about what they they now see as their small dingy little country.

For us, India had the exact opposite effect. That’s not to say I’ll be complacent the next time a wedding hall collapses due to the contractor bribing City Hall so he can open without a permit. Nor should we stand idly by when we read of another 50 dead on the roads because of unnecessarily aggressive driving and unimproved highways.

But for all our complaints, our troubles are nothing in comparison with those in other parts of the world. It’s not just a line that “we made the desert bloom.” We did and it’s gorgeous. Rather than kvetching, we should be counting our blessings.

As we usher in 2004, I know I will be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The First Time

For parents, there’s a first tine for everything. First time diapering a new baby. First time talking about the birds and the bees.

Tonight was my first time sitting up until the wee hours of the morning, worried sick, waiting for my about-to-turn-teenage son to come home.

Twelve-year-old Amir had gone to our synagogue for a party with the other eleven to fifteen year olds. It was the first night of Hanukah vacation and there was no school the next day. I understood from Rafi who was in charge of the evening that they were going to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean.” We gave Amir a key and left him with his buddies.

Now, if the kids started watching the movie by 9:00 PM, I figured they’d probably be done by 11:00, maybe midnight at the latest. As Jody and I brushed our teeth and got ready for bed, I decided I’d wait up until he got home. Just to be on the safe side.

At 12:30 AM, there was still no sign of Amir. I wasn’t particularly worried, more annoyed. It was too late to call any of the other parents: if their kids weren’t at the party they’d be peeved at me for waking them up.

I could swing by the synagogue and check up on him. But that would knock down his status among his friends at least a couple of notches. And I’d probably be branded as hopelessly overprotective.

Besides which, Jody warned me that the second I set out in one direction with the car to find Amir, he’d come walking home…from a different direction. And if I chose to walk, well that’s the moment he’d wind up getting a ride and go the other way.

So I waited, now alone (Jody conked out by 1:00 AM), on the couch near the front door. What started initially as bemusement was rapidly turning into anxiety.

What did I have to worry about, though? Unlike North America, there’s no real fear in Israel that a child will be kidnapped. Israeli teenagers are out until all hours of the night hanging on street corners and nobody thinks to rein them in. It’s part of the laid back lifestyle that we relish here.

And by and large they’re good kids. Sure, there's some drinking and smoking going on, but as far as I can tell (and admittedly I'm not out there on the streets with them), it's a lot less than when I was a kid growing up in suburban California. I didn’t want to do anything to place my own kid outside this mostly positive cultural norm.

On top of which, it was Hanukah, a holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s national drive towards freedom and independence some 2000 years ago. What a fitting metaphor for strengthening teenage self-identity. Against such a backdrop, who was I to play Greece, the regional heavy during Hanukah's Hasmonean era.

It’s just that this was the first time.

As my agitation grew, I channel surfed. I found an awful reality-cum-documentary called “The Price of Fame,” featuring celebrities being hounded by paparazzi. Unfortunately, watching the likes of Pierce Brosnin and Shannon Doherty take a few punches at cantankerous cameramen didn’t do much to take my mind off the matter I didn’t want to contemplate:

What if this time something was wrong?

There have been isolated incidents, some of them with horrible endings, like the mind-numbing story of thirteen-year-old Koby Mandell who set out to play hookie from school one day and never returned.

Finally I couldn’t take it. Just before 2:00 AM, I gave in, grabbed the car keys and took off for the synagogue. In the scant three minutes it took me to get there, I scanned the streets for any sign of Amir. There were a lot of kids wandering about, in pairs, in groups. But no Amir.

The lights were still on at the synagogue. Rafi looked confused.

“Didn’t you see Amir,” he said. “He left just a minute ago.”

Of course he did. Just as Jody predicted: walking in the exact opposite direction than I drove.

I raced back home, turned the key and…the door had been bolted from the inside.

Good news: that meant Amir was home.

Bad news: I was locked out.

I banged on the door and Amir appeared looking entirely innocent and pure.

“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said. “All the lights were on. Where were you anyway?”

“I went out to find you,” I started to explain.

“Were you waiting up?”

This was the moment of truth. How could I convey my concerns without laying a guilt trip?

“So…did you have a good time?”

“Yeah,” Amir replied. “We watched two movies. But the older kids ordered pizza and they didn’t give us any. They made us smell it.”

“That wasn’t very nice,” I said, then added in my most compassionate parenting voice. “Listen, Amir – I don’t mind if you stay out late. It’s no problem at all. Really. I just want you to call and let me know when you’re going to be back. OK?”

Yet even as I mouthed the words, I realized this is just the beginning. He’s still going to need a curfew. Limits. Rules of disengagement.

But not tonight. He can’t know how concerned I was.

He knew anyway, in that intuitive twelve-year-old way. Something was not entirely right and my nodding nonchalance was a coded call for future compliance.

This also gave Amir, as budding an entrepreneur as any twelve-year-old, a unique opening. Playing on his poor father’s moment of vulnerability, he said with a wry smile, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to get me my own cell phone.”

“A cell phone, huh”? I replied, recalling the numerous times he’d already asked and I’d steadfastly resisted. But times had changed. He was getting older. And the street and his friends would beckon again.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

And we both grinned as we silently acknowledged that this, too, was a first time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Overly Sensitive New Age Guy

Amir and I went to see the final installment of the Matrix trilogy the other night. Going to the movies is one of the things Amir and I do, and I have to say it’s really a pleasure to have a child old enough to see the kind of movies my wife wouldn’t go near: you know the shoot-em-up action, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks my aging adolescent mind still craves.

Now, when I go to the movies, it’s for the experience: the big screen, the Dolby surround sound system. Otherwise, I’d be just as happy popping a DVD into my laptop.

The experience Amir and I had at the movies the other night, though, was pure torture.

If I had to call it, I’d say this was quite possibly the worst audience I had ever been in. And as an avid movie buff, I’ve been in some bad ones.

It didn’t help that I was without a question the oldest person in the auditorium. The crowd of mostly pre-teenage boys talked –no, shouted – through nearly the entire film. I’m glad they were enjoying themselves, but…

And then there were the cellphones. Constantly ringing. Followed by more loud talking. The kid next to me must have answered some caller five times in a row, each time belting out in Hebrew “I’m in the middle of a movie.”

Did it occur to him to not answer? Or turn the phone off? Never.

Did it occur to his parents not to buy him a phone?

There were times during the film that I literally could not hear what was being said.

I know this kind of thing is not unique to Israel, although I think we have it worse here than some places around the world. In California I once saw an usher actually escort a pair of incessant movie-talkers out of the theater. Now that's service!

And in North America, you can always change seats. In Israel, however, your place is reserved and Israelis take their seat assignments seriously. They’ll blab away for two hours on the cellphone, but they wouldn’t think of disobeying the seat rule. Go figure.

OK, I admit I’m what you might call an overly-sensitive new age guy. I don’t allow talking when we’re watching a TV show at home either. But that’s all in the family. And I can usually press the rewind button.

When it’s strangers, though, in a public place, I have to weigh my response much more carefully. Because you never know when the way you react to something is going to leave an indelible stain on your kids.

And herein lies the problem: what does a parent do when he is being driven to distraction…but doesn’t want to pass that bad trait down to an impressionable child?

If Amir picked up on my agitation, or if I flew off the handle and started screaming at some pre-teen to shut up (in my bad Hebrew no less), Amir could develop his own low tolerance for movie noise when he gets older.

What kind of role model would I be?

It’s not just in the movies, of course. The parent’s dilemma is constant. We are human. We just don’t want our children to know that.

Well we do, of course, but only the good stuff. Not our nutty, neurotic bad habits. You know, the things we do and know we shouldn’t.

Like drinking straight out of the bottle. The soda just tastes better that way. Come on, you know it does.

Or sneaking chocolate when no one’s looking. We tell the kids it’s for special occasions. So how come Abba gets to have sweets whenever he wants to?

How about arriving at synagogue late again because the bed is just so darn comfortable?

Or saying “just a minute” when I know with near certainty that I won’t be done with whatever it is I'm doing for at least another half an hour?

Then there’s remembering to turn lights off and should I even mention washing hands every time after using… no, better not go there.

You get the picture.

Not knowing which will be the behaviors that may send our kids to years of psychotherapy can, well, send their parents to years of psychotherapy.

And so I sat there at the Matrix and I took it. I didn’t call the theater staff, or wave my fist, or yell out “Quiet please!” into the cinematic darkness.

But afterwards, I blurted out my frustrations and the resulting parental quandry to Jody while Amir was in earshot.

“Really, Abba?” was his comment from the other side of the room. “I didn’t even notice.”

Should I brave the movies again? This week, the final installment of Lord of the Rings opens around the world…including Israel. Should we go the as soon as we can? Wait until the crowds thin out? Or hold out for the DVD? Click the comments button on the website or send me an email. I’ll abide by your votes!

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Kindergarten Pluralism

Sometimes in life you have to define yourself. It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, but every once in awhile it’s what’s expected of you.

