Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Get My Drift?

“What’s the weather today, Abba?” my kids ask every morning throughout the winter. The ostensible reason for the question is to determine how to dress for the day. But there’s always a subtext.

Will this be the week it will finally snow?

It doesn’t snow all that often in Jerusalem. A few flurries once a year maybe. And a really big one only every seven years or so, say the meteorologists.

Kids who grow up in snowy climates take winter weather for granted.

“Yeah, it’s snowing again.” Yawn. The streets will be cleared in a few minutes and we’ll still have to go to school.

Not in Jerusalem. The city becomes completely paralyzed. Nothing moves. Roads are shut down completely. It’s like Yom Kippur with only kids and dogs on the street, except a whole lot colder.

Now, when people think of Israel, the last thing that usually comes to their mind is snow. This is supposed to be a desert. One that we made bloom, right?

True, it doesn’t snow in the desert. But not all of Israel is dry and rocky. Jerusalem, by contrast, is high up in the mountains.

I drive to and from Tel Aviv to work every day, and my commute home always reminds me of the steep pass that winds its way into Lake Tahoe from the California side. Lots of curves. A little bit treacherous. Stunningly beautiful.

While it snows all the time in the winter on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, Jerusalem’s altitude means that snow falls much more infrequently. But this week we finally had some of the white stuff. Even before it came down heavy, the schools panicked; class was out by 2:00 PM on Monday.

By Tuesday morning there was enough accumulation to have fun with. The kids were up at 5:00 AM staring out the window in awe. They had put on their coats and gloves before we even climbed out of bed. Merav came in to tell us she was going exploring with her friend Michal. Aviv took off on his own.

“Do you know exactly where Aviv went?” Jody asked as we stumbled into the kitchen. A sudden panic, an image of him face down in the snow, unable to get up. I raced my clothes on, ran outside ready to scour the neighborhood. And there he was, in a nearby park, making a snowman, and throwing snowballs with the neighborhood kids.

But as much as the kids adore the snow, I hate it. It’s just so darned inconvenient.

Sure, if I was a kid and school was cancelled, I’d be having a blast too. But I have to get to work. And during the big snow of 1998, I was traumatized.

I was attending a conference in Tel Aviv. My fledgling startup was presenting at a conference. We had wangled a heavily discounted booth and were making our first public debut anywhere. And then it started to snow in Jerusalem.

Now, I suppose I could have stayed over at some friends in Tel Aviv, borrowed some underwear and deodorant. But I like being in my own bed. With my own wife. So I headed home.

The radio was reporting that the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was closed. The snow was too heavy. Or maybe it wasn’t that heavy but since the country doesn’t have any snowplows to speak of, the stuff wasn’t going anywhere.

However, the “alternate route” – Highway 443, which goes from Modi’in to Ramot – was still open. I decided to brave it. Keep in mind, this was a number of years ago, before the widened the road. Still, everything was going all right until I got close to Givat Ze’ev.

And then visibility reduced to about three inches. Or zero. And the drop from the very small pre-widened shoulder of the road went in one direction: straight down.

I don’t have a lot of experience in snow. But I’m pretty sure it’s not a good sign when your car is slipping and sliding around on the ice, when you pass buses flipped over in the middle of the road, when you see scores of people walking in meter-deep snow drifts from their abandoned cars to get home.

Thank God for cellphones. Jody stayed with me for the three hours it took me to go about five miles in this nightmare. There were times when other drivers whose cars had already skidded into oblivion physically guided my car when I could neither see nor steer. I truly wondered whether I would make it home alive that night.

But I did. And I missed the next day of the conference.

On the news in the morning, the Mayor announced, “We’re going to leave the snow on the ground for a few days for residents to enjoy it.”

In other words, since we don’t have any snow removal equipment, we can’t do much about it, so we’re going to spin this into a positive.

Thanks a lot, Mr. Mayor.

I think at this point you can understand why snow isn’t at the top of my hit parade. Let the kids enjoy it. I’ll stay inside, drink some hot cocoa and work virtually from home. Because it will be a snow day in the Negev before I go out in that stuff again.

If you get my drift.

All the main papers in Israel have pictures of the snow. Click here to see Haaretz's montage. Click here for pictures from the Jerusalem Post.

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Long Live the King

While preparations for war were the main focus of the front pages of last week’s papers, the big news in the business section is that the Israeli franchisee of the international Burger King chain is in trouble and that Burger King Israel is now under bankruptcy protection.

This announcement threatens to upset the delicate balance I have built, the fine line that makes living in Israel bearable.

