Monday, March 31, 2003


Don’t worry. I’m going to be OK. But I had to get a CT Scan the other day.

It started out simply enough. In the middle of this past winter, I caught a nasty bug. It turned into pneumonia. And then it wouldn’t go away.

For two and a half months I coughed and ached. I had three x-rays and visited a pulmonary specialist. Finally he said I ought to get a CT to see what’s really going on.

The very term filled me with anxiety. "CT" - what does it stand for? "Cancer Trauma?" "Cat's Tongue?" "Chronic Twitch?" All good rock band names, but very bad diseases. In truth, I associate anything beyond a regular x-ray with serious problems. Even an x-ray marks an escalation. I am a card carrying hypochondriac. My episode with the dishwasher soap confirms that.

Getting to the clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood was an ordeal in itself. Two wrong turns and I finally made it, huffing and puffing, 15 minutes late and hoping I hadn’t lost my turn at the machine.

“Please sit down and they will call you,” the perfunctory clerk informed me. “It will be at least an hour’s wait.”

Before I could even express my exasperation, she continued. “We’ve just had two shooting victims brought in.”

Guess I couldn’t argue with that, I thought, as my mind began to probe what I’d heard on the news earlier. This was the day that two Israelis had been accidentally shot by IDF forces while stopped on the side of the road to make coffee. But that was hours ago. And they were dead. The dead don’t need CT Scans.

Do they?

Hospitals are probably the truest melting pots of a society. Wherever you are in the world, if you want to get a feel for a foreign country, just visit the emergency room.

My waiting room companions consisted a nattily-dressed black hatted and black bearded man passing the time by playing games on his Palm Pilot; a pushy woman in very high heels who kept asking when it would be her turn (it was clear from her questions that she was looking for an opening to cut in front of someone else); a hi-tech yuppie-type in a leather bomber jacket who spent most of the wait snoozing, a soldier in fatigues, hugging his gun, who answered to the name “Igor;” a young woman in a frumpy wig and tight sweater who made frequent trips to the restroom.

After about 15 minutes of just sitting, they wheeled in the guy with the bullets. He was all tubed up, lying completely still. I would hear on the news later that night that he was in serious condition. So this is what it looks like, "serious condition." I fought back an urge to move in closer.

In truth, despite all the violence and our own personal tragedy with Marla, Jody, the kids and I have still been relatively shielded by the graphic horrors of terror. We don’t dwell on the TV images; we’ve never been at the scene of an attack.

The only time I’ve ever even seen a dead body was when I once filled in on the volunteer “Chevra Kadisha” (the burial society) in Berkeley. I remember being surprised at how heavy a head is and appreciating my own neck muscles just a bit more that night.

When they finally called my name, I checked my watch: 90 minutes had gone by. The nurse motioned to me to lie down on a table that moved by itself into a large white orifice. The device reminded of a large powdered donut (I had been fasting before the test). A prerecorded voice told me what to do while a sign above warned: “Danger: Do Not Look into the Beam.” I tried to avert my eyes and I wondered what it felt like to be sterile.

“Take a deep breath. Hold it. Breathe.”

The whole procedure took all of five, maybe seven minutes at most.

And then it was over. I walked back down the long corridor, out into the cold Jerusalem air, the city unfolding before me from the stunning mountainside where the hospital is perched.

I arrived in the car just in time to listen to the news that punctuates the top of every hour in Israel. The shooting victims were a father and son. They were sitting in their car in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara. But the police weren’t sure if the shooting was motivated by criminal or nationalistic motives.

A few weeks later, I got the results of my CT: everything was perfectly normal. The scan showed nothing. Just a particularly long and lingering case of pneumonia. As I write this, I’ve already made a full recovery.

I only hope the two shooting victims will be so lucky.

Monday, March 24, 2003

War as Peace of Mind

I don’t mean to be flippant, but to Israelis, the war against Iraq - so far at least - has been somewhat of a bore.

This is not in any way to minimize the drama in the Gulf. Certainly there have been fierce battles already, with more casualties on both sides than initially expected. The non-stop news coverage attests to the fact that this is important, that it's the story.

But here in Israel, it’s like we got all dressed up and now we’ve got nowhere to go.

Over the past weeks, we went out and bought our duct tape. We sealed our rooms, tried on our gas masks and now we are instructed to carry them wherever we go. Every politician who can speak passable English (and a few who can't) made a public pronouncement on how he or she thought the war would go.

But so far we’ve seen no action in Israel. No missiles flying overhead. The Patriots and the Arrow anti-missile batteries stand at the ready but are for the moment idle. Even the airlines that originally cancelled flights to the region are coming back drip by drop.

This is a good thing of course. None of us want chemical weapons rained down on us. But after such a build up, the quiet is almost anti-climatic.

And now look what’s happened. Haaretz reports that “despite the Israel Defense Forces' explicit directive for the public to carry gas masks at all times and the repeated warnings from defense officials that the possibility of an Iraqi missile strike still exists,” virtually no gas masks were to be seen in downtown Jerusalem. Just as bare in the HaShalom train station in Tel Aviv. Not even Dimona, adjacent to Israel’s officially still secret nuclear reactor, is heeding the IDF’s instructions, according to Haaretz.