All the more so in Israel where life is too often lacking the shades of gray taken for granted in North America.

I’m not talking about the more obvious definitions like married-single, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, oleh (new immigrant)-sabra (veteran Israeli).

No, it’s the complex ones that get to you, the ones that would never be raised in polite company overseas but that are part of our daily discourse, finding their way point blank into first meetings…and even job interviews.

Are you right-wing or left-wing?

Likud or Labor?

For peace or for war?

Religious or secular?

This proclivity towards extreme labeling starts early. In kindergarten, in fact.

Every year Jody and I attend three separate parent-teacher meetings for each of our children. By now we know what to expect.

There will be an introductory lecture by the teacher on the burning issues of the year: daily schedule, security arrangements, permissible sandwiches (please no chocolate spread the teachers beg every year, apparently to deaf ears – otherwise why would the same request come up again and again).

Next there may be an inspirational story or a Bible lesson. An impassioned plea to join the Israeli equivalent of the PTA. We pass around some diet Sprite and a few cinnamon rolls and then we’re out of there, free to gossip about whether Merav’s teacher commands enough respect to handle a difficult class, or whether Amir is going to be sufficiently challenged by his junior high school curriculum.

At Aviv’s kindergarten, there was a surprise. Something totally unexpected.

Midway through the usual pleasantries, the teacher, Nirit, opened a discussion on who would be leading the daily prayers. Why not have the girls and not just the boys be in charge, she suggested.

Now Nirit looked to us like a pretty traditional religious Israeli. With three kids under the age of 3 ½, we certainly weren’t expecting any out-of-the-box thinking. We’d already given her a nice neat black and white label.

But there it was. Something new.

Jody and I looked at each other. Could this be true? Had we inadvertently sent our child to Jerusalem’s only pluralistic Orthodox kindergarten? Maybe there was hope for the next generation after all to overcome label-itis.

“So, does anyone object?” Nirit asked.

A hand shot up. Then another.

“Girls don’t lead prayer,” one mother said definitively.

“They’ll get all confused,” said another. “What, they should lead prayer here but not when they go to the synagogue?”

But Nirit was ready. “We’re not talking about a question of halacha, of Jewish law,” she said. “They’re much too young for that. All I want to do is give them a richer, fuller experience.”

You go, girl!

“No, no,” another parent shot back. “Next they’ll be asking why girls don’t wear kippa (headcovering) and tzitzit (ritual fringes).”

“So let them ask!” replied a more progressive English-speaking mother.

I looked around the room and sized up the tenor of the debate. The parents who were the most vocal against Nirit’s proposal were the least observant, at least in outward dress. Bare headed fathers and tank-topped mothers. The ones in favor lined up squarely in what one would normally define as more stringently Orthodox. More grays. I was getting altogether confused.

But this was a challenge to the status quo and the nay-sayers had made it clear that they were going to defend their position even if they themselves never stepped into a synagogue.

It reminded me of the old joke about a Jew who survives a shipwreck and is marooned on a desert island. He immediately sets out to build himself a place of worship and constructs two synagogues. One that he attends and one he wouldn’t be caught dead in.

I would have laughed if I hadn’t been rooting so hard for Nirit.

Trying to make peace, Nirit offered: “If there is one person who objects, we won’t do it.”

“I’m against it,” repeated the most outspoken mother, not unexpectedly.

And then, in a voice dripping with venom: “After all, we’re not reformim!”

And there it was. The ultimate put-down in a world of black and white. The only thing worse than being Orthodox to a stridently secular Israeli? It’s being reform.

Never mind the fact that most of the parents who invoke the cry of reformim have never actually met a Reform Jew, nor do they know anything about what the different denominations stand for. It’s us vs. them. Labels at their most simplistic and accusatory.

Indeed, the put down has become so common in Israel we barely take notice of it. But how different is this invective from the curses hurled at Jews over the centuries by those who have never met one of our tribe? Why do we have to stoop so low?

But once the reformim clause had been put in play, there’s no way to win. At least not today.

Debate and game over.

We walked out of the parent-teacher meeting feeling defeated…but also cautiously optimistic. If Nirit had the tenacity to try for such a cataclysmic culture shift once, she’ll try again.

She’ll probably get shot down the next time too.

But after a few tries, maybe she’ll find that sympathetic crowd of parents. Or maybe word will get out and families will gravitate to her.

This is how change happens.

And apparently it starts in kindergarten.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Lost Jews of Jaipur

I was walking across the street in the Old City of Jaipur on the third day of our trip to India. I had just bought a bag of ladoo, a sticky Indian sweet shaped like a small yellow golf ball.

As I focused my attention on searching for a store sign in English in order to bargain my way to another scandalously cheap Indian silk, I fingered the bag of ladoo, trying to remove the goodies one at a time.

I guess I wasn’t being as careful as usual when – wham! – culture shock hit me straight in the leg. The hard metal side of a bicycle rickshaw careening down the road at breakneck speed slammed into my side and rolled over my shoe.

Reeling from the pain and surprise, I wobbled over to the nearest shop. As I sat down, large globs of red began welling up on my pants. The shop owners quickly pulled out a scarf and we applied a makeshift tourniquet to what I could now see was a nasty little wound.

Once I was all wrapped up, the owner wasted no time. “So, what would you like to buy?”

I grunted some sort of response which, in my current condition, apparently was understood as that universal code for “not now,” and I stumbled back into the road.

Now you have to know just a little about traffic in Indian cities to appreciate what I was up against. In this part of Jaipur – as in much of India – there are no sidewalks. Indeed you’re lucky if there’s a divider of any sorts separating the two “lanes” of traffic.

Instead, the streets are packed with all manner of vehicle and creature: cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, people, cows, pigs, dogs, even monkeys darting across the vehicular madness. And they’re all moving in the same direction, cutting in and out, looking for that tiny opening to get an inch ahead.

And did I mention the honking?

In my present condition, the very thought of finding my way through this cacophony was daunting. It was at that moment that a large white taxi pulled up beside me.

“You going to the Amer Gate? Hop in, I’ll give you a ride. No charge.”

Right, I thought. I’d been in India just long enough to know that once I got to the destination, the driver would undoubtedly badger me for a few rupees.

“No thanks,” I replied.

“Come on, I give you a ride,” he persisted as he drove alongside me. Given the congestion, his taxi couldn’t go any faster than my pedestrian limp.

After a few minutes of this, I broke down and agreed.

“No money,” I repeated to the driver as I hopped in.

“Of course not,” he replied. “My Jewish father always told me to treat people fairly.”

Whoa, Nelly. This was not what I expected to hear. I immediately began to rack my brain for information on Jewish communities in India. There are Jews in Bombay and Calcutta, even a Chabad House in Delhi. But to the best of my knowledge, Jaipur did not have any indigenous Jews.

Had I inadvertently stumbled on a new tribe missing since the days of the first exile? The Lost Jews of Jaipur perhaps?

We got to talking. His name was Daniel. That sounded promising. He had three children: Jasmine, Jennifer and Justin. His wife’s maiden name I learned, too, was Emmanuel. None of this sounded like any of the Indians I had met so far on my trip.

Now maybe this was all a crafty line to sell me on his services. Maybe he had already "marked" me as an Israeli by my looks.

If so, it worked beautifully.

Before the short ride to our destination was over, I had agreed to take Daniel on as my driver and guide for a tour the next day. I needed to rest my injured leg and the thought of a leisurely car trip sounded like a nice break.

Daniel picked me up the next morning promptly at 9:00 AM. My wife Jody had come down with a fever and was unfortunately stuck in bed, so it was just the two of us on the nearly three hour drive to Pushkar, a city located deep in the Rajistani desert.

Daniel and I talked about everything Indian – poverty, travel, business, dreams. I learned about Indian wedding customs and he learned a little about Jewish tradition too.

As we neared Pushkar, I finally broached the subject I was dying to know more about.

“So, how is it you have a Jewish father?” I finally asked.

“His name is Gideon Flachsmann,” Daniel explained. “He's a businessman who lives in Switzerland.”

“OK…” I said, trying to put the pieces together.

“I met him a few years ago when I was giving tours,” Daniel went on. “He adopted me and bought me this taxi.” Daniel’s real father, I learned, had died of a heart attack when Daniel was just a kid.

And so Daniel, it would seem, was not representative of any lost tribe after all. So much for my great discovery. Still, it was intriguing to imagine some wealthy Hasidic Jew taking a liking to a poor Indian taxi driver and pulling him out of his poverty.

We got out of the car and wandered the sleepy streets of Pushkar together. The city reminded me vaguely of the Old City of Safed in Israel’s Upper Galilee.

Not long after we entered, I spotted a large poster reading – in Hebrew – “Come Spend Shabbat in Pushkar with Chabad.” Then I noticed that many of the restaurants had proudly written on their signs – “We serve Israeli food.”

This day was getting weirder and weirder.

