Thursday, January 30, 2003

Shelf Life

When someone whose life was consumed with writing, study or scholarship passes away, it is a common and fitting practice to dedicate a book or set of books in his or her name. The books are then placed in an appropriate public setting – a library, a synagogue, a school.

Tomorrow, January 31, 2003, marks six months since our cousin Marla and her fellow student Ben Blutstein were killed as they sat eating lunch, books probably spread open on the table, in a Hebrew University cafeteria. In commemoration, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies dedicated a set of books in their honor.

But these weren’t just books being dedicated in their names. These were their personal books.

After Marla and Ben died, there were all kinds of practical matters that needed attending to. One of those was the question of what to do with their possessions. Clothes were donated. More personal materials were returned to their parents.

But what about their books?

These were the books that they used daily in their studies. They were supposed to become the cornerstones of their respective libraries as they built their homes and families. Some were well-worn already; others still stood at attention, yearning to be cracked, aching for use.

That’s the nature of books. They can’t stand to sit about, idling the day away. A book would be miserable at a Catskills resort. Unless it was in the hands of a reader who loved it.

I admit that I have abused books at times. For a while, I bought books because I felt I should have them on my shelf, not because I actually wanted to read them. When I was a CEO I felt I should have CEO books. When I was a designer I needed to have design books staring back at me.

Those were my loneliest books.

It was surely this thought that in part inspired the students and faculty at Pardes to put the books that Marla and Ben owned back into active service. To give them company: the company of new readers who would pull a book off the shelf, thinking it no different than all the others lined up in that row, only then to discover it had once belonged to a remarkable person who is no longer here with us.

Perhaps the reader might be inspired for a moment to imagine where that book had been acquired, what roads it may have traveled, what stories lay hidden in its history of ownership. Jody just finished reading “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” by Susan Vreeland. It tells of the loves and intrigues that accompanied a fictional painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer as it journeyed around the globe, moving from owner to owner, from the 17th Century until today.

Jewish books embody all of these traits, and more. Many are famously riddled with laws – the 613 in the Torah and countless others in the Mishna, Talmud and commentaries.

And yet, ironically, much of what constitutes the great body of Jewish writing was never supposed to be written down in the first place. The Oral Law, the very foundation of most of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today, was supposed to be kept as just that: oral. It was only committed to pen and parchment when the Jewish people were in danger of losing their way, of disappearing. The very books we revere are nothing more than a compromise.

But how could it be otherwise, really? Though we spend so many hours in contemplation and dialogue with books, we would gladly, willingly destroy a thousand of the most sacred volumes to save a single life. Even the most holy book is no substitute for a living, breathing, oral life.

After several moving speeches at the Pardes dedication ceremony, students and friends who knew Marla and Ben silently rose and hesitatingly picked up one of their books from the center table. They then walked slowly to the bookshelves and placed their book in its appropriate spot.

It was eerily reminiscent of an Israeli funeral scene: an impromptu, unscripted re-creation of the point at which the mourners pick up a rock and place it gently on the grave. And it was even more striking since, at Marla’s funeral, her body was placed into a Mausoleum wall, in its own cold way a magnificent bookshelf, albeit one never to be disturbed or used again.

Marla and Ben’s books were an important part of their lives, and I am glad that other students will have the privilege of benefiting from them. At the same time, I derive no comfort from these books. They in no way ease the pain. But that’s not their purpose.

Rather, they have been added to the Pardes shelves to serve memory. To remind us of the paramount importance of life. Of two lives that were taken. We honor Marla and Ben by using their books in the bet midrash, and then going out and living life to its fullest, with meaning, with passion, with love. As Marla and Ben most certainly would have. And as they did.

Monday, January 27, 2003


When I was in the seventh grade, I had this t-shirt that said in brilliant neo-Hippie psychedelic colors “Vote!” I wore it constantly even though it would be another six years before I would have a chance to exercise my democratic rights.

When my time came, I became a diligent citizen. I voted whenever I could: national, state, city contests. There were tax reforms, bond issues and local referendums. I voted absentee ballot if I was out of the country.

But at the end of the day, something always felt missing. The issues just didn’t seem all that important. Where was the life and death drama in the question on whether to build a new library? Republicans, democrats…the result seemed basically the same. I know I wasn’t alone: voter turnout in the States continues to drop. People just don’t feel their vote makes a difference.

Not so in Israel.

It may be cliche to say, but the issues here really do matter. Life and death is not just a figure of speech. Six months ago, our cousin, Marla Bennett, was killed in the terrorist attack at Hebrew University. If the policies of the government were different, could her death have been prevented? It’s not an easy question, nor necessarily one that even has an answer, but it can’t be ignored either.

Similarly, when we talk about tax reform in Israel, we’re not debating over a couple percentage points here or a new set of mortgage deductions there. The average employee here hands over upwards of 65% of his income to the government, from income tax itself to social security to mandatory health contribution. And taxes lately are going up, not down. So when a politician proposes a tax cut of, say, 30%, we sit up and listen.

Maybe that’s why voter turnout is always so high: the 1996 election drew Israel’s highest ever participation level – a whopping 79.3%. Elections can also be decided by a very slim margin – in that same election Benjamin Netanyahu bested Shimon Peres by less than 1%. In Israel, it seems, your vote really does make a difference. That was never the case back home – until recently, of course, with the Gore-Bush race hanging on a few Miami chads.

There’s also the fact that we seem to have elections more often. That’s not necessarily a good thing. We’re supposed to vote in a new Knesset every four years, but in the last decade, not a single government has lasted out its term. The result is that we have ping-ponged between the vastly different worldviews of our elected leaders in each of most recent contests: Rabin-Netanyahu-Barak-Sharon.

Still, there is something I do miss from the “old country” - the simplicity of the voting system. It may have been staid, but the decision for all but the most radical among us was basically between the big two parties. In Israel there are so many parties (28 at last count), it’s like keeping track of a fraternity pledge week at a big southern university.

To make matters even more complicated, you don’t vote for the parties themselves, you vote for their code letters. Which have nothing to do with the party name.