And why should they? At dinner the other night, Amir asked why we should be so frightened over the slight possibility of a missile attack from Iraq when it is a near certainty there will be another suicide bomb in the near future?

Is carrying a gas mask on a public bus an oxymoron?

Well, I’m still toting mine around. And so are the kids. Although under protest.

“What if none of the other kids bring theirs to school?” demanded Merav. “I just can’t be the only one.”

The ultimate punishment: to be the different from one’s peers at the tender age of nine.

Aviv had no such problem. In kindergarten, one of the arts and crafts activities conducted across the country last week was the uniquely Israeli ritual of “decorating the gas mask box.” Aviv and his friends cheerfully affixed color stickers, drew pretty pictures, and added liberal dabs of paint and sparkles.

Amir dutifully carried his box with him to karate, and Jody and I stashed ours under the bed at night (leading me to wonder: in the Gulf War, did anyone try to make love while wearing a gas mask? And more important: if so, were they initiating or completing the act?)

But in my office, almost no one is carrying one. And, mind you, I work in Tel Aviv, only a couple of kilometers from where the majority of the scuds fell in 1991, and within exploding distance of the Pi Glilot fuel plant that was shut down following attempts by Palestinian terrorists to blow up a truck inside it last year.

Speaking of which: what’s up with local terrorism anyway? It’s almost forgotten. Despite our indifference, the news with Iraq is dominating our heads (if not our hearts). And Saddam Hussein, who seems to grow less and less dead every day, is blaming it more and more on the Jews.

Here’s an ironic thought: the war in Iraq may actually be serving to increase peace of mind among Israelis. How so? It’s done a fine job of taking our minds off immediate terror concerns. The newspapers are dominated by news from Baghdad. But a shooting near Ramallah? Page Six.

Which gives me a thought. Maybe what we need to do to survive the rigors of life in Israel is to find a conflict somewhere else in the world, and give in a Jewish spin. One which world leaders fallaciously claim involves us, but doesn’t really threaten us.

Serbs and Albanians in Macedonia? It all started when the Elders of Zion decided to sit for a nice glass of tea in some quaint Kosovan cafe.

Hutus and Tutsis in Africa? Really just a fight over who’s the real 12th lost tribe. And the fact that Israel continues to deny them their right of return.

Protestants and Catholics slugging in out in Belfast? Well, there once was this Rabbi from Nazareth…

And if none of the above work, we can always blame it on the French.

And here’s the best news of all. Last time I checked, the Hutus and the Tutsis didn’t have stockpiles of chemical weapons.

I’m feeling more relaxed already.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Post-Purim Pirates

You probably thought today’s column would continue with more commentary in light of the US assault against Iraq.

But no. Even though it's almost a week later, it's still Purim in our house. And will be for some time now.

You see, the Post-Purim Pirates have arrived.

“Aye, matey, what booty have ye plundered this year?”

There are several mitzvot (commandments) for Purim: to hear the megillah (the Scroll of Esther); to give donations to the poor; to eat a festive Purim meal; and to send mishloah manot (Purim gifts of food and sweets) to friends.

Misloah manot officially must consist of at least two items with separate blessings (i.e., a fruit and a cookie) and must be sent to at least two people. But the custom in our community has turned this into a major production. Dozens of mishloah manot go back and forth between friends, coworkers, shul members.

First, there’s the list. It starts with obligatories: our neighbors and people who sent us an especially nice mishloah manot last year. To that we add our closest friends and then the kids’ friends. The tradition in our household is that, while Jody is getting ready for the festive meal, I take the kids out to deliver the goodies. I stay in constant touch by cell phone with Jody.

“Has anyone delivered a mishloah manot to us in the last five minutes?”

“Yes, the Rosenscheins were just here.”

“Great, I’ll cross them off our list.”

We leave a stash of mishloah manot at home to give to people who come to our door. It’s just the worst when you run out, or when someone you never planned for shows up and you’re not sure if you have enough to give to that person or not.

This year, the kids made a special effort to give to Ora, the Cat Lady. Ora lives not far from us and feeds all the stray felines in the neighborhood. She got one of our standard mishoah manot…plus a can of tuna. In return, each kid got a bag stuffed with more candy than I remember from a whole night of trick-or-treating.

It does get to be a bit much. Every year, I suggest we go for the minimum: two people in our building and that’s it. But the kids balk. And it’s tough: we get so many from other people, to not reciprocate would seem, well, rude.

When it’s all said and done, we count up the spoils. That’s where the pirates come in. We divide up all the different types of sweets received according to category. The kids take turns going round in a circle picking chocolates to put in their own goodie bag. The hamentaschen go into a communal pot, which is mostly raided by me before bed. And the pirates sail the sugary seas for weeks after the event itself.

While the holiday is about giving, it’s hard to overlook a kitchen table overflowing with a mind-numbing array of nutritionless calories. The list reads like an Eric Carle book. The very hungry caterpillar ate:

15 pretzels.

7 bottles of wine, grape juice or liquor.

5 oranges and 5 apples.

3 bags of popcorn.

39 chocolate bars, including 2 Corny’s, 1 Pesach Zman, 4 Kif Kef’s, 2 Perfects, and a Nestle’s Crunch from a family visiting from the U.S.