Daniel explained to me that Pushkar had become a haven for Israelis. He didn’t know why, but just then, two black-hatted, black-suited men rode by on bicycles. Probably looking for a mincha minyan – a prayer quorum for the afternoon service.

Daniel and I visited a few temples, sniffed some incense and bought another bag of ladoo before we sat down for dinner at the Sunset Cafe, a pure vegetarian restaurant along the banks of the artificial lake the city is built around.

The steps leading down to the shore were filled with Israelis, banging on drums and playing other instruments in what looked to be a regular nightly jam session. If not for the exotic view and the ever wandering cows, it could easily have been the Tel Aviv beachside.

As the day faded and we ate our cheese paneer, Daniel pulled out a small photograph album. There was his adopted father with a big gray beard standing next to Daniel, his wife and their three kids. So it wasn’t a line after all.

But what was this? Mr. Flachsmann all dressed up in a turban and flowing orange robes, a dot of color globbed just above his eyes.

His adopted father, Daniel explained, was a long-time devotee of the Hindu God Shiwa. In fact, the reason for his original trip to India was to purchase a chunk of land in the holy city of Rishikesh, often described as “the Yoga Capital of the World.” Rishikesh was also the place where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Mr. Flachsmann has since established a popular meditation center and ashram there.

As the sun set on the bongo-playing Israelis, nothing that day turned out to be exactly as it initially had seemed. Daniel’s father was not a dancing hasid but a new age Indian guru. And I had not discovered the mysterious Lost Jews of Jaipur.

But I had made a new friend. And, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

In addition to being a fascinating guy, Daniel is a very knowledgeable and sweet guide and driver. If you’re traveling to Rajistan, feel free to email him and ask him his prices. You can reach him at Or visit his website at Tell him Brian from Jerusalem sent you.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The Travel Doctor

“If I’d known we were going to need shots, maybe I would have wanted to go somewhere else,” my wife Jody declared when I called her from the Travel Doctor.

The Travel Doctor is the specialist in our kuppa (the Israeli version of an HMO) who advises would-be backpackers on the do’s and don’ts of exotic locations. And Jody and I were planning on exactly such a far-out trip: to India.

It was going to be our first extended vacation away from the kids since we got married. Nearly two weeks on our own. Jody’s Dad would be coming to stay in Israel while we were having our minds blown in Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur.

Jody and I originally planned on going to China. I had flown enough for work to earn two free tickets on El Al to as far as they go. That meant Bangkok, Hong Kong or Beijing, and since I’d been to the first two, the latter got the nod. That was supposed to be in May, 2003.

You all remember what happened then? SARS was raging throughout Asia and we thought maybe we’d be better off someplace else. We’d always been fascinated by India, so…

Visiting the Travel Doctor is already one step into another world. While outside on the street the usual mix of Jerusalem types parade by the Travel Doctor’s downtown Jerusalem office, inside you feel out of place if you’re not freshly discharged from the army and wearing tie-dye.

Indeed, everyone in the waiting room was young, pierced, and tattooed with long and scraggly hair. Most were wearing belly shirts.

Especially the men.

“I feel like a saba, a grandfather,” I said to the Travel Doctor when he called me into his office.

“Don’t,” he replied. “Just before you I had a couple here who’d make you feel like a little kid. No, it used to be that travel to India, South America, Thailand and the like was only for the young. Now, everyone’s going.”

Still, the greatest concentration of Israelis taking off for India and the Far East are the young – an estimated 30,000 a year – either blowing off steam after three grueling years in the army, or getting out a few yah-yahs before.

It’s become a rite of passage and it is not limited to any one demographic group – even the knitted kippa crowd of the yeshivas does its time on the psychedelic beaches of Goa and Koh Samui.

“This must be the greatest job in the world,” I said. “Everyone is so happy. They’re all about to embark on some great adventure.”

He nodded then began to explain what I was going to need. 3 shots – Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Diphtheria.

“You can get them today. Just pay the cashier and we’ll do it on the spot.”

Wait a minute now. I hadn’t prepared myself for a shot today, let alone three. I usually need a bit of time to psyche myself up, especially when pain is involved. But the Travel Doctor is only open twice a week and I already found a parking spot.

“How much?” I asked.

He added up the total – the equivalent of around $100.

That hurt. Probably more than the shots I was about to receive. I called up Jody for a quick consult.

“Seize the day,” she said.

“It’s not your arm that’s about to get whacked,” I replied. Then I thought, I could have a little fun with this. Kvetching more than necessary. Feigning off my responsibilities for a few days while I, ahem, “recovered.”

While he prepared the injections, the Travel Doctor called in a few of the long-haired belly-shirted tie-dyers to explain to all of us together what we needed to do in case of malaria and how to tell the difference between regular diarrhea and dysentery.

I called Jody again.

She said, “Are you sure we want to do this?” But it was too late, the needle awaited me.

I was very brave, I would later tell five-year-old Aviv. I barely cried at all. The implied message: your father is not a wimp.

Actually, I kept myself distracted by making conversation.

“Travel medicine is actually quite big in North America and Europe,” the Travel Doctor explained. “But I’m almost the only one in all of Israel specializing in it. I give lectures all over the country, in all the main hospitals.”

“There’s that much to say about shots?” I respond.

“No, no…it’s not just about the shots. You have to know about all the kinds of diseases that people might come back with and how to treat them. Things that aren’t normally seen in this part of the world.”

“Do people go to medical school these days and say ‘I want to be a Travel Doctor?’”

“More and more. When someone comes back from a post-Army tiyul and if they were planning on going to medical school anyway, they just might.”

“Do you get to travel?”

“Of course.”

“And the health fund pays?”

“Of course not.”

As I got back to my car, arm throbbing, the police were surrounding the street where the Travel Doctor was located. Someone had reported a suspicious object. And I thought: it will be good to get out Israel for a little while. To someplace safe.

I mean, it’s not like anything ever happens in Bombay...

And if anyone asks me where we’re going, I’ll just explain “our itinerary is all in my arm.”

With Jody and I off to India, "This Normal Life" will be taking a two-week break. Look for the next story the first week of December.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

The Cooking Party

Kids’ birthday parties are a big deal in Israel. Despite the worsening economy, they are still one of the last places Israelis splurge. After all, these are our children.

A recent article in Haaretz described some of the parties being thrown these days. Everything from dune buggy excursions, climbing walls and henna tattoos to an authentic Bedouin tent experience where the kids get to make their own pita and drink genuine desert tea are being tried these days as families try to keep up with the Cohens.

Over the years, we’ve had our share of pricey parties too. That was when we still believed money grew on trees (I know you’re saying: you mean it doesn’t?) One year we hired a magician, another year a clown.

More recently, as we’ve tried to economize, our planning has been more modest. Amir is happy inviting a couple of friends to the movies. Anything with Vin Diesel seems to be in style with Israeli 12-year-olds.

Planning for ten-year-old Merav has proven to tad more difficult.

“Let’s invite all the girls in the class to the pool,” Merav suggested.

“Hmmm,” I thought. 13 girls times 40 shekels each, plus pizza and party favors. Ouch.

Her best friend Michal had tried bowling a year ago. No, that was even more expensive.

That’s when it came to me.

I remembered a team building event that we had done at work once. We all went off for a day away to cook. We were responsible for making all the food for a gourmet five course meal.

Merav loved the idea. Within minutes she had taken charge of the event as if she had thought it up herself, drawing up the guest list, the menu, the groups of twos and threes. Amir agreed to babysit Aviv…for 20 shekels an hour. Invitations had to be designed and printed.

Ironically, it never occurred to Merav that a party is supposed to be thrown for the birthday girl. No, this was her day and she was in charge.

Is there a career as an event planner in my daughter’s future?

The morning of the big day, Merav woke up early. I had expected this. Too much excitement, who can sleep anyway?

“Imma, Abba, Aviv is throwing up.”


But he seemed to be better as the day wore on. And I think as the party guests started to arrive, he was so awed by seeing that many girls in one place, he totally forgot about his stomach.

Merav decided early on that the whole thing should be a surprise. So I gathered all the girls outside in the courtyard of our apartment building and like a self-conscious cheerleader, I started the build-up.

“What do girls love more than anything else?” I shouted.

“Clothes,” called out one girl.

“Slumber parties,” declared another.

“Going to school,” announced a third, a shy little girl with a head full of unruly curls.

“Who said that?” I demanded, returning a glaring look to the offending child. She quickly backed down.

“Eating ice cream?” she offered timidly.

“You’re getting close...”

“Eating!” screamed half the group in unison.

“Right,” I yelled back. “And that’s the theme of the party. But first you have to cook it. So today you will all be the chefs.”

The girls erupted into cheers. Except for the timid girl who looked up with earnest eyes.

“But if we’re the chefs, who will be the customers?”

“We’ll be,” Jody piped up quickly.

“You can’t,” said another. “You have to be the waiters.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

But by this time, the girls had stampeded up the stairs and were staring down a long kitchen table full of utensils and ingredients.