You see, when people refer to the "matzav" - the "situation" - it's not the economy or security considerations that make the difference for me. Rather, it's the status of fast food in Israel, in particular, the ability to eat that quintessential fast food delicacy – the burger – once again, after going kosher so many years ago and no longer being allowed to frequent my previously favored dens of culinary iniquity.

The arrival of real American fast food in Israel twenty years ago, with a scattering of kosher variations around the country, restored all that for me. Sure, falafel is more Israeli, more authentic. And native-born Israelis are not big burger consumers: a recent survey from the Mutagim Institute written up in Haaretz revealed 33% of Israelis prefer falafel, 29% pizza and only 17% hamburgers.

But when it comes to pure nostalgia – my nostalgia – nothing beats a burger. But now, the threat of losing the unchallenged king of them all…well, it's been almost too much to stomach.

But I am determined to make the best of a potentially devastating situation. I mean, it’s not like we don’t have other burger establishments.

So on a recent Friday, I decided to determine just how much of a tragedy this really could be. In order to come up with a scientific answer, I visited each of the five main burger joints in town, bought one representative burger from each and brought them home where the Jody, kids and I held a gala burger taste-testing fest and fast food competition. We divided each burger into five equal pieces and then each started sampling.

Our test group included a Whopper from Burger King, of course, and also a McRoyal (the European equivalent of the Quarter Pounder) from McDonald’s which I had to pick up at the Mevesseret Zion Mall since the McDonald’s five minutes from our house on Emek Refaim remains defiantly non-kosher.

There were three more burgers: a Star Ranch from Burger Ranch which came topped with smoked goose breast; and two super-cheapies from hole-in-the-wall vendors – more like a guy with a grill, a burger and a bun instead of shwarma and a pita – located conveniently along side the Rami Levi supermarket and Bazaar Strauss discount clothing store, both in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone.

The three brand name burgers were between 18 and 20 shekels each; at about $3.80, fast food in Israel is not cheap. At a mere 5 shekels for a Rami Levi burger and 6 shekels at BurgerStrauss (just a little more than a buck), these were definitely the best burger deals in town.

We deliberately left out of our survey the gourmet burgers. Norman’s charges upwards of 30 shekels for a hamburger (and it’s not even a Whopper). We also left out Emek Refaim’s Burger’s Bar which is not that much more price-wise but is more a restaurant not a fast take out joint and distinguishes itself with some particularly yummy sauces (garlic, pesto, hot pepper).

Gourmet burgers are in a whole different category, really. The International Herald Tribune recently ran a piece on the most expensive burgers in New York. It was truly decadent. A $26 burger mixed with duck fat, marjoram and thyme; another stuffed with black truffles, fois gras, and braised short ribs. I’m not saying they’re no good – they sound great (if totally treife). But burgers...I don’t think so.

As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much impossible to grow up in suburban America and not have a fastidious fondness for fast food. There’s the ubiquity to start. And the fact that they’re just so darn delicious. They may be terrible for your health (and lately legally dangerous too), but can any of you deny that a Big Mac with a triple thick chocolate shake, a side order of fries and a hot apple pie is not on a par with any fancy bistro, French, Italian or otherwise?

And don’t get all huffy about ambience. McDonald’s has play areas for the kids. And a really big clown. So it’s not Jerry Lewis. The French can go sue me.

The last time I ever ate at a “real” McDonald’s was, ironically, in Paris. It was September 15, 1985. I was finishing up a five-week trip through Europe and heading back to Israel to study at Pardes. I had already decided I was going to keep kosher once I got to Jerusalem, so I made sure that my last meal before hopping the train to the plane was a good one.

For some reason, I was unable – or perhaps it was unwilling – to go all the way and order the bacon. To this day, I regret not having one last fling. Gluten-based simulated pork just doesn’t satisfy.

Back to the matter at hand. Or mouth. The kids were looking forward to the taste survey. Their enthusiasm surprised even me, the burger meister. The salespeople at the burger establishments all looked at me a bit funny. Just a single burger? What, no Happy Meal?

When they were laid out across our kitchen table, Jody commented that all the burgers looked the same from the outside: there must be a monopoly on hamburger buns. She also mused that if we came down with food poisoning, we wouldn’t know which was the culprit. Thanks, Jo…

Now for the results. Bottom line: money does talk. The super-cheapies couldn’t hold their own next to the King of Burgers. Except for Aviv, who voted for Rami Levi because he liked the way the name sounded, Burger Strauss was uniformly hated and Burger King and Burger Ranch were in a virtual tie (sorry McDonald’s).

That was until I realized that the smoked goose breast on the StarRanch might be skewing the results. We removed the goose, tried again, and the winner and still champion: Burger King.