And another 24 bite-sized kosher for Pesach chocolates in a box with a butterfly lid (“let’s save them for Pesach,” Jody said. Her suggestion fell on an assortment of deaf and hungry ears).

4 packages of peanut butter Bamba snacks.

1 box of bittersweet chocolate almonds and another of chocolate-coated orange peels.

7 bags of tea (2 vanilla-strawberry, 2 green tea and 3 assorted Wissotsky herbals).

4 Mentos.

3 loose M&Ms (not in a box).

1 package of crackers.

5 large walnuts in their shells.

A baggie with raisins, apricots, fig, prunes and pecans.

26 Hamantaschen (not including the 5 I ate before we decided to count) 8 chocolate chip cookies and a homemade chocolate muffin.

2 coupons indicating that instead of candy, a donation had been made to a charitable organization.

11 lollypops.

A package of 25 fruit toffees.

And one lone strawberry.

Actually, we can’t complain too much. With all these riches, we should be well fed if we ever have to spend an extended period in a sealed room.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Seal Your Room, Open Your Mind

If I'd had any idea how much of a pain it was going to be to seal a room, I might never have started. Friends had done it. Ten minutes maximum, they said. Chick-chack.

Nearly two hours later, Jody and I finished. It was late Wednesday night, just hours before the US led assault on Iraq began.

I was already ambivalent. Despite my periodic slumps into panic reflected in my last column which was, how shall I put it, a bit more intense than usual, my logical brain still said nothing’s going to happen in Israel, certainly not in Jerusalem.

All during the day of Shushan Purim (Jerusalem is always one day later than the rest of the world), every time someone came to the door with another mishloah manot, the conversation turned almost instinctively to “so have you sealed your room yet?”

Among our friends, the jury was out: some were defiantly, definitely not going to seal; some already had; and still others had gotten everything ready, but weren’t planning to use it. With things so up in the air, and my friends providing no conclusive counsel, why, I kept asking myself, should we even go through the bother?

And bother it was. The window in our sealed room-designate was too high, and the chair for me to stand on too low. As I balanced on a couple of phone books and the 1438-page Mayo Clinic Family Health Book, the duct tape repeatedly bent and buckled.

Now, normally an accuracy rating of 95% is just fine with me. I’m not a perfectionist (well, at least not when it comes to household matters). But one infinitesimally small opening, letting in even a drop of chemically laden air would be too much. So I taped, and re-taped, and taped over the tape.

Then it was on to the door. Our friend Rivka had wisely advised us to first put tape on the wall, so you can remove and replace the plastic sheeting without ripping the paint off repeatedly.

Which got me thinking: if this war wasn’t the result of an international conspiracy of duct tape manufacturers as I have previously posited, then the Israeli House Painters Union has got to be behind it: they’re going to make a killing in post-war restorations. Hey U.N. - maybe you can send some of that humanitarian aid our way. This is breaking our budget!

As we worked our way through the room covering all possible orifices, I started to bark orders.

“Hand me that scissors.”

“Don’t cut so much off the plastic sheeting.”

"What's the point of this anyway? I'm quitting."

“Watch out, I’m going to fall!”

“Why did you do it like that?”

Building clearly brings out the worst in me. Jody took it all like a trooper. We were good little soldiers, obeying our orders from the Home Front Command. But who’s going to pay for the marriage counseling afterward?

The whole thing reminded me of building a sukka. Take poll A and fit it into slot B that connects to this little multi-sided hooziwhig that holds up the nylon sheets.

I never much liked sukka building either.

Actually, if we’re going for religious metaphors here, the process is akin to the more micro-managed moments of pre-Pesach cleaning. You know, when your spouse goes crazy and demands that you dust every book in search of possible chametz (the Passover laws stipulating that not even a crumb of bread be left in the house when the holiday begins). Of course, what’s really going on is a not-so-covert Spring Cleaning operation.

I prefer sticking to the basics: clean the stove, scrub the fridge, symbolically “sell” the rest of the house (don’t even get me started on that one) and call it a day. It’s not like something's going to happen if there’s a speck of bagel dust between the q and w keys on my keyboard, is there?

So that’s kind of how I felt sealing up the room: if nothing ends up happening, which is what everyone is still saying, then why are we destroying the paint?

Preparing a sealed room as a religious experience....who knew?

When we were done with our labors, we went downstairs to tuck eleven-year-old Amir into bed. We hadn’t made the sealed room preparation a family affair (with all the swearing going on, probably just as well). But when we informed him that the room was ready, he got a little teary. Jody assured him that it was good to be ready and that nothing was going to happen anyway.

And then I indiscreetly introduced a foul element into the already heavy air. You know what I mean…don’t make me explain it. It wasn’t intentional. All the stress and the bickering, I guess. And the chocolate.

And Amir looked up, wiped a tear off his cheek and, deftly breaking the tension (if not the wind), announced with a slowly spreading, knowing grin: “Well, I guess we better get out the gas masks now!”

Which reminds me, the Home Front has just announced that we’re supposed to open our gas masks and try them on. Gotta run. Time for another religious experience…

Monday, March 17, 2003

Fear Factor

I had a bad dream last night. That’s not so unusual. But it is particularly disturbing because it's my first war dream.