So, for example, the far right National Union is “lamed” – we usually see that in Israel on the back of drivers’ training cars (short for “learner”). Is there a hidden message here?

Anti-religious party Shinui has “Yesh,” deceptively close to “Yesha,” the acronym for the West Bank and Gaza which Shinui would most definitely like us to pull out of.

Labor’s code letters spell out the Hebrew for “Truth” and Yisrael B’Aliyah has “Yes.” So do I vote for the truth? Or just say yes?

But in the end, the feelings of anticipation, the tantalizing exhilaration that I had way back in the psychedelic “Vote!” days of my legally underage youth are alive and well as I hit middle age in the Middle East.

And because this is Israel, a country I consciously chose to move to, not just the place I was born, my pride and patriotism have swelled in ways I never experienced before…or expected. Once upon a time, I believed your first time is always your most memorable. Now I know it’s all about love.

So when I walk into the polling booth later today, and stand in the long line of other voters to cast my ballot, I know that, for better or worse, Israel is a real democracy and my vote will have a profound effect on the real lives and deaths of our friends, families and neighbors.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Deja vu

“No to Death and War. Yes to Life!”

“No War for Oil!”

“Blessed are the Peacemakers!”

These were some of the signs seen at protest gatherings across the United States last week, as tens of thousands of young people converged on Washington DC and San Francisco.

It was all deliciously nostalgic. When I was in college, I was there too. It was the beginning of the Reagan years. So we young liberals still had lots to protest about.

And yet, times have changed.

I have changed.

Living in the Middle East, it seems, has transformed my most cherished perceptions, the basic worldview I have carried with me for as long as I can remember, into something I barely recognize.

Back then, it was all so simple to be a pseudo college radical. On the heels of the Iran Hostage crisis that in part contributed to Jimmy Carter’s downfall, the incoming President was pushing for a resumption of the much hated and feared draft. Every young person under a certain age was supposed to march down to the post office and register by postcard with the draft board.

Outrageous! No way could we policitally correct college freshmen allow this. It would be tantamount to aiding and abetting our corrupt government’s insatiable desire for global domination,

Or something like that. It’s been awhile.

In protest, I produced a heavily biased documentary at the college radio station where I was working. We lambasted the draft and all those who obeyed the law and registered. My own small act of subversion.

Then I deposited my draft postcard squarely in the circular file. Now, if anyone is thinking of reporting me, let me state now for the record that a number of years later, when I was satisfied that I’d made my statement, and in any case was now living in Israel, I did send in the card. In Israel, I found it just a tad hypocritical to protest against the draft when my own sons will be going to serve in the army in not so many years.

But the real change is this: after passing my 20-year college reunion earlier this year, the latest anti-war protests now seem to me naive at best, dangerously misguided if taken too far. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become a neo-conservative power-hungry warmonger. Far from it. But times are different. The world is different. I want to shake the protesters, look them straight in the eye, and say to them: don’t you get it? We’re already at war.

3,000 people murdered in New York and Washington. 200 more in Bali. Over 700 Israelis and many more Palestinians have lost their lives in the last two years alone. And that’s not counting Kenya, Tunisia, Yemen, Kuwait. The world is on constant orange alert, with credible threats of attacks daily: shoe bombs and Ricin and gas attacks on subways.

To all of you protesting so earnestly, tell me please, what do you call this? Peace?

And of course there’s the personal element: Marla didn’t die in a car crash. She was murdered as part of the war. No, this isn’t going to stop by our sitting back and doing nothing.

Now, maybe Iraq isn’t the right target. And there are undoubtedly other ways to fight than a massive military build-up. But fight we must.

Fight to cut off the compensation to the families of the suicide bombers.

Fight to stop the funding that buys the chemicals that get transferred into the hands of terrorists and the rogue states.

Fight to put an end to the cash flow that pays for the guns and the bombs that killed Marla and many more in Israel and around the world.

If anyone would have told me when I was 20 that I wouldn't be solidly against military action when I was 42, I would have laughed in their face. But then I would never have believed that my own children would be drafted, willingly and proudly, into the army.

As for our more idealistic youth across the ocean, they should yell and scream. That’s their role: to constantly remind us that killing is a bad thing. At the same time, if we don’t fight with all our might for our survival, then I’m afraid there won’t be any idealistic youth left to protest the wars to come.

Hillel Halkin presents a similar opinion on how his earlier Vietnam protest days have evolved since he moved to Israel. Click here to read the story.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Amram's Beard

An Open Letter to Amram Mitzna on the Matter of His Beard

Dear Amram,

First of all, kol hakavod on keeping the beard. It’s not easy for a secular politician in Israel to sport whiskers these days. It shows real conviction, a stand-up-for-what-you-believe attitude that should get you far. Very Herzl-esque.

And patriotic, too. You know, if you were in the U.S., you’d never get away with it. They like their politicians clean-shaven over on that side of the pond. Al Gore’s dalliance with a beard? Well, he’s not running in 2004 is he. Need I say more?

No, only in Israel are beards still cool. I should know. I had one for 18 years. I was anxious to add facial hair to my look as soon as stubble started erupting on my upper lip in high school. It looked so ridiculous that one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Andreski, suggested I take a black felt pen and fill in the gaps. Did I say ex-favorite teacher?

By college, though, the beard and mustache were real. Back in my day, it was more of a protest statement. Hippies, professors and therapists had beards. I wanted to be like those guys, a free thinker, not some corporate suit. Besides, it really annoyed my parents.

Mind you, it got me in trouble a few times. In 1987, I went to visit my brother who was living in Japan. I thought it would be fun (and cheap) to get from Tokyo to Shimonoseki (where my brother was living) by hitchhiking. A Japanese-speaking friend had a sign made that read “Tokyo” on one side and “Shimonoseki” on the other. I knew only two words of Japanese: “together” and “OK.” As in “Shimonoseki together. OK?”