So what’s to be done? There’s really only one alternative. We’ve got to get out there and support our local Burger King. I urge all readers within a 10 kilometer radius of an Israeli Burger King to get out and buy one a day. Don’t dawdle. It may not be a life or death scenario, but the future of Burger King in Israel is in our hands. We can make a difference! This is the reason we made aliyah in the first place!

And while you're out, could you pick me up a large order of fries and that hot apple pie?

Thursday, February 20, 2003

All That Jazz

The corporate cafeteria is one of the last remnants of the hi-tech perks that were once proffered as freely as the stock options we were supposed to retire on. Gone are the weekend trips to Cyprus and the shiatsu massages. The company cars have been downgraded and we even have to pay for our own cellular phone calls now.

But the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet still lives, even if greasy grilled chicken is showing up more frequently than roast beef and duck.

And today, there was a jazz quartet, set up on a stage at the head of the dining room, taking over the spot where my usual table stands.

Mind you, this is not a normal feature of our afternoon repast. But with the anxiety level ratcheting steadily upward as the country prepares for what appears now to be imminent war, I guess the company decided to cheer us up with a little afternoon delight. Music, that is.

It was a nice change. Albeit a bit surreal.

First, it was probably the toughest room that quartet had ever played. This was no smoky club off a dark cat-infested alley catering to wannabe Tel Aviv bohemians with extra long sideburns and retro-thick black frame glasses.

No, they had before them a fluorescent-lit Dilbert-esque cafeteria; a large sun-drenched room that holds 300 at a seating, complete with the requisite plastic chairs, paper napkins, and lots and lots of croutons.

The band was in a peppy mood, belting out upbeat classics. Staff members seemed pleased if befuddled as they entered the room. Thinking they were about to engage in some deep conversation about new product features or marketing strategies, they were instead thrust abruptly into audience mode.

Which led to all sorts of questions about etiquette. For example:

Is it proper to applaud?

How long should you stay? Does the 30-minute lunch rule still apply?

Should you leave politely via the back door, or walk right past the stage in the usual manner, tray in hand, on the way, to the dishwashers?

And then there were the cellphones.

Everyone in the company gets one. And we’re expected to carry them everywhere to take calls (if not to make them). It is simply inconceivable that someone should be unavailable for even the briefest of moments. Heaven forbid you should need to use the bathroom – you’re expected to answer in there too (and I want you to know I have overheard some very interesting conversations that way!)

It’s no wonder that Israelis refuse to turn their phones off even in the movies or at the theater. One time, the cellphone racket got so bad at a play in Tel Aviv that the lead actor stepped into the audience, grabbed the phone from the hapless audience member and yelled into it “he can’t talk now, he’s at the theater. He’ll have to call you back.”

So at our unexpected jazz lunch, the phones continued to ring.

“Hallo, Shooey. No I can’t talk now. Yeah – hear the music? It’s great. Next week the scuds will be falling but today we got this girl in a tight sweater wiggling around while we eat our shnitzel and rice. No, the stock price is still in the toilet. Yeah, the company’s still laying people off. But she’s singing ‘Georgia’ now. Nu, listen!”

I began to feel really sorry for the band.

As monophonic renditions of Britney Spears, Shlomo Artzi and Hill Street Blues vied for attention with the polyphonic sounds emanating from the stage, I was, unfortunately, unable to linger.

I had to get to a meeting to finalize our company’s contingency plan. We needed to put into writing exactly what staff members should know and do in case of a missile attack. For example, the very same cafeteria where the music had just been playing has also been designated a Level 1 staging site. In case we need to prepare for evacuations from a chemical or biological attack.

I half seriously suggested that we keep the band on retainer, throw a big dance party with live music and hot hors d’oeurves, and then we give everyone the rest of the week off.

My ideas were not well received.

Meeting over, I went back upstairs and caught the last 10 minutes of lunch. Yeah, Georgia’s been on my mind too…

Monday, February 17, 2003

Duct Tape Conspiracy

We finally bought our duct tape this week. We already had the plastic sheeting, the transistor radio and extra batteries, three days supply of water and tuna. Now we’re totally prepared.

And so, apparently, is the United States.

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued emergency instructions to Americans to stock up on the supplies needed for a sealed room, including duct tape, many Americans heeded the call.

Now you might think that, as Israelis we might have some extra insight into duct tape, since we have been using the stuff since the first Gulf War in 1991. And we do.

So here goes. Behind the rainbow of alerts – orange, blue, yellow and beyond – and the increasingly threatening messages emanating from Al Qaeda on an almost weekly basis now, there lays a conspiracy of even more diabolical proportions.

I’m not talking about the oft-repeated suggestion that the looming war against Iraq is all about taking over an Arab land in order to seize its oil.