In it I find myself on a beach. A war, which I understand intuitively to be with Iraq, is raging nearby. There are large planes flying above me, obscured by dark clouds. I find myself running, trying to get as far away from the fighting as I can when I spot these strange hot air balloons streaming in over the mountains in overwhelming numbers. They begin raining down weapons that look like darts except they have hypodermic needles on their noses.

I jump into the water and hold my head under as long as I can, hoping that the darts will miss me but I get stung anyway. As I feel hundreds of pinpricks all over my body, I know I am being injected with poison and that I have reached the end of my days.

And then I wake up. Jody is still there beside me. The alarm is ringing just as it always does. There is a knock on the door: Aviv coming to give us our morning cuddle. Life seems normal.

I head on in to work and tell an Israeli co-worker about my dream. She says that she had a war dream last night too. In hers, she is riding in a car with her grandmother, trying to outrun missiles being fired at them from all sides. She also wakes up just as they are being hit.

The government says that the chances of an attack are very low. The websites that purport to know what’s “really” going on claim that the US has already taken out any really nasty weapons aimed our way. Perhaps my bad dreams are, this time, worse than reality. In a land wracked by suicide bombs and shootings, that would be ironic comfort.

But what if they’re wrong? What if there is a surprise in store that none of us could have foreseen? A new weapon. A new delivery system. Coordinated attacks by Al Qaeda and other terror groups. I check the Internet. Jpost. Haaretz. Debka. CNN. NYTimes. I whip though them in rapid succession, and then I start over again. It’s morning here. The White House is still asleep. The real news won’t start for another few hours.

Still, the feeling of unease is hard to shake. At first it was kind of a game: a mildly amusing office pool to determine when the war would start. A source for good banter at kiddush in shul.

But as the US attack on Iraq becomes more and more certain, and as the rhetoric ratchets steadily upward, it’s clear that my performance is off. Other than this column, it’s hard to get fired up about your work when you’re secretly wondering if this will be your last day on the planet.

Pull it together man. What kind of talk is that? I self-censor myself before I lose it altogether.

Who can I even tell this to? Well, all of you of course. But I wonder: do you judge me when I share these most fatalistic of nightmares? When the veneer of normalcy that I try so hard to project dissolves and I am no longer able to safely hide behind glib words and a witty turn of phrase.

At lunchtime, I walk the hallway from my office to the company cafeteria. Each door is plastered with a color Xeroxed page with a different happy clown. One is holding balloons; another has a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a Purim grogger in the other. Staff members are wearing costumes: hats and wigs and painted faces. I order the moussaka with hamantaschen for dessert (what did you expect - it's Purim). And I think: will this be my last meal?

Stop, stop. This kind of negative thinking will get you nowhere. I turn my focus to Sunday night: Jody and I started the first of 12 sessions of Dale Carnegie training. Remember him, Mr. How-To-Win-Friends-and-Influence-People? He also wrote How to Stop Worrying and Start Living which we were given as a textbook. The timing couldn’t be better.

"Insomnia never made anyone sick," Carnegie writes. "It's worrying about not sleeping that will kill you."

Ahh, there we go... If this is the end, so what! And in any case, why should today be more terrifying than going out on any regular morning and risking your life to sit in a cafe or ride a bus? Or driving in a car to Tel Aviv, for that matter. You can’t live in fear. Yes I know that.

Glibness overtakes me momentarily. The positive spin: live each day as if it’s your last and you will never take anyone or anything for granted. You will hug your kids and your wife and really mean it. You’ll order that moussaka and really taste it. You’ll appreciate as you never have before that beautiful sunset and the potholes and the feeling of sleepiness coming over you as your head hits the pillow.


I’m sorry. I am scared. I can’t deny it. I really would like to, but I can't. Not today.

I check the Internet for news for the 57th time. The countdown continues.

In a few hours I will be dreaming once again.

Happy Pur-o-ween

Every year, the question comes up. One of the kids will ask “isn’t Purim just a Jewish version of Halloween?”

I’ll be the first to admit there are certain similarities. You’ve got the costumes, the candy.

So when the kids asked the annual Purim/Halloween question the other day, this is what I told them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Splendid idea,’ declared the King.”

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

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Good Housekeeping

1. A Rabbi, A Minister and Me
It’s like the beginning to a really bad joke: a Rabbi, a Minister and a normal guy are all sitting at a bar. But the bar, in this case, is the Jerusalem Post Online.

Awhile back I wrote that had been discontinued and along with it my audio essays of This Normal Life. Well, I’m happy to report that This Normal Life is back “on the air.” Along with Berel Wein (the Rabbi) and Elwood McQuaid (the Minister), you can find us linked directly from’s front page. Look on the right hand side and click the link to listen.

You can also get a list of the most recent pieces or you go to my own archive page to listen to any of the audio pieces recorded to date.

2. Todah Rabah
Since today’s posting is focusing on “housekeeping” issues, I wanted to take a moment to send a big thank you ("todah rabah" in Hebrew) to the anonymous donor who used the Amazon link to donate the maximum allowed to help keep This Normal Life up and running. I don’t know who you are, but your generosity is sincerely appreciated!

This Normal Life accepts donations in two ways: from Amazon and also from PayPal. You can find both links permanently on the right hand side of the main This Normal Life website.

3. Coming to a City Near You
During July, I will be embarking on the first This Normal Life speaking tour. If you’d be interested in having me come to your organization, please contact Sheryl Adler at the Israel Speaker’s Agency who is handling all the logistics. Hope to see you soon!