I stood at the entrance to the highway for what must have been hours with my sign. The Japanese drivers whizzed by me. Later my brother told me that the Japanese don’t expect to see a “gai-jing” (pejorative for foreigner) with a beard. I looked threatening.

As I’m sure you know, Jewish tradition has always encouraged beards. It says in the Bible you’re not supposed to cut the four corners of your beard. But I think that Moses was just lazy. He woke up one morning and said to God, “Hmmm, as long as we’re writing down hundreds of new laws, why don’t we add a couple that would make life a little easier. Shaving is just too time consuming and the electric razor won’t be invented for another 3,000 years.” Apparently God concurred.

My beard always gave me a kind of rabbinical look. Which was fine when I was moving in that world. But as I started down the hi-tech Tel Aviv yuppie path, I felt it just wasn’t “me” anymore. Also, in the picture on my Israeli driver’s license, I look less like a Torah scholar and more like a Hamas terrorist.

I regret to inform you, Amram, that I took the beard off a few years ago.

After 18 years, though, it was pretty traumatic. I appeared out of the bathroom and my wife, Jody, just sank to the floor. She started rocking back and forth repeating “Oh my God,” again and again. I thought for a moment we were going to have to commit her. Now she’s gotten used to it and says I look better.

But you, Amram, you should stay the course. You’ve gotten this far. There’s no need to bend to whims of the non-bearded majority. If you come in second in the elections, it won’t be because of the beard.

So once again, kol hakavod – congratulations and good luck – on the beard. I hope you wear it well for many years to come.

Sincerely yours (even though I can’t promise I’ll vote for you),


PS – if you want to see how I look without a beard, click here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Final Frontier

When Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon blasted off into space last week, he accomplished something ten years of Oslo failed to do. He restored for us the ability to dream, however briefly, of a new Middle East again.

What was the new Middle East really about, in the end? The breaking down of borders. And what better symbol for a borderless world than an Israeli in space, as far from fences and demilitarized zones as one can possibly be.

Now, sure, the cessation of hostilities was the immediate prize of the peace process. But when we set our imaginations free, to imagine what life would truly be like in a region at peace, it always turned to the ability to drive on a whim to Amman to pick up some humus. To pack up the Mitsubishi and trek north through Lebanon, Syria and Turkey on a continuous land voyage all the way into Europe.

In short, to road trip with abandon through the vast reaches of our exotic neighborhood. Just like we did in North America.

The road trip is a classic American tradition, immortalized in countless movies and, for me, in real life. When I was in college, there was a popular service called “Drive Away.” Car owners who had been relocated from one end of the country to the other would contract with a Drive Away company to have their car driven by someone else to their new home. College students and free spirits would sometimes wait weeks for just the right car going to a desirable location.

The rules were simple: you got a car, usually a luxury GM model, at no cost except for the gas and a fairly loose limit on miles and time. I drove from coast to coast five times by myself, and once with Jody.

It was 1987 and we had just arrived back from Israel in 1987. With an impossibly romantic waterfall in Zion National Park as a backdrop, I almost proposed. Then I noticed my feet were getting wet from the cold spray of the mist. (Alas, the real proposal would have to wait another four months.)

Fast-forward ten years and concept of the road trip was all the rage throughout the Holy Land.

Remember when Israel was in negotiations with Syria and some spunky travel agent looking for the publicity, announced a set of upcoming tour packages to Damascus and other picturesque Middle East locations?

Remember when Israelis regularly high-tailed it to Petra for the day without risking life and limb?

My brother and I did just that in the spring of 1997 – over the Allenby Bridge, down to Red Rock City and back, with a swing through the Amman suburbs, all in one long 17-hour mini-bus ride. I was struck by the fact that the highway from the Dead Sea up to Amman was so similar to the one from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. Same curves. Same landscapes. This is one land. Why shouldn’t we be able to go from here to there freely?

And what are we left with now, in the ruins of our great hopes? We can drive for an hour to get from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, but a journey of the same distance in the other direction is off-limits again. Not officially, but who would risk it these days?

Before the 90s and dreams of a new Middle East, science fiction and fantasy programs like Star Trek were conspicuously absent from the Israeli airwaves. What did the words “to boldly go where no one has gone before” mean to a society that couldn’t road trip more than five hours in any direction before running into a barbed-wire fence, anyway?

After Oslo, Star Trek became big business here, and both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise play regularly. The genie is still out.

For a kid raised on a steady diet of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein, space was the ultimate goal. Both the space up there – the space I fully expected to be visiting someday in my own personal spacecraft – and the space to spread my arms, reach out and touch the vast emptiness around me, down here on earth. When I watched the Jetsons with flying cars zipping through the wide-open skies, it wasn’t just a cartoon. It was a blueprint for life.

In some ways, the harshest thing about living in Israel is the feeling of constant constriction. The lack of space. The inability to move.

When we came here in 1994, it seemed space was finally in our grasp. Today, we have to worry that simply traveling to Belgium might result in one’s being arrested, depending on who you are and where you live.

But now we have Ilan Ramon, our own blue and white astronaut. If you weren’t in Israel last week you probably didn’t realize the extent to which the launch of the space shuttle Columbia captivated the population. People stopped what they were doing to watch it live. At work, they turned our main auditorium into a TV screening. It played to a packed house.

As a kid, I watched the Apollo missions. I was up when they landed on the moon. I heard Neil Armstrong’s words in real time, and I watched them playfully bouncing around with their lunar vehicles on that dusty rock so far away. And now, Israeli children have been given their own chance to dream.

To believe that someday, if we can put an Israeli into space, the dream of a new Middle East is not dead. And that we should certainly be able to drive to Jordan and back for a really good shishlik.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Under The Apple Tree

All over Israel and throughout the Jewish world, children and adults alike have been taking to the fields this week to plant trees. Amir and Merav’s schools both had field trips; Aviv’s kindergarten held a party with symbolic fruits and nuts. At work, they handed out a neatly wrapped package containing a variety of seeds and three small pots of dirt.