No, it turns out that the entire push for war is being manipulated by a singularly evil corporate monopoly: the International Association of Duct Tape Manufacturers.

Think about it: who ever heard of duct tape before sealed rooms? A couple of electricians maybe. But it wasn’t in the everyday vernacular. It was like Weapons of Mass Destruction. And Al Jezeera. Words used by the intelligence community, not by the Average Joe.

In fact, a recent poll indicated that 87% of both Americans and Israelis thought it was actually “Duck Tape.” And they have been scratching their feathers ever since trying to figure out either why we should be taping ducks to our windows, or making a sticky adhesive out of a heretofore tasty waterfowl.

All this is further exacerbated by the fact that the leading manufacturer of Duct Tape – Henkel Consumer Adhesives – has renamed its flagship brand as "Duck Products", with their main product being, yes, "Duck Tape." A classic disinformation strategy if I ever heard one!

Need more proof? You only need to look back as far as last year when duct tape was making the news in an entirely different context: wart removal.

That’s right. Researchers apparently discovered that the most effective way to remove warts was not by freezing and zapping, but by applying duct tape to the affected area. In 85% of cases, the warts, apparently, just fall off on their own. That's in contrast to only a 60% success rate for the more common cryotheraphy. It's a crying shame, really...

But the real smoking gun is the number of people making big money on duct tape. Ever hear of The Duct Tape Guys? These two so-called “comedians” have created a veritable empire from the stuff, including four books (the latest being “The Jumbo Duct Tape Book: 464 Pages of Duct Tape Wit and Wisdom”) that have sold over a million copies, plus eight “365 Days of Duct Tape” calendars. Watch for their new book, “Duct Shui,” out soon.

Interested in having The Duct Tape Guys perform at your next corporate event and demonstrate some of the more than 5,000 uses they’ve found for duct tape? It’s only $3,900/day plus travel expenses in order to learn the Duct Tape Mantra:

It Aint Broke, It Just Lacks Duct Tape.

Another duct tape heavy is Canadian television's Red Green who has just released the ultimate sticky cinematic experience: "Duct Tape Forever: The Movie."

To keep us off guard, the duct tape conspirators purport to share the wealth. At the Duct Tape Club, you can win $2,500 for the best photo of you and your date wearing duct tape to the prom, or for the most outrageous duct taping of your car.

But hijinks aside, the Duct Tape industry still needed was an additional catalyst to propel usage into truly stratospheric levels, and fear of chemical attack fit the bill quite nicely. If it worked in Israel 12 years ago, why not try it in the good old U.S. of A.

Now that I’ve exposed this conspiracy, you can be sure that it won’t be long before the Jews and Israel will be blamed for it all.

Just like after 9/11, the Mossad, it will be claimed, will have tipped off Israelis far in advance who will now be reselling duct tape on city street corners at massively inflated prices. Rabbis, it will soon be said, will have given coded sermons in synagogue suggesting that their parishioners buy certain stocks and mutual funds endorsed by the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council.

In the interest of fair reporting, I must disclose that I once purchased an significant amount of duct tape myself in order to create a really scary Purim costume: kind of a mummy meets Dwayne Schneider (you remember him – the wacky superintendent played by Pat Harrington Jr. from TV sitcom classic “One Day at a Time”).

So, next time you claim you know what this war is really about, just remember you read it here first. Warts and all.

And oh yes, isn't duct tape also a petroleum product?

Friday, February 14, 2003

Not So Funny Valentine

When I was in elementary school, I dreaded Valentine’s Day. Oh, it was OK in first and second grades when we were required to give valentines cards to boy and girl in class. Remember those little cards with the silly six-year-old-appropriate love poems? Violets are red, roses are…you know, something like that.

The night before Valentine’s Day, I would spend hours stuffing, then licking the envelopes spread out across the kitchen table, pouring over the class list, investing great thought in deciding who would get the ones with the hearts and who would be stuck with the stupid bicycle or the fish.

But as we got older, that admirable level playing field concept imposed on us by the wise sages of the time, our teachers, got shunted aside and those valentines really started to mean something. Couples began forming and some got left behind. I still gave, but I received less and less each year.

The other night we attended the wedding of Lynne and Adam. You remember Lynne: I had to testify to her singlehood at the Chief Rabbi’s Marriage Bureau a few weeks ago. The wedding was a lovely, intimate affair, held at the Taverna Restaurant along the promenade that overlooks the old city from near Abu Tor.

As Jody and I looked around the room, it occurred to us that most of Lynne and Adam’s friends were singles. And, like Lynne and Adam, they weren’t all fresh-out-of-college twentysomethings either.