The menu tilted more towards comfort food than gourmet: Homemade Hummus, Israeli Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing, Macaroni and Cheese (fresh, not from a box), and Chocolate Chip Cookies. And my favorite: Pigs in a Blanket.

“Mmm…I just love pigs in a blanket!” one girl exclaimed.

“Me too,” I agreed. As far as I was concerned, at a wedding it was the appetizers that counted. You could skip the meal itself; just bring on more of them pigs.

As the girls went about slicing, mixing, rolling, grating and shaking, the volume level rose. This was no fancy restaurant kitchen. But the girls were remarkably efficient.

In fact, despite all the commotion nothing even spilled …except for Aviv who took a tumble on his bike and came in screaming for attention.

12 mothers-in-training looked up at him and extended sympathetic glances.

Jody and I flitted around in our capacity as supervisors. I noticed that the girls in charge of the pigs were covering up the tips with too much filo dough.

“Someone call a mohel,” I said to Merav.

She didn’t get it. Just as well.

About half way through came Brian’s special twist.

“Quiet! Quiet!” I called out. When the room was filled with just the right touch of dramatic silence, I announced: “Now everyone: Switch!”

Wherever they were in the process, the girls had to stop. They were assigned to new groups and someone else’s recipe.

You remember the origins of the party as a corporate team building activity? Well, this unexpected switch was designed to teach adult participants about their working style. Were they flexible? Able to go with the flow in an often unpredictable office environment?

With 10 year old girls, it was sheer torture.

That’s when we noticed the timid girl. She was still mixing the cookie dough.

“Sweetie,” Jody cooed. “You need to stop now and move to your new group.”

She didn’t look up. Her eyes were fixed on that cookie dough.

“You’re on salad dressing now,” Merav informed her.

Still she stayed with her sweet brown cookie mix.

Eventually she relented, though we almost had to pull her away. I have a feeling that someday, when she heads off to work, she may have certain issues with delegation of responsibility.

By the time we sat down to eat, there wasn’t a complaint from the bunch. No one whined “I hate hummus” or “there’s not enough cheese on my mac.” Every plate was cleared and more than one girl commented that the food seemed to taste particularly yummy.

Each girl left with a goody bag including two cookies and a printout of the recipes they’d just made. Merav was giddy with satisfaction, as were her parents. After all, adults are meant to suffer through kids’ birthday parties and we had actually enjoyed ourselves. And we got to eat our work. How many times can you say that at the office?

Now all we have to worry about is what to do for her bat mitzvah party. That’s still another two years away. If we start planning now…

Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Israeli in Me

OK, I admit it: I didn’t want to leave.

This past summer, after seven weeks on the road – the longest consecutive period I’ve spent outside of Israel in the nine years since we moved here – I was starting to get comfortable in California.

To my own shock and surprise, I could actually see myself living back in the States again. Going to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm every day, catching the latest movies at the multiplex at night...

OK, even my kids know better than that. Whenever any of them expresses a comment like “America is so much fun – you get to go to theme parks anytime you want,” we politely remind them that if we lived there, really lived there, our routine wouldn’t be all that much different than in Israel: school, homework, Shabbat, friends.

Beyond the vacation fantasy, though, I could feel myself starting down the slow but steady assimilation process…the same one we had embarked on when we left for Israel in 1994, only in reverse.

I had no idea it could happen so quickly.

And so it was becoming easier, even a bit liberating, to imagine buying a home in the Carmel Valley neighborhood in San Diego’s North County, where some one out of every three new homes is purchased by a Jewish family.

We could send the kids to the nearby Jewish Academy and join the local synagogue with the “Rockin’ Shabbat” services on Friday nights.

The allure of the open roads, the comfortable living and bountiful shopping, not to mention close proximity to grandparents – had it finally swayed our Zionist resolve?

After all, we had been living the California lifestyle for seven weeks and it wasn’t so awful. Who said that life has to be hard in order to be meaningful anyway?

Just before we were scheduled to get on the plane to come back to Israel, we had dinner with a couple of very close friends. We met Sol and Debbie 18 years in Israel. We studied and worked together. We’ve been to each others’ simchas. We’ve been there for the tough times, too.

A year ago, Sol and Debbie became the only family we knew who left Israel because of the “situation.”

I don’t blame them.

On the contrary, I’d probably have done the same in their circumstances: living in a West Bank settlement that had been targeted on more than one occasion by terrorists. Where just going out at night was a life or death decision.

They’d had more than they could take and needed a break. A year. Two. Maybe more.

While barbequing up a plate-full of kosher steaks for our two families, Sol and I got into some of my feelings of creeping assimilation. Always insightful – and probably thinking more than a little about his status of self-imposed temporary exile – Sol stared me down through the charcoal haze.

“That’s all very nice and I imagine you could probably be very happy here,” he said, “but do you think at this point, you could really take the Israeli out of you?”

The Israeli in me? What was the Israeli in me, exactly? I mean, it’s not like I was born in Israel. I grew up not that far from where the steaks were steaming. I still have many more years of the old country in me than the new.

How hard could it be to swap one identity for another? To assimilate back to where I came from? What would it take – a few more weeks or months? A year tops.

And I thought, half as internal soliloquy, half in defiance to the challenge: it could be done.

As I left the barbeque, however, still pondering the existential nature of “home,” news was coming in about terror attack.

I was at once both paralyzed and panicked. My budding assimilated self told me that this should only serve to further my feelings of dissonance and distance from my adopted homeland. And yet I couldn’t help finding myself desperate for more information about the attack.

Was there anyone we knew in the attack?

Where did it happen?

What was the reaction on the street in Israel?

Were our friends scared? Angry?

The Israeli in me wanted to listen to the local radio. The Israeli in me needed to be a part of the community that was experiencing the pain and horror of it all in real-time.

The Israeli in me had spoken.

One exhausting thirty-hour plane ride later and we were back. The crushing, invigorating, utterly overwhelming humanity that is Israel hit us full-on, starting with the taxi driver from the airport shouting into his cellphone: Moti, efoh atah, totally oblivious to the fact that some of us were experiencing third degree sleep deprivation.

Within a matter of hours after landing, there was a problem with Aviv’s kindergarten that has to be sorted out that very morning, multiple phone calls (“Welcome back,” “Can Amir have a play date?” Can you join us for Shabbat?”), one dead car battery, two blown out light bulbs, a computer that wouldn’t start, and hourly news bulletins on the progress of yet another nationwide general strike (well, at least that was expected).

The pace at which things move in this turbo-charged little country is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.

In synagogue, we were literally bowled over by friends.

“How was the summer?”

“Did you love Prague?”

“Are we meeting up in the park as usual?”

“How’s your jet lag?”

Jet lag? Who has time for jet lag!

You know, it might take seven weeks for the process of assimilation to begin in America.

In Israel, it seems, it’s all over in all of about seven minutes.

We were home.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Schmooze Factor

It took years of planning, fundraising and construction, but last month, Kehillat Yedidya, our religious community here in Jerusalem, moved into its new building. A formal dedication ceremony was held this week in the presence of the major donors, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and even Deputy Prime Minister and ex-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert.

A major milestone such as this was bound to invoke many feelings. And while I suspect much of the congregation was concerned with matters of halacha, the quality of davening or the new building’s aesthetics, I had a much more prosaic concern.

How would this move affect the schmooze factor?

You know what schmoozing is, right? It goes by many different names, depending on the context.

At a cocktail party, it’s called mingling.

At a business event or conference, you know it as networking.

When two or more Jews get together, though, there’s no other word to use than to schmooze. It’s undoubtedly as old as the Jewish people itself and was probably a major factor in our survival these past thousands of years.

Over the years, schmoozing has taken on a greater and more dominant role in my personal synagogue participation. There was a time when I would spend most of my time in shul focusing on the prayer, listening to the Torah being read.

Occasionally I’d turn to the fellow in the seat next to me and make some pithy comment about how God was really the first venture capitalist and Israel the very first startup.

As time went on, though, the comments became pithier – and more frequent.

Now, there is a time and a place for proper schmoozing. Kibitzing in the back row is not schmoozing. It’s being rude. So for the past several years, I have been a regular member of what a friend once coined as the “courtyard minyan.” Outdoors, in the courtyard, schmoozing reigns supreme.

Truth be told, I honed the fine art of schmoozing not in synagogue but during long days attending countless hi-tech conferences where the seminars themselves were only semi-involving. What was important was who you met, and you never knew when that shy stranger might be an angel investor looking for a hot yours.

Good schmoozing can be done anywhere.

Pounding the exhibit hall floor: “Your product is amazing. It could revolutionize the industry. I totally believe in what you're doing. By the way, here’s my card.”

Or in the lunch line: “Excuse me, but do you think the brownies or the blueberry muffins look better today…and say, aren’t you Bill Gates?”

The same principles apply to the synagogue, and the old Kehillat Yedidya building was a most schmooze-friendly place. Better than a convention center any day.