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Video Zionism

When will it start? That’s pretty much the only question on most people’s minds these days in Israel.

Will the “deadline” of March 17 stick, will a new resolution be introduced adding a few more days, or are we simply in the middle of a crafty game of disinformation with a surprise attack coming as early this weekend?

Here in the Blum household, we’re dutifully preparing for any eventuality. Accordingly, this week I went through our video collection.

Think about it, what’s more important than ensuring that, if we get stuck in a sealed room for hours on end, we have an ample selection of viewing material. There’s a limit to how much CNN and BBC one can suffer through, especially with kids under foot.

Now, over the years we’ve amassed a decent collection: movies, TV programs, kids stuff and just plain kitsch.

We have on hand all the usual kids videos: Winnie the Pooh, Spot and Baby Mozart. Not to mention loads of Disney with a penchant for deja vu – Toy Story (and Toy Story 2), Aladdin (and Aladdin 2), the Lion King (and Lion King 2).

Sometimes, though, it seems that our video shelves are starting to resemble a highly effective advertisement for action figures who ought to be in therapy. We’ve got a misunderstood hunchback, a species-confused mermaid, and a smelly ogre who just wants to be loved.

There’s also a kindly old lady named after a Southern US grocery store chain; a precocious French girl who speaks perfect English; and a ubiquitous purple dinosaur with his underage play friends (no, I’m not talking about Michael Jackson although his recent facial alterations have gotten him looking more and more like Barney every day).

Not to mention a whole lot of angry apes chasing a half naked Charleton Heston.

We have the complete Star Wars collection, complete with digital enhancements, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.

We’ve got a nice supply of Jewish tapes, too, including Schindler's List and the infamous thirtysomething Chanukah/Christmas show. And a sprinkling of Israeli shows: 15 Teletubbies episodes dubbed into Hebrew and the 1995 Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Concert.

If we ever run out of shows to watch, we can always view the more than 60 hours of tape we’ve made of the kids over the years. Especially entertaining is the birth video of Jody trying to push out Merav for three plus hours. It’s enough to make a missile attack seem like a gift from God.

Or for something less riveting, how about something from my days producing training videos. “Introduction to the RSS Database” and “Using Our New Email System” are always surefire sleepers, if you know what I mean.

When we turn to the adult videos (no, not that kind of adult video), things start to get really bizarre. That’s because we’re more tapers than buyers. Every Friday, I scan the TV section to see what will be playing the following week, then I set the timer.

This has led to some pretty unusual combinations. For example:

Silence of the Lambs followed by Beverly Hills 90210.

The Sixth Sense, Freaks and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Mary Kate and Ashley in Our Lips are Sealed on the same tape as Woodstock.

Pulp Fiction sandwiched between episodes of Melrose Place and Friends

Mars Attacks and The Virgin Suicides

The Full Monty with 10 Things I Hate About You (how many monty’s were there again?)

(I certify that every one of these combos is real. If you don’t believe me, you can come over to my house and check.)

Ironically, it may be our video collection, more than anything else, that keeps us in Israel.

Every time we contemplate, however briefly, taking “time off” from Israel, far away from the suicide bombs and threat of chemically-tipped missiles, I raise the question: what would we do with our tapes? They’re all recorded in the European PAL format and can’t be played in North America.

I realize I may have just made the first ever case for “Video Zionism.”

And so we prepare our sealed room and our evening entertainment. Bring on Madeline and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. One thing’s for sure: no one will ever be able to tell us there’s nothing interesting to watch on TV in Israel.

Want to have a bizarre video collection just like us? All videos are available at Amazon by clicking the links above.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Weapons of Mass Detergent

It was one of those days where you don’t have a second to breathe.

First there was a crisis at work and everyone was blaming everyone else, especially me. Then as soon as I got home, I had to take Amir to the doctor. Just as we were leaving, I got three phone calls, two from overseas, each one more urgent than the next.

By the time I got home I was frazzled, distracted…and hungry. All I’d had to eat all day was a sandwich of left over challah smeared with peanut butter, and some Raisin Bran for breakfast.

Now lately, I’ve become a real picker. I pick up the leftovers off the kids’ plates, scoop a bit of pasta into a bowl, then a little more, and then just a little more (Brian’s Rule of Eating #101: it’s less fattening if you break it up). I have a nice little stash of garlic-fried breadsticks at work, which I pick at all day.

So when I got home, I did a quick scan of the kitchen. I spied something on a spoon. It was white and sprinkly. Looked like powdered sugar. Without thinking, I picked up the spoon and put it to my mouth.

The sickly sour tasted that quickly spread across my taste buds told me that this was definitely not sugar. I spit it out but the damage was done. A couple of granules slipped by my defenses and slid down my throat.

Poison, I thought. I’ve been poisoned.

I began to feel faint. My pulse raced. My life flashed before me. I think it was my life, but that’s the thing about flashes: they’re so quick you never really know.

I searched around trying to figure out what I’d taken. Maybe to search for an antidote. Should I pull the atropin out of the gas mask kit?

There under the sink was a big blue pail filled with what looked like the same powdery white stuff:

“Dishwasher salt,” it read. “Not for ingestion”

I called Jody on her cellphone. She was out at the supermarket.