Yes, it’s Tu B’Shvat season, the New Year for the Trees. Every January, even the most urbane cafe crawlers rediscover their roots, if only for a few minutes while watching the Nature Channel. Tu B’Shvat is a holiday that everyone can share in equally, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

Yet when I think of tree plantings, I can’t help but be reminded of probably the most unusual ceremonies I’ve ever taken part in: the great Placenta Planting Party.

It was the spring of 1994. Our daughter Merav had been born six months earlier. Now, in our Berkeley days, we leaned heavily to the crunchy granola side of the spectrum. So after the birth, we asked the nurse if she could save Merav’s placenta for us. We had heard that there was once a tradition among the Jews to bury the placenta. This being Berkeley, the nurse didn’t even lift a pierced eyebrow.

“What do they do with placenta if you don’t take it home,” I had asked earlier.

“It’s thrown out with the garbage, mainly. Sometimes used for medical research,” the nurse had responded.

That just didn’t sit right. Our taking home the placenta seemed like an act of preservation.

The placenta was delivered to us in an extra large Ziploc baggie, but we transferred it to a plastic chicken soup container (minus the soup), which we had brought along for just this reason. We packed the placenta in the back of the freezer, since we didn’t know where we were going to bury it yet, or exactly the reasons why. We set out to research the matter.

With the help of our community’s Rabbi, we found tantalizing clues. In Tractate Shabbat of the Palestinian Talmud, there is a line: “both the rich and the poor bury it to give a pledge to the earth.” We also learned that, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in the Babylonian Talmud, placentas delivered on Shabbat were preserved in different ways according to status: “daughters of kings in a bowl of oil, daughters of the rich in cotton sponges, the poor in rags.”

And more: Yemenite Jews had the custom to bury the placenta in a deep pit to ensure that it will not “fall into the hands of strangers or evil people.” This stemmed apparently from the belief that if someone has in his or her possession a body part of another person, he has control over that person.

All of this was enough for us.

In the meantime, the placenta in the freezer became a running joke, a means of mercilessly teasing our more squeamish friends, which consisted of basically everyone. For some, we’d bring it out for show and tell. For others, the mere hint of opening the freezer door was enough to generate the desired reaction.

“Can I get you something for dinner, Harry? I’m sure I can defrost something quickly”

“Well, what have you got?”

“Well, let’s see…there’s some frozen tomato and garlic soup, pasta with meatballs. And oh yes, there’s a lovely placenta.”

“Did you say polenta? I love that stuff!”

“Umm, not exactly…”

As the fall turned into winter, we became friends with a number of other families who had also recently given birth and who, remarkably, had also saved their respective placentas. We all shared a desire for some sort of a planting ceremony. We secured a spot in the backyard of the synagogue.

The Placenta Planting Party took place on a warm spring afternoon. There were two placentas, a foreskin, and a couple of shriveled up umbilical cords. Each couple prepared something to say. We wrote down blessings for our children, which we tossed into the hole we had dug. One of the more academically inclined threw down a floppy disc with his best wishes along with a copy of his unfinished novel.

If you have ever seen a placenta spread out in all its glory, it is truly a sight to behold. Deep red bordering on purple, with sinewy spider web tentacles reaching out from a place of nourishment, the long umbilical cord dangling from one end. It is so far from human, yet it is not entirely alien either. Familiar and gross all at once, it is said that its touch is like the smoothest of satin.

We wore gloves.

When everything was in the hole and we had covered it all with dirt, we planted a small apple tree on the spot. We then left for Israel a few months later.

We have visited Berkeley occasionally over the years, but have never had the opportunity to visit the site of that tree. Until last summer. We were invited to a backyard wedding of good friends and by this time had almost forgotten about our adventure from so many years before.

Until we saw it.

The small seedling we had planted those eight years before had grown and blossomed into a magnificent apple tree, full of fruit, healthy, unusually robust. Jody and I stopped and stared at it, and then we just burst out laughing.

As we had our picture taken underneath the tree, we remarked to anyone who would listen that this tree had received special nourishment.

“Why’s that?” the unsuspecting listener would ask.

And then, with a delicious sense of anticipation, we opened the freezer door once more.

Happy planting wherever you are this Tu B’Shvat!

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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Verifiably Single

Lynne and Adam are getting married! This is very exciting news for us: we’ve known Lynne for as long as we’ve been in Israel now, and Adam comes highly recommended.

In order to get married in Israel, Lynne needs two men to testify that she is indeed single. Lynne asked me.

It’s an unseasonably warm day in January when I head to the Chief Rabbi’s Marriage Division Office in downtown Jerusalem. As I walk the streets, I realize that I haven’t been here in over a year. Not since the bombs started.

I expect to see deserted streets, boarded up shops. There are some but there are also new cafes and construction of the light rail system along Jaffa Road. Business is not exactly booming but it’s not the ghost town I imagined.

Still, I am feeling uneasy. It is only the day after the double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and I don’t want to linger longer than necessary. I wait for a bus to pass. No need in taking chances.

The Marriage Division is in an old run-down apartment building on Havatzelet Street, not far from Gizmongolia, an all you can eat “meat bar.” We used to take our office there for the monthly all-staff lunch, back when we’d go downtown for lunches.

There are two people ahead of me. Both men of course. Traditional Jewish law has not moved far enough into the 21st Century to allow women as witnesses. The waiting room contains welcoming literature for new brides and grooms, but no secular reading material. No People Magazine, no Modern Bride. No Oprah.

I flip through a brochure in English and learn that soldiers, students, new immigrants and people on welfare are entitled to a 40% discount on their marriage registration fees

The door opens. It’s my turn. I am welcomed in by Rabbi Shmuel Zalman, a jovial fellow with a big white beard.

“How long have you known Lynne?” he begins, innocently enough.

“Eight years,” I say.

He flips through her file. “I see she was married before.”


“Yes, but that’s before I knew her.”

“How long ago was that?” he presses.

“I’m not sure.”

“Yes but how long?” he asks again.

“I’m really not sure.”

He changes subjects. “Do you know her parents? What does her father do?”

“I couldn’t say. But I know her brother. He’s a teacher at the Pardes Institute.”