Not the shul itself which was hosted for years in the drabbest elementary school basement imaginable, with peeling paint and poor ventilation.

But outside…we had the school playground. With so many places for the "courtyard minyan" to hang out – along the side of the building, next to the basketball courts, on the ramps. Different groups would set up camp in their own regular areas, each hosting a unique discussion thread.

Near the concrete benches were the parsha heads working through the weekly Torah portion. The political pundits hung out next to the kiddush tables. And back by the glass doors was the lair of the sci-fi and fantasy wonks.

If anyone ever asked us what we were doing out there in the courtyard instead of inside, prayerbook in hand, we had such a great excuse.

“My kid needs some fresh air. He’s making too much noise to stay indoors. I’ll be right back.”

Of course we would. After we schmoozed for the next 45 minutes. And oh, did shul just end? I missed the announcements? Bummer

So when the time drew near to moving to the new building, my greatest worry was what would become of my shul schmoozing. After all, there were no basketball courts or school playground in our new space. All the open real estate seemed to be indoors, close to the sanctuary, where a stray voice or a baby’s cry would be instantly amplified to chalk-screeching levels.

Did this move portend the end of schmoozing at Yedidya as I knew it, I wondered?

Well, it turns out that my fears were unjustified. The front steps into the new building are prime schmoozing territory. And there’s a lovely park just around the corner where I’ve noticed more than a few of my fellow congregationalists hanging. And you can’t take away the kiddush itself which is still long and schmoozerful - even if it is indoors now.

It seems that you may be able to take the community out of the building, but you can’t take the schmooze out of the community.

And as if to prove the point, I’ve now discovered that schmoozing may be as much nature as nurture.

The other night, our twelve-year-old Amir was late coming back from his karate class. A few minutes wasn’t too surprising, but as it stretched on to 10 minutes, 20, half an hour, we started to worry. When he finally traipsed in he had a big grin on his face.

“What have you been doing?” I demanded. “Your mother and I have been worried.”

“Abba,” Amir responded. “Guess what I was doing? I was schmoozing!”

He should be ready for the courtyard minyan just in time for his bar mitzvah next year.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Jody's Breasts

We’ve had to learn a whole new set of terms lately: DCIS, mammotone, microcalcification, sterotactic biopsy.

All of these are words that have to do with suspicious breasts. It started about a month ago when Jody went in for her first mammogram.

She asked for it.

“I’m feeling fine. In great shape, really. Nothing wrong at all,” Jody explained to our family doctor. “I just want to stay one step ahead of the game.”

Jody turned 40 last year, so the timing was certainly right. She scheduled a routine mammogram at Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, and we thought that should be that.


I got the call a few days afterwards. It was from the radiology department. But they wouldn’t talk to me.

“We really need to speak to Jody,” the sweet but detached voice on the other end of the phone said.

“What, is something wrong?” I shot back, perhaps a tad too quickly.

“Are you her husband?” the voice replied, sensing my need. “Well, we need to do some additional x-rays.”

When pressed, though, she still wouldn’t say why.

Jody made a second appointment.

At the hospital again, the doctor explained that they had found some microcalcifications – deposits of calcium in the milk ducts – in Jody’s left breast. This is normally fine unless these microcalcifications are irregularly shaped and bunched up in a particular area.

Which is what was going on with Jody.

“Don’t worry too much yet,” the doctor assured us. “80% of the time, it’s nothing at all.”

It’s the other 20% that sent us straight to the Internet. That’s where we started picking up the lingo.

The doctor said they want to check Jody further for something called “DCIS.” That stands for “Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ” – fancy-talk that means whatever’s going on is staying in one place and hasn’t spread.

Yes, 80% of the time it’s just fine, the literature agreed. But the other 20% signals the first stages of breast cancer. The next step in this case is a “lumpectomy.”

Another sinister sounding word to learn.

Now, if you google “DCIS” you get 39,800 results. That’s enough to frighten the most stalwart. But Jody was remarkable. She can stay completely calm in situations like these. Until there’s definitive news, she always reminds me, there’s nothing to get anxious about.

In my case, however, to say I’m a worrywart would be putting it nicely. And so I began my worst “What If” scenarios.

I imagined life without Jody. Then life without Jody’s left breast. I am very fond of Jody’s breasts. I am very protective over them.

I thought about a good friend of ours whose mother recently was recently diagnosed with the same diagnosis of microcalcifications. A biopsy showed it was malignant. When the doctors performed the lumpectomy, they found it had spread to her lymph nodes.

But the literature says there is a nearly 100% cure rate. At this early stage, if it is indeed something, they just cut and zap. It’s really no worse than a nasty case of bronchitis.

80-20, 80-20, I repeated to myself. This became my mantra for the three weeks we waited for the next appointment at Hala, the Jerusalem Comprehensive Breast Clinic.

Now, the Hala Clinic is the antithesis of a big impersonal hospital. And all they do is breasts.

Nice job if you can get it, I mused.

The clinic’s waiting room is tres chic, featuring a long wall made of rough-hewn Jerusalem stone illuminated by tasteful back-lighting. Jody and I sat and drank Wissotzky's new Chai Masala tea while filling in forms.

The doctor continued the reassuring tone as he ushered us in to the examination room. “I’m not even sure you should be doing this, but as long as you’re here…” he said.

The exam lasted longer than we expected. In it, Jody lay down on a table with a hole in the top third. The breast in question was carefully compressed in a machine that looked something like a hi-tech version of an ordinary tool shed clamp.

Using Jody’s x-rays and a computer, the exact location of the microcalcifications was mapped out, then a tiny incision made and the offending tissue sucked out. The doctor showed the tissue to Jody. It was pink with blood. After shipping it off to the lab for analysis, Jody underwent another couple mammograms.

I had to feed the meter twice.

The smiling doctor informed us that we could expect to hear the final results in about a week. That gave me plenty of time to think about the irony. We spend so much time worrying about terror and the dangers all around us in Israel, about which bus lines are safe and whether it’s OK to sit in cafes again.

And then Jody’s own body threatens her with the ultimate betrayal.

Exactly one week later, almost to the hour of the test’s conclusion, I received a text message on my mobile phone. It was from Jody. Probably an update on babysitters for a party we were going to that night, I figured. I was in the middle of a work meeting, but I opened it anyway.

The message has just one word:


October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, ten years ago, President Clinton proclaimed October 17 as National Mammography Day. Jody and I both hope this story inspires you to go in for a check up. More information is available at the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Sukka on the Roof

I dare say we must have the easiest sukka in the world to build. It’s not that we’re lazy. It’s just that our apartment is on the top floor and has a large terrace covered with a pergola.

So when the Jewish holiday of Sukkot rolls around with its commandment that we "dwell in booths" to recall how the Israelites lived out-of-doors during their 40 years of wandering, all we have to do to build the sukka is cover the top of the pergola with schach.

No, that wasn't me clearing my throat. Schach is the leafy covering often made of palm fronds that forms the roof of a traditional sukka.

Because we’re up so high, we use a version of permanent schach that "rolls out." It’s still made of palm fronds, but they’re sort of reprocessed and compressed into nice long strips.

Think of it as the sukka equivalent of a fruit roll vs. the real thing. But at least it doesn’t blow off during the inevitable winds of October in Jerusalem.

Building our stripped down sukka takes no more than about 15 minutes to complete. Which might seem slight but I’d rather have the time for thinking than tinkering.

For example, remember the story of the Sukka on the Roof? It’s one of the few tall tales I remember from my abbreviated Jewish education growing up.

There once was a man who built a sukka on the roof of his apartment building. A particularly cantankerous neighbor caught wind of what was going on and decided he didn't like it one bit.

He demanded that the man take the sukka down immediately. When he was refused, the neighbor took him to court, requesting a quick verdict. The court deliberated and decided that yes indeed, the sukka would have to come down.

The court then dutifully informed the man that he had exactly eight days to do it. And the man just smiled, as he knew, as you have probably realized as well, that the holiday of Sukkot lasts exactly…eight days.

Now, one of the perils of a rooftop sukka, we have discovered, is falling planters. Well, at least that's how it was on the first day of Sukkot last year.

We have some plastic planters full of flowers and dirt and rocks on the half-wall the surrounds much of our terrace. We also have a hammock which the kids like to use as a swing.

It's an unusual hammock, described alternatively as a "hanging air chair." It fits a single person sitting up. That in contrast to the more common lying-down-and-fall-asleep-in-the-sun variety.

One of the kids (who shall remain nameless) was swinging a bit too vigorously and knocked one of the planters off the wall and down onto into our neighbor’s first floor backyard. A mess for sure, but not the end of the world we figured.

Except that standing proudly in that first floor backyard was the neighbor's sukka. The planter crashed through the top, leaving a gaping hole in the schach and raining down debris on their table, on the bed, on the dinner leftovers from the night before.

My first thought was that their sukka would be rendered psul – that is, no longer usable – for Sukkot, a terrible thing to be responsible for given that we knew they had about twenty guests coming over for lunch. And that was in only a few hours.