“How could you leave dishwasher salt on a regular spoon!” I berated her. “You know I can’t tell the difference.” I’d been blamed too much today, and I needed to lash out, even if it was the last thing I ever did (I apologized later).

My throat was now aching and I imagined my stomach turning inside out, my nerves frying one by one This must be what it’s like if you come in contact with weapons of mass destruction. All it takes is a tiny amount. If it gets on your skin or in your lungs, death comes swiftly and painfully. My episode was surely just a preview to the coming war against Iraq.

I had to call someone. But who? That’s when I realized I’d never memorized the emergency number in Israel…it’s not 911. So what is it? 100, or 101 or 102 Fortunately, our clinic always has a 24-hour on-call doctor.

Dr. Neuman listened calmly and advised me to drink a glass of milk to coat my stomach. Of course milk doesn’t agree with me. So now in addition to my burning throat, I was also flatulent. I ate a little bread and drank a whole bunch of water.

I must have been making some pretty funny noises in the kitchen, because Merav popped her head in.

“What’s the matter?” she asked wearing her concerned look.

“I ate something I shouldn’t have.”

“Are you going to die?”

Do kids everywhere ask these kinds of questions? Or just kids in Israel where death has become so much a part of the landscape?

“You only die when you are old,” Aviv commented from the TV room. Bless his heart.

Now, with all my might and soul, I wanted and planned to say: “Don’t be silly, Merav. Of course I won’t die.” But what came out was: “Probably not.”

Merav grabbed on to me. In my moment of panic, I had failed at the most important job I had left: comforting the impressionable.

I wish I could say that this was the first time this had happened. But once before, Jody had broken a hole into a jug of laundry detergent. Rather than waste it, she poured it into a glass. It had a cool pink appearance, a little bit frothy, very tempting on a hot summer day. I began to drink.

You would think I’d learn.

Or that Jody would.

The phone rang. It was the doctor calling back. Uh-oh.

“The Poison Center says you must come in. I must check you,” he said in his South African twang. “They say the salt is very abrasive. It could burn a hole in your esophagus.”

I left the kids and raced to the clinic in my car. What was perhaps at first a borderline controlled panic now was becoming entirely unbridled. All the while there, I’m thinking – is this it? Will I make it? Did I say goodbye properly?

And: when did I get to be this much of a drama queen?

At the clinic, Dr. Neuman checked my heartbeat. A little fast. But understandable. Then my throat. A little raw. Also understandable. Dishwasher salt will do that. He calls Posion Control again.

“Uh huh. OK. Yes. Thank you.”

“So, what did they say?”

“The doctor there says that if you’ve been able to eat and drink without throwing up, you’re going to be fine. Why he couldn’t tell me that before you came in, I don’t know.”

But I wanted to give him a hug anyway. I would make it through to see another day. And I’d experienced a simulated chemical attack. Anything after that would be a walk in the park.

I called Jody from my car phone with the good news. “That’s definitely the last time I eat dishwasher salt!” I said half joking.

“Dishwasher salt?” she said. “It wasn’t dishwasher salt on the spoon. It was dishwasher soap. The only thing you ate was a little bit of soap!”

“Soap to you maybe,” I replied. “But as far as I’m concerned, that stuff qualifies as a true WMD.”

Weapons of Mass Detergent, that is.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

On Being Five

Dear Aviv,

It’s hard to believe you’ve been with us for five whole years now. I hope it’s been a good five years for you. We’ve certainly enjoyed having you around - from the Shabbat morning cuddles you give us when you climb into our bed, to your wide-eyed wonder at things we jaded adults take for granted, like the subtle differences in rocks used for skipping across puddles.

Oh, you’ve given us a few scares, for sure.

Like the time that you and Amir were playing “Batman.” For some reason this involved wearing a blindfold. Improvising, Amir put a diaper on your head and then guided you around the living room. You were laughing and enjoying the game so much, it must have come as a total shock when you slammed into the glass door with your knee and with a crash, the glass shattered and the blood began to gush.

Delay. 1 second. 2 second. 3. Cue the crying. Cue the parents running across the house.

Remember what happened next? Imma took you to the hospital for an X-Ray and a little sewing up. You were so tired by all the excitement that you fell asleep in the car. You didn’t wake up when the doctor stuck a needle into your knee to numb the area. You didn’t wake up during the stitches or when they taped on the bandage. The doctor and nurse both said they’d never seen anything like it before.

And in the morning when you finally did wake up, you came to our room as usual, climbed into bed and then announced with total surprise: “What’s this thing on my leg?”

You never cease to crack us up, Aviv. While adults get tired of a game after playing it once, maybe twice, you can go all day, again and again, with something as simple as hide and seek. Even though the person you’d be seeking would hide in the exact same spot each time, you’d always be surprised, always shrieking with such delight.

And yet for every moment you make us laugh, there’s another where you inspire us. Because when you’re five, you still believe that magic is real.

“Watch this!” I said to you one afternoon as I took a marble, placed it carefully into my hand, and covered it with the blanket.

Say “Abracadabra,” I told you. You did.

Then I called out “look over there,” and the marble was gone. (Of course I had dropped it under the blanket while you were distracted – sorry if I’m giving away my secrets).