“What’s that? Under whose auspices does it operate?”

“It’s independent.” I don’t want to say anything about the fact that men and women learn at Pardes together. I’m afraid that the way things have started to go, that might invalidate the wedding entirely.

“Adam teaches there too.”

“Uh huh,” he mumbles. “How long ago was she married, did you say?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Then he drops it. And I come to the realization that this is like the security check at the airport. Rabbi Zalman is not really interested in the answers. He wants to determine if I’m a trustworthy source; if I’m straight and honest. At the airport they look for terrorists. He’s looking for liars.

He turns his attention to me. “What is your line of business?” he asks. I tell him I manage an Internet site. I try to keep my answers simple so there won’t be too many additional questions. Same strategy as at the airport.

“Oy!” he proclaims, suddenly becoming overtly animated. “What’s going on with the hi-tech sector? So many layoffs. What, they don’t need people anymore?”

I try to explain it’s a global downturn, the economy you know, but Rabbi Zalman has apparently found a subject he’s passionate about. He launches into a story. A drash he once heard from some great Rabbi about the origin of the Hebrew word for computer. I pick up the basics. “It comes from moach and shev,” he explains.

“Sitting Brain?” It sounds to me like a Navajo name. “Hello, I am Sitting Brain and this is my younger brother, Standing Tush.”

He’s really enjoying himself now. The drilling over, it’s speech-making time.

He is throwing out those insights very fast, too fast for me, and in Hebrew. I nod and smile, understanding almost nothing. For all I know he’s pontificating that all computers should be banned, that the Internet delivers only pornography, that computer users are no better than pornographers.

“Yes, right, correct,” I nod and smile.

I’m not upset; I’m sure it’s a lonely job, sitting all day asking people the same questions again and again in a drab basement office when he would probably rather be learning Torah in some Bet Midrash. Or working out at the gym. OK, learning Torah. Every little bit of interaction can brighten an otherwise dulling routine.

“All right,” he concludes and gives me a pen to sign my name and Identity Number. I have made it through the interview. I get up to leave.

“You have children?” he asks as I reach the door.

“Yes, three,” I respond.

“May you blessed by them and know only joy.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I certainly hope so.”

As I walk back out into the sunshine, I breathe a sigh of relief. That wasn’t so bad. A little grilling, a new experience, a Navajo naming, and a blessing from the marriage clerk. And now Lynne and Adam can get married.

All in all, not a bad day, not a bad day at all.

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Sunday, January 12, 2003

Chronic Condition

When two suicide bombers exploded themselves near Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station a week ago, killing 23 and injuring many more, it shattered an illusory “calm” that has subtly shifted our thinking these past weeks. How long had it been since the last suicide attack? Six weeks? And before that, wasn’t it another six weeks?

As I grappled to put the attack, the largest single day of Israeli casualties since April 2002, into perspective, I found myself sinking into despair. The ever-repeating pattern of attack, counter-attack, relative quiet, attack, more quiet got me to comparing the situation in Israel today to that of a body suffering from a chronic illness.

I should know.

I’ve had a chronic inflammatory disease since I was a kid. And the way I relate to it says a lot about the way I relate to the security situation as a whole.

When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know the extent of what I was getting into. I didn’t know that this was going to be something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life. I was only 13. Who thinks that far ahead?

The nature of my illness was that I would suffer periodic “attacks” where I would be riveted with pain. In those moments, I’d believe that the harsh decree I had been dealt would never end, that I would never be free of such intensity and discomfort.

But the attacks would end, either by themselves or through medication, and then I would have a period of quiet during which I would forget about the pain and return to my normal life.

As time went on, and I “got used” to the pattern of attack and quiet, I became less fatalistic. I knew I could live with it. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but the attacks were always followed by some quiet.

Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing before an attack began which way it would go. Would it be a single attack, followed by a long quiet? Or would there be a series of attacks, one after another, draining me of the strength to go on?

As my teenage years faded and young adulthood took over, I learned how to savor the good times. To see the positive in the days, weeks, months, when I wasn’t feeling sick. To even have some optimism.

Israel is suffering from a similar chronic condition. We have long moved past the initial diagnosis. We are no longer shocked by each attack and we have learned to live as normally as can be in such times between attacks.

Still, with each new attack, we wonder: will this be an isolated incident, or are we returning to the horrible days of last April, when the attacks were coming once, sometimes twice a day. When the pain was intense. And we believed that it would never end.

A nation suffering from a chronic illness learns how to compartmentalize its feelings. The six weeks of relative quiet we just experienced were not truly quiet by any means. Sure, we’ve been free of the “big” attacks, but there have been less "spectacular" murders no less horrible: four Yeshiva students shot in their dormitory kitchen; a man burned to death in his car, and most recently, yesterday's infiltration into Moshav Gadish.

But we file these away as small eruptions, not the main event. How callous we become when we know the condition is here to stay, for the rest of our lives.

Lest this analysis become too unbearably gloomy, I am happy to report that I have been in remission for over twenty years. My doctor says my illness is just about gone, “burned out” is how he described it.

But I can never rest. I know that it could come back at any point, when I least expect it. I am always on guard. My innocence was stolen at too young an age.

So it is too with Israel. Our children have long since lost their innocence; our country, already known for its innate cynicism, has become unnaturally jaded. We’ve had our periods of remission: most recently in the early days of Oslo when we dreamed and played and strived to become a nation like all others, a boy no different than any other on the playground.

And we will certainly have another remission – that’s the nature of chronic conditions. But sadly, neither science nor politics has yet discovered a permanent cure.

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Friday, January 10, 2003

Corruption Disruption

It’s election season in Israel. And the campaigns are getting ugly.

Last night, the Prime Minister held an emergency press conference on TV. The idea was for him to explain that he’d done nothing wrong in accepting a $1.5 million loan from an old friend in South Africa. Well, that was the idea.

Instead, he belligerently attacked the purported politicking of his opponents in the Labor Party, so much so that, in a dramatic move, the Chairman of the Central Elections Committee actually pulled the broadcast off the air, calling it pure unadulterated propaganda in violation of the election laws.