We quickly headed downstairs to do damage control. Everyone except for Mrs. Sachs, the matron of the house, was already at shul. Mrs. Sachs wasn't sure the halachic (Jewish Law) status of a sukka ravaged by a freak rain of falling daisies.

The problem was that on the holidays, you're not really supposed to "fix" things. So she decided to wait until her children came home before taking any action. We swept up the mess as best we could and went off to synagogue ourselves.

As the day went on, we found numerous occasions to peek over to spy out what was going on downstairs. At one point, I saw Mrs. Sachs taking out a tray with kiddush cups...did that mean they had just eaten in the sukka? So it must be OK.

Or…were they just cleaning out more of the mess from the previous night?

A little later, we noticed they were moving out the chairs....that must mean the sukka was ruined after all!

No wait, the men were removing their shoes...was this some new water ritual we missed while playing hooky from Hebrew School? Or could it be…

Yes, someone was bringing in a mattress…and then another. Ah ha, if they're sleeping in it - common custom observed by many during the holiday - the sukka must be OK. Right?

By the end of the day, it appeared that we were not the cause celebre of some local halachic catastrophe. The only thing hurt was one child’s pride – and piggy bank – which was requisitioned to help pay for a new planter and a fresh bag of fresh dirt.

And oh yes, beginning that Sukkot, our unique, one-person, swinging hammock became completely off limits to anyone under the age of 40.

Want to know what adventures we had this year with our Sukka on the Roof? I've got a special "bonus story" called "Amir Against the Wind." I think you'll like it. Just click here to read it.

Or type the following into your web browser:

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Grapefruit Jews

It wasn’t that long ago when the Jewish holidays seemed so straightforward. Go to synagogue. Invite a few people over. Eat.

But in our current reality, confronted at every corner as we are now by terror, everything has been affected in one way or another.

It was the morning after 19 people were murdered by a suicide bomber in a crowded Haifa restaurant. We were still reeling from the horrendous details: two families lost five members each.

That evening was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. We needed a way to distance ourselves from the news and our emotions, in order to spiritually prepare for the holiday.

We needed some space.

Now, Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but it’s very crowded. There are no grand plazas or parks like in Europe. And no sweeping seafront as even Tel Aviv just down the road so proudly boasts.

There are, however, two man-made lakes. One is on the grounds of the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo; the other at the Wohl Rose Garden, sandwiched in-between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

The latter is a particularly auspicious location with gorgeous views in both directions, plentiful paths for scootering, and shady trees for reading and resting. We figured with everyone else getting ready for the holiday, we should have the place to ourselves.

When we got to the lake, though, it was packed. Tens of religious men, women and children were going about the holiday ritual of tashlich.

Beginning on the first day of Rosh Hashana, the custom is to find a body of water – preferably one with a few fish in it – and to cast one’s sins into it.

Old crusts of bread become the symbolic embodiment of those sins as they are tossed into the water while prayers are read.

And so, on the day we chose to visit, the lake at the Rose Garden had been transformed from peaceful park into mobile synagogue.

Aviv had already settled on his own five-year-old form of tashlich. He planned to spend the morning throwing rocks into the water.

So there we were, black hatted families tossing in left-over holiday challah, and Aviv lobbing ever-larger rocks. Splash. There goes a crust with a couple of raisins still sticking out. Plop. There goes another rock.

Remarkably, everyone got along beautifully.

After awhile, a family of six sat down on the bench near where Jody and I had settled in. They placed a large duffle bag near the small shoreline. I couldn’t help wondering what was inside: a picnic lunch? A pile of prayer books?

When the family was done with their tashlich, the mother, who had her back to us as she discreetly nursed a baby, called over to her husband:

“Time to do kapparot.”

Another ritual for casting away sins. In this case, said sins are supposedly transferred to a live chicken which is swung over one’s head three times and then donated to the poor for food.

At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never had the gumption to visit Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market before Yom Kippur where the gruesome act is famously performed.

As I eyed the duffle, a sudden realization came over me. As the father sauntered over to the bag and slowly unzipped it, I braced myself for the sound of squawking. I know it was rude, but I couldn’t help staring as I waited for the smallest sign of chicken feathers fluttering in the wind.

Instead, he pulled out a small white envelope and handed it to his wife who waved it over her head in three neat circles while reading from her prayer book.

I held back an urge to ask what was inside the envelope. Instead I wished them a “Shana Tova” – a Happy New Year – as they got up to leave.

The father repeated back the greeting, which pretty much replaces "Hello" and "Goodbye" as the preferred salutation this time of year.

Then he turned to me and in all seriousness said: “Grapefruit juice.”

“Excuse me?” I stammered.

This pronouncement had come out of nowhere. Did it have something to do with the chickens? Or was I having a Benjamin Braddock moment, receiving the religious equivalent of a hot “plastics” tip

“My Rabbi says to drink lots of grapefruit juice,” he clarified. “It will help you get through your Yom Kippur fast.

“Oh,” I replied. “Well…thanks. I guess.”

And then we left too. The five of us still needed to do some last minute shopping, then bathe and eat our last meal before the holiday began.

Over our late afternoon lunch, we couldn’t help returning to the events of the previous 24 hours. Jody said a prayer for the families in Haifa who had died and remarked how they had been eating what turned out to be their very last meal. They wouldn’t be fasting this Yom Kippur, she told the kids.

I thought about all of those have fallen in the last year. And with no small amount of dread, of those who will undoubtedly fall in the year, and years, to come.

And then, in a silent tribute to life, we drank our grapefruit juice.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Yom Kippur Groupies

When we moved to Israel nine years ago, we were met with all kinds of changes – schools, work, food. And as September approached, there was an additional question: where we would pray for High Holyday services?

When we lived in North America, this wasn’t such a big deal: there were only a few options in our community and, in any case, we were already members of lovely congregation.

In Israel, however – and in Jerusalem in particular – there are literally thousands of options, from the tiny to the toney. So on the High Holydays, we found ourselves shul-hopping for a few years before discovering a place so unique it has developed its own fan club.

Amiqa D’Bira – dubbed the “Leader Minyan” for brothers Avraham and Zelig Leader who founded it (it has nothing to do with the congregation being "leaders," so now you know) – the service is heavily inspired by the music and teachings of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

The minyan meets only for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and then once a month during the year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hodesh – the beginning of the new month.

But that’s more than enough to keep our spiritual batteries fully charged.

Amiqa D’Bira is the kind of place you either love or hate. The growing number of “Carlebach” minyans around the world are famous for their spirited singing and dancing, but this one takes things to an extreme. Shabbat services start at 8:00 AM and rarely end before 2:30 or 3:00 PM.

An extended Kiddush with more than a little schnapps doesn’t hurt, either.

Those who who’ve never experienced the intimate, sweaty joy that this kind of over-the-top davening (praying) brings are quick to deride its “unholy” length, rolling their eyes judgmentally and commenting how they like their prayer short and to the point.

To each his own. We love it.

While the minyan is always a blast, it especially rocks on the High Holidays when Ebn Leader, son of founder Zelig, leads the services.

Ebn has developed a style that is all his own. A musician and Talmud scholar, he scores the service like a rock opera, bringing the music at times to crescendo, dipping down to melodic introspection, rocking out with an infectious beat, and finally soaring with a repeating wordless chorus on a par with the best of Genesis in its 1970s Peter Gabriel heyday.

Arms flailing, dancing at the bima, he mixes Israeli pop tunes, snatches of reggae, classic folk (Greensleeves is a favorite), Sefardi nigunim, the best of Carlebach of course, and urban rap (his hip hop adaptation of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” during last year’s Rosh Hashana services is missing only the scratching on an old ‘45).

There’s no need for a choir or organ; Ebn is a one man rhythm section, banging on the table, slamming two plastic chairs together, and generally leading the congregation in a vigorous workout of hand-clapping (think “boot camp”-style aerobics for the soul).

There are those who say Ebn is too over the top. That he is more self-aware than selfless. I say he is Yom Kippur’s first true rock star and we are his groupies.

We are awed when he enters the room, breathless with anticipation as his deep baritone belts out Kol Nidre, and high on life during the frenetic, arms-bonded dancing at the end of every Kaddish.

When I was growing up, I imagined that prayer must necessarily be composed of somber wailing and shuckling, and that Yom Kippur was the saddest day of the year. At Israel’s "Leader Minyan," I discovered how wrong I was.

Yom Kippur is the happiest, rockin-est, dancin-est holiday on the Jewish calendar. And I know a shul-full of pre, post, and wanna-be hippies who’ll gladly testify to that!

There's more on the growing number of Carlebach-inspired services in Israel in this Jerusalem Post article.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Apples and Bunnies

Pop quiz: what is the biggest gift-giving holiday in Israel? If you answered Hanukah, you would be thinking in overseas terms, where the influence of a certain other holiday in December has turned the once minor Festival of Lights into a major deal.