As they regaled in the joy of their friends’ marriage, were they at the same time feeling a tinge of envy, a moment of painful reflection - the adult equivalent of their own valentine’s card rejections?

Indeed, the problem of singles who don’t want to be has become a serious concern in the Jewish world, even more so in Jerusalem where singlehood after a certain age carries a discernable negative stigma.

The issue is now debated at religious conferences like Edah whose upcoming conference has a session entitled “Understanding and Repairing The Status of Singles in The Orthodox Community.”

It is addressed by numerous groups such as the Israeli-based Eden 2000, which sponsor frequent singles get-togethers.

There’s Speed Dating and ultra-orthodox matchmakers and any number of kabbalistic seers who will be delighted to give you a blessing…for a small donation, of course.

My wife Jody and I have always had a lot of singles in our life. Our married friends find this terribly odd. Their social circles out in such suburban Israeli wonderlands as Beit Shemesh, Modi’in or Ra’anana consist almost exclusively of other marrieds with kids.

I’m not entirely sure why it’s so important for us to have singles around. Maybe it keeps us feeling young. Maybe it’s just circumstantial – we frequently host singles for Shabbat meals from various study programs in Southern Jerusalem where we live, and we’re good about staying in touch.

Sometimes, though, we wonder about our older single friends. We think: why haven't they gotten married yet? They seem to us like great people. Sensitive, warm, mature. Do they have commitment phobias? Have they invested too much of their soul in their careers? Are they rotten in bed? Then again, how would we know?

We’ve tried to match them up, but never with any success. We certainly can’t claim the kind of numbers that the newest big thing – the online dating services – can.

Go to any Jewish site and you will see the ubiquitous ads, usually all bunched together: Jcupid, DateMeister, JewishCafe. Not to mention JDate. With 500,000 members, it claims that one out of every ten Jewish singles is on their site, with hundreds of resulting marriages. Google search Jewish singles and you’ll come up with over 200,000 sites, including “Dosidate,” an inside joke that made me laugh out loud (“dosi” is Hebrew slang for religious).

In Israel, Cupid is the leading matchmaking site. Like JDate, it also claims 500,000 members, with another 20,000 signing up every month. Other Israeli sites include Up2Me and the cynical CheckMeOut where surfers mercilessly “grade” photographs of people online (they can also click to meet someone they like).

Before electronic dating hit the scene, I once placed a written personal ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It was 1980 and I wrote the headline: “Summer Sublet in My Heart.” It sounded sweet, but actually I was in college and just home for a few weeks, so it was more of a coded expression for “fling.” I received two responses, one from a real person (who wasn’t interested) and another from an organization wanting to showcase my clever ad in a book on personal ads.

Another Valentine’s Day rejection.

Fortunately my story has a happy ending. Jody and I met and it was love at first sight (well, my sight; it took another year to convince Jody to even go out with me).

And yet, despite what seems to me - now the happily married man - a singular sense of gloom, everyone seemed so truly happy at Lynne and Adam’s wedding. The dancing was so freilich.

How could this be? Shouldn’t they be desperately seeking someone, like I was for so long? Like I always I imagined I would be at 35, 40, 42?

It makes sense, of course: their wedding was its own coded message to the entire community of singles. A message that said if Lynne and Adam could find each other, after so many years of searching, there is still hope for those who remain single, with any luck, not for much longer.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Blame Game

Elections bring out the worst in politicians. The just-concluded campaign was no different. The sheer number of fingers pointing in every which direction, apportioning blame to anybody but their owners, could have put on the most magnificent piano recital. But it wasn’t music to my ears.

Israelis are masters of the blame game. No one ever takes responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault.

The Maccabi Games bridge disaster is one of the most glaring. examples Shoddy construction leads a bridge full of young athletes to collapse. Some die of diseases contracted in the heavily polluted river. The blame gets shifted everywhere, the buck never stops and the head of the organization responsible claims for years he did nothing wrong: it was the contractors, I didn’t have any supervision over them, he whines.

A corporate executive is accused of tax evasion and share manipulation. He didn’t know anything about it. His accountant handled everything. How did that executive get so high up the corporate ladder if he didn’t keep a watch on everything extremely closely?

A wedding hall collapses in Jerusalem killing 23 and injuring 350. Illegal permits have been issued, internal walls removed without checking with the contractors. The developer of the Pal-Kal system that collapsed says it’s too late to try him; he’s protected by the statute of limitations. The Mayor comes out clean as a washroom fixture.

I didn’t do it. It was him.

It’s not me, it’s the system.

Everyone does it. What, I should be a freier?

Yes, the ultimate insult for an Israeli – to be a sucker. My friend, writer Stuart Schoffman once pointed out to me that there are no four-way stop signs in Israel.