Was this real life or an episode of The West Wing?

In the midst of all the excitement, I had a disturbing thought: could all this talk of corruption and bribe-taking wind up getting in the way of the really important stuff: there’s a war going on and people are trying to kill us, remember? I’m not taking sides here. If it were wide scale corruption in the Labor Party with the Likud gloating over it, I’d be just as peeved.

Now, maybe I’ve got my priorities all wrong. People shouldn’t vote for corrupt politicians, regardless of the bigger picture. I mean, what’s the story with this college drop-out waitress who landed herself a safe spot on the Likud list? Or the postal worker who couldn’t even get a promotion? Are these suitable representatives for our nation in a time of crisis? So maybe this is a good thing.

But my fear is, however important these issues are, while the politicians are fighting to the finish over who took money from whom, people are going to get blown up because we’re not focusing where we should be. Distraction can be deadly, and I’m not sure besieged Israel has the luxury of wallowing in scandal.

Of course, this same argument has been used to our detriment over the years: messed up systems never get fixed, people figure they don’t have to act decently to each other because there are more important issues to deal with.

But there must be a way to fight corruption and terror at the same time. Now here’s a thought: if enough people become sufficiently outraged by this current scandal, maybe it will generate a groundswell of support for a complete overhaul in the electoral system?

One that works this time.

For those of you who missed the 1990s in Israel, somewhere around ten years ago, the Knesset voted to allow for the direct election of the Prime Minister. Previously, the head of the party that received the highest number of votes would become Prime Minister.

But as for the actual members of Knesset, this list was determined not by the public in an open primary, but by smoky backroom party committees. It’s pretty easy to see how the temptation to buy votes can seep in.

The problem with the direct election of the Prime Minister was that it gave us a revolving door parade of heads of state, none of who ever lasted out their full term. Small parties held the bigger ones hostage and we became more fractured than before. The law was repealed this year and now we’re back to the old system.

What we really need, though, is something like what we North American immigrants grew up with: true local representation. Allow me to vote for someone who has to answer to me; someone who lives in my neighborhood, who drives the same potholed streets I do, who sits in the same shuls I do.

I’m not saying this person shouldn’t put national priorities up front and center. I hope he or she will. But I would much rather vote for a person, not just a party, and especially one I might bump into at Pizza Sababa.

This never came to be in the past in part because it was assumed that minority ethnic or religious groups who are not concentrated in a particular location would never be able to secure appropriate representation. But the country has become much more geographically polarized in recent years and populations aren’t mixing the way they once did. The representative of Karmiel for example, would almost certainly be a Russian-speaker given that city’s overwhelming majority of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, immigrants party Yisrael B’Aliyah has proposed just such a change in its party platform, although they take a gradual approach – only half of the Knesset would be elected by direct representation in the first stage. Still, there's hope.

In the meantime, we’re still in the thick of the current system scandals. Thankfully, voting is just three weeks away. Then it will be all over (for now) and we can get back to the less dramatic stories of staying alive, fighting terror and stocking up on smallpox vaccine.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2003


This past weekend marked 19 years to the calendar date since I first landed in Israel as an intrepid tourist. I had graduated college a few months before and set out for a long-anticipated six-month jaunt around Europe.

Unfortunately, I started my trip in December and, as I soon discovered, Europe can be quite cold in the winter. So, I decided to come to Israel for a few months to chill out, so to speak, and wait for that proverbial springtime in Paris. I even filled out the forms to volunteer on some nice warm Negev kibbutz where I imagined myself picking juicy watermelons by the dawn’s early light.

I arrived in Jerusalem on a Thursday and immediately set out to visit the Western Wall. While there, I was greeted by Meir Shuster, one of the prominent Rabbis at the time who set up English-speaking young people with Shabbat hospitality.

Now you have to keep in mind my background: not much. I didn’t know bubkes from a traditional Shabbat, but I had heard that nothing was open on the weekend in Jerusalem. So, this seemed like a good way to ensure I at least got fed.

Come Friday night, I trekked off across Jerusalem to join my hosts, the Witt family, in the mostly ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mattersdorf. Everything was new to me – the songs, the blessings, the black hats and coats, the sheer number of kids (I don’t think anyone where I grew up had more than three). I spent much of the night trying to figure out how to keep the cloth kippa that the Witts had loaned me from falling off every time I moved my head. (I would only later learn about hair clips.)

Over the years, my observance of Shabbat has waxed and waned. I have been quite stringent at times, but I have also driven, watched TV, turned lights on and off, and even cooked. But never in the 19 years since that first Friday night in Jerusalem have I worked on Shabbat.

That’s why Hillel Halkin’s article “How Modern is a 3,000-Year Regression?” in that appeared last month in the Jerusalem Post spoke to me as it did. Halkin was writing in response to demonstrations against the recent opening of a mall in Kfar Saba. In the article, he praises the concept of Shabbat, even though he himself doesn’t observe it, for giving not only our bodies, but our minds a rest from work.

“A Shabbat on which you can’t buy, or sell, or go to the bank, or place an order with your stock-broker, or get a bill in the mail, or have to make a financial decision,” he writes, “is, in theory at least, a day off not only from work but from the economic worries and calculations that gnaw at us, sometimes pitilessly, the rest of the week.”

Here, here. Jewish tradition knew what it was doing when it came up with the then-radical concept of creating the world’s first six-day work week, in contrast to our status as seven-day-and-night-a-week slaves in Egypt. And it displayed even greater insight by legislating that our one day off a week be mentally free of back-breaking work as well. This is not a religious issue. It’s an essential element of how we stay humane.

The concept of the day off came under fire a few years ago. At the height of fever, I had a conversation with a hi-tech colleague whose Jerusalem-based company was looking for a U.S.-based CEO. One of the CEO candidates they were interviewing commented that he didn’t understand how Israel could ever hope to compete in the global market.