No, in Israel, Rosh Hashanah is the clear leader and, in another twist from Diaspora traditions, the focus is on receiving presents from work rather than family and friends.

Indeed, when the economy was good, gifts from the bigger corporations could top upwards of $150 a person, sometimes paid in gift certificates, sometimes as toaster ovens, DVD players, or decorative wine racks.

I don’t know how it happened exactly, but the gift-giving tradition somehow filtered down to the Blum household. I guess Jody and I are the closest thing to a corporate entity in our children’s eyes.

And so, every September, the kids begin hinting.

Just before Rosh Hashanah three years ago, we were walking down Emek Refaim Street for our usual Friday ritual of pizza with the family. As we passed the local pet shop, what should we see in the window but these two adorable little white bunnies. The kids were immediately entranced.

And I thought: rabbits…how much trouble could that be? (Anyone who has ever owned one of these cursed creatures is probably doubled over in hysterics just about now. But I get ahead of myself...)

“They’re dwarf bunnies,” the nice lady in the pet store explained. “They’ll always stay as small as they are today.” That sounded appropriate for apartment dwellers.

“Can we get them, can we?” Merav and Amir chanted in near unison. Aviv was too young at the time to say anything

“OK,” Jody and I consented too easily (Jody has later claimed that we must have been temporarily delusional).

It's just that it seemed like such a good idea at the time.

And at first, things went quite swimmingly. The kids spent lots of time playing with the bunnies, holding them, feeding them. Jody led the clean-the-cage brigade without complaint and everyone pitched in. I felt the older kids were really learning some important lessons about taking responsibility for living things.

The bunnies were given free run of the house and we were flabbergasted when they toilet trained themselves: they only “made” in a corner of the kitchen, in an old dust pan! How considerate.

The kids named one bunny “Snow” since he was all white. The other was called “Patch” because he had a brown nose and a patch of color on his left foot.

As time went on, however, the kids became less interested in caring for Patch and Snow, and the bunnies reciprocated in kind by leaving their tell-tale pellets all around the house, usually behind the hardest to move pieces of furniture.

When they chewed through a telephone wire, they were relegated to the outside terrace in warm months and to their cage in winter. As their presence in the house became less of a novelty, they wound up spending most of the spring and summer in their small cage as well. They now seemed to fight as often as they cleaned each others’ fur.

When ten-year-old Amir, who had from the beginning been their greatest champion, announced that even he was bored with them because, as he put it, “they don’t show any love in return,” it was clear that the bunnies would have to go.

But how?

I suggested that we set them free in a nice green field. They’d savor their freedom while providing concrete evidence in support of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

The kids looked at me like I was a psychopath.

They were similarly appalled when I proposed cooking up some yummy bunny stew. We could serve it alongside the apples at Rosh Hashanah, giving a whole new twist to the traditional holiday song: dip the apples in the bunnies…

"You're kidding. Right, Abba?" Aviv asked, entirely mortified.

"Of course I am sweetie," I replied, doing some instant damage control and thinking sarcasm is wasted on the young.

Instead, we put an advertisement on Janglo, the email list for Jerusalem English speakers. We received a number of responses and Jody interviewed each of them for suitability. After all, it was like we were putting our kids up for adoption; we needed to find a “good family.”

We finally settled on a young, newly-married Yeshiva student named Yoni who wanted to give his wife a special surprise for her birthday. She loved animals and this seemed - to her loving husband - a unique (and inexpensive) gift. He was sure she’d be thrilled.

Obviously they hadn’t been married that long.

It was about that time that Snow started spitting up blood.

Oh great, I thought. Now, on top of everything else, just as we’re pawning him off on someone new, we’re going to have to pay to take him to the vet.

I immediately thought of that classic Seinfeld episode where George runs over squirrel and, in order to impress his girlfriend, takes it to the animal emergency room and eventually has to cough up big bucks for special squirrel surgery.

Fortunately, the blood stopped. The transfer to Yoni went ahead as planned.

On his wife’s birthday, at 4:30 in the afternoon, our entire family piled into the car, and we bade one last farewell to Patch and Snow. Yoni’s wife was surprised, to say the least, but she took to them quickly.

Amir remained impassive throughout the entire operation. I saw a few moments of emotion on Merav’s face, but she took it well. Aviv asked if we could come back and see them sometime.

Bunny visitation rights?

We’ve now been bunny-less for three months and I must say I can barely remember those heady, smelly days of yore. As the High Holydays approached this year, I couldn’t help being reminded of that fateful day, three years ago, when we became pet owners for the first – and perhaps last – time.

However, the other afternoon, in the lead up to this year’s Rosh Hashanah gift-giving frenzy, we passed by the pet store again on our way to pizza. And there in the window was this adorable little puppy.

We’ve managed to resist the temptation, the demands, the expectations and the whining.

Well, at least so far…

Monday, September 22, 2003

Dance of the Discount

The plan was simple: we would spend Shabbat in Prague and eat at the Jewish Community Center on Friday night, then pack a picnic for lunch. The JCC was described by friends as “haimish” with lots of Prague natives. The food, on the other hand, was supposed to be barely edible: things like fried schnitzel and potato buds in heavy oil.

But it was cheap. And we were on a tight budget.

We actually had started with an even more cost-conscious option: shnorring Friday night dinner off the Chabad Rabbi in Prague. But his wife had just had a baby (their fifth) and they were a bit overwhelmed.

The JCC doesn’t take reservations by phone. You have to come in person and plunk your money down. We figured no problem. We were arriving on a Thursday morning; plenty of time. After checking in to our hotel, we headed over to the Center to sign up.

Finding it wasn’t too hard - we made a stop in the midst of our tour of the five classic synagogues nearby.

Communicating was another matter entirely.

The guard at the desk only knew one gesture and three words in English. The gesture was a rapid criss-crossing of his hands over his chest. The three words were: “Fool. No plates.”

I wanted to sputter “Who you callin’ a fool, man,” but I got the drift.

“What do you mean 'no plates,'” Jody asked. “There's no place? But it’s only Thursday!”

“No plates,” the guard repeated.

“But we come all the way from Jerusalem,” I tried, putting on a faux-Czech accent. “Where are we going to eat for Shabbat?”

“No plates. Fool.”

This was starting to sound like a Czech rap number. I was half inclined to respond to him with a hearty “Yo Yo Yo.”

Finally, someone else from the Center came down and explained to us what we already had figured out by now but weren't willing to accept. They had a large group in that weekend, they really were full, and that we could try the King Solomon Restaurant two blocks away which took reservations before Shabbat and prepared the food ahead of time, Israeli-hotel style.

Our tour of Prague’s synagogues was rapidly turning into an education into Central European Shabbat customs.

We walked over to the King Solomon - an elegant establishment with one half designed as an ancient synagogue and the other an indoor arboretum. Not particularly Jewish, but maybe King Solomon was a botanist.

The place was deserted and the waiters seemed to be hiding. One eventually peeked out from the kitchen.

“We’d like to make a reservation for Shabbat,” Jody ventured.

The waiter disappeared back into the kitchen without saying a word. A few minutes later, a different garcon rushed off with a plate of salmon for the sole diner in the arboretum section.

"We’d like to...”

Finally a short and portly man in a t-shirt and a baseball cap exited the kitchen. He pointed at a menu with a price list. Our jaws presently dropped.

Nearly $40 per adult, with children at half price. Way over a budget planned for bread and cheese.

Always ready to haggle, Jody asked “Can we get a discount?”

“Children half price,” he replied.

“Yes, but can we get any more of a discount?”

And here began the Dance of the Discount. In Israel, we know the choreography:

Anything can be negotiated.

Always ask for 50% more than you want to end up with.

Meet in the middle and be sure to have fun along the way.

But this was Prague. And we knew nothing of the local customs. Our behavior could represent a colossal faux pas. A diplomatic incident.

The man in the t-shirt and the baseball cap offered what he thought must have been a great him. He’d give us a full 40% off, if we also booked lunch.

He promptly disappeared like the others. Reappeared briefly. Disappeared again. Maybe this was part of Czech negotiation tactics?

Jody and I quickly agreed that this generous offer was still too rich for our palette and pocketbook. We finally agreed to pay the regular price with the kids discount for just Friday night dinner. What else could we do? The man rang up our credit card.

When we looked at the credit card receipt, though, we discovered he’d given us an additional 18% discount. On dinner only, no lunch required. He never offered this directly. Not a word was said. We signed and went on with our day.

Dinner was delicious. Soup and salmon and wienerschnitzel which, to my surprise, did not consist of a plate of gourmet hotdogs (that's what you get being raised in a place where the only German you ever hear is the name of a fast food restaurant).

I may never know whether the man in the t-shirt and the baseball cap felt sory for us or whether he planned on giving us a break for the get-go and this was all a way of saving face.

In Prague, it appears, the Dance of the Discount is more akin to a Masquerade Ball.