A minute later, I did the same trick, with the same distraction, and the marble was magically back.

And then you said "Maybe we can make Marla come back like that.”

From the day you were born, you have been our most independent child. You’ll nonchalantly inform us that you’re heading downstairs into the courtyard to play with the other kids and two hours later we’ll get a call from a neighbor.

“Aviv is finished eating his dinner…do you want him to come home yet?”

Yes, you have a style all your own. When most kids are crawling, you decided that “scooting” on your tush would be lots more fun. It certainly got you lots of attention. Remember the time you scooted down nearly the entire length of the Tel Aviv boardwalk, bringing smiles to a growing crowd of fans and onlookers?

Speaking of style, you got your first taste of the fashion world when you were only two hours old. Remember? No?

Well, it was just before Purim, so Amir and Merav came to greet you in the hospital wearing their holiday costumes. Imagine: the first glimpse you got of those creatures who in the future will torment you so mercilessly was that of a bashful ballerina and a beaming Ninja turtle.

Now, I know you want a younger brother or sister to play with. And Imma and Abba have discussed the issue at length. For five years, in fact. All I can say for now’ll always be our baby.

Yes, yes, I know, you’re not a baby. You’re a big boy now. So why don’t you get dressed by yourself? Pick up your toys? Eat your vegetables?

But don’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up. You’ll have lots of time for school and work and girls and all those adult pursuits. You’ve got to get through the army, though of course we still cling to the hope that we won’t need one by the time you’re old enough. And after that, you could be a fireman, a brain surgeon, entrepreneur!

For now, though, open your presents, blow out your candles, and enjoy your big day. Imma and Abba are happy to tie your shoes and wash your hair and tell you a ‘pon a time story before bed.

Because although you may be a big five-year-old now, at the same time you’re still our little five-year-old and we’re not quite ready to stop taking care of you just yet.

So Happy Fifth Birthday, Aviv! We love you so much.

Your Imma and Abba

Monday, March 03, 2003

Chicken Little Syndrome

Last week it was the snow. The heaviest in twenty years, according to the weather man. Schools in Jerusalem were closed for three days; I got stuck in a two-hour traffic jam just trying to get out of the city.

Then two days later, heat wave! Temperatures butting up to the low-70s in the middle of March.

And the following night, rain and cold again.

Hey God, having a bit of fun at our expense, are you?

The thing is, with all the uncertainty we’ve been having in the political, economic and military arenas, at least we could always count on the weather. Especially in Israel where we really only have two seasons: cold and wet in the winter, hot and dry (or humid depending on where you are) in the summer.

But lately, I don’t know what to expect anymore. We’ve been having a drought for years; we’re finally getting ready to import water from Turkey. Then the government in Istanbul changes and suddenly we get a record wet year. Is this an example of heavenly protexia (special protection) or a practical joke?

But then the skies have always been a source of humor. One of my kids’ favorite children’s books is
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
by Judi Barret which tells the tale of the quaint coastal town of Chewandswallow, where meals rain down from the sky three times a day.

It would pour with soup and juice one day, then snow mash potatoes the next, and the wind would sometimes blow in a storm of hamburgers, complete with a light ketchup drizzle. It all worked out fine until the food got larger and people started getting hurt. Gargantuan pizza, two-story pickles, doughnuts the size of cars.

Though the authors never say it outright, it’s clear they were inspired by Jewish tradition: the manna, that is, coming down every morning (except for Shabbat of course) for forty years, mixed up with the occasional quail and tofu chewy bar.

The text, by the way, doesn’t mention what would happen if you got caught out of doors in the middle of a raging manna storm.

And how about that movie Magnolia, where at a crucial scene, it rained frogs, providing much-needed comic relief…also certainly inspired by Jewish tradition.

In our contemporary reality, though, the skies are no longer so fun…or safe. All over the western United States, fragments of the space shuttle came plummeting to earth. A year and a half ago in New York, millions of pieces of rubble from the Twin Towers streamed steadily downward in a torrent that temporarily obliterated not only the sun, but our expectations for an entirely different future.

In the pre-industrial world, the sky was a source of wonder. God dwelled in the heavens above. Giants ruled the clouds and every once in a while a little boy would climb a beanstalk to visit.

Warfare, when it came, arrived overland. The worst you had to fear from above, aside from the weather, was getting pummeled by a bird with an ironic sense of timing.

And now our greatest fear is the sky.

We wait in dread for the siren that will indicate the missiles are heading our way.

As I drive past the airport and see a plane taking off, I sometimes wonder if this will be the time it comes crashing back down, the horrible spectacle unfolding before my commuting eyes.

There was a report not long ago that the Palestinian Authority had ordered hundreds of remote-controlled toy airplanes, which they planned to fit with bombs, maybe even chemical or biological weapons, and fly into West Jerusalem.

And before that, when the war with the Palestinians broke out two and a half years ago, I couldn’t sleep at night because of the sounds of gunfire from nearby Gilo. That was invariably followed by the low-pitched, but ever present whirring of helicopter blades directly over our apartment. If there were helicopters in the sky, we knew that an “operation” was taking place in nearby Bethlehem, only a few kilometers from our supposedly safe home. And that soldiers and innocent civilians might be killed in the crossfire.

If Chicken Little had lived in the Middle East, he just might have received a more welcoming reception from the King.