“You’ve got to work 24/7 to keep up,” the candidate earnestly told my colleague. “How can you do that if you shut down completely one day every week!” executives and their venture capitalist cronies had become the new Pharaohs.

Somehow we do compete, though. And I don’t know of any companies here that have gone out of business strictly because of Shabbat observance. Indeed, it’s one of the things I love about Israel: even though probably 90% of the company I work for now is not religiously observant, there has never been any pressure, no expectation, that staff work on Shabbat. Holidays are just as sacrosanct.

In the States, by contrast, leaving early for Shabbat was a real tircha, especially in the winter when Shabbat can start as early as 4:00 PM. Oh, the people you work with profess to understand and respect you, but I will never forget when we were under a deadline and my development team had to work late into Friday night and then again Saturday morning but I had to leave.

With the pressure mounting, Tom, the project lead, finally broke down and screamed at me. “Clearly, you’re just not committed to this project. Otherwise you would be here with us.” In the heat of the moment, with Shabbat breathing down my neck, I couldn’t explain it to him.

Beyond that, I totally understood where it was coming from. He was right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the new-old concept of work was demanding that someone, anyone, not just me, had to work 24/7.

By sheer coincidence, we made aliyah three months later.

In Israel, Shabbat, like everything else in this part of the world, has also taken on a political context. For some, it has become a way to impose observance on an antagonistic public; for others it’s a means of “breaking free” from the shackles of what is perceived as a hopelessly outdated tradition. The Kfar Saba Mall that Halkin writes about is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions open on Shabbat throughout the country.

Several Israeli political groups – among them the dovish religious Meimad party – have tried to forge a distinction between shopping on Shabbat and entertainment. According to this line of reasoning, entertainment is OK because it’s in the general spirit of Shabbat. Sitting with friends at a cafĂ© sipping a cappuccino, slurping an ice cream on the beach with your kids, even an outing to the movies are all ways of relaxing.

Serious shopping, on the other hand, necessarily forces you to think about money and budget. Will that cute tank top I’m considering be appropriate to wear to the office tomorrow? Can we afford the fancy floor tiles or should we be sensible and opt for the plain ones right now?

Immigrants party Yisrael B’Aliyah has taken a different approach, supporting moving the weekend in Israel from Friday-Saturday as it is now to Saturday-Sunday. Although it’s not part of the platform, many have expressed hope that this could turn Sunday into a day for cross-denominational shopping, while reserving Saturday for more Shabbat-like relaxation and entertainment activities.

I have no illusions that the Saturday shopping public would suddenly lay down the consumer gauntlet and defer such material pleasures to Sunday. In the U.S., as in most of the Western world, the steady pace of consumerism has long made both days of the weekend sacred for shopping. But the very fact that the discussion even comes up here is one of the things that makes Israel such a unique place.

But then, what did you expect? After all, we came up with the concept of the weekend in the first place.

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Sunday, January 05, 2003

Bottled Water and Tuna

Sharon is on the phone to Jody. She’s at the supermarket.

“Did you get your bottled water yet?” Sharon asks.

“What are you talking about?” Jody responds.

“Your bottled water. There’s a good deal on Neviot at Mega right now. Cheapest I've seen it.”

“You know we’re trying not to buy in bulk, Sharon,” Jody says. Why contribute to our overdraft any more than is necessary, we figure.

“It’s in case of war,” Sharon says, spelling it out. “Didn’t you hear? They set the date. February 28. “

“A firm date? Really?”

“Yes. And the Government Water Commissioner said on the news last night we should have three days worth of water on hand for each person in the house. He said that’s the amount of time it will take to purify the water sources if they should become contaminated.”

Welcome to Supermarket Talk as we enter 2003 in Israel.

“And tuna. You should get tuna,” Sharon adds. “Maybe crackers too.”

Jody gets off the phone and calls me. “You know I don’t get worried about these things," she begins. "But Sharon just called. I’m feeling a little panicky.”

I explain to her what I know. First, there are lots of dates floating around. February 28 is one, but I also heard January 21. Major General Aharon Ze’evi says early February, and Mofaz says anywhere between the end of January and the end of February.

Or maybe not at all.

“It’s all a game of global disinformation, Jody,” I reassure her. “To keep Saddam on his toes.”

Second, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be worrying about. The Prime Minister says we are ready for any Iraqi threat. The army says we are better prepared now than in ’91. But OK, I say. Maybe we should get the water. Just as a precaution.

But then where are we supposed to take our bottled water in case of a war? Do we go to a sealed room? Not very effective if a missile hits your house. We have a bomb shelter in the building, but that won’t protect us against poison gas. The doors are porous and it's below ground. Didn't I hear that gas sinks?

And in any case, I don’t really believe that the gas masks are going to work anyway. I’m sure that chemical weapons of mass destruction seep in through the skin.

“You have to wear long sleeves,” Amir chimes in when I arrive home.

“Didn’t you learn how to use your gas mask?” asks Merav.

The kids had a lesson in school. They practiced putting them on, taking them off.

“They even taught us how to give the shot,” adds Merav referring to Atropin, the drug that is supposed to counter the effects of a chemical attack. “You stick it in your thigh really quickly, like this.” She makes a jabbing motion with her hands. “Then squeeze down slowly. It doesn’t even hurt.”

And I think: my God, the things they are learning in school. What ever happened to worrying about sex, drugs and rock and roll?

I go to get my haircut with Dave. He's a medic in the army. "Atropin is the biggest joke," he says. "It only works for eight minutes per shot. You've got to keep injecting it until you get to the hospital."

"But there's only one shot per kit," I say. "What's it good for then?"

"It gives you eight minutes to say goodbye." Haircut humor.

"With any luck I'll see you in another six weeks," I wave on my way out the door.

Our neighbor Ayala is in her own panic. “B-rrrrr-ian,” she coos in that charming way that cultured Israelis pronounce my name, “have you spoken to Marc yet?”

Marc is our neighbor. Ayala wants to make sure we clear everything out of the bomb shelter. It’s been used to store junk for the last ten years. Old tables, bikes, assorted boxes with baby clothes and books. There’s a toilet in the corner which the gardeners have been using. “If you move the heavy stuff, I’ll be responsible for the cleanliness,” she adds.