Monday, September 15, 2003

How We Do It

I was interviewed last week on the Steve and Johnnie Show, the overnight talk slot on WGN Radio in Chicago. Steve and Johnnie wanted to get more details on last Tuesday’s terrible tragedies – the suicide bombings at Tzrifin and Emek Refaim’s Hillel Cafe.

But their questions were of a more personal nature.

“How do Israelis cope with such events?” Steve asked. “I mean, how can you wake up in the morning and go on with your daily routine?”

“Good question,” I responded and I told Steve a story about how the next day I got up just before 7:00 AM as usual, made the kids their sandwiches, and kissed them as they went off to school.

“How do we go on with our normal activities?” I parroted back his question. “We just do. Israelis have become famous for their ability of moving on. Of not letting the terror stop us.”

But my answer, I realized, was superficial. Because I had only addressed what we do and not how we do it.

And frankly, after a week like last, I realized I had no idea.

Oh, I can sport all the usual platitudes about not letting terror win, about the strength of our people as they overcome years of Diaspora mentality.

I can cite the fact, pointed out this week in some of the local papers, that because so many Israelis have been in the army, there is a sense of calm and orderliness after an attack that might be missing elsewhere.

And I can repeat back what my friend Heidi said to me when I literally bumped into her during my morning run today: that we are put on this earth for a purpose and we have to live our lives as fully as possible during the time we have.

All fine and well, and maybe these explanations provide some theoretical, theological consolation.

But still: how do we do it?

Then on Sunday, Jody and I paid a shiva call to the Appelbaum family. By now everyone knows the incredibly tragic, dramatic story. Renowned ER physician David Appelbaum took his 20-year-old daughter Navah to Cafe Hillel to impart some last minute parental wisdom before her wedding the following evening. The blast killed them both.

We knew the Appelbaum family. Not well, but well enough. We were neighbors for five years and our kids used to play together in the local park. We would see the David and his wife Debra at various events, especially weddings, and we once spent Shabbat together. As I recall, David was called out to the hospital in the middle of the meal.

Shiva is the Jewish way of mourning. Following the funeral, there are seven days where the family receives visitors. There’s no expectation of going back to work, or back to one’s normal routine. Family members sit on low chairs and wear the clothes that were symbolically torn at the funeral itself.

There were close to 100 people jammed into the Appelbaum’s modest apartment for the shiva the day we went. A friend who had come to the shiva every day told me that the crowd was light today. In previous days, there had been people streaming down the steps, waiting for their turn to slowly file in and sit with the family.

Pictures, photo albums were passed around. Cookies and burekahs came out of the kitchen at regular intervals.

What struck me the most was Debra Appelbaum's poise and decorum throughout. She sat quietly in her space, greeting everyone with a nod, sometimes even the slightest of smiles. Her children on the couch were similarly restrained.

And it occurred to me that the shiva process demands such decorum. By putting the family in such a public position, and so immediately after the funeral with all its concomitant emotions, the shiva forces the mourners, for lack of a more tactful expression, to get their act together. To play the unexpected and unwanted role of party hosts.

Surrounded all day, and well into the night, by friends and well-wishers, it’s near impossible to retreat into that bottomless pit of private grief, to wallow in the terrible misery of it all, alone. The public persona by its very nature is unnaturally showy, strong beyond all expectation. That doesn't alleviate the grief one iota. But it puts a spin on it.

All Israelis – whether they are religious or not – observe more or less the custom of shiva. And that custom, in turn, becomes an integral part of how Israelis move on. How we can continue to move forward, to live that illusive normal life, despite it all. At least in public.

But there's even more to it than that. Debra Appelbaum lost her husband and daughter. But she still has five other children with needs that only a mother can attend to. Despite the best caring efforts of friends, family and even strangers, no parent can turn away from the responsibilities of one’s children, even in a moment of supreme pain.

And Israel, more than any other place in the world that I’m familiar with, is like one big family. You see it when Israelis give you unsolicited advice or return a lost child in the park.

Debra's kids are all our kids. And our kids are hers. We take care of each other. Because we have to. This place is so small that when terror strikes there’s no escaping it. No turning a callous eye. It’s in your face. For better or worse.

We imagine ourselves or our spouses at Cafe Hillel with our sons and daughters. The horror grips us because it is so possible. And we feel the pain – all of us – like family, not strangers. Deeply, internally, personally.

And then we move on. Because we have no other choice. Our children need us.

That’s how we do it.

The next time I’m interviewed in Chicago, I guess I know what I’ll say.

Thanks to radio journalist Dave Bender for arranging the interview with Steve and Johnnie. Click here to check out Dave's website and latest recordings.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Driving Through Terror

I was talking on the phone to my brother Dave in California as I pulled my car to the entrance of Jerusalem. We had just started a lively discussion about new business opportunities when I noticed that the street in front of me, opposite the Central Bus Station, was jammed.

Oh great, I thought. Must be a suspicious object on the street. Not surprising. Not in Jerusalem these days. But come on already, it’s 11:20 at night. Now I’ll never get home.

Suddenly, as if a hornet’s nest had been beaten open with the sharpest stick in the swamp, I was nearly overrun by a swarm of ambulances and motorcycles. They came at me from the left – where the Magen David Adom station was located – from behind me, from in front of me too.

The lights and the sirens flew around my car and I felt as if I’d been stung. My entire body started to ache. I was disoriented as I looked around – should I try to go forward? Move to the side? How? None of the other cars quite knew what to do either.

I was for a brief moment reminded of when the big San Francisco earthquake of 1989 struck. Then, too, I was in my car, in the middle of the street when the world as I knew it gave way and everything went all fuzzy.

When I noticed the signs on the motorcycles, I knew.

Zaka” is the Hebrew acronym for the team of ultra-orthodox men who rush to the scene of a bombing to collect all the scattered body parts and pieces of human flesh. It means “Identification of Disaster Victims.”

“Brian, are you there? What’s going on?”

My brother was still on the phone. And Jody was calling on the other line.

“Just a minute, wait,” I said to Dave and then accidentally disconnected him while trying to get to Jody.

“I think it’s right in front of me,” I said. “Something must have happened right here at the Central Bus Station.”

“I don’t think so,” Jody replied. “The boom was too loud. The whole house trembled. It’s got to be in our neighborhood.”

It was. CafĂ© Hillel. On Emek Refaim. The glitziest, jazziest establishment on the street, converted only recently from, of all things, a Kabbalah Center. All decked out in glass and chrome with a funky black and red color scheme, always packed. It was obvious, inevitable…

And less than five minutes walk away from our apartment. I needed to get home.


But how? I couldn’t take any of my usual routes since they all converged roughly in the location of the attack.

I began weaving my way through unfamiliar streets, cutting a path through Mea Shearim around to the Old City and then up Derech Hebron. Everywhere, people were stopped on the street, talking in cell phones, listening to car radios. Stunned. Or in shock.

I’ve been close to attacks before. But I’ve never tried to drive through the ensuing chaos.

All the way home, the swarm never let up. The city became a living, breathing video game. Police and army vehicles, their blue lights spinning, sirens blaring, came at me from all sides. And more ambulances, more motorcycles.

All rules of the road were ignored. Not just the emergency vehicles but ordinary cars and trucks, too, ran red lights, weaved like drunkards. The traffic alternatively stopped and started again. A car cut me off and zoomed round the traffic circle – in the wrong direction.

It was after midnight when I finally pulled into my garage. And then I was safely in my wife’s arms.

The TV provided the gory details, most of it indistinguishable from the previous attack, and the one before that.

Except for the familiarity.

This was our street. Our back yard. Where we shop and eat and swim at what’s advertised as “Jerusalem’s Only Olympic Sized Pool.”

“Maybe I should go down there,” I suggested.

“Why would you want to do that?” Jody shot back.

“I don’t know. To see.”

As the sirens on the TV competed for attention with the sounds still blaring outside our window, I couldn’t help wonder: which were more real? Images accompanied by a newscaster’s breathless commentary emanating from a small lit box in our family room, or sights taken in with one’s own living eyes?

At 1:15 AM, after the crowds had dispersed and I was confident there was no second bomber still lurking, I headed out.

It wasn’t like I was going to be able to sleep anyway.

The police were guarding a tough line, keeping the gawkers – yeah, people like me – at bay. I navigated around the site, like a groom circling his bride under the chuppah, trying to find a vantage point. I needed to claim this space. I needed to make her mine.

The street scene at this hour was vastly different than my wild ride home. The ambulances were mostly gone, replaced now by tow trucks and news vans, their spidery antennas reaching up above the devastation. Portable generators illuminated the streets.

A group of Zaka volunteers milled about. Their plastic-covered shoes played a muffled scraping sound on the rough pavement. A few were speaking Yiddish.

Yiddish? When was the last time we heard that in our neighborhood?

I went out again in the early morning. The usual buses and cars were already speeding by the spot, the street filled with children walking and biking to school, aware but moving on. This is the drive that keeps us going. To live a normal life. Somehow. Someday.

But I won’t forget, how on this night, I drove through terror. And how it drove through me.