This isn’t how I want my kids to relate to the sky above, as a source of fear and a threat of imminent devastation. I long to return to those more innocent days of awe, when we were younger and lying out on a warm summer night gazing up at the stars was as much a rite of passage as serving in an elite unit of paratroopers or infantrymen. When the sky was a place for rainbows, not satellite-mounted laser weapons.

At the very least, can we have meatballs instead of missiles?

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Getting In

Jewish parents around the world would love to have the problems we are having right now.

Too much choice. In schools, that is.

And not just any kind of school: junior high school. Perhaps the most important of them all. A choice that will affect the next six years of our child’s life. Where he goes to college. What army unit he gets into. Who he’ll marry.

Suffice it to say, the burden was weighing heavily upon us.

The reason is simple enough. Elementary school in Israel runs for six years. Most automatically feed into a junior high. But not all. And not every child wants to continue on at the school into which his or her elementary school feeds.

Amir is in his last year at Amit Dror elementary school. Dror is a remarkable place that bills itself as a pluralistic, creative, artistic state-religious school (as opposed to a private ultra-orthodox school or a state-non-religious hiloni school). Dror stresses hands-on, experiential, interdisciplinary learning and for the most part it works pretty well. Amir’s made good friends, learned well and had a lot of fun.

Amir at first was content with continuing on at Dror. But then some of the boys in his class started talking about two other schools which hold out particular appeal to the more academically inclined: Hartman and Himmelfarb. Amir became interested. We did the same: who doesn’t want the best for their son?

And so we began the process for kids who are thinking of changing schools (public and private alike). The open house. The test. Assembling all the papers and the registrations fees. The personal interview. All this just to get into junior high!

As always, the contrast with the old country was on my mind. I went to Meadows elementary school. Why? It was down the block. All Meadows students went to Taylor Junior High. And all Taylor students from my neighborhood went to Capuchino High School (it’s the name of a Spanish horse ranch that used to be on the site of the school, OK, and no I didn’t misspell it…)

I didn’t have to make any choices, take any tests. While Amir was sitting in a room full of 200 boys competing for 15 open places, I was riding my Sting Ray to the mall.

Did I mention boys only? While most of the elementary schools are coed, all but two of the religious junior and senior high schools are segregated by sex. Not what I would choose for myself, but Amir doesn’t seem to mind. Yet.

The open house for Himmelfarb was intimidating. The school sits on a huge campus and has no less than five classes for each grade level. Kids can “major” in different subjects and there are truly excellent facilities.

Hartman is also known for its academic rigorousness, plus an openness to questioning, creating a university-like atmosphere. It is part of the Hartman Institute, which promotes coexistence and religious tolerance. Institute founder Rabbi David Hartman’s daughter started the “Shira Hadasha” minyan, which pushes halachic Jewish egalitarianism.

In short, it’s exactly the kind of place where I’d love to be going to school if I was eleven again. It quickly shot up to the top spot on my, I mean, our list.

Before the interview for Hartman (with so many applicants, Himmelfarb doesn’t even do a personal interview), we prepped Amir for the experience.

“It’s like a job interview,” I explained. “You wear your best clothes. You sit up straight, don’t pick your nose, say only the right things. For the first week of the job, you keep it up. Then by week two, you put on your jeans and your t-shirt and act yourself.”

I didn’t sleep well the night before. I think I was more nervous than Amir. The interview was with both the child and his parents. They ask the child to bring in an object to talk about. Harry Potter is always popular. To his credit, Amir discussed karate (he brought in his belt: high purple) and his after-school job (he walks kids to and from their after-school classes for 10 shekels a pop).

“An entrepreneur, just like his Dad,” I burst in, trying to impress in my shaky Hebrew. Jody shot me a look.

As we left the interview, I began doing what adults do so well: wallowing in self-doubt. Did it go well? Could it have been better? Did Amir stress enough how much he valued the pursuit of excellence?. Or his appreciation of balance and tolerance.

And: what will we do if we don’t get in?

But how much of this is Amir and how much is me? I so see myself in him that I too often forget that we are not one and the same. Indeed, he is far better socially adjusted than I ever was at that age, he isn’t fighting a weight problem, he doesn’t get beat up walking home from school.

In short, Amir is a normal well-balanced kid. So, again the question: is Hartman the right school for Amir...or for me?

After the interview, we were told we’d get the results in two-to-three weeks. We focused on other things, like the war and the faltering economy. We tried to get used to not getting into Hartman. Amir remained calm. It wasn’t fazing him in the least, or so it seemed. But in various conversations and off-hand comments, it became clear that he wanted this too.

A week ago, we got a letter from Himmelfarb saying sorry not this time. Then, this past Friday, a letter from Hartman was waiting in our mailbox. It was thin. Not a good sign. It takes less words to say no than it does to say yes. We brought the letter to the living room couch and called Amir.

“This came for you, sweetie,” Jody said.

Amir grabbed the letter, scrutinized the return address on the envelope. He started to giggle. Nervous. I’d never seen him like this. He held the letter at arms length. Then close. He didn’t know what to do.

He ripped open the envelope and started to read. Tears began streaming down his face. And then he jumped up off the couch and gave me a great big hug. And then Jody. And then he was grinning from ear to ear.

We were in!