“Who could possibly decide who got there first?” he asked me.

True, true. Imagine it! Every driver would aggressively push their way into the middle, claiming they had the right of way, causing untold numbers of traffic accidents in the process. And after the accident, no one would take the blame.

Thank God we have no-fault insurance in this country!

Israeli TV recently showed the episode of The West Wing where President Bartlett accepts an unprecedented bipartisan censure on his failure to disclose he had a Multiple Sclerosis during his campaign for President. Why did he accept such a stern decree? Because he felt he had done wrong. And he wanted to set an example by taking responsibility for his own actions.

Is it worse here than anywhere else? I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in America, but listening to Trent Lott’s feeble protests and embarrassing apologies, it seems that the blame game cuts across nations. It’s just that we’ve made fine art out of what for other countries is still a student project.

Now, before you give up on Israelis altogether, remember that identifying the problem is the first step towards curing it. So consider this an opening shot, my own small contribution to instituting a nationwide 12-Step program.

"Hello, my name is Shimon and I'm a Blame-Shifter."

Yes, there is always hope. And there have been bright spots. Perhaps the noblest, most surprising act of responsibility ever taken by a politician was that of the late Yitzhak Rabin when he resigned after it was revealed that his wife held an illegal foreign bank account. Seems almost ludicrous in light of today’s vote-buying scandals and fishy money transfers.

One of the first lessons we teach our kids is to take responsibility for their actions. In the Blum household, we have a sign up in our kitchen that reads:

If you drop it, pick it up.
If you spill it, wipe it up.
If you take it out, put it back.
If you turn it on, turn it off.

We also pay our kids 20 agarot (around 5 cents) for taking responsibility for doing their chores. Taking out the garbage, putting away the silverware, sweeping the floor. That kind of thing.

Maybe if we pinned up the Blum Family’s Responsibility Reminders on the wall of every Israeli cabinet meeting and in every office – government or otherwise – we might make some progress. And since government officials are always whining about how they need another raise, an extra 20 agarot a task might go a long way.

And Lord knows, they've got a lot of floors to sweep and garbage to take out.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Good vs. Evil

Last week, Collin Powell laid out the US case against the evil in Iraq. But I have already spent a considerable amount of time discussing the nature of "evil" via email with Steve, an old friend from childhood.

Steve and I have been carrying on a heated though good-natured debate over the last several months. It’s funny how two thinking adults, raised in the same society and the same community, could wind up holding such widely diverging viewpoints. Our point-counterpoint exchange can be summed up quite simply:

I believe there is such a thing as absolute good and evil. He doesn’t.

In truth, his point of view is more consistent with where we both came from. We were indoctrinated on a traditional liberal American Jewish belief system, the tenets of which included always voting democratic, belief in God optional, belief in science mandatory, and above all, an abiding faith that everything is relative. That everything can be spun according to who’s telling the story and that there are no absolutely no absolutes.

Then I came to Israel.

Where I confronted war. Real hatred. Life and death struggle. It was about as far away from the armchair moral relativism of my youth as anything I can imagine.

It’s taken me many years to internalize, but I have: evil is real. There truly are good guys and bad guys and you are not a knee-jerk proto-fascist conservative if you take a stand on that.

Growing up, everything wrong with government was summed up as being about greed and power. In this scenario, as presented by Steve, U.S. interests in the Middle East are solely about control of the oil fields, about ensuring that there’s enough liquid gold to keep the SUVs of the west gaily guzzling.

Good and evil? Moral clarity? Not in that dictionary.

There’s a reason video games are still so popular in America. It’s been a long time since serious armed conflict with rockets and tanks was something Americans had to worry about on a daily basis. And there’s never been a time when people got blown up by suicide bombers around the corner from your house or your school. That kind of thing happens far away in exotic lands separated by miles and miles of ocean. So the conflict gets played out in the virtual realm.

But video game culture cannot thrive if there is real evil.

Because if there is real evil, then if your man gets blown up on screen, that could really be you. Or your family. You might feel the pain. You might even cry. That wouldn’t be any fun.

Certainly, there’s considerable danger in believing in the concept of good and evil. It’s entirely too easy to get caught up in fundamentalism, to be brainwashed into believing that evil are those who get in the way of the crusade.

But without such a belief, everything looks the same. In one particularly email exchange, Steve wrote to me:

“The question is, how do you determine what ‘evil’ is? Is it anyone who supports terrorist acts? Well, the U.S. supports terrible, dictatorial regimes worldwide that care nothing of civil rights or democracy. Does this not this make the U.S. evil as well?”