"Don't worry, I will," I reassure her.

On Saturday night, Marc and I trudge downstairs to check it out. The room is empty. Completely cleared out except for a large plastic water jug, standing at attention, ready for action. I guess Ayala couldn't wait.

“So which room are you going to seal?" Marc asks. He's not a big believer in Ayala's ultra-clean bomb shelter. "Do you have your transistor radio ready?"

Forget the radio. If we get to stay in the house, I want the whole TV. We’ll bring down those old Monty Python tapes we’ve been meaning forever to watch. It'll be a marathon. What fun. No school the next day. Maybe I should go out and buy sealing tape after all.

What about work? I commute to Tel Aviv. That’s where the missiles all hit last time. The prevailing wisdom is that Saddam will never aim at Jerusalem because he might miss and blow up Bethlehem. Maybe I can telecommute. That could be a side benefit. Until all my work colleagues show up in my living room and we set up a remote workstation for those fleeing the center of the country.

So many questions. To prepare or not to prepare? How to prepare? When will it happen? Will it happen at all? Does it matter? I wish I was more fervently religious. Then I could throw my head back and say “it’s all in God’s hands.”

But I am reminded of the old story. A highly devout man is drowning in the ocean. A boat comes to rescue him. No, says the man, God will provide. God will save me. Then a helicopter comes. No, the man repeats, you go away. God will provide. The man drowns. In heaven, he confronts God. Why didn’t you save me, he demands. What did you want? God answers. I sent you a boat and a helicopter.

I pick up the phone. “What did you say the deal was on bottled water again, Sharon? And was that tuna in oil or tuna in spring water?”

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Prediction Tradition

Growing up, our family had an annual tradition on New Year’s Day. My father, my brother and I would gather around the family room table and put down in writing our predictions for the upcoming year. We would then open the envelope that had been sealed “upon pain of death” from the previous year.

Our predictions were divided into the categories that mattered: sports, entertainment, politics, and personal. We were almost consistently out in left field, though sometimes we'd hit a grounder. We took pains to divide our pithy predictions according to who said what.

The predictions have been squirreled away for years in a box in the house I grew up. Last summer, under the cover of nightfall, I managed to abscond with two years worth of delicious nostalgia from when I was 12 and 13 years old.

Some excerpts:

1973. My brother and I predicted a big earthquake in San Francisco. Dad said no (he was right). I predicted two assassinations though I didn’t say whom. On more important matters, I thought Disneyland would open a new land and that we’d buy our first color TV (I was wrong about Disneyland, right about the TV).

My brother predicted that JRR Tolkien would come out with a new book. My father thought he’d die (he did), while I said someone would make a major live action move out of Lord of the Rings (I was right, too…just 30 years off). And all of us predicted that the Wankel Rotary Engine would catch on big. Does anyone even remember Mazda’s big innovation today?

Oh yes, I also predicted that the US draft would come to an end and that Donny Osmond would play the Oakland Coliseum. Wishful thinking. About Donny that is. The only Jewish note that year: a cryptic three line prediction my father and I wrote: “Arabs No Settle.” Little did we know what was to come later that year at Yom Kippur.

1974: I was the only one who successfully predicted the Oakland would win their third straight World Series (my brother thought they’d lose to Kansas City). As always, we wrongly predicted an earthquake. And I went for the pop-culture gold, naming The Waltons, Family and Kung Fu the top rated shows of 1974. Where are they now?

I rooted for a Beatles reunion; my father voted for Simon and Garfunkle. All of us believed President Nixon would be impeached, but only Dad predicted correctly that he would resign. He also pegged gasoline at a (then) whopping 65 cents a gallon.

Now jaded by 1973’s events, we all predicted a new Arab-Israeli war (this time we were wrong). My brother thought somewhere in the U.S.A. the first black governor would be elected (that 11-year-old had a budding social consciousness, didn't he?) And my father fell back on an annual tradition: forecasting the death of a major Chinese leader (always a good one since none of us kids knew who the leaders in China were anyway).

My father was also sure I’d get a serious girlfriend this year (sorry, Dad, I was holding out for Jody…) He also thought I’d get all A’s (OK, I admit it, I did). But girlfriend and good grades, they don’t go together, Dad, now do they? More realistic: I predicted my acne would clear up (it did, but not until 1977).

We used to have so much fun every year. Maybe this is the year to restart the Blum family tradition of New Year’s predictions with our kids, though I’m not sure if it should be on January 1st or in September, at Rosh Hashana time.

I wonder, though, how our predictions here in Israel, in 2003, will differ from those we made 30 years ago. War and terror and adult concerns like jobs and money will undoubtedly take more of a center stage. For example:

I predict that the US will indeed go to war against Iraq this year, but not until April which will be very inconvenient, scaring off our Pesach guests coming from the States and interfering with our plans for Jody’s big 40th Birthday trip overseas in May.

I predict that, despite the seemingly endless layoffs in the hi-tech sector, I will continue to hold on to my job, at least until July (and hopefully beyond) and that my stock options will go up a whole 25% (now there’s real faith).

I predict Jody and I will balance our household budget in August and get out of overdraft by September!

I predict that Osama Bin-Laden will finally be found, alive and well, sharing a studio apartment with Mullah Omar in Montgomery County, Maryland.

I don’t think that I’ll be getting a new girlfriend this year, though maybe one of the boys will (probably four-and-a-half-year-old Aviv).

And finally, and most important: I predict and I pray that no one else in our family, among our friends, or in our community will die this year from a terror attack. I would very much like to predict that this ongoing war of attrition will come to an end but, sadly, that wouldn’t be realistic.

So instead, let me add what I say every year at this time: may this year simply be a better one than the year that just passed. Lord knows, it has to be.

And oh yes, some Chinese leader will definitely die this year…

Amotz Asa-El has a good Year in Review piece in the Jerusalem Post. Click here to read it.

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