Good point, Steve. There’s no denying that our shared birth land has done some very nasty things over the years. I am not an absolute apologetist. But just because the US has not been and still is not perfect doesn’t negate the fact that some things are inherently correct and others wrong.

Hijacking planes and blowing them up inside skyscrapers is wrong.

Deliberately killing women, children and unarmed civilians at a Bat Mitzvah party is wrong.

Sending six million people to their deaths because they are different is wrong.

Why do we even have to explain this anymore? Not so much to Steve, but to the world at large.

As Steve continued his argument, the tone turned to ironic despair:

“I fear the human race isn’t long for this planet,” he wrote. “I can’t even imagine what it will take to save the human race. Maybe an invasion from another planet.”

Where the whole world unites and we zap those space invaders wearing our 3-D wrap-around virtual reality goggles?

Steve’s sentiments echoed those in the old Prince song:

Yeah, everybody's got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before I'll let that happen, I'll dance my life away.

They say two thousand zero, zero, party over, oops, out of time! So tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999!

But we passed 1999 and we’re still here. Hope is not dead.

Not to disappoint the more spiritually inclined, but I don’t come at my belief in good and evil from a religious perspective. Maybe that’s a remnant from my upbringing. Rather, I still hold, despite the mounting odds and increasing evidence to the contrary, that people are inherently good, and that every man, woman or child, no matter how small or far from the seats of power, can make a difference.

How can I still believe in goodness? Because I believe there is evil.

And that’s my bottom line, my own Collin Powell case for how good can, will and must eventually prevail over evil. But it requires that we know where we stand, and that we have an intimate, personal understanding of what’s real and what's virtual.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Avril and Madonna

Avril Lavigne is Jewish.

I’ve decided, all by myself, and despite all evidence to the contrary. She just has to be. How else can good Jewish boys and girls keep fantasizing about her?

You know Avril. She’s that cute skateboarding chick from Canada with the punky attitude who has that incredibly catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head in the shower pop song “Complicated” that’s been #1 all over the world since the summer.

OK, sure her bio on the web says she grew up singing in church. But that’s just a ruse. To throw us off the scent. Or maybe it’s true, but on her mother’s side.

But her father, he must be Jewish: Lavigne, give me a break. It’s got to be Levine. She only spells it differently to make her seem more universally accepted. Or cool. Same thing anyway.

More than that, her father’s probably Israeli and Avril is short for Gavriel. Or Gavriella. Every Jew’s got a nickname…Shmulik, Shuki, Shooey, Snotty (that's short for Osnat)… Yes, our girl Gavriella (that is, Avril) is planning a solidarity mission any day now to sing in Tel Aviv to her awaiting fans.

And just listen to the lyrics of "Complicated"

“Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?
I see the way you're acting like you're somebody else gets me frustrated…”

Sure, it sounds like an angry ode about some skater boy, but we know better: the love of her life became hozer b’tshuva, he’s returned to religion and that’s why everything now is just so complicated.

Keep that in mind next time you hear the song.

Or, if you just can’t wait, click here to listen right now.

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s someone else who acts like she’s Jewish but really isn’t: Madonna.

In an interview with Larry King, Madonna was asked why she now wears a large Star of David. She explained to Larry that she’s a Kabbalist. “I'm not Jewish in the conventional sense,” Madonna said, “Because the Kaballah is a belief system that predates religion in general, and predates Judaism as an organized religion.”

Madonna went on to explain that Judaism appropriated the kabbala and made it its own. Whoa, I think I missed that one in Kabbalah 101 class. See how much you can learn from pop stars?

Then again, what did you expect from Madonna. Have you seen her latest video, the one from the movie Die Another Day? In it, she is being taken to the electric chair. Before they can do the deed, she wraps tefillin around her arm! Makes the loop-back on the fingers and everything. And then when she gets up from the chair, there are these cryptic Hebrew letters. Positively kaballiptic!

Larry also asked her why she only uses one name. It just happened that way, said Madonna. "Maybe you should call yourself Madonna Leibowitz," joked Larry. I’m on the floor in shock. Can he say that on television? Isn't that, like, totally politically incorrect?

Howard Stern played the clip on his show and I happened to record it. I rewound my tape and listened to it twice. Then I ran to check out the transcript on CNN, but it’s not there…edited out? I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Click here to read the “official” transcript.

Now that I think about it, on her breakthrough video, our other “Jewish” pop princess, Ms. Complicated, Gavriella Levine herself, is wearing this strange half-length black and white striped sleeve that looks vaguely like tefillin straps… See, I was right!

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Where Were You When...

“Brian, get up here quickly,” our neighbor Marc called from the top of the stairs. “Amir’s watching TV and he’s very upset.”

“Why?” I called across the courtyard. It was the end of Shabbat and Jody, Aviv and I were coming back from the park. It had been an unusually warm February day, the kind that restores your faith in the compassion of the seasons.

“Didn’t you hear?” Marc said. “The space shuttle’s disintegrated.”

No way. Couldn’t be. Not again.

I raced up the stairs to see the image of a sky as perfect as the one we were experiencing in Jerusalem, marred only by the faint white streaks that hinted at disaster. This was the image that would be played over and over on CNN, BBC, Sky News and others all night as the experts tried to figure out what happened.

Amir sat transfixed in front of the television, watching that image, listening to the repeated profiles of Ilan Ramon. His face was composed, with just a hint of ashen heart.

Was it only two weeks ago that the first blue and white astronaut blasted off and, as I wrote in "The Final Frontier," in the process boosted all of Israel's hopes for a brighter tomorrow? What kind of horrible metaphor does its crashing down to earth symbolize then?

I should have known something was wrong the minute Marc called from our shared second floor entryway. The last time that happened was 9/11. I had been on a business trip in France. I called home from my cellphone just to check in and got Marc instead of Jody.

“What are you doing in our house?” I asked him.

“Didn’t you hear?” he replied. “The Twin Towers. They’re gone. We watched them go down just now.”

And then the rest of the story unfolded.

It was a “Where Were You When…” moment. As in "where were you when you heard..."

Thankfully, there have been only a few of these awful moments in our lives. Kennedy in ‘63 was what most people of my generation refer to us the penultimate experience of group bonding through bad news.

In Israel, we have our own unique moments.

Where were you on Yom Kippur 1973 when you noticed something was out of the ordinary?

Where were you when the first scuds fell during the Gulf War?

Where were you when you heard that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered?

In the face of disaster, the power of “Where Were You When…” is an integral part of the grieving process. Once you’ve digested the news, sharing with others your personal relationship to the gory details is like sitting together in a virtual communal shiva .

9/11, though it took place in the U.S., affected Israelis as much as it did Americans. I slept through it.

I had been up most of the night before preparing our CEO and other senior VPs for presentations they had to make the following morning at our company’s annual User Forum. After the presentations, I headed back to my hotel room to catch a quick nap before the evening’s activities.

When I woke, I turned on the TV. I saw smoke coming out of the World Trade Center, but the news was all in French, which I don’t speak. My hotel, a budget two-star, didn’t have any English-language satellite channels. I recognized certain expressions, in particular “un catastrophe,” but it wasn’t fully registering. I took a shower, got dressed and walked back to the conference hall. That’s when I called home and learned the full impact of what had happened.

The conference hall was deserted. The hundreds of delegates had all gone back to their individual hotel rooms. I tried to log on the Internet from one of the now-abandoned demo stations. But I had missed the communal bonding, the shared moment of understanding. I felt lost. Away from my family. Away from my colleagues. Alone in what seemed to be a monstrously changed world.

I imagine many observant Jews in North America had a similar feeling with the disintegration of the Columbia yesterday: it was Shabbat when it happened. For us in Israel, there were only two hours until the end of Shabbat, but in New York and Toronto and Los Angeles, the day still had many hours to play out. News travels fast, of course, and even those who don’t turn on their radios or televisions on the Sabbath undoubtedly heard what was going on.

When a terrorist blew himself up at the Park Hotel on Pesach of last year, killing 29, our family, thankfully, did not hear the news until after the holiday ended the next day at sundown. The bonding still came, even if delayed by 24 hours.

Last night’s disaster has hit all of Israel hard. Ilan Ramon was a symbol, but also a man with a wife, four young children and a history. His family survived the Holocaust and he took a small Torah scroll smuggled out of Bergen-Belsen, a microfiche copy of the Bible, a kiddush cup and a two-week supply of kosher food with him into space.

As I tucked Amir into bed, I asked him “Do you think you should say a special Shema tonight?”

“Why?” he replied. “They’re already dead.” I was initially shocked by such bluntness, but from his point of view, it was a purely logical statement: he was recalling the great Rabbis of the Mishna who recited the Shema at the very moments of their deaths, not afterward.

“I don’t know,” I fumbled. “I heard an interview with Ilan Ramon the other day. He said that when the shuttle passed over Israel and he saw Jerusalem from space, he said the Shema.”

Amir immediately put his hand over his eyes and said the words.

I am sure that many children of many different faiths said a special prayer last night. And I am equally sure that, years from now, those children may well discover that this was their shared experience. A “Where Were You When …” moment of the young and still innocent, who I pray will continue to hold fast to the hope that someday they, too, will be able to soar into space despite it all, to behold the beauty of the land beneath them, and to say their personal Shema.